On Friday we erected the Ice House, c. 1770. This small, 10′ x 13′, frame is an exact replica of the larger barn to which it was found adjacent. The Ice House had been fully sheathed inside and out, and the wall cavities filled with sawdust, for insulation. It is extremely rare to find an extant ice house frame, and we were honored to work on it.
The repairs were first initiated a few years ago, and the frame’s small size allowed its transport to a number of preservation conferences and its use in a semester’s long workshop with high school students. While the Ice House was an incredible teaching tool, its age and significance prompt us to start looking for a good, final home.
The final repairs were made with the help of two of this year’s Maine Preservation interns, Callie Douglass, and Matt Corbett.
We began by assembling the deck inside the shop. The frame required new sills, one of which was cut from a hewn sleeper reclaimed from the Damariscotta Steeple. We filled in the deck with log joists from a frame that was not able to be salvaged.*
Callie has experience with new timber frames, and was eager to learn how to preserve old ones. Her first repair was an under-squinted scarf joint in one of the original 7′ posts. When she was finished with her scarf, she hewed down the fix to match the old material. This was the first time Callie had used an adze, but Arron helpfully counseled, “It’s just like golf, Callie, all about the follow through.” Which may be the only apt analogy between timber framing and golf. Despite her lack of experience, golfing and otherwise, Callie found she really had a knack for hewing.
Because of the age of this building, we were repairing, rather than replacing, almost all of the studs, and Matt Corbett performed many of these repairs. In addition to his historic preservation education, Matt had an undergraduate background in sculpture, so he was acquainted with some of the power tools in our shop. In the process of repairing the stud feet, however, he most enjoyed the precision of hand tools, and took a shine to hand planing.
After the fixes were complete, we were hoping that the test assembly in the shop would go smoothly. The “Front Eave” plate fit nicely, with a parade of matching marriage marks down the posts, studs and braces. The gable tie beams dropped on and stiffened the entire frame. When we went to drop on the middle tie, however, we noticed that the half dovetail pocket was facing the wrong direction. A half dovetail is a beautiful joint that allows the tie beam to hold the top of the wall in place, preventing it from spreading with the weight of the rafters. We were mystified that the Front Eave plate, as labeled by its tag, fit so well, even though the wide part of the dovetail mortise was facing the interior of the building. The dovetail on the middle tie beam was no help, because the tenon that connected to this plate was so deteriorated that it no longer had a sloped shoulder. Matt suggested that maybe the original builders had made a mistake, but we shushed him out of reverence for the old timers.
We took the frame apart, and tried turning the plate end for end, with the dovetail mortise oriented correctly, but nothing fit. So we switched the plates, thinking that they had been labeled wrong, and there we found our answer. With the plate on the opposite wall, the joints still didn’t fit, but sunlight streamed in from the upper windows and illuminated our joinery. We could see a distinct shadow line from the shoulder of the tie beam on what should have been the exterior of the plate. The old timers who built it had made a mistake (and made the Ice House today all the more interesting in the process). They reversed the dovetail mortise on one plate and then reduced the tie beam tenon on that end to fit. So we re-assembled the frame the way it was originally built, and the middle tie slipped easily into place, locking up the frame. A pretty parade of matching marriage marks left no one the wiser.
Click on the photos below to see the marriage marks, Matt’s tie beam fix, and more information about our process, and parts and pieces.
*At PTF, we try to avoid Frankenstein frames, but believe there are cases where reuse of certain rare pieces is appropriate (and better than sending them to a burn pile).