A lot of people work with their hands—carpenters, furniture makers, welders. But in our age of mass production and prefab housing, there are precious few individuals who care about the way America’s pioneers made their homes and other things 200 years ago. Fewer still actually possess expert skill in early American building—and the individual who can build by hand, say, a timber frame house or a drystone wall, or forge a hammer himself, and then write with a journalist’s eye about the techniques for doing so, is rare indeed. Do all this and you might be considered a renaissance man.
Charles McRaven has been building things in old-fashioned ways for most of his life. His father, an engineer, built the family house in Arkansas where he was raised. McRaven started working on his first house—a log cabin restoration—in 1946, at age 11. Now 72, he hasn’t slowed down much. McRaven, who lives just beyond Free Union, in Albemarle County, is a master stone mason and master log cabin joiner. He’s also an expert timber framer and blacksmith—not in the master craftsmen category for the latter two fields, he says, “but I’m a pretty good journeyman.”
That’s surely an understatement. He makes, out of iron and steel, many of the tools he uses when building or restoring timber frame or log cabin homes—chisels for mortising, broadaxes for squaring timbers, sometimes a timber-finishing tool called an adze—along with knives, andirons, kitchen pot racks and, one of his specialties, custom-designed hinges and latches for handcrafted wooden doors. As McRaven has said, blacksmithing and his building skills nowadays are more art form than necessity. Think of him as a 21st-century homesteader.
McRaven had a restoration business until 2006. He worked on plantation houses, gristmills, covered bridges—but, owing mostly to a serious leg injury three years ago, he’s given that up. “I was looking the other way and a big beam came down off a pile of timbers and crushed my leg. It slipped up on me from behind.” But, as you would expect, the builder is stoic. “I’ve always maintained that, if you do this kind of work, you’re going to get a scratch now and then.” Asked if pioneer building is hard work, he responds, “Every bit of it.”
McRaven now spends most of this time teaching and consulting, traveling around the country to advise on new and historic structures. He’s also involved in a lot of craft exhibits and workshops, many held at his home. In June 2007, he and a group of volunteers raised a log cabin for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington. Tyhfall, he and some volunteers built a small timber frame for the Foundation for the Humanities and exhibited it at the National Folk Festival in Richmond. “It’s all mortised together and pegged—no hardware in it at all. It’s a good way to build.”
When not building or consulting, McRaven writes. He’s written about a half-dozen books, including, most recently, Stone Primer: Ideas and Techniques for Incorporating Stone in and Around Your Home. In the book, to which other writers contributed, there are chapters on stone-shaping techniques and how to build patios and drystone walls, among other topics. And McRaven pays tribute to other “rock stars”—among them Toru Oba of Buckingham and Elizabeth Nisos of Charlottesville. Two years ago, he republished two books written in the late 1970s and early ’80s—The Blacksmith’s Craft and The Classic Hewn-Log House (all from Storey Publishing). McRaven has written extensively over the years for Country Journal and Fine Homebuilding magazines. He taught journalism for nine years at three colleges, including a stint at the University of Mississippi, where he went to graduate school. “Writing is my outlet,” he says.
What’s next? Perhaps more spiritual reflection. McRaven is the minister of a small Presbyterian church in the village of Rapidan (Orange County). It’s got about 35 members. He started training for the cloth when he was 65 and was licensed and commissioned in 2003. “I’d been doing a lot of work with the church for about 20 years—teaching Bible classes, substituting for the preachers—and more and more they kept asking me to do it.”
But he’s certainly not going to stop working. The McRavens have five children, four daughters and a son, and he says they’re at the marrying age. “Some of them are thinking about building projects,” he says—meaning, they’ll need homes in which to raise their families. And Dad, master craftsmen, pioneer builder, will be ready to help.
- Originally published February 2008