Tales from the Blue Ox, A Hands-On Manual of Traditional Skills from the Blue Ox Millworks Historic Park

51DBCZP3G1L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_This ambitious Manual of traditional skills sets out to furnish a comprehensive technical overview of a broad spectrum of nineteenth century building and manufacturing technologies and, improbably, achieves its goal to an impressive degree.  The Blue Ox is a useful and reliable reference work for anyone who needs to understand the methods and materials of the period.  Included are detailed chapters on Victorian architecture, period millwork production, lumber production, historic tools and machinery, ironwork and ornamental plaster work.  Abundantly inclusive, it does not neglect to give the boat building, printing and ceramics industries their due consideration as well.  

Apparently undaunted by the audacity of his task, the author dives into the work with the passion and earnest diligence of the true amateur.  These subjects have, of course, already been thoroughly addressed in the many books written by experts, professors and artisan masters.  The contribution of this fairly compact volume is to present these trades in detail but also in the context of the overall historic technical environment, including other trades.  This comprehensive point of view is one for which the learned masters are less well equipped, focused as they are on their specialty.  

The Manual is written in straightforward if occasionally choppy prose, enlivened with an infectious affection and admiration for the work.  This enthusiasm does not distract the author from providing needed detail, clear instructions and enough historic background to provide context.  To make sure that we get it, nearly every page is furnished with detailed pen and ink drawings, each lovingly rendered by the author’s own hand in a style evocative of Eric Sloane’s classic illustrations of colonial construction details.  This is a book for the reference shelf, however, and not for the coffee table.  It deliberately strives to be a full and faithful record of the means, materials and accepted practice for every operation depicted.

The unassuming voice of The Blue Ox will be welcomed by those in the field seeking an accessible, interdisciplinary reference for period technical information, but skeptics will be forgiven if they question the source of its authority.  Any building construction specialist who has ever had to acquire an operative understanding of an archaic building process from scratch could easily be cynical about the wealth of published information available which is inaccurate, untested or merely second hand.  It is necessary, therefore, to present the credentials of the author’s sources.   As stated in the book’s subtitle, this is “A Hands-On Manual of Traditional Skills from the Blue Ox Millworks Historic Park”.   The Blue Ox is really two books; the Manual described in the paragraphs above and another which tells the story of the Blue Ox Millworks Historic Park, an historic building technologies school, museum and sometime commercial enterprise located in coastal Northern California and operated by a man named Eric Hollenbeck.  What Mr. Hollenbeck has achieved, apparently, is to assemble a small but significant cross section of the nineteenth century building technology and manufacturing environment at one location and then to observe these processes as they function in the context of all the rest.  The author establishes the relationship between the “Park” and the “Manual” by structuring the book to tell the story of the Park in the first and last chapters (past and future) and letting the experiences of “Eric” or “the folks at the Blue Ox” serve as an connecting thread in between.

Chapter #7, Craftsmen’s Alchemy: Useful Concoctions is of particular interest, dealing as it does with the “chemistry” of the trades in the pre-petroleum era.  This chapter presents Mr. Hollenbeck’s extensive collection of recipes for making period paints, stains, finishes and adhesives, concocted on site from locally produced raw materials rather than in distant factories from petroleum distillate.  As with any complex living environment, it is chemistry that provides the unifying coherence for the whole system.  For example, the process of producing charcoal for the blacksmith provides as by products the pine tar and turpentine used by the chemist and boat builder.  Raw materials lye and casein are also produced locally from wood ash and milk.  A recipe for varnish begins,

“Eric makes varnish using the pitch from coastal white fir trees that have been hit by cars and bleed sap.  Three times a year he visits these trees and harvests pitch off of them.  The pitch is brought back to the shop and placed in an empty (clean) cat food tin, which is then placed on an old electric hotplate.  Melt pitch.”

The same approximate list of raw materials turns up in different forms and uses in the hands of the mold maker, the plasterer, the potter and the blacksmith.   The decision to establish a pottery at the Park was made primarily because there was good quality, easily accessible clay available in the tidal flats on which it was located.  Lumber production and boat building have been integrated into the site through similar local considerations.  The result is a reminder to us who are forced to view period materials and operations in isolation, in the context of the modern construction environment, that to the original builders, these trades were experienced as part of an integrated, local system.  

The curious reader, seeing Mr. Hollenbeck cited as the source for so much information in the Manual, may wonder how just one man can possibly acquire so much hard earned knowledge.  After all, some artisans spend a lifetime studying and practicing a single trade and still feel that they haven’t scratched the surface.  We later had a conversation with him in May of 2016, and he had this to say, “The way this book was written was that Dan came down to the shop every Wednesday for a year and had me talk into a recorder. The one rule was that he wouldn’t tell me what he wanted me to talk about; he’d say, ‘Today tell me about making pickets, or windows, etc.’ This was an amazing experience for me as one doesn’t know how much one knows until doing an undertaking like this.”

Unfortunately, the budget for this review did not include the site visit to the Park in Eureka, California that a thorough investigation would require.  That said, I found Mr. Hollenbeck’s work as a chemist insightful and his adventures as a millwright, salvaging abandoned period industrial machinery, nothing short of heroic.  One chapter, The Shingle Mill, closely depicts Mr. Hollenbeck’s evidently expert operation of a 1908 shingle mill in which production is carefully scrutinized:

“The shingle mill operator needs to work fast in order to make a profit … each square is equal to 400 cuts of the big buzz saw, 800 clips on the treadle edge saw and 400 quick decisions on grade…Eric’s saw is set up to spit out a shingle every 3 seconds…”

These don’t sound like the concerns of a dilettante.  Even so, it is clear that Mr. Hollenbeck is at least as much a visionary as he is a “producer”.  His vision, the Park, is more than a museum which preserves relics of the past, it is a laboratory where the past is brought alive and studied.  It is true it may not be “real” in the same sense that a modern building site or design studio is real.  Even so, the Park and Dan Brett’s account of it in The Blue Ox offer what may be the most coherent, functional and fully realized glimpse possible into the vanished world of the original historic builders.  This glimpse is one which is of particular value to modern restoration specialists who have to operate in the modern construction environment while striving for insight into the day to day reality of the original builders.

Custom Architectural Millwork Specialists

List of Ornamental Plaster Specialists.

List of Lumber Specialists.

Book written and illustrated by Dan Brett, reviewed by John M. Corbett

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