When Henry Petroski and his wife, Catherine, bought a summer home in Arrowsic in the late 1990s, they began a long journey of discovery. He wanted to know everything he could about the property.

With Petroski’s background, this is not surprising. He is a professor of engineering and history at Duke University and a prolific author whose topics have included “The Pencil” and “The Toothpick.” It is part of his nature to wonder how this home on the Kennebec River came to be.

In “The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors,” Petroski creates a relationship with a man he would never meet: Bob Phinney, who designed and built the house in the early 1950s. Petroski marvels at the care Phinney gave to nailing in each piece of knotty pine in the house, with the nails evenly spaced in perfect alignment. He studies the efficiency of design in the windows, whose frames were made with dimensional lumber and no excess trim. He praises the precision of each handmade cut, so no filler is needed where two pieces of lumber meet. He wonders how Phinney raised the heavy roof beams on a house that shows every sign of being built by one person with no help from power equipment. He admires the 16 doors, handmade with the same knotty pine on the walls, held together with Z-shaped bracing.

Not everything in the house is perfect. When originally constructed, the house had a low-peaked, almost flat roof that was not ideal in a place with heavy snows. Some later changes and additions were not done with Bob Phinney’s attention to detail.

Petroski conducts his exploration of the house without removing a board or a screw.

He talks with neighbors and with the builder’s heirs, who share their memories of the house over the years and of other houses that Bob Phinney built. He also studies town records and other writings.

The book travels beyond the house. He covers the geology and geography of that section of midcoast Maine, offering a history of water-powered mills that were once located nearby. Because one of the attributes of the house built on the river is the opportunity to watch ships heading to and from Bath Iron Works, Petroski includes a chapter on the history of shipbuilding in Bath.

With a less skillful writer, this barrage of details could become mind-numbing. But Petroski, who has spent his adult life learning how and explaining why man-made products succeed and fail, manages to pass on his enthusiasm for this minutia to his readers.

Photographs taken by Catherine Petroski and given to the Petroskis by friends and neighbors complete the tale.

People who have lived in houses from the 1950s, when knotty pine was a major fashion trend, will have an additional attraction to this book. Any reader, however, will be able to enjoy how Petroski has created a picture of a man by looking at the work of that man’s hands.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living in Cape Elizabeth. Contact him at 767-2297 or

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