Federal Style Patterns


MaryBeth Mudrick and the late Lawrence D. Smith. federalstyle@bellsouth.net. Please visit www.FederalStyle.com for details on the book, which you can order from Amazon.com, John Wiley & Sons, or Alibris.

Pick up a copy of Federal Style Patterns 1780-1820 (MaryBeth Mudrick and Lawrence D. Smith, John Wiley & Sons), flip through the pages of this elegant book, and feast your eyes on the unbelievably detailed drawings. You would naturally conclude that this book was produced by architects with a lifetime of experience in design, drafting and using CAD programs. In fact, Mudrick and Smith began as novices at all three fields.

Lawrence Smith is a cabinetmaker who fell in love with the American Federal Style while touring a historic house in Savannah. He then began collecting design details and got the crazy notion of putting together a book, the first in 200 years of Federal Style design details. MaryBeth Mudrick was in restaurant management and together they started working on the book idea. Neither had any experience with drafting, with drawing on a computer or publishing a book, but what difference does that make?

This is the story of how it all happened.

How It All Began

by MaryBeth Mudrick

“Look here.  Tell me what you think of this!”  While I was watching television in the den, Larry had come in from the cabinet shop with something that he’d made and wanted me to see.  I looked up and smiled when I saw that he had hung a three-foot section of Federal style cornice molding to the top of the wall just below the ceiling.  The cornice was painted white, made of wood, had an orderly procession of perfectly matched dentils with drill holes, and a row of wooden beads marching across the length of it.

I couldn’t take my eyes away from the now-transformed wall, and I could hardly say a word.  Here, in our own house, with eight-foot high ceilings was the beautiful woodwork that I had only seen gracing the soaring 10-12’ ceilings of historic house museums. The original cornice design that he had started with was much larger because it had been made scaled for a room with 12’ high ceilings. Larry changed the proportions and scale of the original design and made the same cornice in a smaller size.  It was a perfect fit for the eight-foot ceiling of our den.

Both of us were convinced that he had rediscovered a secret that, although it had once been commonly known, was now lost to many and that the Federal Style was so lovely that it shouldn’t be relegated to museums.

The “secret” that was rediscovered is that the best examples of Federal Style architectural treatments and furniture owe their enduring good looks to a small handful of Golden Section ratios.  The 18th century architect and designer understood this notion and used the ratios to proportion each design for a specific location.  That is why the cornice hanging in our small den was so eye pleasing when stock moldings had all seemed too large and overbearing.

Larry returned to his shop and over the next few months, he constructed samples of twenty-four cornices, two mantels, and a half dozen 8’ x 3’ full order designs using Asher Benjamin’s 1806 edition of The American Builder’s Companion, William Pain’s 1762 edition of The Builder’s Companion and Workman’s General Assistant, and four measured drawings of historic homes made by Frank Chouteau Brown in the 1930’s.

He constructed the samples to find out if this 18th century style could be manufactured today using modern circular-turning power tools like a tilting arbor shaper or adjustable router table sled.  It can.

While Larry built the samples, I left a general manager position in the restaurant business and joined him in an earnest search for as many measured drawings of the interiors of Federal Style homes as could be found.  The nearby University of Miami library, county library interlibrary loan, and the Library of Congress’s online treasure trove “HABS” provided us with thousands of photographs and measured drawings, and many additional pattern books for us to study.

Larry selected the best examples from the New England area, hand-drew the profiles, and we compiled the drawings into a set of three-ring binders to use as a catalogue for future customers.  We never dreamed that this ungainly set of three ring binders was the beginning of a book — we were just certain that the style would have a great deal of appeal to others if only they could see it.

The hand-drawn profiles that had been invaluable when studying the style had, however, some serious drawbacks: for the potential customer, a profile required far too much imagination on the part of the viewer, and our drafting skills would never produce a drawing with enough precision to produce a knife to cut the profile.

Larry had read an article in a popular woodworking magazine in which the cabinetmaker/author had recommended using a Macintosh-only CAD program called PowerCADD.  If the moldings were ever to be reproduced, it would be necessary to make CAD-type drawings of the designs.  Neither of us had ever used a CAD program: I was a PC user whose only experience with Macs was when I would use the computers at Kinko’s because they had better software than I did, and Larry had never turned on a computer.

Our project seemed to be at a standstill until an unexpected windfall gave us the fortitude and the nerve to purchase PowerCADD, WildTools, and two Macintosh G4s to run the software.  We unpacked the computers, loaded the software, and started using it.

That is the truth: PowerCADD and WildTools is that easy to learn and use.  In the first couple of weeks, if we got stuck, we would post a question on the drawing forum and within hours we would have several excellent solutions to choose from.

Shortly thereafter, we realized that we didn’t know enough about computers, PowerCADD, WildTools, printers, Photoshop, Illustrator, Acrobat, and “What are those key commands for Force Quit?”.  We contacted Brian Huculak, and he provided step-by-step “do it this way” procedures to combat all of our ignorance.

To make our drawings, we used this basic method:  Larry drew the profiles and any ornament that required precision and accuracy (dentils, beads, reeds, etc.) and then he put a copy of the file on a zip disk and gave it to me.  I finished each drawing by creating an elevation from the profile and adding the decorative ornament.

About halfway through drawing the mantels, we realized that our “catalogue” might just be useful enough to others as a book, and after we finished all of our drawings, we arranged the collection into a form that we thought might make it look like a book in the eyes of potential publishers.  This portion of the project (Larry a first-time computer user, me new to Macintosh and both of us new to PowerCADD and WildTools) took us a year.

To find publishers that might be interested in our book, we did an Internet search for those who accepted unsolicited manuscripts.  We found twelve publishers that carried books that were similar to ours and sent off twelve boxes that each contained a manuscript, cover letter, and return postage.  We received four offers to publish the book and all of the editors that we spoke with were surprised to learn that neither of us are architects and that the drawings were already in “book form”.

We had always thought of the manuscript as a presentation copy that, of course, a major publisher would want to rework into an acceptable format because of our inexperience, ordinary equipment, and inkjet printers.

We were wrong.  Using PowerCADD and WildTools, we had produced a manuscript that would not only be accepted by publishers but actually used for the production of the printed book.  Each page of our book is an individual 11” x 17” file complete with captions, crop marks, and page numbers.  Most pages in the book are individual PowerCADD files that were exported to PDF using the Save As PDF option in the Print Dialog window and the default PDF settings.  The pages that combine text and graphics began as illustrations in PowerCADD,  were placed as PDFs in Adobe InDesign, and text was added.  Each page was then exported as a PDF.  The PDF files were then sent to the printer who manufactured the book.

Most people who see the finished book are surprised by the amount of detail in the drawings.  Before this project, I had never drawn and did not know how to begin turning the three-dimensional details of this very intricate, hand-carved style into two dimensional drawings that would, hopefully, be as engaging as what they represented.

We decided that we should use the contour style of drawing that was made popular in the 18th century by John Flaxman.  We picked this drawing style not only because it was used during the Federal Period but also because it omitted shading and perspective.  We wanted, above all, to produce clear drawings that would be very easy to understand and measure from.

I began by scanning Flaxman drawings, architect Frank E. Wallis drawings, and photographs of ornament into PowerCADD and using the WildTools Pen Tool and Freehand Tool, I traced over the ornament to teach myself how to draw it.  This process was rewarding to me as a first-time illustrator because I found, that if I could draw even one leaf correctly, I could use WildTools to duplicate and repeat it.

This method was also ideal because, if you look closely at Federal Style ornament, you will see that, even though it is largely hand-carved, it is remarkably consistent and symmetrical.  For geometric flowers, I learned a trick from the “Putting it All Together” exercise in the PowerCADD manual.  The exercise demonstrates the technique used to draw a bearing, and I adopted it to draw flowers.  I draw the center of the flower as the small circle and then draw one petal which is then duplicated and rotated about the center of the circle.  With this simple flower, I made hundreds of variations that you will see in the drawings on the following pages.

I draw using a Cinema screen monitor and a small Wacom tablet.  I found that the pen felt too slick on the plastic tablet, and it was too hard for me to control. I taped a piece of paper to it to provide some resistance and my drawing improved rapidly.  After I learned to draw the swags, acanthus leaves, husk flowers, and other details of Federal Style ornament, I followed this process:  I opened the profile drawing that Larry had made, duplicated the profile and connected the two profiles with lines to form an elevation view, and then printed it.  I then sketched the single examples of ornament onto the elevation, scanned the drawing back in, and used WildTools to trace over my sketch and to duplicate and repeat the ornament.  The sheaf of wheat [below] that appears in the mantel on the cover of the book was my first illustration.

Aside from saving time and making drawings that are accurate and professional-looking,  PowerCADD has made it possible to “try things” out without having to build wood samples.  Oftentimes, Larry will make a scaled elevation drawing of a room design complete with the entablature, pilaster, chair rail, and base and then print it full size.  He can then hang the drawing in a room and see if his new design looks good. This is a lot of fun and our clients always enjoy seeing, at full size, how Federal Style architectural treatments might look in their own home.  Included here is a PDF of a design for an 8’ room for you to print out and enjoy.

We are both self-taught computer users who are real math and geometry idiots and when viewing the work and the posted solutions to problems on the PowerCADD Forum, we are certainly aware that our abilities pale in comparison to the skilled and talented professional PowerCADD user.

To us, PowerCADD and WildTools has become an invaluable set of tools that made it possible for two people with very limited computer experience and proficiency to turn our enthusiasm for an almost-forgotten American architectural style and into the first Federal Style Pattern book to be published in about 200 years.  Our book is now in the permanent collections of most major university and public libraries and is also for sale in many museum bookstores.

Here’s to Engineered Software and Alfred Scott!  Here’s to PowerCADD and WildTools users all over!