Dalton and his quality wood chips go hand in hand
One of the best parts of writing this column is getting emails from readers.
After the piece about Mount Vernon appeared here earlier this year, I received a friendly note from Janet Dalton of Lusby, whose husband, Bill, has a very tangible connection to Mount Vernon. No, he’s not George Washington’s long-lost grandson (old George didn’t have any children of his own). Nonetheless, he’s got a great story I’d like to share today.
Twenty-five years ago, Bill Dalton was hired by the folks at Mount Vernon to handcraft 55,000 shingles from reclaimed cypress logs, the same shingles that are still protecting the mansion’s iconic red roof to this day.
Bill and his wife Janet have lived in Lusby for the past 15 years and Bill has a workshop on the property. His company is called Quality Wood Chips, and, no, he doesn’t deliver mulch as people sometimes mistakenly assume. Bill is a historic restoration carpenter. He’s worked on projects from St. Mary’s City to Sotterley, Yorktown to Jamestown, and countless old barns in Southern Maryland.
Bill specializes in custom work, and lately has been making a transition from building timber frames and log cabins to smaller projects so he can spend more time with his wife and three kids. He enjoys getting into the more fanciful projects, like one-of-a-kind cedar chests and unique tables legs made right from tree limbs.
Currently, Bill’s working on a client’s old Chevy pick-up truck, which originally sported a wooden bed. He picked out some beautiful cherry wood for the new truck bed and has been hand-buffing the planks with paste wax so they glisten.
Bill grew up in St. Mary’s County, where his father owned a hardware store in Dameron that was later relocated to St. Inigoes. You could say carpentry runs in his blood.
Back when he was just a tot, everyone pitched in to help when a family member needed a house or barn built. In those days, living on the family farm, if you needed something, you didn’t go to the store and buy it. You made it yourself.
That spirit of making things stayed with Bill, and after returning home from the service, the restoration of historic St. Mary’s City was just getting underway and he begged himself onto the crew.
Not only did Bill find his life’s calling during that first job, he met his wife, too. She was working as an interpreter specializing in hearth cooking and medicinal herbs. He was finishing up the doors and windows on one of the buildings when they met, and the rest is history. They’ve been married nearly 30 years.
During one summer in the 1990s, Bill was performing a demonstration of 18th Century carpentry techniques, which included making shingles by hand. His attention to historical
standards and the quality of his work caught the eye of Mount Vernon’s curator, who just happened to be in the audience. He watched Bill for a while and then asked how he’d like to make historically accurate shingles for Mount Vernon.
A company donated some western red cedar and Bill hired a young man to help him do the job. The pair drove up to Mount Vernon each day and hand split shingles to roof the cupola, which was notoriously leaky.
The Ladies’ Board (Mount Vernon is owned and managed by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and does not take government funds) liked his work on the cupola, and he was asked to handcraft 55,000 shingles to replace the rest of the mansion’s aged roof.
A lot of planning went into this project. Professors from Virginia Tech researched the exact way the shingles should be split to replicate the method used in George Washington’s day, which happens to be radially instead of tangentially for anyone who is wondering. And while the cypress logs for the mansion’s original roof came from Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp, amazingly Bill was able to use wood from the same period for his replica shingles.
In the 18th Century, trees were cut hand cut, and when the logs floated downriver to market, some would get caught up in logjams and get stuck in the muddy river bottom.
One reason cypress was used for roofing shingles was its natural resistance to water, which allowed those logs to be well preserved while stuck in the murky riverbed for 200 years. Such old logs are considered valuable and, when found, are retrieved by divers. When Bill inspected the logs, many of which were still wet upon delivery, some had 30 to 32 growth rings per inch, indicating those trees were 1,000 years old when they were cut down.
It took almost a year and six people working with Bill to make all the shingles. Last year, as a special birthday present, he and his wife were treated to a VIP tour of the mansion and were invited up into the cupola to personally inspect his handiwork. Those shingles are standing the test of time — quality wood chips of the finest grade.
Thomas Reinhart, the director of architecture at Mount Vernon, said, “The mansion roof of 1996 has performed exceptionally. Our roofer believes that the roof has 15 to 20 years of life left, although we, of course, monitor it closely. The hand-split shingles matched Washington’s exact specifications and it looks as though they will have protected the General’s home for at least three decades by the time they are retired.” Which, I think we can take as a resounding endorsement of Bill’s carpentry skills.
Usually cypress shingles are left bare, but Martha Washington had expensive taste, as evidenced by her extensive hat and shoe collection, and having the roof painted red was a symbol of opulence in her day. The shingles are resealed every year or two with a special stain to maintain the red hue of the roof.
And although the movies might lead you to believe that Mount Vernon sits atop secret passageways, Bill said that except for a cistern and crumbling walls, there isn’t anything of much interest in the basement. I’ll take his word for it.
Bill Dalton in the cupola of Mount Vernon in January 2016.