If you’re an avid wood turner and live in or near New England this is a road trip worth taking. The Old Schwamb Mill in Arlington MA (a short 1 block walk from the North Bennet Street School’s Arlington campus — and on the road to historic Lexington where I lived for a long time) is a great afternoon trip and the sort of place you could drive by every day and never notice — as I did for years. Once discovered, this site is a real gem, and also home to a Shaker furniture and supply store.
You may be asking yourself, “how do I turn an oval frame?”
The magic is in the head stock — one of only a handful of this 100+ year old design known to still exist. And there are 3 or 4 of them at the mill. As the head turns there is a mechanical movement that moves the piece being turned up and down so that the wood is consistently presented to the tool at the tool rest. It also makes for a rhythmic noise as it runs. It’s not like most turning — think of it like scraping with style.
The mill has been at this location for 300+ years and making world famous oval frames for 137+ years. In addition to the lathe shown here there is also a massive version in the basement along with several other unique belt driven tools which expedited the process of making and joining these interesting frames. Work from this mill is in the White House and other similar places around the world.
Back in 2011 the NBSS Preservation Carpentry class worked on the Harvard Shaker Meeting House. It was a beautiful location. The class of 2010 worked on the front side of the house and the class of 2011 completed the back side. In this bucolic setting the class learned a lot about slate roofing and traditional staging.
Remove existing slate roof — preserving as many sound slates as we can
Stabilize existing sheathing
Install new plywood sheathing, ice and water shield and new flashing and vent fixtures
Replace missing cornice and stabilize raster tails
Re-hang the slates
Learn about traditional site built staging techniques
Below is a slide show outlining the work covered here.
We recently posted on some square rule Timber Framing work. As a contrast, today we’ll take a look at an earlier form of timber framing known as ‘Scribe Rule’. In contrast to ‘Square Rule’ timber framing with interchangeable parts, pieces of a scribe rule timber frame are each scribed to one another — so each piece can only be used in a single location.
Back in 2009 as part of a North Bennet Street School Project at Brookwood Farm we worked on restoring the timber frame for a 2 bay English Style barn that was thought to be the oldest such barn in New England. Against the odds, the dendrochronology results were inconclusive which was disappointing, but based on what we can tell from what was left of the barn, even if it’s not the oldest it was/is still a notable barn both for some of the old world design and techniques used in its original construction.
The barn was found when a parks employee ran into the side of this barn (which was attached via ells to several other barns at Brookwood farm) with a tractor and uncovered posts that looked hand hewn. From there the school was eventually called in, and after careful evaluation and research by Steve O’Shaughnessy, Rich Friberg and others that this barn was indeed a rare bird and worth preserving. The class of 2009 and 2010 carefully dismantled the barn, cataloged the pieces and loaded it into a tractor trailer that now resides at the school (at the time of this writing). In or around May 2012 the restored/repaired frame should be raised again — I hope to post more on that if I am present for the barn raising.
The sills and floor structure of the barn were severely rotted, missing or replaced by the time we got to the barn, so in order to repair the barn we needed to start at the bottom and work our way up. This started with hand hewing new sills from oak.
After juggling off the sides with the felling ax, we moved on to the hewing axe, the use of which could best be described as halfway between an ax and a chisel. It also makes for a great workout routine — but remember to let the ax head do the work — trying to swing as hard as you can reduces your accuracy and just wears you out faster — believe me the oak knows how tough it is.
After doing a lot of square rule work with timbers from a saw mill, we all had new appreciation for how much work went into many of our historical structures in terms of manual labor. Once we had the sills ready to go the next step was to join them together using scribe rule techniques. Scribing is an intricate process which will get you handy with your plumb bob, level and scribes real fast. You’ll also learn the term ‘bump and die’ meaning if you bump into my carefully placed timber as I am trying to scribe it, I will kill you. 🙂 Death threats aside it can be a very interesting and rewarding process. This technique is especially well suited for folks working with hand hewn timbers which can often be warped, bowed, tapering, etc. and one can see how it worked well during the times when hand hewn timber was the only option available.
Once the flooring system was complete the next step was repairing/replacing the large oak gun-stock posts.
With our work done, the next year’s class took over and continue to work on the various pieces of this barn back in the trailer at the school.
Below is a slide show outlining in more detail the process:
Timber frame repairs at the historic Anna Clapp-Harris house in Dorchester MA.
Repairing a rotted modern sill can be challenging work. Repairing a timber framed sill can be even tougher if the foundation you are sitting on needs to be re-chinked into place as well. This house had some interesting things going on — beyond some questionable handywork by previous owners or tenants as you’ll see in the slides below. As each layer of the building is peeled back you can get a much better feel for its earlier glory days. By repairing the sills and other structural issues first we set the house on solid footing for upcoming repairs and restoration work.
Look for an upcoming post showing the restoration of the front windows which really give the front facade a new lease on life.
Captions in the slide show give additional information. 29 slides in this post, so be warned it might take a moment to load.
Back in the spring of 2010 I had the opportunity to design and build a very traditional stick framed shed. This project served as a great lesson on modern stick frame/platform framing construction techniques. In addition to top quality materials the project also had an emphasis on how traditional designs can be executed in a modern context while also maintaining high levels of craftsmanship.
The slideshow below documents the 2010 restoration of historic window sash for the 1713 Old State House in Boston MA. This historic building was the seat of colonial government in the Massachusetts Colony, site of the infamous Boston Massacre and where the Declaration of Independence was read to the citizens of Boston.
It’s easy to take windows for granted — we see them every day — they are all around us. But with the constant bombardment of advertising for ‘new’ vinyl windows, the latest insulated glass etc and an over-hyped fear of lead paint and asbestos many of our nation’s historic windows are being discarded without a second thought. We’re robbing future generations of the same views we had — seeing sites through the same wavy old glass our forefathers looked through. The way light shines through a true divided light window and the ease of use and maintenance some old windows can offer.
Ease of use and maintenance?! What old windows are you talking about?
Believe it or not properly built old single and double hung windows can be quite weather tight and easy to use when properly installed and maintained. These old windows were designed so that you could take them apart — held together with joinery and pins — and replace or repair broken glass or rotted wood. This is a lot more ‘green’ that today’s ‘modern’ modern vinyl windows. If something breaks on a vinyl window often the only repair solution is to swap it out for a new unit — think of all that waste. And lead and asbestos can all be safely removed or mitigated by preservation specialty contractors under the guidance of EPA regulations.
Below is a brief slideshow roughly documenting how a quality sash restoration can be carried out. I really enjoyed working on this project and I hope that you will consider saving/restoring your own historic windows.
A Joiner's Guide To Traditional Woodworking and Preservation