Our Attic Floor Project began on Saturday, April 22nd at the ambitious time of 8:30 am. The crisp morning air and welcoming smell of freshly brewed coffee readied a group of eager volunteers for a stimulating day. ‘Firsts’ are always exciting, full of nervous energy and the thrill of discovery. The Attic Floor Project encompassed many firsts for JBHF. It was our first completed interior conservation project, our first volunteer workshop, and our first “Family Meal.” Another great thing about ‘firsts’ is that they provide great opportunities for reflection.
There was excitement surrounding the project from the start as we considered how to take advantage of the valuable opportunities the project afforded. We would transform the dusty and neglected space into something intriguing, useful and educational, and hopefully grow the Brown Homestead’s Family in the process. We knew that it would require preparedness and a well-rounded understanding of the task to make the experience both beneficial and fun for our volunteers. Finding the learning opportunities within the work became a central focus.
After numerous conversations and research about the history and context of the materials, we chose to take a simple approach when it came to the handling of the floorboards. Given their location in the attic, our main concerns were the proper numbering of the boards and an unobtrusive yet effective cleaning of them. This discussion, led by Master Carpenter Doug Vickers, kicked of the project.
The attic, Doug explained, was predominately used for storage. Not as much time and attention was given to the floorboards, as would have been for floorboards in more frequented areas of the house. Historically, attic floorboards were not finished and pristine. The large variations in width and thickness of those in the John Brown House attic and the fact that they were not planed (flattened and smoothed) demonstrated this. They also made creating an organized numbering system crucial to the accurate relaying of the boards.
Understanding the material’s longevity and sturdiness was another factor that persuaded us that the boards didn’t warrant over the top cleaning or finishing. Their saw marks indicated that they were cut by a water powered saw. The house was built in 1802 and the existence at that time of such a mill just down the road at Power Glen supports Doug’s conclusion that the boards are original to the house.
Equipping our volunteers with this information from the start allowed them to contribute to the decision making process as obstacles arose within the project. Rather than providing the answers for everything, we aimed to have the tools and information available to help the team collectively determine solutions. For example, after removing a rotten section from a floor beam, we needed to determine the best measure to fill the resulting hole and discussed three options over lunch.
Option 1: Run to the local hardware store to pick up a glazing putty known as Dap. There are numerous chemicals used in its production, but it was cheap, guaranteed to do the job and we could immediately lay the floor boards over it. Although not a traditional heritage product, it is functional and would give us the satisfaction of completing the job that day.
Option 2: Wait till our order of Allback putty arrived to complete the repair before relaying the floorboards over the rotted section. We had used Allback, an organic putty, for repairs thus far, but had run short. Though Allback is a preferred material, we would have to wait a month for the new batch.
Option 3: Experiment with hot lime putty, left on site from an earlier project. None of us had ever used this method so we couldn't guarantee its success. We knew it wouldn’t cause any damage to the wood, and was an organic product, but we didn’t know if it would set and harden to properly repair the hole. Monitoring the hot lime putty would also require waiting to relay the floor.
Collectively, we ruled out Dap. There was no immediate planned use for the space, giving us the flexibility to leave up some of the floorboards. We decided to experiment with the hot lime putty. We had an abundance of lime on site and the team was eager to explore a new option for repair. We also had the comfort of knowing if it didn’t work we could replace it with the Allback putty when it arrived. Working through these issues as a group created a sense of ownership for all involved.
The ‘Family Meal’ at the end of each volunteer workshop is an opportunity to celebrate our accomplishment, but also to see the work as part of the overall goals of the organization as a whole. The sharing of a meal requires time - to sit, to be present and to engage. It is an opportunity to reflect on the shared experience and to get to know each other more personally. We had traversed the whole house during the project but our focus was always on the attic floor. Now as we sat to eat, the brightly painted dining room came into the conversation. Before you knew it questions, possibilities and a sense of the excitement of the project as whole were swirling around the table.
We are extremely grateful that our first volunteer workshop was filled with eager, insightful and positive individuals. We can’t help but get excited about future projects and watching our family grow.
Cheers, until the next one!
Join us on June 24th during Doors Open St. Catharines for a more in-depth look at the attic project … and the rest of the Brown Homestead!