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February 27, 2010

What a Difference a Day Can Make

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I awoke this morning to the hush that comes with a few inches of new snow. I slept well. I can’t say the same for the night before. What a difference a day can make.

Last weekend’s mild temperatures encouraged me to hang the sap buckets for an early start on the season. Bare ground showed through on south-facing sections of the meadows. No snowshoes necessary this year. We had a good run and were boiling by Monday, putting up the first batch of 2010’s maple crop.

Tuesday’s forecast called for snow. When low pressure sits in the Gulf of Maine we never know how much to expect. The flakes fell steadily through Tuesday evening. More than a foot covered the ground by first light the next day. There was no sign of things letting up. I decided to fire up the tractor to begin clearing snow off the road before the temperature rose, bringing with it the potential for impossible plowing. Heavy, wet snow does not move easily.

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I spent the better part of the day grading the snow aside. With each pass along the half-mile stretch that connects us with the plowed town road, an inch or more of new snow covered my previous tracks. By mid afternoon the snows were very wet and I’d run out of room to put it. Any more plowing would have simply constrained the roadway to a width through which the truck would not fit. All I could do was hope that the storm was winding down. As a precaution, I moved the truck down to the flats below. At day’s end on Wednesday more than two feet of new snow stood on the meadows and atop the sap buckets. It wouldn’t last for long.

Thursday dawned with light snow falling but it soon turned to rain – lots of it, but the worst part of the storm was yet to come.

The forecast for Thursday night came with a wind advisory. As with the snow from a Nor’easter, it is not always easy to predict how much. I went to bed without giving it much thought. Earlier breezes had shaken the heavy, wet snow from the trees, erasing my concerns about the weight bringing down limbs. (Gypsy sits on the edge of a meadow alongside a row of very tall, old maples.)

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I was awakened by the wind at midnight. Wind, and the sound of tree limbs crashing to the ground. I tried just lying there, thinking, “What can I do about it, anyway?”

That didn’t work. After an hour I went downstairs to get a better look around. Bands of clouds raced at high speed from east to west across the face of a nearly full moon. Treetops were in full motion. The roar of the wind coming over the hilltops to the east gave warning to each coming blast. Hold on. The house shook with the force of the wind hitting its side. My gaze remained fixed on the greenhouse, a seemingly fragile structure in the face of such a powerful force. I fully expected to be watching as a gust tore it from its moorings and kited it across the orchard meadow below.

More trees were crashing to the ground. I couldn’t see where they fell from the vantage inside the house. I made a brief dash out to grab two buckets that were tumbling along the path after being blown from the porch. Back inside, I began worrying about Marion, still sleeping in the loft. (I envy her ability to do that.) What if one of those maples came down on the roof. Wouldn’t the first floor offer more protection?

I woke Marion at 1:15. I turned on the computer and began poring over National Weather Service charts. The pressure gradient was deep and we were in the quadrant with the strongest winds. How long can this low sit here?

The storm was tracking slowly to the west. Talking with Marion helped take my mind off the roar of the wind and the crashing of tree limbs outside. The nearest airport, 35 miles away, was recording winds near 40 mph, but they are more sheltered down in the Connecticut River valley than we are on this mountainside. I turned next to Mt. Washington – the other extreme. The White Mountains to our east would be bearing the full force of the storm. Hurricane force winds buffeted their peaks. Winds atop Mt Washington were in excess of 120 mph. While not hurricane force here at the house an occasional strong blast blowing through had enough force to ring the heavy bronze ship’s bell that hangs from the porch. That’s not going to help me sleep.

I kept refreshing the National Weather Service web page as real-time data points collected in the wind speed column. When’s it going to peak?

I knew that I wouldn’t be able to attempt sleep again until I saw a reversal in the trend. Finally, at 3 a.m. the velocities began to dip and at 3:30 we crawled back to bed.

By morning nearly half of the previous day’s snow had been erased by the rain and the wind. I went out to survey the damage. The greenhouse was standing and no limbs had fallen through its roof. Good. Next, I looked to the lean-to shed that we use to shelter various things adjacent to where the new equipment shed will go. Still there. Good. Its tarp roof had not held up to the gusts, but the structure was intact. The outhouse remained standing strong. Really good.

The orchard was littered with small branches that had blown from the tops of the tall maples. Several dead limbs had been shaken loose, too, and lay on the ground. The scene very much told the story of the night preceding, but no major damage had come to the home or outbuildings nearby.

I spent the day on Friday in a bleary-eyed state, picking up limbs off the road, recovering and reaffixing nearly half of the sap bucket lids that had been shaken loose and blown off by the storm. The sun shone. Temperatures warmed. Sap flowed. What a difference a day can make.

February 21, 2010

Plink, Plink, Plink . . .

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Punxsutawney Phil never seems to get it right. Nor can I. I can never remember if that old groundhog’s shadow means more winter or less. A more reliable indicator of the season’s transition is the plink, plink, plink sound of sap droplets falling to the bottom of a bucket on warming winter days. Yesterday, the afternoon temps reached the upper 30’s. We spent the morning picking up our new evaporator and setting it up near the woodpile (hmmm, is a sugarhouse somewhere in future plans?). The snow was soft and spring-like under foot. We decided it was time to set the first spout. Late in the afternoon we drilled one of last year’s best producing maples. Sap began flowing down the trunk of the tree before I even hammered in the spile. Plink, plink, plink. With the first bucket hung, the sap was flowing at more than 150 drips per minute. Time to put other projects on the back burner, it’s sugarin’ time!

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February 14, 2010

The Math is Willing but the Flesh is Weak

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Yesterday, I finished the braces for the equipment shed frame. Thirty-four of them are now stacked neatly alongside the finished posts and tie beams. In the coming week I’ll start on the floor joists and finally the rafters. The top plates will be the last pieces cut as they will not fit inside the greenhouse and I’ll wait for warmer outdoor temperatures before cutting their joints. (The top plates consist of an 18-foot beam and a 12-foot beam connected by a scarf joint for a resultant 30-foot length. Three of them run the length of the building, holding the bents together at 10-foot spacing.)

As I see the stack of what was once rough cut timber being transformed into a life-sized collection of Lincoln Logs I’ve been experiencing mixed emotions. There is the satisfaction of seeing the posts and beams displaying freshly cut mortises and tenons – the shop drawings come to life. There is also the anxiety that creeps in whenever I think about the fact that I’m placing complete faith in my human capacity to implement mathematical calculations that have no tolerance for error. There is the potential (the doubting side of me frets) for bringing all the pieces together on raising day and discovering that a mistake or a series of mistakes have been made that can potentially render the entire stack of posts, beams, and braces unusable – a nightmare, indeed.

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The advent of computer aided design software in recent decades has made the mathematical calculations far easier than the longhand methods employed by timber framers in years gone by. Pythagoras is a name that I associate with high school geometry, but his theorem, along with many others, now hide within the code of the Google SketchUp program I used to lay out the building plans. Pointing and clicking on the contemporary drawing board, I convert the overall plan into individual shop drawings – one for each component of the frame.

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Once in the shop, the process of laying out the joints in the timber begins with an inspection of the beam. Considerations include the run of the grain, the location of knots, and crown. Once I’ve determined the orientation I’ll use, the sides are labeled and the joints laid out by either scribe or pencil.

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“Measure twice, cut once.” The old adage rings truer than ever when mistakes may not rear their head until much later in the process. I check and double check each mortise and tenon layout. Quite often I’ll have the saw in hand, ready to begin the cut and I’ll stop, grab the tape and measure again.

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When I first began working on this project I knew very little about the craft of timber framing. “How hard can it be?” I thought. “It’s a barn, right? Little need for precision, right?”

I’ve learned a lot in recent months! Timber framing is, in many ways, like large-scale furniture building and, yes, precision matters.

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Brace mortises (above) present the least tolerance for error. A sixteenth of an inch difference in their positions can have an impact on the ultimate trueness of the frame. No pressure, Kevin. You won’t know for sure until spring.

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Day by day, wood is removed. Corners are squared. Shoulders are planed. Final measurements are checked. Another piece takes shape and is returned to the stack.

At first I worried whether the software was generating correct numbers. I double-checked using longhand until I was satisfied. The math is correct. I won’t know about the human translation until fitting the pieces in the spring. I wish I weren’t so prone to worry.