Saving a Giant of a Barn: the Benson Timber Frame

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We are now two weeks into the careful dismantling of a beautiful timber barn – for sale –  that dates from around 1880. This timber frame is not as old as many of the structures that we take down and restore here at Green Mountain Timber Frames, but the high quality of the frame more than justifies our efforts to save it. At 34 x 48 feet, this wonderful vintage frame is a big one!

evening light on old barn for sale in benson | green mountain timber framesThe barn’s foundation, roof and sills are deteriorated, and would be very difficult and costly to repair in place. We have purchased the barn and now it is in our court to take down the frame, restore it, and find a new home for this majestic and historic building.

(Let us know if you are interested in seeing the barn!)

Taking Down the Timber Frame Barn: Step by Step

Our first step was to remove an enormous amount of hay from the inside of the building. Thankfully, we had some pitchforks handy. removing hay from the benson frame | green mountain timber framesThe hay piled inside the barn had been hiding a very interesting feature of this barn. The smallest bay, which is where the animals were kept, had built in wooden gutters for removing manure.

Discoveries in an Old Barn

The clever system had two trap doors that could be opened, allowing the waste to be dropped into wagons or carts below for spreading on the nearby fields. There was also a trough in front of the animals where they could be fed. It is really amazing to see the wear marks on the floor from hooves. We can tell where the antsy cow lived many years ago! cleaning out cow stalls in old barn for sale green mountain timber framesWe made another discovery while opening up the walls of this barn. Between layers of siding, honey bees had built a hive at some point in the past.discovering an old bee hive in the benson old barn for sale green mountain timber framesWe collected the brittle wax comb, and I am excited to make candles out of it. Once we find a new home for this barn and re-erect it, I can imagine a celebratory meal in the restored frame- lit by the wax of this bee hive. honey comb in the wall of benson barn for sale green mountain timber framesAs we removed the wide hemlock wall boards, we labeled each one so they can be installed back in the same location. Many of the timber boards are over 15 inches wide, and the patina on them is spectacular.

We can’t wait to wash them, but the temperature will have to get up above freezing for that process to take place and winter really seems eager this year in Vermont. wide vintage boards for sale | green mountain timber frames

Removing the Slate Roof

Once we had the barn cleaned out and many of the siding boards removed, we went on to remove the roof system. This barn still had its original roof- large purple slate from the nearby quarries.

Here we are removing the slate piece by piece.

It was unusual for us to be removing the original roof from a building, as most of our older frames went through at least two, and often four, generations of roofing material before they come under our care. Much of the slate is still good and we will set it aside with the frame for future use. removing slate and roof boards benson barn for sale In order to be as safe as possible, we built a temporary second floor in the barn. This allows us to do most of the board and rafter removal from this deck rather than from the top of the roof or from long ladders. This barn is so large that it took fifty sheets of plywood to create this safe work platform! how to take down an old barn safelyThe effort building the deck paid off, as we removed and labeled each roof board.removing roof boards from benson barn for saleLet me share a couple more interesting features of this barn:

All farmers know how hard it is to keep large barn doors on a building. Inevitably, it seems, they get caught by a gust of wind and torn off the building. Well, it must have been someone with life experience who designed this structure. They built a giant pocket door system and hung the 13-foot-tall doors on tracks on the inside of the barn.

In order to create this space for the doors, secondary posts were added in the doorway bents. In this way, gusts of wind could not get at the doors when they were opened. giant pocket door old barn for sale A good luck horseshoe was nailed to one side of the door opening. horseshoe for good luck benson timber frame barn for saleIt was exciting to get lots of light on the upper queen system. These timbers support the rafters at mid-span, making the roof strong enough to carry the weight of all that slate as well as Vermont’s winter snow. There is a unique and beautiful scarf joint that was used to get the queen plates to span the whole 48 feet.queen system in benson old barn for sale green mountain timber frames

Here is a close-up of the scarf joint:scarf joint  | green mountain timber framesWhile the queen plate is made out of two timbers, the main top plate that creates the eve of the building is not. Incredibly, these hand-hewn timbers are the full length of the barn at 48 feet and 2 inches! Imagine the size of the old-growth tree that was required, as well as the difficulty of getting these beams in place without the use of modern equipment.

These 48-foot timbers are a testament to the skill of the timber framers who crafted this barn, as well as to the strength of a community that would come together to hoist such a barn into place. We are honored to now be the caretakers of this structure.48 foot hand hewn timber | green mountain timber frames

You can see drawings of the barn here on our site.

This old barn is for sale!

If you are interested in this barn, or another timber frame structure, let us know!

 

 

Roofing Material: A Weighty Decision!

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I remember one time as a kid when a great-uncle told me about the historic New England turkey drives. As I listened open-mouthed, he told me that New England farmers of the 1800s used to join up in the fall to collectively bring all the turkeys they had raised down to Boston. It was before the days of the interstate and refrigerated trucks, and as he recounted, they would shepherd thousands of turkeys across the countryside over a number of days.

vermont-wild-turkeys

The turkeys would collectively roost on the ridges of country barns every night. “And that, my friend, is why so many Vermont barns have big sags in the ridge line – it was the weight of all those fat turkeys on their way to market!”

To this day I am not totally sure if he was pulling my leg completely about the “historic turkey drives,” but one thing is for sure: there are indeed many historic barns with saggy roofs. In our voyages around New England viewing barns, we very often find sway-backs. That is, buildings where the roof has sagged dramatically under the weight of slate.

The history of our slate industry

Green Mountain Timber Frames has its base of operation right on the edge of a slate valley and it is fascinating to think about the interplay of geography, geology and population movements as it relates to this industry. Slate first gained attention in our area around 1834. The first known barn to receive a slate roof in our area was in 1848. By the end of the 1800s, the slate industry in our valley was booming, bringing in groups of skilled quarry workers from Wales, Czechoslovakia, Poland and many other parts of the world where people had experience with slate.

Before this, our barns were roofed using hand-split cedar shakes.

handsplit-shingles-or-shakes_historic-roofing

Hand split shakes – image courtesy of http://www.nps.gov

Builders would cut cedar logs into 30 to 36 inch lengths and then split them into shingles using a tool called a froe. In some places where there were not readily available streams for early water powered sawmills, builders would forego roof boards completely. Instead, they would heavily brace the rafter system to make it ridged, and then would install strips of wood called purlins spaced up to 36 inches apart. They would then apply long hand-split cedar shakes directly to the purlins.

From cedar to slate

Cedar is a natural, light, and wonderful roofing. Like the planking on an old wooden boat, it would have large gaps when dry. As soon as the first rain drops soaked in however, the cedar would swell and shed the water beautifully!  However, cedar roofs last only a few decades. As the cedar started to fatigue on our earliest barns, farmers began to replace it with slate. What could be better than a local product that will last as roofing for 200 years? What farmer really has the time to replace cedar every few decades?

There was just one little problem…cedar shakes weigh about 400 pounds per 100 square feet. Slate, on the other hand, weighs as much as 1,000 pounds on that same roof surface! On a typical 30 x 40 barn, this means that the new roof weighed as much as 9 or 10 tons. For a barn designed for a lightweight roof, trouble came a-visiting, especially when the heavy Vermont snows also piled high on top of the slate.

before-and-after-barn-transformation

How does geography fit into this?

Here at GMTF, we have recently viewed a number of barns in northern Vermont. These structures were far from the slate quarries and were thus more likely to receive roof makeovers with multiple generations of cedar, followed by lightweight metal roofs (once that industry came into full swing.) We find that, unlike with slate, many more of these northern barns survived with roof-lines in tact.

How do we restore these barns?

There are several building techniques that we use to rehab a barn that was built for cedar rather than our modern heavier insulated roofs.

We find that the old barns with ridge beams faired much better over the past couple of centuries.

1790-barn-with-5-sided-ridge-beam

This 1790s frame received slate mid-life, yet look how straight the roofline remained because of the 5-sided ridge beam!

To further strengthen a ridge beam roof system, we sometimes add vertical posts going from heavy timbers to the ridge beam. This transfers the weight straight down and minimizes the outward thrusting forces that otherwise can push the eve walls out.

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In this historic barn, there are posts going up to the ridge beam to further strengthen the structure.

 

As builders became aware of the weight issue, they often added a “queen system.” This is a structural system that picks up the weight of the rafters at mid-span and transfers this weight down to the heavy girt timbers and posts. On many of our oldest barns, we use vintage timbers to create this type of a system.

barn-featuring-queen-system-as-rafter-support_green-mountain-timber-frames

This  “queen system” helps to support the rafters.

queen-system-for-rafters-with-vertical-posts_green-mountain-timber-frames

Queen systems come in many shapes. This one uses vertical posts rather than angled.

Another method we use to beef up the rafter system is to add collar ties to the rafters. These horizontal timbers create a triangle within each pair of rafters, which is one of the strongest geometrical shapes in nature.

collar-ties-on-north-hero-vermont-barn

We installed these old-new collar ties to help stiffed the roof on this North Hero, VT frame.

How can we repair slate fatigue in place? 

On a recent project, we were asked to help prepare the structure of an 1860s house for a new roof. The builders had sized their rafters for a light roof and then installed slate. The sag was tremendous. We did not want to disturb the original plaster of the ceilings beneath the rafter system. Our solution, after the slate was removed, included first adding collar ties in the attic.

new-collar-ties-to-strengthen-rafter-system-in-old-vermont-barn

New collar ties stiffen these old, undersized rafters.

Next, we screwed 2 x 4 rippings over the top of the existing rafters and snapped straight chalk lines.

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We used a string with chalk on it to snap a straight line

Here is how it looked after we used this technique on all the rafters:

curved-shims-on-new-roof-system_green-mountain-timber-frames

Making all these curved shims made us consider going into the wooden boat building trade!

Next, we put new plywood over the whole roof and it was ready for roofing!

new-plywood-roofing-on-vermont-frame_green-mountain-timber-frames

Ready, set, and on goes a new roof!

Restored slate roof by Green Mountain Timber Frames

The finished project has a much flatter and straighter roof.

Conclusion

It is so interesting, as we travel around New England looking at barns, to imagine the various economic, geographical and sociological forces that all played a role in barn designs! We are grateful to have learned from the craftsman of the past who figured out how to properly build roof structures to withstand the various forces that material and weather throw at them.


Want to live in your very own historic barn?
Let us know!

802.774.8972 or Luke@GreenMountainTimberFrames.com

  • To learn more about the fascinating history of slate, check out the fantastic Slate Valley Museum in Granville, NY.

Possible – Beautiful Barn Home from Benson, VT – Available Frame!

I am helping the owner of this finely crafted timber frame find a new owner. The frame, originally built in the 1870s stands a majestic 32 feet wide and 48 feet long.

1_Exterior view_original purple slate visible repairs noticeable from lighter slate color - Copy

The large barn is in good condition and could make a stunning barn home, restored barn, studio or gallery. With so much space, there are a lot of options. There is 1500 square feet of space with an additional 750 square feet of potential if we add in a loft.

5_Partial loft floor joists noticeable_ potential for 750 sq ft loft - Copy - Copy

Notice the partial loft floor joists – great loft potential!

One added feature is the slate roof. Since Benson is in Vermont’s “slate belt,” this frame boasts an unusual purple slate roof that is of the best quality that you can find in the region.

In the picture below, you can see the wide gable wall which stretches 32 feet. The roof pitch is 12-12. This is one reason it feels so big inside.

2_Gable wall is 32 feet wide_roof pitch is 10-12 - Copy - Copy

Both the roof boards and wall boards are in excellent condition and the frame features long timbers that are hand hewn. The posts themselves are sawn.

Some more interior pictures below. Notice the beautiful honey color and the well preserved vertical wall boards.

Timber frame roof boards

4_Interior color is honey brown_ nice vertical wall boards

historic post and beam home

Interested in living in a historic property? Have questions?

Please give me a call at 802.774.8972. This post and beam frame could really make a one-of-a-kind barn home and we are looking for just the right owner to preserve this beautiful frame.