Timber-frame history

  Hand-hewn beams

An adz, for those not familiar with them, resembles a grub-hoe but has a curved, very sharp blade and an offset handle.

Hand-hewn beams were a labor-intensive process and could be dangerous. First, a scoring ax was used. A scoring ax is a short, offset handled ax with a very wide cutting edge, up to eight inches wide. Some refer to them as broadaxes.

The adz-man would stand on the side of the log striking blows with his scoring ax across the log every few inches. These cuts might be two inches deep. The adz-man would then straddle the log with his legs spread. He would then strike the end of the log with his adz. The adz would enter the log until it hit the scoring line. At this point a large chip would be removed.

This was continued along the length of the log creating a relatively flat surface. The log was then rolled over and the scoring ax and adz work repeated. The log was rolled two more times yielding a square beam. Hand-hewn beams are easily recognized by the heavy cut marks made by the adz and scoring ax.

Men claiming to be adz-men were asked to roll up their pant legs when applying for the job. I said this was dangerous work. A man who didn’t have any scars on his shins wasn’t hired. Occasionally, the adz struck with a glancing blow and became imbedded in the adz-man’s shin. If you had much experience, you had scars.

Hand-hewn timber showing tool marks. Photo provided by Ron Patch

The pitsaw

The pitsaw was also labor intensive. Either a pit was dug or a frame was built to perform this operation. First, a log was rolled on top of the pit. In the pit was the bottom pitsaw man. Standing on top of the pit was the top pitsaw man.

They had a long saw, maybe six feet long, with large teeth. Each end of the saw had a wooden handle perpendicular to the saw so the men could use both hands, like pushing an old reel lawnmower. Starting at the end of the log the top pitman would get the saw started and then push the saw down to the lower pitman. The saw was then pulled/pushed up to the top pitman. This was repeated over and over, slowing advancing until the other end of the log was reached. Rhythm between the two pitmen was crucial. The log was then rolled and the process repeated.

Boards or timbers sawn with a pitsaw are easily recognized. They show jagged striations where each saw-cut was ripped. The lower pitman had the worst of it. As he looked up, sawdust was constantly falling in his face.

The circular saw

The first circular saws probably appeared in rural Vermont and New Hampshire in the 1830s. The circular saw was driven by waterpower. Saw-cuts from a circular saw leave semi-round saw marks. A circular saw is much faster than the previous methods and by 1850 they were widely in use.

  Why it matters

As the antiques business grew in the 1970s, collectors and dealers became more sophisticated. Some advanced collectors wanted a home that showcased their collections. These collectors bought 18th century homes for their collections.

It soon became fashionable to live in a post and beam building. To accommodate this new market, dealers in post and beam buildings sprang up. Throughout the area, abandoned or neglected post and beam buildings were purchased. The dealer would dismantle the building and number all of its components.

These buildings were resold to collectors. Once at the new location, the building was painstakingly reconstructed. In the 1980s, this became big business with several post and beam companies here in Vermont. I dealt with these companies selling building components I found.

This was an expensive project but some were willing to pay the price. What the owners of these relocated buildings wanted was exposed hand-hewn beams and wide pine floors. These buyers had no interest in a sawn frame. If you’re going to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars, you wanted hand-hewn beams. This rustic look enhanced antique collections. The Jeffrey barn is a sawn frame.

110 years ago this week

June 29, 1909 there was a ceremony near the Jeffrey barn to dedicate a marble marker donated by Gov. Proctor to honor Chester’s first two settlers. Hugh Henry in his speech said: “I believe it to be a well-established fact in history that that state and that nation lives longest and makes most progress in national and individual life which cherishes most tenaciously, keeps alive, most vigorously regards, and most frequently recalls the traditions and work of its founders and earliest builders.”

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