Your Sister is A Scab

By: Dan Cooper , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Terminology

No, the title of this entry has nothing to do with labor unions or strike-breaking; it deals with old house terminology.  We in the trade use (or have used) expressions that have been employed for decades, if not centuries, and many of them are puzzling to civilians.

Let’s say you’ve got a structural board, either a rafter or a joist, and it’s cracked or rotten, and needs replacement.  Because it’s nailed snuggly in place between the plates or sills, removing it is unfeasible, so you cut an identically shaped board and either nail it or bolt it to the older, weaker one, creating a stronger timber.

If you’re a true nail-banger, you call this scabbing onto the old board; I’ve heard the term sistering used, but that’s got more than a touch of Olde Yankee to it. It’s kind of like folks who say “Clabbahd” instead of Clapboard.  Unless your family has lived in Maine or Vermont for five generations, it’s kind of pretentious.

An aside: deliver me from the Yankee Carpenter Wannabe…you know the type; he has a set of handmade screwdrivers that cost more than my first car, and they’ve never been pulled out of their unbleached canvas carrying pouch. His workshop is perfectly arranged, because he never actually does any work; he just likes to know it’s there. This guy would die if he ever had to frame a roof in January.

There are other old house words, some made archaic by time, others eliminated through protocol:  do you know what that short stud over a door or window is traditionally called?  A cripple.  I wouldn’t use that term, especially in the rather politically correct town of Armrest, Massachusetts where I live, where even the general contractors drive Prius’ with ladder racks.

I just wrote a piece for another publication about nipples and hickeys; these items fall under the auspices of Things Electrical.  Nipples are the short, threaded pieces of pipe that protrude from a wall or ceiling to which one attaches a lighting fixture.  Hickeys are the double-female threaded couplings that connect two nipples.


And then there’s scarfing.  It has nothing to do with eating a lot of food quickly or auto-erotic-asphyxiation (just don’t ask, okay?).  Scarfing is a way to “stretch” a board:  Let’s say you’ve got to span a distance of 12 feet, and you’ve only got 8 foot boards, so you splice them with a gently tapering diagonal joint.  It holds up just fine and you sound so butch as you strain your morning coffee grounds through your teeth muttering, “Yeah, we scarfed those bastards right up.”

Those who have rattled through many an 18th and early 19th century house will hear the term “summer beam” mentioned. It has nothing to do with the season; they didn’t replace it with every solstice or equinox. The summer beam is the primary horizontal timber that runs parallel to the roof ridge. Its name is derived from the French word sommier, which means, strangely enough, cross-beam.

Animals parts figure prominently in our lexicon: bird’s-mouth and lamb’s-tongue are two examples. The former is a large notch cut in the end of a structural timber, typically a rafter, allowing it to receive another framing element, like the plate, to which it is then nailed.  A lamb’s-tongue is a decorative carving executed at the end of a chamfer on a post.  Another phrase some of us use is Elephant Prints.  This occurs when someone with poor aim misses the board or sheetrock while hammering, leaving perfectly round divots in the material, as if a tiny elephant had just plodded across their work surface.  We grumble that this person “hammers like lightning” for he never hits in the same place twice…

The glossary goes on, and I’m sure there’s dozens of entries I’ve neglected; I just thought of a few that can be printed; feel free to send your favorites in, along with their meaning.

Dan Cooper writes for many architecture and antiques magazines, and is currently finishing a book on the architecture of Albert, Righter and Tittmann, to be published by The Vendome Press in the fall of 2009.  He is also president of Cooper’s Cottage Lace, LLC and is the United States representative of Enterprise Weaving Ltd., an English firm that specializes in historic Wilton and Brussels carpets.