Saturday, September 10, 2011

Add One More To My Collection

Last October, I wrote about some odd stuff I found in the house, mostly in the attic, including an old iron carpenter's stamp with a number 6 / number 9 on it.

Yesterday, while randomly prowling around under some attic floorboards, I found another old stamp, this one a number 5, amidst the dessicated corn cobs and acorn caps left behind by squirrelly visitors of the past:

Needless to say, there's quite a bit of debris in my joist bays. Soon, I'm going to begin cleaning it all out. But like every other project here, there's a need to proceed slowly, like an archeologist, sifting carefully through the rubble for things revealing of house history.

Just for the sake of comparison, here's my complete set of modern, hand-cut, 3/8" steel stamps (just a tad smaller than the stamps I've found, which are 1/2"). I like working with all manner of traditional tools, whether true antiques, or modern equivalents. These were made by the Hitt Marking Devices folks, in California/Arizona:

So, stay tuned for more postings on the massive attic exploration and clean-out effort, and we'll see what other sorts of things we come up with. I'm still hopeful, by the way, that there's an old musket hidden somewhere. I know it's there -- it's just a matter of time before I find it... :-)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Further Musings on Hawkins House Origins

It always amazes me how much of what passes for knowledge is often just recycled opinion that often falls apart when held up against hard evidence. On the other hand, I also find it disturbing that the same evidence can often stare you straight in the face for a long time, never making an impression, until that one day when some line of reasoning requires you to take just one more look, and then suddenly, the truth becomes obvious.

This is business as usual, of course, when trying to precisely establish the material history of a very old home. At the time I bought the Hawkins house in 2007, for example, a belief deeply held by local historians was that my house had been moved twice, from one unknown location to another, and then to its current location on Hawkins Street. But my thorough investigation of a number of old maps indicated that the house had always been there. The hard physical evidence then came into play when it finally struck me that the footprint of the present day foundation and stone work surrounding the house lined up exactly with the original, above-grade foundation shown in several old photographs.

The Hawkins house shown in its present day location, on a Hughes and Bailey illustrated map of Derby, c. 1920.

I'm now of the mind that my house had been moved only temporarily, if at all, while the old foundation was being replaced with the current one. Or, perhaps even an in situ jacking and then lowering of the house back in place (undoubtedly a long and creaky affair, that might've even racked the house frame), some how transformed over time into an account of the home being moved between different sites.

More recently, I've begun to seriously question the original date of construction of the house. As my knowledge of the architectural trends of the New Haven Colony continues to expand, I've concluded that the present day Hawkins house is a product of the Third Period of colonization (approx. 1700-1750), and probably even of the later half of that period. In terms of its basic architectural form, the Hawkins house quintessentially is a late Third Period home.

A large joist spanning adjacent tie-beams at one end of the Hawkins house. A First Period home would've had a summer beam in this location (summers were either minimized, or disappeared entirely, around 1750). The half-dove tail joint prevents the tie-beams from drifting apart, so the remaining joists, running parallel to this one, are simply dropped in place, without dove tailed ends. This joist effectively divides the house frame into front and back sections, and supports 2x vertical planks, forming a partition wall just below. You can see the ends of these planks on the left side of the joist.

However, the historical record also tells us that Joseph Hawkins built a home in this location sometime between 1670 and 1681. That home most likely would've been of the First Period style, consisting of two floors, with two rooms on each floor, and a large, central chimney. During the Second and Third Periods, many older, First Period homes were expanded into saltboxes, through the incorporation of a lean-to addition, providing a full kitchen on the first floor in the rear of the house, and small, second floor garrets on either side of the chimney column.

View from the southeast bed chamber looking into the spinning room. Even from a photograph, one can easily discern the downward slope of both the spinning room floor and tie-beam (just over the far door leading into the northeast birthing room).

The present day Hawkins house is not a saltbox; rather, a full two-story home with attic. But recently, I found myself wondering if there were any possibility that my home might be a latter day conversion of an earlier Hawkins house, retrofitted by some descendant of Joseph Hawkins. And with that, of course, some previously unaccounted-for physical evidence began to click in my mind. Two things, in particular, now stand out:

1) The entire rear half of the house frame on the second floor has a distinct downward slope toward the rear wall. In the attic, this is even more apparent: You can clearly see that the front half of the attic floor forms a more-or-less level plane, while the rear half of the attic floor (just beyond the large attic joists that effectively divide the front and rear of the house, while stabilizing adjacent tie-beams) clearly slopes downward. This odd feature often (though not always) is a characteristic of an old timber frame home that had been extended at some point in its past.

2) If my home is indeed a conversion of an older house, it is not at all unlikely (again, based on its architectural style) that that conversion might've taken place in the mid to late 1700s. That might account for the strange "100 yea old" epithet white washed on one of the roof planks in the front of the house. The front half of the house indeed could've been "one hundred years old", at the time when the new, rear addition of the house had just been built. And some one, at the time, might've needed to make a note of that fact.

White washed message on the roof deck, proclaiming "100 yea old". This is in the front section of the Hawkins house attic.

Ultimately, a dendrochronological survey, together with a much more thorough visual inspection of the frame than I've done so far (in search of splices, empty mortises, etc.), should settle these questions. However, until I get at least to that point in my current surveys, any notion of a conversion from an earlier house is but mere speculation on my part.

There also are a number of other oddities through out my home that might eventually find their way to explanations if a Hawkins house conversion could indeed be established, including this strangely filled-in section of the second floor parlor chamber, which spans the entire length of the parlor, and is of the same width as the landing just beyond the door.

Cut-out section of the parlor chamber floor, running along the front wall of the Hawkins house. The cut-out was subsequently filled with shortened planks. I'm curious what I'd find underneath, were I to pry any of the shorts planks up.

I don't know (yet) if there is a corresponding construction in the hall chamber, since its plank flooring is completely covered by a "modern floor" (probably mid-19th century, based on its construction), but at some point, I intend to find out.

Nineteenth century overlay flooring in the hall chamber: 5/4 x 4 tongue-and-groove boards, face-nailed with 8d machine cut square nails.

Here's one final example of physical evidence going unnoticed until some other event makes its meaning more obvious. In the second floor southeast bed chamber, there is a cut-out similar to that of the parlor chamber, only smaller in length. It's also filled by old planks. For some time, I had wondered why it was there. The only obvious thing is that two closet spaces had been built over it in more recent times.

Cut-out in the the second floor southeast bed chamber. The short planks extend out to the far wall of the "closet", which happens to be the vertical plank partition wall described in the first photo of this post.

One day, I was in the cellar, looking up at the first floor rafters for some reason, when I noticed an identical cut-out, filled with modern dimensional lumber, directly under the same location and more or less of the same dimensions. That's when it struck me that this was a remnant of the old rear stairway, which led from the second floor work area in the rear of the house, down to the kitchen, and then further into the cellar. It might've been enclosed in paneling, but one side of it was defined by the old vertical plank partition wall that still divides the front and back of the house to this day (only now covered by plaster and wall board).

Until then, I was always wondering why the Hawkins house never had a second stair in the rear, like other homes of its day. It never occurred to me I'd been looking at it all along.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Tying Joint 3D Model

Here are several views of the latest iteration of the 3D model I'm developing of the tying joint used in the Hawkins house frame. This joint is used to fasten each post to its respective tie-beam end, forming the bents, and then subsequently tie the bents themselves together via the front and back top plates, thus forming the basic, standing frame of the house.

The image below shows a typical post top, which is joined to its tie-beam via a tiesel tenon. I still need to determine if the tenon actually extends all the way back to the (non-tapered) end of the post, or if it stops just short of the post end (this is one of the least accessible areas of the post, as it faces the exterior sheathing):

The next image shows the corresponding tie-beam end. A large 3x8x9 shoulder cut out of the bottom of the tie-beam supports the 6x9 plate, which in turn has a mortise that accomodates the 2x8x9 tenon projecting horizontally from the end of the tie-beam, just above the shoulder. Plate and tie-beam are drawn together via a single 1 1/2" peg, pounded in from above. There is also a smaller hole to accomodate the end of the peg securing the rafter foot where it is stepped on to the plate. A mortise cut into the bottom of the shoulder, and extending partly into the tie-beam just beyond the shoulder, accomodates the post's tenon:

Note that, if the post tenon actually does indeed extend all the way to the back of the post, then this mortise is most likely opened at the end of the shoulder. I haven't determined yet if this is actually the case, but this is how I've modeled it for now. I also need to determine if the mortise is blind or open on top. Again, all this is difficult to discern, because this part of the joint is almost completely inaccessible to nondestructive probes.

The next image shows the tie-beam end, as viewed from below. There is a pronounced, adzed reduction in the bottom of the tie-beam, which, on average, extends about 9" inward from the inside edge of the mortise, and is about 1/2" deep:

Here is the tie-beam end, as it would appear facing head-on. An odd characteristic of the mortise, visible from this perspective, is that the blind part of the mortise, just beyond the shoulder, extends upwards an additional 1 3/4", despite the fact that the tenon itself has been measured as only 2 3/4" in length at this end. There is no obvious reason why the blind part of the mortise is cut much deeper than what the tenon actually requires:

Below is yet one more image of the tie-beam end, as viewed along its length:

And here's a photo of an actual Hawkins house tie-beam and post joined together. The plate, of course, is just beyond the wall and ceiling, so not visible in this photo:

The layout of this tying joint might very well be a vernacular design of the Second or Third Period of the New Haven Colony. It's a much simpler geometry than the classic English tying joint found in most First Period homes, and suggests that the Hawkins house might've been constructed later than claimed.

I've never seen this style of joint diagrammed in any of the early timber frame surveys I've studied. Several of my colleagues in the Timber Framers Guild's TTRAG told me they're not familiar with it either, and suggested it might very well be a design that originated in my local area. As I'd mentioned in a previous posting, the Reverend Richard Mansfield House, less than ten miles aways, employs an almost identical tying joint in its bent system.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Earth Day 2011: An Invited Article For Building Moxie

Recently, I was invited by my good friend Jb Bartkowiak to contribute an article to his community-oriented Building Moxie: The Do Together Daily commemorating Earth Day 2011. Needless to say, it was a great honor and privilege to have been asked.

The article, entitled Earth Day 2011: Three Simple Acts That Can Make A Difference, highlights relatively low-cost practices almost anyone can undertake to help achieve a greener, more sustainable world, in keeping with the Earth Day 2011 theme of A Billion Acts of Green. Please give it a read, and post any comments directly to the article itself. And I hope everyone is having a great weekend and holiday!

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Wonderful Note from The Timber Framers Guild

Today, a wonderful note from the Timber Framers Guild, thanking me for my presentation at the TTRAG Symposium 2011 last week end, arrived in the mail. It was a total surprise, and provided just the sort of lift I was a bit in need of today. So I would like to say "thank you", in return, to Joel McCarty, Susan Norlander, and Dan Boyle for being such wonderful facilitators and hosts last week!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Oh Hawkins House, How Old Art Thou, Really?

In recent times, I've found myself speculating quite a bit about the nature of my ancient home, and what it might have to say about the building practices of housewrights in the early New Haven Colony.

But now, some of these considerations actually have me questioning the exact age of the Hawkins house. My home is often claimed to have been built sometime between 1670 and 1675. The local land records say 1670. The Hawkins family genealogy says 1675, but I have found no particular justification for this date in their account. We do know, via the old town records, that the land on which Joseph Hawkins built his home was granted in June of 1670. We also know with certainty that the current day house was sold by the Hawkins family to the Gaynor family in 1853.

The Old Hawkins House, probably around mid-nineteenth century.

And we also have it on the word of Samuel Orcutt and Ambrose Beardsley, in The History of the Old Town of Derby, Connecticut, 1642-1880 (published in 1880) that Joseph Hawkins "...built a house where now the old Hawkins house stands, on Hawkins street, where he died in 1682" (p. 726). I'd previously taken this as confirmation that my home was constructed before 1682, and that Orcutt and Beardsley were asserting that the "old Hawkins house" was, more likely than not, the original home, albeit without having any definitive proof.

However, in re-reading this passage, I now think that Orcutt and Beardsley may have had their suspicions that the house on Hawkins street was built in more recent times, and their comment "where he died in 1682" was probably a reference to an earlier home (or perhaps just the Hawkins street location, generally), and not necessarily the current day house. But why would they have reached such a conclusion?

The Reverend Richard Mansfield house, c. 1700, Ansonia, Connecticut. A pristine example of a Second Period Connecticut saltbox.

A classic text, nearly as old as Orcutt's and Beardsley's history, is Norman Isham's and Albert Brown's Early Connecticut Houses, originally published by Preston and Rounds in 1900, and then republished by Dover in 1965. In it, Isham and Brown surveyed 29 ancient Connecticut homes, some of the earliest of which no longer survive today, and attempted to describe the general characteristics of homes built during the three major periods of Connecticut colonization.

There are many aspects of the current day Hawkins house's architecture and construction that suggest it's more a product of what Isham and Brown had defined as The Third Period of the New Haven Colony, roughly from 1700 to 1750.

First of all, the Hawkins house is simply too big to be a First Period (1638-1675) home, according to Isham's and Brown's characterizations. Homes of the First Period generally consisted of two rooms, Hall and Parlor, separated by the chimney bay, with the entrance and second floor stair in front of the chimney column. Although the front section of the Hawkins house is indeed configured in this manner, the house also has a rear section of nearly equal area encompassing both the first and second floors, defining a large kitchen on the 1st floor, and work rooms and additional bed chambers on the second floor. All this without the lean-to extension typical of Second Period (1675-1700) saltboxes. The Hawkins house plan, therefore, is consistent with the design of a Third Period home.

The beefy central attic joist in the Hawkins house holds the midsections of adjacent end-bay tie-beams together, using a half dovetailed joint at each end. The vertical boards fastened to the left side of the joist create a partition wall that divides the front section (hall and parlor) of the house from the rear section (kitchen area). Second floor and attic joists run longitudinally, and there are no summer beams, except under the first floor.

Also missing from the Hawkins house are the massive summer beams found in most First Period homes, which, in Connecticut, typically spanned the two end bays from the chimney girt to a cambered wall girt at each end, respectively, defining the joist system of the 2nd floor. Instead, Hawkin's house joists in the end bays run longitudinally from chimney girt to wall girt on the 2nd floor, and likewise from tie-beam to tie-beam under the attic floor. The only summer beams are found in the first floor system, visible from the cellar.

The Hawkins house also has a 10" roof pitch, in contrast to the much steeper pitches used by First Period New Haven Colony carpenters, according to Isham and Brown. The roof system does, however, include collar ties, something often missing from later period New Haven Colony homes.

These points really hit home for me while attending the Timber Framers Guild's TTRAG Symposium 2011, last week in Danvers, and Topsfield, Massachusetts. Jack Sobon mentioned to me that, in addition to its basic plan and size, many of the apparent framing simplifications exhibited by my house were typical of later period homes. Several others mentioned that the lack of bracing in favor of heavy sheathing, and the absense of traditional English tying joints in the post/tie-beam/plate connections, also seemed indicative of a later period home. Jack suggested conducting a dendrochronological survey of the frame, to attempt to verify the true age of the house. Thanks to a rather large, accumulated database of wood core samples, modern dendrochronological dating can be extremely accurate, sometimes as close as one year. So, as you can imagine, this is now a part of my survey plans.

Where post, tie-beam, and plate all come together, a relatively simple tying joint is used in the Hawkins house frame. (The Mansfield house in nearby Ansonia uses an almost identical joint).

On the other hand, my Guild colleagues also showed considerable interest in the design of the simplified tying joint used in the Hawkins house frame, whose internal geometry I have yet to completely determine. Both the Hawkins house and nearby Rev. Richard Mansfield house appear to share this joint. Several attendees professed being unfamiliar with this particular style of joint, and concluded that I might've come across a New Haven Colony vernacular design that was worthy of further investigation. So, of course, I plan to continue with that, as well.

Is it possible that the current Hawkins house is a latter day extension of an earlier home built by Joseph Hawkins? That's certainly possible, but I have yet to find any hard evidence of a conversion. I think it more likely that some descendant of the early Hawkins family decided to build a new home, either on, or near, the site of the original home. If that's true, what happened to the original home is anyone's guess.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Snow Screed...Or, How To Float A Big Fluffy Slab

noun \ˈskrēd\ 1) A lengthy discourse (e.g., personal account, or rant); 2) A leveling device drawn over freshly poured concrete [Source: Merriam-Webster]. A screeded concrete surface is usually finished with a float. For this article (which itself is a screed), snow is the metaphorical concrete, the North wind is the screed, and the float is, well, ... an actual float.

January 26th-27th brought us yet another intense winter storm. In our area, the storm dropped about 14"of snow – not quite as much as we'd received two weeks ago. But the total snow accumulation for the month of January was about 52", setting a record for the snowiest January here since 1965. And cold temperatures ensured the older snow stayed around, so accumulations both on the ground and on the tops of structures were quite deep.This caused numerous collapsing roofs here in Connecticut, and many folks are making efforts right now to remove roof-top snow.

In a previous post, I'd written how my home faces north-west, the same direction (more or less) that winter storms tend to blow from in this area. My main roof has a 10" pitch and presents a large profile to the wind, causing lots of snow to blow over the ridge and get deposited on the rear and mud room roofs. Furthermore, the front of the house blocks wind at lower levels, often causing a large build-up of snow on the entry porch roof and in the front yard. So I wasn't totally surprised to see this after the storm:

Needless to say, I'm glad I sistered the columns with 2x6 Ts before the winter. They're not in the greatest shape these days, but I hadn't had time to properly replace them in the fall. The mud room roof also had much snow, and my first priority was to get both porches cleared, which I can safely do with a shop broom from overlooking windows. But what really worried me was the cumulative snow on the back main roof:

Furthermore, the current forecast calls for more snow next week, or possibly even rain. So I really wanted to remove as much of it as possible. I needed something like a roof rake, but with about a 40' extension. I'm not sure roof rakes actually come that long, but it really didn't matter, as no one around here actually stocks roof rakes, and supplies weren't expected until sometime the following week.

But it turned out I had something easily adaptable: A four foot magnesium concrete float and several sections of aluminum shaft that screw together. I ran out to Home Depot and bought a few more sections so I could get the total length I needed. A bit pricey, yes, but I was determined to get this all done as quickly as possible:

First thing I had to do was remove the attachment point from the float, re-orient it 90 degrees, and bolt it back on:

Then, I angled the attachment point at about to about 45 degrees, and screwed one of the aluminum sections on:

My reasoning was that this would enable the float to ride up over the surface of the snow on the up-stroke, and then anchor into the snow on the down-stroke, thus breaking chunks of snow free. I collected everything together, and then headed out to the back of the house:

Not long after, my good friend and nextdoor neighbor Gary Farrell came over to see what I was up to (I think he probably realizes by now that I'm a little crazy). Gary grew up in the Hawkins house, which his family had owned since about 1853, and he had been the steward of the place for a good many years until I bought the house from him in 2007:

While Gary watched with some curiosity, I made my first attempt to get the float up and anchored in the snow just above the eaves. Only two shaft sections were attached. It wasn't quite as easy to do as I initially thought it would be. Once I got it in place, I attached a third section:

It took six sections to get the float just beyond the ridge line, at which point, the float tilted a bit, requiring me to push it a bit higher and spin the shaft to straighten it:

Meanwhile, Gary went back to clearing his side porch roof. I was a little leery watching him up there, hoping the porch roof was strong enough to support his weight and all that snow. I offered him to try out my experimental method, but he seemed quite content to continue with what he was doing (like I said, he knows I'm crazy -- everybody does :-) :

But soon enough, I cut my first swath of snow with the float. I found that shimmying the float would easily dig it in, and then a slight up and down undulation loosened the snow and released a small slough:

Once I had cut the first swath, I drove the float upwards again and attempted the next one (you can see how some portions of the first few sloughs settled on the mud room roof):

Then, I momentarily anchored the float up on the ridge, and took a minute to rest (and snapped this photo, too, of course), while the float waited patiently:

Next, I worked the float over a few feet and began cutting the next swath:

Controlling the float was tricky and took quite a bit of practice. Sometimes, the float would want to veer off to one side, and I'd have to move quickly across the ground (not easy with a lot of deep snow underfoot) and get back under it to make it stop:

In general, the more surface snow removed, the more challenging the float became to control, as it would want to slide across the exposed lower slab, which was hard-packed and icy:

Another point of difficulty was the need to occasionally add or remove a section or two of shaft, depending on how high the snow was where I was standing, versus where I was trying to get the float positioned on the roof:

In this case, another pair of hands was indispensable, and Gary provided me quite a bit of help in getting the job done (in addition to taking some good action pics):

Toward the end of the afternoon, I managed to remove most of the upper layers of snow from the roof. In the photo below, I only needed to clear a bit more snow from the vicinity of the main stack vent, which was effectively buried. But I stayed well clear of the rake line, given the float's tendency to slide sideways:

Needless to say, there was a lot of new snow on the mud room roof. I went back inside and removed it from the safety of the windows. Only I needed a shovel in addition to the shop broom, because this fine, sloughed-off snow had set-up hard (in fact, exactly in the same manner that slough sets up like concrete after an avalanche in the mountains). There was also a lot of displaced snow all around the perimeter of the mudroom and house, which now needed to be removed:

But at least it wasn't on the roof any more, and I had no further concerns about additional precipitation during the coming week.

Some Important Points on Safety and Property Damage

Despite my relative success with this project, I don't necessarily advise my readers to attempt the same. There are a number of risks associated with undertakings such as this one, and although I was able to eliminate or minimize the major ones, this might not always be possible in another person's situation. The major risks include, but are not limited to:

  • Potential for electrocution. Aluminum is an excellent conductor of electricity. Sending a long aluminum shaft aloft while standing in wet snow could be a very dangerous thing to do in the presence of overhead wires (e.g., power company service drop, or feeder to an out-building), or any other sources of electric power. In my case, there were no electrical wires nearby, and my service drop is clear on the opposite side of the house. Had it not been, or had I needed to clear snow from the front roof, I would've requested the power company to shut my power off first, and not resume service until I told them I had completed my work. Otherwise, I never would've attempted this. On the other hand, there are several outdoor light fixtures just beneath the eaves where I was working, but I de-energized their circuits beforehand. Note that a roof rake with a wood, plastic, or fiberglass shaft is arguably safer, but still shouldn't be used in the vicinity of live wires, or any other electrical sources or fixtures. Remember: That shaft is going to have a continuous stream of water dripping down its length, and on to your hands and body.

  • Damage and/or injury from falling snow. Even though these falling sloughs were relatively small, we were surprised by the impact they made hitting the ground. There should be no bystanders (especially small children) or easily damaged property, in the fall zone. Furthermore, if conditions are right -- fresh snow, or fresh snow over a consolidated, older layer of snow, and a very steep roof – you have the potential for triggering a small avalanche, in which more snow than you're expecting can suddenly free itself from the roof. The reason why I used so many extensions, in fact, was to deliberately distance myself as far as possible from the falling sloughs.

  • Damage and/or injury from the shaft/float. As I mentioned earlier, the float was difficult to control, and had a tendency to slide sideways, as the extended shaft is not very rigid. Again, no one should be in the fall zone, nor at either end of the house. There is also a potential for the butt end of the shaft to hit you in the face or body, if not properly controlled. Finally, rain gutters and nearby windows are also at risk for damage.

  • Damage to roof shingles. It would be easy to tear or knock off more than a few shingles doing this. In my case, I had good reason to believe there was at least one hard, base layer of snow covering the shingles, and took care not to penetrate it.

  • Build-up on other structures. As one reader pointed out in a comment, care should be taken to avoid too much snow building up on the roofs of smaller, attached or nearby structures. Be mindful of where the cleared snow is going and what it ends up resting on.

  • Physical injury. I found this work required far more physical exertion than shovelling heavy snow from a side walk. I wouldn't recommend it to any one who wasn't in exceptional shape.

The bottom line here is: If you're concerned about the quantity of snow on your roof, please hire a licensed and insured contractor to remove it!

Postscript [8 February 2011]

Since writing this article, it's become apparent to me that I could make the float less damaging to the shingles by attaching door weather stripping, or a section of foam pipe insulation, to the bottom edge.