AMELIA HUGHES IS AN ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY STUDENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA.
Earlier this Spring I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to spend two full days working with a crew at the Menokin site in Warsaw, Virginia to build a reconstructed slave dwelling on the site where one of the historic plantation’s slave cabins had once previously stood. The actual building of the structure was an effective blend of traditional and modern tools and techniques. At Menokin, the crew employed a combination of both modern and historic building technology to achieve the end result of the slave dwelling structure. I found this juxtaposition between eighteenth and twenty first century technology to be very intriguing. Throughout the two days that I spent working with the crew, I was able to gain experience using both modern power tools and hand tools, some of which were themselves antiques forged by blacksmiths. I appreciated the way that the crew used modern time (and therefore money) saving tools while still using traditional methods for many aspects of the construction. In one instance in particular, this blending of modern and traditional tools especially stood out, and that was in the creation of the mortis and tenons used to construct the building.
The first step in the process was to create mortises in the cut lumber that the structure was going to be made out of. In order to do this, we used an electric powered mortise maker. This tool is essentially a chainsaw oriented vertically in a frame that can be adjusted and pushed down into the wood to create a rectangular hole that serves as the mortise for the timber frame constructed building. The tool, however, created a cavity with rounded corners and humps in the middle where the mortise machine could not reach due to it’s rounded blade. From this point, the most efficient way to shape the mortise was using the tried and true methods of the eighteenth century and prior – with a chisel.
A chisel and mallet was the most effective way to complete the mortises and shape them into the required form in order to properly fit together with the tenons to create a secure joint. Effective, that is, if you are skilled in using a chisel and mallet. I however was decidedly not effective in my chiseling efforts, and it took me a great deal of time and effort in order to adequately clean out even one mortise. Chisels of varying sizes were actually one of the most, if not the most, used tools on site among both traditional and modern power tools. The chisel was also used to complete the tenons after they were cut out of the lumber with a circular saw. The modern power tools made for quick and easy work, but that was not precise enough to successfully complete the traditional construction techniques. In order to properly execute the mortise and tenon joints of traditional timber framing, old-fashioned hand tools were needed to shape the joints to the point where they would properly fit together.
This combination of modern and traditional methods really struck me. We can improve upon the building methods of the past using our current technology, but sometimes the best tool for the job is still the original tool, as was the case in creating mortise and tenon joints. The methods of the past sometimes can only be achieved using the tools of the past, despite our best efforts to cut down on the time and labor expended in the building process. This blend of historic and contemporary building was also apparent in little shortcuts that the crew took. One example of this is that when cutting big pieces of wood out of the sills for lap joints, the crew made a few strategic cuts, gave a couple of whacks with the hammer, and out popped three blocks of wood that used to occupy the space that was now made vacant for the lap joint. Removing the wood in that way allowed it to break along its own natural path, making it easier to chisel the precise measurements needed and ensuring that the wood didn’t break or split due to unnecessary excessive pressure from a power tool on an a relatively small piece of wood. I appreciated the crew’s mix of old and new techniques. It seems wise to keep the best of the traditional methods while using available current technology to make the process more efficient.
I was a little surprised to learn that the building crew which readily employed modern technology in their construction, still made pegs to hold the mortis and tenon joints together using traditional methods. I expected them to have some sort of peg making tool but was informed that this is not the case. That meant I was back on the saw horse, and I am pleased to report that my band knife skills are coming along quite nicely, as well as having made some very beautiful wood shavings a photo of which is now the background on my phone. We needed to make about eighty pegs to complete the construction, and we did all of them by hand using the traditional
methods. Unfortunately, there was a bit of miscommunication and the majority of our pegs ended up being not quite wide enough, so we had to go back and shave off some additional wood with the band knife. The pegs needed to be long enough to go completely through one piece of framing and into the next, securely attaching them together.
And so we learned the hard way the importance of triple-checking your work, especially when using labor intensive hand tools, by having to go back and alter fifty pegs by hand on the saw horse.
As was the case in working with wood in class, it was important to keep the characteristics of the wood in mind when manipulating it in order to create the components necessary for a timber frame structure. When we began making tenons to fit into our perfectly chiseled mortises, we had to keep the properties of the wood in mind. After carefully measuring out our tenon from the lumber that would soon become a wall stud, we set about cutting the shape out of the wood. Perpendicular to the wood we used a hand saw, but cutting parallel to the wood, we used a chisel to remove the small block from the larger piece. This was because it is most effective to saw against the grain as opposed to with the grain, and when going with the grain, the most effective tool is a chisel. In the work of constructing a building, it is always necessary for the carpenter to keep the properties of the wood in mind and work with those properties, using them to the carpenter’s advantage when possible, as opposed to against it.
Throughout the days spent at Menokin working on the slave dwelling, we also learned some of the traditional hand tool technology that would have been used in creating a structure similar to what we were making. Craig Jacobs demonstrated, using antique hand forged tools, how a log would have been hewn into the type of usable lumber that formed the structure of a timber framed building. We learned about the process of scoring the log with an ax, “juggling” the resultant little mounds off of it, and then hewing that last bit to create a mostly flat surface. I especially liked the ax with an offset handle made for the last step of hewing. It is such a specialized tool but trying to hew that last bit with a regular ax was near impossible, and I have to think that the first few people to come up with offsetting the handle must have been amazed at how much easier that made the task, and awfully pleased with themselves for their innovation. It was really interesting to see how the timber would have been made, and I think that Craig was a bit surprised when we told him that we wanted to try to hew a log of our own. Attempting to hew a log into usable lumber was incredibly difficult. But much like splitting a tree trunk using only wedges and mallets, it was also immensely rewarding. It felt really good to swing an ax and knock off a clean chunk of log almost flush with the chalk line. I have to admit that these moments were fewer than the ones of frustration, but the process made me really appreciate all of the skill and man hours that went into constructing timber frame buildings.
All in all, I really enjoyed my experience working hands on with a modern take on traditional timber frame construction. Learning about how the pieces fit together in class is one thing, but actually seeing how it is built and watching it come together adds an additional depth of knowledge that can’t be gained any other way. I have such a greater understanding of early American building practices and how a timber framed structure is created. Understanding how tools are used to shape and manipulate the wood to fit together perfectly provides me so much context that cannot be grasped from simply reading about it. I am so glad to now have this deeper connection to and understanding of the process of creating timber frame structures and the skilled laborers who built them.
I got home from Menokin on a Tuesday night, and on the following Wednesday I went to our neighborhood weekly meal at our common house, part of which is an old log cabin that has been added onto multiple times. I went into the cabin and looked at the timber, like I have many times before, but this time I noticed marks on the summer beam that I hadn’t appreciated before.
They were the marks left behind from the hewing process, little V-shaped notches in the wood where the ax score marks had gone slightly past the chalk line, marks I had just made myself on a piece of timber at Menokin. And seeing those scars in the wood made me love that little cabin more than I ever had before.