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Tom Haanen on hewing

by on 26 Jul 2011

This piece was originally posted July 12.

Tom Haanan is an engineer working for Hilti in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a stalwart Guild member and supporter, and the veteran of multiple Guild projects.

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When the carpenters arrived at the work site on May 24th, there were three immediate assets. A small building that would be our tool room, a work site about the size of a football field and 210 silver fir logs. And our sharp tools that somehow made it through the Transportation Safety Board. The logs covered roughly a sixth of the open expanse. The thought of hewing all the needed timbers loomed large in our psyche. The water closet and source of drinking water were located about 300 meters down the road leading into the Skansen [open air museum].

While some of the carpenters started using axes from the get-go, a good portion of the work for the first couple of days focused on building our infrastructure. Setting up three shade tents, building horses and workbenches and constructing shelves inside the tool room to accommodate and organize our equipment.

Although the assembled crew was talented, only Kevin de Silva from Britain and the fine young Danish carpenter, Jacob, were experienced hewers. So the rest of us all entered the hewing house of pain for the first time. Everyone shared in the effort. Ellen Gibson hewed. Leon Buckwalter hewed. The students hewed. Handshouse fixer extraordinaire Kelley Sullivan hewed. Although lead carpenter Mikkel Johansen told us early on that no one should have to hew more than four hours per day, it soon became apparent that this level of effort would not produce enough squared timbers needed to get the rafter, box frame and log wall operations on schedule. So the bulk of the skilled carpenters on site hewed more or less full time for the first couple of weeks. Jacob, Jackson, Adam Z. from Japan, Jordan, Isaac, Isaiah, Mez, Bruce, Mark S., and David from the UK. The yeoman efforts of this group were critical to getting the project up and running.

We had to develop technique, endurance and efficiency. One of the challenges was reducing the many 36 foot long, fifteen inch plus diameter logs down to 6x dimensioned timbers. Scoring four inches into both sides with an axe was hard work! So two person crosscut saws were put to work as scoring tools. Typically tool choice was based on availability. At any given time, there were probably eight sticks in some stage of conversion. In the end, most of the scoring was still done with felling axes. More fun!

So much of the early effort boiled down to converting all these logs into useful timbers, attempting to duplicate the appearance of beams hewn by local carpenters three hundred years ago. A few of the timber framers produced quality sticks right off. Adam Z. cuts wood instinctively. Mez cranks a hewing axe like John Henry swinging a nine pound hammer. We all marveled how hard he could work and sustain his effort all day. When Isaiah scored, the drum was heard a kilometer away. But, many of the timbers produced during the first week were crude, slow in the making and would create scribing challenges.

The first hewing setback was losing Kevin to a left hand injury. In spite of this, he remained productive, sharpening saws, carving handles to replace those broken. He could tell when my butt was draggin’ and had uplifting words. A big loss to the hewing effort, though. He’s a great carpenter and a good friend.

As our hewing skills developed, we had to learn to sustain the effort. A lot of that boiled down to nutrition. The hewers were constantly hungry and started hoarding food. The Dom would serve a generous buffet for breakfast. This was the only consistent opportunity to get the additional fuel needed for the strenuous work. I would make a sandwich and put it in the room to eat at bedtime. Get through the day?  Fill a plastic bag with cut fruit.  At first, I would eat at 10 o’clock and 2:30 to keep my blood sugar up. Then, it was a piece of fruit every hour. I had a food stash inside the leadership office, hidden with the rain gear. Although I ate constantly, I lost over ten pounds from the hard work over four weeks. Body by broadaxe.

Dinners at the Dom were the same every night. A delicious soup, pork and potatoes. But the portions were modest. By the second week, a somewhat friendly competition developed for leftovers. Everyone knew that the big engines like Isaiah and Adam were hungry and needed the extra calories. So plates were passed around. I would always get to the dining table early so I could get a second bowl of soup.

The days were regimented and long. Breakfast at 6:30. Around 7:30, the Hotel Dom crew would leave for the job site on foot or riding the cheesy rental bikes.  Down the hill, over the bridge and through the Skansen. About 3 klicks. Such a beautiful place! Cuckoo, cuckoo (the bird, not the clock) echoing from the woods. Role call at 8:00, don’t be late! Summary from the team leaders about progress on the log wall, box frame, rafters and cupola. The safety briefing. Then passing the poetry hat. Work starts about 8:20. Lunch at twelve high. Bob Smith would ring the back-to-work bell at 12:30 and not a minute late. Quittin’ bell at 5. Put up the tools and head back across the San River. A Zywiec beer to cool off. Tom, did you see all the trout by the bridge? Dinner at 7. Dang, another 8 o’clock meeting? The only spare time to write postcards was early in the morning. The time zone in Poland is Greenwich Mean Time plus one; which is the same as the western coast of France. This far east, this far north means the sun comes up early. Light before 4 am.

At some point, all Guild jobs turn. Hopefully sooner rather than later. It was well into the second week and we still weren’t producing timbers fast enough. For the Gwozdziec reconstruction hewing effort, this happened on Thursday afternoon, June 2. Mikkel got us together and read the Riot Act in a mild mannered Danish sort of way. By Saturday quitting time, the hewing effort had hit stride. Magically, the weather cooled. For the first week and a half, it had been hot. The two shade tents dedicated to hewing could accommodate only so many people swinging axes. Two sticks per tent. So much of the hewing was done out in full sun. The straw hat was my most important tool.

Alicia told us that by the end of the project, we’d have experience with different axes and develop preferences. I figured going into this endeavor, the single bevel broad axe with an offset handle was the obvious choice. After observing the beautiful scalloped timbers produced by Adam Z. many of us recognized the versatility of the double bevel, straight handled Gransfors model. We often encountered twisting grain or knots with diving grain. Hard to keep the line. Surface tear out. The double bevel axe could not only cleanly cut in both directions, but also produced an interesting grain pattern. Hewing from the top of the tree to bottom generally took care of grain challenges. Finish one side and then flip the stick with a cant hook to work the other. The few minutes spent re-establishing plumb was time well spent for the non-ambidextrous. We sharpened a lot.

Jacob, by contrast, produced beautiful, flat surfaces with his single bevel Danish broad axe. I saw Jacob plane a single, intact shaving the entire length of a twenty-five foot long log by wedging his body between the waste and timber as he progressed. By week three, Mikkel could look at a finished timber and make a pretty good guess who did the hewing by the finish and tool marks.

The importance of the deal Mikkel made with Gransfors Bruks for tools at reduced cost cannot be overestimated. Without the additional high quality felling and broad axes, we would have very likely fallen behind schedule without working additional hours and probably a Sunday or two. The felling axes did not rest. And Guild members got the deal of a lifetime. Thanks Mikkel for your foresight and kudos for your business savvy.

By week three, most of the hewers rotated into cutting joinery. Adam Z. and Jordan teamed up with Gerry David on the box frame. Mez, Bruce and Isaac scribed rafters with Bob Smith and Tim Whitehouse. Isaiah and David joined the log wall crew. Ellen cut curved pieces for the cupola with Jim. Barbara ran the pit saw. (Who’d I miss?) I took off a couple of days and went fishing. By week four, much of the remaining hewing was performed by students trained by our eloquent poet, Jackson. Emma Payne picked up the slack.

I write this story in front of a fan at the shack in Tulsa. A hundred and two in the shade. My walk away. The students deserve a lot of credit for the work accomplished. There were no significant injuries… count our blessings. Thanks to Rick and Laura for this incredible project and cool location. New friends. Relearning. The Guild delivers. A big part of the legacy. But mostly I remember the unrelenting demand to axe round to square.

July 8, 2011

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A day off. Tom briefly puts down his axe to pick up another tool:

One Comment
  1. Likt to see that axe work, no matter what.

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