Friends and neighbors framed a house for James and Janet Fish last weekend in exchange for 15 pounds of lunch meat, 15 loaves of bread, 10 pounds of cheese, four gallons of lemonade and a lot of fun.
“It was wonderful to construct a house,” said neighbor Don Worley. “I like the community effort that got it done. It brought us together.”
Worley, an orchardist and a teacher at Kettle Falls Elementary School, was one of about 20 men who assembled at the couple’s Mingo Mountain property Saturday like a tribe of selfless Amish barn-raisers.
While the men coaxed ponderous beams together with come-alongs and a massive wooden mallet, their children played soccer and their wives conversed and prepared food. A potluck with a keg of Hale’s Ale was waiting for the workers at the end of the day.
“We’re trying to save that tradition by inviting the whole community to our barbecue,” James Fish said.
The 39-year-old builder is enamored by the beauty of the social tradition as well as Old World craftsmanship that allows a rock-solid structure without a single nail.
Pre-assembled sections of the frame, called bents, were pieced together like the sides of a cardboard doll house: Insert Tab A into Slot B. The results were a good deal sturdier, though. Inch-thick oak dowels firmly anchored the tabs into the slots.
Except for the use of a crane and an electric drill, Saturday’s event was like the renowned barn-raisings of the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Fish hired a crane to eliminate the risks of hoisting the colossal wooden frameworks by hand.
He marveled at a photograph of Amish builders clinging to a 30-foot-tall bent while companions pushed it upright with long poles. According to a 19th century book on the subject, the Amish men were told to “lift till the sparks fly out of your eyes. It must go up: if it comes back it will kill the whole of us.”
Even with a crane, Janet Fish worried about the safety of the volunteer workers. But she figured they were in good hands: Her husband was skilled at directing volunteers, having served two years as a Habitat for Humanity construction supervisor. As it turned out, the greatest hazard was an abundant and persistent population of yellow jackets. Among the casualties, Joe Gordon took a direct hit on the lip and Worley got a potent sting at the lemonade table.
The volunteers put together carefully numbered pieces that Fish and his brother-in-law Rocco Azzarito, a furniture maker, and Fish’s eldest son, Jamie, 13, spent three months preparing. Each of the old growth timbers, salvaged from demolished buildings, required at least 10 hours of delicate work.
Power tools reduced the labor, but much of the work had to be done with hand tools.
To form joints with a tolerance of 1/32 of an inch, Fish and Azzarito used planes honed to a razor’s edge with special Japanese whetstones. Shavings were thin enough to read through.
Much work remains to be done. Fish will enclose the framework before winter and will do the finishing work as time and finances allow.
He hopes the house will be a showcase that will help him establish a timber-frame niche in the luxury housing market. The house also will be a reminder of the friends who helped build it, Janet Fish said.
The Fishes moved to their rural property near Kettle Falls in June 1994. The family of five lives in a comfortable apartment above a shop they built in 1993 while they still lived in Eatonville, Wash.
The combination wood shop and home also was framed with unnailed timbers. The exposed structural beams are part of the decor, as they will be in the two-story Cape Cod house that took shape Saturday.
“It’s all functional aesthetics,” Fish said. “Everything you see is doing something.”
That combination of strength and beauty attracted Fish to the ancient craft of timber framing about eight years ago.
“I’ve probably framed 200 houses in my life and many of them were very difficult, but the timber frame houses have given me a whole different level of satisfaction,” he said. “I guess it’s the closest I have come to producing some kind of art.”
As an English major at UCLA, Fish envisioned an academic career. An investment in the collapsing California real estate market forced him to drop out just shy of a master’s degree.
He had been working part-time in construction and turned to that to pay off his debts.
“I really liked what I did and how I felt at the end of the day,” Fish recalled.
He felt that way Saturday, too.
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