Barn Buff

Skip Yates is one of those guys who makes you want to abandon what you do and simply hang out with him...

...to apprentice yourself to his masterful style.  Maybe even for a few years.  While many of us are satisfied to tackle basic home improvements, Yates makes a living taking apart and putting back together entire structures, specifically old barns in and around Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  He’s the kind of totally old-school, hands-on craftsperson (a term that seems mighty feeble in this case) that, while rare, gives you hope that the whole modern world hasn’t gone completely off its rocker.
 
The best case scenario for Yates is to start with a client who wants a barn, maybe even one he already has in pieces.  Otherwise he’ll go out and find one.  Most of the barns in Bucks County are gone or are in currently in use, making this more arduous than it once was.  “I’ve traveled a few hundred miles, or further, to get something that’s really, really nice, especially if I have a client.  If it’s a museum piece, really special, I’ll buy it myself.”  Development is (sometimes) his friend.  “New roads always seem to go through where the barn sits,” he said.
 
The economics of doing this have, of course, shifted over the last few years.  People used to pay him to take down their barns.  Now he pays them, which Yates thinks is fair.  It’s still pretty much word of mouth, though, with an occasional ad in the local paper.  Sometimes it’s a city slicker (my words, not his) wanting a pretty structure.  Other times its an Amish or Mennonite family with a barn that’s too small for their modern farming needs, so Yates will take theirs down (saving the parts) and put up a larger pole building.  
 
When disassembling a barn, he carefully tags each piece with a name and rough location (NE, SW, etc.)  Each bay and bent (the length- and width-wise braces) is color coded (typical barns have 4 bents, 3 bays) and numbered.  He also makes extensive field drawings and takes thorough notes, so (for him, anyway) it’s pretty simple.  Most of it goes into storage, unless something needs repairing.  Some parts need to be replaced completely, and Yates will hand hew an entire beam by hand out of another piece of old wood, usually oak, similar to the original.  His tools are a gorgeous collection of files and saws.  (I’ve got a Muji screwdriver set and two wrenches in a kitchen drawer, so I’m in complete awe as we tour his workshop).
 
The house he’s building for himself and his wife, Roberta, is on the 15-acre Pipersville property where they currently live.  It’s two old Dutch structures, from around 1730 and 1790, fused together, one pretty much as it was, the other modified and cut down from the original, which was three times the size it is now.  It was, in its first life, a timber frame “swing beam barn”, Yates tells me, “with two center bents that allowed a farmer to swing a team of horses around without any structural interference.”  It’s one and a half stories, with two sleeping areas upstairs, a giant kitchen, wood-burning stove, and (for now) his workshop.  Once they move in, he’ll move his shop into another log cabin that he’s reassembling nearby.  
 
The log house that comprises the rest of the new building has stunning compound dovetails at the corners.  Each beam took an entire day to carve, and there are dozens of them.  “When water hits the top end of the dovetail, it drains down and away from the house.  It hits one, rolls down, hits the other side, and so on all the way down,” he explains.  It’s so simple that you don’t even notice it -- until you do, and then you want to cry.  Some of the logs have a colorful past -- they came from a very conservative old church in New Jersey called The Pillar of Fire.  “It was too far gone to put up again as a whole barn, so I just used the parts that weren’t bad.”
 
There’s more color inside, a pleasant surprise, a treat.  Various floorboards, doors, and other bits Yates repurposed were originally painted in shades of pale blue and celadon, intense turquoise and cyan.  Some is milk paint, other probably lead-based.  (If there was any doubt, Yates resealed it).  “I had to scrape various layers, sometimes two or three, to get to the amazing colors.   I thought, ‘man, I’m just going to leave this exposed because they’re so beautiful.’”  Taken as a whole -- the vast hand-hewn beams, the tools, the stove, the quiet riot of color, and Yates himself -- is inspiring, to say the least.  
 
And Yates does have a protégé of sorts out there.  In a wood shop in Los Angeles, a guy named Samuel Moyer, who apprenticed with Yates for a couple of years a while back, makes simple furniture without any glue or nails, just hand-carved joints and pegs.  (Moyer is another whole tale, for another time).  “He's the genuine article, isn't he?  Make him tell you the story of how he scalped himself with a power drill next time you speak with him,” Moyer said.  And so I shall.
 
These days, he tries to keep a couple of projects or so going at once, at various stages, but he’s usually concentrated on one rebuild at any given time.  His crew is small, his process slow and meticulous.  The modern world seems to abhor an expert, at least on the surface.  In Web 2.0 land, no one is more skilled than the reader, who simply hasn’t gotten around to learning how to bone a fish, design a dining room chair, or put up new tile in the bathroom.  It is fitting, then, that Skip Yates doesn’t own a computer.
 
 
 
Stephen Treffinger is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer who covers interiors, architecture, and home product for the New York Times, Interior Design, The Architect's Newspaper, and others.  He will soon launch his test drive guru website devoted to intuition- and emotion-based trials of products, places, and experiences.  Stay tuned.
 

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