The Little Barn Playhouse Comes Home

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Today’s blog is from Green Mountain Timber Frames founder, Dan McKeen.

It was 35 years ago that I first set out to build my twin daughters a playhouse. I was a young timber framer and a proud father of two, four-year-old girls who loved the outdoors, exploration and pretend just as much as I do. Eager to create a special home where they could hide and climb and create magical worlds together, I built this tiny little treehouse for them back in 1982.

35 year old timber frame treehouse

Rachel and Amanda in their very own home.

Rachel and Amanda spent hours in the wooden treehouse, just as I had hoped. But by and by as the years passed, the playhouse went out of use and was in need of some more young love.

So 25 years ago I sold the playhouse to a friend. When I asked him if I could buy it back, he agreed and said that he was looking for a bigger, small structure for himself. So we found him a “milkhouse” and traded the playhouse for the milk house with a few thousand dollars to make up the difference.  (I’ve mentioned this story before and if you follow this blog, you may recall reading about it in my posts here and here.)

New Playmates for the Little Playhouse

The playhouse spent the last 2+ decades in my friend’s yard, where it was loved and played in, on and around and bore witness to countless secrets whispered under its eaves. But my friend’s child, like mine, grew older and in the meantime, I had become a grandpa. This could only mean one thing:

It was time for the playhouse to come home!

And come home, it has! I embarked upon this latest barn” restoration with the energy and enthusiasm of a six-year-old! I took the playhouse home and gave it a full makeover so it can house games and delight for dozens of years to come.

Restoring the Playhouse

In anticipation of the homecoming, I first cleared out just the right spot for the playhouse.  My friend Ed pruned some Cherry tree branches and a sturdy platform deck was created for the little house. (How fitting that the wood we used for the platform was excess wood from the milkhouse Ira barn project we did in 2013.) It is all old growth Spruce, treated with linseed oil, so it will last for a good many years.

Next, I headed over to my friend’s place to transport the playhouse back to my yard. In the image below, you can see the little barn house arriving to the Green Mountain Timber Frames shop for restoration.

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At our shop it was time to begin the restoration work. (After all, restoring barns is a bit of a passion of ours!)

Restorint barn style kids play house barn_4

There were boards and framing to restore, hinges to fix, countless corners to wash and windows to replace. I also had my dear friend Nance help give the playhouse a faux paint touch up to make the blue siding look like vintage barn board.

Moving barn playhouse to new location

Here’s the refurbished playhouse being set in its new home.

After placing the playhouse on the platform, I needed to give my grandkids (and every kid around) an easy way to get inside. We had recently removed a pine tree that was threatening our house. We used the stump as a base for the staircase, carving the lowest step right into its hearty wood. The stump will provide good stability to help keep the stairs from shifting in Vermont’s inevitable freezes and heaves.

Once the playhouse was set in place, it was time for some fun! I outfitted the little building with a kitchenette, a mailbox and plenty of soccer balls. Then, Ed added in a new rope swing and topped it all off with a 90 yard zip line.

The angels were with us throughout this project. I asked a former client, now friend, to coach me on zip-lining. He let me know that he had 275 feet of cable in his garage, waiting for just the right use. In the end we needed 273′. Serendipitous indeed!

Christening the New (Old) Playhouse! 

This past Sunday, the new playhouse was inaugurated in style! No less than 12 kids – my grandchildren among them – came by to test out the house and the swings.

The verdict? I have a feeling my yard will be filled with many little feet and bigger voices – and I couldn’t be happier. There are dragons under the floorboards and pirates hiding in the bushes and so much more adventure awaits!

Enjoy this slideshow of the playhouse today! 

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Sill and Post Repairs…Plus More Split Rail Fence!

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We recently finished the first phase of a barn repair project in Springfield, Vermont, stabilizing a gorgeous little barn from the early 1800s.

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History of this Historic Timber Frame

The vintage timber frame is part of the historic Kirk homestead. We believe it was William Kirk Junior who built this barn. The son of a revolutionary war soldier from Springfield, William purchased the farm in 1809, and most likely built this structure at that time.

In 1834, the land records note that William Kirk mortgaged the farm to a Mr. White for $300. It may have been a tough year for farming, or perhaps William needed cash to work on the second barn on the property, which is attached to the older frame.

 

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The large barn is connected at a perpendicular angle to the smaller old structure. Farmers often sought to create a protected barnyard area for livestock and equipment, and the “L” profile of the attached barns does just that.

The records state that the loan was to be paid back annually over three years in “good salable neat stock or grain.” William must have successfully paid off the mortgage, as the property stayed in the family for a total of 97 years before being sold.

 

In 1864, William sold the farm to his son Aaron. Thirty years later, Aaron conveyed the farm to his younger brother Reuben, a Civil War veteran who had fought in the 10’th Regiment, Vermont Volunteer Company. The property stayed in the family until 1905. Many thanks to the current owners for sharing their careful historical research with us!

A Barn in Need of Repair

While the barn had beautiful stone foundation work, the water had pushed and the frost heaved against the stone and sills, and the joinery of the structure was deeply strained. The stone wall under the gable was collapsing, and four different posts had “torn their trunnels” and dropped down out of the upper beams.

 

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This corner post dropped as the sill beneath it deteriorated, and the pegs broke allowing the tenon to drop out of the mortise.

 

Our Approach to Restoration

Our project was to jack the posts back home again, and to replace the sills. The barn was listing dangerously towards an eve because braces had failed. We used a series of come alongs as we lifted posts in order to coax the wall back towards plumb.

 

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Note the beautiful five-sided ridge beam! Many of the braces had failed, and in this photo we are coaxing towards the western horizon. On the far wall, you can see where one of the posts has dropped.

As we lifted, we were able to feed the tenons home.

 

 

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We were able to bring this tenon right back into the horizontal timber. Even the siding boards slid back into the grooved channel in the beam where they started out.

 

 

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Here we are lifting the corner of the building in preparation for new pressure treated sills

 

The Split Rail Fence

But wait- what about the split rail fence? After posting our last blog about the fencing used as collar ties in Tunbridge, we were surprised and delighted to discover split rail fence pieces used as floor joists in the newer and larger of the Kirk barns!

 

8_Vintage floor joist_Green Mountain Timber Frames

Old William Kirk was a resourceful fellow. Most likely the original floor joist snapped, and so a nearby rail was conscripted for the purpose.

 

A Barn Rebuilt to Last!

Now that the frame has repaired sills and is stabilized, the terrific crew at Terrigenous Landscape Architecture will re-build the dry laid stone foundation and wall on the gable end. Scott and his team have already installed a drainage system around the exterior of the barns, which will protect the repaired barn complex and stonework from future freeze and thaw cycles.

We look forward to returning to Springfield in the fall after the stone work is accomplished, to continue frame and siding repairs. In the meantime- happy fencing to all you farmers out there!


Do you have a vintage barn in need of repair? Dream of living in a historic barn home?

Contact us!
Luke@GreenMountainTimberFrames.com

 

Restoring a 30 x 42 Barn Frame – Our Latest Endeavor

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Despite winter’s encroachment here in northern New England, we’ve been hard at work at Green Mountain Timber Frames.

For our most recent project, we have been restoring a beautiful 30×42 foot barn frame from New York state. Built in the 1790s, it is a fine example of a gunstock frame.

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Look at the handsome grain and joinery of this gunstock oak post

What is a gunstock timber frame?

This means that the upper timbers all come together at the same elevation. It is an incredibly strong method of construction.

img_4239 However, there is a drawback to gunstock frames: it can be challenging to install a second floor because the rafters start at the same elevation as the loft. It is not an issue for storing hay, but can be a challenge when designing a bedroom! The team, which includes a restoration architect, our client and ourselves, figured out a way to install a second floor in this particular barn. We used scarf joints to raise the height of each post, which allowed us to create a 20 foot loft area below the height of the upper horizontals.

Technical challenges of assembling this timber frame

It’s a good thing we love a challenge, because with this frame, (unlike most) we couldn’t make all the changes without assembling the frame. Why? Because of the angled “summer beams”-the large timbers that pick up the weight of the floor joists. (We will get to the reason for the splayed summer beams in a bit.) Doing compound joinery on a 220 year old structure is only possible if you erect that section allowing the joinery to be measured and fitted in place.

Creating the second floor

So how did we solve our little technical problem? We began by erecting half the barn frame behind our shop.

erecting-half-a-timber-frame

This timber frame is predominantly white oak, so we wanted to match the original species of wood. We purchased white oak timbers from Ohio since white oak is hard to find in our area these days. Given the long span of these beams, we had to use 10×12 inch timbers. For the new posts, we used 10×10 inch timbers.

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White oak timbers

In order to help the new timber blend in with the old, we used the old method to create an authentic texture: a broad axe and an adze.

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Here’s a shot of Luke, hewing the new oak beams

Next, we created crooked joinery, because the heavy carrying timbers are splayed, rather than the typical perpendicular or right angles to each other. The only way we could be certain the timbers would join together properly and securely was to fit the timbers in place.

crooked-joinery-on-white-oak-timbers

We chopped and chiseled…made templates…and set the 1000 pound timbers in place.

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Chopping

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Chiseling

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Making templates

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Setting thousand pound timbers

This now creates a second floor that did not exist originally!

But why did we have to angle the carrying timbers? 

To maintain the original ladder we tightened up the two posts carrying the heavy floor girts. The ladder rungs will be set in the close pair of 10×10′ white oak posts. We have not placed the rungs between the posts yet.  That was the least of our problems…………

The end wall will have a 12 foot bay window between those posts.  Along with the owner and architect, we wanted the heavy summer beams, combined with the posts, to frame the large bay window in a fascinating way!

So the owner gets his ladder and his bay window and a very unusual design that makes this particular frame restoration much more interesting.

In order to check new joinery on other sections of the frame, as well as to store it safely until spring, we put the whole barn up and applied a temporary roof.

 

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Here’s the 30×42′ frame tipped up with a temporary roof.

 

Next steps in the restoration process

Our next step is to set all the hand hewn floor joists into these heavy carrying timbers using traditional joist pockets. But, for the moment, we have moved on to another outside project. With this structure standing and roofed for the winter, we will have plenty of opportunities to return to this task when it is raining or snowing! In the spring, we will label everything, disassemble, and ship the frame to its final location. It will be ready to stand strong and true for another 220 years.

hand-hewn-joists-need-to-be-set

Note the incredibly wide original siding boards!

Stay tuned for a story on our next project: a timber-framed porch. We better get going on it, as we received our first heavy snowfall of the year this past week!

Have a blog idea for us?
A pressing question about historic timber framing? Let us know!

(802) 774.8972 or Luke@GreenMountainTimberFrames.com

Cavendish Barn Restoration Update – The Grand Finale!

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We recently completed the restoration and renovation of an historic timber frame from Cavendish, Vermont.

 

The project kicked off when we first visited the frame back in the winter of 2015. We’ve written about this barn frame before, while in the thick of the restoration process, and wanted to deliver the coda now that the project is complete.

The Background

The owners of the frame wanted to save a barn on their property; it was in bad shape and needed to be taken down before it collapsed. We first visited the barn in the winter, dismantled it in the spring, and spent the summer restoring it at the Green Mountain Timber Frames shop.

In late summer, we erected the restored frame on a new foundation.

The Transformation of a Barn

In the pictures below, you can see the entire process – from start to finish. From a wintery day in February when the sagging frame looked tired and in need of some TLC, to the beautiful great room it has become today.

Vermont timber frame in winter_Green Mountain Timber frames

Our first look at the Cavendish barn in Feb 2015

Dismantling historic timber frame barn

Spring prevails, and dismantling begins!

green mountain timber frames restoration process in cavendish vermont

A look at the last timbered wall section we took down. Once on sawhorses, we popped out each vintage peg, labeled every joint, and disassembled.

restoring post and beam structure

Restoration begins at the GMTF shop

The image below shows us adjusting the roof rafters to fit the new design of the great room. We pre-assembled the rafters, applied the original roof boards, carefully labeled each rafter and board, and then dismantled the roof before finally shipping the frame back to its home of origin.

restoring post and beam barn from 1850s

Restoration of new england barn from 1850s

Redesigned frame assembled on a new foundation about 100 yards from where it was first crafted nearly 200 years ago!

After the frame was firmly in place, another general contracting company  completed the project – The Severy Brothers  of Ludlow, VT. The next two pictures show how they used “SIPs” (structural insulated panels). The panels are fastened to the outside of the frame, which provides superb insulating value while showcasing all of the wooden elements on the interior. In the second picture, you can see the front entry taking shape.New barn home made from restored wood timber frame

Cavendish VT Barn frame with insulated panels

Exterior view of front entry with SIP panels

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The re-erected frame, pre fireplace. Note the beautiful ridge beam!

post and beam architecture in historic great room

The fireplace was created with stone found on the farm property

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Sliding barn door into main house

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Large sliding doors capture the beautiful Vermont landscape

Exterior of Cavendish Barn Frame with front entry_Green Mountain Timber Frames

Timber porch entry into the great room

It was truly a pleasure to work on this barn frame. We love it when the opportunity arrises to restore a frame while keeping on its original location! Do you have an historic barn on your property that is in need of attention? We would love to see it!

 

Want to see some other projects we’ve done at Green Mountain Timber Frames?
Check out our completed timber frame projects!

Spring Cleaning!

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As one of the fist steps in the timber frame barn home restoration process, we power wash all the individual elements of a frame. This includes all the beams, every brace and each board that we are able to save and re-use.

Since winter in Vermont usually means sub-freezing temperatures, the piles of “dirty laundry” tend to pile up, waiting their turn with the washing team. Well, spring is here, and the washers are running!

Power washing old barn board_Green mountain timber frames.jpg

Our newest team member, John, washing a thick vintage siding  board.

Think about cleaning your house and the way grime builds up. Now imagine the dirt that collects in the hidden places of a 200 plus year old house or barn! It can be… pretty amazing!

American chestnut hand hewn barn timber_Green Mountain Timber Frames.jpg

This 26 foot long top plate has not seen the light of day, or a cleaning, since it was hoisted into place 210 years ago!

Washing beams and boards can be a tedious, wet, and cold task. Yet we also find it very satisfying and even exciting to watch the real patina and natural beauty come forth from underneath the dirt.

Timber frame beam barn home beam_Green Mountain Timber Frames.jpg

Look at the difference! This American Chestnut timber has received one pass from the power washer on the lower section.

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What a contrast between the washed surface and the dirty one!

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The final product of the cleansing is an amazing color that can not be replicated in new materials.

We do not use any soap in the washing. The water alone is enough to bring out the color. Wood ages as a result of exposure to air and light. While boards exposed to excessive sunlight turn silver, protected wood surfaces take on a beautiful glow.

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It took more than 200 years for this Beech timber to take on its patina.

The Art of Power Washing Old Timber Frames

Washing barn timbers and boards is not just a matter of pointing and shooting the stream of water at the materials. If we let the powerful water get too close to the wood, or if it strikes the surface at the wrong angle, the result is “raised hair” on the surface. Too much power in the spray slightly shreds the grain of the wood, causing the wood fiber to separate slightly on the surface, which can damage the patina and lead to a rough surface. Power washing takes patience. We can’t do too much, yet we must get the surface clean. The distance and angle from sprayer to old board has to be “just right!”

When the timbers and boards are washed, there are still steps to be accomplished. The boards must be dried before they can be stacked or else they will mold. We have to get creative in spreading the boards out to dry! We flip the boards halfway through the drying process. Eventually, we are ready to collect them carefully into piles for storage under cover.

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Vintage boards drying after washing.

The timbers and boards shown in these photos are from the 24 x 26 cape style house that we disassembled this past winter.

Stay tuned as we move towards a full restoration of this wonderful little timber frame! We better get back to work- the pressure washers are calling!

 

North Hero Barn Restoration: Before and After

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Remember that North Hero, Vermont historic barn we wrote about back in April of last year?

Luke Larson, of Green Mountain Timber Frames rescued this special barn from North Hero Island, which is smack in the middle of Lake Champlain and only a few miles south of the Canadian border.

Removing Roof of timber frame barn home

Dating back to the 1780s, the barn is a hardwood frame with hewn oak braces. While it was truly in very rough shape, Luke was determined to save it because it is such an old, rare specimen. Measuring 26 X 36 feet, it offers nearly 1000 square feet of space and is a gunstock post frame, a good indication it was built before 1800.

A New Beginning – Near The Frame’s Origins

The exciting news is that this beautiful restored timber frame will become a handsome “great room,” complete with a fireplace, for a new home that is being built on the New York side of Lake Champlain.

Understanding the Restoration Process

In the following Before and After photos, you can see the restoration process taking place at one of our shop sites.

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Above: Many of the beams needed repairs or replacement. One of the top plates was replaced completely during the restoration process. In the restored photo, all of the beams are once again sound.
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The ridge beam and rafter braces were one of the lovely features that caused us to love this barn!
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During the dismantling of the barn, we labeled all of the roof boards so that they would go back to the original location. In this “after” photo, we have put all boards back on the roof and used some replacement vintage material to fill in the gaps.
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The beautiful December sunset here in Vermont showcases the lovely detail where the rafters intersect with the ridge beam. In the restored version, we have made all the edges of the boards straight once again, so that the gaps between the boards are minimized.

Ever Dreamed of Living IN History?

At Green Mountain Timber Frames, we turn old barns into beautiful new homes, studios, offices, barns and more.

 

For details, please contact Dan or Luke:
802.774.8972
luke@GreenMountainTimberFrames.com

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Timber Frame Labeling – The Pragmatics and Beauty

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What is in a label?

When it comes to timber framing – a great deal!

The homes and historic barns that we disassemble have many individual pieces. A timber frame can easily have over two hundred different pieces of hand crafted wood and each piece has been carefully fit and adjusted to create a specific joint. Individual timbers and braces were scribed to each other. Braces in a building may look interchangeable, but they are not!

Roman Numeral Labeling in Timber Framing_Vermont_Green Mountain Timber Frames_4

We use the terms “bent” and “plate wall” to describe the two types of cross sections in a barn. There are two plate walls in every timber frame, which are the exterior walls where the roof comes down.

“Bents” are a cross section going in the other direction, creating the gable ends and supporting systems for the interior of the building.  A frame can have anywhere from two bents to six or even more, depending on the barn size. Here is a scaled drawing of one bent cross section of an 1840s timber frame. This barn has four bents. Multiply this cross section by four and you can imagine the four bents, usually similar but not identical. Labeling System_scaled drawing of one cross section_1840s timber frame_Green Mountain Timber FramesThere are also the two eve walls with multiple braces, which can’t get mixed in with the “bent” braces! Timber Frame Label System_Green Mountain Timber Frames_2So how does one know where to put each piece of wood?
The labeling system!

History of Labeling Timber Frames
In many of the older barns and homes, even the roof boards and floorboards were labeled! Long before a crew of framers, farmers and family showed up for a house raising, someone had carefully organized the materials and designated a spot for each piece. 

Why would it make sense to label even the roof boards?
One reason is that the boards were often still in the tapered shape of a tree trunk. In other words, they are wider at one end – the base of the tree – and narrower at the other. By switching the direction of the taper – board to board – as you moved up the roof, the framers could get the most width possible out of each board without getting too uneven before reaching the peak of the building. 

Roman numerals were the most common method for inscribing labels on the beams and boards:

Roman Numeral Labeling in Timber Framing_Vermont_Green Mountain Timber Frames_4

We recently completed the restoration of a 1790s gambrel home. (You can read about it in this blog.) This frame is a wonderful example of the way that craftsmen of the past insured that the timbers all ended up in the right place.

In the gambrel house we restored, there are four bents for a total of 12 posts on the first floor. There are 8 more on the second floor.Gambrel Barn Home_Green Mountain Timber Frames_3

But how do you designate which side of the building each piece will live on?
Each exterior post is a component of both an eve wall, and a member of a bent. Therefore, each of the joint sections must be labeled. When we cut a new frame or relabel an old frame, we use “B” for bent, and “P” for plate, or eve wall. On top of this distinction, we distinguish which of the two eave walls any given post or brace belongs to.

In the gambrel, the original builders added a diagonal line to the numbers in order to make this distinction. This line makes post #4 look like this:Labeling System_1840s timber frame_Green Mountain Timber Frames_5Note the four slashes, and the one slash with an additional diagonal cut. The opposite wall does not have the diagonal marking. 

Below is a label on a floor joist that had us stumped for a while. Then we realized – the framers were distinguishing the roman numeral 9- IX, from the roman numeral 11- XI. What if on raising day someone was looking at the floor joist upside down?

Joist Number Nine Drops Down_Green Mountain Timber Frames_6

Joist #9 drops into the “summer beam”, the central heavy timber that supports the floor system.

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Here is #11, not to be confused with #9!

We have not seen this marking before, but surmise that it meant 11. If anyone has seen this designation for 11 before, please tell us about it!

How do you designate that a post is a center post rather than located on an exterior wall?
Here is how they labeled an exterior mid post on the gambrel:

Exterior mid post on Gambrel Barn Frame_Green Mountain Timber Frames

Someone took artistic care with this inscription!

And here is the label on an upper post that supports the rafter system. Notice our modern (and much less attractive) label on the tenon where it will be hidden:Modern Label on Tenon_Green Mountain Timber Frames_9The gambrel has a unique system where the floor girts and joists went out beyond the eve to create an overhang. Heavy planks rested on the joist tails. Here is a photo of the labeling of those planks:Labeling System for heavy planks on joist tails_green mountain timber frames_10Another beautiful inscription was often placed on a central board in the ceiling. This photo is one of these daisy wheels:Daisy Wheels_Timber Frame Labeling System_11We re-label each joint as we take it down. Occasionally, in the excitement of disassembly, we miss a piece or even mis-label. When we are stumped, we often look for the original labels and figure out where it will be “at home.”

Pragmatic & Beautiful
These old labels are both useful and artistic. They were created using very sharp chisels, often of a “gouge” or cupped variety, as well as compasses. The labels add beauty to the finished space when visible. As with all aspects of vintage frames, much can be learned about the people who crafted the barns or homes by looking at their “handwriting.”

Some label inscriptions are flowery and large; others are more subtle and small, meant to disappear visually once the frame is up.

Below is a brace and post from the North Hero barn:

Labeling system for post and beam historic barns_green mountain timber frames

This builder used much smaller labels and a different marking

How did the framers come up with these markings, and are they universal? 

We do not know how the craftsmen from the past decided on the specifics of their labeling systems. The pragmatic aspect of the labels means that each frame contains its own logic. That is to say, it is a self-contained system that can differ frame to frame. We are just grateful when we see the labels match each other on each joint and we know we’ve put the pieces back together correctly! We like to imagine the framers carefully making the inscriptions generations ago, and we are grateful for the artistic care represented in these labels!

Here is one of my favorites – a label designating a second floor post and brace on the gambrel:Second floor post label_Green Mountain Timber Frames_11

Have you seen labels on pieces of your house? 

Please let us know what you might know about old labeling systems! In particular, we are curious if anyone has seen the representation of 11 that we’ve shown on the gambrel floor joist. We’d love to hear from you.


 

Green Mountain Timber Frames specializes in restoring historic timber frames and old barn homes. Interested in more information?
We’d love to hear from you!
(802) 774.8972
Luke@GreenMountainTimberFrames.com