Monday, July 23, 2018

STONE HUT ( 7 ) ~

Bob unloading a jeep load of field stone for the stone hut


On Susan’s birthday, July 29th, I was nearing the six-foot mark on the hut walls, laying in the last woven pattern connecting the outer wall with the inner wall course and selecting the right flat stone to top off the wall where it met the underside of the 6" x 6" beam. By August 1st the lower building of the hut was completed. A square shape of stone. I could walk inside and look out the open window frames and begin to feel a territorial sense that something was now in place. The windows, door, and stone floor would all be worked in last. No sense to damage the windows while tossing stone around. The door would only hang in the way walking in and out of the hut stepping the wall courses together. The stone floor would be a special hunt of locating the best large stone, and very flat. I had my eye on a stone wall further up the woodlot hill. The river at one time provided flat stone, but two years of dredging stone out of it for two terraces had about depleted my source. I would wait awhile for new stone to roll down in the current. Hours were spent in the river with high rubber boots drawing stone out and piling them on the shore. The real work was lugging the stone up a fifteen-foot bank to the road and loading them into a vehicle and bringing them home. Some years that vehicle ranged from a wheelbarrow or my arms, to a VW squareback and the Willys. Put a bow in that VW rear end. Sometimes Susan would help with the work in the river. One summer, a fellow we met earlier that year on a cross-country train trip came to visit from the West Coast, and by the second day of his visit was itching for something to do. He joined me lugging stone up the bank. No complaints, but I think he was bewildered at the primitive logic to the work. It would probably be the last time he wore bermuda shorts if he ever did this type of work again. Wading in the cool river while searching for stone a kingfisher many times could be heard streaking up and down the slow summer water with his chatter. The stone floor for the hut would be found away from the river, up in the woods with an iron bar prying stone away from stone. Flipping the stone down the hill to the Willys parked close to the hill which lowered the truck bed. Two planks were used to support the weight of each stone — and save my back — getting the stone from the ground into the truck. Especially when the stone weighed more than me. Turning them end over end up the plank, or pushing them up— no good flat stone for the job was ever left behind— they were rare enough.

The Stone hut spruce 4 x 4 rafters are up and the purlins
 are on for the cedar shingle roof


I ordered 4" x 4" rough spruce for the hut rafters from Smead Lumber in Vernon, Vermont. A good lumberyard with smart drivers who know how to unload lumber and pile it straight. Russell’s sawmill didn’t have the spruce, and I wasn’t willing to deal with green hemlock — tough lumber, but a headache to handsaw rafter angles when green, never mind lift all that weight into place. It was only twelve pieces of 4" x 4" and I cut them out during the next two evenings after supper. A good change from the stonework. The sawed off ends of the spruce were used in the cookstove the rest of the week, that’s how dry the lumber was. I would find out over the weekend, when I planned to lift the rafters for the roof, how far out of whack the outside walls were from the front of the hut to the rear. The ridgepole was centered. The pitch of the roof was a basic snow-shedding 45° angle. Each rafter was sawed the same length from a pattern rafter. The hut was built by eye and it looked good by eye and the top plate 6" x 6" beams were resting sound on the stone walls. Saturday morning, with Carson asleep in his carriage near the sawhorses, we lifted all the rafters. I nailed while Susan steadied the lower end of each rafter…and sometimes she had to jump down off the step ladder and rock the carriage if Carson stirred. The rafters didn’t pattern out perfectly, but almost. A half-inch difference from the front to the rear — that was easy to live with and it certainly wouldn’t show to the eye. I was building with the trust of the eye, and when I stepped back to look at the rafters I saw the dream and dimension of the hut rise into the air.

Bob working the hut gable end


Dressed hemlock 1" x 4" strapping was also ordered with the rafters. It was delivered together and I piled the strapping to one side while working with the spruce rafters. The rafters were nailed two-foot-on-center while the roof strapping was tacked down with any free time I had during the following week. I would have loved a slate roof, but I had no resource to obtain it at a good price, and asphalt shingles would look pathetic on a stone hut. It has to be either slate or wood shingle. I bought four squares of white cedar shingle, clear grain, from Russell’s sawmill. He bought it from a mill in Maine and it cost me $80. I’d end up using a bundle over three squares. The roof scaffold was nailed in place after I finished with the strapping, allowing a seven-inch space between each length of strapping. I ordered fourteen-foot strapping and let it run past the rear edge of the roof where I could stand on the ledge with ease, snap a chalkline, and saw the strapping for a six-inch overhang. I started slipping shingles on the roof that first week of August. Taking my time, enjoying the view, smelling the cedar as I pounded nails. On the eastern side of the roof — when halfway up the side — I built in a four-pointed star design; it was a design I once saw in a magazine and had carried it around in my head to someday do. Now was my chance. Each shingle for the star was cut with a sixteen-point finish saw; the idea was to achieve a sharp edge to the design and also be subtle, and it shouldn’t leak. So the widest shingles for the star were chosen, they provided the most cover, fewer openings. A chalkline was used for a few of the shingle rows, allowing five inches to the weather. I had a large bucket of galvanized nails from another job I could spare for this roof. It went smoothly. The thing about wood shingle work is once you start you never want to stop. That is one reason I saved the work for the evening hours, around the late bird calls, tree frogs, and one bullfrog in the pond that made a companion of me all summer. By the end of the week I cut a hole out for the stovepipe — nailed down the chimney flashing — and flashed the entire ridge, where a 1" x 10" ridgecap built of dressed pine was set over the flashing. The roof was done. In a few years its light color would bleach closer to the look of stone. Now I would wait for the next rainfall to see how the shingles watered.

Bob setting-up a three story chimney at a house he's building
circa 1980


The cathedral builders of medieval Europe were famous for their development of religious architecture — eighty cathedrals, 10,000 parish churches and hundreds of great churches were built, stone-cut, sculptured between the 11th and 13th centuries. More stone was quarried in France during this time than all of ancient Egypt. The stonecutter that became a sculptor stepped up the ladder into the intellectual world. He learned from theologians, studied the abbey’s manuscripts and his horizons broadened. His work, carvings, outlook benefited both materially and spiritually. He saw what it was to observe and think. His mind worked as his hands labored, they were inseparable. Knut Hamsun writes about the same thing in his own life when as a young man he worked with illiterates in the ditches of Norway. Dug all day. He wrote that it gave him the opportunity for his mind to think — write in his head — while becoming one with his hand labor. No stuffy intellectual chatter in those ditches; it was sharing a lunch, smelling one another, working in dirt and water. He brought all of that into his writing, filled books, and you can feel that muscle and thought in the books. I don’t think about poems or writing or books when I’m laying stone; the mind is sharpening to balance with the stone, it’s a rhythm of the work that is picked up. That rhythm returns to the writing, speaks in the poems. Stone balanced over stone might become line balanced over line.

Carson will build this studio with me when he is 17 years old
and 17 years later it is doing beautifully

all photographs by Susan Arnold

Stone Hut
a builder's notebook
Bob Arnold
1988, 2013