Building your own house (Walden 27)

Inside the reconstruction of Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond. Wikimedia Commons

Inside the reconstruction of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. Wikimedia Commons

“Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber.”

How strange would it be to build your own house? It wouldn’t be strange for a carpenter, but most of us are not carpenters, and even a carpenter would probably hire an electrician and other specialists to install plumbing, ductwork, etc. Houses are more complicated than they were in Thoreau’s day. Building them involves professional skills.

But the idea of building your own house is alluring, I think, even for those of us who have no intention of ever doing it. I own a set of the Foxfire books, which explain old-time skills as documented in the Appalachians starting in the 1960s. Students interviewed rural elders to record these skills before they vanished. Henry framed his little house mostly from second-hand lumber, but he shingled the roof and walls with shingles he cut himself. The Foxfire Book explains how this was done in Appalachia, which I assume was similar to the method Henry used.

The explanation is eight pages with lots of photos, so I can only give you a vague sense of it here — how the “board-maker” first split a section of trunk into wedges like a pie, then split these further into thick “bolts,” and then splitting shingles off of these. The photo captions get kind of technical, but they give you a sense of some of the subtleties, the micro-skills that made the different between success and failure. For example:

“PLATE 31  Now, using the board brake as leverage and a brace, the shingle is pried off. The tendency is for the crack to move steadily toward the top of the bolt (or ‘run out’), thus making your shingles narrower at one end than at the other. To prevent this, the moment Bill sees the crack running out, he turns the whole bolt over, leaving the froe in place, and continues prying from this position. Pushing down hard on the bottom half of the bolt will cause the crack to come back toward the middle also…” (The Foxfire Book, p. 50)

On the next page, the authors say that a good board maker “could rive over a thousand boards a day if he kept at it steadily and didn’t have to ‘bolt them up.’”

I don’t know if Henry’s skills matched those of the people interviewed for the Foxfire books, though he did have some carpentry experience and had long been intrigued with the idea of building his own house. It seems clear that even building a little “hut” as he called his house required a good deal of skill, or rather a set of skills that have become rare today. And not everyone built well. You did the best you could, or got help from neighbors.

This isn’t quite the same thing, but my father built our garage several years before I was born. I knew this as a child and it never surprised me because, of course, he was a carpenter. I think I was in my teens before I found out that he built it before he became a carpenter, back when he was working as a carpet layer. He pointed out several mistakes he had made in framing. He hadn’t quite known what he was doing and learned as he went. That garage is still standing more than fifty years later.

I suppose people feel more of a connection with houses they’ve built, or that a loved one has built. But even if you didn’t build it, over time you still make it your own and it takes on your personality and your style, if you let it.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


2 thoughts on “Building your own house (Walden 27)

    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      Yes, I admire anyone who acquires those skills, because like anything else, the hardest part probably isn’t building the final product, but all the preliminary work… all the beginner’s projects and false starts, all the work you have to do before you can do it well.


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