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The Heartwood School for the Homebuilding Crafts
Articles About Heartwood

The Heartwood School
by Joanne Kellar Bouknight

from Fine Homebuilding, February/March 1989

It's brisk this morning and snow threatens, but a big woodstove in the corner of the shop radiates plenty of heat. The clean smell of shavings from a just-planed slab of pine mixes with the odor of kerosene and motor oil and the fainter scents of apple pie and fresh-ground coffee. It's mid-October and it's my fourth day in a week-long finish carpentry course at the Heartwood School, an owner-builder school in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts.

I've signed up here to sharpen my carpentry skills and to get a glimpse of what one owner-builder school is about. Heartwood also offers weeklong courses in timber framing, cabinetmaking, contracting and masonry, and a three-week course in housebuilding (Johnson Hill Rd., Washington, Mass. 01235; phone 413-623-6677).

Instructor Will Beemer is leading the shop session on doors and tool sharpening, and Michele Beemer is taking a break from teaching to prepare lunch for the class of 15. But first we've got to finish a batten door so that it can be hung this afternoon in a 200-year-old house. A door like this takes three pine boards about 1-in. thick (the width and length depends on the opening). The boards were bought roughsawn from a mill for 28 cents per foot, then jointed, planed and ripped here in the shop. One long edge of each outer board and both edges of the middle board were rabbeted. We assemble the boards on the floor, brace them top and bottom with pipe clamps, then clamp 1x4 oak battens across the boards, one in line with each hinge location.

We fasten each batten to the boards with drywall screws, four per board, countersinking the screws. We won't plug the holes now, but Will shows us how to make, glue and shave off plugs. Before cutting hinge mortises, he demonstrates how to sharpen a chisel using a grinder and a combination oil stone. A few of us follow suit, or try to, by sharpening our own chisels and plane irons that may have never felt a sharpening stone before. Will marks the location of the hinge with a utility knife and cuts into the door with his sharpened chisel. The hinge is attached in seconds - and lunch is ready.

It's a varied crew that gathers around the kitchen counter to make sandwiches and scoop out bowls of homemade soup. Still, we talk about what the group has in common. Seven of us are women, eight are men; seven work in health-related fields, four in housing-related occupations; the average age is 35. Three are back for more, after taking Heartwood's courses Carpentry for Women and Renovation. Half own houses and want to fix them up, and half want to build. One finish carpenter has come to round out his education. The Heartwood School is geared to teaching owner-builders, most of whom have little or no building experience. The instruction is basic, says Frank, the finish carpenter, but he has learned some new techniques nevertheless. He's also been generous in sharing his experience with the class.

A week isn't a long enough time in which to learn a skill, Will told us on Monday morning, but it's long enough to learn the basic language of tools and materials and to learn to visualize -- to work with your eyes. Every day begins with a classroom session incorporating slides and a lecture. Will describes the anatomy of a house; how to read plans and estimate materials; how to install drywall, interior and exterior trim, windows and doors, insulation and flooring; and how to build stairs. We take notes on rules of thumb about nails: nailing one sheet of plywood sheathing will take about 1 lb. of 8d nails, and a nail should penetrate the substructure at least twice the thickness of the surface material. Will passes out estimating tables, lumber and nail references, glossaries of building terms, and assigns nightly readings. During the mid-morning break, we look through the large library of books and video tapes or buy tools from Heartwood's tool store.

After the mid-morning break, we go to the shop for instruction, or on tours of a nearby lumberyard and a couple of the job sites we'll be working on. In the afternoon, we split into groups for hands-on instruction from Will, Michele, and Andy Inganni, a furniture designer and builder.

This day, one group goes to the old house to hang the batten door, add trim and finish off the temporary railing that my group had started earlier in the week. We'd had problems making the balusters plumb, but a rail cap and apron even up the difference. Another group goes to trim the windows that my group installed in a garage the day before. That evening we are informed by the trim group that the sill we'd sloped with the power plane was the best of all the windows, but we'd neglected to square the jambs. They had to tear out the stops and jambs and start over.

My group goes to Andy's house to finish trimming the front door and to fit T&G cedar siding in a tight corner and around a second-floor porch bracket. Andy had milled the siding in his shop from trees on his land, and had only a couple boards left. He shows us how to move and where to place our hands when running stock through the table saw and jointer. We practice again and again.

The trim turns out fine, except for a small ding, but the siding is a bear. After two hours of measuring, ripping, cutting notches, running downstairs to fit the siding around the bracket, scratching our heads in puzzlement and trying again, we make an awkward fit. The day is alternately snowy and sunny, and too cold for a job that would have taken Andy 20 minutes. But, we'd learned a lesson both in using tools properly and in problem-solving. "Pick up a pencil and draw," Andy said. "A job well planned is more than half done."

It seems weeks since Monday afternoon, when we had split up into groups of three and four to make sawhorses. Will had talked about tools: measure your tools and use their built-in dimensions (a carpenter's pencil is 1/4-in. by 1/2-in., a framing square is 16th in. thick); cut long and plane; avoid numbers by using a story pole, a tickstick, a folding rule.

As we fumbled with our bevel gauges, Michele explained the basics of measuring and cutting with a circular saw: check for square, measure, mark the board with a swallowtail and mark an X on the waste. Put the pencil point to the mark and slide your gauge or combination square to the pencil-holding the bulk of the square away from the mark-then draw your line. Set the depth of the saw blade so that you can see some stock between the gullets. Set the shoe perpendicular to your line and go, keeping square to the line. When you're nailing near the end of a board, blunt the nail, turn the diamond-shaped point square to the grain.

To a carpenter, it may be as easy as walking, but for some it was like juggling and riding a bike at the same time. By the end of the week, though, frustration gave way to the seduction of using tools to work wood. By the last hands-on lesson, we were coping baseboard and crown molding with steadier hands and a more purposeful aim.

"It's going too fast" says Meg, a tall woman from Boston, as we sit around the fire at one of the inns near the Heartwood School. It's the night of the second presidential debate, but it's also our last night here, and we'd rather drink beer and talk about what we're going to build. Two cousins from Ohio are marking items in tool catalogs borrowed from the school. The numbers are adding up fast: they want a table saw, a power miter box, a power plane, a couple of ratchet screw drivers and block planes, a combination oil stone. "What about drywall tools?" one asks the other. Frank, the finish carpenter, answers instead: "Sub it out." – Joanne Kellar Bouknight is an assistant editor of Fine Homebuilding. Reprinted by permission.

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