“Any jackass can kick down a barn. It takes a good carpenter to build one.” Sam Rayburn
Last week, I had a disappointment. The previous Friday, Alice and I had driven to Mountainburg (about 50 miles) and bought some gorgeous redwood panels from an old junk dealer. Perfectly quarter sawn old growth redwood that some enterprise had milled into panels for garage doors fifty years ago, a really poor use for trees that never should have been cut…
The junk dealer happened to mention that he was going to be tearing down an old barn with big timbers the next week. He didn’t know if it was put together with pegs, “I don’t know much about that sort of thing.” Turns out it was pegged, which means mortice and tenon, probably braced. These two yahoos salvaged the lumber before wrecking the frame with a chainsaw and bulldozer. The joinery (what I call the value-added part) was destroyed, leaving them with a pile of barely marketable old timbers.
Meanwhile, Ben Jackson has just finished timber framing a barn on Bainbridge Island, Washington, for his brother’s farm. I haven’t seen pictures, yet, but I know it’s a competent piece of work. Ben helped us with framing the upper room in 2012. I showed him the layout, saw that he was confident to make the cuts, then left him to work out his process on his own. When he left us, I made sure he had the skills and tools to continue.
In October, on his way west, Ben stopped in and borrowed a boring machine. Yesterday, I talked with a friend who informed me that good hand hewn eighteenth century barns from western Pennsylvania could be bought, dismantled, cleaned, repaired, transported, and re-erected for $30,000. For a 1500 square foot frame, that’s $20/sq. ft. Quite a bit more than the timbers alone are worth. I could buy the salvaged timbers from the junk dealer and build a decent frame with them, but I just can’t support that level of ignorance.
Mortise and Tenon has been used for nearly 7000 years according to Wikipedia – what a crying shame that such tried and tested skills are being forgotten.
Some years ago (2003), I had the privilege of helping build Abingdon School Boathouse, where I met a number of very talented English framers. (cf. Carpenters Fellowship)
Some of the finest examples of English framing are the barns, Harmondsworth, Great Coxwell, Cressing Temple. If you get to Bath, look up Henry Russell, or Jim Blackburn in Somerset. Good folks, great stories. Find a copy of Silent Spaces (awesome photos), or English Historic Carpentry, good reads.
And of course there’s the Globe…