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Bill Kibbel

Mr. Terra Cotta's house

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Some of you know my experience with, and appreciation of structural terra cotta. It was a nice surprise to discover who built the house I inspected yesterday.

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Exterior and interior walls, floors, chimneys, support columns, all architectural details, tiles and even door stops were terra cotta.

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wow.

Surprising amounts of terra cotta came out of Chicago. Northwestern Terra Cotta was based here.

One of my current library acquisitions is "Common Clay - A History of the American Terra Cotta Corporation". Most of their production was the decorative elements, but they manufactured a lot of structural material too.

Do you think any of it came from here, or was there a substantial terra cotta industry in your area?

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That reminds me - Bill, did you ever notice that FM 5-428 (US Army Concrete and Masonry Field Manual) in TIJ's library has a section about building with structural tile? Page 9-58.

ONE TEAM - ONE FIGHT!!!

Mike

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Very cool Bill.. I once did an inspection on a house that was 'owned by the head of the original local electric-light company' (Worcester County,MA ...small town..).

THE most elaborate knob and tube installation I've ever seen in person (or in print). The heir of the guy still lived there... It was 'the museum of knob and tube wiring'..

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wow.

Surprising amounts of terra cotta came out of Chicago. Northwestern Terra Cotta was based here.

One of my current library acquisitions is "Common Clay - A History of the American Terra Cotta Corporation". Most of their production was the decorative elements, but they manufactured a lot of structural material too.

Do you think any of it came from here, or was there a substantial terra cotta industry in your area?

I have actually seen several buildings with the terra cotta here in NJ. People I've worked with commonly called it Chicago Telephone block, apparently because of its large use by that utility in the early part of the 20th centrury.

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People I've worked with commonly called it Chicago Telephone block, apparently because of its large use by that utility in the early part of the 20th centrury.

It's not telephone tile, but similar. Read the second page of the article that I linked above.

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I imagine most of it was cut to the odd sizes with a chisel, but some pieces like the column components above must have been very hard to cut. I used to cut Terra cotta flue liners to size with a hammer and chisel. It required great patience. After scoring the tile all the way around, I'd fill the tile to the top with sand, to dampen the vibration (without the sand, you'd break it every time.). Then, very carefully cut away the thickest tile at the four corners with a pointed chisel. Then, slowly and ever so patiently tap along the scored line with a very wide bladed bolster chisel. You couldn't hit the chisel much harder than a tap, or you'd shatter the tile. Finally, after about three times around the tile, it would crack on through and you could lift the top part off. The shorter piece always had to be at the bottom, or you'd break it.

Once you had the piece cut to the length you needed, the cut end had to be dressed - much like a stone, with the square end of a brick hammer just little bits at a time. Every strike with anything had to be well thought out - hitting into the length of the tile so it would absorb the blow rather than shatter.

It was always rewarding when you went through that process with success, and a real pisser when you got almost there and suddenly heard the clank of a cracked tile. You were never out of the woods until you were done striking it. The dang things could break at any time during the process.

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wow.

Surprising amounts of terra cotta came out of Chicago. Northwestern Terra Cotta was based here.

One of my current library acquisitions is "Common Clay - A History of the American Terra Cotta Corporation". Most of their production was the decorative elements, but they manufactured a lot of structural material too.

Do you think any of it came from here, or was there a substantial terra cotta industry in your area?

The terra cotta industry was huge in NJ, in fact it all started there. At it's peak, there were 30 states that had terra cotta manufacturers. That list includes a majority of the east coast states.

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I imagine most of it was cut to the odd sizes with a chisel, but some pieces like the column components above must have been very hard to cut. I used to cut Terra cotta flue liners to size with a hammer and chisel. It required great patience. After scoring the tile all the way around, I'd fill the tile to the top with sand, to dampen the vibration (without the sand, you'd break it every time.). Then, very carefully cut away the thickest tile at the four corners with a pointed chisel. Then, slowly and ever so patiently tap along the scored line with a very wide bladed bolster chisel. You couldn't hit the chisel much harder than a tap, or you'd shatter the tile. Finally, after about three times around the tile, it would crack on through and you could lift the top part off. The shorter piece always had to be at the bottom, or you'd break it.

Once you had the piece cut to the length you needed, the cut end had to be dressed - much like a stone, with the square end of a brick hammer just little bits at a time. Every strike with anything had to be well thought out - hitting into the length of the tile so it would absorb the blow rather than shatter.

It was always rewarding when you went through that process with success, and a real pisser when you got almost there and suddenly heard the clank of a cracked tile. You were never out of the woods until you were done striking it. The dang things could break at any time during the process.

Why not just use an abrasive wheel on a skilsaw?

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I imagine most of it was cut to the odd sizes with a chisel, but some pieces like the column components above must have been very hard to cut.

My experience has shown that there is very little cutting necessary. The pieces were custom made for each project. Advertisements and catalogues usually state "made to order" as well as a large stock of standard pieces. The architects plan and detail drawings were submitted to the manufacturer, who would fabricate and deliver the product to the site in "perfect condition".

For structural tile, manufacturers extruded the clay through many different die sizes and then each piece was wire cut to the length/height needed. Decorative, glazed architectural elements were induvidually custom molded.

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I imagine most of it was cut to the odd sizes with a chisel, but some pieces like the column components above must have been very hard to cut. I used to cut Terra cotta flue liners to size with a hammer and chisel. It required great patience. After scoring the tile all the way around, I'd fill the tile to the top with sand, to dampen the vibration (without the sand, you'd break it every time.). Then, very carefully cut away the thickest tile at the four corners with a pointed chisel. Then, slowly and ever so patiently tap along the scored line with a very wide bladed bolster chisel. You couldn't hit the chisel much harder than a tap, or you'd shatter the tile. Finally, after about three times around the tile, it would crack on through and you could lift the top part off. The shorter piece always had to be at the bottom, or you'd break it.

Once you had the piece cut to the length you needed, the cut end had to be dressed - much like a stone, with the square end of a brick hammer just little bits at a time. Every strike with anything had to be well thought out - hitting into the length of the tile so it would absorb the blow rather than shatter.

It was always rewarding when you went through that process with success, and a real pisser when you got almost there and suddenly heard the clank of a cracked tile. You were never out of the woods until you were done striking it. The dang things could break at any time during the process.

Why not just use an abrasive wheel on a skilsaw?

Much of the time we were out in the middle of nowhere, without a generator. (We really didn't have much need for a generator and saw, except for something like cutting a flue liner, when we were doing residential work. And, I don't ever recall needing flue liners on commercial jobs, when we did have table saws - go figure.) So, under the circumstances, it just ended up being easier. Not to mention, it was just one of those things (a right of passage) that separated the journeyman from a brick layer. Similarly, I had gotten to the point that while building corners, I only needed to break out my level and measure my coursing about every three courses. [:-tophat]

There are so many things, like that, the average bricklayer has no clue how to do anymore.

PS. Now on commercial work, we always had a table saw going and a guy that ran it, exclusively. He was a whiz - even make us grinding stones complete with a handle and a grid grinding face, out of hollow four inch concrete block. Smoky, we called him. (The poor guy probably had emphysema from running that saw for years.) A lot of the brick we used on schools was so highly ceramic they were like the flue liners - impossible to cut with a hammer. They'd shatter / explode. A saw was the only way to cut them. And, a hammer wasn't allowed in cutting concrete block (government).

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I imagine most of it was cut to the odd sizes with a chisel, but some pieces like the column components above must have been very hard to cut.

My experience has shown that there is very little cutting necessary. The pieces were custom made for each project. Advertisements and catalogues usually state "made to order" as well as a large stock of standard pieces. The architects plan and detail drawings were submitted to the manufacturer, who would fabricate and deliver the product to the site in "perfect condition".

For structural tile, manufacturers extruded the clay through many different die sizes and then each piece was wire cut to the length/height needed. Decorative, glazed architectural elements were induvidually custom molded.

That's what I figured. The stuff is amazingly strong, but a real b*#ch to cut. [:-graduat

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Like I said a week ago. Keep bringing stuff up. Let's talk about finding cash in abandoned homes.

From today's inspection. 1915 post office.

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The Terra Cotta can bee seen in the background. It was used for the partition walls. The angled walls are part of the look outs where supervisors could observe workers on the floor and not be seen.

On another note Mike, we have been watching a Cardinal nest for a couple of weeks. It is in a camellia outside of our dining room window. The red bucket was my daughter's idea after the recent storms knocked the nest out of the bush.

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One of the little guys took his first flight this evening. It has been wonderful watching the chicks develop.

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Sorry I got the photos out of order.

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Jim, now that I think more about it, there was actually another reason I never cut flue liners with a hand saw. It's almost harder than the method I describe becuase: 1. Getting started is EXTREMELY hard. The blades drifts - flies all over the surface of the tile. 2 You can't cut through a tile like you do a block of wood. If you did, when you neared completion it would break, due to the weight hanging on the bit of tile still in tact. In other words, even with the saw, you had to work toward that even,, all at once, snap apart point. And, while a table saw helps keep the blade steady, most tiles were too big for a table saw. Flue liners were a royal pain in the arse to cut, but I got to the point I could even do angular cuts and chisel in thimbles - now chiseling in a thimble was an art all its own.

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Jim, now that I think more about it, there was actually another reason I never cut flue liners with a hand saw. It's almost harder than the method I describe becuase: 1. Getting started is EXTREMELY hard. The blades drifts - flies all over the surface of the tile. 2 You can't cut through a tile like you do a block of wood. If you did, when you neared completion it would break, due to the weight hanging on the bit of tile still in tact. In other words, even with the saw, you had to work toward that even,, all at once, snap apart point. And, while a table saw helps keep the blade steady, most tiles were too big for a table saw. Flue liners were a royal pain in the arse to cut, but I got to the point I could even do angular cuts and chisel in thimbles - now chiseling in a thimble was an art all its own.

Just for fun, I wonder if it could be done with heat, the way that you use a hot wire to snap bottles in half?

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That's a good question.

I find myself dwelling on another element of old homes that makes me sad - something that I know Bill K, and many here can appreciate: One of the things that makes old homes outstanding, is the fact that they were constructed by true masters - men obsessed with finding near perfection in their field of endeavor. It was a bug that they caught - a sense of pride and tradition.

I had that bug. I don't say this "about me", but rather about "that bug" - that obsession and drive to master a trade: In commercial work, I could be one of three men on a long gymnasium wall. The other two guys would be killing themselves to meet me in the middle of the wall. My work hardly needed to be cleaned (neat as a pin) and theirs looked like a train wreck. I went home relaxed, while they went home exhausted. (Truth be told, I usually didn’t go home. I went on to a side job and laid more brick until dark.) There was nothing special about me. Anyone could do what I did. Most simply didn't care to get that good. All they wanted was a paycheck and a six pack.

In masonry, to achieve that level of knowledge and skill earned one the title "mechanic" and it was not a word thrown around lightly. There was a reverence that came with the title. And, there was a deep sense of pride in knowing that I could walk onto any job site, and do, without hesitation, anything the man asked me to do. I met very few mechanics during the time I was in the trade. The funny thing about masonry is that you know a man's skill level in about two minutes. You'd hire a guy and ask him to do something, and by the time he had set up to do it and begin, you already knew he had stretched the truth about his ability.

I believe you are a carpenter? At the Design/Build firm I used to sell and design for, was a master carpenter, Irving Polan. Similarly, watching Irving do his thing - trim carpentry, was like watching one dance ballet. Like me, he had a pencil on his ear, and he knew where it and most of his other tools were, without even looking. He could just reach for them like a blind man. He was so fluent that trying to help him actually slowed him down. Every time he rocked right, everything that could be done on his right foot was accomplished, and as he rocked left the motion continued. It was all about harnessing inertia and teaming it up with method and knowledge. Watching Irving work, was a truly beautiful thing. He'd do his thing, while gnawing on a wad of tobacco the size of a golf ball, and singing or telling some joke. He was happy when he was working. Sadly, he was diagnosed one day with pancreatic cancer and was gone in a matter of months. But his memory lives on in my mind anyway.

I think the saddest thing of all is something that a lot of folks don't even understand: that many of the tradesmen from early American History, were gentlemen - multi-lingual mathematicians and architects all rolled up into one neat package - truly brilliant guys. If they met us, they'd think we were absolute dunces. Well, if they met many of the guys here on TIJ, they'd actually be pleasantly surprised to have stumbled upon an oasis of knowledge and understanding, in a wasteland.

In example: I used to watch masons try to establish right angles by projecting outward with a taught line and a square, or the old 3, 4, 5 technique, both of which are really unreliable ways to do it, when one can simply swing large arcs to establish the precise point that is at right angle. Or... Using triangulation to check the squareness of the points in a foundation: I once laid out a foundation for a New England log home that was really cut up. It had fourteen bearing heights. The guys that came to set the log home, actually asked the home owner for my name and called to inform me that this was the first time they had set one of their log homes on a foundation and it fit like a glove - no shims, no overhangs, etc. (Thank heaven for triangulation and a good transit.)

All such skills were a snap - a given - to the masters of the past, and are mostly lost to the average alleged tradesmen of today. It seems there's always a trade off, with the advent of technology - production goes up, but the mastery of the trade fades away. The tradesman gets dumbed down to a great degree...

That fact is difficult for the young to realize and appreciate. They haven't had the pure pleasure of watching a true master in motion, which is a hard thing to describe, and I'm sure I've done a poor job of it.

I do know that on commercial work, guys would sometimes, in total frustration say to me, "Mike, slow down. You're making us look bad.", when making them look bad was the very farthest thing from my mind. It wasn't a competition. It was an element of the trade - a level of human efficiency. And, I just loved what I was doing, and was in the heat of doing it. Everything else had melted away into oblivion.

When I look at the old stately homes that so many of us inspect, I see those tradesmen - mechanics, master carpenters and plumbers at work, as ghostly figures in my mind. If you're really looking, there's so much more to these old homes, than meets the eye...

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People seldom stay in a trade long enough these times to become Masters at what they do. Too much occupational instability and turnover. It's a loss.

Marc

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Mike,

I really enjoyed reading your post. It was very well written.

Thanks.

Thank you. I do love to express myself, and I do enjoy writing. Unfortunately, I know enough about English Composition and Grammar to know that there are some very skillful writers here that could go to town on that piece, with a red pencil, and be right in doing so.

Nonetheless, thanks. Writing it, brought back some dear memories.

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I liked it too.

Our societies have moved to the point where the high paying and "respectable" jobs are about manipulating abstractions on computer screens. Those jobs requiring actual skill, or those that enrich civilization, are now the lower paying jobs.

Somehow, we got it backwards.

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