What's your background?

I began as a math teacher. In school, I was involved in the construction industry and carpentry. After teaching for about five years, I realized that I really wanted that hands-on life, and so fine-home construction has been my thing.

What brought you to Montpelier?

That happened based on the need for someone to work with carpentry. The architect thought they needed someone to run a feasibility study who could handle the joinery and be able to put it back without any damage. I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

How long have you been working there?

The feasibility study began in October 2001 and carried on through late 2003. We found a large amount of original fabric nested in post-Madison additions. We began the restoration in January 2004. By September 2008, we opened the house with a grand celebration.

  • John Jeanes
Age: 54
Title: Director of Restoration, Montpelier
FYI: Prior to joining the staff of the national historic landmark, Jeanes worked for several custom home builders in Virginia.

    Credit: Mike Morgan

    John Jeanes Age: 54 Title: Director of Restoration, Montpelier FYI: Prior to joining the staff of the national historic landmark, Jeanes worked for several custom home builders in Virginia.

Given the historical significance of the residence, what kind of oversight did you have to deal with?

I was in charge of assembling the carpentry crews, working with the architects to restore the house to about 1820. I would make sure the carpenters were restoring elements appropriately, following the architectural drawings in a proper fashion. I would also acquire the historic materials. We would generally go with something of a similar species and quality, so that meant salvage materials. Maintaining the budget and the schedule were two other elements of the project.

What differences did you discover about carpentry between the respective eras?

The 1760 flooring is splined—the old growth heart pine materials are grooved on both edges, and the wooden spline is inserted in between them. Everything is face nailed. Then you move to 1797: they moved from the splined flooring to tongue and groove, much as we know it today, yet it's still face nailed. In 1809, it's tongue and groove flooring; however, by that time they are learning to blind nail.

How do those periods compare to today?

They overbuilt timbers in girth, yet the joints are a little less than what you need. If it worked the last time, they do it again. As we study beams, we understand more about tension and compression, so you need less material to have structural integrity. They achieved that integrity in a different way—by overbuilding.

Did you find any differences in the quality of the wood?

The wood is of exceptional quality, but the materials diminish in width as time goes on. Random-width flooring in the 1760s runs from 5½ to 9 inches, but by 1797, the planks aren't quite as wide. In 1809, they're still random width, but they're down to 4 to 6 inches. The quality was very difficult to match because it was very tight-grained, old-growth heart pine.

What kind of tools did you use?

We wanted to have the joinery of the period and match the profiles. If we needed a hand-planed surface, we would take it down to a certain point with modern equipment and leave enough material to achieve an appropriate hand-planed finish. There would have been no way to do this project in the time frame we had if we had been using period tools.

We always hear about Thomas Jefferson's legacy as an architect, but what's your opinion of James Madison as an architect and builder?

Madison depended on Jefferson to give him advice, and you see this constant conversation between the two. Jefferson is trying to get very classical, whereas Madison is creating more of a country manor, so he's tempering the suggestions Jefferson made. Between the two of them they came up with quite a beautiful building.

What's next?

We have some loose ends. We need to have a restroom facility for our visitors.