“Did a Farmer Build This Barn?”

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Since we inspect dozens of barns every year, and because we’ve got lots of barns for sale, we often receive this question. In the 18th century, who, exactly, was it that was crafting these beautiful structures that required such skill and attention to geometry, math, fine woodworking skills, and practicality?1790-barn-with-5-sided-ridge-beam

At times, we have heard the question asked in a mildly derisive manner, as if it was built by farmers rather than carpenters. At other times, we are asked in a tone of reverence for the broad spectrum of skills required and the appreciation of raw materials, motivation, communal commitment, and just plain hard work involved. It is in the latter spectrum that we solidly fall in our assessment of our New England structures and their creators from so long ago.

Our Latest Vermont Timber Frame Project

This week we spent two intense days disassembling a beautiful addition on a house in Tunbridge and Chelsea, Vermont. Two towns, you may be asking? Yes indeed-the town line ran right through the center of the property, and the house is in Tunbridge, while the addition was in Chelsea. While mid-stream on the addition dis-assembly, a town truck from Tunbridge came by, and the driver stopped. Leaning far out the window of the dump truck, he called to us, “What, moving out of Chelsea, eh?”

The joke was followed by much guffawing and laughter. I am not sure why that dump truck had been driven to the literal dead end of the road, but I am suspicious it may have been for the purpose of telling that joke- and I love it! News of renovations and changes travel fast in our small Vermont towns.

timber frame addition in the snow green mountain timber frames

The first time I looked at the addition, the snow banks were deep.

Early gunstock timber frame green mountain timber frames

What a difference a couple of months can make in Vermont! The house is a beautiful 1820s gunstock frame.

Let’s get back to the theme of “farmer built.” As someone raised on a Vermont dairy farm, and accustomed to the great joys and hardships of farming, I can not state strongly enough my appreciation for the barns and their builders of yesteryear. We at Green Mountain Timber Frames are so fortunate to get the insider’s view of many local barns, and we have been able to trace the progression of a master timber framer through our valleys by observing unique “signature” qualities of frames.

Recently, we noted a very unique rafter birds mouth detail for example that we have seen in only two local structures- which “happened” to be only 20 miles apart. Was this a case of farmers sharing ideas and techniques with their neighbors, or is it because a master builder traveled around the area coaching and aiding as farm families built their barns?

Hand hewn rafters green mountain timber frames

The rafters are beautiful petite spruce with a half-lap joint at the peak.

In the case of this structure in Chelsea/Tunbridge, we found an extra special clue that the addition was indeed farmer built. They used pieces from a split rail fence as collar ties to support the rafters!

split rail collar tie green mountain timber frames

I would love to have heard the conversation where they decided to grab some rails from the nearest fence! With the property being high on a mountain, it would have been a long trip to a saw mill, and the split fencing was right there. “Keep the job moving!” we builders like to say.

collar tie and hand made nails green mountain timber frames

Note the beautiful hand-made nails that hold the collar tie in place. The family for whom the country road is named were blacksmiths as well as farmers, and I am certain they made these nails themselves.

The posts of the addition had been devastated by carpenter ants, and the foundation was crumbling. Because of this, we will not be restoring the frame. Rather, we will use the hemlock roof boards and the beautiful rafters on the future restoration of another building.

vintage hemlock roof boards green mountain timber frames

The roof boards have beautiful color that only time can create.

We are grateful to the property owner for his desire to see the materials recycled. Just like the farmer who originally put this structure together, we want to recycle all that we can. In fact, we left those vintage pieces of split rail fence behind with the property owner, and I expect they may be put right back into the fence that is only thirty yards from the house to “live another day” back where they came from.

Are you looking for historic barns for sale? Want a new-old barn home?
We’d love to help! 

Luke@GreenMountainTimberFrames.com or (802) 774-8972

 

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.

Timber Frame Label System_Green Mountain Timber Frames_7

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

 

Demolition is just days away! Save this Tinmouth, VT Barn Home!

In an effort to save this beautiful historic barn home from demolition, I am posting a few videos of the beautiful house in Tinmouth, Vermont.

Please share – and contact us if you are interested in owning this timber frame!

Exterior:

Interior: