There is a magic…



There is a magic to this work, and a sadness at its completion. The magic begins with a fancy, a passing image of a tiny cabin nestled into a hillside, just enough for two, carved from the surrounding forest. It dances from the mind, not containable, onto a roughly sketched scrap of paper late one night, candle light dancing about across the page, rude shapes and simple math cover corners as the little dream takes shape.

There is a magic as this dream is carved, hewn and sawn from stoic timbers of oak and pine. As cold polished chisels devour fat chips and leave straight bold mortises in their wake. The chorus of a many toothed saw as its rhythm strikes long curls of richly scented pine spiraling to the undergrowth.

There is a magic as the timbers come together, as long oiled tenons slide easily into their rightful mortise, the knock of the mallet and thud as a joint slams home, the permanence of each joint reverberating in your bones.

There is a sadness in its completion, like the ending of a much enjoyed book, when you are rudely thrown back to the cruelness of reality. The fantasy and joy gone too soon, and what of all your favorite characters, best friends and enemies no more…? The moment comes gradually into fruition, you double check your measurements, your wedges, your foundation. The work goes fast, with so much preparation, like a swift sleigh ride down a snowy hill, you slam one mortise home, drive this wedge, shove that timber, insert that joist, then…then…its done…its all together, there beautiful before you, but done, and you want more!

Yes there is a sadness in its completion, but also a joy unmeasured, a satisfaction money cannot buy, and a pride justly earned! For you have given wings to a dream, and so long as there will always be more to build, there will be a magic in every day!



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It was the tears…

The morning broke low and cool, not with some majestic gaudy display across a wide empty horizon, but slowly with a thousand meek rays reaching tentatively through the maze of tree trunks and bushes. I made my way down the narrow tree lined trail enjoying the crunch of crisp gravel under boot, and the warm glowing ache of my right arm as my tool tote grew heavier with each step. A nervous wood thrush bolted swiftly up from my pile of timbers to alight in the large sugar maple tree above, fluffing and warming himself in the early morning breeze.


With a a sigh I lay my tote upon a fat timber of oak and began to lay out the days tools with reverent care upon the timbers, in easy reach, and in good order. A smirk crossed my lips as I gazed across my small contingent of useful tools. A few chisels, a smoothing plane, rip and crosscut saw, auger bits, spirit level, snap line, mallet, framing square…yes they were all here, with these simple tools you can build a house…

Once the moment passed I unsheathed old Bertha with somewhat of a flourish, as some ancient knight might his beloved sword, and sank her shining teeth deep into the wood of a joist. With each stroke she sang and sank ever deeper into the wood, following my gentle guiding as a sturdy draft horse would. I thought of all the years she must have suffered such loneliness and depression, closed away in a dusty old barn. For there is a soul in these old tools, though most dismiss the notion.

They were forged in the foundries of old, great factories worked by solid tireless men, akin to the smithies of the dwarves! They were tools crafted expertly of need, to build houses, to carve and cleave and rive out of wood all that is good and just. Yes, and they were used, expertly by expert men of the trades, until such men faded away like a summer rain gone too soon… Then then sat, hoarded by some, forgotten by others, lost in time as it were, until the misery of the job undone, the longing for the masters calloused touch, the deep sadness of the absence of need drove them to cry. It is these steely tears which cause old tools to rust, to fade away into the night, to crumble into themselves and lose that brilliant shine and stately countenance which they long held…how terribly sad a fate to be at once a Tool unused for its purpose!

Being one who loves lost things, and such the romantic at heart, I find true joy and endless satisfaction in bringing these aging ladies back to their former glory. With but a bit of oil and a rub of the stone, a quick pass of the file, these sad flowers shunned to the night grace us again with their beauty fully in the day! Not with the obscene noise, or repulsive vibration common to lesser tools born of modernity, but harmony of form and function carried true from a bygone age!





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A tree falls

Fifty three years ago a Tulip Poplar seed fluttered its way down from high in the forest canopy. It skipped through the lush leaves of a stately red oak, danced about the fat twiggy branches of a tough dour hickory, and bounced about within the thorny crown of a holly before coming to rest in the moist rich undergrowth of an Eastern Kentucky creek bottom. Subsequent summer showers only served to nestle the young seed deeper into its new home, just as a corpulent Rhode Island hen would gather a wandering egg amongst her feathery warmth.

The rich loamy soil of the creek bottom along with a patch of open sky above soon catapulted our tiny seedling into the air. Within twenty years he had dominated his small piece of paradise in the canopy, and began to extend his leafy reach outward, amassing a gorgeous crown bejeweled with yellow flowers of his own progeny. If fate had been kind our young tree would have established himself as one true forest giant, his trunk could have reached more than ten feet in diameter, his height ten times that.

One early spring a blistery cold late ice storm rolled though the high country, bending mighty hemlocks, smashing spindly black pines against the hillsides, and even our stately Poplar could not weather the storm undamaged. His gorgeous crown, which had so dominated and impressed the clearing, was too heavily laden with ice, and broke off in a terrifying crash, leaving him doomed to an agonizing and protracted end. Not by fire or chainsaw, but slow vicious rot would eat away at his insides, till all which remained of our glorious tall tree was the hollow haunted tapping of a hoary woodpecker searching for grubs in his rotten remains.

In this case, we felt no grief in harvesting this tree. With axe and saw we would transform his yet whole wood into a home for ourselves, so that he may live on in another life, be enjoyed and appreciated for many years to come.

In this most intimate intrusion of the forest, the felling of a great tree, we feel doubly resigned to the use of hand tools. To give of ourselves, some great sweat and effort, in the taking of this tree, to not despoil the air with the noise and stink of a chainsaw, but add to the forest symphony our own tunes, of chopping axe and singing saw, it is this way in part we give reverence to this tree, and every tree we must fell to build our home…






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Stones of time

The chimney lay exactly where our neighbor said it would, deep in a hollow flanked on either side by steep hills of red clay. Its top lay tumbled backwards, stone in piles covered in thick matts of moss and lichen, yellow daffodils poking their coy heads up through last falls parade of maple leaves. A scant few stones remained where the hearth would have been, the heart of the house being the last which remained to speak of its presence. Stately maple and poplar trees spread their buttressed roots where the kitchen and bedrooms would have been, ruffed grouse nesting under wild rose bushes where a mother had kneaded biscuit dough for hungry children. It is an odd feeling, standing among the humus and rubble of a life long gone, straining to imagine how the house had been, how the mother sounded calling out to her children from the porch, the wind chimes sang in the breeze, tiny feet ran and giggled, and fires cracked and popped in this very chimney, in this very home, in this very hollow so long ago.

Sweat rolled down my back as I stooped to roll back the matt of moss to reveal thousands of tiny chisel marks pecked across the flat surface of a sandstone slab perhaps 3 feet wide and 4 inches thick. Who had been the man to make these marks? Where was he born, in what year, where did he work, and did he love this stone as I do?

Immediately the joy, reverence and wander replaced the heat, sweat, and pain from the arduous trail blazing through a sea of wrathful briers and rose bushes, groping with talons outstretched for any gap in our clothing. As I warmed my back with the solid weight of each stone being carried to our awaiting mule, I felt without doubt the most solid connection to this land, this earth, and the true virtue of building our home with our hands. Perhaps someday someone will wander how our house looked, how we laughed loved and lived, as they gaze at these same precious lovely stones of time. IMG_8971IMG_8967IMG_8962IMG_8919IMG_8917

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Masonry heaters and hard lessons

Around 500 years ago winter came knocking early and stayed late. A dreadful dark dismal den of destruction descended on mankind, a period of icy death and despair unseen for millennia. The gradual warming period which had left us fat and happy, allowed new colonization and prosperous growth and trade gave way to a cooling which threatened to push much of Europe to a slow painful end under frosty bundles of dusty blankets. This quaintly named “little Ice age” had far reaching ramifications throughout the world, one of which, it helped teach a hard lesson to wood hungry Europe. One great development from this catastrophe was a brilliantly simple method to heat ones home more efficiently. Masonry heaters do not rely on constant fires to warm, they transfer a brilliant high heat into a huge warm mass which radiates this heat back slowly, as all good giant conductors should, consequently using much less wood, and producing no nasty byproducts of dampening such as creosote or chimney fires. This seemed perfect for us as we used a great deal of wood warming our tent the last winter. What we failed to realize was the practical marriage of a local vernacular building style with its heat source, but Ill get the that later…

I found a wonderful stove builder offering free plans for a single skin masonry heater, complete with cooktop and bread oven, sold. With a pile of bricks and buckets of clay mortar I set to work, first making a stone footing, then laying brick layer by layer per the plans instructions, only stopping to add a cast iron door or damper as needed. Our heater/cookstove was lovely, and worked exactly as intended. After a 2 hour burn, all the bricks were nice and toasty warm, the bread was cooked, and the stage was set for this ton of radiant mass to warm our workshop over the next 12 hours. What could be better? Of course, physics reared its ugly head, and showed us these type stoves don’t work well with a poorly insulated building such as thin wattle and daub…The stove radiated its heat just fine, but this heat could not be retained by our building, which let it bleed away all to swiftly, leaving us shivering by morning. It was truly heartbreaking, especially for me, who had truly fallen in love with our stove, but there was nothing to do but tear every lovely brick down, and find some massively oversize wood stove on Craigslist and go on with lessons learned….our stories moral, it pays to be careful when mixing building styles from different cultures. IMG_6894IMG_8128IMG_8524





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Brick floor

For our workshop floor we wanted something durable, easily cleaned, cheap, traditional, and of course, beautiful. Brick saw to our wants more perfectly than we could have hoped in our wildest dreams.

I must say I have never been a fan of concrete. If the smell, complication, price and modernity of this medium were not enough to discourage its use, there is a worry of its sustainability and long term practicality. One transcendent characteristic of long lived foundations around the globe is flexibility, our earth is in constant motion, and this motion does not seem to bode well for cement. How many slab foundations have you seen cracked? Or slab concrete sidewalks, driveways or patios? Most all crack, leak, and deteriorate quite swiftly. Not to mention the price of having a slab poured, as well as the labor and complication of the form work and the actual pour itself.

A traditional brick floor on the other hand, is simplicity and flexibility personified! No forms, no rebar, no ubiquitous gang of heavy booted laborers, and no expensive truck. (the truck alone was a deal breaker for us as we would have needed to spend over 2K in road work to even GET a cement truck to our building site) The brick only wanted a cushy bed of gravel and sand, it flexes gorgeously and can be repaired or even replaced with ease. As we needed around 1K bricks for our masonry heater needs anyway, tacking on a few extra for the floor was no hurt at all.

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Wattle and daub III

Lime is quite an amazing material, in fact the entire process smacks of alchemy or pure old school wizardry. Tiny mollusks, sponges, and corrals create a crusty home for themselves out of aragonite or calcite, die and millions of years later leave their sea bottom home as layers of limestone. You burn this stone, give it some water, make a plaster or wash with it and it returns to stone, covering your home in the same crusty shells our ancestors used millions of year ago. Its the ultimate thrift store recycle, we get to reuse the armor great great grandpa fended of trilobites with to fend off the elements…

All awesome coolness aside, lime plaster and wash have other attributes which lend them perfectly to timber frame dwellings. Unlike modern cements, Lime is wear permeable, allowing the building to transmit excess moisture in or out, preventing rot, and helping the clay daubing to regulate humidity. Lime also is quite deadly to microorganisms as it is highly caustic. Even before we knew what germs were, it was felt lime washing walls was hygienic and prevented a build up of vermin. And of course its just plain beautiful, the brilliant white offsetting and complimenting the ever darkening timbers and heavily brightening any room.

The only true roadblock we found was actually locating the correct type of lime, or anyone who knew what we were talking about…Traditionally limestone would have been cooked in a kiln, producing “quicklime” which was then slaked with water producing a lime putty. This quite random process created a putty which had to be soaked for long periods of time (often generations) to ensure complete hydration of the lime particles. Masons would soak large quantities in pits, the grounds even temperature preventing freezing, literally for their children’s work, then taking cakes of putty from long dead relatives out with them on the job. Having no great uncle laying down our store of lime, we needed another alternative. Fortunately for us, these days several companies produce a hydrated lime which may be used directly, known as type S hydrated lime. The “S” denotes this lime as being special, and altogether different from the type “N” or normal hydrated lime. The type S has apparently undergone a “special” process of steaming and other proprietary treatments lending it to our purposes a perfect regard. We searched high and low for type S lime in our local rural stores, and after many blank stares, and sideways glances at my sad attempts to relay our specific needs, we found a feed store selling a lime not marked as type S by the company but claimed to be the same by their representative. This brand “old castle” apparently produces type S then packages some as that variety for masons use, but also packs some up just as hydrated lime for agricultural use, both coming from the same spout as it were.

Even with modern type S lime, most advocate a minimum of 6 weeks slaking under water before use. We quite recklessly did not, but mixed our putty directly from the bag, with good results, perhaps we got lucky…

In any case our plaster consisted of 3 parts mason sand to one part lime putty, and one half part unraveled manila rope cut into 2 inch lengths to simulate horse hair in the historic recipe. Having this mixed up we misted each wall panel with water to help control suction from the dry clay daub, then applied a half inch layer of the plaster using a pool float from the local DIY store.

I must admit, with time completely against us we were in a huge rush to get any lime work done before winters freezing fingers did their worst to our walls, and so broke most every rule in traditional plasterwork. Amazingly, the walls turned out quite well, did not crack apart and fall into a heap of powder as was my worst fear. Plaster was traditionally applied in 3 layers, a very hairy “scratch” coat, a medium weight “middle” coat, and a thin hairless lime rich “finish” coat. These coats were applied then covered from the sun and wind and dried very slowly, taking weeks to finish, then upwards of 5 coats of lime wash were applied on top. We had barely the time to get one hairy coat of plaster down and 2 washes before our first freezes of the year, but somehow this seems to have worked for the raw nature of our need. I would hope that perhaps the wealthy, or at least the proper homes were finished in the way described as traditionally correct, but many structures were “thrown” up by those less wealthy or prepared homesteaders, and if my theory is true, we count ourselves honored to be categorized along with these more common folk of the past. IMG_6584IMG_6577IMG_6598IMG_6534IMG_6668IMG_6827IMG_6824




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