Let’s Learn About: Wane

Anatomy of A Rowhouse, Reclaimed Wood
We resisted calling this post Wane’s World, so we’re already off to a good start. What is wane? Or, more specifically, what is wane as it relates to wood?
The word itself is familiar enough, as in “waning strength” or “wax and wane.” The etymology is worth exploring- “wane” comes from the Old English “wana” meaning shortage or defect, which in turn comes from the Germanic “wano” which roughly translates to insanity.
Wane is shown as the dark triangle on the right (Image courtesy of decks.com)

Wane is shown as the dark triangle on the right (Image courtesy of decks.com)

In the wood world, wane is a rounded corner on a piece of milled lumber caused by the natural contour of a tree. In other words, wane is what happens when a tree isn’t quite big enough to yield that last piece of square lumber. Wane doesn’t necessarily weaken a piece of wood, but it does decrease the surface area for fastening floorboards and lath.
This stud features a couple waney patches. This is as the result of the knot you see towards the bottom of the piece, which would have grown into a branch, thus creating a bulge in the tree.
This stud features a couple waney patches. This is as the result of the knot you see towards the bottom of the piece, which would have grown into a branch, thus creating a bulge in the tree.
We come across quite a bit of wane. In some cases, traces of bark help us identify the species of tree which gave its life to become a stud or joist.
wane bark stud

From looking at the inner bark on this patch of wane, we can tell that this stud came from a loblolly pine tree.

In the woodworking world, there’s a strong demand for live-edge furniture, that is, furniture that features the outermost part of the tree, bark and all. This furniture is usually made from slabs from felled trees, but maybe a “wane-edge” cottage industry will crop up, too.

It’s Time We Talked About Formstone Pt. 1

Anatomy of A Rowhouse
baltimore formstone row

(Image courtesy of schmootography.com)

We like to talk building materials here at BBBB, and we’ve regaled you with tales of joists and studs, bricks and belt courses, struts and cut nails. But we’ve yet to discuss one of the most iconic building materials Baltimore has ever known, the material John Waters called the “polyester of brick”: Formstone.
Formstone has achieved Kleenex-like name recognition, but the word is merely one brand name among a host of other stucco products such as Rostone, Perma-Stone, Fieldstone, and Tru-Stone.
Formstone was but brand name among a host of several stucco products

Formstone was but one brand name among a host of several stucco products

Formstone was patented by Albert Knight, a native Baltimorean, in 1937, but a similar product had cropped up 8 years earlier in Columbus, Ohio. Knight’s patent, granted while he was with the Lasting Products Company, was for a “Process of Making Artificial Stone Wall Facings.”
The product was applied to building facades thusly: wire mesh was fastened to the facade of a building with small nails inserted into mortar joints. Successive coats of plaster were then applied until a desired thickness was reached. Formstone installers then got to work creating the distinctive stone-like appearance with molds, rollers (for texture) and implements for scoring the stucco to create faux mortar lines. The stuccoed facade was then often colored to suggest a wall made from several types of stone.

formstone diagram

Formstone appealed to both form and function-minded folks. Advertisements touted the product as being a wonder-solution to the persistent problem of brick maintenance (we’ll explore this claim in Part 2 of this series). But the product also offered an instant transformation: a simple brick structure could quickly become an imposing stone-fronted masterpiece. As Charles Belfoure and Mary Ellen Hayward note in The Baltimore Rowhouse, Formstone salesmen did brisk business in neighborhoods in East Baltimore that were filled with Eastern European immigrants; the authors suggest that these folks may have been drawn to a product that recalled the stone buildings of the old country. Belfoure and Hayward share a quote from one satisfied customer:
“It looked like a shantytown when it was red brick. The man came and Formstoned it…made it look like Hollywood. That’s the God’s truth.”
Formstone (and similar products) can be found in cities up and down the East Coast, but it feels particularly Baltimorey. Some folks estimate that over 50% of the houses in the city are Formstoned.
Fatz removes Formstone from one of our houses

Fatz removes Formstone from one of our houses

On Eager Street, 27 of the 35 houses had Formstone on them. In the next chapter, we’ll explore why only 1/5 of Eager Streeters went without Formstone, and why they may have been the sensible ones!

You Still, Still Don’t Need to Take Our Word For It

In this third installment of our informal series of long-dead writers praising Baltimore bricks, we now turn our attention to the work of John Thomas Scharf.


Scharf was a native Baltimorean who had successful careers as a lawyer, politician, author and historian. As a staunchly Pro-Confederate (read: pro-slavery) historian, Scharf’s writing has received warranted criticism for lacking objectivity and for espousing bigoted ideals that have landed so convincingly on the wrong side of history. His methods, however, have been praised as being exhaustive and meticulous, and his histories are still seen as belonging to the finest category of primary source material from his era.
Here’s Scharf on Baltimore bricks, from his 1881 History of Baltimore City, From the Earliest Period to The Present Day:
“The Baltimore press brick is almost as well known as the Chesapeake oyster, and as an article of export was antecedent to the bivalve.”
reclaimed brick pallet

This stack of bricks represent .00000241% of the bricks produced in 1881.

He goes on to say that current (1881) production of bricks in the city was around 100,000,000 per year. Just 99,895,000 more bricks and we can reclaim a year’s worth of production!

Friday Finds: McGill Precision Bearings Edition

Friday Finds
Today brings a simple but sweet Friday Find, courtesy of beautiful 1950s packaging.
mcgill bearing box
The McGill Manufacturing Company was established in 1910 by James McGill, a man of entrepreneurial spirit with a wide breadth of interests. Before becoming a nationwide specialist in bearings, McGill dabbled in venetian blinds, golf clubs, gold mining, laxatives, washing machines, gyroscopes, and cracker jack whistles.

mcgill plant valparaiso

The small ball-bearing box we found in one of our houses showcases the simple and elegant design of McGill’s mid-century packaging, as does the matchbook below.
(Image courtesy of flickriver.com)

(Image courtesy of flickriver.com)

The company still exists, sort of, though they’re a subsidiary of a division of a multinational.

The State of The Baltimore Lumber Trade in 1921

Baltimore Lore, Reclaimed Wood
reclaimed wood end grain
If the title of this post led you to believe that you were in for a white-knuckled thrill-ride of lumber pricing fluctuations and market conditions in the year 1921, prepare to be disappointed.
It’s not that such an exploration wouldn’t be rewarding, it’s just that the title of this post is taken directly from an article in The New York Lumber Trade Journal from 1921, an article that is perhaps the greatest and most glaringly obvious feat of filling space in a publication.

ny lumber trade journal

The article somehow manages to literally say nothing about the lumber trade, but it might rightly be declared a master class on subjective constructions of reality:
“Baltimore, Feb 10: Opinions in regard to lumber trade conditions here vary with the experiences of individual members of the trade and with their temperaments. If a dealer of manufacturer happens to be of an optimistic disposition he will be able to see some good in the situation; but if, on the contrary, he is pessimistically inclined, the prospect will look to him very dubious and he will draw a decidedly discouraging picture of the prevailing state of affairs. This will account for the varying opinions elicited in response to inquiries from half a dozen or any other number of lumberman. There are those who have nothing good to say of the market and who declare that business remains almost at a standstill…On the other hand, some members of the trade manage to see the good here and there.”
Just flawless reporting: both sides explored with no sides taken, empathy for all, a far-reaching exploration of the human condition hidden within a seemingly mundane trade report.


Herringbone Struts

Anatomy of A Rowhouse, Reclaimed Wood
As Edward J Burrell tells us in Elementary Building Construction and Drawing (1891):
“When common joists are used for spans of more than 9 or 10 feet, there is a want of stiffness, and a tendency for them to turn over sideways. This may be remedied by herringbone strutting.”
A cross section of a herringbone strut system from 1892

A cross section of a herringbone strut system from 1891

Herringbone struts are diagonal members, generally placed in an “X” configuration, that are fastened between joists. By tying one joist to its neighbor, herringbone struts firm up flooring systems. As Burrell alluded to, they also prevent joists from warping or twisting over time.
The joists in the houses on Eager Street stretch 12 feet from pocket to pocket. While this span pales in comparison to some of 16′ wide houses we see in the West side of town, builders nonetheless thought it prudent to include blocking between the joists.
eager street herringbone
Herringbone struts also made it easier to run pipes and lines because they could be run along the joists without having to drill through solid blocking. In the days of knob and tube electrical wiring, when joists were riddled with holes for wiring, herringbone struts made a lot of sense.

herringbone struts

Herringbone struts required an extra degree of craftsmanship, as well. To fix the struts snugly, a beveled cut had to be made on each side of the piece- without the use of a fancy whiz-bang $600 compound miter saw, this was no small task. We’re glad Frank Novak’s crew made the effort, because 107 years after they were laid, our joists are straight as can be without a twist or warp in sight.

baltimore reclaimed wood

Friday Finds: What You Should Know Edition

Friday Finds
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, there was a Reverend L. Heumann who made his money peddling healing ointments, elixirs and various cure-alls through widely distributed pamphlets. This week’s Friday Find is one such pamphlet:
what you should know
The copy in the pamphlet tends towards panic-inducing sensationalism, and it’s quite hilarious when read with the benefit of 80 years of hindsight and medical progress. A few examples:
“Pain and disturbances warn us of imminent danger…Do not pass these warnings- heed them before costly disease overtakes you. No one knows when he will be struck down by pain and disease.”

vital organs

On a page called “Information For Nervous People”, Mr. Denver Bloom wrote a testimonial about Rev. Heumann’s “wonderful nerve medicine”:
“It is actually the best medicine I ever took. I now feel like a new person. I doctored with three different doctors but neither of them seemed to hit the spot. Yes, my nerves are 100% better.”
nervous people
There’s also a page about eczema, titled “Don’t Lose Your Charm” with a photo of a young lad whose pocked face indicates that he has clearly lost his charm.
don't lose your charm
“When the skin is diseased or hurt, the germs have a broken-down gate through which they pour into the helpless system…Eczema makes its victim truly unfortunate.”
On the last page, Rev. Heumann claimed that he’d received over 7,000,000 requests for pamphlets- if this claim is to be believed (read: this claim should NOT be believed), one out of every 17 people in the United States requested one of his pamphlets.


Early 20th Century Labor Costs

Anatomy of A Rowhouse
What’d it cost to build rowhouses similar to the ones we’re deconstructing on Eager Street? To answer this question, and just about any other question having to do with rowhouses, we turn to Charles Belfoure and Mary Ellen Hayward’s The Baltimore Rowhouse, the absolutely essential reference for all things rowhousey.

Buy this book.

When construction began, basements had to be dug. Laborers were paid $1.25 per day, and a team of nine fellows could do the job in two days.
On Eager Street, the next step would have been to lay the brick foundations. Bricklayers were typically paid 60 cents per hour, tying them with plasterers as the top earners among the tradesmen.
brick foundation

After basements were hand dug, bricklayers laid a foundation of extra-hard bricks fired at high temperatures. They were typically paid 60 cents per hour for their work.

As joists were laid, carpenters would have become involved- they made 50 cents per hour.  It’s possible there were several classes of carpenters, much in the same way there are now: framers for the joists and studs, finish carpenters for moldings and trim, cabinetmakers for cabinets and fixtures. Or, it’s possible that a crew of versatile craftsmen were capable of fulfilling all of Frank Novak’s carpentry needs.
exposed joists
After the bones of the house had been assembled, plasterers (60 cents per hour) would have entered the picture. The common laborers who helped all these tradesmen usually earned 33 cents per hour.
Missing from the above-mentioned tradesmen are dozens of specialized artisans and craftsmen who contributed to rowhouses across the city: lathers, tinners, plumbers, carters, glaziers, etc.
Charles Belfoure and Mary Ellen Hayward gleaned the figures above from the records of Edward Gallagher, one of Frank Novak’s biggest competitors. Gallagher’s building costs amounted to roughly $1.18 per square foot. Novak claimed that his costs were 70 cents per square foot, so it’s safe to assume that he paid his workers significantly less than the rates above.