Friday, April 10, 2009

PCLS Interview: John Leeke

John Leeke, based in his woodwork shop in Portland, Maine, has made a career not only as a woodworker but as a writer, with several how-to publications, as an internet videographer, and as a workshop instructor who draws on his extensive knowledge and experience to assist property owners throughout the small towns of America.

His website can be found at Historic HomeWorks.

John recently released a new book, Save America's Windows. It includes a section on how to avoid falling under the spell of the window replacement salesman.

Do you have a name? What is it today?

John Leeke

by hammer and hand great works do stand

by pen and thought best words are wrought

by mind and heart we share the art

My dad said I could be anything I want except two things, a roofer and a cooper. (His joke was, Who would buy a bucket or a roof from a guy named “Leaky”?) In reality an important part of my building conditions assessment and investigation work is tracking down moisture in buildings and discovering the water leaks. When I sit down to talk with a building committee about their roof leaks I overhear the whispered comment about my name, so I crack a joke about it and everyone laughs.

How did you first become interested in your career?

When I was two years old in 1951 my dad built the house where I grew up. In a recurring dream throughout my life I’m about ten years old in this house. If I lean on an interior wall just right I slip into a room that does not seem to exist in the real house. It’s sort of like the stud-space within the wall expands to become an entire room. My vision in there is bluish and a little fuzzy. There are many vertical posts and I can float around through other rooms, it’s like a maze that I can figure out if I don’t wake up too soon. Eventually I find my way out via the furnace room. Back in real life, as an adult, I told my dad about this dream. He grinned and said I was just two years old when he brought me to the house during construction and carried me around through the rooms after the stud walls and were up, but before the plasterers came. That was my introduction to modern building practice. I believe this dream is a memory. It is still a ready reference to that early experience.

Our family spent many vacations visiting my grandma Julia, who lived in a little Queen Anne house built in the 1890s. One Christmas when I was eight we had a big family reunion there. The house was packed full of uncles, aunts and cousins. My dad and I ended up sleeping in the attic. We went up the steep stairs with arms full of blankets, quilts and a candle. It was freezing cold up there. He spread out the quilts on the floorboards from the chimney over under the eaves, then we both crawled back under the eaves and rolled up in the quilts together, rolling toward the chimney, ending up with me between my dad and the warm chimney where it was nice and cozy. The first night we fell asleep counting the rafters up above. The second night we ran out of rafters, so we counted the shingle nails poking down through the roofer boards. They were easy to see and count in the dim candlelight because each one had a little tuft of white frost on it. That was my introduction to traditional building practice. We returned many times to fix the porch posts, mend the screen door, explore the cellar ….

As I grew up the comparison and contrast of those two houses and an early start in my dad’s woodworking shop led to my career as an historic building specialist.

If there is one thing that you can say is important, what is it and why is it important? Who cares?

It is the people who are important. The people who live and work in the buildings, and who work on the buildings now. The people who built them and lived in them in the past. After you understand and take care of the people, then the building becomes important.

Is there any extra-special historic site that you want to visit, and if so, why?

My 8th-great grandfather wrote and published the first English translation of Vignola’s Five Orders of Architecture, titled “The Regular Architect.” It was used by those ingenious tradespeople to rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666. I would like to visit some of those classically styled structures to see if I can catch their vibes.

Education… what one thing do you think was the most interesting part of your education? Where?

When I was a kid I thought my dad was teaching me about working with wood. As an adult I talked with him about this. He said, “Oh no, I was teaching you about working with people. We just happen to know about woodwork so the people who need woodworking are the ones we can best help… I was teaching you how to use and make tools, so you can do any kind of work… I was teaching you about connecting with the real world…”

I went to public school to learn the basics, but my real education was when my dad sent me around town to sketch and draw the important buildings. When we meet up, ask me to tell the story about sketching the balustrade at the Nebraska State Capitol Building.


I have hundreds, perhaps over a thousand books. My high school physics and chemistry books are definitely on the shelves. I can’t possibly keep all that good info in my head. So my shelves of books seem like a kind of memory.

I think first books are important. My first trades-related book was Audel’s Carpenters and Builders Guide. My dad had bought the 4-volume set when it first came out in 1923, when he was 17. When I was 17 my dad handed them to me to keep at my own bench.

I grew up in my father's woodworking shop and had my own bench by the time I was ten years old. Occasionally I had questions he could not answer right off. I can picture it in my mind, as I stood at his bench he would reach up to the bookshelf above the bench saying, "Let's just ask Theo. Audel about that." When he bought his Audel's he was just starting in the trades. The small toolbox-sized volumes had a weighty heft that suggested the extensive woodworking information compacted on their thin pages. Gold embossed subtitles like “Cornice Work,” “Saw Troubles” and “Piazza Details” sparkled on the spines like gems--just a hint of the treasury in woodworking knowledge to be discovered within.

On the black leather cover was embossed an emblem, not in gold, but very subtle, barely noticeable: a hammer floating over the sunrise. My dad would take my hand in his and guide my fingers to touch and slide over the emblem and ask, "Where do we seek knowledge?" I respond, "In the east." He asks "What is the carpenter's tool?" I respond, "The hammer." --all mysterious to me, I didn't get it right away, thinking "let's just look up the answer, here's the index right here." Then he would say, "Yes, in the east, at the beginning," as he opened Audel’s up to the title page. At the top of the title page was printed:

"by hammer and hand all things do stand"

So, every time we looked up in Audels, my dad would begin by reading the motto there, "by hammer and hand all things do stand." Well, after a couple years I knew the ritual by heart and by the time his hand was up to the book on the shelf I could cut to the quick with: "begin in the east, by hammer and hand all things to stand." When I was thirteen I had arrived at that place in the east where the sun begins to rise, and I began making rather realistic pencil drawings and my dad said, "Anyone who can draw like that becomes the woodcarver of the shop." I was used to doing what my dad said, so I did become the woodcarver and when I was fifteen I carved a crest out of white oak for a fraternity down at the university. It was acclaimed by the client and by my dad as a "great work." I adapted and adopted the Audels motto as my own:

"By Hammer and Hand Great Works Do Stand"

which has been my motto ever since. So, it’s hard to tell what you will get from a book. Information for sure, but sometimes true guidance.

Do you garden?

One other thing I wanted to be, but did not become, was a farmer. Many of my early grade school friends’ dads were farmers. My own dad picked up on this interest real quick and we began planting trees as a hobby. No, “hobby” is not the right word. It was not an “escape” it was an extension of our shop work that transcended current time and place. The wood we used had started growing a century before us. Our goal was to replace all the trees we used in our shop, twofold, so there would be enough trees and wood for future woodworkers. This was an important part of our real work in this world. Arbor Day was more fun than my birthday and it came two weeks sooner. Over the years we planted two or three thousand trees. I forget the exact numbers—they are marked on a post beside the door of our shop.

I like to plant trees. I have always kept an acorn or buckeye in my pocket every day, so when I find a likely spot I can stick it in the earth. Last year I got back to Wabash, Nebraska, where, 47 years ago, my dad and I stopped by to talk with Wayne Robertson about his walnut trees down along Weeping Water Crick. I had stuck a buckeye in the ground at the edge of the lawn in front his old farmhouse. Wayne has passed away, but I was there with his son who had his little boy along. When I reached around that tree my fingers did not touch on the other side. We stood there talking about how old the tree is and how big it is. We all bent over to pick up a buckeye and put it in our pocket. He said his dad reminded him every summer to not mow down John’s horse chestnut tree. I said the tree didn’t belong to me, it must belong to him since he took care of it all those years. He looked at me, then at his own son and said, “Looks like I’m giving this tree to you.” His boy glanced at me, his eyes widened, bugging out. As he leaned back his gaze scanned up the trunk high into the tree and he fell over on the grass grinning then laughing.


  1. I love the imagery of your dream/memory. I reminded me a bit of the children going to Narnia through the wardrobe. I'm also glad you have planted so many tress. There's a belief (I think Hindu, could be Bhuddist) that one should plant and raise a tree for at least 5 years, then it become's the earth's tree.

  2. Trout: thank you for your comment.

    I am trying to track down the information but today I read that the term 'novella' means not only a fiction shorter than a novel and longer than a short story but a newly planted tree.