Making A Brace Or Two (48 of them, actually)

April finally brought temperatures above freezing. It was time to get back on track with the barn project. The work that we’d originally thought we’d complete during the winter months never materialized due to months of record-breaking cold, so we’re playing catch-up as the warmth returns.

The larger stacks of timbers were still under heavy snow and ice early this month. The stacks of 4 x 6’s were clear, however, so we decided to take on the rafters and braces first. Starting with rafters (quick to cut) gave us the satisfaction of seeing completed pieces stack up in a short period of time. We needed that. As an added benefit, the lighter 4 x 6 timbers would not strain our backs as we were coming off months of relative inactivity. We’ll be muscling the heavy 8 x 8’s soon enough.

Once the finished rafters were neatly stickered and stacked we moved on to the braces. The main frame uses 48 of them, all the same length. Working together in a process-oriented fashion is something that Marion and I do extremely well together. Once the steps were dialed in we made quick work of it – much quicker than in previous projects where I’d been working alone cutting the joinery.

The first step was to heft the 4 x 6 x 14-foot long timbers onto the chop saw station and cut them into 4-foot lengths before stacking them inside the shelter we call the “timber framing shed.” (We have three identical bow-roof greenhouse structures. One is the “shop,” which we built during our first winter here. The second one, built in 2011, is the greenhouse where we grow tomatoes. The third, built a year and a half ago, is the one we’ve been using for shelter while cutting the timber frame joinery for the barn.)

Penciling the brace layout onto the timbers came next. The accuracy of the brace dimensions is critical to the fit of the frame, perhaps more so than any other component. It all begins with precise layout. For this process, the “measure twice” adage went one step further to include Marion’s reminders every step of the way.

“Forty two and seven sixteenths.”

“Forty two and seven sixteenths,” got it.

Once we’d laid them all out, it was back to the chop saw for the 45-degree cuts. Each piece was hefted to the saw, aligned, clamped to the fence, cut, unclamped, removed, stacked. When working in this way, it’s a dance of sorts. Each sequence repeats, although I’d occasionally forget my next move. Marion was always there with the gentle reminder to get me back in step.

Clamp. Cut. Unclamp. Turn. Clamp. Cut. Stack. Forty-eight braces.

Swing chop saw to opposing 45-degree angle. Repeat above process. Forty-eight braces.

Set blade depth to 2 inches (for the shoulder of the brace). Repeat above process Forty-eight braces.

Rotate saw to opposing 45-degree angle. Repeat above process. Forty-eight braces.

Next step: Use the skill saw to cut multiple kerfs at a depth of 2 inches – the thickness of the brace tenon on each end. Lots of sawdust generation here as the kerf cuts are spaced a quarter to three-eights inches apart, making for about a dozen cuts across the 3 ½ inch-wide tenon.

Marion breaks out the “waste” between kerf cuts and rough chisels to a thickness of slightly more than 2 inches. She then hands each brace to me for the final paring with the slick and plane.

I keep the tenon about 1/32 inch thicker than the required 2 inches to allow for further shrinkage as the wood dries between now and barn raising time. If it’s still a bit thick when we put it all together, I’ll give it a few licks with the block plane for the perfect fit.

Once complete, Marion takes each brace back outside and applies a coat of a waxy end grain sealer. (Timbers release water much more rapidly at their ends and a sealer is necessary to keep the newly cut tenons from drying too quickly and splitting.)

How many times have we lifted each piece? I’m not sure, but I’m guessing that it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of eighteen or twenty times per brace.

One more lift gets them back on the stickered stacks where they’ll remain covered until barn raising time.

The whole process of building the braces took place over several days. We began with about a foot of snowpack still on the ground. Our footing became soft and mucky as 60 degree weather quickly melted the white stuff away. Mud season is now in full swing (somewhat later than usual this year). With the snow and ice gone from the piles of large timbers we’ll start on roof trusses next.