The Revival of Traditional Crafts in Custom Home Construction in Canada

Updated on May 6, 2019
Po Ku profile image

Po Ku studied architecture at the University of Dalhousie in Halifax and became a registered architect in the province of Alberta in 1980.

New York City In the 40s
New York City In the 40s

The Waning Days of Traditional Building Crafts

Tom Wolfe in his book From Bauhaus to Our House had described how the modernist architects such as Gropius, Mies and Johnson had decimated the traditional building craft industry in the 1940s. He wrote: “In the balmy days of Beaux-Arts architecture, Caldwell had employed a thousand bronzeurs, marble workers, model makers and designers. Now the company was sliding into insolvency, along with many similar firms.” Apparently, co-existence was not an option for these architects.

It was also recorded that carriage-trade painters, decorators and tradesmen in general were loitering around the entrances of the grand apartment buildings on Fifth Avenue, hoping to get some work, any kind of work. The Modernist architects had robbed them of their livelihood and subsequently taken away their precious skills from the generations to come.

I am a custom home builder in Toronto. My father was a master plasterer, stuccoer and tiler who started his business in Shanghai in the 1940s, decorating villas and mansions for the moneyed crowd. Venetian plaster, Italian stucco, lime-wash finish, terrazzo, mosaic tiling, etc. were his specialties. He showed me, when I was a youngster, how to create an Ionic column from brick, mortar, lime and marble chips. Near the end of his career, he had all but abandoned his traditional training in the old crafts.

French Polish
French Polish

Customers' Expectation of Traditional Building Crafts

Any architect or custom builder that promises old-world design and workmanship today to their clients are not exactly truthful. While there are still finishers that can do a passable facsimile of French polish or gold-leafing at a reasonable cost, this type of simulative work has lost its value in today’s world. We encourage authentic French polishing, gilding or even inlays with semi-precious stone in one-off pieces such as objet d’art or furniture, but certainly not in large-scale built-in components of a house. No matter how much we crave top-notch workmanship, in modern society, such labour-intensive and time-consuming work is simply not equitable for the working skilled tradesmen. French polishers (the workers, not the employers of course) eighty years ago made 25 cents an hour in Shanghai and probably not much more in Europe and New York.

Traditional Crafts Augmented by Modern Technology

Today, we design the most up-to-date cabinetry and furniture and finish them with the latest environmental-friendly water-based stain and lacquer technology. The wood veneers could be real or reconstituted (both have their merits). European-based design and manufacturing techniques are giving us simulated marble tiles as big as 5’x10’ that look and feel like marble. In other words, our design could look five hundred years old, but the construction is thoroughly modern. The photo below shows large floor slabs made in Italy.

5'x10' Porcelain Tiles From Italy
5'x10' Porcelain Tiles From Italy | Source
Stone Carver at Work
Stone Carver at Work

Traditional carving is aided by computer-guided procedures so that the repetitive grunt work is taken out of the craftsman's work routine. The finer details that require carving under or behind the front surface still require handwork. Craftsmanship is very much needed in high-end custom home construction.

The stone Tudor arch below was entirely carved by hand without computer aid. In projects where all stone components are cut and carved by computer-guided equipment, introducing hand-carved elements reinforces authenticity and sophistication of the design.

Tudor Arch Before & After Installation
Tudor Arch Before & After Installation | Source
Oval Shaped Staircase
Oval Shaped Staircase | Source

The best craftsmen not only possess the particular skills to perform the tasks that they have contracted to do but also nearly all of them are good with numbers. They can perform quick calculations in their head on demand. For example, the task of figuring out how many steps in a staircase so that all steps are of the exact same height when the floors are finished requires just simple arithmetic. To maintain the same accuracy when the design is for the stair to curve elliptically is not as simple a task. And to fit a set of curved wrought iron railing on the stair accurately requires a good grounding in geometry besides the workmanship.

Stone Work with Air Space Behind
Stone Work with Air Space Behind | Source

The modern stone mansion follows the time-tested rain-screen principle. There is a space between the outer layer of solid stone and the inner structures. Any water or moisture that gets behind the stone must be able to escape further down. In high-end construction, the outer layer of stone is four to ten inches thick, but in some areas, it appears as if it is two foot thick. This is achieved by mitering and joining two pieces of four-inch thick material together with stone adhesive that is stronger and more durable than the stone. Stainless steel pins are used as joining dowels. The outer layer is called the veneer.

The outcome is a simulation of solid load-bearing masonry in classical buildings from bygone eras. Each piece of stone is precut in a factory equipped with CNC machines. The complex details are carved by hand. Each piece is precisely dimensioned and fits into the overall composition on site with ease. The fitting is high precision work as the horizontal lines carry through around the entire building. Windows, doors, soffits and string courses all have to line up. The photo below is the front of a completed stone mansion.

White Stone Mansion
White Stone Mansion | Source

A Treasure Trove of Old-World Craftsmanship

Toronto is a fortunate place where immigrants from all over the world tend to congregate, bringing their old-world skills and craftsmanship with them. Each of the neighborhoods of Toronto has its own flavor and characteristics, a welcoming sign for newcomers. High caliber wrought iron artists, wood carvers, sculptors, stone carvers, cabinetmakers, marble crafters, glass artists, metal casting and forging experts, marquetry and inlay artists, leather workers, painters, muralists, machinists, high-tech glass artists, etc. are contributing to the renaissance of the fine art of custom home building.

12' Tall True French Doors
12' Tall True French Doors | Source

In a small town about an hour’s drive south west of Toronto, there is a manufacturer who has been making European style windows and doors for half a century. Their products are shipped to the States for use in major historical restoration projects. Single units as tall as fifteen feet are nothing unusual. On the right is a photo of their 12’ high French door with very narrow stiles made of mahogany. Only a handful of window manufacturers in North America can make French doors this tall and slender. Correct window styling is critical in the design of French Baroque architecture.

Baroque Style Fireplace Mantel
Baroque Style Fireplace Mantel | Source

A 40-minute drive north of Toronto takes you to a stone carver living on a quiet rural street who has been carving marble and limestone for architects and custom builders for the past thirty-five years. The Greco-Roman style of carving that he excels in is a rare and dwindling trade. Image to the right is his French Baroque style fireplace mantle, carved by hand without computer assistance. His carving style and techniques are unique to those who have apprenticed under master-carvers working on major western European restoration projects. In classical architecture, the themes, details and flourishes are established many centuries ago and leave little room for amendment.

Machined Parts Making Up this Table Base
Machined Parts Making Up this Table Base

Precision metal machining by hand is almost a lost art. The table base shown above was made by a machinist/artist who was born in the Philippines and now living in Toronto. There are 72 separate parts in this design. In custom home building and furniture making, one-offs and prototypes often require precision hand-made parts that cannot be ordered from a catalog.

Baroque Style Window Guard
Baroque Style Window Guard

This 16-foot-long dining table base (see photo below), strong enough to support a heavy marble top, without legs and with cantilevered arms, was made by a wrought-iron artist from Uruguay now living in Toronto. He specializes in large-scale forged iron and wrought-iron work. His forte is in bending and shaping steel bars up to one inch thick, much heavier than what most wrought iron workers can handle—a necessary skill in creating Baroque style architectural components such as balcony and window guards, gates and railing (see image to the right).

16' Long Dining Table Base with Cantilevered Arms and No Legs
16' Long Dining Table Base with Cantilevered Arms and No Legs | Source

In an industrial park in suburban Toronto, a workshop tucked inside a large brick building has been producing period style plaster components for architects and high-end custom home builders for almost a hundred years. They are different from their world-famous counterpart in Chicago which only produces smaller decorative plaster components. This company in Canada also constructs and installs large-scale plaster domes and vaulted ceilings. The ceiling shown below was decorated by this company using plaster components produced from moulds that were from the 1920s.

Georgian Style Plaster-Molding Decorated Ceiling
Georgian Style Plaster-Molding Decorated Ceiling | Source

The Future of Traditional Building Crafts

Canada, with only 36 million people living in an area of 3.85 million square miles, is a small market for talents such as these. Unless they also promote their skills and products south of the border, the home market really cannot keep them as busy as they would like to be. The peaceful, cosmopolitan environment of Toronto and the Canadian universal health care system are the reasons why they want to stay.

For those of us who are fortunate enough to work with them, Toronto is a treasure trove of talent. A database should be set up so that the best of the traditional craftsmen are searchable by architects, custom home builders and end-users. Now that McMansions and contemporary stacked-box architecture constitute the bulk of custom home construction, the market for their talents has diminished somewhat. With sympathetic and vigorous support from like-minded individuals, their crafts should flourish in the years to come.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)