Sippican Cottage

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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Building a Wattle and Daub Shelter for Dummies

Of course “For Dummies” is my idea of a joke. Despite what you’ve heard, no one was allowed to be a dummy when shelter like this was in vogue. If you can afford to have a smartphone in your pocket, you’re allowed to be as dumb as you please. You can believe almost anything about the natural or intellectual world and get away with it. You can think panthers are cute and cuddly if you want,  or that living in a state of nature is a lark, or commendable in some way.

I’m more from the Rose Sayer school of philosophy: Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above. 

The only mistake this fellow made that I noticed was using wattle to reinforce the smoke shelf in his little chimney. The people he’s copying would have gotten a flat stone from the river for that, and then continued on up the chimney with daub. The temperature right at the smoke shelf in a chimney goes way above 1000 degrees. The wood inside the daub will first become pyrolized, and then ignite at very low temperatures if the daub fails. He could have made a  bow drill to chafe his sticks to make a fire faster, but I subtract only style points for that. 

I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: Your wood-framed home isn’t really much more complicated than this hut. If your house is 100 years old or so, the interior walls are wooden lath with plaster applied to it. The plaster is a form of daub, and it’s keyed into the wattle — the lath — by smooshing it through the cracks, same as this. Gypsum drywall has replaced wattle and daub for interior surfaces, but it’s still basically the same crap. Gypsum is just a fancy kind of dried mud, and the paper faces of the drywall sheets are the wattle, even made out of the same stuff — they’re just ground up and reconstituted into paper.

Only pole barns are made by putting vertical members into holes in the ground to frame walls now, but the fellow’s little platform bed is basically the first floor framing in a regular house, designed to get you up off the dirt in the “cellar.” Almost all roofing shingles work in the same way as his leaves and bark, simply overlapping the row below it to shed water. I’ve nailed shingles over skip sheathing in the same way. If you split boards out of logs you could put clapboards on that shed and it would be at home in any number of cul-de-sacs I could mention, waiting for the vinyl siding salesman to come along. If the fellow with the uneven tan and all the bug bites had made bricks instead of pottery with that mud, even the wolf couldn’t blow his little shelter down.

I’m often amazed at how little the average person knows about they house they live in. It’s a very simple machine, really. All the complexity that’s been added to it has generally made it worse. Although I like window screens a great deal, I must admit.

(Thanks to reader, commenter, and stalwart supporter of Unorganized Hancock Chasmatic for sending that one along)

4 Responses

  1. Nice to see your take on this one, Sipp. It's good to know I wasn't crazy to wonder whether using sticks to hold up the chimney was really a smart idea. I had similar thoughts about how what he built isn't all that different in its elements than what a house is even today. The Little House books told much the same story, just with bigger sticks and two people working. It was instructive to see just how easy it was for him to put in an expansion.

  2. I still occasionally re-read "The Walls Around Us: The Thinking Person's Guide to How a House Works," but only because I forget stuff. Way below your pay grade, Sip, but informative for the casual, not-terribly-curious human. I still occasionally marvel that we ever bothered to walk on two feet, and that we now have miracles like upholstery, and restaurants, and playing cards. Who ever had the time and energy to think of this stuff? I'm convinced it all comes down to guys trying to get girls.

  3. It is the Iron John tendency. Starts with a "man cave" and moves to weekends hunting and fishing wit da boys.
    Soon gathering around a camp fire in loin cloths and beating on log drums and sticks, grunting and snorting as bad ol' cave boys. Er, cave men. No gurls allowed.
    I know this because I had a pal that actually admitted getting drawn into this phenomenon.

    Seems to me if they were doing their Man job properly at home this would not be needed.

  4. "I like window screens a great deal"

    Me too, but you still made me laugh, not at you, at my European relatives, especially ze Chermanns.

    They don't use window screens much, if at all. Their homes are disgusting with flies and bugs. When I ask them why, they talk gibberish. They come here and I show them the screens and point out the flies trying to get in to crap into our eyes and food. They talk more gibberish.

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