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I have often thought that life on the farm can teach many skills, and can apply numerous technical principles.

One of the first memories I have of our farm is being in the old shop, where all around me were carpentry tools: hammers, handsaws, squares, measuring tapes, levels, vices, punches, nails, nail pullers, wrecking bars (as we called them), and pieces of wood just begging to be made into something useful. My Dad started me pretty young in learning to hammer in a nail without hammering my thumbs, and how to start a saw cut and how to keep from sawing my fingers, and even how to keep the saw square to the board I was working on.

I found myself more cautious as a father about not starting too young with tools that can injure if one makes a slip or a foolish move, but I was grateful as a boy to have the affirmation that I could learn to do useful things even while being young. Sometimes I think parents can be too cautious about safety, to the point that they wait too long to take advantage of childhood curiosity about learning to do things. When I was in east Arkansas, I was amazed to learn of young men graduating from high school who had never had the experience of running a tractor on their family farm. Of course, over there, most of the tractors are more like locomotives than the tractors we know and see in northwest Arkansas.

I started very early using my imagination and learning a few carpentry skills to make toys for myself. For example, I would take two pieces of wood, sawed to the right dimensions, and nail them together to form the body of my tractor. Then I put a No. 8 nail in the front center to represent the front wheel, and a nail under each end of the board that represented the axle, thereby giving my tractor "wheels" in the rear to stand on. Of course they weren't real wheels to turn and roll, but the nails made the tractor stand up like a real one. I could make them roll in imagination, and besides, I could make implements for my tractor which really dug in the dirt, not like the store-bought toy tractors, which could only roll around and couldn't really dig or plow or till.

The first ordinary practical carpentry I remember helping with was on our garage for the car. Dad came up with the project in 1948 after we had bought a new family car, a 1947 Chevy Fleetline. I was 8 years old. Dad let me nail down some of the decking before the roof shingles went on. Today, decking (or sheathing) is usually bought from the building supply store as large 4- by 8-feet sheets of about a half-inch thickness. Back in 1948 we used 1- x 8-inch boards for the decking. My biggest difficulty in nailing them on was not hitting the rafter underneath with my nail, it was hammering in my nail without bending it in the process. I had to learn to straighten a bent nail and hammer it home, or give up on that one, pull it out, and hammer in a new one. I notice that many or most carpenters these days have power nailers which put in nails with one solid clunk. Some of them are electric, some are air powered. My "power nailer" was a regular wooden-handled claw hammer, with which you authoritatively hit the nail on the head four or five times to drive it home. When you are inexperienced with hammers, there is a tendency to shorten your grip so as to hit the nail, but my Dad taught me that it was best to hold the hammer near the end of the handle and give the nail a good hit each time, because tapping the nail lightly just encouraged glancing blows and bent nails.

One part of building buildings in earlier days, as I remember, was that the carpenters would make the rafters by sawing a notch in the 2- x 4-inch or 2- x 6-inch boards where the rafter would be nailed to the top of the wall, and cutting an angle at the top end of the rafter where it would fit to the ridge board. These days I never see roofs constructed that way. Nearly always, the builders will order pre-fabricated roof trusses. I can recognize that those are better braced. One of the failings of the older methods was that if the rafters were not well braced by adding brace boards in a triangular fashion to strengthen the upper structure, the weight of the roof tended to cause the rafters to push the tops of the walls outward, making the building "bulge." I have seem many older church buildings that had to have steel bars added across the expanse inside because the outward force of the roof's weight was spreading the walls at the top. On the farm, I learned about bracing before I ever knew anything about triangles, but in carpentry, triangles are marvelous things. Very often, in making a sound structure, the bracing is key, and triangles are key to bracing.

When we were building buildings on the farm, we nearly always mixed our own concrete for the foundations, using creek gravel as the aggregate.

The only thing we would buy was the cement in 80 lb. bags, and possibly some sand to help the mix. Creek gravel might have some small stuff in it, and that was good. Most of the time we were just thinking of the aggregate as space-filler, and a big rock added here and there was seen as economizing by saving cement. I've concluded over the years that that economizing was not a good thing. For example, our old hay barn has foundation breakage in several places because of too much aggregate and not enough sand and cement.


Editor's note: Jerry Nichols, a native of Pea Ridge and an award-winning columnist, is vice president of Pea Ridge Historical Society. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected], or call 621-1621.

Editorial on 10/30/2019

Print Headline: Lessons on the farm include carpentry

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