Processes of Lining, Scoring, Boring and Hewing Described
‘The Big Thrashing Floor’
by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, N. J.
published in the Hunterdon County Democrat, July 17, 1930
There is no genealogy in this article; it is simply about how to build a barn.
In old times big barns were built of good materials; in modern times big barns go up, but both the materials and the manner of their going up are quite different. The old barns were meant to last for generations; the modern barns are built for the present. In this, as in so many other things, we “take no thought for the morrow.” Let those who come after us look out for themselves. But we must concede that, while the old barn was made to last, the new one is planned and erected for convenience. Score one for the builders of today.
The first step toward building the old barn was to fell trees for the frame. This must always be made of the ‘best white oak to be found. Tall trees, straight and fine were needed, especially for the long sills and plates. And then the great girth—always the “girt” with old farmers —required a tree much larger, though it was rarely more than 36 feet long. This was considered the master piece in the building, the one upon which so much depended, and must be very big and free of all defects. Of course the size varied with the size of the building, but the proportions were always liberal and sometimes astonishing. The largest “girt” I ever measured was 27 inches one way.
Lining the Timber
The logs were generally drawn together near the site for the barn. There they might lie conveniently arranged until all were secured, or the carting and the “dressing” might be going on at the same time. For this dressing the log was rolled upon two strong “trestles” which were not really trestles at all, but stout timbers resting upon anything suitable for holding them in place. The log must be firmly placed and firmly held, for it was about to undergo some rough usage. Now the helper held the chalk line on a designated spot at one end while the boss carpenter, with the spool in one hand and the chalk in the other, walked alongside the log, holding the line under his thumb as it cut deeply into the chalk, taking a fair share along for the coming service. Placing now his end of the line on the proper spot and drawing it very tight, he deliberately “snapped” it—that is he raised it carefully from the log and let it snap back. This had to be done with great care and good judgment. “What, judgment in a little thing like that!” did you, say? Yes, a thing like that, big or little. If it was not exactly right, the chalk would show a line more or less curved, instead of straight. Imagine yourself trying to strike a straight line on a stick anywhere from 40 to 60 feet long, especially when the wind blew more or less. For wind must be considered in lining timber, as well as in gunnery; and here is where judgment comes into play.
Scoring the Log
Next came the “scoring”—not keeping the baseball tally, as one might now understand; but doing the necessary work which “scoring” meant in the language of carpentry. It meant cutting notches into the side of the log, some 18 inches apart, splitting off the “score-blocks” as one went along, and carefully hacking the surface thus exposed. This was a job for the helper or the apprentice, a real job; for the “hacks” must go close to the line, but never beyond it. No wonder that the scorer was not enthusiastic over his job, especially if the boss was critical, and snappy with his criticisms.
Old people used to tell gleefully of a “green” apprentice who was set to scoring a log while the boss went to look after something else. On starting away he gave very specific instructions, ending with this not unusual admonition: “Be very careful to save the line.” When the boss came back, the apprentice was there and the timber was there, but no line was in sight.
“How is this, Sam?” roared the Irate boss. “Didn’t I particularly tell you to save the line?”
“Y-e-e-s, s-i-r; you did, an’ I done it. You’ll find it all on them blocks I stood up agin that ‘ere log.”
“Hewing to the Line”
Behind the scorer came the expert with a broadax, generally “hewing to the line,” which meant splitting the line as nearly, in the middle as he could, and making the smoothest face that circumstances would permit. A careless scorer might, easily spoil all chance for a nice job, while an over-cautious one might quite as easily leave too much unhacked wood to be hewed off. As in most things, there is a happy medium in scoring; but to catch and hold that medium, was one of the hardest things confronting the apprentice. I have never been able to shake off a sympathetic feeling for the slow specimen of whom old people liked to tell. After working a year at the carpenter’s trade, he quit without explanation. Being at last too hard pressed to tell why he quit his job, he gave this as sufficient answer to all questions: “I had spent six months a-scoring and six months a-boring, and then I thought it was time to be quitting.”
One must not forget the idea that the hewer himself was having an easy job. Of the two, give me the scoring instead of the hewing.
That great, heavy ax was not an easy thing to handle just right, but it must be handled that way; for the timber was likely to tell all about it. And good oak timber, like good—well, good oak timber will not lie for any man. The comparatively few timbers that it has been necessary for me to hew, trying my awkward beat to go neither inside nor outside of the line, while hewing my hard way straight down, have fully satisfied me that the carpenter of those “good old days” really earned his meager wages.
Boring no Easy Job
Boring with the old-time hand auger was no easy job, nor was it one that might be carelessly done without unpleasant consequences. The holes must be put through, if through they went, exactly right. And a two-inch auger turned hard in oak timber. But the worst of it was to keep the bit perpendicular. The boring machine at last did away with that difficulty. Now we have about done away with the boring machine. There is little, if any, such framing done now. Tenons and mortises are out of fashion. One old-timer, watching the change, used to say: “They just tack the frames together, nail on the weather boards, and let the building slide—and, by gum, it does!”
The framing followed hard upon the hewing. Now was the time for discovering any and all imperfections. This work must be just right in sawing, boring and chiseling. Mortises, tenons and pin holes must all be “on the square,” or there would be much trouble at the raising. And in nothing did the old-time carpenter take more pride then in how his frames came together at the final test.
When Oak Timbers Warped
But oak timbers are somewhat perverse. However carefully hewn and however carefully laid away, they are likely to warp or spring more or less. Every stick must be tested after being laid up for framing. If not true, it must be “taken out of wind” a term over which I remember to have worried very much as a boy. What did it mean? I did not know and dared not ask. Jocular workmen, not to mention others from whom one would hardly expect such cruelty, were too fond of giving ridiculous answers to make the boy look foolish and feel much more that way. But the secret was mastered at last, and there was joy in the camp—of just one boy.
The test was made by hanging a carpenter’s square, short arm down, on each end of the stick as it lay on the trestles. Then, if their backs did not coincide, there was “wind” to be taken out. To do that, a groove was cut with a chisel across the stick at one end, or at both ends if the defect seemed to require it. This groove was cut gradually, from no depth at all at one end to whatever was required at the other to make the two squares exactly coincide. Then the stick was lined to a square indicated by the grooving. It was never all worked down to the indicated square-cornered form, only so much of it as would come into contact with the timbers to which it was to be joined, was cut to that ideal. And that was “taking it out of wind,” according to the carpenter’s vernacular.
You have noticed in old frames that the ends of heavy beams, especially of those which must bear great weight, do not stop immediately upon reaching the supporting posts. They fit snugly into spaces cut an inch or so into the posts for their reception. Some of that “boxing” may be required in “taking out the wind,” but the real reason for it, as you see it, is that the whole beam may help to support the weight, instead of leaving all to rest upon the tenon.
Why the Heavier Beam
Somebody may ask what was the reason for always placing a monstrous girth, much heavier than any other cross-beam, at the right-hand side of the driveway as the load was driven into the barn. The modern engineer would probably say: “There was no reason at all.” But that would hardly be either fair or correct. The old-time carpenter had his “reason,” though he may have erred about the necessity. That beam was made so strong because its place was directly over the “thrash-floor,” and that floor must not be obstructed by, any supporting post under the beam. Considering the length of span, the weight of the beam and the great weight of hay or grain that it must be prepared to support, it is no wonder that the early carpenter saw the demand for extra strength. For this he depended partly upon additional size and partly upon ingenious long braces from above, starting near the top of each side post and striking the girth seven or eight feet from the end. The braces, amply secured as they sometimes were, would probably have been sufficient with a lighter beam.
The old thrashing floor had to be unobstructed. How else could a man stand at the center and drive a team of horses round and round on it to “tread out the corn?” You all remember the Mosaic law “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn;” quoted by Paul to the Corinthians thus: “For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn;’” Much the same in meaning, but considerably changed in quoting, as so many other things have been. (Improvement in sound with loss of nice distinction).
This reference interests us here because it reminds us that, away back in the days of Moses, people were doing their thrashing by the “treading-out” process, much as Americans did in Colonial days, and as some of us now living can remember to have occasionally seen in our childhood. But we should also remember that the ancients did not mean our kind of “corn,” but meant either wheat or something very much like our wheat of today.
When all the bewildering timbers for the great frame had been tested, taken out of wind, and framed as if every one corresponded to perfectly square corners—as indeed they did at the points of contact—they were arranged in perfect order for convenience on the day of the raising. Every one of the braces, short, long and medium, had to be “cut” and ready. By “cutting” was meant the shaping of the peculiar tenons and beveled shoulders of the brace. And all the holes for pins must be bored through both tenons and mortises, but never quite opposite. The hole in the tenon must be a little closer to the shoulder of the beam or brace, than the hole in the corresponding mortise was to the line of contact. This variation was called the “draw,” and its purpose was to make the tightest possible joint.
Having our timbers all hewed, cut, chiseled and bored to suit us, we are now thinking about the great event of all—the “raising.” But for that, we must do exactly as the old builders did—wait until everything is ready; and among other essentials, we now find time and space unfortunately lacking.
July 25, 2015 @ 9:18 pm
An enjoyable, and enlightening, article. How much we take for granted today the necessary skills of the past.