Chapter 3 - Apprenticeship
I look back on my apprenticeship with Ed with fond memories. My full-time job did not allow the time to be a real apprentice, so I think of Ed as my mentor. My next opportunity to learn some timber-framing skills after the barn experience was in Eds shop, the current project being a church. Ed gave me the job of making braces and made it sound crucial to the project. Having now made dozens of braces, I know what Ed was thinking. Let’s find out if this guy can cut a straight line and if he can’t at least he won’t be wrecking an expensive timber! Having proved that I could cut two 45-degree angles, exactly 36 inches apart including a 1 1/2 inch tenon on each end, I graduated to curve cutting on a band saw. This lesson taught me the value of pre-made templates. Carefully crafted from sheets of metal siding, a brace template not only allowed the graceful curve on the outside of a brace to be easily and consistently drawn, but also eliminated the tedious measurement of two 45-degree angles, exactly 36 inches apart. The catch is that the template indicates the shoulder of the tenon and it is very easy to confidently trace the end of the template and saw off the tenon! I have done that a few times and Eds wisdom of starting on something other than an expensive timber has become quite clear. Cutting off the tenon of a 16-foot beam would have ended my budding career. Since my frame has 36, 30 and 24-inch braces, I made a point of making the 36 inch braces first so that if I did cut of the tenon, I could still make a 30-inch brace from the disaster. I still have a sample of a 30-inch brace without any tenons. I even wrote “ADD TENON” on each end of the template as a memory jog.
It took me a while to realize why I was using 5 foot 3x6’s to make 36-inch braces. All of those cut-off ends quickly found their way into the wood stove that kept the shop warm. But warmth was not the goal. Knots in the area of the tenon cause all kinds of troubles and the template is placed on the stock to avoid this problem. A 5-foot piece of stock provided enough wiggle room to avoid a nasty knot right where a tenon shoulder or peg hole will need to be cut.
The next skill that was tested was the ability to cut a tenon. The template indicated the line of the 1 1/2 inch depth cut for the shoulder. The 4-inch tenon length is then cut parallel to the shoulder creating the angle at the end of the brace tenon. The hard part is to cut from the end of the angled end of the piece of wood to the shoulder cut to form the tenon. Unfortunately, a 7 1/2-inch circular saw does not cut from the end of the 4-inch tenon down to the shoulder and a larger saw becomes unwieldy on such a small piece of wood. The result of these two saw cuts still leaves a stout chunk of oak firmly attached. If this attached piece of wood has no knots, inserting a chisel in the saw cut at the end of the tenon and giving it a good whack with a mallet will usually pop out this piece of wood with minimal trimming needed.
I looked around the shop for a chisel and a mallet and noted that the other two guys that were busy creating elaborate joinery both had these tools. I mumbled to no one in particular that I needed a chisel and a mallet. Ed looked at me with an astonished look on his face and said, “How are you going to be a timber-framer if you don’t have a chisel?” Ed left the shop while I pondered the implications of his question. He promptly reappeared from his office with his prized possession, his father’s chisel and mallet. As if the knowledge that this was a precious tool was not enough the scare me to death, Eds parting command was, “Don’t drop it!”
The rest of the day included enlightenment by my co-workers that I had to provide my own timber-framing tools. Electrical hand tools are expendable, but a chisel is forever. That evening, I returned Eds precious chisel unscathed and promised to return with my own chisel. I learned many lessons that first day in Eds shop. The sacred value of a timber framing chisel, not to mention its’ cost, committed me to timber framing forever more.
Over the next few years, I visited Eds shop as often as I could and helped with whatever project was currently under way. In the fall of 1996, Ed was putting the finishing touches on a house in New Jersey. For a couple of days I helped assemble the wrap-around deck on the front of the house. With its wealth of dormers and hammer beam trusses, this was exactly the kind of timber framing that I wanted to do.