They don’t make ’em like they used to
Which is why preservation carpentry is David Lewis’s passion
by L. L. Lehans
Copyright The Landmark, 2007

A couple of weeks ago, David Lewis was getting ready to drive a truck from Holden to a small town in upstate New York — in a snowstorm — to retrieve nine old church windows that looked like they were ready to fall apart.

To a preservation carpenter, this is a dream job. A “modern” carpenter by trade, Lewis started his career building new houses for a small company in the Lexington-Concord area. But his real love was pre-20th century buildings, so he decided to attend the North Bennet Street School in Boston for formal training in preservation.

Lewis carefully scrapes away crumbling caulking around a pane. Any "new panes" will be
replaced with 19th century wavy glass, rescued from old buildings. Reminiscent of leaded
stained glass, the chapel windows are framed in wood. Restoration will include reglazing
and new paint. (Steven King photo)

Established in 1885 as the North Bennet Street Industrial School, its original mission was to enable immigrants to learn skills that would help them find employment. The school’s mission today is “to train students in traditional trades that use hand skills in concert with evolving technology, to preserve and advance craft traditions, and to promote greater appreciation of craftsmanship.

” At Bennet, Lewis received his formal training in preservation, with emphasis on pre-20th century architecture. “Not furniture,” he adds. “‘Do you fix chairs?’ — I get that a lot.”

The work involves a lot of time and patience, using traditional tools and methods. “I’ve always enjoyed the quality of older homes — the attention to detail, the quality of the materials,” he says. “I carefully select the materials that will restore buildings to their original beauty, using carpentry methods that are proven to produce the best result.”

He studied three architectural periods at Bennet-Georgian, Federalist and Greek Revival, which roughly span the years 1750-1860. Georgian and Federalist moldings (the wood trim around doors, windows, ceilings and baseboards) were all made by hand, he says.

Starting with the Greek Revival period, trim and floor planks were milled in lumber mills, just as they are now milled in stock mills. While he sometimes uses electric tools, Lewis says the last of the surface work on a restoration project is usually done by hand, because only then can you get the hand-finished quality you don’t get with motorized tools.

“Look at this hand-finished, hand-planed table,” he says, running his hand along the dining table made by his father-in-law. He says people who don’t know quality wood and craftsmanship expect old carpentry to look like modern, polyurethane-finished wood. “I often have to explain to them that it’s not an imperfection — it’s designed that way,” he says.

He doesn’t strictly limit his work to those three early architectural periods, but he prefers them. “Up until the 20th century, you could get a decent quality house,” he says.

Originally from Worcester, Lewis has restored houses in his native city, and has traveled to the northern coast of Maine — and now, upstate New York — at the request of friends.

He and his wife Aislinn, who grew up in a Greek Revival house that her dad was working on “for 20-something years,” are currently renting in Holden but looking for an old house with land. Once they’re in their “new” old home, he says, Aislinn understands from her childhood experience that restoring it will take time.

“That’s what it takes — time,” her husband says, “but I believe that in the end, taking the time provides a higher quality than if you buy new.

“We’re looking for a fixer-upper,” he says, just like his other Bennet School grad friends. They’ve all bought old houses. David and Aislinn have been looking for at least two years, he says, and have found one built in 1845 with four-plus acres that they’re excited about.

“The house has all-original doors and hardware,” he says. “The windows were replaced, but we found the original window sashes in the attic. “One of my passions is preserving and keeping those old windows,” he says. “It doesn’t bother me to tear out a 1950s kitchen. Kitchens and bathrooms tend to need the most immediate attention when you buy an old house.”

He says what most people don’t realize is that old windows, properly maintained, are tight and very energy efficient. Which brings him back to why he was heading out to upstate New York. Timothy Smith, who asked Lewis to do restoration at the house in Eastport, Maine, recently purchased the former First Universalist Church in Portageville, N.Y. Built in 1841 in the Greek Revival style, the building was sold to a Seventh Day Adventist congregation in the mid- 20th century, who used it until about 1970. The church sat empty for a decade before it was used as a junk store for the past 20 years. The building is sound but needs restoration work. Smith purchased it to create a private retreat where organists can renew their artistry during one-week visits. The church will be fully restored and equipped with a pipe organ Smith is having built for the structure. Unheated, the chapel will be open from early May until the end of October.

“[Smith] called and described it when he bought it,” Lewis says. “I was already very excited about the prospect of restoring the windows. Then when I saw the photos …”

He trucked the windows back to Holden, where he will restore the recent glass replacement panes with 19th century “wavy glass” from windows that Lewis has been able to find and stockpile.

Maine project
The Eastport house was a more “typical” project for a preservation carpenter. The front door porch enclosure had rotted away in places, and it was Lewis’s job to take what was left and fashion detailed drawings from which to make new wooden pieces.

Entrance to Eastport house before and after restoration.

“I use materials to maximize longevity,” he says, which means he uses stainless steel fixtures because they won’t corrode like the original iron ones, and very carefully selects the best wood to use for his projects. Up until the last century, wooden houses were covered in paint, because at the time, paint was the best long-lasting coverage you could buy.

“Wood moves,” Lewis says, “it’s constantly in motion. When it does, finishes crack, moisture gets in, and rot starts.” He says wood needs to be checked yearly for proper maintenance. “If you keep up with cracks on a small scale, you don’t have to get into major replacements,” he says.

He does a lot of work using marine-grade epoxy, because it impregnates the wood, solidifies with it, yet remains flexible.

“When someone says, ‘I want to restore a house,’ it depends on what the customer wants — whether he wants to go back to the original, or just update,” Lewis says. He worked on a 1720s Georgian colonial in Northboro, which had been remodeled in the 1990s. The owner spent a lot of money on hand-forged hardware made by a blacksmith, had a paint analysis done, and the 1990s windows removed and replaced with historic replicas. But because the owner did not want to drill into the walls to install new wiring, he had track lighting installed on the ceilings.

“To me it looked really bizarre, but that’s what he wanted,” Lewis says.

Licensed and insured like “modern” carpenters, Lewis does work in Central Massachusetts and the Concord area, mostly by referrals and word-of-mouth. “I’m not a general contractor,” he says. “I don’t orchestrate a full house restoration. Typically for a small restoration, I go out, take measurements and photos for a specific job, come back home to do drawings, spend three to four weeks here remanufacturing the parts and spend about 10 days to install.”

He gets referrals from the Bennet School, which keeps a list of graduates by geographic area. He plans to have a Web site, and can be reached by e-mail at LewisD74@ msn.com, or by phone at (508) 277-0627.

He’s done work in the historic neighborhoods in Worcester, and close to home at Holden Town Hall. Remember the minor furor a few years ago about the Town Hall windows? A proposal to replace the drafty 19th century windows with aluminum ones was pitched in November 2001, approved in 2002 and finally done in 2004. The final decision was to keep the Main Street-facing original windows, and replace all the side ones. Lewis had wanted to see them all repaired instead of replaced. “I’ve never seen or heard of a window that can’t be repaired,” he says. “People throw out good windows because they rattle or stick, but with some regular maintenance some old windows work fantastic and retain the authenticity of the house because they used so much better wood then.

“I’m talking about windows prior to World War II,” he emphasizes. And what happened to those old Town Hall windows that were discarded to make way for the new ones? They’re part of David Lewis’s stash, and those wavy panes of glass might very well grace the windows of a little church in Portageville, NY.