December 10, 2010
Building the Frame of the Anderson Kitchen
The construction of the Anderson kitchen frame began in July of 2010 at Great Hopes Plantation with the preparation of building materials. Under the shade of a massive pecan tree, we dug a sawpit into the side of a hill, adjacent to a flat, level yard for hewing logs and riving boards. Great Hopes was perfect for our material production needs because it is easy to bring in the logs we buy for our projects, and there is plenty of room for timber storage. Great Hopes also provides the ideal setting to tell the story of the creation of scantling and plank, shingles and boards in colonial Virginia. The vast majority of building materials were made in rural settings, much like our tobacco farm. Planters large and small constantly harvested timber as they cleared the land. The most useful trees were worked up into lumber by their laborers, free and enslaved, on those farms. Trees were felled in the winter when “the sap was down.” The demand for labor in the fields was down in winter as well, and hands could be freed up for falling trees and hewing, sawing and riving them into lumber. The money received for lumber was just as good as the income derived from tobacco, corn and wheat, and the demand for building materials was growing all the time. Lumber was produced in the country and moved to the cities and towns where buildings were going up. Our lumber made at Great Hopes was headed to Williamsburg.
Rural buildings are usually framed at the building site, but when carpenters work in cities and towns, it is often more practical to build the timber frames in a “carpenter’s yard,” and then move the finished frame to the building site. Building lots in cities and towns are often quite small, and there is not enough room for the bricklayers and carpenters to do their work in the same lot at the same time. When we built the Coffeehouse the only level spot on the property was exactly where the Coffeehouse foundation was being constructed, and so we had to build the frame elsewhere. (Actually, we built the Coffeehouse frame all the way out at Great Hopes, and moved it into town to raise it.) Another reason to work in a framing yard is efficiency – while the foundation is being built, the carpenters can frame the entire house off-site, and the joiners can make all of the windows and doors and shutters and sash in their workshop. As soon as the foundation has cured sufficiently to bear the weight of the frame, the house can go up.
The frame for the Anderson kitchen is a very simple, straight-forward frame. We first joined the four sills at the corners with mortise-and-tenon joints. The sills were hewn out of white oak. As the part of the frame to directly contact the damp of the masonry foundation, the sills needed to be made of a wood that is fairly rot resistant. We then took the sills apart, and used the front and back sills to frame the front and back walls, which were made up of the sills, plates, corner posts, braces, the door posts for the front door, and the wall studs. Each of the vertical timbers in those walls is 4 ¾” thick: the corner posts are 7” by 4 ¾”, and the studs are 3” by 4 ¾.” The studs are set on twenty-four inch centers, which is what is usually seen in early Tidewater Virginia framing. With all the wall members sharing a common thickness (4 ¾”), it is very easy to run clapboards or weatherboards on the outside of the wall, and lath and plaster on the inside, and have a straight wall inside and out without posts protruding out of the wall into the room.
The bulk of the material used in the Anderson kitchen frame is tulip poplar. Colonial Williamsburg’s architectural historians see a lot of poplar framing in old houses, especially in Williamsburg. Poplar is a local hardwood that (like pine) grows tall and straight, with the branches at the top of the tree. Poplar is also the biggest hardwood that grows in the area, making it the wood of choice for large posts and beams. The secret to the success of using poplar in framing is to saw or hew away the “sapwood,” or outer part of the tree, and to use only the dark green and brown heartwood at the center. The heartwood is more stable and surprisingly rot resistant.
The next step in framing the kitchen was to take the front and back walls apart again – but first, every timber was numbered. None of the major timbers in the building are interchangeable with any other timber, so the joints are numbered with Roman numerals before disassembly. A frame can only go up in a day if you know where all the pieces belong.
We reassembled the sills, and held them together temporarily by driving iron “hook pins” into the holes bored for the wooden pegs. Pegs are not dowels: they are split from dry locust or oak, then made octagonal and tapered with a drawknife. When we drive them into a hole, they don’t come out again. Hook pins can be knocked out easily, which makes them ideal for holding the joints together temporarily.
With the sills together again, we set the front and back wall plates directly on top of the front and back sills. Then, with the distance between the front and back walls fixed, we lapped the ceiling joists over top of the plates. It is a whole lot easier to frame the upstairs down on the ground this way. Or if it makes it easier to visualize, we have assembled the lower part of the house but have left out the posts and studs, making the front and back walls fifteen inches high instead of nine feet high.
With the ceiling completed, only the roof remained. We built the first truss on the ground, making sure the spread of the rafter feet was correct, then lapped and spiked the collar beam (which, if you visualize the capital letter “A”, is the horizontal member). That first rafter became the template for the other thirteen rafters. We numbered the rafters with our chisels, then took all the pieces of the kitchen apart and began moving the frame to the Armoury site.
Contributed by Garland Wood, Master Carpenter
Next Week: Garland writes about raising the frame of the Anderson kitchen.