Thursday, September 2, 2010

A hand hewn beam

At least I stopped at hand hewing the timbers for my house. If I had tried to do that, this project would never be finished. This post is not directly related my little house, but it is a technique that could have been used to prepare my timbers in a more traditional way, so I  am going to write about it anyway.

Last week I took out a wall in our house to open up some space and allow more light to pass through. The wall was load bearing and I still wanted to create some separation between the rooms, so my housemates and I decided to replace it with two posts supporting a narrow countertop. We found a suitable Black Locust tree on the property, felled, debarked and cut two posts from the trunk. One would remain in the round, and has a natural crotch in it that mimics a brace. The second one I hewed into a 7"x7" beam to replace one that was original to the house.

Black Locust is a tree that is native to Southeastern US, but was brought to New England for its strong, fast growing, rot resistant wood. Like many other non-native plants, it has become invasive in its new territory, so I had no problem harvesting one from our property.

This was my first time hewing a beam, and I definitely learned a few things from it. I used a traditional method and tools for the job. The beam was laid out from the ends, then the ends were connected with a chalk line. With the layout finished, each face was notched with an axe down to the layout lines, turned ninety degrees, the waste chopped away with a broad faced hewing hatchet and then smoothed out with an adze. It sounds simple enough, yet it took three to four hours of back breaking work per side to make the beam. I also should have heeded the advice of a friend to hew the log while it was fresh. I never thought a month's time drying would make much of a difference, but I was wrong. With an axe sharpened to the point where it would cut hairs, a swing with all of my might would rarely drive the head more than 1/2" into the tree!

Something else I might have experienced was Black Locust poisoning. I was going thorough a lot of water durring this process and with woodchips flying all over a twenty foot radius, it was not uncommon to spit some out after taking a gulp of water. What I didn't know was that the young shoots, seeds and inner bark of Black Locust are highly toxic to most animals. It seems that I might have picked up a mild case of posining by drinking my locust-chip tea. For two days I suffered though a slight fever with a dizzy, achy head, achy muscles and complete lack of energy. It could have just been some bug going around, but I think that I'll put a cap on my water bottle next time anyway!

All in all, it was a really cool project but I'm happy that I bought the beams for my house precut.

I have finished priming most of my siding, so the next step is to put up some 1" by pine sheathing and install the siding!