Kestrel in the Barn!

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About six years ago, we restored and erected this early New England timber frame.

timber frame barn for sale

The frame is a classic size at 30 by 40 feet. The interior of the barn is “clear span,” which means that the 30 foot timbers are so big that no center posts are necessary inside the barn, making it perfect for storing cars.

timber frame barn_Vermont

The timber frame barn sits nestled at the bottom of Mount Equinox here in Vermont, and wildlife is abundant here. Our client had been seeing American Kestrels in the area, and had the idea of building a nesting box for this smallest of North American raptors. A decline had been documented in the New England population of these birds.

Why not build a box right into the barn?

old barns for sale_Vermont

I have heard that early New England farmers would sometimes cut little bird doors into the gable ends of their cow barns for the swallows. Why? Because barn swallows are so incredibly beneficial for keeping the fly population down in a barn full of livestock. One of my favorite local timber frame barns came to mind, and we chose to copy the style of cut-out from this little gem: timber frame barn with barn cut outsWhen we sided our barn using vintage boards, we cut six holes in the upper section. Copper flashing was used to keep water from going in. Five of the doors are faux, and the sixth has a hole that leads into a nesting box.

timber frame barn with barn swallows

Well, five years past with no kestrels. But this spring a pair moved in! And here is the evidence:

kestrel-house-in-a-vintage-barn-garage-green-mountain-timber-frames.png

Kestral in a vintage barn Green Mountain Timber Frames

We are so delighted that this idea came to fruition! It is remarkable to imagine the spring journey from far south, and perhaps even central America, that brought this pair of birds right into the gable of this beautiful vintage barn.

Now the only question is, who is going to climb up into that high gable when fall comes to clean out the nesting box?

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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.

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

 

Geometry in Historical Frames – a guest blog

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This week’s guest blog is from architect and historian Jane Griswold Radocchia. You can learn more about her work in her personal blog. She writes here about her encounter with one of Dan McKeen’s barn restoration projects and how she could determine that the builder of this 1791 barn used geometry to build the original frame. 

“I invited myself to a Green Mountain Timber Frames barn dismantling earlier this fall. Of course I was glad I went.

Here’s what I saw:

Three historic barns from Hartford, NYThe three barns sat, connected in an L shape beside the road on the uphill slope of a valley. None of them faced the road, on their west and windy, side. Instead they faced south and east, creating a protected barnyard, a sun pocket. In the middle, protected from storms and wind, was the corn crib. Other farm buildings repeated the pattern, facing south, no doors on the west.

Hartford NY Historic timber frame corn crib

Hartford NY Corn Crib

The main barn also had a door on the north, directly across from the one facing south. It fronted on the farm road and looked at the house across the way. Two doors across from each other were for threshing and ventilation; a north-facing door was for bringing in hay and grain on the shady side of the barn in summer.

North side view of historic timber frame

North side view of timber frame

North side view of timber frameHow could I tell that geometry was used in building this frame?

After we had climbed up to the rafters, Dan McKeen handed me prints of the frame measured and drawn up by James Platteter. James Platteter is a master furniture maker and Dan was lucky enough to work with him on this project and have him dedicate his time to drawing up the detailed plans. (Do take a look at Jim’s beautiful work on his website.)

To have a sense of the building, I checked some of the dimensions. The framer really did make his barn 30’- 1” wide!  He also made it 42’-6” long. The diagonal of a 30’ x 30’ square will be 42‘-6” long. The shape of the floor for the barn is based on √2.

Both that extra inch and the √ are indications that the master-carpenter for this barn used geometry to determine its size and framing.

The carpenter had a pretty good rule! Over 30′ and his rule was only off by 1”. But how did he share his dimensions with apprentices if their rules differed from his?

He used geometry!
Geometry is a language, one most of us haven’t mastered. Our ancestors spoke (drew!) it well and used it for construction.

How did the farmer build his barn?

He probably hired a timber framer, a master builder. The framer knew about how big his barn should be and how it would be used. He began his design with a square with 30′ sides. This initial measurement of 30′ set the foundation for all the measurements of the barn.

How?

One side of the square would become the width of the barn. Then, the builder crossed the square with its diagonals – corner to corner – and swung his compass, extending the diagonal to meet the side of the square. The length of the diagonal became the length of the barn.geometric drawing of timber frame barn

square geometric corners of timber frameAbove, is the floor plan of the barn: 30′ wide, 42′-6” long.

The new rectangle on the end of the square was also a good height for the wall of the barn. So the framer drew a square on each corner. Using the diagonals for those squares he swung an arc to locate the ridge. You can see the squares and the diagonal in the diagram below.

Ridge location in timber frame barnThe framer may have used the barn floor for his layout just as carpenters today use the floor of a house to lay out rafters for the roof above. If so, it would have looked like this:

floor for raftersHere is the drawing of the end elevation showing that layout.

North gable end view of barnThe red x on the right is the original square. The dashed line is the arc locating the ridge. To locate the second intermediate post the framer used the side of the square, the height of his wall, as an arc.

Diagonal determines placement of the braceWhere it crosses the diagonal, he placed the post.

diagonal post placementThe north and south walls used the same geometry. The right end was laid out as was the end wall. The space for the door was a square. The left side was divided in half, as marked below by the diagonals. I enjoy finding that the braces followed the line of the diagonals. The barn door height was determined by the point where the arcs cross.

Final drawing of timber frame historic geometryThe east wall used the same geometry – first the square at its diagonal marking the right hand intermediate post; then the remaining space divided in half.

east wall timber frame geometry

The framer applied this same geometry as he laid out the roof, the braces and collar ties. The whole barn evolved from his first length: 30’-1”.

I look at this: so simple, so sophisticated. I am amazed! The geometry is there, but we have forgotten it. It is so beautiful!.

I will follow Green Mountain Timber Frames as they dismantle other pre-1800 barns and house frames for more confirmation of how early timber framers used geometry in structural design.”