What Is It? And Why Did A Chippie Make It?

Gable wall

What Is It? And Why Did A Chippie Make It?

Well first you might ask is ‘What’s a chippie?’ Well that’s simply an old term for a carpenter or wood fitter, because they were very effective in removing large amounts of wood with adzes, axes and chisels.

This is of course in the days before power tools and literally ‘the chips were flyin’. A good tradesman kept his tools sharp so when notches or long rip cuts were required they reached for the blades first.  In skilled hands this was faster than the alternative and very accurate.

That’s the chippie, but what is this and why is it different? This looks similar to but not the same as what is built today. The shape tells us its the interior of an attic gable end wall, but they aren’t built like this anymore.

This photo shows a 50s build, near the end of an era for this type of construction which was used for hundreds of years. You can’t see it in this photo but the wall ‘boards’ are 3″ thick. They are the wall. There are no studs!

Yes 3″ thick!

This is not the platform, western, or balloon framing known to the current generation of carpenters and builders. There are no studs here!

This is more closely related to log cabin technology than anything else. It isn’t fitted with corner notching the way logs were (modern nails are used) and the ‘logs’ have become squared timber planks. (The camera flash makes them look dressed but they are actually rough sawn.)

The french called this method ‘pièce sur pièce’ (piece over piece) and it a compression technology that structurally transmits weight the same way stone and masonry structures do.

Some pieces were “keyed in” with birds mouth notch joints like this photo;

piece over piece joint

Note the small nails relative to the timber size. This is toe nailing. Its function is just really to hold it in place. The fitting, notching and weight are what do the work in holding the wall together.

Doors and windows have to be preplanned to fit under the bays formed by theses notched beams. You can’t just cut holes in these walls and frame a door or window opening. There is no ‘point loading’. All pieces cary weight

Floor framing is not a built platform as it is done now. Rather individual joists are ‘let in’ notched into the exterior walls a seen below;

piece over piece joist

Typically the vertical pieces had grooves in their sides that the horizontal pieces were notched into (similar to a mortise and tenon joint). Positioning and spans were a product of the size of the materials avaliable.

Exterior walls were commonly faced with brick, while inside faces were furred out and plastered.

Both faces of the wood were protected with tar paper. The exterior was done to protect the wood from the drainage plane behind the masonry (typically a one inch air space.. The inside was similarly protected against the huge volume of water temporarily introduced to the building by the plastering process. It often took up to three months to dry out.

Interestingly, although there is no insulation product installed here, the whole wall assembly is rated at nearly R20. Not bad for ‘no insulation’!

This construction can be found in most city cores in brownstones and masonry clad structures. Like the first photo they are also found in 50s build suburban housing divisions. It was a good solid building method.

It does have some drawbacks. Compared to current construction it uses a massive amount of wood and quality was hugely dependent upon the builders experience and knowledge as well as the tradesman’s skills.

Structurally it is sound but it does not lend itself to easy renovation. Any changes require an engineers consultation and an experienced crew.

As an inspector I field calls with people asking if I have experience with certain areas of the city. What they are really asking is if I understand how those homes are built and will I be able to recognize thier particular problems and know it they have been correctly renovated in the past.

And thats a fair question. Thats the service needed for homes built this way.






Original blog post on ActiveRain: Link to Blog Post

A Pretty Face Or A Dark Heart, A Buyers Tale

Here is a beautifully written blog about the value in having a home inspection. The experience described is a process I often see buyers go through. This is written by a colleague in Connecticut, James Quarello.

New loveBeauty is said to be only skin deep. A pretty face can conceal a dark heart. And so it can be with houses. Buyers are wooed by the charms of granite counter tops and gleaming hardwood floors. The luxurious tile shower with multiple spray heads and the verdant greenery of the yard. They sign the sales contractor, doe eyed and smitten by their new love.

They then reluctantly call a home inspector, their real estate agent said they should, but they are doubtful their sweetheart is in need of an examination. Such beauty and charm can surely have no flaws. Grudgingly the call is made, the appointment is set.

Ain't she sweet?The day of the inspection comes, the buyers arrive with unconstrained excitement anticipating spending time with their new darling. They meet and greet the inspector. Someone says to the inspector “the house looks great, but you’ll tell us if there is really anything wrong”. The tone of their voice says they don’t actually believe there is a flaw anywhere to be found.

The exterior is examined, it all looks good. Just a few minor issues, you can almost hear the sighs of relief floating on the cool spring breeze. The giddiness of new infatuation is crank up a further notch on the good news.

Old and uglyNow everyone enters the charmer, it is stunning, clean and almost without flaw. The inspector seems detached and unimpressed. The buyers wonder, can he not see the allure.

The inspector enters the attic, the news is not all good. Something to do with the insulation or did he say a lack of. No matter, it’s something they can fix. A mote of doubt slips into their minds.

The bedrooms are examined more bad news, there is a problem with the plugs. The inspector said something about the wiring. The buyers think, that sounds more serious.

Does all the luster now have a vague tarnish?

Next down into the basement, where the inner workings of the abode reside. It’s not all pretty, but there are some finished rooms. Oh my, a problem with the bedroom down here, where will we put Aunt Edna when she comes to visit? The plumbing has problems too! And there’s a sump pump we never saw.

Go to the lightThe make up has run like cheap paint in the rain, revealing an aged beauty. Still there is charm, but the buyers see the home in a more realistic light. They still love the home, their infatuation now tempered by reality.

They are hopeful they can work out the fixes with the seller. Boy, are they ever glad they chose to hire an inspector. Just like going on a few dates, an inspection can reveal all that glitters is not gold.

James Quarello
Connecticut Home Inspector
2010 – 2011 SNEC-ASHI President
NRSB #8SS0022
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC

To find out more about our other high tech services we offer in Connecticut click on the links below:

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Serving the Connecticut Counties of Fairfield, Hartford, Middlesex, New Haven, Southern Litchfield and Western New London.



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Does ‘FLASHING” remind you of a ‘perv’ in the park? (Part 2)Connotations of ‘CAULK’ and ‘FLASH’ .

Does ‘FLASHING” remind you of a ‘perv’ in the park?  Does that mean “CAULK” is a 4 letter word to you ?

That’ seems to be the case now a days.


On the left: Roofing meet flashing (black cap flashing). Flashing meet caulk. Caulk meet old tar ( old brittle cracked leaking tar).

On the right: Roofing meet new flashing (couldn’t be made smaller). New flashing meet surface caulking. Surface caulking meet porous wet brick.

SO who’s leaking now : Every place the new caulking touches old materials some small amount of wetting or water entry is happening. It only gets worse over time.

chimney flashing details

The proven standard for flashing  was returned into the wall or chimney material, a mortar joint in the case of masonry. It was then bent downward to generously cover the upward edge of the roofing membrane. That top edge where it tucked into the masonry was filed with caulking from behind the brick face to a bevel finish on the outside that shed water.

This was called ‘let-in flashing’ and it works very well. The core of the caulking in the slot or brick joint takes a long time to dry out, i.e. age. Where it does age the top returned edge of the flashing is still there to redirect any water that has gotten by back out to the surface and away. The better workmen made a small up turn at the inside of the return inset into the brick. Very often this functioned effectively long after the original caulking dried up and washed away.


The job shown in the photo above is not that type.  It is what we call caulking reliant.  That means every thing is sealed with the caulking and has to rely on that bond.  No matter what the caulking manufacturer claims about his product, it is only as effective as the material it is in contact with.

So if you caulk against old tar, etc. your water proofing is as good as…. the old tar.  SO that edge will soon fail.  A handy man sent up with a tube of caulking can try to keep on top of it.  And he can keep things fairly dry, but he has to be a diligent and frequent visitor.

This is what home inspectors mean when they describe something as a maintenance intensive installation.  Is it wrong, or a bad job?  No, but it is short sighted economics that the home owner needs to be aware of.

So is caulking a four letter word?  Maybe, but many caulking jobs are the generators of unrestrained expletives.

And flashing is getting so minimal and ineffective it may disappear from popular lexicons and the only meaning recognized may be that shadowy trench coated figure in the park.




Original blog post on ActiveRain: Link to Blog Post