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The Barn on White Run
Now that we are on the verge of big time heating season I can reflect on the new hearth pad I made for the wood/coal stove in the basement of the barn. In the past, due mostly to the fact that the stove was installed in the dead of winter with near-zero temps, the pad for the stove was simply loose firebricks laid on top of the plywood sub-floor. It had remained that way for four years until I revisited the situation over the summer.
I removed all of the loose firebricks except for the four underneath the stove feet and a row around the perimeter and hand-poured a concrete pad (reinforced with hardware cloth) in its place. I don’d know if it will make any difference but it makes me happier to have it done.
It is pretty clear from the results that I am not a mason or concrete specialist. Regardless, it is ready to go and provides a permanent foundation for the 500-pound stove for as long as the barn is standing.
With the new Juncus polissoir made I took a minute to examine and characterize it, and give it a quick test drive. As I said earlier, it took a lot more of the rush to compress to the same density of the sorghum polissoirs I have made for me.
My immediate impression of the Juncus polissoir is that is softer and more fragile than the sorghum. The working surface just seemed softer to my fingertips and fingernail, and the fibers around the perimeter of the working tip were much more easily damaged and broken off. My deduction is that this tool could not be used vigorously as a dry tip, unlike the sorghum. Yannick Chastang implied as much when he indicated that this tool is always used with wax, although Roubo is less clear on the subject (Roubo could be a frustrating writer, often accomplishing the nearly impossible feat of being simultaneously effusive and laconic).
Due to time limitations, at that moment my only side-by-side apples vs. apples comparison I could make was to use a dry (unwaxed) sorghum polissoir and this new dry (unwaxed) Juncus polissoir on a prepped board.
Both accomplished glistening surfaces in a matter of seconds.
The visual result was pretty much indistinguishable, but there was a definite sensory difference; the Juncus polissoir seemed much softer to the surface of the wood. Even though the fibers of each were compressed as tightly as possible, the sound of them tapping on the workpiece differed; the Juncus had a much softer, more diffused sound than the sorghum. Deductively this implies that the sorghum polissoir was more efficient to Juncus in burnishing (compressing and smoothing the surface of the workpiece), yielding a “brighter” surface, but the Juncus might be superior in polishing (smoothing via rubbing abrasion) and also more forgiving. Neither strikes me as “superior” overall at this point, they just have unique characters that differ. I do suspect also that the sorghum polissoir is more robust and long-lasting than the more fragile Juncus, but that may or may not be true, and might be mitigated through wax impregnation.
As time allows in the future I will test and compare these tools further in the future, but for now that is what I have to report.
Once the Juncus dried enough for me to play with, I trimmed a large hank to length, about 4-inches.
Just to make sure it was really dry I placed it in a glass canning jar on top of my coffee warmer glue pot for 24 hours. Then I started to make a polissoir as I have done many times before, albeit with sorghum broom straw.
One thing that is immediately apparent is that Juncus is much less dense and more fragile than broom straw. This is not a surprise give that Juncus is a hollow rush, essentially a tube structure. When assembling the fibers for constructing the polissoir I did something I had not done before, I flipped half of the fibers and then shuffled them for a fairly even distribution.
Grabbing a handful from the case of hose clamps I keep on the shelf for maintaining the hydroelectric penstock, I lined everything up and started tightening. And tightening. And tightening. The hollow feature of the Juncus meant that the collapse of the bundle was dramatically more than the broom straw. While the broom straw compresses about 10-20% under clamping, in my gross observation (I did not measure it in advance) the Juncus compresses 50-75% to achieve the same density as the corn straw. In other words, Juncus compresses somewhere between 2-1/2 and 7-1/2 times more than sorghum.
Once the bundle was tightly bound in the hose clamps I began to wrap it with heavy waxed linen cord until it was complete and tied off.
One one end of the polissoir I trimmed the tip with a Japanese knife; on the other I used a fine saw to cut off the excess.
Now it was ready to put to the test.
I rarely post about something that is current, but I found a package on the front porch when I came down for lunch yesterday. Inside was the new issue of American Period Furniture, the annual journal of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers. I have been a member of SAPFM for many years, and served a couple terms on the Society’s governing body.
Last year I was invited to be the banquet speaker for the annual Working Wood in the 18th Century conference at Colonial Williamsburg. Since the SAPFM always holds their annual business meeting and banquet at this conference there were plenty of members in the audience that evening.
They must have liked the banquet talk because I was immediately asked to turn it into an article for APF. I did, and it arrived this week. I forget whether this was my third or fourth APF article.
I will be blogging about each the 10 exercises in the talk and article at greater length in the near future.
One day at lunch last spring I mentioned to Mrs. Barn my correspondence with Yannick Chastang and my subsequent interest in finding some Juncus rush to experiment with making a polissoir from this fiber. Where, oh where, could I find this exotic plant?
“Out back, it’s all over the place,” says she. “We have some here along the pond.”
Immediately after lunch we went together to walk around the pond and she pointed out the few immature clumps of this spikey plant. This was one of the hundreds of wetlands grasses, in our case Juncus effusis. After looking it up I concluded that its geographic growth range is limited to planet Earth. Apparently it is almost universal in its growing. Maybe even the river banks of Paris?
Cheered, I went back to work and after some more correspondence, knew I had to wait until autumn to harvest it.
Flash forward a few weeks to my chatting with stonemason extraordinaire Daniel as he was creating our new stone wall.
“Come over to my place, ” he said. “I’ve got a ton of it around the pond. Help yourself. It’s just a weed the cows won’t eat.”
Now I was getting really jazzed.
Flash forward again, this time to September when my friend JohnH came to help teach a workbench-building workshop. Since no one showed up to build a workbench we spent most of our week in great fellowship working on the ripple molding cutting machines, which he and I will be demonstrating at the upcoming Colonial Williamsburg Working Wood in the 18th Century shindig, we took time to go to Daniel’s and harvest a pile of the “weed.”
We spread it out to dry in the sun for three days, then I bundled it up and moved it inside to finish seasoning.
Before long it was ready to work with.
The polissoirs I commission from a local craft-broom-maker employ the materials with which he normally works, namely broom straw (sorghum) and nylon twine, with woven outer sheaths. It makes perfect sense given the scale that Polissoir, Inc. has become; he needs to use materials and techniques with which he is familiar and facile, and for which he has (for the moment) a sorta-reliable supply of raw materials.
The only variance from this is the Model 296 polissoir first commissioned by Thomas Lie-Nielsen for sale through his enterprise. In this version, made as close to the original description in L’art du Menuisier as is practicable, the outer sheath is a wrapped linen cord rather than woven sorghum.
In reviewing the sorghum polissoirs (and To Make As Perfectly As Possible) marqueteur Yannick Chastang chided me for mis-identifying the fibers used in traditional polissoirs, asserting that the genuine article used a wetlands rush rather than sorghum, and that sorghum broom straw was an inferior material for polissoirs. The first point is certainly a fair one, the second is a judgement/preference call I will discuss in a subsequent post. It’s like saying a Ruger 10/22 rifle is superior to a Smith and Wesson .50 caliber revolver. It depends on what you are trying to accomplish with the tool.
In the original text, Roubo uses the term “de jonc ordinaire” (common rush; the connection of “de jonc” to “Juncus” is not a great leap) for the plant fiber used in polissoirs. Our dealing with that term highlights the difficulties of a translation project (and explains the reason this is a very slow writing process), especially when the primary meaning of words mutates over time. Although French was probably the first codified modern language, it has changed little in the past three or four centuries, the hierarchy of definitions for words has definitely shifted. Words for which the first definition might be XYZ in one time period might find definition WYZ to be the second, third, or even eighth-ranked definition in an earlier or later dictionary. This is a struggle Michele, Philippe, and I wrestle with continually as we work our way through the original treatise. Dictionaries roughly contemporaneous to Roubo declare that the word “de jonc” can mean reed, rush, straw, grass, hay and several other definitions I cannot recall at the moment. But Yannick’s assertion that I chose the wrong word in English based on my editorial discretion is certainly not unfair.
With that idea in mind, I set out to explore the topic more fully. One problem, though, resides in the question, “Which Juncus?” After all, this is a huge genus consisting of several hundred species.
And, where would I find it?
With the shed roof line as straight as we could get it (there was still a tiny bit of dip but I was fearful of literally tearing the building apart if we went any farther based on the screeching coming from the building itself) we began the steady process of assembling in-place the laminated post-and-beam to replace the sagging wall.
We started by assembling the posts complete from three laminae of 2x8s with the center board being off set the width of the beam dimension and notched a couple of inches to serve as the tenons so that the beams could be assembled in-place fairly simply. This also provided good purchase for the concrete we were using as the footer ex poste.
Since the rear corner being the highest, we shot for everything eventually becoming level with it. So as the posts were constructed moving forward, we had to dig out holes in order to make all of them the same length. Once the structure was complete I began the gentle lifting of the front corner with a post and hydraulic bottle jack. Even I was astounded to recognize that the front corner needed almost 16-inches of raising to get everything level-ish.
With that I filled each footer hole with dry concrete mix, and old trick I learned from a deck-builder friend of mine, who said that you could use dry concrete in holes like this and it would absorb moisture from the ground and set in fairly short order. I have used this method numerous times in the past and it turns out he was right.
The following week I dismantled the original wall and salvaged almost all of the material to use as the new 3/4 wall. That new configuration, along with the new structure, has transformed the space from a sagging, foreboding cavern into a robust and airy storage space for the tools and machines necessary for maintaining the homestead. For the moment I have left the rear section of the wall un-built as we are debating the desirability of a door opening there.
Back in the mezozoic era when I was in college, I hosted a late night jazz show on the college station. My theme song was a Dave Brubeck piece (as would be the case with any civilized person in that situation), in this case Unsquare Dance. For whatever reason this tune, or more precisely the title, leaped into my head when I first saw the juxtaposition of the new and magnificent stone wall with the whomperjawed lean-to attached to the ancient log barn behind the root cellar/granary. I’d always recognized it was a bit off-plumb, but goodness the comparison was sobering. My desire to get it straightened out needed to become action.
About that time my younger brother came for a week-long visit. We are pretty much two peas in a pod, although he is a better marksman than am I. He is an excellent carpenter and builder, so once I knew his schedule I ordered some 2x8x8′ pressure treated SYP to use in building the new wall structure.
The strategy was to assemble stick-built laminated beam to serve as the top plate for a post-and-beam configuration, about a foot inside the original wall. But first we had to jack up the roof to some semblance of planarity, which we accomplished with hydraulic bottle jacks and extra 2x8s to wedge the roof to the height we wanted. It took a day of gradual lifting, but we finally had it ready to work on. The foot worth of swale was as gone as we could get it, and it was time for the hard work to begin.
The final day of bridge building involved cutting, painting, and installing the decking, which was made from the same 1×6 material used for the beams. Prior to installing the decking I mounted electrical wires to the underside of the structure. These are the wires that 1) carry electrons from the solar panels on the cabin to the power system, and 2) will eventually carry electrons back to the cabin from the system.
A little debris clearing, including the old plank walkways, and the job was done for now. I’ll let the paint weather a bit, then wait for a warmer sunny day to sand it and apply another coat of paint, sprinkling the sticky paint with play sand to give it better traction.
Between the new stone wall, arched bridge, and new wall on the lean-to on the old barn (more about that later), the vista from the side deck has been transformed.
Our task for Day Two was to complete the two structural beams of the arched bridge, so we simply continued building up the glued-and-screwed laminations until each of the curved beams got to the full 10-inch depth I wanted.
After that I affixed the cross-ribs to tie the two beams together. The end result was something with near-zero vertical deflection under load, but a little too much lateral wiggle for my taste. I solved that in the very end, but for now the structure was done.
Before laying on the decking I painted everything I could reach with polyurinate paint, which is actually the appropriate application for this product.
The root cellar on the homestead is just across the creek from the cabin, about 100-feet from the back door. Well, technically, it is across two creeks, one coming from a series of springs way up the hill and the other emanating from the spring that is about halfway between the root cellar and the cabin, and used to provide the drinking water for the cabin until the artesian spring was discovered 350 feet up the mountain in the 1980s. For the past dozen years or so the access to the root cellar was across two increasingly rickety plank bridges, and I had become increasingly concerned about the footing there as Mrs. Barn is usually the one retrieving vittles from the cellar.
The time had come for an updated structure to (re?)establish ease and safety for the trek. Since I’ve made a number of curved beam structures before, both bridges and arbors, this was the route I chose to take here. The total span of the space being covered was 25-feet, and one of the issues for the logistics was rendered irrelevant by the choice of an arched structure; the two end points were not level with each other.
With my long time pal Tom visiting for a few days, I decided that the time had come. I ordered some sweet 1x6x16′ pressure treated lumber, and it turned out to be nearly “Select” grade. We ripped each of the 1x6s in half, then used them to build the laminated arch in place.
With each end point determined by the site of the creek banks, I used concrete blocks in the center of the span to define the apex of the gentle curve and establish the form of the arch itself. Placing dead weights on each end of the laminae as we built them up, a near perfect arch was formed and replicated with each new layer. By off-setting the 1x3x16′ pieces when we glued and screwed them together, the arch was well accomplished.
Each lamina was attached to the preceding one with decking screws @ 6-inch spacing, and excess Titebond III weatherproof glue.
The result was right on target.
The goal for the first day was to finish each beam to a bit more than half height, which we did.
About eighteen months ago I contracted with Popular Woodworking magazine to write a pile of articles, and the final one of that batch was featured on the cover of the current issue.
This article was the feature on Jim Moon’s recreation of the HO Studley tool cabinet and workbench, which was indeed masterful.
The image of that new treasure has been popping up in disparate places. It deserves the widest possible dissemination.
The conclusion of the finishing workshop at the Anthony Hay Shop of Colonial Williamsburg was rubbing out the finishes we had already completed.
Given that my normal routine of using Liberon 4/0 steel wool and paste wax was not an option as steel wool was not part of CW’s vocabulary, we instead concentrated on those things which were typical for that era; pumice powder, tripoli powder (rottenstone), and pulverized chalk (whiting), delivered in slurries of mineral oil, naphtha, and diluted paste wax. The latter would probably have been some formulation of beeswax, turpentine, and tallow.
The first step was to make new polishing pads analogous to the spirit varnishing pads, with the difference that the stuffing was comparatively unimportant.
Then the work began with pumice, followed by tripoli.
The results were splendid.
We are not the first woodworkers who ever wanted to tweak the coloration of our pieces; the ancients routinely augmented their work with the addition of colorants to both unify overall tonality and accentuate details. Among the most common colorants of the past were asphalt, that useless contaminate that percolated up from the ground, and pitch, which is the residue from the fractional distillation of pine sap into turpentine solvent and colophony resin.
For this workshop I showed and the CW crew used asphalt as a toning glaze. My source for this was some non-fibered parging tar left over from the barn basement construction. The three gallons I have left are all I and a thousand friends need for decades. I thin the asphalt with mineral spirits, and occasionally add a bit of boiled linseed oil.
The asphalt glaze can be applied to the surface and manipulated with bristle brushes to achieve an overall uniform appearance. For carved surfaces it could be applied the same way with the highest points rubbed with rags to remove the colorant and emphasize the three-dimensionality of the surface.
Asphalt can be overcoated with shellac as soon as it is dry to the touch.
One of the frequent challenges for finishers is the undulating surfaced — carvings, moldings, and similar. In reviewing the historic methods for the CW crew I emphasized the problems of square-tipped brushes for this process, as the corner tips of the brushes often squeegee on the raised surfaces being varnished, resulting in excess varnish and runs dripping down the surface. This result often causes hair pulling and pungent language.
In the past the ancients often used oval or even round brushes similar to sash brushes, and thus reduced the problem. In our time, we not only have these brushes to rely on but also a form used by water colorists, the Filbert Mop. The tapers oval tip of a Filbert makes varnishing a vibrant undulating surface a piece of cake. Not only are there no brush corners to deposit excess varnish where you do not want it, but the tapered oval tip drapes the surface excellently.
The preparation for carved surfaces is essentially the same as flat surfaces; good tool work followed by scraping as necessary, and finally burnished with a bundle of fibers.
After that it’s simply a matter of applying the varnish by brush, and not too surprisingly this crew tool to this like a fish to water.
After the initial application dries, the surface can once again be burnished with the carver’s polissoir, a tool I designed for my broom-maker to fabricate along with all the other polissoirs he makes for me. This was followed by second round of varnishing, and the pieces were ready to be rubbed out with beeswax and rottenstone (grey Tripoli).