Nothing is Plumb Level or Square

Deborah Holmes


Louis Soubert, from Barth© Historical Plastering in New Orleans, demonstrates creating rounded plaster mouldings.

"Perfection," says master stone mason Peter "Billy"Cleland, "is not of this world."

Restoration carpenter David Adams animatedly chimes in: "If you want perfectly plumb, level, square, buya new house. An old house is not going to be perfect. What you have to ask is'how much does the imperfection impinge on your life?'"

This talk of living with imperfection seems somewhat oddcoming from craftsmen who are recognized asmasters of their trades. Adams and Cleland are accomplished practitionerswho have spent a lifetime honing their skills, payingmeticulous attention to detail, and demanding not perfection, but the best workpossible.

"If you walk across your old floor and get splinters," Adams, saysto elaborate, "that's not acceptable. But can you live with a little slope to the floor?It's not realistic to think that a floor in a 200 year old house is going to belevel."

Steve Roy, Adam's partner in Adams & Roy Preservation Contractors ofPortsmouth, NH, says "Nothing is level, nothing is plumb, nothing issquare on the houses we restore.People hire us to have our work disappear -- to blend in so well with the oldthat it doesn't seem like new work."

Blending is integral to the art of restoration, says Adams. "We use the same materials,the same tools and try to use the same thought process as the originalcraftsman."


An adobe wall (clay, sand and straw) takes shape on the mall.

The panel was part of the Smithsonian Institute's annual Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Each year, the two-week event takes an in-depth look at three cultural areas.This year's festival highlighted New York City, Bermuda and Masters of theBuilding Trades.

The building trades portion of the festival "celebrates theextraordinary artistry...in the building arts," according to the festivalpublication. "These master artisans -- stone masons, carvers, carpenters,plasterers, balcksmiths...have enriched our world with the work of theirhands."

Marble mason Frank Baiocchi, whose mastery is evident in the elegant marblefloors of Washington National Cathedral, is asked as part of the panel discussionhow he goes about finding apprentices.

"I look for someone who loves the work," he says simply."Everything else but love can be taught."


Restoration carpenters from Golden Hands recreate a 19th centuryporch at the Folklife Festival. The Bloomington, Indiana, company is dedicated to the preservation of entire neighborhoods.

About the Author
By Deborah Holmes, The Old House Web

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