by Peter von Tiesenhausen
photos by Daniel Girard
The call came to reconstruct the Sunrise Mill from the late 1700s using primarily hand tools. Really? Timber frame a water-driven sash mill, by hand, in oak? If you ask my wife and sons about trips we’ve taken around the planet, you would undoubtedly hear that I cannot pass by an open-air museum or a site where old ways are employed. Maybe I should have been born in a previous century.
While I have avoided traveling to the United States for about four years, this call could not be ignored. Quelling my trepidation, I applied and a few weeks later heard that I had been successful. I booked my flight. My first Guild project, and many questions surfaced, threatening to make me change my mind: could I afford the time, the expense, the risk of potential border crossing challenges (being a well-publicized challenger of the fossil fuel industry), would they confiscate my tools….The list went on. And, with other commitments, it was a tight fit.
The day arrived and I got on the plane with my old hard-case Samsonite suitcase filled with 49.5 pounds of chisels, axes, and squares. Rene Allen connected for a rideshare as we would both be arriving in Philadelphia late in the day. Turns out that she grew up in the woods about 140 miles north of me in northern British Columbia. Had she not resettled in Oregon she would have beat me as the most distant volunteer.
Rene alleviated many of my concerns on the drive out to Schwenksville and the Sunrise Mill project, having participated in and even led Guild projects before volunteering for this one. She also explained the use of Uber to me as we headed off into the night. Guild Executive Director Mack Magee and Project Manager Dale Emde had waited up for us and Dale was kind enough to find me a blanket as I had brought only a sheet and pillow. Rudimentary accommodations in a summer camp for kids but everything necessary for survival. Crickets and fireflies and summer heat felt foreign, having flown out of Calgary under lightly falling snow.
It was a short night with a bunch of other guys, mostly within a decade of my own 60 years, in an open bunkhouse setting, tossing and snoring on rubber- covered bunks. I took to putting an earplug in my one good ear for the duration. Apparently, my snoring was the most disconcerting of all—John said I sounded like I was dying, but I have no other proof of that.
After a hearty breakfast in the “Great Hall,” during which we explored points of view and interests beyond the soon-to-be timber frame, we assembled on the joinery site at Pennypacker Mills. Huge beams of white oak had been neatly set on dunnage and the brand-new sturdy sawhorses; to be fair, almost any oak is huge to me as the nearest naturally-occurring one couldn’t be found within a thousand miles of where I live.
A range of skill was evident among the volunteers and I held to the middle of the range. We were led by some of the legends about whom I had only heard and read over the years, being a distant Canadian member of the Guild. Will Beemer, a larger than life hero and a Guild founder, stood with several others to lead us all in the carving of this bulky frame.
By noon we’d been cutting, bantering, and joking for some time, with friendships quickly forming. Settling to a delightful lunch on the historic site where Washington had toasted his troops, I realized that I had already added to my skills. Mostly self-taught while building my own buildings from the trees that surround my home, here I saw little tricks and tool applications to which I had never been exposed. The use of a spoke shave, for example, as demonstrated by Dave Bowman, to hog out lap joints would never have occurred to me. I thought spoke shaves were for shaving spokes.
Seth Kelley ungrudgingly trusted me with his beautiful old planes and gave direction on how to use them properly. Neil Godden led us in morning stretches or what may have looked a bit like a disorderly line dance from a distance. Forensic joinery tours by Michael Cuba and Dale Emde answered questions about historic joinery I didn’t know I had.
White oak is hard stuff compared to the pine and spruce I am accustomed to, and so much less forgiving as it doesn’t crush or bend to shape. The sauerkraut smell of the fresh timbers at least masked the odor I felt I was giving off from hand-sawing in the intense heat.
By midweek, strong bonds were forming. Only a few by Gorilla Glue or Band-Aid, most with laughter and camaraderie and collaborations on the more complicated joints.
The eight days passed like a flash for me, building and raising a sturdy frame along with the accompanying relationships felt genuine to the core. So many generous people coming together from across the continent to build a legacy that would outlive even the youngest of them. A diverse community of women and men of all ages, whose politics or religions didn’t always coincide but with a common goal of fostering quality craft, sharing techniques and knowledge, and building community.
These people showed up on time, worked hard, and tried to make the very best building they could. The love of the wood and the craft of fitting it together seemed to bridge any differences we may have had.
In the end, the frame and the rafters were up. The hand building, which had been the attraction for me, had slowed the process enough that we were not able to completely fulfill the obligation of shingling the building as well. The sound of the handsaws, boring machines, axes, mallets, and chisels, of the drawknives pulling shavings from the corners of the froe riven pegs allowed for the sounds of people to mingle with the making to pervade the historic battlefield meadow we worked in, with the shavings and woodchips soft underfoot.
As I checked my now 49 and 9/10ths pound Samsonite with an autographed copy of Will Beemer’s Learn to Timber Frame, I reflected again on my week in the States. How had it come to this? We seem to only ever hear the negative stuff. We are told that demons lurk everywhere, that we can trust no one, and that everyone is out only for themselves. However, on the Sunrise Mill project, I had met and worked with so many amazing and generous people of whom, I can imagine, some might still be part of my life at the end of it. All with such a willingness to guide and to teach, to learn, and to share.
Even as the US airport security guard removed the 20-year-old Swiss Army knife from my carry-on he seemed to have compassion for my attachment to it; he took the time to open the Phillips screwdriver/ can opener, I’m sure, appreciating its quality. He lingered there and gave me time to review my options. I imagined him trying to think of a way for me to keep it instead of deleting it forever from my pocket before I boarded my flight back to Canada.
Given the opportunity I expect I will return to the US again, perhaps to support the people of this guild and the projects they foster—for it was a truly progressive exercise—or just to spend more time with like-minded people willing to find a common way forward with energies and equity for the benefit of all life on this amazing planet.
P.S. I’ve got a new Victorinox huntsman coming to maintain that long sharp taper on my carpenter pencils.
Read more about this project on the Timber Framers Guild’s blog.