Logging, Milling, & Joinery

As we entered winter, we spent a lot of time wandering the woods and marking trees we considered candidates for saw logs.  Maintaining the health and aesthetic of the forest was as much a concern as finding prime timber.  Though much of the process was intuitive, we had a number of criteria for the trees we selected:  those whose removal would bring desirable light to an area, or that would make narrow woods roads more passable; trees with damaged tops or trunks that likely wouldn’t live a lot longer;  those in crowded clusters that would benefit from thinning; and ones that could be accessed and felled easily, without excessive disturbance or intrusion deep into the woods.  Of course quality was still a consideration, and we did cut a number of trees in their prime that were needed for crucial pieces of the frame (such as 22-foot 7X10 tie-beams and 26-foot sills).  In the end though, it still looked like a forest, and except for a few stumps and openings in the canopy, the forest hardly looked different.  In a way, the whole process was like pruning, but on the scale of a forest instead of an individual tree: we removed mostly less-than-desirable wood, allowing the remaining organism of the forest to flourish in the increased light and space.  The veteran organic orchardist Michael Phillips speaks of aiming to create “calm trees” through pruning.  I suppose our logging was something like thinning to create “calm forest.”

Our process was sort of half low-impact forestry, half redneck log wranglin’:  we employed a “skidding cone,” which is a bit like a giant plastic funnel that makes a smooth rounded surface on the front of a log to keep it from scraping other trees and chewing up the ground, then hitched our eco-groovy equipment to a big old ugly Toyota woods truck.  It took a lot of creativity with peaveys (an amazing tool invented in Maine used to roll logs), cables, pulleys, and shackles, but after the steep part of the learning curve we hit our stride and got all the logs out before the snow stayed for good.  We gambled on the weather, and it couldn’t have cooperated more generously.  It snowed early that year, a foot on Halloween and a foot on Thanksgiving, but it all melted by the end of December.  Then the ground froze solid and we were without snow until after all the logs were safely out, arranged along the driveway and accessible even if big snows came.  If it had been like the winter before, or the one after, we would have been S.O.L.  But, we just went out on a limb (as it were), and the process went without any major hitches.

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All of the timbers for the house are pine, relics of a bygone agricultural era.  Pines need sun to grow, and don’t come up under a canopy.  So, a stand of pine indicates some previous disturbance that removed the forest cover.  In New England, this could be fire, but more than likely is the result of an abandoned field.  Oak Hill has been re-growing as forest since its historic use as sheep pasture gradually disappeared, and the pine groves we selected trees from are a direct result of this history.  Photos from Brian and Janet’s early days on the hill in the mid-70’s show a young, scrubby forest totally unrecognizable from what it has become.  The biggest, most beautiful tree we cut (that we got a 28-foot log 30 inches in diameter from) we counted 50 growth rings on: only 10 years old when they first moved to the land.

We decided to use many of the smaller diameter pine tops for floor joists and roof purlins, milling one flat face and leaving the rest round.  Besides enjoying the aesthetic of roundwood, we were able to utilize what is generally treated as waste in logging, at best ground up for paper pulp.  This saved the forest a lot of pine, and saved us much logging and milling, as we would have had to cut many more trees were we to make square timbers for the 36 joists and purlins.  Milling the roundwood was also a snap: zip once down the log with the mill, and voila!

For braces, we pulled some black cherry logs out of the wood pile, and cut a bunch of standing dead ones out in the woods, the more rotten the better.  See, it turns out that the dead cherry, once it’s out in the weather for a while, starts to rot on the outside.  The beautiful dark red heartwood in the middle doesn’t rot, but the blander white sapwood becomes spongy and easily removed.  We milled two flat faces on these little cherry logs, then scraped down to the heartwood with a drawknife.  This resulted in a gorgeous, dark-red to almost purple, live-edge cherry brace, and like many of the joys of homesteading, it’s something you can only have by making it yourself, with more life and beauty than anything you can buy…


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With the bulk of the grunt work behind us, we were ready to move on to the joinery phase, which involved much more time, skill, and precision, and less back-breaking labor.  Robbie gets all the credit for making this frame happen.  We designed it, but he translated our crude drafts into physical reality.  Timber frames require incredible accuracy. Understanding the intricacies of the joinery, where often many pieces meet in complex ways, can take tremendous mental effort.  Robbie has the sort of brilliant spatial/mathematical mind that can accomplish this.  If I were in charge, something would end up a foot short, or upside down, or just simply wrong somehow.  I know how to use a mallet and chisel, but always deferred to Robbie’s layout to tell me exactly where to use it.

It is physical work swinging a mallet all day, but is also meditative, peaceful work.  With the pleasant tok tok of wooden mallet upon wooden chisel handle echoing through the woods, it is easy to imagine a time when one heard these sounds from farms all around, carving their great barns and simple sheds from the material at hand, by hand.  There is something about timbers, their heft and sturdiness, their dignity and timelessness, that speaks to the soul.  It is a joy to spend whole days working with them, to feel the connection between the trees that they were and they shelter that they’re becoming.  Each piece has an identity, and place in the greater plan, and one might go so far as to assign personalities to different pieces.  We’ve even named a few.  Needless to say, there is a spiritual element to carving a timber frame that can never be found in a pile of 2X4’s.


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