Which came first, the chicken or the egg? It depends on whether that chicken lived in a log cabin or a post and beam house, because contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t inside an old fashioned log cabin that eggs were first scrambled in America. It was in one of the timber frame, mortise and tenon, post and beam buildings of the first colonists. What this has to do with chickens and eggs is not important, the show’s starting…
Roy’s shop is itself a timber frame structure, but for the moment he whisks us away us to downtown Winston Salem, where we find some “very medieval” looking timber frame buildings dating back to the mid 1700’s. The broadax hewn beams have been exposed to the elements for going on three centuries, yet they remain as stout as the day the colonials assembled them. There’s a real beauty in this type of framing with its strength and symmetry. The old European versions had mud daubing filling the spaces between the beams and thatched roofs. Many of the surviving American examples have shingled roofs and brick walls, but the look is the same. Beautiful.
Roy risks life and limb to show us how this type of construction takes advantage of the way wood behaves under stress, perching himself up in the trusses of an 1830’s barn. Carefully designed to shift the load from the roof to the walls, a great deal of engineering went into the way every timber was positioned. If I was up in those rafters at such a dizzying height, I’d be checking how long it takes a loogie to hit the ground. Not Roy, he pulls out a book from the era to read us a passage on calculating the size of a “queen post” truss. Here is a truly dedicated teacher, clinging to a beam forty feet above the hard packed dirt to read us a story, for goodness sake.
Whether he fell and was carried, or descended and walked on his own, we soon find Roy outside with his own little timber frame structure, ready to show us how to chop one of the large mortises common to this type of construction. He removes much of the waste with his boring machine, an interesting contraption complete with a depth scale and a pair of hand pedals which makes quick work of the job and looks like a lot of fun! We could have bought it new in 1913 for five and a half bucks. Today they’re a bit harder to come by and vastly more expensive. A century of time has inflated the price on that model by fifty or sixty times!
As he sets aside his boring machine and reaches for his corner chisel I find myself in disagreement with Roy, perhaps for the first time. He appears to consider the corner chisel a wonderful tool, while I think they’re just excess weight if you’re carrying your tool kit to work. Even Roy has to pull out a regular chisel to finish up the mortise, the corner chisel is only good for the corners, and not that more efficient. With a wide flat chisel, squaring the end of all but the widest mortises takes three chops. With a good sized mortising chisel it takes two, hardly a time saver. Of course, if I were timber framing all day, I may think differently. But woodworking catalogs that sell corner chisels today often find themselves overstocked.
“I know a hawk from a handsaw when the wind is southerly…” Roy often sings an odd verse or quotes a little poetry out of the blue while he works. This time he’s quoting Shakespeare as he crosscuts the shoulders for his tenon. I’m not sure Hamlet featured much timber framing, but if it inspires Roy, it inspires me. Splitting the cheeks away with a hand adze, Roy chamfers the end before he assembles his joint. “After I put in the purlin beam… this forms kind of a wainscot…I’ll try and put the whole thing together without knocking the whole building down…” Post and beam construction goes together like a three dimensional puzzle, but instead of a photo on the box, you get a lot of splinters. Angled supports and interlocking corners and dozens of tenons, it all has to fit together in a particular sequence in just the right way at just the right time. It’s really an impressive process, especially for one guy by himself, and once a frame is assembled you can see the sense of satisfaction further puffing up Roy’s marshmallow hat.
Back to the shop, which as we know, is also a post and beam structure. He built it himself after examining the construction from surviving 1850’s structures in his neighborhood. Here we’re treated to a post by beam tour, complete with photos of his bearded buddies during the construction. All of the traditional practices were followed, even the superstition of putting a coin in one of the plate mortises before raising the walls. I think I would have enjoyed being among Roy and his friends while the shop was being built. It looked like hard work, I know I would have slowed them down, I’m certain I would have lost at least one limb, but everybody seems so excited to be part of what was to become the legendary Woodwright’s Shop.
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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