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Some California Indian tribes had considerable skill in woodworking before the Spanish came to California. The Chumash people who lived along the Santa Barbara Channel of the Pacific Ocean were fine boat-builders. The boats they made from wood, using stone tools, were large enough to hold 10 or 12 people, and were sea-worthy. The California Indians also carved wooden utensils.

The first metal woodworking tools (axes, saws, adzes) were brought from Mexico by the padres. The padres also brought skilled carpenters to teach the Indians how to use these tools. The Indians were quick to learn these skills.

History has not recorded the names or backgrounds of many of the craftsmen who came from Mexico to California in the early years. We do know that Father Serra went to Mexico City in 1773 to plead the needs of the missions with the Spanish viceroy governing there. He asked that carpenters be sent to California, and that they be given the same pay and rations as the soldiers. Serra particularly wanted married carpenters who would bring their families with them.

Most mission buildings were made of adobe bricks, but there had to be supports for the roofs. For this, huge wooden beams were used as ceiling rafters and corbels (supports extending from the walls). Mission carpenters shaped these wooden beams with axes and adzes.

Timber was scarce at many of the missions, which were situated near the coast where there were few large trees. Some missions had a source of lumber nearby, but others had to bring tree trunks from 40 or 45 miles away. They hauled the wood on carretas, wooden carts with wooden wheels, pulled by oxen or donkeys. The width of the church sanctuary at the mission often depended on how tall the trees were that were available for making rafters.

Pine, sycamore, and oak were used for rafters in the southern missions. The church at Mission San Luis Rey has a dome with a wooden cupola (smaller dome) made of pine wood. This is the only one of the 21 missions to have a wooden cupola atop the church. The logs for this cupola were floated 20 miles down the river from the Palomar Mountains.

The 28 rafter beams at Mission San Miguel, in central California, were each cut from a single sugar pine tree. These trees had been hauled 40 miles down from the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west. For the missions further north, redwood was the most popular wood. The ceiling of Mission San Francisco de Asís still has its original redwood beams and planks.

Some mission churches had balconies that stretched across the back of the church. These balconies were constructed of wood.

Nails were in short supply at the missions.  Instead, carpenters often used rawhide strips to hold pieces of wood together.

By the early 1800s, all of the basic hand tools now in use for woodworking were available to the mission carpenters. At first logs were sometimes used after stripping off the bark, without even splitting them. Later, whipsaws were used.  These large saws were operated by two men, one on the ground and one perched on a beam of the saw. Sometimes a pit was dug out and the lower man stood in the pit while the upper man was on ground level. The men moved the saw blade back and forth between them. Beams could be cut from heavy logs with the use of the whipsaw.

Much of the furniture used in the missions was made by the mission carpenters.  They made bed frames, benches, chests, tables and chairs. At first this furniture was very simple in design. As the carpenters became more skilled in the use of metal woodworking tools, they were able to decorate the furniture with carvings.

Some of the fanciest carving was done on furnishings for the church. The pulpit, where the padre stood to deliver his sermon to the congregation, was like a box attached to the wall of the church. The padre climbed a small set of stairs to get to the pulpit. The pulpit was often decorated with carvings or paintings. A small canopy roof over the pulpit, also attached to the wall, was likewise decorated. The pulpit in the church at Mission San Buenaventura is one of the finest examples of mission carving.

The interior of the church was always decorated as much as possible with paintings and statues. Some statues were carved by Indian wood carvers.

As mission carpenters’ skills grew, they made handles for metal tools from the blacksmith shop. The first plows had forked tree trunks for the handles. Later, handles were crafted by the carpenters. Mission carpenters also made coffins for the burials of padres or soldiers.

Some carpentry work that has survived the years are the wooden doors on some of the original mission buildings. The doors at the missions were important, and were often carved with a special design. A favored design was called the “River of Life.” Pairs of wavy lines were carved from top to bottom of the door. This was an Indian design, a reminder that life is not always good and not always bad, but that life just goes on, like a river.

Though most of the missions were near the coast, the padres did not encourage boat building. There was one ship built at a mission. This was at Mission San Gabriel in 1830, just a few years before the missions were secularized (taken from the Catholic Church). A 99-ton schooner named the Guadalupe was built at the mission. When it was completed, the ship was taken apart and hauled in pieces to the harbor at San Pedro. There it was reassembled and launched. It sailed to San Blas in Baja California with a load of mission goods.

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