Economics and Edwardian Carpentry

As I have worked on my house I have become aware of the difference between the nature of the work of the original builders and modern practices.  In some places the the evolution of a methods is visible.  Some of the changes have been driven by changing technology and others by economics and social history.  The most obvious example is plumbing.  When the house was built in 1901, there was only a cold water supply to the bathroom and scullery through lead pipes, there was also an extensive system of gas piping which supplied gas water heaters (a.k.a. geysers) and lighting appliances.  The lead piping is thick walled and difficult to work with, removing sections of it was strenuous and its original installation would have been hard, slow work.  Also, lead is not an ideal material to have in contact with drinking water.  Some of the original iron gas piping has corroded and would be dangerous if it were still live.  Sometime between 1946 and 1950, the bathroom got a supply of hot water from a boiler in the then kitchen, the pipes were iron and by the mid-60s the passage of water was impeded by rust within bore of the pipes, the installation of these pipes requires skill and time, it took a week of laborious work to remove them in order to clear the pipe run.  Central heating and copper pipe was installed in the mid-60s, the early segments were made up of neat, bent curves and connected with swaged joints.  Later extensions use either end-feed or solder ring fittings.  In many respects copper is a good material for plumbing, it’s reasonably easy to work with and does not corrode but in the context of our century old house, its difficult to route around joists, walls and other obstructions.   This summer I replaced the hot water plumbing with plastic pipes and fittings, initially, I had rejected the idea of plastic plumbing as not being traditional, however, I was able to halve the length of pipe needed and it has better thermal properties, we now have hot bath water.  Many plumbers are enthusiastic about plastic plumbing because of the speed at which it can be installed, joints are typically push fit and then only specialist tool that is needed is a plastic pipe cutter.  This evolution is a combination of advancing technology and a transition from low paid jobs to high paid ones.

No such evolution is traceable in the woodwork because no new work has been done since 1901.  When we moved in more than twenty years ago, the kitchen was populated with units from an up-market manufacturer, however, these offered little resistance to a six year old with a hammer and quickly became a heap of soggy chipboard.  The source of the damp was removed and we replaced them with some cheap and cheerful units intending to replace them with something decent “later”.  This year, “later” arrived and we decided to “do” the kitchen.  Having an inflated view of my abilities with wood, I foolishly decided to build cupboards and draws using a some cupboards elsewhere in the house as a pattern.  Most modern kitchen units are built from solid sheet materials such as chipboard or MDF, however, most of the original panels in the house consist of a sheet of thin sheet of wood enclosed in a timber frame, like the one shown in the photo below:

A week into the project, I have wondered if this method was chosen because of the cost of materials.  The materials cost of my attempts at panel making shown in the photo below was around £6.  Had I used 150 by 20mm timber this would have been more than £20, and around £12 for plywood.  I don’t drive, so all materials either have to be delivered or carried on a bicycle which which restricts the options as little, however, 2m lengths of 42 by 21 mm strips are easy to carry on a bike, but I can’t get the cost advantages of buying 8 foot by 4 foot sheets of ply.

Not being an experienced carpenter I work slowly, I’m guessing, but someone with more experience and ability than myself could have made that panel in much less than an hour, but that would still have been longer than the time needed to cut up a piece of sheet material to fill the same area.  The same trend might be present as that observed in the plumbing.


About SolarBucket

I trained as a mechanical engineer in the 1970's and then spent most of the following 25 years doing sums and software for Oil and Gas Exploration. Current interests are the study of wind and solar resources.
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