Works on paper

By - , Build 129

New Zealand’s early apprentices and builders relied on both imported and local instruction books and booklets to learn about building materials and construction techniques.

Figure 1: Carpentry study course 1944.
Figure 1: Carpentry study course 1944.
Figure 2: Carpentry in New Zealand in its various guises over the years.

Early European tradesmen brought to New Zealand not only their tools but also their books. Copies of some of these early instruction books are held in many libraries and regularly appear in local book and online auctions.

One such book arrived with 19th century arrival builder Joseph Fowler who landed in Lyttelton in April 1863. Fowler had in his luggage a 1797 title, The Carpenter and Joiner’s Assistant – inscribed in the back with ‘Joseph Fowler, Canterbury, New Zealand’. Other books travelled accidently, hidden within furniture.

Local materials and conditions

Buildings in the colony could be constructed using local materials, and by the late 1860s, there was already interest in better understanding these materials, as demonstrated by the papers presented at the New Zealand Institute.

Interestingly, the first paper in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute dealt with the opportunities for concrete buildings – seen in 1868 as suitable for Wellington’s earthquake risk and prevalence of high winds.

As more was learnt about the performance of timbers, papers on their qualities were prepared, and by the late 1880s, earthquakes were a topic. Both WM Maskell and Thomas Turnbull presented papers on architecture and earthquakes to the New Zealand Institute in 1888.

Some local guidance for house construction became available with the 1883 publication of Brett’s Colonists’ Guide and Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge. At 830 pages long, it provided guidance for those wishing to build a new home, create a farm or even build an icehouse. It offered a selection of four ‘cottages for settlers’, ranging from single storey to double storey. In case time or finances were limited, the guide suggested ‘inside finishing and verandah may be done when convenient’.

The 1897 second edition included an additional house design with an outside closet, wash house and wood store, as well as a detailed specification prepared by Mitchell and Watt, ‘architects to Board of Education, Auckland.’

First homegrown publications

The first publication held by any New Zealand library relating to carpentry is the Department of Education’s 1902 Handwork for Schools: Woodwork – possibly prepared in response to the Manual and Technical Instruction Act 1895.

In 1944, a publication more suited to adult learners appeared when RH Smith of Tauranga prepared five carpentry booklets for the Army Education Welfare Service (see Figure 1).

Designed for training soldiers, the booklets covered the full range of skills required to construct a wooden building, including planning, foundations, construction and completion. A separate book, Drawing for Carpenters and Joiners, was also prepared by Mr Smith.

Textbook for apprentices needed

After World War II, the Army booklets were not considered suitable for apprentices as they were designed for adults and did not relate to the Trade Certification Board syllabus.

In 1951, the New Zealand Carpentry and Joinery Apprenticeship Committee asked the government whether a ‘text book in carpentry and joinery’ could be prepared for apprentices. While action was slow, the catalyst proved to be the National Housing Conference, held in Wellington in August 1953.

The conference was called to explore ways of dealing with post World War II housing. Its agenda covered topics ranging from reducing the costs of construction, financing and land, to assisting those wanting to build their own home.

The New Zealand Master Builders’ Federation, in its proposal to the conference, was clear in the need for ‘an authoritative text-book on carpentry and joinery, based on New Zealand building practice’. The concept was well accepted, with the Gasfitters Union requesting that the coverage be extended to cover their trade.

The logic behind the request was clear – increasing the numbers and quality of apprentices in training would ultimately result in more tradespeople and a reduction in the cost of housing, for the benefit of all. Action was swift, with a Cabinet Paper Preparation of Trade Textbooks in the Building Industry approved on 22 October 1953 agreeing to the first book, Carpentry, at an estimated cost of £1,600.

Carpentry first published in 1958

The Australian Carpenter by C Lloyd was already well known here. First published in 1948, it was reprinted numerous times and converted to metric units in 1976. Lloyd’s book was the starting point for the design of the new text, but the New Zealand publication was to focus on the New Zealand Trade Certificate syllabus.

A committee, including representatives from the New Zealand Carpenters and Joiners’ Union, the Commissioner of Apprenticeship and the New Zealand Master Builders’ Federation, met to develop the coverage and style of the proposed book.

Prepared by the Technical Correspondence School, with illustrations drawn by the office of Wellington architect Geoffrey Nees, Carpentry in New Zealand was published in June 1958. Copies were distributed at a discount through Master Builders’ Federation to apprentices, teachers and schools.

While some industry participants felt that the book would lead to undesirable competition from do-it-yourself homeowners, one thing was certain – there were only compliments about its quality. The Master Builders‘ Federation, for example, wrote to the Minister of Education offering praise for the fine quality of ‘the excellent publication’. The book was very popular, with 33,600 copies printed between June 1958 and September 1973.

A second edition of Carpentry in New Zealand was published in 1977 (when its name was changed to Carpentry) and a third in 1980 (see Figure 2). The final printing was in 1987.

Changes, especially in timber used

From the Army Education Welfare Service booklets published in 1944 to the last edition of Carpentry (in New Zealand) in 1986 there have been many changes in the material available for New Zealand homes.

Perhaps the most noticeable has been the change in the types of timber. In 1944, Smith noted that rimu was ‘used for all general building purposes both for outside and inside trim and is very durable above the ground’ and that, apart from the wide use of pine in box making, ‘it has no great market in the building field, principally because of the lack of adequate grading rules and classification.’

In 1980, native timbers were still the focus of Carpentry, although just a few years later, the cutting of native timbers from government land had largely stopped as the slow-growing resource was heavily reduced.

In 1993, the Forests Act was amended to stop unsustainable logging of native forests, and Pinus radiata became the timber used in our wooden buildings.

Figure 2: Carpentry in New Zealand in its various guises over the years.

Download the PDF

More articles about these topics

Articles are correct at the time of publication but may have since become outdated.

Figure 1: Carpentry study course 1944.
Figure 1: Carpentry study course 1944.
Figure 2: Carpentry in New Zealand in its various guises over the years.