Castles in France

by Mathieu

The last seven weeks I spent some time in rather a royal environment.

chateau garden

I had the chance to work on an interesting restoration project in France. Chateau de la Chapelle in La Neuve-Lyre, Normandy. About a year ago the south wing of the castle burned down and therefore four different shaped, interconnecting roofs need to be restored. When a fellow carpenter asked me to join this project my attention was instantly drawn to this promising work.

A view from the north-west looking at the north wing from the back of the castle. It shows the first roof to be reconstructed on the left, a simple hipped roof with bastard hip rafters. Bastard means that the path of the hip does not run 45° to the wall plate in plan view.

north wing, backside

The work is being performed by an international crew of carpenters from Germany, France, England and Belgium. It is likely that there will be more nationalities joining during the project.

At the start of April we began with organizing the worksite. We erected a tent as a workshop and built a hardboard floor in it to enable us to do full scale layout.

tent & drafting floor

Axel Weller the head carpenter on the job asked me to be part of this project to work on the layout and since carpentry layout and geometry is one of my passions I was eager to start on it. I learned that on a restoration project like this it is very important to examine the structure and read all the clues and toolmarks that were left by the original carpenters. We spent quite some time measuring the roof remnants and interpreting the details that were left. You would be surprised how many pieces of the puzzle were still in place after such a devastating fire.

fire damage

Luckily for us there was the north wing of the castle is still intact and is almost exactly the same as the roofs that need to be reconstructed. It still remains a big challenge to put all the pieces together and understand to the original philosophy of the carpenters who built it around 1879. No matter how great your experience or your understanding of timber frame structures, a reconstruction will always be an interpretation of the original.

Below is a picture of the names of some (maybe all) the original carpenters who worked on the roof, note the year when it was built.

original carpenters

It took about a week of constant measuring, juggling with inaccurate numbers before we could start on some of our own drawings. The layout method employed is based on the German tradition of shiftung a straightforward projection method that allows you to figure out compound angles.

Below the timbers you can see some of the reference lines as they are drawn on the drafting floor. The timbers are then positioned along them and scribed accordingly.

layout on floor

At night I would spend some time behind my computer to confirm the layout by making some of the drawings in a CAD program. It makes it easier to anticipate any possible errors or inaccuracies and is a tremendous help if you like to work efficiently.

roof 1CAD

In the picture I have omitted most of the projection lines for the sake of clarity. Below you see the north-south truss assembled after test fitting.

north-south truss

And the east-west truss during a test assembly before the braces are scribed.

north-west truss

The majority of the joints are simple mortice and tennons and some of them have angled shoulders. On the original wall plate we found some splices. In France these are referred to as trait de Jupiter. They are fun to make and like any other joint should have a tight fit when assembled in order to be structurally sound.

old trait de Jupiter

The same joint after some cosmetic surgery and time traveling.

new trait de Jupiter

Since the castle is a monument historique, close attention is paid to keep all the details as close to the original as possible. And naturally this includes the joints as well.

monument historique

Last weekend I returned home and ended my commitment to this project prematurely. It was sooner then I expected but because there where some serious interpersonal obstacles I felt very relieved to return home and continue on some projects of my own. For the time it lasted it was fun and I learned a lot from both the work and experiences I had.

To end the story, this postcard gives an idea how the roofs should look like once they are restored to their old glory.

Cahteau de la Chapelle postcard

I wish all the best to the people who remain working on the project and hope things will run smooth during the reconstruction.

The majority of the pictures used in this article are courtesy of Mathijs Huyghebaert, a friend and colleague who was so kind to share the pictures he had taken during our work on this project.