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This blog follows the reconstruction of the Revolutionary War Public Armoury on the James Anderson site

Reconstruction of the Blacksmith's & Public Armoury

August 11, 2011

First Peek at the New Public Armoury.

In this update from the Virtual Williamsburg project we show the first pictures of how the Public Armoury will look when it is finished.  As can be seen in the following views, our modeler has been hard at work taking the Architectural Historian’s plans and realizing them as a 3D model.  Though it may not quite look it yet, these pictures are the first steps towards a photo-realistic rendering of the Armoury as it was around 1780. 

 The first two pictures show the scale of the Armoury, along with the arrangement of the windows and their relationship to the forges.  The building is large: 20’ wide x 68’ long.  The gray walls in the picture will be white-washed weatherboards.  This is an alteration from the previous reconstruction which used relatively rough, unpainted riven clapboards as its exterior covering.  But this change is only one of the many revisions made to the design of the new Public Armoury building, which have been based on a thorough review of documentary sources, archaeological materials, and many hours of new research. 

As the amendments to the exterior materials suggests, the new interpretation proposes that the building was better constructed than was originally thought and erected all at one time rather than in several distinct building campaigns.  To reflect this new understanding, the form as well as the finish of the armoury has been changed from the previous reconstruction design.  First, there are no longer any partitions dividing the interior and the brick foundations run continuously around the entire structure, with no interruption.  Upon this new, firmer foundation, the wall and ceiling framing is more robust.  Instead of the mixture of stripped logs, riven studs, and sawn framing found in the old building, the new structure will have a carefully sawn and joined frame composed of more substantial members.  This sturdier wood frame supports improved finishes, installed with an eighteenth century eye to the security of the arms and raw materials inside.  The exterior cladding has been changed from thin clapboards to more substantial sawn weatherboards, while the old clapboard roof has been replaced with cedar shingles.  All the shutters and doors are double-sheathed—that is, composed of boards set perpendicular to one another and nailed together to form a firm, double-thick leaf.  This configuration resists would-be intruders better than the lighter, board-and-batten doors of the previous design.  These new shutters close in new, larger sash windows which better illuminate the interior work areas than the smaller openings of the old building.  This adjustment reflects our understanding of the Armoury as a critical piece of the revolutionary infrastructure, rather than as a modest, private shop.

 The four chimneys visible in figure 2 indicate the positions of the forges on the interior.  The way the forges will look inside can be more clearly seen in figure 3.  Imagine the dark-red as courses of brick, the brown floor replaced by brick pavers, and the brown cylinders that sit on them as roughly hewn wooden stumps with iron anvils on them.  The gray walls will be white-washed butt-jointed boards running horizontally.  This board sheathing represents another improvement over the old building and simultaneously reflects its higher status as well as another concession to security.  Behind the forges at the back of the interior view is a diagonal panel that indicates the location of the stairs to the attic.  Figure 4 illustrates these stairs with their sheathing removed, along with the framing in this corner, which will be exposed inside the stair enclosure.  The stair box will be finished with board sheathing and a light board-and-batten door.

 Figure 5 shows the attic, an area that for safety reasons will not be accessible to guests in the physical reconstruction, but in the virtual model you will be able to go where you please!  The staircase rises on the left side of the door at the back of the picture, behind the forge chimney.  The brick chimneys rise from the work area below and continue up through the roof.  The floor will be roughly sawn, unplaned wooden boards, while the roof and walls will be unfinished, leaving framing elements exposed and unpainted.  This space will be for storage and the large trap doors at the bottom of the picture will allow bulky items to be lifted up using a hoist.  Finally, figure 6 shows the building with the east wall removed.  The open trap doors to the second floor are located between the two left side forges.  The forges on the right show another revision from the earlier design in the new location for the north forge (at the far right).  Notice how it is oriented to the west, opposite the other three forges, which all face east.  We are not absolutely clear why this was done, but it may have been to avoid the stair case in the northwest corner. 

 Keep watching for more as we progress through the entire block!

Contributed by Peter Inker, Digital History Center, and Jeff Klee, Architectural History.



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  1. Great job again on the virtual pictures. You mentioned the heavier framing. I think Garland Wood mentioned the studs for the kitchen were almost 5 inches thick. Out of curiosity, I wonder how that compares with the armory, and, reaching back a bit, the coffeehouse reconstructed two years ago. I know framing could be as thick as six inches, but much of it was in the four inch range.
    Thanks for continued great work by all involved!

      • Hey Rick and All,
        Haven’t posted as often lately because everyone else is asking all the good questions. Just sitting back and reading!

    • John,
      Garland Wood weighs in with the following comment:

      “One of the features of early Virginia timber frames was that all of the vertical timbers in a wall were the same thickness. If a corner post was 9 x 4 ½, then a door post would be 7 x 4 ½, and a down brace perhaps 6 x 4 ½, and the studs, 3 x 4 ½. They all have the four-and-a-half inch dimension in common, which allows a carpenter to easily sheathe or lath the inside of the wall without a post protruding into a corner of a room. Mid-century buildings tend to have deeper wall members, and they get smaller after the Revolution. The critical dimension for the 1778 Armory wall framing is 4 ¾ inches. The Coffeehouse’s 1750’s walls, for comparison, were 5 1/2″ thick.”

      • Garland, Meredith, and all,
        Thanks so much. This is exactly the information I was hoping to get. Boy, the coffeehouse walls WERE thick. I assume those dimensions were derived from existing framing members surviving in the Armistead house.

        As for the Armory, like others, I have noticed the building as reconstructed now is interpreted as originally built in one stage rather than several. It was interesting to see the joints in the sills to cover the length required. Had a chance to visit the site over the weekend. Wish I could be there for the frame raising.

  2. Great Virtuals. The computer program that I use in my office is called “REVIT”. It is building modeling based – meaning I draw in 3-D while drawing in 2-D. For the fun of it, and for practice with the program, I’ve “entered” (or drew) the Kitchen, Armoury an Stith House into my computer (from dimensions given, photos, wed cams, etc.). Although this is for my own edification, and is somewhat a “water-under-the-bridge” matter at this point, I was wondering if there is any copy-right issues that may warrant deletion from my system?

    • Hi Rick~
      If you want the full legal answer to this question, you will need to contact Colonial Williamsburg’s lawyer handling intellectual property. If, however(as I suspect), you are simply working with the buildings on your own PC for your own edification, you should be fine. You would not, of course, want to reproduce any sort of product for sale (especially under the Anderson’s Armoury or Colonial Williamsburg name). Thanks for checking, Rick!

  3. The virtual model is a great tool for illustrating the space and how it will be used. I am sure I do not understand the intricacies of an armory operation, however the reversed forge on the north end seems to create a natural separation of workspace. I was going to ask why no windows in the northwest corner, but it is apparent that the Stith Tin shop is adjacent and blocking that wall. That leaves me to question, why not a door between the two buildings? I realize that would be a speculative alteration unsupported by physical evidence, but it seems logical for workflow if the Stith tin shop turns out to be the armory tin shop. Ken, I am guessing this question will end up in your lap so maybe you could elaborate on how the different work areas will be used. I am beginning to understand that the armory operation requires a lot of diverse types of work, (iron work, gun repair, uniform repair, tinwork, etc.) and that most of these operations will occur in this building. Efficiency will require work cell planning. I am guessing you already have that figured out. Keep up the good work,

    • Ken- Once again, you bring up some very interesting points and highlight issues that we are discussing here. First- the forge. I am not certain why the north forge is reversed in relation to the others. The forge position is supported by archaeology, but while archaeology can tell us “what” it cannot always explain “why”. Thinking about the physical situation of the site, the northwest corner of the building sits on the slope of the ravine. We do know from earlier archaeology that the northwest corner of the building foundation had to be rebuilt at one time, presumably because the brickwork settled where the ground eroded along the ravine. It is possible that the forge was located farther to the east to avoid having to dig a deep underpinning, or to prevent construction of the forge on top of fill. That is all speculation though.

      We have also discussed a possible doorway between the Armoury and the Stith, due to their proximity and associated work. We would love to find some physical or documentary evidence to support such a link, but again, any physical connection would be speculation at this point. We are carefully examining archaeological evidence to look for door location for the Stith, and while we have some thoughts, we have not determined conclusively the door location. A logical location would be on the north side, but archaeology shows significant accumulation of waste debris and a sloping ground surface- not characteristics usually found at a main entrance. The west side shows evidence of a possible stoop, but this puts the entrance close to the lowest point in the ravine- again, not an ideal location for the doorway. We are digging on the south side of the building now, to see if there is any evidence of a door or pathway on that side. Hopefully, some sort of conclusive evidence is forthcoming.

      As for work “cells”- the layout of workspace around a forge is pretty straightforward. Each forge has to have an anvil (anvil stump locations were identified archaeologically) and access to a forging vise. Quench tubs also need to be conveniently located. So these positions are somewhat “fixed”. Finishing work is done at the bench, and requires the best light, so benches and finishing vises are located against the walls and under the windows. Essentially all of the metalworkign fabrication and assembly are carried out in those positions. The armoury work also included restocking military arms. This woodworking activity may or may not have taken place within the armoury building itself. Remember that the armoury was actually a complex of buildings. Anderson had a shop behind his house (the Barraud House) he may have had workspace in his rental property (the Anderson House)and he had at least one more significant building in the yard, which we are cautiously calling the “workshop”. Gun stocking, polishing, wood staining, tinwork, cloth and leatherwork, lead casting, packaging of ammunition, etc. could have taken place at any or all of these locations on the site. We will develop the programming and activity following historical precedent, but keeping in mind that we are a museum, these activities must be interesting, visible, accessible, safe, and must support our educational mission. There will undoubtably be modifications and compromises to the activity in order to accomodate our modern guests.

  4. OK….I’ve been told there are no dumb questions, and if this has already been asked, please just point me to the answer. In light of the tightness of the Armoury, why wasn’t it built before the kitchen and why weren’t the Armoury walls erected before the forges built.

    • Rick-No dumb questions- if you are curious, ask away!

      In regard to construction sequence- we know that in the eighteenth century the kitchen existed before the armoury. In our reconstruction we decided that we could get a more natural recreation by following the same sequence. This will assure that we think through the challenge of squeezing the armoury in between two existing buildings and address some of the same construction issues that James Anderson and his colleagues had to deal with.

      In terms of the forges- you are correct. We do know in the eighteenth century the walls were built before the forges. In our case, we built the forges first as a means to make most efficient use of our construction time. Project manager Clyde Kestner has done a remarkable job of coordinating all of the different aspects of the construction, and keeping the project on schedule. As project manager, Clyde felt that it was best for the schedule and for the budget to build the forges now. Had we waited until the building was up, we would have run the risk of building the forges in winter weather, slowing the work and requiring supplemental heat. In July, heat was cheap and abundant.

  5. I must admit that the location of the north forge has been a puzzle to me and I’m sure 100’s of others, since I saw the footings going in many weeks ago. With Ken Schwarz’s statement above that the 18th century walls were built before the forges it would make construction sense to build the forge furthest from the biggest door first so as to make movement of materials easier. I would also presume that they didn’t have enough workmen at any one time to work one more than one forge.

    The north forge may have been built according to the original plans taking into account the slope on the lot. This would also explain the stairs to the second floor’s location. It would not make sense that stairs would dictate where a forge would be built in a commercial structure. Once this forge was built it was discovered to be a very dark area to be working in. Note no windows east or west and wedged in between the Kitchen and Tin shop. It appears in the virtual pictures there may be a window to the north but that isn’t all that valuable as a rule for decent working light any time of day.

    Once this was discovered they may have decided to reverse the remaining three forges so they faced east with windows giving at least a half days worth of valuable light and early morning warmth in the winter.

    On the subject of winter heat I’m sure Mr James Anderson would have been delighted to have had the Radiant Heating tubes in his shop that were placed in the floor of the newest version. My question is where is the heat coming from for this building? I’m a firm believer in Radiant Heat and have used it in every building I’ve built in the last twenty years.

    Love all the web cams, virtual pictures, blogs and information being shared with us. You are doing a Great Job keeping everyone a part of the project.

    • Dale~
      I am always surprised..and gratified…to see how much thought our readers give to the questions that occupy our days! Your insights are excellent.

      As for heat, though the question seems far from important as we swelter through another Virginia summer, Mr. Anderson had to count on those four forges….and perhaps the crush of 40 men working in close proximity….to heat the building.

      Glad you’re enjoying the webcams and blogs. We are too!

    • Dale- I second the thanks for your thoughts. Your observations follow good logic, and seem quite reasonable to me.

      On the subject of light in the north end of the building- you are correct that this is the most challenging area to light, due to the adjoining buildings. In the old structure, there was quite a bit of light reflected off of the Anderson House to the north (which is painted white), and so the light streaming in the north door was always pretty good. In the new structure, we have a door and a window on the north elevation to capture as much of that light as possible.. We also pushed the east windows as far north as possible to throw light into the “dark area”. My hope is that this will give sufficient light, at least on the sunny days. The overcast days of December and January are always a challenge.

      the source of heat for our radiant floor is a boiler in the Brick House Tavern on the adjoining lot. The large boiler there supplies heat to the Tavern, and to our shop floor. The forges throw very little heat into the room (for which we are grateful in July and August), so Anderson’s workmen had to dress well, and keep active to stay warm in the winter.

      Keep sharing your thoughts! We appreciate the different perspectives!

  6. Looking at the forges from the front, the outer 2 are wider than the center 2. I would assume they were built for different purposes. Perhaps the center ones were for nail making and other lighter duty work. Do you know anything about the design and use of the forges?

    • Good observation, Dave. The forges are of differing sizes, but the reason is not clear. A larger forge might contain a larger fire, or it may just have a larger top surface for more tool storage. It may just be the results of the forges being built by two different bricklayers.

      A typical sign of a nailer’s forge would be multiple anvil locations around a common fire. Nailmaking is one of the few manufacturing operations where multiple workmen share a common fire. The Diderot images of the nailers shop show three workmen around the fire, and Thomas Jefferson’s plan for a nailery placed four work stations around a single fire. Archeologists did find possible evidence for nailer’s forges with 4 stations around a fire, but the chronology of use as a nail making space is not absolutely clear. We will not be setting up any of these forges specifically for nailmaking, as we need the flexibility to do a range of work at the forges in order to keep up with our demand. Nailmaking will certainly continue to be part of that mix, although not at a specialty tool set-up.

  7. I’ve been to many museums with blacksmith shops and after about 4 or 5 I finally asked why they all seem to be rather dark and with few window. Would more windows allow more ventilation due to the heat generated by the forge. The answer was given to me that they were kept “relatively” dark and with few windows on purpose so the smiths could see the iron’s glow better. True / not true?

    • The statement about keeping the shop “relatively dark” in order to more clearly read temperature is true. Direct sunlight “bleaches out” the colors, making it more difficult to accurately judge temperature. This works in the other direction, too- if it is too dark, the smith cannot see the surface detail of the work. Too dark is like being in a dark room and looking at a single glowing light bulb. It is difficult to see anything. We need to balance these extremes. The forges are normally set toward the middle of the room, or in a shaded corner to minimize direct sunlight, and the bench work is done against the wall under a window for the good light necessary for polishing and assembly of cold work.

      In our climate, windows are also placed for ventilation, not so much from the heat of the forge, but for the warm climate of the Chesapeake. We need to get air through the shop on a hot day. Chesapeake architecture evolves differently from the architecture in New England, due to our warm climate. In the Chesapeake we have a longer hot season, so the buildings are designed to handle the heat- chimneys on the ends of the building, houses constructed one room deep, tall ceilings, kitchens separate from the house…

      By contrast, typical New England houses are designed for a long cold season- center chimneys with rooms arranged around the central fires, low ceilings, kitchens within the main house…

      Our window placement spaces the windows evenly along the exposed walls to bring light and air into the building. Our forges are built with chimneys that will draw the heat and fumes from the building. I think that you will be impressed with the chimney function when we open up.

    • After the above reply I’ve spent a some time looking over many photos of Blacksmith shops which I have taken. In fact I revisited one last weekend at Shelburne Mus in Vermont which was built in 1800. This I est. to be 25′ x 30′ (+/-) and it appears to have had 8 windows in it when built. This included one on either side in the wall behind the forge and one on each side near the forge as well.

      A picture of my Great Grandfather’s shop from around 1880, also in Vermont, shows a window next to each forge and on the end and side walls. Northern New England winter days are short and tend to be overcast & dark a lot of the time.

      I would say that the design of the shop and the locations and numbers of windows depended on the Smith who built the building and how much money he had available to have glass shipped to his location. Lumber he could trade for locally but glass was different. If I remember correct they were taxed extra on glass.

      I doubt if there was anything that might be considered a “Standard Design Blacksmith Shop”. Each smith had his own ideas just like today and built accordingly.

      • Dale- Glad to see that my writings on blacksmith shops motivated readers to pursue some individual research on the subject. I think that you and I agree that New England architecture evolved to meet a particular set of geographic circumstances, and Chesapeake architecture followed different rules that met our unique needs. I would also say that there are elements of shop layout that are the same whether you are in Virginia or Vermont.

        I also agree that there was not a “Standard Design Blacksmith Shop”, but there are common elements of shop design and layout that are quite similar and recognizable from one workshop to the next- the smith has to have easy access to the forge, anvil, forging vise, bellows, tools, and quench tub, and there are only a few ways to conveniently lay out these tools in a small space. The workbench and filing vise are located nearby, closer to the light source.

        The type of work done in the shop will impact both shop size and layout. Building farm wagons or ships anchors will require more space and different layout and lighting conditions than building door locks or firearms.

        Time period may also have an impact on design. I believe that the Shelburne Shop was built around 1840, and your Great Grandfather’s Shop around 1880- 60 and 100 years after the Armoury. The American economy had changed tremendously during that time. Material availability and technology of manufacture had advanced significantly. Many blacksmith shops turned primarily to horseshoeing, a change that is reflected in shop layout.

        The only time that I know of glass being taxed is when the Townshend Duties were in effect- from 1767 to 1770-and this was a sales tax rather than an annual tax. I am not familiar with the tax laws of Vermont, but Virginia did not tax glass. With water transportation nearby, glass should be readily available as an import. In the backcountry there are fewer imported goods and the cost of overland transportation greatly increased their retail price.

        The Armoury building has 7 windows and three door openings. The number of windows in the building is an educated guess that is based on the number of hinges purchased for construction- some of those hinges used for shutters. We do also have the accounts for glass delivered from the Public Store for the Public Armoury, so we know that the windows were glazed. The new structure should have plenty of light, but direct light on the forges is minimized by placing the forges in the center of the building, and long walls provided bench space for the more detailed weapons work of an armoury.

        I would love to see your collection of photographs of blacksmith shops. As you point out, each shop tells a unique story.

  8. I see some framing activity on the webcam. Is this just some final fitting and working on rigging techniques? Will the framing that is currently in place stay? If so, what is the plan for the 25th?

    • Anton- We are setting some of the framing in place- specifically those elements of the frame that have to be carefully manipulated between existing buildings and chimneys. These pieces have to be placed piece-by-piece due to the tight space. On Thursday we will set the large sections of wall that can be raised all at once, and place the joists to complete the “box” frame. Thursday’s activity will be similar to the other frame structures that we put into place in a traditional raising.

  9. All this is so interesting. I so wish I could just stand and watch. thank you for all the information. I will get there again eventually.