Thirty Days of Making: Wooden Houseframe Model

I’m in Day 9 of a short series: Thirty Days of Making. Every day for the next thirty days, I intend to make something, anything, that is in some way connected to school. There won’t always be pictures, and I reserve the right to credit myself for things that I help my kids make. But I’ve decided that I need thirty days of maker success and maker failure under my belt to be a better designer.

I’ve decided that artwork counts, but not writing (unless it’s part of the art, like calligraphy). Digital work counts, but it has to be useful or publishable.

Some days there will be pictures, some days there won’t be. Each blog entry will contain a list of some of the materials and tools, a quick review of the success or failure of the Making, and a reflection on what I think I learned from the endeavor.  (My friend Alicia is beginning a new series along these lines, 12 weeks of the Artist’s Way — I wish her well in her process, go check her out!)

Reason for the Project: Third Grade House Tours

The third and fourth grades go on local tours of houses.  They see the ‘skins’ or ‘shells’ of the colonial houses in the area, and they have the wooden frames of the house described to them.  But they only go into one house, and they only see the roof trusses.  So, I imagined that I could maybe build a house frame model for them, in order to be able to show students what these house-frames look like under the clapboards and the windows.

I started by grabbing a bag of rough-cut blanks for chopsticks.  I found four bags of these things for $0.99 apiece. They probably have about a hundred of these chopsticks in each bag.  I grabbed about twenty or thirty of the blanks, split them into the left and right chopsticks, and plugged in the glue-gun. I also grabbed an Xacto knife — one of the bigger utility knives rather than a paper knife.

Thirty days of making: model house frame

The Process and the Result:

I vaguely remembered that the structure of a colonial house has a sill, all the way around; and then a series of cross beams linked by smaller beams.  I found that the utility knife didn’t work on these chopsticks very well, unfortunately.  I only cut a few of the crossbeams, as a result.  I remembered to leave a central space for the brick column of the chimney in the center of the house, and gradually built up the second floor.

The main or first floor is made of eight single chopsticks (four doubled chopsticks). The glue gun assembled the pieces.  I cut through a couple of side pieces to build the cross braces.  The uprights are six more chopsticks, slightly chopped down; two more form the lines for the eaves, and the support for the second floor.

Gradually I reached the roofline.  And discovered that I didn’t know how to cut those pieces. Especially not in the time that I had.  Whoops.  The house looked less like a Colonial farmhouse, and more like a segment of a Viking hall out of BEOWULF.

Reflection on My Learning

The structure didn’t match the design I had in my head, because I didn’t assemble what my friend Matt calls a “Cut List”.  Apparently professional carpenters and joiners will make a list of all the parts they need for a project, go to the lumber yard, order all the wood simultaneously, spend two days cutting all of it, and then a day or two assembling it.  They know, to the board and to the inch, exactly what materials they need to put up a building.  Matt described building a Sonic Hamburger stand in two days — one day cutting and sorting all the parts, and one day building.  They walked away at the end of two sixteen hour days with a finished balloon frame, sheetrocked and cladded and ready for the next team of contractors.  Wow.

So, when I do this project again, I’m going to start with the diagram in the book that I was trying to remember.  I’m going to use the longest bits — the roof-tree and roof-trusses and the foundation sills — as my chopsticks.  I’m going to build a cut list for this “Colonial House” project.  Only once I have the list, will I then go to cut pieces according to the cut list.

Thirty days of making: model house frameThe result is less likely to be Viking Heorot and more likely to be colonial house.  And I learned something about structural engineering — designing your plans and knowing what your pieces are first, is much more useful than just building on the fly.  It’s a way to make sure your design is resilient, too.

You can see a short video of the project turning around in space on Vine (Thanks, Gordon!)

Reflections on General Learning

I think this is a brilliant project, especially if I can develop a cutlist, and a completed model of a local house or two.  It will then be possible to hand out a bundle of the chopsticks, and a cut list, and some rulers, and have kids go through the process of assembling and building a local house.  The kids will learn something about structural engineering, and about the behavior of wood under both knives and small saws, and learn to work together with a hot glue-gun.

From a larger perspective, I also learned something about the speed at which I work, compared with the speed at which most of my students work (or my colleagues) as creative people.  Most of them are much slower than I am — perhaps a bit of supernatural assistance for me?

This project took me an hour — an hour I didn’t really have today.  I’m discovering that kids take about three times as long to do something as I do.  Which means that for most of the kids in the school, this would be a three-to-four hour project: if they had a blueprint, if they had a cutlist, if they had some guidance and direction.  This is not a project to undertake casually — it’s a serious challenge to someone who’s looked at dozens of diagrams of wooden house-frames, but had never built one.  For a kid who’d never seen any of this before, it would likely be impossible.

So even though I think kids could do it, I’m not sure it’s a project that they should do in a regular school class.  It may not be interesting to them, and it requires a lot of attention to detail to get right.  The interested kid would get a kick out of it — but at that point they should do the whole project, from looking at the diagrams to developing a cutlist to assembling the frame.  But it’s not a group project, I don’t think.  Gods, I wish it were.  It would be awesome, especially if every kid or team developed their own model of a house!

Ok, maybe it can be done in class.


Three out of five stars. Good practice for me, raised a lot of interesting philosophical and practical questions, demonstrated a lot of useful possibilities.  Not immediately useful for putting into practice.

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