This Old Truss

Publication: Scantlings
Date: April, 2022
Author: Steven Rundquist

Welcome to our premier episode of “This Old Truss”.

Today’s story covers some history and procedures of reclaiming for usage some old timber trusses into a new structure.

I became involved in this project about 18 months ago when Carlos, the homeowner, contacted me about a barn project he would like to build on his property north of Denver. His proposal was to have me design a barn structure around 2, old, heavy timber trusses he purchased some 20 years ago for a home building project which never happened. He had set the trusses aside in his pasture with intent to some day use them in a new structure. Well, today is the some day…

I stopped by to meet him and take a look at the trusses, give an opinion about how best to use them, take some measurements and start looking into a design for the barn. I was a bit taken aback when he showed them to me. These things are close to 80’ long, 21’ tall, 12 x 14 continuous bottom chord , 12 x 12 top chords and webs with heavy steel rod and plate reinforcements. All of it thouroughly weathered after having sat in his pasture the past 20 years.

I accepted the challenge and went home to do some design work and cost estimates. The design was kept simple. A basic 40’ X 80 rectangle, 12’ tall eaves walls, around 24’ to the peak, a shed dormer along one side to gather in some natural light, a nice timber framed balcony / covered deck on one end and some timber framed loft space with simple stairs leading up from inside.

The design was accepted, a contract signed and a schedule was proposed. Of course, these things always seem to take longer to get going than what was originally anticipated. Plans and engineering, site work, building permit processes, lining up excavators and foundation subs, etc. Carlos is acting as his own general contractor for this project and has doing a bang up good job of it. I do not take on the general contracting job on these projects because I have plenty of other things to take care of. The GC job just adds to the confusion and I much prefer someone else do that task. It’s not as easy as most folks believe. You can ask Carlos about feels about taking on that task… like I said, he’s doing a great job of it and I’m very appreciative.

At close to 8,000 pounds each, these trusses where pretty close to the limit of what out forklift can handle. We slowly creeped the trusses across the pasture and reset them in our designated work area. When we set down the second truss we encountered a major structural failure of one end of a top chord on the second truss. It split completely in two. Revealing a before now hidden pocket of serious internal rot.

My heart sunk and my anxiety level rose. We showed Carlos the problem and discussed how we might move forward.

Thankfully, Carlos had purchased an extra 80’ long timber when he got the 2 trusses. Being advised by a particularly bright salesman with some 20/20 foresight “You oughta get this as well, just in case…”

These timbers and trusses came from an old historic lumber mill called “The Long Bell Mill” located in Longview, Washington. Some interesting history here. I’m going to take a diversion from the story to fill you in.

A couple of business partners from Columbus, Kansas, started the business in 1875. They started out selling hay. They packed the hay on wooden pallets which they milled themselves. They soon found out is was more profitable to sell the wood so they expanded the operation to a full time timber sawing operation that they located in the Southeast US where there was a much better source of trees than flatland, treeless Kansas. Around 1918 the forests of the Southeast were becoming more and more sparse so they decided to move the operation to real tree country in the Northwest region of the US. Millions of acres of timber resource here. They built the Long Bell Mill in 1923 near Longview, WA. In fact, I think the town of Longview grew up around the mill after it was built there.

Welcome to Episode 2 of “This Old Truss”

This week we find out whether or not the project proceeds after having discovered a large section of rot inside one of the major components of one truss. We’ll also take a look at the process of how to put marginal, old reclaimed timbers to use in a modern project.

The problem was not completely unanticipated. It was certainly one of the worst case scenarios I had worried about as we got into this project. Knowing that these timbers had sat out in the elements for the past 20 years and knowing that untreated timbers are prone to deterioration over time when exposed to the elements, this was a concern. Carlos had expressed the same concerns when we started discussing the project months ago.

I started sorting through some options and possible solutions. This is a huge problem! But I’m an optimist so I’ll just work the problem and see if we can get things back on track. Adapt and advance.

I called Carlos to the scene to discuss possible options and solutions. I could tell he was a bit anxious so I tried to reassure him that all was not lost, yet. He had an extra timber, which if solid and not rotted, we could use to replace the broken 45’ section of the truss. We will also need to take a closer look at all sections of the remaining trusses to make sure there was no more rot and everything was structurally sound. If after my inspection things seemed solid we’d then get an engineer involved for a second, more professional opinion. The professional degrees count more than my experienced opinions with the building inspectors and planning department.

Carlos took things surprisingly well. No curses no temper tantrums… though I think I saw his eyes widen a bit and his heart sink a bit when he first laid eyes on the huge crack and pile of rotted sawdust below his beautiful truss. He gave the thumbs up to proceed.

I broke out the big drill and 1 1/8” bit and started taking core samples about every 4’ on all the truss sections. Pulling out a handful of interior wood chips gave us a pretty good idea about the condition of things under the surface. We bagged up and saved each handful, stapling the bag next to each hole, so further examination by others could be made if needed.

We found everything to be solid except for a couple of short sections here and there. We also sampled the replacement timber and found a good, solid 45’ to use for a replacement piece.

I then called the engineer of record, Mark Benjamin of Crown Jade Engineering. A brief conversation with him revealed he was just starting to recover from a battle with Covid. He sounded so sick and weak that I decided right then I would let him rest and heal for a while and I would find another way to solve this problem.

My second call was to engineer number 2 – Cody Geisendorfer of Chaya Consulting group. I explained the situation and the urgency and he was more than willing to jump right in and help out. His colleague, Patrick, came out the next day and began inspecting the timbers. His main tool of choice was a hard rubber hammer he used to bang of the timber and a finely tuned ear used to hear the solid ring of good wood or the hollow thump of interior rot pockets. (I’m thinking “Hmmm…I’ve got hammers… I’ve got ears… maybe I could start earning the big bucks like these engineers!”). He also did a closer inspection of the wood chips and confirmed, pretty much, what we had concluded. There are a couple of small sections rot but all in all it’s not bad. We can work around the small sections, use the solid section of the extra timber to replace the broken top chord and we’ll be good to go. Things are looking up. Carlos was pleased to hear this.

The broken timber was a 12 x 12, the replacement timber is a 12 x 14 so we will need to rip 2” off of a 45’ section to be able to use as a replacement. Easier said than done but we do have the tools and technology to get it done. And we got it done. A couple of big ass saws, a red chalk line, a good solid table set up and a bit of patience and a strong arm and shoulder… piece of cake!

Final Episode of This Old Truss.

We’re on the home stretch now and getting ready to do some more interesting true timber framing. Traditional hand crafted pegged mortice and tenon joinery, good, solid Douglas fir kiln dried #1 grade planed and sanded timbers.

But first we need to install some windows, install some roof trim, do some painting, install the house wrap and get the roofers out to install final roofing product. Then the siding guys move in. In the mean time there are stairs to do, interior bracing details, the railings and decking then double and triple check it all, call for framing inspection, get the write off and thumbs up… then we move on to the next one.

Windows – done. Doors and windows – installed. Housewrap – done. Rough stairs – done. Roofing and siding – done.

The pigeons have moved in and are busily building a nest to raise some youngsters. A couple of Robins have also taken up residence and all the nooks and crannies in the bays of the framing are driving them crazy! They come in with a beak full of grasses and tuck it into a corner to start the nest. A few minutes later they return with another beak full, find an available nook, pack in the nest material then back out the door for another load. By the end of the day they have started 15 different nests in 15 different spots inside the barn. The next day – the same process. In a couple of weeks we have small nest starts in just about every available framing bay in the barn. I don’t know if they ever got around to laying eggs. But, my goodness, I do admire their determination and work ethic! The pigeons raised two clutches.

During the building process we got some pretty heavy weather with winds sometimes approaching 85 mph. The barn did hold up but a couple of times when we arrived on site we found some wall bracing broken and a couple of walls with about a 12” bow in the middle. Concerns were raised. An engineer was called in to inspect and come up with a plan to prevent any further damage. A prescription was written up to add some timbers and bracing and steel reinforcement and tie things together solidly to prevent any future winds from taking that 35’ tall by 80’ wide wind sail wall and depositing it in a pile in a pasture.

We followed the prescription and the results were actually pretty aesthetically pleasing. No more creaking and swaying and restless sleep on windy nights…

And final words. This project, as all projects, is the result of a community of diverse folks working together towards a common goal. This is not “my “ project. I helped but everyone else involved pitched in and we worked together to get it done. It went well and I attribute that to some focus on the details and listening to the other folks involved – home owner, colleagues, specialist and generalist sub contractors, building officials and inspectors, materials suppliers, some lessons from years of experience plus the timbers in the frame itself speaking to us – giving us a spank when we didn’t listen – and helping guide us all towards this final chapter.