We finished a job in Alabama this week. The last trip was to complete this porch.
We had a little truck trouble getting there, but in the end we got the porch up in 2 1/2 days. Not bad, considering the roof was already on and we had 3" of clearance to work with.
The posts and plates were 12" x 12" cypress. Heavy. I should say Very Heavy. The scarf joints looked really good. The sticks are massive but the scale looks right from the entrance. The porch is 72' long and has 6" x 10" arched braces. Put together with hand made, riven and tapered heart pine pegs.
Rich made 50 pegs in under 5 hours on the shaving horse, which is not too bad considering how dry the wood is.
I'll try to take some photos of the porch after construction is complete and the stone is laid on the front of the house. Hopefully we will return for the barbecue that the owner plans for the completion party.
We finished a job in Alabama this week. The last trip was to complete this porch.
Folks sometimes ask why timber framers place an evergreen bough on the peak of the frame after a raising. The short answer--tradition. But I'll take a stab at the long answer, since there isn't much information out there about this tradition.
"Topping off" a new frame is a practice that has been around for hundreds of years. It's the act of placing a bough on the highest peak of a newly completed frame. The bough is always an evergreen. I have used pine, cedar, magnolia, and even a discarded Christmas tree.
Ask ten timber framers about topping off the frame and you'll get ten slightly different answers. But the common thread is that the whetting bush is placed as a symbol of thanksgiving and respect. Some say it gives thanks to the forest for providing timber for a new home. Some say it gives thanks for a safe raising. A few simply say it's "good luck."
Whatever their beliefs are, topping off the frame is a special time for each person. For the folks starting life in a new home, it can be almost like a dedication ceremony. For the carpenters who built the frame, it's a chance to stand back and see the fruit of their labor. For everyone present, it's a moment of celebration.
For me personally, placing a whetting bush is a chance to stop and smell the roses. Finishing a job well done is satisfying on a basic human level. Then there's the appreciation I feel for my trade and my fellow carpenters, and the thankfulness I feel for a safe raising and for our renewable resource of timber.
The adze is a great tool for creating smooth reductions quickly, or for simply making a flat area on a log. Framers used to drop joists into their beam pockets upside-down and adze them flush with the top of the beam. Then they would flip them over and drop them in rightside-up, and they would be flush.
Here's a video of Brad and Jim adzing joists the old-school way, and it illustrates the importance of dropping the joist into the pocket first.
Hand hewn is a term that is widely misused today to refer to almost anything with a rustic appearance. The real meaning is actually quite limited in application. Hand hewn refers to a timber that has been converted from a log using only axes -- most commonly a felling axe and a broad axe.
Most people who are "hewing" timbers today are using either a power planer to create a textured surface or are adzing sawn timbers -- both of these methods make an "interesting" texture, but are completely inappropriate for historic work, as the tool marks are completely different than what you see on authentically hewn timber. It is important to note that each hewer leaves behind subtle, tell-tale tool marks that allow an observant person to play detective and determine among other things whether the carpenter was left or right handed, which direction along the timber he was moving as he hewed, how high off the ground the log was, the size of the different axes used, whether one person hewed the entire timber or one man went up one side, while another man went down the other, whether two faces were hewed before the log was rolled, or whether one face was hewn and the log rolled each time.
I am sure that is much more information than most people care to know about how a carpenter swung his axe on a particular day a couple hundred years ago. Nevertheless, it is valuable information when it comes to understanding how a particular building was built; especially in terms of documenting existing timbers to better understand the original techniques or when we need to repair, restore, or replace damaged or missing timbers in a way that is consistent with the original means and methods. It is entirely possible when replacing a timber, to study other contemporary pieces from the same building and then hew the replacement the same way the original was done, reproducing the act of conversion as well as the product. Not only do I believe there is cultural value in this knowledge and skill--keeping alive and in some cases rediscovering the subtleties of a traditional building skill that mostly died--it is simply the most accurate process for reproducing a hewn timber. While I understand that such a level of detailed care is not appropriate for many jobs, occasionally it probably is – when accurately replicating parts of the original process is an important part of the clients program. Or when close just doesn't cut it – such as work done on cultural treasures.
Even on the more everyday projects, I still think it is important to recognize authenticity and to value it enough to avoid cheap imitation.
Axes are the subject of this installment of tools of the trade -- where I choose one tool or family of tools that we use in our timber framing work and talk a little about it. I am excited to write about this in particular, as I have a real soft spot for axes (as you can see).
Axes come in all shapes and sizes, from small 1 1/2 pound hatchets to large broadaxes with a 14" edge. While we don't use every one of the axes pictured, we do use many of them regularly in our work of building and restoring traditional timber frames. While we also use a few modern tools (I'll talk about them in a later blog), the foundation of our craftsmanship is our skill with the tools that were traditionally used to make timber frames. These traditional tools still work just as well today as they did when Master Hugh Herland built Westminster Hall, provided the carpenter has the training and skill to efficiently and accurately put them to use.
As for axes, we reach for some of these when we're cutting timber frames to rough out joinery such as housings, reductions, or tenons. You can remove a lot of wood in a hurry with a sharp axe if you know what you're doing. Hand axes and hatchets are often used for various trimming tasks, such as pointing pegs. We use some of the larger axes when we're working on a job that calls for hand hewn timbers. For that process, a felling axe is used to score the logs (removing the bulk of the waste wood) and then a broad axe is used to "take it to the line", smoothing the timber and creating the distinctive pattern of a (correctly) hand-hewn timber. That texture cannot be duplicated by modern techniques - if you want it to look right, you have to do it the right way.
These are some of our favorite tools to use here at Holder Brothers Timber Frames. Stay tuned for more Tools of the Timber Framing Trade ....
Last month I travelled to the UK to take part in a unique carpentry exercise. A dozen or so carpenters from the UK, Europe, and America came together with the goal of building a wooden structure strictly with 12th century tools and methods. Knowing what the rules were, we had left at home all of our framing squares, tape measures, spirit levels, power tools, pencils, and calculators, and brought instead our plumb bobs, dividers, chisels, and axes.
We met at a farm called Cressing Temple in Essex, England. In the 1200s this farm was owned and managed by the Knights Templar, who built two huge timber framed barns on the property. These barns, which are still standing, are called the Wheat Barn and the Barley Barn.
These barns are truly magnificent to behold. I felt small when I first walked into them. The locals refer to the Wheat Barn as "the finest 12th century timber building in Europe." That may be a bit of hometown pride talking, but it is hard to dispute that while you are standing in it. It is 70% original, and now houses a museum with interactive displays and a viewing platform--a gargantuan steel structure that resembles a MacDonald's playground. But it is nice to be able to get a closer look at the roof framing for those of us that do not travel with scaffolding.
The Barley Barn, built in 1220, was the inspiration for the structure we were to build. It has more repairs than the Wheat Barn, but is equally as impressive. The floor is open (no museums) and that makes it more striking and photogenic. Several years ago, a man named Adrian Gibson first noticed the geometric relationship between framing members. Adrian passed away in 2006, but his discovery has inspired Laurie Smith, a Welsh scholar, to continue to investigate the use of geometry in building design.
I was there to see for myself how (if?) a building could be built in three dimensions using only geometry to locate framing members. It also seemed like a good chance to clear my head and get back to basics--plumb, level, and square. The mysterious Daisy Wheel, sort of a medieval protractor, seemed like it could be added to that short list, but I had to see it work firsthand.
In next weeks installment, we get into some serious hewing, and blood is spilled.