One of the hidden gems of Derry NH is the 200+ year old Taylor Sawmill. It’s one of the last surviving and working up and down sawmills in the region and likely the country.
Powered by a large water wheel, this mill still operates for demonstrations and the occasional bit of restoration work. It’s amazing to see and hear this mill in action. There is a distinctive noise as the saw makes each powerful stroke like clockwork, and it’s almost scary as you can feel some of the vibration through the floor and feel the air move as this massive timber frame saw blade oscillates up and down.
The blade itself is held in tension by a massive timber frame. You can think of it as a giant frame saw. The blades could be changed based on the type of materials being sawn and desired finish quality results. In the video below you’ll see the mill operating at one of its slowest speeds. Each blade was set and sharpened by hand. As the saw cut the timber, the ratcheting mechanism (driven by the massive geared wheel in the bottom left of the photo below) advanced the entire timber into the blade via a moving carriage.
The mill itself sits on land in Derry NH purchased by Robert Taylor in 1799. The mill started operating in 1805 and had a fairly long service life. The mill site and 71 acres around it were purchased in 1939 by Ernest Ballard. By that time the original mill itself had been scrapped. Ballard eventually found a similar up and down sawmill in Sandown NH and moved it to the Taylor site. Ernest and his wife spent several years restoring and rebuilding that sawmill. He had to make the missing parts and track down a viable water wheel. Thankfully he persevered and was able to complete this project. In 1953 he donated the mill and 71 acres around it to the state of NH, thus creating Ballard State Forrest.
Back in 2010 I visited the mill with a class of North Bennet Street School students and took several photos and videos which I have edited together into a YouTube video that you can watch here which includes the water wheel and saw cutting a timber.
It was an incredible sight to see, and a great place to have a picnic or do some kayaking. If you are in the area, please check it it out. You can learn more about this mill and plan your visit by visiting it’s official web page here and the Wikipedia entry here.
Back in December 2013, I topped off the Mr. Fusion, warmed up the Flux Capacitor and headed back to the 1780s for our annual pilgrimage to Colonial Williamsburg Virginia. During this visit I wanted to check out some of the frame saws my friends are using and what they thought about the saws ahead of building my own.
My first stop was that Anthony Hay Cabinetmaker’ Shop…
Hanging on the wall was a nice two man frame saw and a smaller veneer saw you may recall seeing in an episode of The Woodwright’s Shop. (Season 6, Episode 9 — Free Preview Here on YouTube )
In talking to my friend Ed Wright, the master Harpsichord Maker in the Hay Shop, he showed me some of the finer details of the larger saw shown below.
The saw’s size and details were derived from Roubo’s plates. The hardware was forged by Colonial Williamsburg’s Blacksmiths, not to be confused with Williamsburg Blacksmiths up in Williamsburg MA (I bought my hold fasts and log dogs from the former, and barn hardware from the latter and I am very happy with both). You can see the forged eye bolt below, passing through a threaded square section and pressing against a metal wear plate.
The saw deviates from the Roubo plate a bit with the offset turned handles shown below. (Check out Don’s post here — which includes a copy of the plate I am referring to and is related to the recent LAP reprint of Roubo on Marquetry which includes a nice translation of this plate and Don’s experiments with his own reproduction saw) Ed said that the turned handles worked well over the years even if they give the saw a slightly more modern (Say 19th century) appearance compared to the simple carved volutes in the Roubo print. If you were to use this saw all day long vigorously sawing fine veneers I could see wanting this sort of turned handle and it seems to be popular in other reproductions I’ve seen. While the carved volutes seem like they’d be tougher on the modern sawyers’ hands I suspect the likely simple volutes were contoured to fit in the sawyers hand and would have forced him to have a lighter grip on the saw which might have allowed him to react more directly to the wood and make fine adjustments as he goes. From examining Figure 10 of the Roubo print it looks to me like the sawyer on the right has a very light grip and is sighting down the saw to gently steer it on an appropriate course as the the left sawyer is sighting as well as pulling the saw through the cut. Don’s translation talks about the advantages of sawing on a slight incline and lifting the saw on the return stroke to clear sawdust and not bind the saw. Sawing with a second person can be like having a dance partner — if you are in sync and can communicate well verbally and non verbally you have a shot, if you are out of sync things can go south quick as the narrow blade is unforgiving and wants to follow the path of least resistance.
The saw blade is held in place via pins that are held in tension, thus tensioning the blade. The blade shown here is quite wide, though not quite as wide as the ~4″ Roubo suggested. When using this type of saw you need to be careful not to over tension it as you can deform/stretch the holes in the blade. The impression I got was that this saw was a little slow cutting at times. A lot of folks online have experimented with saw tooth geometry and similar variations. Adam Cherubini had an interesting and somewhat controversial post regarding his experiences with frame saws which you can check out here. (Be sure to read the comments as several other folks who have been experimenting in this space weighed in).
When using a frame saw to re-saw planks or make veneers you can see some of the telltale marks of the tool as it slices through the figured wood. (See below). In general the blade wants to follow the path of least resistance, so cutting in with another saw to start as Roubo describes or using a ‘kerfing plane’ as Tom Fidgen suggests are great ways to better your chance of success. If you’ve seen any of the many great projects to come out of the Hay Shop you’ll have no doubt Ed and the others in the shop have mastered many uses of the frame saw.
My next stop was to visit Master Carpenter Garland Wood in the Joiner’s shop. Every time I visit I want to pull up a bench and take up residence in the shop as another member of the crew. The benches, tools and projects all feel like home.
In the Joiner’s shop Garland showed me the frame saws he had on hand in the shop. Shown below is a nice felloe saw with its narrow blade used to cut curves. In the wheelwright’s shop you can see some larger versions of this style of saw. The example below has nice delicate lines, a simple volute detail, and nicely wrought wing nuts on both ends of the saw. In the foreground of the photo below you can see a tiny bit of a simple bow saw which we’ll talk about in a future post.
There are very few places you can drop by and pick the brains of talented folks who share the same level of enthusiasm for traditional woodworking and sharing the craft with others — Colonial Williamsburg is one of those places. I’m thankful to Ed and Garland for their time and advice. I look forward to putting some of it to use in building my own frame saw.
P.S. I’m of the mindset that we still have more to learn about these saws and look forward to experimenting a bit with my own. I ordered the first production frame saw kit blade from Bad Axe Toolworks based on a saw from Tom Fidgen’s Unplugged Woodshop and will be posting about that in the future.
No visit to Old Salem Museums and Gardens would be complete without a visit to and guided tour of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (aka MESDA).
Make sure to head over to the museum first and schedule a guided tour early — as they fill up fast. I learned about this museum from Glen Huey’s book ‘Furniture in the Southern Style’. Just as he said, the museum staff were extremely friendly and knowledgeable. After my tour and talking to the guides, I was invited back to see some of the other rooms. I had a great time and made some new friends.
As someone who grew up in the Northeast and New England it was great to see some more of the vernacular pieces from the South and be able to compare and contrast the details with those of my own work. I hope to tackle some Southern style pieces soon. The museum also has a great research library and a staff who enjoy sharing what they know — I look forward to doing some research there in the future.
When lunch time came around we headed over to the Tavern at Old Salem. They had a newly revamped menu which included a lot of southern favorites and fresh local produce. I had a great pulled pork sandwich and warm German Potato salad — the best I ever had that was not made by family. I come from a long line of German ancestors, some of which were brewers, so much like the woodworking gene, I’m pretty sure a lot more things are hereditary. Love of beer, bratwurst, bacon, expressed construction in woodworking etc. I also think that German language has a nice sound to it — so that one must be subconscious as at a conscious level I don’t get it….
After lunch we had fun exploring the town’s many shops, houses and gardens.
Below on the blog is a gallery of some of the more interesting architectural highlights from my walk through the village:
You can easily spend a full day visiting Old-Salem and MESDA. In the evening things get pretty quiet in the historic area so plan your trip accordingly, but there are lots of other things to see in the surrounding area in the evening.
If you’d like to plan a visit to Old Salem Museum and Gardens you can check out their website here.
This summer I had the chance to take a week long road trip and travel around to a lot of historic sites in Virginia and North Carolina. One of my favorite stops along the way was my visit to Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston-Salem NC.
I first learned about Old Salem while having dinner with Thomas Jefferson at Colonial Williamsburg. (No joke).
I also heard good things about it from Glen Huey’s book ‘Furniture in the Southern Style’ which draws upon some pieces from MESDA (The Museum of Southern Decorative Arts)
During our visit, my wife and I had a great time exploring the historic area and visiting the many shops and buildings.
As always, the most exciting part for me was visiting with all the craftspeople who work in the various historic trades.
In the Single Brother’s House there were a series of workshops housing various trades that were vital to the community.
I felt right at home in the Joiner’s shop and if my wife would have let me I would have spent my day at the workbench talking to people….
The workshop had a great assortment of jigs, fixtures, tools and unusual benches. Look at the great wedged tenons on the bench above. (Also check out the floating shoulder vise and skirt board with dog holes on the bench further up. Looks like they did not see as much use, but an interesting idea)
The single brother’s house was where young men of a certain age could learn the craft and ply their trade before they got married and moved on to their own homes. In the shoemaker’s shop we had a great chat with a shoemaker who was making a leather bucket which was one of the many other wares a shoemaker would make for the town.
In the potter’s workshop you could see on display a wide variety of earthenware dishes, cups, and other ceramic objects. Most interesting to me were the ceramic tile shingles which you can see in the restored village.
Other trades on display were the gunsmith, apothecary, tailor, tinsmith and gardeners.
If you’d like to learn more about the craftsmen and women who work in the historic trades at Old Salem you can read more here.
If you are ever in the Winston-Salem area I highly recommend visiting Old Salem and checking out the workshops.
Most people relax on their summer vacation. After a day on a beach I get antsy and need to keep moving, exploring and building. For the second year in a row I spent my vacation last week sharing my passion for the craft by teaching the 8 day intensive that is part of the semester long ‘Traditional Building’ class I teach at the Boston Architectural College (BAC) in association with the North Bennett Street School.
The class is part of the low residency Master’s Degree in Historic Preservation at the BAC. In this 8 week long class, 7 weeks are online with a series of interactive lectures/discussions and traditional coursework and one 8 day week is spent with the entire class in Boston participating in a hands on format. This works great for students who need to juggle work, family and other obligations while also seeking a quality degree on the way to a new or expanded career path.
On the first full day of class we took a walking tour of the city with Steve O’Shaughnessy (NBSS Preservation Carpentry Instructor) visiting several historic house museums and notable structures in Boston. Having worked for Historic New England, Steve is an excellent tour guide with a lot of great information to share.
The second day I spent the morning teaching the basics of traditional woodworking — using a smoothing plane, molding planes, drilling, chiseling and other basic bench work.
In the afternoon I taught the class about window restoration, window reproduction and condition assessment reports. We then went out to do some field work at the historic Fenway Studios.
Next up we visited the Saugus Ironworks which is a National Historic Park. Senior Park Ranger Curtis White was on hand to guide us through this landmark site and enthusiastically share with us his latest research about historic ironwork. (He’s a great resource and if you ever visit the park and run into him, tell him I sent you. )
Robert Adam (Who started the Preservation Carpentry program at NBSS and is a noted preservation consultant) lectured about historic hardware and fasteners.
Robert’s brings a portion of his comprehensive collection of historic hardware and fasteners allowing students to closely examine these items up close and differentiate fine details.
Sara Chase, a nationally known paint analysis expert and preservation consultant (+ advisor to the NBSS Preservation Carpentry Program) taught a session on traditional paints and their manufacture.
During this hands on session students not only learned how to identify various kinds of historic paints they also had the chance to mix their own paints in a traditional way and try their hand at applying them.
After a visit to the MFA in Boston, next up was NBSS Preservation Carpentry Instructor Rich Friberg to teach the basics of Timber Framing.
Rich brings with him a deep well of knowledge and a passion for teaching this craft.
Students had a chance to layout and cut mortise and tenon joints….
try out some joinery on the large scale with traditional timber framing tools…
and fit the joints they made.
The completed 8′ x 10′ sill shown above would be the first major element of a modest sized barn or outbuilding.
Preservation Mason Matt Gillard (owner of Colonial Brick Works) and Matt Blanchette gave a great lecture on traditional masonry tools, techniques and evolution.
This hands on session allowed students to mix traditional mortar, clean bricks, re-point, repair, lay brick and joint mortar.
At the end of the week the students also shared their presentations and research proposals. To celebrate the end of this very intensive week the Director of the Historic Preservation (HP) program Robert Ogle presented each student with an ‘I survived the HP intensive week 2013 @ the BAC’ Tee Shirt to commemorate the occasion. This well earned reward is one of three major intensives they will need to survive in order to complete the program.
Given that we all survived this very intensive week and you survived reading this marathon blog post, I think it’s time for all of us to rest up and prep for next year. 🙂
You can learn more about this class and the program here or go direct to the video here.
Have you ever felt like your life was just too hectic? Do you want to get away from the world and relax?
If so, then you can imagine how Thomas Jefferson felt as the 3rd President of the United States. Jefferson was a man who enjoyed his privacy. After decades of public service as a congressman, founding father, diplomat, Governor, Vice President and President, folks from around the world regularly called on him — including a seemingly never ending stream of gawkers and tourists peering in his windows.
This made it hard for him to find peace and quiet to pursue his diverse set of interests and be alone with his family. While President he found the time to design a retreat villa at Poplar Forest in what is now Forest VA. Based on the classical designs of European retreat villas and lessons learned from earlier architectural projects like Monticello and the University of Virginia, Poplar Forest is considered to be Jefferson’s apex in terms of design.
Jefferson enjoyed his time at Poplar Forest during the last 20 years of his life where he was able to ‘seek the solitude of a hermit’. The drive up to the mansion gives you a taste of how secluded this house was designed to be, though for the lucky few who visited, that first glimpse of the house at it appeared ahead of them must have been breathtaking. The house also gives an interesting look into the private life of this very public figure.
During Jefferson’s time the house was largely unknown to the outside world. After his death the house and a portion of the lands were left to his grandson Francis W. Eppes who lived their briefly before moving on to Florida where he went on to a successful political career. Given its semi-remote location, and the fact that the house did not function well as a more modern house much of it has survived and is now a museum.
The museum and the non profit foundation that backs it have been working on restoring the house to how it looked at the end of Jefferson’s time there. Fire, later owners and weather have all taken their toll over the years, but the craftsmen and scholars who work on it have been doing an excellent job of bringing the house back to its earlier grandeur. With each visit there is always something new to see.
Jefferson loved the idea of having a flat decked roof that one could stroll out onto and refined the details of how to accomplish this several times over the years with varying degrees of sucess. You can see other examples of how he attempted this at Monticello and Montpelier. The model above shows how the decking sat atop a series of small ridges that were shingles and funneled water out to a series of spouts you can see in the photo below. It will be interesting to see how well it ages.
This wing of ‘offices’ as they were called were designed to house the kitchen, store room, laundry and smoke house all of which served the main house. It also hid the logistics from Jefferson and his guests — he could stroll out on top of this wing and not see the busy servants going about their business below.
Beyond the building architecture and historical connections, the home is also notable for its stunning landscape design. From the front of the house the wing of ‘offices’ is barely visible. A combination of trees, mounds, bushes, and other natural elements allowed the house to project a sense of symmetry and scale that made it look like a grand European retreat Villa. Over the years Jefferson continued to refine his vision and expand the site even in the face of mounting debts.
In the basement of the main house is a series of displays that describe the painstaking process the restoration craftsmen have been going through to restore the house over the past 20+ years.
I had a great time hanging out with my friend David Clauss who is a Senior Restoration Craftsman for Poplar Forest. Much like Montpelier I love visiting Poplar Forest since much of the restoration work was done recently and is ongoing — so I feel right at home.
Dave was kind enough to also show me around the restoration workshop which is well equipped. Using traditional tools and materials, and the occasional time saving of some power equipment the craftsmen have restored many aspects of the house — from window sash and doors to the massive skylight in the central room and elaborate moldings.
If you’d like to learn more about Poplar Forest you can watch a recent episode of the Woodwright’s Shop where Roy visited Poplar Forest here.
As a preservation carpenter and traditional joiner I spend a lot of time trying to retrace the steps of early craftsmen. While the fruits of their labors survive in pockets — the buildings and pieces that survive; the places where they worked and plied their trades often did not. Thus we often have to look for tool marks, log books, letters and newspapers to piece together the life and work of individual craftsmen.
This summer my wife and I had the opportunity to visit the Winterthur Museum and Gardens in Delaware and visit the Dominy Clock and Furniture Shop exhibit which was an exceptional window in the life of an 18th and 19th century family of craftsmen.
The Dominy’s were a family of craftsmen from Easthampton New York — out on the east end of Long Island, not terribly far from where I grew up in West Islip, NY. Over the course of four generations and active from ~1750-1850 this family produced fine clocks and furniture pieces that were sold locally and in regional markets. The surviving pieces are now prized by collectors.
Beyond the body of their work the shop is notable for how intact it is. The shop and it’s contents were cataloged and moved from Long Island in 1957 then reassembled and put on display at Winterthur starting in 1960.
The tools, benches, templates, partially completed pieces, log books and parts of the original shop building survived together.
It looks as if that last Dominy walked off the job and and could be expected to come back and resume work at any moment.
From the great wheel lathe, to the benches and shave-horse they had a sizable and well laid out shop for the time period. The tools were a mixture of locally made and imported tools.
I was fascinated by the tool marks, storage racks and modifications similar to things I’ve done in my own work.
In addition there is also the diminutive Clock Shop which is packed full of metal working tools needed to craft intricate gears and other clock component.
Written to go with the exhibit was Charles Hummel’s seminal book ‘With Hammer in Hand’ (1968). The book can be hard to find and on the pricey side as it has long since been out of print, but is worth every cent. I finally obtained a copy this spring as part of the EAIA’s annual fundraiser auction. The book explores the family, the tools, and the work they did in a way that was enjoyable to read. It paints a vivid picture of what life was like for these skilled craftsmen.
If you’d like to plan your own visit to see the Dominy exhibit you can learn more about it here.
If you’d like to visit on a budget, you can view some online video tours of the gallery below as Roy, Norm and even Bob Vila have segments about the shop.
Roy Underhill Visits the Dominy Shop (towards the end of this clip)
Norm Abram visits the shop and builds a replica clock at the New Yankee Workshop
On a recent trip down to Virginia, my wife and I finally got a chance to see Gunston Hall in Lorton, VA. This 18th century mansion was the home of George Mason — a patriot, statesman and founding father often best known as the ‘Father of the Bill of Rights.’
The plantation sits on what became known as ‘Mason’s Neck’ in Northern Virginia on the Potomac River. This handsome brick home was under construction from 1755-1759 and was a formidable mansion in its day. The exterior is brick with distinctive quoins in the the four exterior corners exude a sense of permanence and have helped the home outlast most of it’s contemporary wood clad buildings.
The detailed interiors were designed by a young William Buckland who went on to design the interiors of other famous homes including the Hammond-Harwood House, Mount Airy (Richmond, VA), and the Prince William County Courthouse.
Buckland worked with the very talented carver William Bernard Sears to fit out the interior of the house. The interior combined elements of rococo, chinoiserie, and gothic styles which was an unusual contrast when compared to the simple decoration favored in Virginia homes at the time. Although chinoiserie was popular in Britain at the time, Gunston Hall is the only known house to have this decoration in colonial America. [click here for more info — previous sentence paraphrased from this Wiki entry]
Unfortunately the museum does not allow photography inside the mansion, so you will have to take my word for it, but the interior details and carvings are exquisite — from the fretwork in the yellow ochre dining room which imparts a very asian feel, to the gilded rococo baufats and carved egg and dart details on the doors and mantel in the ‘Paladian room’. From what little remains of Buckland and Sears’ original work you can see what gifted craftsmen they were.
Based on architectural and archeological research, conservators and preservation craftsmen have done an excellent job preserving and restoring the home to much of it’s earlier prominence — from carvings, to wall papers and hangings, to the chinoiserie. Much of this restoration work is fairly recent and the house is deliberately spartan in the areas where they do not have reasonable evidence to say what was there originally. (A refreshing take compared to some other properties wherein the preservationists and curators filled in the blanks as they went and thus blurred the line between was was really there and what is an educated guess on how to interpret a room)
On the rear or riverside of the home you will see the allee of boxwoods that date back to the time of George Mason and may be the last extant example of a once imported Boxwood species no longer found in England. The rear porch was also quite distinctive with it’s Gothic arches.
If you are interested in architecture, woodwork, wood carving or early American history I highly recommend a visit to Gunston Hall. It takes about half day to see it all and explore the grounds and outbuildings. You can learn more about this historic site here.
Tool chests come in all shapes and sizes — from the hand built traditional joiner’s chest, to a mail order gentleman’s chest, to the plastic fantastic junk you find in big box stores today. Depending on what kind of work you do the number of tools you have in your chest may vary, but at some point I think all traditional craftsmen (and craftswomen) wonder how many tools they can actually fit inside their primary chest.
How many tools can you fit into your tool chest? Don’t worry, if you want to cram in a few extra items before we start counting I’m willing to wait.
How many tools did you to fit in your chest? How about 500 tools?! That’s right, the tool chest shown here once belonged to Alexander Forbes who was a cabinet maker and Pullman car builder from Cleveland Ohio contained over 500 traditional woodworking tools.
This tool chest is currently on display at the Winterthur Museum and Gardens in Delaware and is part of the 400 Years of Massachusetts Furniture display at the museum.
On the wall behind the chest you will see over 100 tools on display from this chest that dates to about 1880. The tools look like they are in exceptionally good shape and would be right at home on my own workbench. This set is representative of the kinds of tools a cabinetmaker would use to make many of the pieces on display in this exhibit.
Don’t let the painted and time worn exterior finish fool you, the interior of the chest was well laid out and carefully constructed with mahogany tills proudly inlaid and showing off the woodworking skills of Alexander Forbes. He apparently also had incredible spacial relation skills to fit that many tools into that fairly average sized chest and to it in such a way that the tills etc do not get beat up in the process. Having said that I assume he likely only crammed all the tools in there for longer trips; I would think for efficiency purposes he’d likely partially unpack/deploy tools just to make enough room in the chest to access all the tools he’d need on a daily basis.
The display also went to great lengths to explain how craftsmen learned their trade, how they used various woods and how many pieces were constructed.
Prominently on display was the partial dressing table shown above which was put together by Steve Brown who is an instructor in the Cabinet and Furniture Making program at the North Bennet Street School in Boston. This carefully constructed sample piece concisely shows the progressive steps it took to make a piece like the period dressing table shown to the left of the tool-chest I’ve been admiring.
Moving beyond the intro, the display shows representative samples of ‘Boston’ style furniture in the collection and the wide variety of the objects created by Massachusetts Bay craftsmen during the last 400 years.
From simple utilitarian stools to high style chest pieces you get a feel for the design elements that representative of the work coming out of Boston and the surrounding area. You will need to visit the exhibit in person to fully experience the depth and variety of style I am talking about.
Beyond this exhibition which runs through October 6, 2013, there is a LOT more to see and explore at Winterthur. They offer several tours to parts of the house that are not part of the regular admission, including customized tours you can request, so I highly encourage you to schedule some tours of the other floors when you visit. In the fall I heard thy will also have an exhibit on the costumes of Downton Abbey which will be interesting to see along with all the great furniture, architectural elements (many rooms are furnished with the interior trim that was salvaged from historic homes around the country), and beautiful gardens.
If you’d like to learn more about Winterthur, please check out their website here. And if you’d like to learn more about ‘400 Years of Massachusetts Furniture’ which is a series of events throughout the year at a consortium of museums and cultural institutions you can learn more about it here. At the least you’ll learn how to efficiently pack tools in your tool chest….
A Joiner's Guide To Traditional Woodworking and Preservation