“I am sure this is a part of the series that some of you have been waiting for!”
We’re heading outside the shop to recall the homesteader days of hard work, cholera and log cabins. Timber frame construction came first to America and the Swedish brought log construction later. But in this two episode series we’ll do it the other way around. Logs first, timbers next time.
“Everybody has a favorite building” and Roy takes us to his, a very specific and unique log house. Made from logs that were ripped down the length with a pit saw and assembled with dovetail joints, it’s endured the past century or so very well. Thirty yards away is a different example, a poorly constructed cabin with both v-notch and simple lapped corners. This one is falling down after a mere two or three generations. Finally we visit a 1787 cabin that’s just about flawless. The undercut daubing and compound dovetail corners made all the difference. It’s a hands-on (or at lease eyes-on) lesson in cabins built to last.
Time to build our own. Not a full sized cabin, mind you. Nobody has much use for those anymore. We’re making an 8 foot square corn crib. “Where to begin? With the logs, of course, pine logs”. Step one is removing the bark which keeps the bugs away, help the logs dry, and produces a clean side for marking our hewing lines. Roy lays his out with a plumb bob and a snap line dipped in poke berry juice, the same thing his “Great-great uncle Weldon used to write his last letter home on the way back from Gettysburg… the baggage train with all their ink in it got hit by cavalry…” He tells the story with a sigh as if it happened yesterday. I’m not too sure it happened at all.
Hewing a log seems to be one of Roy’s favorite jobs, he demonstrates it many times in the next thirty years and he just gets better and better at it. The show’s first instance, however, is done a bit differently. Instead of standing on top of the log and notching the sides every foot or so, he has the log raised to waist height and starts chopping the heck out of the side all down it’s length, scoring to the line. “Pace yourself, you’ve got to do this all day, and all night too if there’s a full moon.” The chopping has hacked away ninety percent of the waste and the side can now be smoothed with a broad ax, if he can catch his breath. I don’t mean to imply that he’s out of shape, in fact young Roy Underhill appears to be in peak physical condition, the result of years spent juicing poke berries and snapping lines. Who else could wield a broad ax while quoting poetry (again from “The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools):
The broad ax spoke without a miss,
He said the plane my brother is
We two shall cleanse on every side
To help our master with his pride.
Never missing an opportunity to add a bit of ye olde wisdom, Roy uses those verses from his favorite poem to explain that, though it looks like a big, crude implement, the broad ax is, like the plane, a finishing tool. And as he reaches the end of his log you can see what he means. The once hacked up side is now reasonably smooth, scared with only the characteristic marks of the hand hewn log. “You can do this, of course, as well as you want to. Your broad ax must be razor sharp, and sometimes… you can follow this with an adze if you’re going to do parlor beams, as they say.”
The sides being smooth, it’s time to cut the ends. This is the most important feature of the log house, as we saw in the three earlier examples. The style of the joint can mean a lifespan many times longer, and Roy has selected two different styles, the compound dovetail and the V-notch, both designed to channel water away from the structure. “It (the compound dovetail) has been described as impossibly intricate… it is anything but that.” Interestingly an ax cut surface is more resistant to decay than a sawn surface. A saw leaves a “fuzzy” path, while an ax leaves a smooth one. Just as a “fuzzy” surface will catch fire more quickly, he explains, the same is true with decay. Lucky for him he is so skilled with a hatchet, which he uses to form the compound angles of the joint with nothing but a trained eye and an experienced swing.
There’s a great deal of chopping in this episode, as you can imagine. But Roy does his best to break the monotony with his references to “The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools”:
Then said the belt
With great strokes I shall him pelt…
At one point he even appears to be singing the opening “Eye-da-dye…” of Simon and Garfunkel’s classic “The Boxer”. Pine is nice to work with, and cheap, but Roy once worked on large cabin that was originally built entirely from walnut and chestnut. Wow, times really have changed! As his two joints reach the final shape he accidently splits a big chunk off the end of the V-notch. “How embarrassing!” Here’s to hoping they at least fit together. “Now that’s awful (he tries to cover the assembled joint with his arm), but please look at the ones down here (which he did with less of a rush previously)…”
“Now that’s our cabin, then. Next time we get together we’re going to start looking at timber frame construction!” I can’t wait!
The following article is a commentary written by Stumpy Nubs which includes his description of the episode and thoughts as he watched it. Only the phrases within quotation marks are the exact words of Roy Underhill.
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