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"...concise, accurate, and plain language."

Audel's Carpenters and Builders Guide

Picture of 4 Audels Carpenters volums
The four volumes of Audel's Carpenters and Builders Guide. Their flexible covers made them a pleasure to hold and use.

When homebuilder Tedd Benson moved from Colorado to the east coast back in the 60's, he found that Colorado carpenters had a bad reputation. He noticed that east-coast builders had greater pride in their work and higher standards.

When he asked what to do, his fellow workers told him to "get a copy of the old Audels and start reading." When one of them brought a copy to work, Benson was very impressed with the John Ruskin quote on the first page:

"When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the and wrought substance of them, "See! This our father did for us." —John Ruskin"
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Title page of first volume

Title page of the first volume: "foursquare, useful, and longlived."

Setting the standards

Audel's guides, first published in 1923, had been out of print for 20 years. Benson searched used book stores and eventually collected all four volumes. Writing much later in his homebuilder's blog, The New House Rules, Benson states:

"In my first hours alone with my Audels volumes, I can remember blissfully discovering the extent of my ignorance. There was something comforting about knowing the trade required so much knowledge and skill development. It was extremely daunting, but it was also exactly what was missing from my Colorado carpenter days...

Needless to say, much of the information in the old Audels is outdated, but its intentions, attitude and objectives are timeless, making it a good instruction manual even now...

I’m not sure, but I do suggest you find a copy of the four volumes of the old Audels. They’re pretty much available online and you won’t regret the purchase. It would be worth it if only to hold a black leather-bound book and read its first page. If you go further than that, you might want to become a carpenter.

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Typical page with illustration

A masterpiece of design: the perfect marriage of crisp text with fine etched drawings, charts, and captions.

Content and organization

The work was eminently accessible. Advertised in magazines such as Popular Mechanics, it could be ordered by mail for US$1 a volume.

The front of each volume features a table of contents and a full index. The first volume moves quickly from basics—"Woods," "Nails," "Screws"—to fine points—"How to Use the Steel Square," and "Cabinet Making."

The reader learns about, "The Holding Power of Spikes" and "How to Put in Lag Screws." Some samples:

"Wood.—This is one of the most common building materials and a general knowledge of the structure and characteristics of the various woods used in building is an absolute necessity to the carpenter...

"Most nails are made of steel wire. The grade of steel used is known as low carbon Bessemer or basic open hearth...

"A wood screw is a screw nail, having a right hand coarse thread to give a good grip, a gimlet point to enter the wood, and a slotted head for the reception of a screwdriver...

"Sand paper consists of tough paper covered with finely crushed abrading material...

"In good carpentry much depends on accuracy in measurement and in fitting parts together at the required angle.

"The reason so many amateurs fail in carpentry is that they do not keep their sharp edge cutting tools sharp."
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Typical page with illustration

The right and wrong way of using a hammer: just the facts are not enough.

Style and rhetoric

The forward states: "These Guides are designed to give technical trade information in concise, accurate, plain language." The texts are written at a consistent 5th-grade level, a big help to immigrants and other learners of English.

Tedd Benson notes that although others attempted since 1950 to publish modernized versions of the Audel guides, they never did well and quickly went out of print.

The reason, Benson believes, is that the later versions were lacking a viewpoint, especially the insistence on quality, not cheating or cutting corners. He writes in his blog:

"Dispassion has its place, but my feeling is that to remove values from a discussion about professional practice in an important trade was a huge mistake.

“'Just the facts sir' does nothing to arouse one’s spirit to get involved too. When you’re learning from mentors, you want their information, but even more importantly you want to feel the power of their passion. You want to know why they care.

"The new Audels was flat, cold information. I could use it as a resource to look things up if I needed to, but there was no good reason to sit down to read it. The personal mentor side of it was gone."

Michael Lydon, also praising the language of the Audel guides in vocabulary.com, emphasizes the same point:

"Along with accurate facts, Graham and Emery's vigorous prose conveys a vigorous philosophy, a confident belief in our ability to shape the world to our liking. Their clear, concise writing encourages clear, concise thought and action.

"Read the Guide, says every crisp sentence, and you'll be able to make chairs, tables and houses that are as foursquare, useful, and long-lived as the Guide itself."

Plain conference logo/linkPlain Language Association International
20th Anniversary Conference:
"Plain Language Advances"
Vancouver, British Columbia
10-13 October 2013

Plain language in the news

Rep. Bruce Braley on plain language in government: http://tinyurl.com/bnrkjo3

Recent plain-language efforts in the U.S. federal government: http://tinyurl.com/dxxcszo

U.S. Dept of Agriculture on plain writing: http://tinyurl.com/b8w9c43

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Students translate academic studies into plain English: http://tinyurl.com/cbjkknm

Plain English in Hong Kong: http://tinyurl.com/dxbw29s

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The how, what, and why of business communications: http://tinyurl.com/d6pmvm8