|THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE FOR ALUMNI AND FRIENDS||VOLUME XVIII NUMBER 2 Winter 2003|
The Barn Raisers
The August sunlight coming through the paneless windows brings out the cedar red in Brendan Matthews's curls and scruffy beard as he stands in the center of his unfinished timber frame house and reaches a slender but strong arm toward the beam above his head.
Six hundred pounds of white pine, the beam, a "girt," runs horizontally between the vertical posts of a bent, one of the sequence of wood structures that together form the frame of the house.
Matthews happily recalls the day the frame was raised."Our raising was on May 4, and we had a hundred people here for it. Some came from Europe. It took from eight in the morning to four in the afternoon. When we finished, I climbed to the top and nailed a pine bough to the uppermost rafter – that's the tradition. We had a bonfire, and a potluck, and music and dancing."
The house is tall and gracefully casual, like its owner, and was built of pine, oak, tulip poplar, and black birch that Matthews skidded out of his woods with his jeep. The frame – built without a single nail – was raised not with a crane, as is typically used today, but by hands: those of Matthews '94; his wife, Virginia Brinsdon Matthews '95; their families and friends; and Matthews's timber-framing company, The Barn Raisers.
"We had more people here for the raising than we had at our wedding." He sounds as excited as any 30-year-old party animal might, but for Matthews it goes a lot deeper.
"A community barn raising is a really powerful experience," he avows. "There's a great feeling of community, accomplishment, helping one another – there's so much going on that's good. Some people walk away with their lives changed."
Matthews has built himself a reputation for superb design and construction of timber frames: post-and-beam frames constructed with traditional mortise-and-tenon joinery instead of nails.
He uses the 14th-century English square rule method, doing "everything by the math," he explains, "with a common carpenter's square" and other measuring tools.
"Most people don't know the capabilities of this small simple square," he says. "If you know how to use it, it'll tell you any angle for cutting any kind of joinery you could possibly want. I can fit any brace into any brace pocket, for example – it'll all fit as if it had come out of the factory."
Better, one suspects. Matthews cuts joints so precisely that he never trial-fits a frame before a raising. The chisel he keeps in his tool belt has seen little use: he seldom has to plane joints to fit on raising day. To boost the frame's strength, he also houses every joint, a step that most builders skip today.
But what's really extraordinary about this young New Englander are his love for the old-fashioned community barn raising and his ability to harmonize the actions of thirty-odd people, many of whom aren't sure what they're doing, to raise a barn in a single day.
Matthews's talents have brought The Barn Raisers a truckload of commissions. Averaging four barns a year, they're booked until 2005 with jobs, especially in the Middlesex County, Conn., area, where he started the company in 1995. In July, they manually raised a 30' x 36' barn with three bents, and now Matthews is cutting the joinery for a manual raising scheduled for September for the retired director of the Haddam (Conn.) Historical Society. He'll orchestrate a community raising in Ireland in the spring.
"I start cutting the joints six to eight weeks before we do a raising, and my design work runs six to eight months ahead of jobs," explains Matthews, who in 1999 did the structural design for the timber work on a synagogue conceptualized by the artist Sol LeWitt.
The bemused look in his slate-blue eyes says that he wonders how he'll finish all the work.Yet on a nearby table are tools, oversized design blueprints, photos of previous barn raisings, and clippings of stories about his work from local newspapers attesting that Matthews gets up with the birds no matter how late the party went.
"I'm a type A person, much as I hate to admit it," he says with an affable smile, his shoulders slumped in a faded black T-shirt.
A community barn raising requires at least 30 able bodies. The client rounds up friends and family, and Matthews brings his crew: Skip Hall, whose restoration business Matthews worked for when he was 13; Skip's sons, Guy and T.D.; Rob Bradway, rigging and pegging expert; and Splint Brewster, who was Matthews's first barn-raising client and liked the process so much that he now works for Matthews.Virginia and Matthews's parents, Claire and Gerry, also often show up in work boots and tool holsters and lend a practiced hand.
"In the 1700s, people would raise a mill building in one day," says Matthews. "The whole frame would be cut, and each bent might weigh two tons. A hundred or so people would work as a team, even children, who might start the nails in the roofing."
For the raising they did in July, says Matthews, the client "got practically an entire football team – every guy an ox." More often, the volunteers are average-size novices in tennis shoes who are friends of the client and like building things – or maybe have never built anything but are charmed by barns and parties.
On the morning of a raising, Matthews and his crew are at the site while the grass is damp. Arranged around the foundation for the barn are boxes of different-sized handmade wooden pegs ("shorty-short" on up); heavy straps for rigging; his 50-pound birch-trunk mallet, which he calls "the persuader" for its ability to inch a tenon into a mortise, his 200-year-old boring machine with auger bit, and other tools, many of which he buys at yard sales and then repairs. Stacked in rows are bents, connector beams, rafters, braces, and other beams and boards.
As much of the wood as possible comes from the site. "If we have to take down trees to site the barn, I try to take down as few as possible," says Matthews. "I like to snuggle a barn into a stand of trees. And I use as much of the timber as I can."
People begin arriving, and all eyes and ears are on Matthews. Soon he has folks lined shoulder to shoulder along the first bent, ready to raise at least a half-ton of wood off the ground. Pike poles with birdsmouth ends lie on the ground behind them.
The group lifts the bent, which may be shaped like an H with the top cut off or may have rafters attached, forming a triangle at the top (like a child's drawing of a house). When the bent is lifted to waist height, sawhorses are shoved underneath, and the group pushes it up over their heads. Every other person in line steps back quickly, picks up a pike pole and wedges the beak under the bent. They push the bent up to its standing position, where it's held upright while horizontal connector beams are joined to it. Those beams will then extend to the next bent, forming a bay.
By midafternoon, the rafters are going up, and on the staging planks between them stand neophytes and old hands alike, pounding pegs into beams or reaching down to folks on the ground who are pushing up beams. An electric drill occasionally whines, forming holes for pegs, and hammers clatter on wood, but people can talk without raising their voices much, since there's no large machinery on the scene.
"If early farmers could do this without math, we can do it," says Matthews, with obvious admiration for the builders of yore, who used story poles instead of tape measures and axes instead of saws and "didn't have gym memberships."
They had a knack for organizational psychology, if Matthews, who's practiced in the ways of the old world, is any indication. He's able to be firmly directive yet relaxed. Up in the air, moving fluidly along the bents as if he wore ballet slippers instead of work boots, Matthews knows what's happening to almost every inch of board in every person's hand on the site. While he's poised on a seven-inch-wide girt up among the rafters, his arms wrapped around a 400-pound king post as he and Skip maneuver its tenon into the mortise of the girt, his eyes will catch one leg of a sawhorse wobbling momentarily on the ground – "Somebody level that sawhorse so it's not all wobbly."
"I'm using my peripheral vision all the time," says Matthews. "I know what has to happen – I know each step intricately, so I know what a person has to do or what tool they should be using.
"It's an Old World method really based on common sense. In the old days, people learned from generation to generation. I'm building up the pool of people with barn-raising knowledge. For some people, after they come to one raising, they want to come to other raisings."
It's as natural as getting up with the birds.
Deborah Klenotic is assistant editor of Keene State Today.