The trough: emergency timber framing

Every renovation project has its trough, and this was mine:

You are looking at what was formerly holding up my kitchen floor.  Now, there are a few things wrong with this picture.

The first thing is the sill beam that runs from the bottom right of the photo, over to the left under that dainty little post.  It’s rotted completely through.  I actually investigated this very beam before I bought the house, and when I jabbed at it with a screwdriver, it felt solid from the side.  But when I uncovered it from above, I was able to vacuum out the dust that had formerly been solid wood, until it was kind of a hollow U-shaped bowl.  That keyhole thing in the side is a hole where solid wood should be.

The second problem is the dainty little post.  Not only is it sitting on that rotted out beam, but it’s doing the work of a much bigger post, which had been located just to the left of it in this photo, and seems to have been removed, long long ago, to accommodate a beehive cook oven.

Now the old beehive cook oven has been demolished – you can see the outline of the inside of it there to the right of the dainty post.  But they left the dainty post in place and never replaced the original beefy post.  Note the mold on the post (really a wall stud).  Water had been coming in the building at this point, which probably explains the rotted beam below.

Here’s a view from the other side, showing a large 2nd floor beam that once sat atop the missing post, and the ghost tenon on the end of another beam that once tied into a mortise on the same missing post.  This post seemed to have been an important part of the structure.  It was holding up a lot of stuff.

I needed to take out that moldy insufficient post, replace the rotted section of the sill beam, and put in a new post that was more like the original post.  And the new post needed to be exactly the right height to catch the weight of two different beams at different heights.  This is a timber-framing project, and I have never done any timber framing.

To the rescue: my friend Serena, who is a carpenter artist timber framer preservationist life saver.

After I braced up the 2nd floor beam above with the help of my old boss Greg, the dainty little post/stud came out easily, and Serena got to work cutting out the rotted wood:

Pay no attention to that other main beam that looks like it should be tying into the rotted beam right about at this point – that’s a blog post for another day.

Serena had just enough time to cut a couple of complicated joints for the new piece…

And with a little coaxing, my Mom and I were able to get it into place and bolt it there.

One major piece of work accomplished!  But Serena had to go, and I still had to get that big post in.  Left on my own with the little bit of timber framing instruction Serena gave me, my first set of chisels and a totally insufficient set of 18 volt cordless tools, I tackled the post project.

As any carpenter will tell you, nothing is ever square.  I was using a gigantic post – 8″x10″ of green pine lumber, which was very heavy even for two people.  I needed to get these measurements and cuts right in one try, since I only wanted to try and fit that post in there once!  Taking it out to trim or re-cut it was just not an option.

So I spent about 5 days measuring, and 3 days cutting the post and all its complicated shoulders.

I measured and cut, measured and cut, pretty wigged out and scared of getting it wrong.  And then the day came when I had no more excuses, it was time to try and fit it in there.  It was just me and Mom that day, and fortunately, both of us have been lifting weights.

Well, the post went in on the first try.  It needed a little trimming I was able to do in place, and quite a bit of persuading from the 4-pound sledge, but it went in there, and fit beautifully on all of its sides.

Ah, look at all that clean new wood.  The new post is the one in the back.  The two pressure treated posts to the left and right are the temporary supports.

We had not been sure at all that this was going to work, but it did.  What a relief!

We were so happy that we signed the post.  Mr. Mason was my 7th grade math teacher.  I had to add and subtract a lot of fractions to cut this post.

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A lot of help from my friends

I couldn’t do it without all of you, thanks!


Safety first!



Whoops, I think I might have overworked this one.


This particular super-woman can attend a board meeting and get a little masonry done at the same time.


Hey aren’t you supposed to be at work?


Warrior Moms



She’s smiling under the mask, believe me.




Come by to help and my Mom might buy you a Coolata.


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And one day, there’s a roof!

One of the many major things this house needed was a new roof.  What you see in this photo is a temporary rubber roof, held down with 1×3 strapping to the roof deck:


From the nailing pattern on the old roof deck, Historic Boston determined that the original roof had been made of cedar shakes, which was once a very common roofing material. Wooden roof, you say?  With working chimneys?  Well yes, and house fires were once much more common too.  Today’s wood shingle roofs are much safer – the wood shakes are treated with fire retardants.  The Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) would only approve new cedar shakes or asphalt shingles for roofing materials, and shakes were out of the budget, so asphalt it is.

My first stab at picking out a roofing shingle was a major fail.  Down at Harvey Industries, I picked out what looked like a natural fit: a GAF architectural shingle designed to look like wood shakes.  The BLC will love this, I thought!  Not so.  Turns out the BLC doesn’t like anything ‘fake’.  If I’m not going to put wood shakes up there, they’d rather have an asphalt roof that just looks like asphalt than one pretending to be wood shakes.  Good to know.

So I ended up with this shingle:


The color quality isn’t great in this photo, but it’s a nice brown-ish shingle.  It’s sitting next to a mock-up of the final house colors – more on that later.

The roofing is being done by Olde Mohawk masonry & historic renovation.  Ken Miller is their guy in Melrose and his crew, including Roland, Joe, and Adam, worked their butts off in some searing heat and sun to make this happen.

First step: find out what’s responsible for that mushy sag in the front of the roof.


Could it have been this rotten purlin?  Gross.  

Here’s a view from the attic with the roof open.  Nice view!  The vertical pieces are the main hip rafters of the roof – the horizontal pieces connecting them are the purlins.  In this photo you can see a new one practically glowing in the sunlight:


And the view from the street:


The badly rotted out fascia nailers were also replaced, they are the new looking wood where the roof meets the wall:


With the new finish fascia and soffit in place (covering up that fascia nailer), next up comes a new plywood deck:


Once all that’s done, the actual asphalt shingles are the easy part! 




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House Numbers

So, I’ve been shopping online and ordering things for the renovation willy nilly, and at some point I realized it was going to be hard to get things delivered to my front door without any house numbers on it!

The front door of my house was built by a student at the North Bennet Street School, using hinges, a lock and latch from Acorn Manufacturing, an ironworking company down in Mansfield Mass.  So naturally, I wanted matching numbers.

Since Acorn doesn’t sell direct to the public, my first stop was the showroom at Raybern Hardware, where I nearly fell down a rabbit hole of amazing knobs, latches, hinges, and whatnot.  But fortunately I kept my wits about me and stuck to my mission: a simple “6” and “5” from Acorn Manufacturing.  They didn’t have the numbers in stock, but that just meant I had an excuse to drive down to Mansfield and pick them up in person.

The folks at Acorn were very kind and helpful, and I love their stuff – mostly forged by hand right on site, and mostly reproductions of actual 18th century designs.

For about 10 bucks and an afternoon’s leisurely drive, I had my house numbers.  What I didn’t have was a ladder the right size to put them up over the door with – one was a little too long and one was a little too short, and I didn’t want to wait to go get the just-right one.  So I pulled what my roofer Ken called “some homeowner sh*t” and rigged up the too-short ladder on the granite step, tied to the door handle to keep it from tipping over, to be able to reach above the door.

As you can see, they’re a little crooked.  But I’ve decided I like them that way.

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New Windows, North Side

The North Bennett Street School carpenters were on site to put in the new windows they built!  It was a big day, even the Boston Herald came out for a visit:

Here you can see the North side of the house when Historic Boston first got a hold of it  Notice the crooked chimney, which has since been rebuilt:


The first step was to take down the brown exterior shingles and uncover the old grey-painted clapboards underneath:

Before: the old windows and clapboards still on the house

Then off came the clapboards too:

NBSS students carefully taking down the old clapboards, saving what they can.

With the clapboards and sheathing off, you can see the brick nogging that is throughout the 1st floor of the house.  My electrician didn’t believe me, but here it is.  The nogging seems to have been intended to provide some basic insulation and rodent proofing.  It worked – all the rodent nests were up on the 2nd floor instead.

The rotted sections of framing have been replaced, ready for the windows to go in.

With the brick removed, we’re now looking at the back of the living room plaster wall.  The wainscotting below the plaster is a single very wide board – common at the time the house was built, but not so easy to come by these days.  NBSS also replaced sections of the wall framing that had rotted out, with new rough-sawn pine, sprayed with a borate solution to deter pests and rot.

A brand new 9/6 handbuilt window waiting to go in the wall

After 2 days of work, the 5 new windows are in and the wall is closed up again, ready for insulation and paint.


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Before Photos

While I’m waiting for my building permit, how about some ‘before’ photos?

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Where to Begin?

On April 11th, I became the owner of the Anna Clapp Harris Smith house in Dorchester.  She arrived at 12:30 pm, 208 years old, 2850 square feet, and bright yellow!

Click the “Follow” button on the right to subscribe to the blog by email, or the “Entries RSS” link to read it in the reader of your choice.  I will do my best to keep you entertained and informed about my progress turning this beautiful wreck of a house into my lifelong home.


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