Flooring by the Numbers

Feb 1, 2001

Restoration of an old house is an ongoing process. In 2000, as Island Housewrights restoration experts worked to finish stripping the floorboards on the second floor of the Durand-Hedden House, Don DeFillo noticed some odd markings -- invisible when covered with paint -- on the ends of several boards.

They were Roman numerals – XII and XIII. He puzzled over them until it struck him that the numerals represented the lengths of the boards – 12 and 13 feet.

“When they were building the original section of the house in about 1790, they may have stacked the boards according to length,” DeFillo explained. “The board lengths were incised with a race (or drag) knife and the marks have endured all these years. Carpenters and housewrights traditionally used Roman numerals to mark framing members because they were easier to make, mostly straight lines. It’s unusual to find them on floorboards.”

At the edges of the room, the boards revealed vertical saw marks, indicating they were cut at a sawmill with a band saw or a reciprocal saw, which moves up and down. “If they had been hand-sawn, the marks would have been at oblique angles and would have been irregular,” DeFillo said. All the boards are rough sawn and were never planed, probably because they were upstairs. The lack of foot traffic on the edges of the room allowed them to be preserved.

The marked floorboards are now added to the list of intriguing details that await the visitor on the second floor. The installation of the loom in the central area adds to the sense that whoever slept upstairs didn’t leave all that long ago.

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