Who Axed That?

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Having just returned from the Frankfort, KY, IPTW and the pre-conference workshops, I'm trying not to lose track of all the great experiences I had in the madness of catching up with the demands of business. The IPTW was one of the best yet, but I have to say that the memories and lessons from the log workshop that ran for eight days prior to the conference are some of the finest I've experienced in a while.

The workshop was a challenge in many ways. The log structure we were restoring had originally been used as a meat house. Although it appears meat may have been smoked in it at one time, the real purpose was for salt curing and drying meat on a small commercial scale. Whether by design, because of the moisture involved in the curing process or because of its availability, most of the logs in the crib were Eastern Red Cedar.

Because cedar is quite rot resistant, most of the structure - at least the parts that were above ground - was in very good condition. Originally, it had been built resting on stones and against a dry stack stone wall built with the local limestone into the hillside to the north of the structure. Unfortunately, as is all too common, the contour of the ground around the building changed when a roadbed was constructed on the hillside above. The result was dirt piling up against most of the north wall and encroaching along the east wall, causing a lot of damage.

During last summer's Preservation Rendezvous, we had documented and deconstructed the meat house, and Frankfort Parks & Recreation had purchased the logs we specified for this year's workshop to replace whole logs and parts of logs that had been damaged. We had asked them to match the diameter and species, which they did, but that's where the lessons began. We quickly realized our logs looked little if at all like the logs in the historic building's walls.

In an educational environment, it's typical, actually pretty much standard practice, to control as many of the variables as possible so the lessons are taught based on predictable and vetted conditions, and the expectation is that the results are predictable and students are graded on how close they match the predicted results.

In the real world of conservation practice, tradespeople have to expect the unexpected, and the real "art" of the work comes in tailoring the solutions to the problems that are encountered in a way that both results in good work and satisfaction in knowing it is. This is what gives in-the-field education a very real advantage over classroom or laboratory education, and we obviously had some opportunities to put that into practice during the meat house workshop.

The first problem we encountered was how tapered the logs were. Unlike the logs in the 1825 structure's walls, our logs tapered from 12 ins. (for example) on the small end to 18 ins. or more on the large end in 14 ft. of length! Obviously, the forest the logs in the historic walls came from trees that grew in very different conditions--most likely virgin stands with very high crowns and long slender stems (trunks) tapering little as they reached for the sunlight above.

The next problem was the shape of our logs. The historic logs had obviously been relatively cylindrical. but our logs resembled strange organic Atlas rockets with multiple booster engines bound together by tree bark. The surfaces undulated and folded in on themselves so deeply that in places you could slide your hand in up to the wrist. Trying to get useful, well-cut timbers that looked like what had been there was going to be quite a challenge.

The next little detail we hadn't thought of was how dry the logs were. None of us had ever worked with Eastern Red Cedar before, so realizing these logs, which had only been cut a few months before, had very low moisture content meant we were probably in for a workout scoring and hewing them with our axes and broadaxes. As luck would have it, we were wrong! As our lead hewing instructors Timothy Wilkinson and Jim Houston began to teach our students proper techniques for juggling, scoring and hewing, the cedar cooperated much better than anticipated, and soon beautiful pink (almost purple!) surfaces began to appear with a richness of color that was very rewarding to the would-be woodsmen and women.

Bill Faulconer's portable Woodmizer sawmill was a life saver for straightening out the tapers in the logs, and once the students had learned the art of juggling (v-notching the log every 16 ins. to 18 on. and splitting off the sections between with an ax), we used it to saw close to the hewn dimension, and the students scored and hewed to the final surface. Logs that we "un-tapered" were creatively rounded with a drawknife to appear to have "waney" (the tree surface beneath the bark) edges. Slowly but surely, the 21st-century logs were manipulated into suitable replacements for the early 19th -century ones, v-notched at the corners and re-stacked.

For me, it was a great educational experience all the way around. We had the opportunity to teach both best practices and realistic recovery from the unexpected. The students learned about problem solving in a real world setting, and a fine example of early 19th-century log construction saw phase two of its restoration completed. Next year during phase three, we will quarry the limestone chinking on site, daub the logs with period appropriate daubing, fabricate and install wood shakes and restore the missing siding and historic door and hardware.

Please come and join us next year at the completion workshop-rendezvous. You can see pictures of this year's workshop on PTN's Facebook page. And please feel free to add comments or questions!