It was only a matter of time when the thinning-down process began to make itself evident in the traditions of Colonial carpentry, and from its clumsy beginnings it evolved into the more or less standard form of construction which we call the brace-frame.
The difficulty of securing good labor in the West, and also the increasing use of the power sawmill, made it possible and necessary to standardize a quick and easy method of building which would meet the great demand for houses in rapidly growing communities.
Quoting from the New York Tribune of January 18, 1855, we have a very interesting account of the conditions which were then prevalent that brought about this later variation of the wooden-frame structure. The conditions there described seem almost like our modern difficulties with labor and materials.
"Mr. Robinson said: .. I would saw all my timbers for a frame house, or ordinary frame outbuilding, of the following dimensions: 2x8 inches; 2x4; 2x1. I have, however, built them, when I lived on the Grand Prairie of Indiana, many miles from sawmills, nearly all of split and hewed stuff, making use of rails or round poles, reduced to straight lines and even thickness on two sides, for studs and rafters. But sawed stuff is much the easiest, though in a timber country the other is far the cheapest. First, level your foundation, and lay down two of the 2x8 pieces, flatwise, for side-walls. Upon these set the floor-sleepers, on edge, 32 inches apart. Fasten one at each end, and perhaps one or two in the middle, if the building is large, with a wooden pin. These end-sleepers are the end-sills. Now lay the floor, unless you design to have one that would be likely to be injured by the weather before you get on the roof. It is a great saving, though, of labor to begin at the bottom of a house and build up. In laying the floor first, you have no studs to cut and fit around, and can let your boards run out over the ends, just as it happens, and afterward saw them off smooth by the sill. Now set up a corner-post, which is nothing but one of the 2x4 studs, fastening the bottom by four nails; make it plumb, and stay it each way. Set another at the other corner, and then mark off your door and window places and set up the side-studs and put in the frames. Fill up with studs between, 16 inches apart, supporting the top by a line or strip of board from corner to corner, or stayed studs between. Now cover that side with rough sheeting boards, unless you intend to side-up with clapboards on the studs, which I never would do, except for a small, common building. Make no calculation about the top of your studs; wait till you get up that high. You may use them of any length, with broken or stub-shot ends, no matter. When you have got this side boarded as high as you can reach, proceed to set up another. In the meantime other workmen can be lathing the first side. When you have got the sides all up, fix upon the height of your upper floor, and strike a line upon the studs for the under side of the joist. Cut out a joist 4 inches wide, half inch deep, and nail on firmly one of the inch strips. Upon these strips rest the chamber floor joist. Cut out a joist 1 inch deep, in the lower edge, and lock it on the strip, and nail each joist to each stud. Now lay this floor, and go on to build the upper story, as you did the lower one; splicing on and lengthening out studs wherever needed, until you get high enough for the plate. Splice studs or joists by simply butting the ends together, and nailing strips on each side. Strike a line and saw off the top of the studs even upon each side - not the ends - and nail on one of the inch strips. That is the plate. Cut the ends of the upper joist the bevel of the pitch of the roof, and nail them fast to the plate, placing the end ones inside the studs, which you will let run up promiscuously, to be cut off by the rafter. Now lay the garret floor by all means before you put on the roof, and you will find that you have saved 50 per cent of hard labor. The rafters, if supported so as not to be over 10 feet long, will be strong enough of the 2x4 stuff. Bevel the ends and nail fast to the joist. Then there is no strain upon the sides by the weight of the roof, which may be covered with shingles or other materials - the cheapest being composition or cement roofs. To make one of this kind, take soft, spongy, thick paper, and tack it upon the boards in courses like shingles. Commence at the top with hot tar and saturate the paper, upon which sift evenly fine gravel, pressing it in while hot - that is, while tar and gravel are both hot. One coat will make a tight roof; two coats will make it more durable. Put up your partitions of stuff 1x4, unless where you want to support the upper joist - then use stuff 2x4, with strips nailed on top, for the joist to rest upon, fastening all together by nails, wherever timbers touch. Thus you will have a frame without a tenon or mortise, or brace, and yet it is far cheaper, and incalculably stronger when finished, than though it were composed of timbers 10 inches square, with a thousand auger holes and a hundred days' work with the chisel and adze, making holes and pins to fill them.
"To lay out and frame a building so that all its parts will come together requires the skill of a master mechanic, and a host of men and a deal of hard work to lift the great sticks of timber into position. To erect a balloon building requires about as much mechanical skill as it does to build a board fence. Any farmer who is handy with the saw, iron square, and hammer, with one of his boys or a common laborer to assist him, can go to work and put up a frame for an outbuilding, and finish it off with his own labor, just as well as to hire a carpenter to score and hew great oak sticks and fill them full of mortises, all by the science of the 'square rule'. It is a waste of labor that we should all lend our aid to put a stop to. Besides, it will enable many a farmer to improve his place with new buildings, who, though he has long needed them, has shuddered at the thought of cutting down half of the best trees in his wood-lot, and then giving half a year's work to hauling it home and paying for what I do know is the wholly useless labor of framing. If it had not been for the knowledge of balloon frames, Chicago and San Francisco could never have arisen, as they did, from little villages to great cities in a single year. It is not alone city buildings, which are supported by one another, that may be thus erected, but those upon the open prairie, where the wind has a sweep from Mackinaw to the Mississippi, for there they are built, and stand as firm as any of the old frames of New England, with posts and beams 16 inches square."
The above address, which was delivered before the American Institute Farmers' Club, has been quoted in detail because of the interesting point of view of the days of 1855 which it reveals. When Mr. Robinson had finished there were other comments, especially one by Mr. Youmans, in which he described early conditions of building in San Francisco. He also said that he had adopted this plan of building on his farm in Saratoga County, where he found great difficulty in getting carpenters that would do as he wished. They could not give up tenons and mortises, and braces and big timbers, for the light ribs, 2 by 4 inches, of a balloon frame. Does this not remind the modern reader of comments he has heard upon all sides these days concerning labor which will not do what is wanted but insists on doing things in the old way?
Some pertinent remarks were also made by a Mr. Stillman, who testified that he had seen whole blocks of houses built in two weeks at San Francisco, and better frames he never saw. He said they were put up a story at a time, the first two floors often being framed and sided in and lived in before the upper part of the house was up. Have we any such housing crisis as this, in these days, or did we do any quicker building of war villages than that described above?
And now we read from the Preliminary Report on the Building Code Committee of the United States Department of Commerce the crystallized tradition of this system of wooden-frame construction which was evolved so many years ago that we sometimes forget the conditions of its making:
"Exterior Walls. - I. Wood studding shall be 2 x 4 inches nominal size or larger, and spaced not to exceed 16 inches on centres. All walls shall be securely braced at corners. The minimum sizes specified in these requirements shall in all cases be understood as referring to nominal sizes of such timbers.
"2. Exterior walls, except those of dwellings or parts thereof not more than one story high, shall be sheathed with boards not less than 7/8 inch thick. Sheathing boards shall be laid tight and properly nailed to each stud with not less than 2 tenpenny nails. Where the sheathing is omitted all corners shall be diagonally braced and such other measures taken to secure rigidity as may be necessary.
"4. When joists are supported on ledger or ribbon boards, such boards shall not be less than 1x4 inches, shall be laid into the studs and securely nailed with not less than 2 nails to each stud. The floor joists shall be well spiked to the sides of the studs."