Last spring as we were peeling, sanding and painting the timbers for Underhill House, the question of how we would get the roof rafters up on top of the bents was often on our minds. In previous houses built by Whole Trees Architecture and Structures, rafters have been hoisted up by ingenuity and muscle power, but Underhill House is an extra story taller than any previous Whole Tree house.
I moved timbers from their resting place on the ground up onto saw horses for individual attention and back again many, many times, and often considered the danger of hand hoisting those logs up onto the roof. I breathed a sigh of relief when Bryan decided to use a crane.
After the typical setbacks and delays on a building project, the bents were finally up, and the rafters were ready, and Wednesday was set for Crane Day. We just needed the right weather. Storms were swirling around the Midwest, but they always seemed to just miss our area. However, Wednesday’s forecast called for winds of 20 mph. Doug and I wondered if the rafters could be lifted into that much wind.
Dan Gingerich, who was bringing his crane from McGregor IA, said he could do it. We arrived bright and early. Time was of the essence. We wanted to make the best possible use of Dan’s crane and finish in one day. The thing that made using a crane costly was that the crane would need to pause after every lift while the rafter was fitted into place and fastened to the beams.
The crew had moved all the rafters over to the house site, put them in the order that they should be lifted up and numbered them. The plan was to work till noon and if it seemed like we wouldn’t finish in a day, then they would start affixing every other rafter and put the others up loose across the beams to be wrestled into place the next day.
The crew took their posts on the roof.
Two rafters span the three bents. Michael was stationed on the south bent, Brad on the north and Bryan and Prairie manned the middle bent on which the two rafters meet. Prairie would cut each north rafter to fit flush against its southern counterpart and then each mated pair was drilled and either screwed or nailed to the beams.
I ran around taking photos and acted as gofer when needed.
Dan showed Doug how to tie a rope to the trailing end of each rafter to help guide them into position. On such a blustery day, this was doubly important in order to prevent rafters from swinging wildly over the vulnerable heads of the busy crew members who were often looking down at their work instead of up at the next swinging timber, which resembled a battering ram with wings.
Dan showed Doug a really cool knot to tie the rope to each rafter. He called it a cowboy hitch. While it successfully held for every single rafter flight, it could be untied simply by jerking on the dangling tail of the rope. Dan said that when he was taught this knot, he was told that it’s the same one used in rodeo calf roping and tie-down. Doug looked it up in Gordon Perry’s book “Knots: A practical step-by-step guide to tying over 100 knots” and the closest cousin he could find was the Highwayman’s Hitch, aka the Draw Hitch. Dan’s version looked the same except for an extra bight added at the end of the knot, apparently for added security. Even so, in Perry’s book, this quick-release knot comes with a warning: “not considered safe for human descent purposes”. In any event, it sure worked well for us.
As the morning went on, there was very little waiting on Dan’s part. The crew was wrangling each rafter into place at high speed. By lunch break, we were all cautiously optimistic that we would get them all anchored in place with the crane before the day was done.
In the afternoon, the wind picked up, making the flying rafters strain against the rope like a frisky puppy, and we had a couple of what looked like close calls to me, but everyone assured me they never felt it was too risky.
As the day wore on, the pace of progress slowed down. The temperature topped out at 92 degrees and the wind was gusting to over 40 mph. Everyone was hot and getting tired, and we all began to worry about running out of drinking water.
But the last rafter went on at about 4:30. It was a start-early and work-late day, and I really appreciated everyone sticking with it to the end. As the third to the last rafter was rising into the air, I hopped into the car and made the mile+ run to Ridgeway for some cold, local beer (Man Moon from New Glarus Brewery and Arena Premium from Lake Louey). We all gathered in the relatively cool, shady basement and shared some building horror stories while wetting our whistles.