Archive for May, 2009

Poplar Bark Shingles

May 30, 2009
Kelley relaxes after stacking the poplar bark. Bark is not as heavy as stone.

Kelley relaxes after stacking the poplar bark. Bark is not as heavy as stone.

In March when Kelley was looking for logs in Nelson County, he met someone who was building his own house, using poplar bark for siding. Kelley loved the look of the poplar bark siding. He wanted to explore the idea of using poplar bark to finish the gable ends of the log house. I, of course, was skeptical. When I asked if poplar bark would be long-lasting and low maintenance, Kelley pointed out that trees have bark for many years and do no maintenance at all. Which made sense to me–in a way. When I asked how it looked, Kelley found photos on the Internet that showed beautiful houses with rustic but elegant style. When I asked how expensive it was, Kelley told me that, since loggers routinely strip the bark off poplar trees and discard it, poplar bark is free if you know when and where to get it. “Free” is an enticing word.

We found a lot of information that indicated that using poplar bark to side houses, while perhaps eccentric, is not crazy. In fact bark is an extremely practical alternative to  other siding materials. Bark shingles are durable and can last 100 years. They require no painting or other maintenance. They have a rustic textured appearance that complements the look of other natural materials, such as log and stone. Using poplar bark shingles is also an earth-friendly–the bark that is used would typically be left to rot, burned, or used for mulch.

Using bark for housing has a long history in this country, beginning with structures built by native American Indians. There are examples of more recent bark houses in New England and in the Northwest. In 1895, architect Henry Bacon, who is most famous for designing the Lincoln Memorial, designed a house sided with shingles made from American chestnut bark. This was probably the first use of bark shingles with sawed edges. The house was  built in Linville, in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. Between 1895 and 1930, many stylish and expensive vacation and summer houses were built in that area using chestnut bark shingles. Chestnut blight, which began to strike trees around 1900, killed off the trees from which the bark was taken, and after about 1930, no more chestnut bark houses were built in that area. Some of the houses built during those years still stand. Many of the original chestnut shingles have been replaced with shingles from tulip (yellow) poplar. Since the mid-1990s, the use of poplar bark for siding has become popular in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains, often in high-end houses and resorts, and there are several manufacturers of poplar bark shingles in that area.

Although he could have purchased poplar bark shingles from North Carolina manufacturers, Kelley decided that it would be practical and interesting to track down some poplar logs locally and make shingles for the house. He and Lewis checked with loggers, lumber mills, and even the Forest Service to locate poplar logs. When loggers cut poplar trees, they drag the logs from the forest to their trucks and take it to lumber yards where the bark is stripped off and discarded. The bark is considered waste material, and after this rough treatment it is not suitable for shingle-making. Kelley and Lewis needed to locate logs still on the ground in the woods before they were dragged, trucked, and stripped. It was also important to find the logs in late spring or early summer, because this is when the trees create new growth and the bark slips off most easily.

After six weeks or so of searching, Lewis found out about someone cutting poplar on a remote mountainside between Craigsville and Goshen. He was willing to give the bark to us, so yesterday Kelley, Lewis, Aaron and Braxton took Lewis’s trailer to Goshen and found six sixteen-foot poplar logs lying in a meadow near the woods. And it wasn’t even raining.

Lewis uses a chainsaw, Braxton and Aaron follow with bark spuds to strip the bark from a poplar log. They have already stripped the log on the right.

Lewis uses the chainsaw. Braxton and Aaron follow with the bark spuds.

To harvest the poplar bark, Lewis made a cut with his saw through the bark along the length of the log. Then he made crosswise cuts at twenty-inch intervals. Aaron, Braxton, and Kelley followed him, stripping the bark using bark spuds and loaded it into the trailer. Aaron and Braxton bought their antique bark spuds from Menno Kinsinger, who also sold us some logs. I will get a photo of a bark spud next week and post it. The bark spuds look something like a shortish hoe with a curved blade. The blade slips under the bark and helps to loosen the bark from the log.

Braxton uses a bark spud to slip the bark off a poplar log.

Braxton uses a bark spud to slip the bark off a poplar log.

The bark leaves the mountains and heads for Bunny Vista.

The bark leaves the mountains and heads for Bunny Vista.

When the bark arrived at our property, Aaron and Braxton unloaded it from the trailer and stacked it on pallets near the house. This morning I helped as Kelley sorted the bark slabs and restacked and stickered the pieces. Kelley weighted the stacks with cinderblocks so that the bark will flatten as it dries. Pretty soon he will take it to the Taylor and Boody kiln where it will dry for about a week. After that it will be ready to use.

Kelley and Lewis plan to get more poplar bark from the same site as soon as the ground is dry enough for the loggers to get back into the woods.

Poplar bark stacked and weighted

Kelley carefully sorted the bark this morning and stacked and weighted it. There are wooden sticks between each layer. We have three pallets of bark slabs.

Kelley got great and friendly advice from Danny Heatherly, owner of Barkclad Natural Products (http://www.barkclad.com). Kelley called him after finding the company Website, and Danny was kind enough to share his knowledge about gathering the poplar bark. His Website has lots of interesting information, great photos of a much larger operation than ours, and a certain “mountains of North Carolina” flair.

Some of the bark has green lichen. The slab on the right has large and interesting knot. Each slab is different. Cool.

Some of the bark has green lichen. The slab on the right has large and interesting knot. Each slab is different. Cool. It's going to look great made into shingles and juxtaposed with the old logs and the stone.

Stone, part 2: Sandstone

May 28, 2009

We had not originally planned to use sandstone in the new house, but this spring when Kelley was looking for some logs to supplement the barn logs we already had, he found yet another old barn. The lumber from the barn, located on a farm in Middlebrook, had been claimed and removed, but Kelley and Lewis and Lewis’s assistant, Braxton Wood, were able to buy the foundation, which was made of blocks of sandstone and limestone.

Kelley says that it is unusual to find sandstone in Augusta County, but there does seem to be some in Middlebrook. We have seen a retaining wall of sandstone in the village of Middlebrook. It has very unusual striation and coloring and reminds everyone who looks at it of the Grand Canyon. Kelley said that although it worked easily, it was very hard and dulled the tools quickly. He noticed, too, that some corners of the old barn foundation were worn and rounded, apparently where cattle rubbed against them for many years as they entered the barn.

The barn foundation stones were sandstone and limestone.

The barn foundation stones were sandstone and limestone cut into blocks. The blocks averaged about 100 pounds in weight.

Kelley and Lewis hired Shelby Clements to move the stone to our property. Shelby loaded the stone into his dump truck with a trackhoe. Moving the stone to our property took one day.

Kelley says Shelby Clements can pick up a toothpick with this trackhoe and not disturb anything underneath it. He made short work of 110 tons of stone.

Kelley says Shelby Clements can pick up a toothpick with this trackhoe and not disturb anything underneath it. He made short work of 110 tons of stone.

When the sandstone arrived at our place, Kelley and Lewis were amazed to find how easy it was to work. They were able to split the large stones easily using just a hammer and a chisel. Kelley very promptly decided that he would like to face the concrete foundation walls for the screen porch with sandstone. Everyone worked at splitting and shaping the stone to prepare it.

Kelley and Braxton split and shaped stone for Lewis to lay.

Kelley and Braxton split and shaped stone for Lewis to lay.

Erin, nattily attired in handmade Swedish scarf and slouchy hat, lends a hand and splits some stone.

Erin, nattily attired in handmade Swedish scarf and slouchy hat, lends a hand and works some stone.

Lewis Wright did incredibly beautiful work on these walls. It is so satisfying to look at the patterns these stones make, to see how perfectly square the corner is, and to watch the interplay of large and small stones. This wall is something Kelley and I will enjoy for the rest of our lives. And never has a lawn mower been stored in a more handsome storage room. The mower that has the good fortune to stay in that storage room should “run perfect” forever.

Lewis Wright lays the sandstone foundation for the screen porch. The stone is so tightly laid it almost looks dry laid.

Lewis Wright lays the sandstone foundation for the screen porch. The stone is so tightly laid it almost looks dry laid.

Nearly complete sandstone wall

Nearly complete sandstone wall

The posts and lintel are heavy oak timbers. The door is nice and wide--easy access for the mower. The screen porch will sit on this foundation.

The posts and lintel are heavy oak timbers. The door is nice and wide--easy access for the mower. The screen porch will sit on this foundation.

There are still quite a few tons of sandstone left. We plan to use it for the fireplaces in the timber frame room and on the screen porch.

Windows

May 27, 2009

The house took on a whole new look today when Lewis and crew framed the two windows on the front of the log section. They also began working on the two small windows in the master bedroom which look out onto the woods.

Log house section: at left is master bedroom with two small windows facing north into the woods, one larger window on front (west). The room to the right of the dogtrot is the office with one window framed in.

Log house section: at left is master bedroom with two small windows looking north into the woods, one larger window on front (west). The room to the right of the dogtrot is the office with one window framed in.

It’s amazing how with every step the house looks more and more like an actual house. There are lots of decisions to be made, as Kelley says, on the fly. Not the least of these is what kind of door to put in the dogpen connecting the log rooms. My good sense says, “Put a wood door and a window,” so that the house will look right from the outside. But my other less good sense says, “Put big doors with lots of glass so that when you step into the house through the main entrance you can see how beautiful the view is.” I am torn.

Kelley shows me how big the window will be when it is completed.

Kelley shows me how tall the window will be when it is completed. There will be another window exactly like this one on the north wall.

Now the office has a window. The office is a small room, only 9′ x 13′ or so. But I am picturing a soft chair, a lot of books, and the afternoon sun pouring in.

The view from the office. Someday the shed will be gone.

The view from the office. Someday the shed will be gone.

Now that the log section has begun to look house-like, I am more and more anxious for the timber frame to arrive. The spot for it is ready and waiting.

From left: the log section, the foundation walls for the timber frame, the sandstone foundation walls for the screen porch.

From left: the log section, the foundation walls for the timber frame, the sandstone foundation walls for the screen porch.

Stone, part 1: Limestone

May 26, 2009

We are using two kinds of stone at Bunny Vista, limestone from the Stuarts Draft area and sandstone from the Middlebrook area.

In the winter of 2006 Kelley bought the foundation stones from an old barn located on the Moffett farm on Old White Hill Road near Stuarts Draft. The very large barn, built along a tributary of Christian’s Creek, had been demolished by the owners but the limestone foundation remained.

Kelley had already removed the back wall of the barn when he took this photo.

Kelley had already removed the back wall of the barn when he took this photo.

Kelley estimates that he bought 80 to 90 tons of stone and brought it from the barn to our property in his Ford F150. He moved much of the stone by himself during January and February, 2006, although he enlisted the enthusiastic help of our son Nick and, occasionally, our daughter Erin. Once or twice I even moved some stone. I found out that even small stones are heavy. Kelley worked almost all day nearly every weekend to haul the stone. When he got the stone to our house, he carefully sorted it by size and stacked it on pallets along the southern border of our lot. The pallets, two deep, lined about half of the lot fence line, about eighty yards.

The limestone, which is commonly found in old and new structures throughout Augusta County, is predominantly dark gray-blue in color with warm tan overtones. As it ages, it gets grayer and lighter in color.

We used limestone for the foundation of Bunny Vista’s log section. Although the house has a poured and insulated foundation, we wanted to cover the foundation with a layer of  stone. We decided fairly early on, after working with our architect Peter Aaslestad, that we wanted the look of an old house that had been added to in stages, in effect emphasizing the three different building approaches for the house instead of trying to hide them. In addition to laying stone on the two above-ground walls visible from the exterior of the house, we would also have a stone wall on the interior basement wall. This would visually reinforce the idea that the log house was an important but separate element of the entire house.

The keystone above the window is beautiful and has a job to do. The wood framing has been removed, so the keystone helps keep the stones above the window from falling down. It has to do with geometry.

The keystone above the window is beautiful and has a job to do. The wood framing has since been removed, so the keystone helps keep the stones above the window from falling down. They tell me this has something to do with geometry. I just believe that it works.

Stonemason Jim Roepke, who lives near Greenville, laid the stones for the log house foundation.  Jim trained and worked for several years with traditional stonemason and log house builder Charles McRaven. Jim began work on our house  in January, 2009, and finished in late April. His work is very careful and very beautiful. During the bitterly cold weather in winter, Jim covered his work area with a plastic tent and heated it with a kerosene heater, both while he worked and at night when the temperature dropped.

This interior wall connects the log house with the timber frame. Above the stone there are logs. Between the logs and the roof, beneath the gable, we are planning to use poplar bark siding. This wall brings the outside in.

This interior wall connects the log house with the timber frame. Above the stone there are logs. Between the logs and the roof, beneath the gable, we are planning to use poplar bark siding. This wall brings the outside in, while emphasizing the log house structure.

I especially love the keystones over the front windows, the stone lintel over the window on the north side, and the entire interior basement stairwell wall, which I think is a masterpiece. Kelley worked with Jim to select stones that were beautiful and that feel wonderful when we touch them.

I am just beginning to see why people love stone so much. It joins Bunny Vista visually to the earth, and it feels safe and solid and eternal. But it also changes. It looks different at different times of day as the angle of the sun changes. The color changes when it rains and the stones gradually dry. It is rough and smooth at the same time. It is warm and again cold. I just want to take a chair and sit out by the walls all day. I am completely and absolutely smitten.

Kelley searched his stone cache for the long lintel stone above the window.

Kelley searched his stone cache for the long lintel stone above the window.

Jim Roepke always listened to seventies music, especially Neil Young. Rock on, Jim.

While he works, Jim Roepke likes to listen to music from the seventies, especially Neil Young. We can relate. Rock on, Jim.

The Log Barn

May 24, 2009
The log barn

The log barn

In the spring of 2004, Kelley found this early 19th century log barn on Stingy Hollow Road on Folly Mills Creek near Arbor Hill. It was built of red and white oak hand-hewn logs and had been covered with siding, which allowed most of the logs to remain in good condition for nearly two hundred years. When the metal roof fell into disrepair, one corner of the barn suffered water damage. Since it was located near the road and the water-damaged parts were structurally unsound, the owner felt it was necessary to take the barn down. Kelley describes the barn as a 20’x20′ double pen bank barn–each pen was 20′ x 20′. The barn was much larger overall.

The barn viewed from the pasture

The barn viewed from the road

The barn as seen from the pasture

The barn as seen from the pasture, owner's house at back right

Many of the logs were salvageable.

Corner of one of the log pens

The V-notched joints are visible here. The joints in our house are half-dovetails, which our builder Lewis prefers.

Oak Logs in barn

Log pen corner. The logs are joined with hewed V-notches. The barn builder used an axe to shape the joints. Kelley says it's possible that he also used a saw on some of the shoulders.

Only a little hardware remained in the barn.

Only a little hardware remained in the barn.

In June, 2004, Jonas Hochstetler, owner of Appalachian Hardwoods, took the barn down in two days with a knuckleboom log truck. After the logs were hauled away, Kelley and Nick burned on the site everything that could not be salvaged.

Some of these logs are now in our house.

Some of these logs are now in our house.

From Kelley’s camera, May 19 and 20

May 21, 2009

Photos from yesterday and today:

Lewis on the ladder

Lewis Wright on the ladder, Braxton on the roof

The gable ends of the log sections will have poplar bark siding. This is the bedroom end, on the north side of the house.

There will be poplar bark siding under the gables. This end will adjoin the timber frame section. There are stairs leading to the basement on this wall, and there will be stairs leading to a loft here, too.

This is the back hallway. The main entrance to the house is on the right

This is the back hallway viewed from the timber frame end. The main entrance to the house is on the right.

This will be the hallway between the log rooms. We think we are going to have glass doors on the west side where the opening is. There will be a small porch there, too.

This is the dog trot between the log rooms viewed from the entry. We think we are going to have glass doors on the west side leading to a small porch.

I just think it's so pretty in the early evening.

I just think it's so pretty in the early evening. The ends of the logs where the corners are dovetailed take my breath away.

Jim Roepke laid the limestone for the foundation walls. It looks different at different times of day, but it is always beautiful

Jim Roepke laid the limestone for the foundation walls. It looks different at different times of day, but it is always beautiful.

Of roofs and ceilings

May 21, 2009

Bunny Vista got a petticoat for its roof yesterday. From Monday through Wednesday the crew worked hard to put up all the rafters and the rest of the underpinnings for the new roof. Now the basement will stay dry–no more mudslides for Kelley, Erin, and Nick to shovel out.

With the addition of a roof, the house looks like a house rather than an assemblage of logs and two by fours. I love the proportions and the the look of the cabin section–set solid on a stone foundation with massive logs and a no-nonsense roofline.

From the bottom up: Limestone, logs, roof sheathing!

From the bottom up: Limestone, logs, roof sheathing! At the right is the decking where the timber frame will be. Kitchen will be at the back of the timber frame section.

Immediately after the roof went on, we had an extended discussion of ceilings. Finally we decided that the master bath will have a sloped ceiling that follows the roofline, which will make it easy to put a skylight over the shower. The dog trot will also have a ceiling that partially follows the roofline. The back hall will have 8 foot ceilings, perhaps made of cypress. The ceiling of the timberframe will soar to the peak of the roof, so that when we walk down the back hallway to the timber frame, that room will be even more dramatic because of the contrast with the low hallway ceiling. At least, that is what I think.

The ceilings in the office and master bedroom are of poplar, painted white. Joists are white pine, hand planed with beaded edges.

The ceilings in the office and master bedroom are of poplar, painted white. Joists are white pine, hand planed with beaded edges.

Aaron and Braxton build the roof.

Aaron and Braxton build the roof.

The view from up there

The view from up there

Bunny Vista and How It Came to Be

May 20, 2009

After nearly five years of planning, scavenging materials, and finding the right people to help us, we are building our new house. We are calling our estate Bunny Vista, although Kelley knows he will endure torment from the manly men building the house–a little laughing at ourselves always helps keep everything in perspective, even the building of a house.

Bunny Vista is Kelley’s brainchild. It has three basic elements: a log cabin with two log rooms connected by a dog trot (breezeway), a timber frame great room, and a shed addition across the back of the cabin and timber frame. The shed addition houses the master bathroom, a hallway and small open office, and the kitchen. Beneath the house is a basement. Peter Aaslestad is our architect. Lewis Wright is our builder. Jim Roepke laid the stone for the foundation of the log section, Jordan Finch is building the timber frame, and Beth Young is the interior designer working with me on the kitchen. Kelley will be doing most of the interior finishing, including cabinets and trim.

About five years ago, Kelley came home from work and told me that he had found a nineteenth century barn off Stingy Hollow Road that was about to be torn down. It was built of handhewn red and white oak logs, and Kelley believed that he could salvage the logs for a house. He asked if I was interested in building a log house, and the project was on.

After taking down the logs and storing them on John Boody’s property on Miller Farm Road, we were able to find a 4 1/2 acre lot also on Miller Farm Road. The minute I stepped on the lot, I knew I wanted to live here. The property is mostly pasture land and adjoins a pasture on the front and along one side. We have a small wooded area along one edge and across the back of the lot. The back of the property borders Sugar Loaf Farm. Across the road is Ox Eye Farm, where our neighbor has planted a beautiful vineyard. At night we can see the lights from about five houses, but mostly we see a sky full of stars. Our closest neighbors are cows, and every morning when I leave for work and every evening when I come home, I follow rabbits hopping up, down, and all around the property. I love our little lot.

We’ve been living in an 1100 square foot mobile home, which was on the lot, since April of 2005. Although I’ve enjoyed the many upscale conveniences of trailer living, I am hoping we’ll celebrate Christmas in the new house where not everything will be made of plastic.

So. . . right now, Bunny Vista has:

A full basement with a beautiful limestone foundation. Kelley and Nick spent many, many weekends moving tons of stone in Kelley’s old F150 from the foundation of an old barn near Stuarts Draft and carefully placing them on pallets here. The house has a poured concrete foundation faced with limestone. The basement will have two bedrooms, a tv room, a bathroom, and Kelley’s workshop. Because our lot is sloped, we are able to have a full walk-out basement with an entrance for Kelley’s shop and a separate entrance for the downstairs living area.

Two log rooms. One is the master bedroom and the second has been divided to house an office and the guest bathroom. The barn the logs came from was a double pen barn, which meant it had two rooms separated by an open area. Log cabins were often built in this way. Sometimes just one room was built at first, and a second was added later. The two rooms were separated by a hallway known as a dog trot. We have used the double pen design because it used our logs efficiently and because it felt historically appropriate. Unfortunately some of the logs Kelley salvaged from the barn deteriorated during the time we stored them. We were able to get replacement logs from Menno Kinsinger in Stuarts Draft.

One dog trot. The main entrance to the house will be at the back, centered between the two log rooms. There is a long hall, the dog trot, which stretches from the back of the house to the front. We have a small porch at the front with glass doors leading out. When the porch doors and the main entry door are opened there will be an amazing breeze–one of the advantages of pre-airconditioning dog trot houses.

A ceiling. Yes, indeed, the log room ceilings are up! They have eighteen foot long exposed pine joists, which Kelley and his friend Emerson Willard hand planed, and which have beautiful beaded edges. The ceilings themselves are poplar boards, tongue and groove with beading, and are already painted a soft white.

A roof. The roof over the log rooms and the shed addition behind the log rooms is almost complete. Tomorrow it will happen.

Decking. The decking is complete and ready for the timber frame, the kitchen addition, and the screened porch.

Storage for the lawn mower under the screened porch. And what storage it is! After Lewis’s crew laid the block foundation for the screened porch, Lewis covered the block with fantastic sandstone from yet another old barn, this one in Middlebrook. It has an amazing color and striation, all orange-y and tan and brown. We are planning to use the same stone for the fireplaces in the great room and the screened porch.

Many timber frame elements. Jordan has the timber frame elements well underway at his workshop in Mount Jackson. He is expecting to bring the pieces here early in June, and it will take his crew only a few days to erect the timber frame. Most of the posts and beams are cypress, but two of the bents are made from a crooked cherry lumber. They are amazing. I am studying Kelley’s timber frame books so I can understand what Kelley, Jordan, Peter, and Lewis are talking about. It is a different language.

So this is where we are–five years into the project, and perhaps only six months till we are able to move in. Kelley has many thousands of pictures, which I’ll be organizing and sharing in later posts so that you can see the elements I am trying to describe. I’m going to work to bring everything up to date gradually while I write notes and add photos about what is happening from day to day. It will be exciting when we start digging trenches for geothermal heat, pouring concrete for the radiant floor heating, and putting up the glorious timber frame room.

This house is Kelley’s dream and a true labor of love, the culmination of more than thirty years of working with wood and learning about traditional craft. Bunny Vista will be beautiful, because of Kelley’s vision, study, and patience. I am happy to be able to observe this undertaking, and I’m going to be tickled to death to live in this house.

Lots of pictures to come, when I learn how to add them to the posts. But here goes nothing. I’m pressing the Publish button.