A Carpenter’s Journal

May 21, 2009

Three Season Porch

Filed under: Architecture — Tags: , , — Fran Maloney @ 6:36 am

Nothing that is complex is useful, and everything that is useful is simple.

                                                                                                       Mikhail Kalashnikov

Here is a porch we did recently.  The storm-screen panels are from Harvey Industries and make an easy maintenance free way to enclose a porch.  The roof is red cedar with a fixed Velux skylight.   img_0195

May 18, 2009

Cupolas, Part 3

Filed under: Architecture — Tags: , , — admin @ 6:09 am


  It is possible to walk up to the cupola between the inner and outer layers of the dome of the Cathedral of Florence and look out on the spectacular view of the city of Florence and the surrounding mountains.   Following and standing out from the dome from each corner of the building below, eight ribs arch up to a smaller octagon which bears the white marble lantern or cupola.  It also is octagonal with large carved buttresses rising from the top of each rib of the dome, between the buttresses are tall window openings each with pilasters and arching tops, above the windows is a frieze and a cornice.  Above the frieze there is an ornate base for a conical roof topped with a finial in each corner and a copper ball and a cross in the center.  From a distance the cupola looks small in relation to the massive dome.  The observational platform, the safety railing and the tourists are only visible in the most close up photographs.  From inside the cathedral looking up at the ceiling, light streams down from the cupola windows and in from  a single circular window on each of the eight sides of the building and the entire ceiling is painted in a dramatic fresco of scenes from the Bible. 

     Closer to home there are many examples of significant public buildings crowned with large and intricately designed cupolas.  Fanueil Hall in Boston has a beautiful  gilt top, octagonal cupola overlooking the marketplace.    George Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon has a large cupola  rising from its center,  each of its eight sides is composed  entirely of an operable window which serves to cool the house in summer.   Above the windows is a classical frieze and cornice followed by a steeply concave roof and then a spire with a ball and a weather vane.   

      Of all the original functions of cupolas, the one that remains today is as a place to mount a weathervane.   The earliest weather vanes were just flags or pennants flying from the tops of towers to indicate the wind direction for archers.  They evolved to become crafted aerodynamic figures mounted above a copper ball and a pointer for the four directions of the compass.  The octagonal form of many cupolas probably originated with the Greeks who built eight sided towers each symbolising one of their gods, the wind directional at the top would tell the people not only which way the wind was blowing but also which god was ruling the day.  The rooster or crowing cock on the top of a building is an ancient symbol to remind people that Peter had denied Christ three times;  perhaps this was a warning to the people to be wary and to be diligent in attending church. Mount Vernon has a dove with an olive branch in its mouth.  Washington had it made to commemorate the ending of the Revolutionary War.  A four foot long gilded copper grasshopper sits above the market place at Faneuil Hall in Boston, a copy of the weathervane at the Royal Exchange in London it was chosen because, by association,  it symbolised a prosperous, stable mercantile economy.   The origin of the copper balls usually attached below the weather vane is more of a mystery.  The copper ball on the Cathedral of Florence is said to have been originally filled with saintly relics.  Today weathervanes are chiefly ornaments but they often hold some meaning to the people who choose them or are still intended to say something about the inhabitants of the building they adorn.

In New England, there are endless variations in size, style and structure of cupolas, some are factory made, some are fine, some are shoddy, many are exquisitely crafted.  Each one expresses the desire the owner or designer had for the appearance of the building; together they add distinctiveness and uniqueness to the architecture of our cities and towns.

May 7, 2009

Cupolas, Part 2

Filed under: Architecture — Tags: — Fran Maloney @ 11:06 am

Windowed CupolaThe cupolas you might buy online or at Sylvester Lumber are simple in their construction. They consist of a base made of pine or plywood, open on the top and bottom, usually made in two stepped layers, the lower part of the box is cut on two opposing sides at the angle of the roof so that it fits down over the ridge and is fastened with screws through the sides where they contact the shingles. The upper part of the base steps in and acts as the base for the upper cupola which will either be four sides of windows, usually 4 panes of glass each side, or louvers depending on your choice of style. The windowed ones often come with a small light inside which can be wired through the roof to a switch inside the building. The roof is usually a hipped roof coming to a point at the top made of plywood without any internal framing and the roofing material is copper, which is the easiest long lasting material to apply to a small surface, but it can also be shingled with wood or asphalt shingles. At the peak there needs to be a small cap-block of wood with a hole drilled in it to receive the weather vane. These cupolas come primed and need to be painted several coats of finish paint on the ground before installation. Some are now made of pvc plastic trim instead of wood, the plastic is not as structurally strong but it is not subject to rot or to peeling paint.

May 5, 2009

Cupolas, Part One

Filed under: Architecture — Fran Maloney @ 3:04 pm


     So I went on for some days cutting and hewing timber, and also studs and rafters,  all with my narrow axe, not having many communicable or scholar-like thoughts, singing to myself-.   HDT


I have been slowly building a 10×12 tool shed.  It has a door, a window and clapboards painted grey in the front.  The sides and back are shingled with white cedar, the roof is done with thick red cedar shingles called tapersawns.  The cap on the ridge is woven tapersawns and in the middle is a base for a cupola.   I have installed cupolas before and moved them out of the way to do a roof, but I had never built one before, so, in the process of planning our shed, I began to study cupolas wherever I went.   img_05262 Cupolas are ubiquitous  and of every size and style imaginable.  They are on barns, garages,  public buildings,  houses and even strip malls.  Although the one I will build on the shed will deviate only slightly from the norm of those found on other sheds, the building of it has given me the opportunity to observe and contemplate this interesting but often overlooked architectural feature so much a part of New England’s buildings.

The cupolas we see today have two distinct origins.  One is an attempt by suburban builders to re-create the feel of New England rural architecture.  The other is an attempt by builders and designers to re-create the feel of ornate European architecture.   My Brosco millwork book has a  page of stock cupolas that can be ordered and installed on any steep roof, the internet has a number of sites that supply cupolas.  In Hanover Massachusett, Sylvester Lumber Company stocks a line of them on display in the the window of their store on Route 53.  These are the standard designs that we think of or look for when we want  a cupola for our shed, barn or garage.  They have hipped roofs, usually made of plywood with a copper cover, and a receptacle for a weather vane, the sides are either louvered or windowed.  They are fairly easy to install, usually non functional as the louvered ones are seldom opened to the building below but installed over the shingles of the main roof and the windowed ones are not actually of a size to allow someone to look out of them although some are supplied with a light that can be connected to a light switch inside.

Near where I live there is a large barn that is actively used to house sheep and goats.  I made a point to look at its cupola from the inside to see if it was actually being used for ventilation and was surprised that there was no actual connection for air to flow from the inside of the barn out through the louvered sides of the cupola, even in this case, the cupola was ornamental.  I don’t think this was always the case. 

As American farmers began to prosper in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, farms and barns grew bigger and more weather tight.    A barn full of cows and horses along with their attendant feed and resultant manure must have created considerable moisture problems in the winter and considerable heat and odors in the summer, all of which could be easily let out through a centrally placed louvered structure in the roof.  I believe the two traditional styles of cupolas we see today on our utility buildings, sheds, garages and barns arose from the need for barns to be ventilated and secondarily to be lit from the inside with sunlight.  They are, however, today, almost never used for anything other than ornament.  They are simply part of the traditional New England look.



May 1, 2009

Camponotus pennsylvanicus

Filed under: Job Progress — admin @ 7:07 am

Yesterday I went to replace some trim on a house that was beginning to rot.  It was the casing around two 9 foot garage doors.  The trim had apparently been rotting because of cracks in the flashing above the trim.  It was a vinyl drip cap and was letting small amounts of water through, not only to the brick mould casing below but also into the 2×10 headers spanning the garage doors.  Probing the headers from below with a putty knife, I found they had the consistency of garden soil after a rain storm.  The owner and I concluded that the two headers had to be entirely replaced, which entailed the removal of all the pine trim around the doors and breaking back the clapboards far enough to open the plywood sheathing and expose the entire headers.  Fortunately these headers were on the gable end of the garage and were supporting a minimum amount of weight. 

Not surprisingly, as is often found where wood is kept in a moist condition, each header had a large nest of carpenter ants and as I pulled the rotten and worm eaten chunks of wood from the garage, thousands of ants were falling onto the driveway or grabbing their eggs and running for shelter.  I don’t know why they are called carpenter ants as their tendency is to deconstruct rather to construct, but they are certainly familiar to any carpenter who does house repairs.  The good news about carpenter ants is that they are not termites.  They generally only appear where water is finding its way into the wood, and once the leak is repaired and the damaged wood replaced they are not likely to continue to be a problem.  Termites however are more difficult to detect and can be perfectly content to hollow out good dry wood on the interior of a house, and they are impossible to stop without an exterminator.

I was working by myself, but by the end of the day I had two new headers in place.  Today, if I am not rained out, I will go back and retrim the garage doors.

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