Raising the Frame of the Anderson Kitchen

The Historic Trades Carpenters carry in one of the ceiling joists during the Anderson Kitchen frame-raising. Photo by Willie Graham.

The Historic Trades Carpenters carry in one of the ceiling joists during the Anderson Kitchen frame-raising. Photo by Willie Graham.

When the newly-built foundation of the Anderson Kitchen was cured enough to accept the weight of a timber frame, we moved the white oak sills down to the Armoury site and pegged the mortise-and-tenon joints together. The next step was completely modern: we bored holes through the oak straight down into the brick foundation and set bolts into the brickwork. Carpenters in early Virginia didn’t commonly attach their frames to the foundation, assuming instead that the building’s weight would hold it in place, but modern building code requires bolts. We will plug the bolt holes just before the interior is plastered, and no one, other than the people reading this blog, will be the wiser.

We assembled the back wall inside the perimeter of the sills, and pegged the top joints of every post and brace. A wall-raising requires a large team including:

The Caller: the individual calling the raising. There can be only one caller, or else the resulting chaos of “Do this!” “No, do it the other way!” “Yeah, but we forgot to do that first,” will lead to disaster.  We sort out all the problems in a raising by talking it through ahead of time, and write a “raising script”, distributed to all the key players, to minimize complications. And there always are a few complications. So, there needs to be one caller, one chief, one head cook, one person calling the raising. (And you have one person to blame if something goes wrong!)

The Heavy Lifters: several people standing at the plate who lift the wall to shoulder height, then up over their heads as high as they can reach.

The Hammermen: several people, armed with mallets and sledgehammers, who make sure that the tenons at the bottoms of the posts, braces, and studs go into their respective mortises as the wall is being raised.

The Pikemen: people armed with raising poles, which are long wooden poles with a spike in the end. When the wall is raised as high as the people at the plate can raise it, the Pikemen jab the sharp spike on the end of the raising pole into the plate and continue to push the wall upwards. We cannot afford to have a raising pole slip off the frame at this point in the raising.

The Linemen:  a mob of people with a rope (or ropes) who pull the wall to vertical. This is the part of the raising that visitors help us with. Now, the Linemen cannot pull on their ropes until the wall is angled up at least 45 degrees, or they will simply drag the wall off the foundation. So the action of the Linemen has to be carefully coordinated, with a single person in charge of leading the Linemen.

The Brakemen: this is another mob of people holding ropes that extend out in the opposite direction as the Linemen. Their job is to stop the wall from toppling over too far,     especially if the Linemen get over-excited. If the wall starts falling over in the wrong direction the Linemen can push back on their ropes as hard as they want but it doesn’t do them much good. The Brakemen are there to keep the Linemen, well, in line.

We should make it very clear that we made up the names for the different groups like “Pikemen” and “Brakemen,” and we use those names just for fun: there is no evidence that in the 18th century those groups even had names. But we know they used ropes and raising poles and lots of people to put up a heavy timber frame wall, and we follow the same practice.

Once the back wall is raised, and the gable end down-braces pegged in place, we repeat the raising process with the front wall. At this point we have the two long walls standing, pegged into the sill below, but still unattached at the top. The next step is to set ladders on the walls and carry up the ceiling joists which, for the Anderson kitchen, were three-inch by eight-inch poplar timbers, seventeen feet long. Each joist drops into a notch cut out of the sill, and is then pegged into the sill from the top.

The roof goes on next. We set the false plates, inch-thick heart pine floor boards, across the far ends of the ceiling joists, right above the eave. We then run walking boards across the rest of the joists and start hauling up the rafter trusses.

The gable end truss goes up first.  Once it’s positioned, we throw a plumb bob across the collar beam (the horizontal member of the letter “A” in a simple truss) and line the truss plumb with the end of the frame. When we are sure the truss is plumb, we spike the rafter’s “feet” to the false plate, and set a diagonal piece of board, called a wind brace, from the truss to the floor, to hold the truss in place. There is no ridge beam or board in our frame; instead we rely on the wind braces to hold the rafters steady at first.  Ultimately the lath, or sheathing boards, or clapboards provide the stiffness to the roof that is required.

The last rafter is treated in a special way: we attach a small evergreen branch to the top of the rafter called a “whetting bush.” All timber framers agree that the centuries-old tradition of topping off” a house or barn frame must culminate any successful frame raising, but can’t agree on what the ritual means. Good luck to the family in their new home? An offering of thanks for finishing a dangerous job without injury or incident?  A nod to a more ancient ritual thanking the forest gods for the use of their trees for timber? We don’t know why we do it, but we do it nonetheless.

Another early American ritual that we plan to follow is the deliberate concealment of a shoe inside the wall of a new building. There has been a great deal of scholarship about ritual shoe concealment, and it, like topping a house frame, still leaves a number of questions unanswered. Some think it is a holdover from a pagan practice of human sacrifice in which the body of a victim was walled up into a building.  A shoe, which molds to the foot and thus best represents the wearer, may symbolize a person in this ancient sacrificial rite. A search of the Internet will yield a great deal of information about the current thinking about shoe concealment.  We plan to follow this tradition by placing a shoe in the wall of the Anderson kitchen as it is being lathed and plastered up inside.

Contributed by Garland Wood, Master Carpenter


    • CW Archaeology says

      Hi Rick,
      Startling, isn’t it?! You are witnessing the next phase of the Armoury project. Over the spring, the blacksmith shop will be be taken down to make room for a newly constructed shop (more about that in an upcoming blog entry). I think you’ll notice a few differences between the old and new buildings (thanks to reinterpretation of 1975 archaeology). The new shop won’t be quite as long, but will be accompanied by a storage shed and outdoor forge.

      As you point out, the northern end of the Anderson blacksmith shop is the first section to be razed. Removal of this structure will provide brick masons with adequate space to continue building the hearth and chimney for the Anderson kitchen.

  1. John Montague says

    Great explanation of the frame raising. Like you Joshua, I wish I had been there to see it. The webcam coverage was a good substitute, however. Thanks, Mr. Wood, for your very detailed posts.
    John M.

  2. Joshua Muse says

    This is a great description of the process – thanks, Garland. I’m sorry that I didn’t get to witness it in person.

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