Reading this in your email? For easier reading – Click here.
Do you have a historic property that you want to preserve?
We would love to help.
We would love to help.
Reading this in your email? For easier reading – Click here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We chopped and chiseled…made templates…and set the 1000 pound timbers in place.
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.
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.
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
We at Green Mountain Timber Frames have a friend and fellow “restorationist” and we are very excited to be collaborating with him on a new project. It’s an incredible opportunity to preserve the “Amos Hodsdon House,” built in 1837.
Ben Heywood moved into the area a few years ago after a career of preservation and restoration work in the Cape Cod area. Since moving to Vermont, he has become a friend as well as a consultant on some of our projects. He has aided us in assessing the fine details of houses dating from the 1800s. He has a wealth of knowledge regarding trim, window and door styles and the dating of buildings. He has done incredible work restoring original entryways, windows, and cupboards. On a recent weekend visit, I asked Ben how he got interested in restoration.
“I was born in Gardner, Massachusetts, in 1951. There were dozens of abandoned 18th and early 19th century houses in a 40 or 50 mile radius. In the course of many Sunday family rides in the station wagon, my father would drop me at these so I could snoop around. It was arranged that I’d be picked up about a half hour later. All kinds of different architecture… it was great! It took no time at all for me to understand the difference between the handcrafted specimens and the numerous postwar boxes popping up everywhere. I also bought and devoured all the Eric Sloane books by age 16. All this sent me in the preservation direction.”
Ben moved to Falmouth and purchased his first “vintage” house in 1978 for the price of $1! It was a circa 1815 three quarter cape with a center hall and three fireplaces. It had the original doors, wainscot, finish trim and floors. As Ben told me, “I assembled some buddies and had it down in three weeks. I’ll never forget having to buy a liability policy from Lloyd’s of London as I was young and not yet firmly established. Insurance for four weeks cost me 500 times what I had paid for the house! Most everybody thought I was nuts at the time- until they saw the place restored!”
In the decades that followed, Ben disassembled and restored around 20 period houses. He did restoration in place on another 20!
In 2008, Ben decided to find one last gem of a house that he would restore for himself as he moved to Vermont and into retirement. Enter: the remarkable house built by Amos Hodsdon in 1837.
Now, due to life changes and a desire to downsize his construction plans, Ben has decided not to use this house as his own. The beautiful historic Hodson House is available for sale!
And we at Green Mountain Timber Frames want to help our friend find a new family to make this house into their home.
After looking at many vintage buildings, Ben decided on a house in Carroll County, New Hampshire, named after Charles Carroll who died in 1832 as the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. Carroll County was created in 1840 with Ossipee as its seat. Ben learned this history lesson after his search of Carroll County deeds came up empty. Eventually, he realized that the county lines had changed three years after the deed to the property changed hands from father to son, and so was filed in Strafford County!
When Ben discovered the old Hodson place, the house was incredibly unaltered and in good “frame health,” for its age. It had been abandoned for ten years and had been occupied by an elderly couple before that. The kitchen had a typical cast iron sink mounted in what was surely a period dry sink. There was a rusty old spigot and pipe that ran into a tank heated by the wood stove! The last residents of the house had still been carrying water into the house from a six foot diameter dug well with a flat stone cover. Best of all… the house had never had a bathroom!
Ben assembled a crew and began dismantling the frame.
Above you can see the tired entryway, and then the doorway after Ben’s incredibly meticulous restoration work.
When the house came into Ben’s caretaking, the decorative fan work over the entrance had been removed and flat boards had been nailed up. Ben studied the “shadow lines,” which are marks and weathering patterns on the wood, in an attempt to figure out through detective work what the original had looked like. Then, in a fortuitous turn of events, a friend discovered this old photograph of the house. It confirmed Ben’s guess at what had graced the entrance originally, and wait till you see what he created!
This house boasts roughly 3,700 square feet of vintage living space. The crew at Green Mountain Timber Frames will do a complete restoration of the timber frame itself, and we are looking for someone who has always wanted to live in a beautiful New England style home!
Know someone who may be able to help us find a home for this historical treasure? Please pass the word around that this wonderful structure is available and help us find a new “forever” location for this gem!
(802) 774-8972 or Luke@GreenMountainTimberFrames.com
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
One early morning, before dawn in November, two brothers were readying for an early morning deer hunt. Hunting culture in rural Vermont dates back to the original residents, and continues still. On this particular morning, breakfast was cooked, weapons readied, and excitement no doubt was rising!
I can imagine that the black of night began dissipating, and the hunters hurriedly finished their planning and headed out into the breaking daylight. A chair had been left too close the roaring wood stove and a couple hours later, a passerby saw smoke billowing from the house. Fortunately for those young men, for Green Mountain Timber Frames, and for the future owner of this beautiful timber frame, the fire was put out and the house survived!
Since that early morning fire, this little house has served the farming community well. When the local grange had to move out of a nearby building, the family that owned this cape generously offered the space. After many community work days, the grange moved in for weekly meetings and community events. The National Grange of the Order of Patrons and Husbandry is a national organization that began shortly after the Civil War. The group works to promote community bonding and education around agriculture.
This frame dates from around 1800, when Vermont was still a young state. It was placed in a little hollow between knolls with a stream nearby and land was cleared around it for farming. The house was built using oak, chestnut, and beach trees- no doubt the very trees that were cut down to begin opening up fields for livestock.
It is fascinating to get to study so many local timber frames and ultimately to get a sense of who built these structures many generations ago! This particular house is a Dutch style of timber framing. The bents are close together and the floor joists are built strong enough to span the whole 24 feet of width.
This little building measures 24 feet by 26 feet. It is perfect for a small cabin or house, for an addition onto another building, or as a small storage or animal barn.
One of the reasons we fell in love with this structure, and just had to save it, was the spacious second floor. The posts extend quite far above the second floor, creating a tall “knee wall.” There is plenty of head room upstairs.
The rafter system has a five sided ridge beam with braces to the rafters. Unfortunately, the rafters and ridge beam were damaged by the close call with fire and by subsequent roof leaks over the years. We will be replicating the original roof system however and it will once again be strong and beautiful.
The ingenuity and creativity of the builders of this home are demonstrated in the basement of the house. Underneath the floor system, we discovered a very rugged food storage room or “root cellar” built with rough hewn logs, stone, and brick.
I have no doubt that it was filled with ice from the nearby river before the spring thaw, and that it was filled with squash, potatoes and other vegetables in the fall! Surely, it also was an excellent place to make and keep that hard cider that Vermonters loved (and still do)! It also doubled as a very strong foundation for a wood stove on the second floor. Imagine the original residents filling this little room with the fruits of their labors, and then relishing the food during the bitter winters.
Once again, we consider it such a privilege to cross paths across the span of generations with the pioneers, carpenters, farmers, and families who have built and dwelt in this structure. We are also grateful to the family that saw the historical value of the house and allowed us to disassemble it once it could not be kept up in its original location. The restoration of this timber frame will take place over the future months and it will once again be ready to house future generations.
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.
In the following Before and After photos, you can see the restoration process taking place at one of our shop sites.
For details, please contact Dan or Luke:
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!
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. There are also the two eve walls with multiple braces, which can’t get mixed in with the “bent” braces! So 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:
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.
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:Note 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?
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:
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:The 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:Another beautiful inscription was often placed on a central board in the ceiling. This photo is one of these daisy wheels:We 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:
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:
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!