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The Role of the Carpenter

Villard de Honnecourt. Both strength and technical know-how are needed for hoisting.
"Up near the roof all our thoughts are clear. In the attic it is a pleasure to see the bare rafters of the strong framework. Here we participate in the carpenter's solid geometry."

These words by the philosopher Gaston Bachelard clarify for us the strong symbolic and technical meaning generally associated with the act of wooden construction and the role of the artisan in the field. According to a no doubt extremely old anthropomorphic association, the wooden frame of a house was often compared with the human skeleton. In Vulgar Latin, the expression fabrica simultaneously described the rafter of a truss and the human spinal column.

Carpenters often have a commanding voice and a dominating temperament. They are often called cheerful and fond of joking.

The manual work performed by a carpenter bestowed a significant added value on the original material: the tree. The carpenter's role was as much of an economical and technical nature as it was symbolic. Through his or her ability to decipher drawings, to think in terms of volume and to concretely and rapidly modify forms, the carpenter occupies an important place in representations related to houses and the built environment. In numerous contexts before the architect's and the engineer's status had become formalized (17th and 18th centuries), the carpenter also served as contractor and worksite supervisor. He maintained this function in rural areas as long building permits were unnecessary. He was often an educated person.

The carpenter readily corresponds to archetypes we see in various representations: a person of judgment and quick decision-making, with a commanding voice and a dominating temperament. Not always a person of compromise or subtlety, a carpenter is often called cheerful and fond of joking, and used to the company of others as he is most often obliged to work as part of a team.

In France carpenters emerged as of the 12th century as professionals, distinct from self-taught builders or other villagers. From this period on, their very advanced techniques brought with it specific recognition of their social status. It is possible that during this period the quasi-universal adoption of the tenon and mortise method went hand in hand with the use of the plumb-bob scribing technique, and that the implementation of this technology was paralleled by the carpenter's increasingly autonomous social role.

Today, a mastery of roofing geometry, or the Scribe System as it is called, is a necessary step in a professional being recognized. But will ever-increasing mechanisation leave room in the future for a carpenter to be able to fully master all the aspects of his or her trade?

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