Category Archives: Portfolio

The thoughts one thinks while sawing a tree…

“The Oriental philosophy of contemplation involves forsaking all work; the European does his meditating while relaxing from work, but the American seems to think things out best while working. So the stone walls of New England may be thought of as monuments to the thoughts that occurred while they were being built, for those were the days of great decisions and profound planning. The thoughts one thinks while sawing a tree or making a stone wall are surprising. It is almost as if the mind becomes ashamed of the work the body is doing and starts doing a little “showing off” by itself. Lincoln said he did some of his deepest thinking while splitting rails. The plain farmer of two hundred years ago was weaving the fabric of a new nation and although there are no marble statues to his patriotism now, there are still his stone walls.” — Eric Sloane American Barns and Covered Bridges, 1954

Oak trees in the way of my barn...
Oak trees in the way of my barn…

I live on a heavily wooded street in New Hampshire that is lined with stone walls. As I pass them each day I think about what it took to clear all this land and build those walls. While most of the neighborhood is covered with second and third growth trees that were not actively managed, and new housing developments,  there are still a few pockets of small family farms with cleared farmland that looks like an idealistic painting of yesteryear and reminds us how this was all farmland about 100 years ago.  As the leaves changed this season I found it amusing to see tourists snapping pictures in front of some of these farms with their stone walls and weathered barns. In the book referenced above Sloane encouraged his readers to keep an eye out for early barns also made several interesting observations about stone walls. They were designed to keep animals in and not to keep humans out. When a wall fell over you had all the stones needed to rebuild it as opposed to a wooden fence that could have rotted away. I like the sense of inviting simplicity, using what you had on hand and building for the long term.

I recently set out to clear some trees out of my backyard and make room for a 12’x24′ timber framed shed/small barn to store extra wood and yard equipment. I’ve cleared about 35 trees so far, knocked off a bucket list item — taking down a full size tree with a felling axe, and still have a few more to go.

Felling oak trees
Felling oak trees

Safety Tip:

When working with large trees and high powered saw, make sure to ALWAYS wear the appropriate safety gear. Above you can see me wearing my steel toe boots, Kevlar chaps, eye protection, helmet with hearing protection and face shield and Kevlar reinforced gloves.  The chaps are like wearing an insulating blanket and rough to wear in the summer, but in cooler months they help you stay warm.

Limbing the tree
Limbing the tree

How do I cut down a larger tree?

I start by walking around the tree from all sides, sighting up at it to see what way it leans and were the mass is held by the limbs. I then mentally think about what direction I have enough space to drop to the tree without hitting houses, other trees, people or fences. With a plan in place I set about felling the tree. The process is much the same whether I use an axe or a chainsaw. I cut in at an angle on the side of the tree facing the way I want it to fall. I then make a horizontal cut to remove that wedge of wood. It should only be about 1/3 of the way through the tree. You want the intersection of those two cuts to land right on each other so you have a smooth hinging surface and a controlled drop.

90 Foot tall oak trees take a LOT of work to break down
90 Foot tall oak trees take a LOT of work to break down

I then come from behind the tree and make a horizontal cut until I leave about a 1.5″” wide hinge of wood that will help control the fall. This cut should be about 2″ above the bottom of the wedge cut (As seen in the photo below).  If done properly the tree should slowly start to fall over exactly where you want it. The tree shown here was a 90 foot tall oak, so when it hit the ground it shook the ground with an incredible thud — anything in it’s path will get crushed. When cutting a tree like this make sure you have a clear retreat path, usually 45 degree from the way you expected the tree to fall, that way you are not in the path of a falling or splitting tree or anything it kicks up.

Notch cut and hinge used for a controlled drop
Notch cut and hinge used for a controlled drop

Once on the ground I start removing all the limbs from the tree. I start with all the limbs that are not holding the trunk up off the ground to make room to better access the trunk. Any limbs or branches that are holding up the trunk are likely going to bind on your chainsaw if you are not careful. Being mindful of where the tree may move as you release that tension you can use a sharp axe to remove these limbs or careful wedge cuts that will not bind the saw. When doing this sort of work you need to be thinking about where the trunk is likely to fall after removing this limb, so you’ll want to mind your legs and feet.

Breaking down the de-limbed tree into firewood
Breaking down the de-limbed tree into firewood

Once the limbs are removed I break the tree trunk down into either firewood or whatever I am looking to use the wood for. These trees will be processed down into several projects — a few bowl blanks, a new base for my anvil, a few chopping benches for the shop, a stump to split firewood on and of course firewood. The incredible amount of brush and branches will be ground up into chips and distributed elsewhere on the property.

More Tips on cutting trees:

  • Try to cut tree during the colder months or winter as there will be less sap and thus less weight and cleaner cuts
  • Use plastic wedges when cutting a larger stump so that it does not bind on your saw’s bar and the wedge will not damage the chain
  • Use plastic or even larger metal wedges to help a cut tree (notched and ready to hinge) that is not falling. You can use a large mallet or beetle to drive in a wedge and help give it that little push it needs to start going over.
The result of a weekend of hard work
The result of a weekend of hard work

Even with all of the above information running through my head, and the sometimes backbreaking labor to break down these trees, there was still a lot of time to think. As I was doing the above work I was building the timber framed barn over and over again in my head, so by the time I actually get around to cutting the frame it will be like second nature. Unfortunately the snowy weather is creeping up on me fast, so it will be a race to see if I can get the shed put up this fall/winter or if it will get delayed until spring.

I’ll keep you posted.

Take care,
-Bill Rainford

Working with cut nails…

As a preservation carpenter and joiner my work regularly requires me to work work with a wide variety of cut nails. A lot of recent woodworking publications focus on cut nails appropriate for cabinetmaking and smaller projects, but that barely scratches the surface of what was still available if you know what you want and where to look.

From small projects requiring a few nails…

Brooklyn Tool and Craft bags of cut nails
Brooklyn Tool and Craft bags of cut nails

To larger jobs needing them in bulk…

Decorative wrought head cut nails used for wide pine flooring
Decorative wrought head cut nails used for wide pine flooring

You can still get cut nails, even galvanized steel cut nails from Tremont, the oldest remaining and most prolific cut nail maker that is still around.

Why do I want to use cut nails?

Cut nails offer several advantages over modern wire nails:

  • The chisel shape of the end of a cut nail helps to severe fibers as it is driven into the wood as opposed to wire nails that compress the wood around it
  • The wedge shaped profile and sharp edges that result from how the nail is made help the nail hold better when compared to wire nails
  • The distinctive square head, or decorative wrought head can be quite pleasing to the eye on new and old projects
  • Cut nails with the wrought head can be a cost effective alternative to blacksmith wrought nails for larger or less historic projects
  • Cut clinch nails can be clinched (bent over onto itself) which makes them a very effective fastener much like a large staple
  • For preservation or reproduction work it is important to get the small details right — including use of the correct period appropriate fasteners
Tremont Nail Display Board
Tremont Nail Display Board

All that sounds well and good, but is it worth the extra time and expense to track down these sometimes hard to find nails?

I’d say it’s hard to argue with good results, so let’s take a look at some common uses for cut nails. From simple traditional boxes and drawers…

Chisel box with cut nails
Chisel box with cut nails

To high style door pediments and architectural details..

Cut nails in a traditional door pediment
Cut nails in a traditional door pediment

To clinched nails in a reproduction door on an historic home…

Clinched cut nails in a period door reproduction
Clinched cut nails in a period door reproduction

To siding and trim details…

Cut nails in exterior siding and trim
Cut nails in exterior siding and trim

The cut nails add to the visual authenticity and given their superior holding abilities will also increase the longevity of the work.

Tips on working with cut nails:

  • Make sure the chisel end of the cut nail is set in across the grain thus severing it and not acting like a wedge
  • Start off slow with a couple of light taps before driving the nail home with harder hammer blows
  • If working near the end of a floor board or using a large spike consider pre-drilling a whole that is slightly smaller than the nail to prevent splitting
  • If using the nails on an exterior application consider buying galvanized cut nails. If your local supplier does not offer that, you can send the nails out to have them hot dipped for a reasonable price. This will help the nails survive the elements and require less maintenance.
Cut nails in exterior siding and trim
More cut nails in exterior siding and trim

Gallery of the 20+ Cut Nail Types still available (If you are viewing this in email, you’ll need to click over to the blog to see this gallery properly displayed):

Where can I find these cut nails?

  • If I need a small number of cut nails I usually order from Tools For Working Wood as they sell 1/8lb bags which are secured shut with another cut nail (Labeled as Brooklyn Tool and Craft I believe they are repackaged Tremont nails)
  • If I need a large number of cut nails I usually order direct from Tremont Nail (A company in MA with over 190 years of cut nail making experience)They offer, 1lb, 5lb, 50lb and custom larger size (think nail casks) orders
  • The Tremont Nail wood board with sample nails is available for purchase from Tremont — it’s a great addition to any shop and allow folks to examine each of the above described nail types in person. I have one in my shop and have found it to be a nice visual aid in my teaching.

I hope to see more folks using cut nails on their projects.

-Bill

I am a Joiner…

I’ve been keeping my local haberdasher busy as I often find myself wearing a wide variety of hats in the course of my work. I regularly have to function as a preservation carpenter, cabinet maker, turner, tailor, timber framer, historian, carver, draftsmen, author, instructor, blogger, handyman and traditional hat aficionado.

That’s a bit of a mouthful to rattle off when you meet someone new.  To simplify I usually tell people I work as a traditional joiner. Often there is a bit of a pause and some clarifying questions. Many folks realize that most of the epithets above generally revolve around a core of skilled woodworking, but they cannot articulate what makes it a true specialty.

Symbol of a Joiner -- Axe for Rough Work and Chisel for Fine Work and Joinery
Symbols of a Joiner — Carpenter’s Axe for Rough Work and Chisel for Fine Work and Joinery
What does it mean to be a joiner?
Let’s consult our trusty friend the dictionary:
join·er
noun
1. a person who constructs the wooden components of a building, such as stairs, doors, and door and window frames. *

That’s a start, but doesn’t capture the whole of what makes someone a joiner…

In a traditional sense a carpenter often works on the frame and envelope of the building. The joiner is a specialized type of carpenter who literally ‘joins wood’ often focusing on the production of windows, doors, staircases, wainscoting, built-in case goods and other items that make up a home and require a higher degree of skill compared with regular or ‘rough carpentry.’ A joiner’s work often starts in the shop and ends out in the field as it gets installed in the client’s home or business location.  In more rural locales a joiner often functioned as a part time cabinet-maker regularly delving into finer work that required a high level of skill. Many traditional ‘country’ style pieces of furniture were often made by joiners using the same tools and techniques as any other cabinetmaker. In urban areas where there was enough demand to support specialized trades and full time cabinetmakers we can still find records demonstrating how joiners were able to compete and straddle the line between fine finish carpenter and cabinetmaker.

Full size story board for a door pediment
Full size story board for a door pediment

How does this relate to modern day woodworkers? Are joiners simply modern finish carpenters?

A ‘modern day’ Carpenter generally starts with materials procured from big box stores and lumber yards that are manufactured and uses them to build homes largely by assembling those pieces, using modern fasteners and possibly customizing a few of the details. All of this lends itself well to the use of modern tools and methods.

In contrast, many of today’s ‘Preservation Carpenters’ occupy the space between a carpenter and dedicated cabinetmaker, thus effectively taking on the role of a Joiner —  equally at home in front the bench or on the construction site. A joiner often starts with raw materials (wood etc) and has to fabricate the items he or she needs to produce — doors, windows, built-ins, large case pieces etc. using traditional joinery, tools and techniques. Sure some modern and powered conveniences can simplify a few tasks, but often the most expedient way to generate the intricate joinery and intended results is to use the same tools and techniques our forefathers used. Routers and sand-paper cannot reproduce the same results you get from a sharp plane iron and a skilled hand. All the fancy tech-laden measuring devices on the market cannot beat the simple efficiency and accuracy of a story stick and a marking knife. Biscuits and dominoes are no replacement for through mortises and draw-boring.

Hand made window sash
Hand made window sash

Other hallmarks of a good joiner is an attention to detail and knowledge of classical orders (especially with respect to moldings), layout and proportion. If you get the proportions wrong on a piece of furniture you can potentially hide it in a corner, if you mess up a cornice or fenestration on a building you cannot hide it. A joiner’s work is joinery on the large scale, out in public view and it demands that you stay on top of your game from layout through execution.

What’s next?

My goal is to help preserve the ancient trade of being a Joiner for future generations. I am attempting to accomplish this via my travels and in my teaching. I hope to continue helping others learn how to be good joiners, cabinetmakers, carpenters and hobbyists.  No matter what you call yourself or what you specialize in, woodworking requires creativity and hand skills which are taught through practice and maintained through continued use and passion for the craft.

If you are interested in learning more about traditional joiners, please stay tuned to this blog. In the meantime if you have any questions, you can contact me here.

-Bill

*  The definition above was taken from here. The rest is based on my own life experiences. Your mileage may vary.

The joys of working with reclaimed old growth timber….

When working with reclaimed wood you generally want to be extra cautious — you never know what you are going to find in the wood. Normally I visually inspect the wood, remove anything glaring (bits of old nails, stones, loose knots etc), then make a pass with a lumber wizard metal detector, remove what it finds and start working my way through the wood. Every so often something makes it through that system….

Tiny Tack
Tiny Tack

Above and below is a VERY tiny tack was embedded deep into an old barn board I was reclaiming. It must have been fairly deep into the board as the metal detector didn’t find it, but it sure found my planer knife.

Very Tiny Tack on End
Very Tiny Tack on End

But such is the price we sometimes have to pay in order to work with old growth timbers. On an 8-10″ wide board I was counting well over 150 years of growth rings and this pine often handles like hardwood.

Laying out the boards to even out the texture and grain profile.
Laying out the boards to even out the texture and grain profile.

For projects like this rustic headboard the trick is to stop milling before you lose all the history and character of the old wood.

Texture detail
Texture detail

But in the end the extra effort is worth with for the results cannot be duplicated with modern woods and simulated aging techniques.

Finished Headboard
Finished Headboard

You can see a bit more of this project on an earlier post I made here.

Take care,
-Bill

Making a Jointer Plane with Willard ‘Bill’ Anderson — Part 2

When last we left our plane-making heroes they were in the process of making a traditional single iron jointer plane with my friend Bill Anderson at the Woodwright’s School.

Bill demonstrating with a great bench plan cross section model
Bill demonstrating with a great bench plane cross section model

Bill had a great cross section model of how this sort of bench plane works — made by one of his students. With the body of the plane taking shape, next up was tuning the mouth opening and the abutments. If the mouth is too wide or too large the plane may not cut cleanly so you need to carefully fit the iron to the opening. If the abutment is not carefully placed when you re-flatten the sole of the plane you’d also be opening the mouth more. You also need to take care flatten the face of the bed that supports the iron — if there are high points the iron can pivot on those and make it tough to use the plane. One of the many testing/fitting gauges Bill had was a ‘bed testing gauge’ which looks and works much like a pair of ‘pants’ we use in timber framing to test out the thickness of a tenon, except in this case you are using it to check the thickness of the cheeks and how close your bedline is getting to the line scribed on the side the plane body.

Planing the wedge
Planing the wedge

With the mouth and throat all set, next up was making the wedge to hold the iron in place. The wedge needs to be carefully planed to fit the abutments inside of your plane and tightly hold the iron in place. Again here you are using an abutment gauge (wooden wedge of a known profile in degrees) to test your work as you go.  With all the gauges and specialized tools you can quickly see why plane-making was its own dedicated craft specialty.

Shaped and fitted wedge
Shaped and fitted wedge

The wedge is further relieved so that the shavings can clearly escape the plane body.

Templates, gauge blocks and pants
Templates, bed gauges blocks and pants

Above you can see some of the many gauges used in laying out and testing parts of your plane, along with templates for the handles.

Starting to shape the handle
Starting to shape the handle

The handle is first cut out from a rough blank and then carefully shaped by hand to have flowing, graceful lines similar to that of a quality hand saw. The result is a handle that fits the hand so well it, the whole plane feels like an extension of your body.

Auriou rasps used to shape the handle -- they were a pleasure to use
Auriou rasps used to shape the handle — they were a pleasure to use

Various rasps, files and sandpaper are used to shape the handle. Using crisp hand stitched Auriou rasps made quick work of shaping the handles.

Finished handle
Finished handle

Above is the handle after a bit of light sanding.

A finished Jointer Plane
A finished Jointer Plane

Shown here you can see Bill’s finished/sample plane which is based on an historical example.  I’ll post the final shots of my own plane when I finish it soon in my shop.

Rear 3/4 view of the completed sample plane
Rear 3/4 view of the completed sample plane

At the end of the workshop one of the most important tasks was to make sure you plane can take a nice shaving. I’m happy to report that I was able to get a nice full width shaving with my mostly completed plane. (I need to finish setting the handle, trim the edges, apply some finish and use my maker’s name stamp and it will be ready for regular use in the shop).

Making the first shaving with a new plane...
Making the first shaving with a new plane…

In an upcoming post I will complete this series with how I finished off the plane. Stay tuned…

In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about Bill Anderson or take a class with him, and I highly encourage you to do so, please check out his website here.

-Bill

P.S. You can see the first post on making this jointer plane here.

Making a Jointer Plane with Willard ‘Bill’ Anderson — Part 1

A single iron jointer plane is one of those tools you have use yourself to truly appreciate. Over Labor Day weekend I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to make one of these planes with Willard ‘Bill’ Anderson at the Woodwright’s School in Pittsboro, NC.

Entrance to the Woodwright's School
Entrance to the Woodwright’s School

Bill is a passionate woodworker and skilled teacher. You may recognize him from his appearances on Roy’s television show or the articles that he’s written. He’s a molding plane aficionado and has studied plane-making and general furniture-making with many masters in the field. He recently retired from being a Scientist for the EPA so I see a lot of parallels to my own life working in software.

Getting started, with Bill Anderson
Getting started, with Bill Anderson

The plane is made of air dried American Beech and a new old stock English iron.

Squaring up the air dried beech blank
Squaring up the air dried beech blank

We started out by squaring up the stock using a wooden straightedge and winding sticks.

Laying out the mouth and abutments
Laying out the mouth and abutments

Next up was laying out the mouth and throat. The mortises are all chopped by hand with a chisel and refined via a series of floats and scrapers. It was my first time using that many different floats, and for what looks like it might be a fairly coarse tool, when sharpened leaves a remarkably good surface.

Chopping the mortise by hand
Chopping the mortise by hand

As we worked through the throat mortise a key was to make sure you don’t overshoot and chop through the abutment.

Scraping
Scraping

One of the last steps in refining the abutment and sides of the throat was to scrape the surface using a scraper chisel.

A very nice scraping chisel that Bill made
A very nice scraping chisel that Bill made

This beast of a chisel was made by Bill and heat treated by Peter Ross. It was based on some research Bill did into traditional plane making tools. The long bar of tool steel and handle allow you to put a lot of your weight into it as you scrape the surface flat. The cutting edge is a very steep angle similar to a scraper you’d use with a lathe (upside down compared to the lathe tool) but works well since you are only removing a little bit of material at a time.

Paring away any fuzz
Paring away any fuzz

Regular bench chisels are used to clean up any fuzz in the corners. Next up is cutting in for the wedge and cleaning up a cheeks. This is an operation that requires a steady hand and the ability to work to an exacting standard. You want your test wedge, and eventually your actual wedge, to fit tightly against the abutment so the iron does not move when you are working with the plane. I took my time and was very happy with the results.

Fitting with test wedges
Fitting with test wedges

In upcoming posts I will document more about my experience in building and finishing this plane.

In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about Bill Anderson or take a class with him, and I highly encourage you to do so, please check out his website here.

-Bill

2013 BAC Traditional Building Intensive

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 Paul Revere House, Boston, MA
The Paul Revere House, Boston, MA

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.

Touring historic homes and buildings with Steve O'Shaughnessy
Touring historic homes and buildings with Steve O’Shaughnessy

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.

Traditional Woodworking with Bill Rainford
Traditional Woodworking with Bill Rainford

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.

Field Work at Fenway Studios
Field Work at Fenway Studios

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.

The Saugus Ironworks
The Saugus Ironworks

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. )

Ranger Curtis White explaining how the ironworks produced iron
Ranger Curtis White explaining how the ironworks produced iron

Robert Adam (Who started the Preservation Carpentry program at NBSS and is a noted preservation consultant) lectured about historic hardware and fasteners.

Robert Adam talking about historic hardware and fasteners
Robert Adam talking 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.

Historic Hardware by Edward Guy
Historic Hardware by Edward Guy

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.

Making paint with Sara Chase
Making paint with Sara Chase

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.

Mulling historic paint with Sara Chase
Mulling historic paint with Sara Chase

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 Friberg Timber Framing Lesson
Rich Friberg Timber Framing Lesson

Rich brings with him a deep well of knowledge and a passion for teaching this craft.

Jennifer wielding the 'Beetle' mallet
Jennifer wielding the ‘Beetle’ mallet

Students had a chance to layout and cut mortise and tenon joints….

Joey with the 'Commander' mallet
Joey with the ‘Commander’ mallet

try out some joinery on the large scale with traditional timber framing tools…

Lisa mortising
Lisa mortising

and fit the joints they made.

Completed Timber Frame Sill
Completed Timber Frame Sill

The completed 8′ x 10′ sill shown above would be the first major element of a modest sized barn or outbuilding.

Matt Gillard teaching some basics of Masonry
Matt Gillard teaching some basics of Masonry

Preservation Mason Matt Gillard (owner of Colonial Brick Works) and Matt Blanchette gave a great lecture on traditional masonry tools, techniques and evolution.

Rachel cleaning off some recovered bricks
Rachel cleaning off some recovered bricks

This hands on session allowed students to mix traditional mortar, clean bricks, re-point, repair, lay brick and joint mortar.

Masonry group shot
Masonry group shot

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.

'I survived the BAC Historic Preservation Intensive 2013' Tee Shirts
‘I survived the BAC Historic Preservation Intensive 2013’ Tee Shirts

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.

-Bill

Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest

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.

Front portico of Poplar Forest
Front portico of Poplar Forest

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.

3/4 View of the main house at Poplar Forest
3/4 View of the main house at Poplar Forest

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.

The restored roofline and building footprint
The restored roof-line and building footprint

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.

Octagonal 'Necessary' or 'Privy' with its original intricate roof framing
Octagonal ‘Necessary’ or ‘Privy’ with its original intricate roof framing

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.

Model of the Jefferson designed flat roof structure above the wing of 'Offices' that funneled water away from the roof and allowed folks to walk on the roof.
Model of the Jefferson designed flat roof structure above the wing of ‘Offices’ that funneled water away from the roof and allowed folks to walk on the roof.

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.

Wing of 'Offices' which contained a storeroom, kitchen, smoke house, laundry etc
Wing of ‘Offices’ which contained a storeroom, kitchen, smoke house, laundry etc

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.

Wing of 'Offices' designed to blend into the landscape
Wing of ‘Offices’ designed to blend into the landscape and barely be visible from the front

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.

A nice display showing some of the restoration efforts that have been going into the site.
A nice display showing some of the restoration efforts that have been going into the site.

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.

Senior Restoration Craftsman David Clauss with the long joiner's bench he build
Senior Restoration Craftsman David Clauss with the long joiner’s bench he build

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.

Restoration Workshop Sign
Restoration Workshop Sign

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.

Restoration Workshop
Restoration Workshop

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.

And you can plan your visit on the official page here http://www.poplarforest.org/visit

If you find the time to visit, I highly encourage you to do so. And if you run into David, please tell him I sent you. 😉

-Bill

Lights, Camera, Action….

I’m happy to report that the companion video series for my recent Fine Homebuilding article ‘Master Carpenter: Reproducing Traditional Moldings’ went online today.

Behind the scenes. (Photo courtesy of the Taunton Press)
Behind the scenes. (Photo courtesy of the Taunton Press)

I had a great time making the videos and I hope you will enjoy watching them. Several of them are free, though a few of them are reserved for FineHomebuilding.com (FHB) members only.

Bill Rainford using molding planes to reproduce traditional molding profiles. (Photo courtesy of the Taunton Press)
Bill Rainford using molding planes to reproduce traditional molding profiles. (Photo courtesy of the Taunton Press)

Details below as they were presented this morning in Fine Homebuilding’s e-newsletter and where to find the videos:

Fine Homebuilding Logo
Fine Homebuilding Logo

In this Master Carpenter series, Bill Rainford shows how to get period details right with both power and hand tools.

Watch the intro video

Plus watch more free episodes from this series:
Interview with the craftsman
Bill chats about how traditional carpentry is better for his body and soul
An inside look at old-fashioned home building
Bill and senior editor Chuck Bickford visit the Alvah Kittredge House and dig into its traditional construction details

Sign in as a member or sign up for a FREE 14-day trial to see this complete series and much more.

Take care,
-Bill

Reproducing Traditional Molding for the Alvah Kittredge House

The Alvah Kittredge House in Roxbury Massachusetts is a great example of high style Greek Revival architecture in Boston and a tangible link to the city and the nation’s early history.

Alvah Kittredge House in the 1880s (Photo Courtesy of Historic Boston Inc)
Alvah Kittredge House in the 1880s (Photo Courtesy of Historic Boston Inc)

The Greek Revival Style was most popular in the United States during the second quarter of the 19th century. (Approximately 1820-1850) During this time period the population and economy was also growing by leaps and bounds. The United States was still a young nation and many folks wanted to show off their new found affluence.  During this period of great optimism there was a strong belief in the American Democracy and many associated the ideals of the new nation with those of early Greek Democracy. Around this time, access to Greece and the designs of antiquity were also coming into the mainstream as influential citizens like Thomas Jefferson read books like ‘The Antiquities of Athens‘, Benjamin Latrobe and others built out Hellenistic monuments and public buildings in Washington D.C. and other large east coast cities, and builder’s guides like Asher Benjamin’s ‘The Practical House Carpenter’ proliferated the tool chests of local joiners and carpenters. Given this atmosphere many folks wanted to have their own building look like a Greek temple. For most of the ‘middling’ Americans, especially those in more rural and western locales the scale and details would be simplified down to keeping classical proportions and greatly simplifying details to meet their budgets — pilasters instead of columns, simplified moldings or even flat boards attempting to echo the pediment and other design elements of a Greek temple.

Looking up at the portico of the Alvah Kittredge House (Photo by Bill Rainford)
Looking up at the portico of the Alvah Kittredge House (Photo by Bill Rainford)

In places with money — like public buildings and mansions — the builders could afford to go big with design elements like a colonnaded portico and carved relief details in the pediment etc. The Alvah Kittredge house is a great example of a high style Greek revival home which reflected the wealth of its original owner, and of Boston and the US in general at that time.  Not only is the house unusual given how the city has grown up around this once grand country estate, but the scale of the front facade needs to be seen in person to be properly appreciated. The two story portico with its double hung windows and high ceilings required wide and detailed moldings in order to be the appropriate scale for such a magnificent home.

The original crisp detail of this hand run molding is obscured by the many layers of paint over the generations. (Photo courtesy of the Taunton Press)
The original crisp detail of this hand run molding is obscured by the many layers of paint over the generations. (Photo courtesy of the Taunton Press)

This 8 inch wide molding was made by hand using traditional wooden molding planes likely on site and from eastern white pine. This is not the sort of thing you can buy at a local big box store, or millworks supply company. The best way to replicate this sort of casing is to make it from the same materials and in the same manner as the original joiner….

Using a molding comb to capture the profile. (Photo courtesy of the Taunton Press)
Using a molding comb to capture the profile. (Photo courtesy of the Taunton Press)

I started by capturing the molding profile via molding comb or profile gauge which aids in transferring the profile to the newly prepared stock.

Setting in the details with a Snipe's Bill plane. (Photo courtesy of the Taunton Press)
Setting in the details with a Snipe’s Bill plane. (Photo courtesy of the Taunton Press)

Next by using traditional wooden molding planes I carefully set in all the major transitions in the profile

Using traditional molding planes to replicate the profile. (Photo courtesy of the Taunton Press)
Using traditional molding planes to replicate the profile. (Photo courtesy of the Taunton Press)

Many of these planes I use date back to the time period when the Kittredge house was actually built and yields results that simply cannot be duplicated by machine. The original handwork had variations and facets which catch the light differently when compared to stock that is milled by a machine.

Section of new molding alongside an original sample -- a nice match. (Photo by Bill Rainford)
Section of new molding alongside an original sample — a nice match. (Photo by Bill Rainford)

The end result is a near identical match that will help insure that future generations living in the Kittredge house will be able to enjoy it’s many details in much the same way as Alvah did when the house was first built.

If you’d like to learn more about how to make traditional moldings, please check out the related article ‘Master Carpenter Series:Traditional Molding’ I wrote for FineHomebuilding which can be found here  (There is also a related video series which you can find on www.finehomebuilding.com/extras for the Sept 2013 issue)

-Bill Rainford
Preservation Carpenter, Joiner, and Instructor
https://rainfordrestorations.wordpress.com

P.S. The above post was written for my friends at Historic Boston Inc here. You can learn more about Historic Boston and specifically about the Alvah Kittredge House here.