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I Hate Working on Roofs

April 7 - 11, 2000

When I was a volunteer fireman, I avoided ladder drills like the plague. Climbing ladders and working on steep roofs has never had an allure for me. Given the choice, I'd rather run into a burning building full of smoke than be on the roof squad. Reluctantly, like most unpleasant but mandatory things in life (like figuring your income taxes, or going to the dentist) I've climbed my share of roofs - but I've never liked it!

Paul our contractor, sons Jim and Russ, and I gathered at the Farmhouse to replace the roof on the carriage house. We had planned to do it last fall, but winter came on too fast and it snowed the weekend we had planned for it (See "The Mystery of the Hanging Chimney"). Over the winter we concentrated on the indoor projects, of which there were many. All the time, however, we couldn't forget that with the spring would come the return of our resident bats to spend the summer with us.

I figured we had about three-four weeks to get the roof done before they returned. Last year they arrived in mid-May. Despite our best efforts, we'd been unable to keep the colony of male little brown bats out of the carriage house (the females roost in the attic). The old corrugated metal roof was warped and twisted, and there were hundreds of places where they had free entry. They were tolerable when the carriage house was an empty shed, but it now houses our offices, shipping room, pantry and mud room. The bats are welcome to stay the summer with us - but in their new (and unused) bat houses hanging outside.

Fixing the roof, however, unfortunately meant climbing up and working on it. But - there was no way, with these three strapping (relative) youngsters on the scene, that I was even going to have to climb a ladder, or so I had it figured. They were going to climb up on the steep, slippery metal, while I bustled around hauling plywood and tools and providing cold beer. Besides, I'd wrenched my right knee somehow, and was hobbling around - that certainly would get me lots of sympathy.

They were all going to say: "Aw, you've hurt your knee. We'll go up on the roof and take care of everything. Why don't you just pass stuff up to us?"

"No, that's OK, I'll be fine", I'd protest. "But I appreciate your concern, and I'll just take care of things down on the ground to help out - don't worry about me." And I'd spend the weekend on the ground - or so I planned.

They never asked! They looked at my knee and said "Take it easy climbing the ladder", and "If your knee hurts too much, come on down and take a break before you go back up and get that last piece of metal loose." So much for sympathy!

Jim removing the
corrugated sheets

The carriage house is about 40 feet long, two stories, and the peak is probably about 18-20 feet off the ground. It is steep enough to shed snow in the winter, and too steep to stand on. Russ, Jim and I had a wonderful (yeah, right) time taking off the corrugated metal sheets on Saturday - the day turned out warm and sunny after a cool start. Jim and Russ worked the ridge and ended up tearing out the seats of their jeans sliding along the jagged metal in the ridge cap. They removed the top sheets of metal, and I worked on the lower sheets. We couldn't find Paul's ladder hooks, so Jim cobbled together a substitute by duct taping two wrecking bars onto the end of one of the ladders. "What a dumb idea", Russ said, "duct tape won't hold." After one bar came loose, he found a ladder with a bracket on it to use instead.

In the 70 or so years since it was put down, the metal roof was painted at least once. The edges of the metal sheets were curled and bent. Sometimes, when there were bad gouges and tears in one sheet, there might be two or three other sheets layered on top of one another. We removed a virtual hardware store of nails and screws, of all sizes and descriptions, that had been used to install, patch and repair the old roof. Under the metal sheets were old cedar shingles - and piles of bat droppings. The bats have been roosting between the metal and the old wooden shingles for years. The holes in the shingles and roof boards allowed them access into the carriage house itself.

Some Carriage House History

Every project at the Farmhouse reveals more clues to its past history. The carriage house was hauled into place about the time that the kitchen ell was added to the Farmhouse. The kitchen ell was built around 1889, and is 16 feet wide. The carriage house is also 16 feet wide, and might have been an outbuilding, or a building from another farm altogether. In the "big house, little house, back house, barn" custom of the region, this building provided indoor workspace and storage for carriages, as well as a covered connection between house and barn. When it was hauled into place, the carriage house was about 12 feet short of completing the connection to the barn. A short section was "spliced" on to finish the enclosure. The whole building was then covered in sawn wooden shingles - we found these under the metal roofing.

Rusty removing the
110-year old shingles

The roofing was 26 gauge corrugated steel, in eight and 16-foot lengths. Most of it was already used when it was put down on the roof. I suspect that Ephraim Chessey put the roof on sometime after he bought the place in 1930 from Fred Meserve (See "The John Meserve Farm"). On the underside of some of the sheets was stenciled "Lewis J. Chessey, Mattocks, Maine". In good frugal Mainer fashion, Ephraim probably got a good deal on a batch of used metal roofing from one his numerous Chessey relations and put it down over the wooden shingles that were starting to leak.

The shingle mill was usually one of the first types of mills to spring up in an area where settlement was taking place. They often came at the same time that saw mills began operating. There were several water powered saw mills in the Sebago area in the 1800's, so the wooden shingles on the carriage house could have come from somewhere local.

These square-cut shingle nails
secured the wooden shingles

Square-Cut Nails

Clearing the roof down to the roof boards meant removing the old wooden shingles. To do so, we all climbed up ladders (yes, even me) and spent Monday stripping shingles and pulling about a thousand or more shingle nails. The nails were iron, square-cut, and about 1 3/8" long with a square tip. This same type of nail used to be hand-forged; later, nail mills began manufacturing these in the northeast. These nail mills appeared in the early 1800's. Round, or wire nails, didn't appear on the scene until the 1900's. Square-cut nails have the advantage in that, unlike wire nails with wedge-like points that tend to split wood they are nailed into, square-tipped cut nails push through the fibers to reduce splitting - even at board ends. Finding square-cut nails used on the roof adds credence to the 110-year old (or so) age of the shingling job, as well as evidence to the period when the carriage house was moved into place.

"Square-cut nails" are also called "steel-cut nails", or sometimes just "square nails". The "square-cut" is not just an antique design, but it is a design of some antiquity. A hoard of such nails weighing 3/4 of a ton was found at the site of the Roman legionary fortress of Inchtuthil, in Scotland. They were, obviously, hand-forged, but resemble the square-cut nails made by early machinery mills that sprang up during the Industrial Revolution. The Roman nails were of iron, with various shank sizes, and were buried unused. It is thought that the Romans did this to keep the nails out of the hands of the local tribesmen when the fortress was abandoned before 87 A.D.

The oldest nail mill still operating in America, the Tremont Nail Mill, was built in 1819. It is located in Wareham, Massachusetts. The mill has 60 nail machines, many over 125 years old, and still chops "steel cut nails for authentic restoration projects and remodeling". The machines cut the nails from ribbons of steel, and are still run from wide leather belts that are connected to the millhouse shaft rotating overhead. Markets for their 20 different types of square-cut nails are restoration projects on old houses where an authentic look is desired.

The "cut shingle nails" that Tremont makes look exactly the same as the ones that we pulled out of the carriage house roof. Since the Tremont nail mill has been around since 1819, perhaps the nails in our carriage house roof were actually made there in the 1800's - we'll never know. For us, however, just finding square-cut nails used provided more clues to the date of the carriage house and added yet another piece to the Farmhouse history.

I was surprised to find that used square-cut nails have a certain nostalgia value - several different sizes offered for sale on E-Bay. Maybe we should collect all of the old nails from the carriage house and put the lot up to bid - they are certainly still useable after 110-years or so on the roof.

Finishing the new roof

Paul securing
new plywood

While Saturday was fairly good weather for stripping off the metal and shingles, heavy rains were predicted for all day Sunday. In anticipation, we only worked on the back side of the roof, leaving the front side intact. We covered the raw roof boards with plastic, secured with furring strips every six or eight feet. I had a sleepless night checking out the window and climbing up to the second story of the carriage house, but our temporary cover rode through the heavy rain and high winds with no major problems.

On Monday, the weather cleared, and we finished stripping shingles. To make my life a little more exciting while I was clinging to a ladder and pulling shingle nails, Jim came along and removed the lower ladder.

"When you get done there, just climb up to the peak and scoot over the other end of the roof - I'll leave a ladder over there for you" he hollered up.

I looked up at the peak, and the jagged metal, and remembered how much fun Jim and Russ had up there - walking the ridge was not in my plans, ever.

"That won't work", I said, "put the ladder back when you're done so I can get down from here!" Muttering something about wimps, and how I can't take a joke, he eventually put the ladder back for me. I was especially glad to get down when I was done.

After stripping the shingles and shingle nails off the roof boards, Paul, Jim and I once again climbed up on the ladders (the fun just never stops!) and the roof scaffolding that Paul put up. We put a layer of plywood on over the old roof boards, and then tarpaper. The rotten boards where the old metal roof had leaked were braced and replaced.

Russ had to get back to college in Portland, but I figured that Paul and Jim would handle the roof work and I'd just pass up materials to them. Somehow my timing was off, however, and I ended up with Paul on the roof while Jim cut plywood and passed things up. Not what I'd planned! Paul did put up roof staging, however, so it was a bit better, but still not much fun.

Our progress (top to bottom)
in reroofing
I'm clinging to the roof
-left side, third photo

On the drip edge, Paul installed aluminum ice guards. Then, after I headed back to Albany, Jim and Paul finished off the roof with asphalt felt shingles, along with a sky light to give some light to the upper story of the carriage house.

After taking a well-deserved weekend off, Paul and Jim tackled the front side. Although they had to dodge the rains, it closed up well. The metal on the front side was in much better shape, and the cedar shingles and roof boards were also.

Paul and Russ will finish the trim and bat-proof soffit next week, and then we are ready for the bats to return for their summer visit. It feels good to have both a new roof to keep the rain out, and to keep the bats out as well.

The new pantry cabinets

The Pantry

As part of the carriage house renovation, Paul created a pantry for Penny just off the kitchen. Paul and Penny have been conferring on the finish details for her new pantry for a couple of months now. They have been looking at kitchen and decorating books for ideas, and came up with a design done in old farmhouse style. Penny ordered the brass hardware for the doors and drawers. Paul found that the old pine boards we've been saving plane down to a beautiful, rich reddish finish for the counter tops. Penny wasn't with me on this trip, so I took lots of pictures to show her the progress that Paul is making.

One of the neat features of the new pantry is the "grocery door". As you come into the mud room from the driveway, there is a paneled door that opens to reveal a sliding tray. Put your grocery bags on the tray, slide it through, shut the door, and the groceries are in the pantry! In the pantry, the tray is then handy to put the groceries away on the shelves.

Penny wanted the "open" look, with lots of storage space. We had a pantry when we lived in Canterbury, and it was wonderful! When we lived in California, the best I could cobble up was a set of shelves in the garage, just outside the kitchen door - not very satisfactory at all.

She approved the work done so far, and the finishing touches, trim, glass, and hardware won't take much time - Paul figures he'll have it all done in the near future. We can then start moving up the appliances, dishes and cooking stuff, cans and bottles, etc. to get this part of the move to Maine done. I also have to move up the freezer on a trip soon - that will go into a corner of the kitchen near the pantry.

The pine floors
will finish up

Sanding The Bedroom Floors

While we waited for the rain to stop so that we could climb back up on the roof, I had rented a floor sander from Ken's Rental in Steep Falls to keep us busy. The floors upstairs are covered with a loud, checkerboard pattern, green linoleum, about 50 years old. We wanted to have the natural pine floors under the linoleum restored. This is the routine we went through in the places we've lived in the past - strip off the paint and restore the original wood with a light stain and several coats of polyurethane.

Ken had a new type of floor sander available. Instead of the usual belt sander and edger Jim and I are used to, this new sander uses a vibrating motion and a foam pad. It was wonderful! Not only was it a jewel to run, but it worked edge to edge with a nice even result. And no gouges in the soft pine that are usually left by belt sanders.

When we took off the linoleum we were pleasantly surprised. The curved wall bedroom and the front (NW) bedroom both had a pine floor in pretty good shape - slightly worn, but not painted. The hallway was painted a dark green with spackles - probably enamel. Russ, Jim and I took turns sanding the two bedrooms and the hallway over the next couple of days.

The bedrooms turned out well, while the hallway took a bit of work. I went back to Ken's to get more sandpaper, and the boys and I worked on the hallway the next couple of days till we got it back to bare wood, ready for staining. The next trip up we'll paper the two bedrooms, and start getting the rooms set up for guests.

Another long, but very productive weekend. And fun to be able to work with the boys and good friends, even if it involved being on a steep, slippery roof! And a great deal of relief in knowing that the roof job will last my lifetime, and I'll never have to get up on the carriage house roof again! ...of course, we still have a little problem remaining - the holes in the eaves of the main roof - they all must be closed off before the female bats return for the summer to their traditional roosting spot in the attic...

Information on Square-Cut Nails comes from:

Barrett, Neal, Installing a Pine Floor, using square cut nails, Popular Mechanics, Oct 1998.

Breeze, David J., Roman Scotland (Historic Scotland), pp 91-92, London, 1996

Lee Valley Tools, Ltd, marketer of square-cut nails in Canada

W. H. Maze Company, The First 150 Years

W. H. Maze Company's division Tremont Nail

Allen and Penny Crabtree

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Last updated April 23, 2000