Thursday, June 10, 2010

Reconstructing the Barn at East Cavalry Field - GETT

The barn: my workplace for the past few days.

This past week I've been working in the maintenance division, helping to reconstruct a historical barn out near East Cavalry Field.

One of the most interesting things about the building of this barn is that the NPS and the carpenters I've been assisting have a real dedication to maintaining the historical appearance of the barn, from the meticulously-matched custom paint on the outside all the way down to the structural beams on the inside.

Any time you take a tool to a medium, it leaves evidence of its use. Normally, this isn't much of a problem, but since we are interested in preserving a historical structure rather than simply building a modern facsimile, the traces of the modern tools we use have to be removed so that the restoration is as seamless as possible.

Old and new beams.

To this end, the carpenters here try to re-use as much of the original wood as possible, stripping, moisturizing (with a linseed oil and turpentine mixture) and re-painting it when it is structurally safe to do so, and replacing it when it is not. Some of the larger structural beams were in bad shape and fell into this latter category, but before they could be placed inside, they needed a bit of touching up.

Modern-cut plank. You can see the circular saw marks along its surface.

Wood cut with a modern circular saw is usually covered in visible arcing furrows caused by the teeth of the blade passing through as it is cut. These have to be removed using a planer.

This planer saw a lot of work. As you pass it over the wood, it levels the surface, eventually removing the furrows completely, until the face of wood is smooth.

A comparison of the original beam and its replacement.

Planing is good, but not good enough. If you look closely at the aged beam in this picture, you can see a number of lateral (perpendicular to the beam itself) gashes going up its side. These were caused by the original carpenters using axes (not planers) to level the wood.

The carpenters recreate this notched appearance by taking a small axe and striking the wood at an angle. I got to strike at a beam myself on Tuesday, which I found to be very therapeutic. As a special bonus, I'll know that there's a beam of wood inside the barn that will have my unique series crosswise gashes on it for, hopefully, another two hundred years or so.

Maybe I'll take my children to see it someday. I bet they'll be super impressed. Or not.

Gary recreates a historic wood joint used to hold beams together, using the original beam as a pattern. Many thanks to him, by the way. I didn't know anything about barns or carpentry until he took the time to teach me.

It hasn't been all axework this week, however. There's louvers to take care of. Louvers are the slatted "windows" you see on a barn. They allow airflow into the structure. This is important, because is a pile of hay or whatever plant-stuff you're piling needs to be able to "breathe" in order to dry properly. If it is not able to dry, much like a compost heap, it will steadily increase in temperature as the organic material is broken down. When it gets hot enough, this can potentially lead to spontaneous combustion.

Louvers! Already painted, so I have nothing to do here!

Since nobody wants the hay in their barn to suddenly explode into flames, and louvers also let in of light which can help you find your way around once inside - you'll probably spot louvers or some similar manner of ventilation systems on most storage barns.

Stripping the louver. I start the day out in coveralls, but by the time I get to painting, it's too hot to work like that and they end up half-unzipped. Oh well. The thought was there.
The louvers on the barn were in need of some love, so I got to strip the crusting old paint off of them, dust them off, prime them with oil-based paint - and then paint them over with a lovely green latex paint.

A stripped, upside-down louver.

Getting the paint off of the slats is actually kind of difficult. If you're trying to be conservative with the centuries-old wood, you're not going to be able to get all of the paint off. This is OK, though. We really only needed them smooth.

Painting the louvers with mint-green primer.

Like I mentioned before, it's really good to see the attention to detail put into the restoration of this barn. While I didn't do much other than paint louvers and siding (that's really all I'm capable of anyway, since I'm no carpenter), helping a with project as massive and visible as the reconstruction of a 1850's barn is a very gratifying experience - the measure of work you put into it is immediately visible to the same degree.

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