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Building a Timeless House in an Instant Age, Part I

The birth of the hammer

Our story begins in Chicago. Though the hammer was not invented here, it is where the current use of the hammer was born. Up until the early 1800s, if you were going to build a house or a building, you did so with large timbers that were cut and fitted together like a large, well-made chair. Using mortise and tenon joints, along with pegs, large timbers—6 or 8 in. across—were cut and fit together yielding a house of mass and strength. All houses and buildings of wood, pre-1830/40, were built with timbers; they were all timber-framed.

A Note from the Publisher:

This article is an excerpt from Brent Hull‘s latest book, Building a Timeless House in an Instant Age. TiC is republishing selections from Brent’s chapter on “Technology;” they will comprise two separate in-depth articles. Part I explores the beginnings of the lumber industry, and Part II, to be published at a later date, will follow with an examination of the consequences of technological advancements.


In the 1840s, according to lore and tale, a new type of framing was invented that didn’t require skilled craftsman, and didn’t require large timbers. Instead, pre-cut and pre-milled small pieces of lumber were hammered together with small metal pegs called nails. Though nails today are made from wire with a blunted top, early nails were square and were called cut nails.

Chpt 3 - Cut nail and round nail sketch-1

The difference between a cut nail and a wire nail. (Note: Click any image to enlarge)

A cut nail is “cut” from a plate of steel. Imagine a wide blank of steel about the size of a plain Hershey’s chocolate bar, whose end is sheered or cut off, using a large press. The press angles the bar slightly before clipping off the end and this gives the nail a distinct taper. The advancement of the steel press meant that “cut” nails were suddenly cheap and affordable, which made the new type of framing possible. Nails before this were handmade, one by one. This was an incredibly labor intensive process that made them expensive and in some cases cost prohibitive.

This new type of framing required less skill, took less time and thus less money than timber framing. It was known as balloon framing, which was actually a derogatory term: the frame seemed so light and frail it looked like a “balloon” that would blow away. The derision speaks to many people who wondered if this new form of building could last. Certainly many skilled craftsmen must have laughed. How will two boards nailed together last as long as massive timbers carefully joined? It seemed ridiculous.

Balloon framing could have only happened on the frontier or outer edge of growth, where skilled labor was rare but the desire and need to build was strong. This certainly describes Chicago, which exploded with growth in the 19th century. Incorporated as a city in 1837, by 1890 it inhabited over one million people; it was one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Balloon framing made building houses easier. Naturally, there was a resistance. However, like most great leaps in technology, the advantages outweighed the objections and, at least out west, balloon frames became the new standard.

Naturally, with the arrival of cheap nails, the hammer became important—we need a tool to drive nails. And so it was at this time that the hammer’s position changed, becoming the tool of a carpenter.

The birth of lumber

The lumber business today is dynamic and complex, but in 1880 it was dynamic, complex, and ripe with opportunity. The demand for lumber was insatiable as America grew in the late 1880s. Because of the contagious demand, lumber companies didn’t just cut and mill lumber; they often owned the forests, shipped the lumber, and then even owned the lumberyards to sell to the end user. Long-Bell Lumber owned and ran lumberyards in Kansas. Their holdings and operations speak to the diversity and vastness of these conglomerates at the time.

Started in Kansas in the late 1880s, the founders of Long-Bell Lumber were soon swallowed up by the great demand for wood. They quickly expanded and, like most lumber companies at the time, business and opportunities fell together; since they were harvesting the lumber they might as well cut and mill it. Since they were cutting and milling it, why not make doors and windows and cabinets, since they were making cabinets why not sell it. Opportunities compounded and grew like a wild fire. The pitch in the trees lead to business in turpentine and chemicals. Shipping the lumber lead to shipping businesses, financing these operations led to banks and pretty soon there weren’t many business that didn’t somehow tie back to lumber. For Long-Bell, what started as a small lumberyard operation in Kansas grew into a multi-layered and highly-sophisticated conglomerate. By the 1920s, Long-Bell had built their own company town, called Longview, in the heart of the western forests of Washington.


The Long-Bell advertisement, which highlights their different ventures and the extent of their reach in the lumber business.

Enter Clinton, Iowa. It may not be a buzzing metropolis today, but in 1870 it was a hot spot. One of the top 100 manufacturing cities in the country, it was thriving. It soon adopted the label, “the lumber capital of the world.”

Ironically, there are few trees in Clinton. Situated on the edge of the great prairies, the only trees that grew here were cheap, fast growing cottonwoods. In fact, Clinton never had great forests. The trees and timber are north of Clinton about two hundred miles. There, at the headwaters of the Mississippi in Minnesota and Wisconsin, stood seemingly endless stands of White Pine, ready for market. These are the trees that made Clinton a lumber mecca.

If you study historic lumber harvesting charts (yes there are such things) you can watch as America grew and expanded west. The movement progressed from the White Pine trees of New York and Pennsylvania, across the northern states to the White Pine stands above Clinton. The way the lumber business worked was that lumberyards or lumber companies would buy the rights or buy the land in order to harvest the trees. The lumber and forests were as open for purchase and claims just like the wide open prairie or the gold claims in California.

The resourceful men of Iowa saw the same thing Long-Bell discovered. In fact, they started about twenty years earlier, in the 1860s, while the great stands of white pines in Minnesota and Wisconsin were still plentiful. The Mississippi River was the key for the men of Iowa. After felling the trees at the headwaters in Minnesota and Wisconsin, they would be strapped together into giant rafts. These wood rafts would then float down the Mississippi to the developing towns of Dubuque, Davenport, and of course Clinton. The lumber men of Iowa built factories and began production.

By 1870 the advances of the industrial revolution had finally reached the woodworking industry and the men of Clinton were able to build factories to mill wood. By the 1870s, nearly every machine that we use in a modern shop today (table saws, sanders, planers, etc.) had been invented and was in use. It was a complete change in production techniques—every piece of millwork, every piece of molding, every door, every window, every window blind, was re-developed to be made by machine instead of by hand. It was at this time that they developed dedicated window machines, door machines, and machines for shutters. The effects of the Industrial Revolution on the woodworking industry were revolutionary. A single shop, a single manufacturer, could make everything, and do everything in one place, faster than ever before.

In her book, Making House, Crafting Capitalism, Builders in Philadelphia, 1790 to 1850, Donna Rilling describes the building industry in Philadelphia and how houses were built and constructed on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. Philadelphia, at that time, was arguably the most sophisticated city in regard to the building trades. Even so, the craft of building in Philadelphia was characterized by small players, and home industries. Windows and doors were often made by an individual craftsman who specialized in making sash or doors. Shops were the size of a small shed today. Even successful craftsman worked out of their homes, sometimes doing piecework on the side.

By 1880 in Iowa, sash were made daily by the hundreds, and in the same plant they would make doors, moldings, columns, blinds, and mantles by the mile. One factory employed hundreds of people and built millwork with an efficiency and quality that was unheard of thirty years before. The woodworking world went from hand-made to machine-made in one generation. This is how the men of Iowa were able to build great factories; factories that twenty or even ten years before would not have been possible.

Chpt 3 - Carr Ryder & Adams 1892-1

The Carr Adams Company, one of many large mills in Iowa along the Mississippi.

To compound the advantage, they sat on the edge of the frontier and their towns were full of eager men, immigrants and farmers alike looking for work. Because by nature machines require less skill to operate, the streets were full of an able labor force. In Clinton, an unskilled immigrant worker produced more millwork faster than thirty skilled craftsmen could by hand. The costs of the windows and doors decreased, making them affordable to a rising middle class. Technology and the new machines of the Industrial Revolution were game changers. Suddenly, overnight, quality improved and costs decreased.

Clinton was seemingly poised for greatness. The people of Clinton had a ready supply of wood, an eager labor force, and an emerging market of middle class people looking to build a home. Then came the final piece: a vastly larger market due to the advances in transportation.

The birth of the railroad

The coming of the railroad is just what Clinton needed to expand and grow their business, and in turn it changed the way people built houses. Starting in the late 1840s with the startlingly discovery of “Gold” on the Wild West coast, a rush, or better, a slow stampede stumbled west. The reason the stampede was slow was because of an inefficient means of transportation. Though hundreds and thousands desired to go west, a wide lonely prairie and a tower of mountainous rock blocked the passage. The journey, either by boat or by covered wagon, took at least six months and both routes were fraught with danger from shipwrecks, bad weather, or worse, Indian attacks. It took a dedicated sojourner to go west.

Just twenty years after the Gold Rush, California and specifically San Francisco, had grown (nearly overnight) into a bona fide city. California had more than gold—there were a few hundred thousand people with businesses and relatives and there were political issues as well. The desire to connect the country was strong and driven by businessmen, families and politicians. They all clamored to unite the country; not only for business, but also for something as ordinary as the mail.

In 1860 mailing a letter was not simple. There were two ways to get a letter from the edge of the Mississippi to California: by stagecoach or by horse. The stagecoach route was established by Eliza Butterfield who had a fleet of stagecoaches; his business was called Butterfield’s Overland Express. Butterfield’s service was a 6-9-passenger stagecoach trip that, according to one New York writer, was, “24 days of hell.” Riding 70-120 miles in a day, riders would sit in tight cabins and rumble across uncomfortable and hazardous terrain. It was a hard way to travel and twenty-four days is nearly a month wait for the mail. There was a faster way to send a letter, and if Butterfield’s coach was the regular mail, then the Pony Express was the overnight mail.

In just ten days, a rough and tumble collection of young adventurous boy riders would risk death to make their “speedy” deliveries. With stations separated ten miles apart (because that is how far a horse can gallop without rest) young men would ride 70-120 miles a day, as fast as they could from station to station. When the young men were half a mile out from a station, they would blow a horn announcing their impending arrival and a fresh horse would be saddled and ready, waiting for the hurried rider. The rider would come galloping into the camp, jump off his tired horse, and jump onto the waiting horse and be off again with lightning speed.

The Pony Express, though short lived (it was only in service for a year and a half), is famous because it symbolized man’s brave attempt to push the limits of himself to achieve new heights. As great an achievement it was, it pales in comparison to the speed and efficiency of the railroad. When the trans-continental railroad finally connected the country in 1869, the world changed. With a precision and efficiency that only a machine could deliver, the railroad changed transportation.

The leap in change from the Pony Express to the train is not even comparable. The Pony Express carried no passengers, took ten days, and was expensive. Chased by Indians, susceptible to sickness and disease, the frailty of man was exposed on the open and dangerous plain, all this for a small satchel of letters. By contrast, the mighty trains could carry countless passengers, piles of cargo, and mail by the carload, all for a fraction of the cost. The power of technology.

windows of change Santa Fe depot, ftw-1

A series of windows in the Santa Fe Depot, near downtown Fort Worth—the three windows chronicle the change in transportation and technology from carriage to Pony Express to train.

To the lumber men in Iowa, it was the power of the railroad that opened them to great riches. They had the raw materials, man power, the woodworking technology and now, because of the expanding railroad, the markets. The railroad opened them up to the entire country and every new railroad town meant a new market and a new client. Often the first thing put on a train heading west was lumber. How do you build a home, a business, or a town without it?

The lumber kings of Iowa, as they were soon called, grew and prospered. They became rich men and built important and powerful business. Clinton, Iowa, at its height, boasted thirteen millionaires, more millionaires per capita than any other city in America.


The mascot for the Lumber Kings, the Clinton, Iowa minor league baseball team.

Many of the best and biggest millwork companies of this era grew up in Iowa. Clinton was home to Curtis Millwork (the birthplace of the Curtis Millworks Mitertite Joint), and Dubuque, Iowa was home to Farley Loetscher, and Carr Adams. All three firms were major and dominant players in the millwork business before and up through World War II. In 1870, Clinton, Iowa was truly the Silicon Valley of lumber.


16 Responses to “Building a Timeless House in an Instant Age, Part I”

  1. Marty Winter

    Excellent article and very informative. Who would take time to think that something a simple as a nail would have such rich history.

    • Brent Hull

      Thanks Marty,
      I had a great time researching the book. I tried to make the book fun to read. I appreciate Gary republishing this Technology chapter on this great site.

  2. Ryan Bruzan

    Great read! Funny how things get invented, built, and maybe used for this task or that, then, one day out the blue, another invention ties the two together and revolutionizes a whole new way of life. Thanks for posting.

  3. Dan Miller

    Very interesting article. I will definitely buy your book. I have the one you wrote on trim. If readers are interested in this type of thing another book they should buy is The Technology of Histoirc American Buildings by H. Ward Jandl. It has a 25 page article on the History of the Balloon Frame. It says it was invented in Chicago in 1832 by George Washington Snow. I thought I had read somewhere that he was a black man but I could not find that again. I live in Elgin, Illinois made famous by the Elgin Watch. A railway was built going thru Elgin going north to Wisconsin. It’s sole original purpose was to bring lumber back. Back in the 80’s I read Jandl’s article with much interest because our own house built in 1875 is a classic balloon frame. Snow’s original idea stuck to a huge sill, mortised, tenoned and pinned together just like the previous timber framing. The wall studs were also to be mortised and tenoned into the sill. Ours is exactly that. Our home has a limestone foundation with a full 8 X 8 sill. The wall studs are a full 2 X 6 and go 25 feet from the sill to the attic. From the attic floor up the walls are a full 2 X 4. The joists are mortised into the sill 16 inches on center. Jandl says that the mortising was done well into the 70’s where they then started to nail the joists to a smaller sill. We have 1 X 6 t&g sheathing on both sides of the joists. They used a thick paper on the outside sheathing and then nailed on clapboards. On the inside they nailed 1 X spacers onto the sheathing to nail lathe to leaving room for the plaster keys. Our floor joists are a full 2 X 12 with 1 inch thick random width sub flooring and 1 X 6 t&g finish flooring. We have a cross gabled roof with full 2 X 6 rafters. I am in awe of the joints they made knowing that they were cut by hand. I have seen huge, custom made for the job, miter boxes they used to cut them. I imagine that if you took a lot of care in making the miter box all the angled cuts would come out perfect. Brent’s article talks about them having all of the machines we have by the 1870’s. The thing they did not have is the Skill saw so all joists had to be cut by hand on site. I have read that they would have a helper whose job all day was to sharpen the tools. One thing I have noticed about the old timers is that they used a terrific amount of nails in everything form joists to trim. I have read that cut nails have a sharp edge so they slice the wood as they go in avoiding splitting where today’s nails push the fibers apart making splitting more common.

    • Brent Hull

      Thanks Dan,
      That is a great references and resource. Thank for the reminder and the history lesson on your house. Very interesting.


  4. Bill Edis

    Very interesting article and makes me want to purchase the book. Thank you for writing. Bill

  5. Norm Yeager

    A great read! I love the information on the history of our trade. Thanks for making it come alive.

  6. Roger McKechnie

    Brent, Your imagery waifs of fresh cut lumber, sap on hands, a check that look down a carefully selects the next plank. Thank You for your caring “work” to keep our artisans past/present held so honorably. You book will be in my “shop library”. Roger McKechnie, Nanuet, N.Y.

    • Brent Hull

      Your comments are too kind. I hope you enjoy the book. Your description is wonderful and it appears you should be writing as well. . .

  7. Lee

    Very good read. We were taught in college that balloon framing was when your studs spanned two stories in height and the floor joists were attached to the studs, as opposed to being as light as a balloon. That was from a professor with a degree in architecture from Harvard.

    • Brent Hull

      Thanks Lee, I’m glad you liked it. That is true. I don’t think I’m contradicting what you learned. Balloon framing was an early style of stick framing where the studs were very long (spanned 2 floors) and the 1st floor joists were notched into the studs. I understood from my research the term balloon framing was a derogatory name given to this type of framing because of how the homes looked once they were framed. . . like a balloon. Hope that helps. Thanks for commenting.

  8. Thad

    Now I understand why there are so many run down but still beautiful homes in Clinton. A very interesting read. I know it’s a side note, but does anyone else wish they had the money to bring these houses back to their former glory just to see what they REALLY looked like?

    • Dan Miller

      There is a lot of historically correct rehabilitation going on. Read magazines like the Old House Journal. It does not take that much money if you are willing to do some or all of the work yourself. Over a twelve year span we rehabbed our 1875 Italianate on one teacher’s salary doing everything ourselves. If it were up to me I would call a moratorium on new house building to get all of our craftsmen rehabbing instead of building new. It is so wastefull to let our old houses go to hell and then tear them down. We have so many that were built with Brent’s guidelines, lets preserve them.


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