As we arrive at the darkest time of the year, and as the temperatures here in the Vermont hills have begun to dip below zero, our team has had the opportunity to slow down, rest a bit, and reflect. It has been a year very full of restoring timer frames, and especially after back to back barn raisings in Virginia and Georgia, we were ready for a break.
So, what was an appropriate way to spend these past couple of weeks as the darkness encroached and the thermometer went low?
One of the ways that we have caught up, both pragmatically and spiritually, was to give some attention to our arsenal of hand tools.
At Green Mountain Timber Frames, we carry on the long tradition of hand-cut joinery, and we treasure our collection of tools that were designed to work in unison with, and be powered by, human hands. We use these tools constantly in a work restoring barns, and it is important that they be maintained.
Just like the vintage timber frame barns that we restore, these tools hold tales of their own. I am convinced that they have a “memory” in them of all the past generations of hands that have wielded and used them to craft joinery. I am further convinced that this history embedded in the tools helps us in our craft. I will return to this thought in a few minutes.
Tales Told Through Axes, Adzes and Chisels
First, let me tell you about some of the tools we have tuned up in the past couple of weeks:
In cleaning the metal of a set of mortising chisels, I discovered a clue to one past owner. Cleanly stamped in the blade of the chisels are the initials “AEW.” I would love to find out who this was who used these beautiful hand made chisels.
I also cleaned the metal and sharpened the edge on this gorgeous old “slick.” The 3-inch wide edge on this chisel glides across a tenon with a beautiful momentum when we use it to shape a wooden joint.
In organizing our tools, we pulled out some of our axe and adze collection.
Last week, I took time to carve a new oak handle for my favorite broad axe. The head on this tool dates back to the 1700s, and it is a joy to swing. I have spent many quality hours and days with this axe, walking into the woods with it and an adze over one shoulder, and a jug of water carried in the other hand, each blade carefully wrapped in oiled leather to protect the sharp edges.
My time carving a new handle was meditative as I reflected on the work it has done for 200 years, as well as remembering the sweet music it makes when biting and shaping a tree into a beam. Now, in the coming year that is nearly upon us, I can once more walk out into the woods with this old friend, find a tree to hew, and we will make music together.
Another one of our team members, Isaac, recently cleaned an old axe head that we found in the dirt floor of a barn that we were taking down. When he showed it to me, it looked to my eyes like nothing more than a giant lump of corrosion. Being a metal worker, Isaac saw something I did not. After grinding and sanding away many decades worth of rust and putting on a new handle, this tool is beautiful! Now that it is back in use, I can’t help wondering who’s hands last swung it before Isaac’s, and how long ago.
Meanwhile, our staff member Andy spent time cleaning up some rusted old strap hinges that we have gathered from various barns. He used a bath of vinegar and baking soda to eat away the rust, followed by wire brushing and a quick bake in the oven to stop the corrosion process.
Here is a closeup of the clean hand-wrought metal:
Uniquely American Framing Squares
There is another beautiful antique that we use nearly every day, and it received some attention last week. I recently learned that 16-inch by 24 inch framing squares are a uniquely American tool. While there were similar tools used in Europe previously, they really gained momentum here with the advent of what in framing lingo is called “square rule” joinery. In fact, the first patent for this type of square was awarded to Silas Hawes in Shaftesbury, Vermont in 1817. That is not far from our shop location!
We use the framing square to lay out the lines for every joint that we make, from post top tenons to girt mortises. The beautiful old square that I just cleaned with oil and a Brillo pad was a yard sale find. It is made with such care! The metal is thickest at the 90-degree angle, and then tapers down towards the edges in order to make it both strong and light. The numbers are stamped into the metal, and there are tables and graphs to help a framer do the geometry related to various roof pitch angles. It cleaned up beautifully!
Taking time to clean and sharpen our hand tools has felt like exactly the right way to enter into a space for reflection at this turning point from darkness to light- to look back at our own year and the much longer lifespan of these tools, and to look forward at increasing daylight and exciting projects and endeavors to come.
Honoring the Craftpeople Who Inspire Our Work
Remember how I mentioned that I believe the stories of past craftspeople who have used these hand tools help us do our work better? Perhaps there is some mystical connection that I feel to the folks who have used these tools on so many different projects. That may be, but I am more certain of the fact that the care that has been given to these tools over the decades and even centuries inspires us to work to a higher level when using them today.
I have gone through many modern electric tools in my own career to date, but I am still using some of the same hand tools that were gifted to me by my grandfather. This speaks partly to the quality of the old ways, and partly to my own mentality. It is easy to throw away a cheap electric tool and reach for another, while I expect and plan on setting time aside to sharpen or tune-up a hand tool.
Like our own human selves, these old tools need time for care, for sharpening, and for new handles. I believe there is a metaphor hiding there for us all to consider- especially at this time of year when the light is low, and activities in Vermont are best conducted in front of an old-fashioned wood stove.
A Holiday Blessing
I want to share with you a very special blessing that was spoken to our team last year at the holiday season. It was written by our dear friend and wise woman Leslie. Dear friends, as you take time to reflect and celebrate during this holiday season, may the light of your unique gifts and talents increase in brightness.
“For those who work with their hands:
May your palms stay open with fingers nimble and skin supple, allowing you to feel the roughness of the wood, the smoothness of the clay, the pulling of the yarn, or the stretch of the fabric.
May you see the wholeness in the piece as you begin, and as the shape of your work takes form, may you allow for the changes and the imperfections to be part of the beauty of your handwork.”
-Written by Leslie Silver, Middletown Springs, Vermont