Today’s guest post was written by Ed Ammons.
The Shed written by Ed Ammons
It wasn’t exactly a wood shed although we put wood in it. It wasn’t exactly a tool shed but we put our tools in it. It wasn’t a meat house either but it had a table of sorts inside where hams, shoulders and sides were salted and cured. A multi-purpose storage unit might be the best description in modern terminology but in the mid 1960’s it was “The Shed.”
The vast majority of the materials that went into building it were obtained right there on the property. The rafters and joists were made from long straight poplar poles cut in the spring. Some of the siding and flooring boards were left over from building the home. Some from the reclamation of lumber from the old home further up the valley. The metal roof came from a chicken house that was torn down. Even some of the nails were pulled from old board and timbers, straightened and reused in The Shed.
Daddy was a woodsman from his youth as his father before him had been. In the spring they cut acid wood which was several species of trees whose bark contained a good deal of tannic acid. Tannic acid was used in the tanning of leather. In the spring when the tree start to put on new growth in the cambium layer, the bark becomes loose and is more easily removed. Daddy knew when the trees were ready and that is when we set about to build this shed.
Harold and I each had our own axe. Stephen was only seven or eight but he was part of the crew. Daddy was the supervisor while Harold and I did the felling, trimming and peeling of the poles. Stephen piled brush and bark but his main job was to stay out of the way. Daddy had lost a little brother in 1926 in a sledding accident and he wasn’t about to lose a son if he could help it.
Poplar is not a very dense wood therefore easily cut with an ax. Daddy would point out which trees to cut. Harold or I would cut a notch at the base to the tree to lead it in the direction we wanted it to fall. When the cut was sufficiently deep enough we would go to the opposite side and began another cut a little bit higher on the tree. Hopefully before you cut through, the top would start to move in the intended direction. That’s when you yell “Timber.” More likely than not the tree wouldn’t fall where we wanted or would hang up in a nearby tree. They were small trees and with a little blood and a lot of sweat we managed to wrestle them to the ground.
Next comes trimming the tree. If you are going to peel it, you have to get the limbs off first. There is an art to cutting limbs off a tree with an axe. You don’t aim for limb first; you aim so that the flat of the blade hits the trunk of the tree and bounces as it cuts into the limb. It’s like skipping a rock on water, if you miss the limb, the axe doesn’t cut into the tree, it bounces back up and you’re ready to try again. If you do it right the axe cleaves the limb flush with the trunk of the tree. Most of these long slim poplars grow close together and have few live limbs on the usable part and most of those are so small you can pull them off with your hands or kick them off with your feet. That leaves only the lap.
Now comes the peeling part. You start back at the butt and use your axe to loosen the bark. Next you use the axe as a wedge and a lever to start a strip. When you have pried enough loose to get a handhold, you set down the axe and start pulling. If you are lucky the bark will peel all the way to the other end of the pole. If it breaks, you get your axe and start over. There is a tool called a bark spud made just for peeling bark but in small timber like this is not really necessary.
When we had finished trimming a pole, we had to get it to the building site. The poplar, still being green, was too heavy to shoulder up and carry. It wasn’t big enough to bother harnessing up the horse and swamping a trail to it. Harold and I became draft animals. We made what we called pull ropes. Pull ropes consisted of a short piece of rope tied around the middle of a wooden handle with a slip knot on the other end. We would loop the slip knot over the end of the poles and off we would go. The harder we pulled, the tighter the knot. (This same device served to snake out dead chestnut trees for stovewood.)
When we felt we had felled enough timber to build the framework for our little project, we focused our attention on cutting it to length and notching it. Peeled poplar poles are not like dimension lumber in that nothing is the same size. You can’t make a pattern and repeat it throughout. It takes a little visualization and a lot of trial and retrial. The advantage is, if you completely ruin a piece, you go cut another one. The disadvantage is you can work on only one piece at a time. How you shape each piece depends on how you shaped the one before.
As you can see in the picture The Shed has a cantilevered roof in front. That was an afterthought. I don’t remember who, but one of us came up with the idea of adding that feature as a protected place to park oneself during a sudden summer downpour. As first constructed, the addition wouldn’t hold its own weight so we added the angled braces which seem to have served well. You can also see that some of the poles have splits in them. These were forming even before we started the building. You would think that the splits would severely weaken the structure but it doesn’t. The splits follow the grain of the wood so if it were split from end to end you would have two pieces of wood instead of one. If you used sawn lumber of the same size, it wouldn’t be as strong because the saw cuts in a straight line, cutting through the grain wherever it has to.
We moved into our new house in the fall of 1963. We started building The Shed the following spring. Our parents both died in the mid 70’s. Harold had already married and moved away and I soon followed. The rest of the kids stayed around for a while but moved into town and rented out the old home place. The rent money went toward paying off the mortgage. Sometime in the late 80’s we finally divided up property and the decision was made that the part with the house and The Shed should go to the youngest child. She didn’t want to live there so she sold it. The house was remodeled and a second floor added making it unrecognizable. Much of the craftsmanship that Daddy put into it was covered up. The Shed was left untouched. This picture was taken last fall. It looks dilapidated but that is only clutter that has been piled against it. In fact it looks pretty good for a 50 year old. With a little TLC it might make it another 50.
I wish I could go back and tell the present owners to clean up around it but I can’t. Neither physically nor introspectively. It was my efforts that created it and my mistake that let it slip away. My only consolation is that most of the joy of creating treasures with my own hands is in giving them to someone else to enjoy.
I hope you enjoyed Ed’s memories of the shed. Something handmade, from a shed to an item of clothing and everything in between, gives one a satisfied feeling of accomplishment once it’s completed. And as in the case of the shed, a home crafted item typically lasts longer than a store bought one.