“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

 

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.

img_4220

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.

white-oak-timbers-from-ohio

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.

chopping-oak-timbers_green-mountain-timber-frames

Chopping

chiseling-oak-timbers_green-mountain-timber-frames

Chiseling

templates-for-timber-frame-restoration

Making templates

thousand-pound-timbers_green-mountain-timber-frames_barn-restoration

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.

 

historic-30-x-42-timber-frame_vermont-timber-frames

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

A Comparison of Timber Frame v. Stick Built Construction

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This week’s guest blog is from builder and timber framer, Glenn Tarbell. Glenn has collaborated on many projects with Green Mountain Timber Frames over the last two decades.  Recently, he built this beautiful timber frame garage for a client. 

Final Timber Frame Garage.jpg

Why Use Timber Frame Construction?

Recently I had a customer who wanted a new garage. They live in a beautiful wooded area with large oak trees near a wetland. Their house is not large and has a low sloping roofline. The siding is rustic, rough sided pine that is stained. They asked me to build a two bay garage.

Timber Frame v. Stick Built

I inquired if they would be interested in a timber frame garage rather then a traditional stick built garage if the pricing was not considerably higher. They loved the idea of a timber frame and we began the design process. The pricing for a timber frame style building was only slightly higher, so we decided to go with it!

Designing the New Garage 

In the design phase, we talked a lot about the height of the new building. The customer did not want a garage looming over everything. We talked about enclosed and not enclosed bays, power needs, and building materials for the roofing, siding and the timbers. They also needed storage for kayaks and canoes and windows on the south face for garden starts.

We decided that the final building would be a barn-garage. We would create a structure that looked like a barn with an extension for the traditional hay hook or, as we discussed, a canoe hook. The customer had a rope system with a vintage pulley that has already pulled the boats into the upper half story for the winter.

The structure we finally designed has one fully enclosed bay with an overhead door and a shed roof off one side for the second bay. We ultimately choose this look for two reasons: height and looks.

6_plate section for the shed roof

Building the Barn – The Construction Process

When it came time to start building the garage, we chose hemlock wood for the frame. This is a ridged softwood that works well for timber frames. We cut the joinery traditionally using chisel, saw and chain mortiser. Then, we dry fitted all the parts of the frame at my shop. Seeing the mortise and tenons fit together and then seeing the bent sections laid on the sawhorses was wonderful. Dry fitting the frame gives a sense of what the building will become, while also allowing for us to check for accuracy in layout.

2_All the bents are up

Here we are drilling 1-inch holes for the wooden pegs.

The barn posts are six by six, the girts are eight by eight, the rafters are four by four and the braces are three by six. As a big pile of wood it does not look like much, even with the joinery cut. But on raising day, wow, it takes on a look of its own.

4_4x4 rafters in place

Here you can see all the bents assembled and the frame with shed walls erected.

And here’s a look at the new garage once the roof sheathing and trim were on:

7_Roof sheathing and trim

Pricing Timber Frame v. Stick Built Construction

When pricing this kind of project and determining the cost difference between timber frame and stick built construction, I have to look at the two styles of building with the thought, “What steps will be different?” Siding will be applied in the same manner in both building styles, as will trim, roofing and sheathing. The only real difference then, is the framing.

It took nine days to cut out the timber frame and tip it up, including roof sheathing.

3_Drilling holes for pegs

The frame with all the 4×4 rafters in place.

To build a traditional stick built garage with roof sheathing, it may take seven to eight days to get to the same point. Therefore, the difference in this project was two days of labor.

Timber Framing – A Worthwhile Investment

In the end I think timber frame construction makes more sense both financially and aesthetically. Even if it takes a bit longer and requires a slightly larger initial investment, (usually 15-20% more) a new timber frame is strong. Barns built this way have lasted hundreds of years.

Standing in a timber frame feels good. You can see the craftsmanship of the builder and know that the history of barns and houses built this way dates back hundreds of years. So whether you build a new timber garage or use a vintage timber frame barn as the frame for a garage, from my experience timber framing is usually the way to go. It’s cost effective and the building can last for centuries if the roof is maintained.

Interested in your own timber frame barn or home? Let us know!

We’d be glad to hear from you! 

Luke – Green Mountain Timber Frames
luke@GreenMountainTimberFrames.com
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

 

Winter Construction: Tales of a “Seasoned” Vermont Timber Framer

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This winter has not been an easy one here in New England, even for those of us who have lived in the cold north for many decades. It seems like each weekend has brought us a new snow storm, and Monday I woke up to this:

Thermometer on February 2015 Vermont Morning

Monday’s temp – Yes that middle reading is minus 25

Nonetheless, there are historic timber frames like this one in need of saving and the work continues, despite the bitter cold. This week, we are busy dismantling the Tinmouth timber frame. (That’s right – thanks to the help of my dedicated blog-fans, we were able to find a new owner and save the old barn home from demolition!) Historic Barn Home in Vermont winter While I’m not one to complain, the truth is that everything about winter work is either hard or less hard, never easy. But you can’t let ole man winter beat you down, so you beat your own body up and keep the project moving. Luckily – I’ve got a dedicated, hard working team on board to help with the work! timber framing team in vermont winter                                  A hearty crew, look very happy, huh! There’s no doubt about it – working as a group of hearty souls allows you to get through the day, even if we do dream of St. John V.I. this coming April and conjure up images of the beach as we toil! Timber Frame expert Dan Mckeen in St John Often 2 hours a day are spent removing snow to get at what you are working. Here we are clearing the roof on a Manchester, VT barn home.

removing snow from vermont timber frame home

The Snow Shovel Dance!

And this is a picture from a few years back, when we set a cupola in the midst of a snow squall… setting a cupola on a barn frame in winter Assembling wall sections in the snow is always an extra challenge. Timber frame restoration in Vermont winter This past week, when temperatures were stuck around the zero line (and below), my son in law and I stayed warm in my “toasty” 40 degree shop. (Yes, that’s Fahrenheit.) It’s simply too cold to be outside, so we carry each of the timbers inside to restore a wall section, one bent at a time.

Interior of Green Mountain Timber Frames Restored Frame

Restoring timbers in the shop

My workshop itself is a 1806 Baptist church that was turned into a potato storage barn in 1954. It’s very well insulated, for which I am grateful, so we are able to keep the barn restoration project moving forward.

Winter Timber Framing – The Bottom Line

Your toes freeze, your fingers hurt, you wonder why you chose Vermont of all places to settle…Because -25 is no joke and there is not much happy about these blood-freezing temps unless you are an ice fisherman. Those guys like to drive their trucks out to their ice shanties and huddle around a mini heater with plenty of ales for what ales ya.

Ice Shanty in Cold Vermont Winter

But there is an upside! While I work, a collection of tiny icicles form on my mustache, so I always have plenty of water to drink during the day! (Just have to chew it a bit…) Dan McKeen owner Green Mountain Timber Frames

Rare 1760s Gunstock Timber Frame Available – Your New Barn Home?

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I first wrote about this very early, hardwood timbered barn back in July and am pleased to announce that it is officially available for sale. This barn is a real gem and the right owner will appreciate living in such a unique piece of history. The post and beam barn is truly an extra fine example of “post medieval construction.” This kind of frame design is the same style that was used in building barns in the 1400s.

antique timber frame home new england

1760s gunstock timber frame

The vertical siding seen above is two layers thick. The barn frame was built using several kinds of wood, including beech, chestnut, pine, spruce and white oak.

Below, you can see an example of the antique wooden posts inside the frame. Note the gunstock posts which taper top to bottom. The posts are 9″x 9″ square at the base and then taper to 15″ x 9 ” at the top, where they meet intersecting timbers.

Gunstock post antique timber frame

Here is a view showing how straight the roof line is after 250 years and 7 tons of slate!
Vintage Barn Home 1760s

The potential barn home has elaborate, overbuilt wall and roof systems. The large beams indicate an early built frame.

5_Roof system is overbuilt

This picture shows the rugged construction of a gable (end) wall section:

Gable wall section of timber frame

Want to learn more about this beautiful piece of history? Contact us!

Consider turning this timber frame into your own barn home! This antique frame would make a beautiful barn home, carriage barn, studio or restored barn. To own this frame is to step back into medieval times!

Luke Larson
Luke@GreenMountainTimberFrames.com
Tel: 802.774.8972

The price for the restored frame includes erecting it on your foundation with roof boards applied. The siding boards are part of the package but would not be applied. The slate roof can be included, upon request.

Can you help save this old timber frame house from being demolished?

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This grand timber frame home will be demolished in February….UNLESS a new owner is found. Known as the Hod-Hepburn house, it has stood on a back road in Tinmouth, Vermont since about 1780.

Side view of historic houseThe two-story home is a great example of post medieval construction. It’s a trusty farm house that has weathered 234 New England winters. We hope to find a new owner interested in having Green Mountain Timber Frames take down and restore the hand hewn frame. This beautiful structure could be erected on the client’s site, with a custom layout to fit today’s needs.

The frame features rugged rafters as you see below.

gunstock timber frame post and beamHere is another shot of the principle rafter system:

timber frame roofWhen we visited the house, we found all sorts of treasures inside, including….

history found in old barn homethese magazines from the early 1900s and…storage in historic new england house…a TV from the 1960s!

We don’t know the exact date the house was built, but the house was referenced in local deeds from the 1780s, so we are assuming it was built by then. The truth is, it may be even older!

Here is a picture from the house taken around 1950.

Vermont Timber frame house 1950sHere is a nice winter shot of the back of the homestead:

Historic Barn Home in snowInterested in learning more about this “Vermont Republic” home and perhaps making it your own? For more information, please contact me!