In my workshop hang the various clamps, jigs and chisels and tools used by the man I called my "Opa." He made the table where I write, he glued the chair on which I sit, his complicated veneers and intricate low relief furniture carvings are a testimony to his craftmanship. My grandfather’s routered his trademark vine pattern on all his work: a string of leaves joined to each other like I am joined to him and my father, the craftmen who came before.
I think about my grandfather and my father as twenty men and I strain to pull up the frame of the antique house I am building in Milles Iles. We must raise these thousand pounds of wood to balance on an eight-inch surface. Men with pikes struggle to control the giant structure’s ascent.When the frame is in place I use my grandfather’s level to check the vertical plane. Building this post and beam Mansard roof home is a journey into my personal and community archeology. The tools are unearthed from my grandfather and these thirty foot, eight by eight hand-hewn beams come from turn of the century barns here in the county of Argentile.
Before starting this building, I scoured the countryside for beams visiting abandoned farms and talking to the descendents of the Scots who had built a thriving community here at the turn of the century. The old men tell me that each axe mark belongs to a man, who a hundred years ago, swung a twelve-inch razor sharp hunk of brute steel to square massive trees into beams. One chop down, one chop sideways on all four sides with a fifteen-pound broad axe for days at a time. Ancient trees felled to thirty foot logs, forty inches at the stump and sixteen at the top, worked until shaven to an even eight-by- eight as straight as any modern milled beam, but with the texture and color of antiquity.
When I am inside the old barns, I am amazed and intrigued by the elegant logic of the joinery. The ends of adjoining beams are sculpted so they interlock like hand and glove, without nails. When I study the joinings, look them up, practice making them, I start to understand the particular uses of mortise and tennon, lap cuts, scarf joints, full housings. In my childhood, my father was my hero. Pictures show me building with him when I was six. He took me to flea markets to seek out gizmos and strange tools no one could understand upon first sight. We would imagine the use of these unique implements, eventually disciphering their purpose. From my father has come my interest in building processes, from my grandfather, the craftsman’s admiration for detail.
At the building site, I do the joints of the mezzanine with my grandfather’s chisel and mallet. Some of the smaller beams contain rusty old horseshoes driven in at intervals. Theses beams were the forty five-degree supports of the barn next to the church in downtown Mille-Isle where four hundred and fifty families all worshipped on Sundays. People drove their old horseshoes into the solid lower beams at eye level to secure their horses during mass. I give the horseshoes their rightful place of honor in the structure.
In this new house my craft lineage mixes with that of the community where I work. The home grows from frame, to roof, to enclosed walls, to the finished building. The workmen smoke in satisfaction when all but the last task is done. I take my grandfather’s router and carve a string of leaves, each touching the other. I frame the carved wood in glass and place it above the finished door. The light shines through.
627 w. August 7, 2002