Gables are the hardest part of a house to stage. So work on them when you can walk on them, instead of having to climb.
I spent many years framing custom homes with a big crew of expensive carpenters, and the pressures of keeping things moving and making payroll taught me to be efficient. Now, I’ve downsized, and my wife and I are enjoying framing houses with no outside help. Getting things done with just two of us working—and saving our aging backs—makes good use of the lessons I’ve learned about fast, efficient framing techniques.
Of course, there are times—like when we’re looking at sixty or so big heavy rafters—when we miss having those young and strong employees! On the other hand, the benefits of working slower and smarter are many: More time for thinking means fewer mistakes are made, less material is wasted, and details are better designed and thought out. If I ever go back to a big crew, it won’t be as a boss!
Almost every house we build here in coastal New England is based on traditional Cape or colonial designs. As such, they all have gable ends that lend themselves to being built flat and stood up. Even gambrels and funky contemporaries are easier to build this way; in fact, sometimes the roof framing details are unclear until I draw them out full-size to build the gables.
I often wonder what the neighbors think as they watch our progress. Several days of sawing and hammering go by with no visible results, and then all of a sudden, the gables rise up and the house takes on its final shape. Sometimes those gables even have trim, paint, windows, and siding, even though there’s just a plywood box under them and no roof between them! One time we built a house where the two gables were perpendicular to each other. After we raised them, people started stopping us on the street to ask what the house was going to look like!
Most houses have standard gable ends that are built and raised from one of the upper floors or the attic, although I’ve occasionally raised story-and-a-half balloon-framed gables from a lower floor.
In a nutshell, I draw a picture of the gable on the subfloor, cut all of the pieces and assemble them, add plywood, housewrap, fly rafters, trim, paint, and whatever else I dare, and then stand them up. The smaller the wall, the more stuff I can put on it. On some houses, the first time the gables ever see a ladder is when the owner puts up his Christmas lights.
Start with a full-scale drawing
Like a boat builder, I like to start out with an accurate, full-size drawing of the gable, with its base exactly in position on the floor. Better yet, I like to start out with identical pictures of each gable. With these drawings, I can design and pattern every component of the walls and roof, often making them in pairs or larger sets. Whoever said that “symmetry is the hobgoblin of little minds” certainly wasn’t a house framer! In addition to accurate framing, I also use these full size drawings to design and finalize trim details. Some would say this is micro-managing framing, but by tweaking the design full-scale, I can avoid awkward rips and flashings, inefficient use of materials, and aesthetic mistakes.
I start out with the big rectangle, usually the whole floor including the walls that flank the gables.
We measure and adjust the rectangle until it is square, equilateral, parallel, and aligned with the exterior walls of the house. Then I bisect the rectangle with a center line, which locates the ridge and the peaks of the gables. If I align everything in the gable walls with this center line, the framing ends up plumb and the roof will be square and symmetrical.
There are various complications that can arise at this point. Quite often, gables built on an attic floor can’t be drawn completely because the sub-floor stops short of the exterior walls. In this case, the long sides of the rectangle become hypothetical, and just represent the line where the bottom plane of the roof rafters would intersect the subfloor. Commonly, the rafter tails need to swing down to a lower level when the wall is raised as well. Flared eaves such as those planned for the house photographed here, or transitions to other lower roofs, can also complicate the picture.
Openings in the floor can also be inconvenient, such as when the gable peak lands in the stairway. I usually take the time to fill in the opening with a couple of cleats and a scrap of subfloor (or if I’m really thinking straight, I remember not to cut out that section). For this project, one gable covered the opening for the stairway, which was our only access to the top floor. We had to keep it open, so we stretched a straightedge across the opening to take measurements.
When the floor is laid out, I start drawing a picture of the gable end, using the plate or kneewall height and the roof pitch to arrive at lines that represent the tops of the gable wall plates. I like to do both gables at once, even if the peaks overlap, which gives me four top plate lines that I can measure. If they’re not exactly the same, I go back, figure out why, and fix it!
Incidentally, these same techniques can be used for those speedy gables we used to build on simpler and less-engineered structures, with flagged studs and no top plates or headers. On those jobs, we just snapped out the same lines, tacked the stock on layout, and cut everything in place. Ah, the good ol’ days.
I continue the lofting process by drawing in the framing details, such as the ridge, posts, window openings, partition posts and nailers, and anything else I’d like to include. I often do all of this work with adjustable blue lines until everything is right, and then snap it out in permanent red. I also snap lines to represent the top edges of the rafters, because I can use these lines later to fine-tune things like dormer and skylight details. For window openings, I use one set of lines to represent the opening width, because these stay visible as I assemble the wall. I don’t bother with any horizontal lines, because cutting trimmers and jacks to length establishes these heights.
The wall frame takes shape
The gable wall starts out with a bottom plate, toenailed along the inside of the baseline as drawn on the floor. I use straight stock and nail it at an angle through its inboard edge, holding it to the line so that the nails bend as the wall is raised, while keeping the plate in position. On any but very small gables, I add several metal straps; I’ve never had a wall start to slide off the building as I raised it, but I’ve often thought about the mess it would make if it happened!
Most gables are large enough that I need several pieces of stock for the bottom plate.
|I splice the plate stock on the center of a common layout point because it gives me a convenient way to lay out my studs.|
I usually take the time to bevel the ends of the bottom to exact dimensions where they intersect with the angled top plates, although holding them back to where they cut off square is perfectly acceptable. I’ve been called bad names for this type of exactitude!
With the bottom plate in position, I measure the key parts of the wall: the top plates, king studs, and ridge post. The ridge sits on top of the ridge post and aligns with the top edges of the rafters. To determine the length of the ridge post, I subtract the height of the ridge from that point and measure down. Because the ridge height (9 1/2 in. in this case) is less than the plumb cut on the end of the rafter, the ridge post extends beyond the gable plates.
Many gables have a center window with a header carrying the ridge post, which isn’t a problem as long as the top of the post ends up where it’s located on the drawing.
|I use a scrap of stock to mark out thicknesses on the floor, and I make sure that any pieces that should be the same length actually are.|
For example, if there is a matched pair of windows equidistant from the centerline, there should also be matching king studs on either side of them. Also, it’s critical that the top plates are identical in length, otherwise the rafters won’t fit properly. I cut and install these key components, carefully making sure that the gable remains on its lines.
Sometimes I use a few temporary toenails or blocks tacked to the floor to keep the top plates and end studs from moving while the wall is assembled, but generally it’s better if everything is cut accurately and stays in place on its own.
Next, I fill in window and door openings, building them from the inside out and from the bottom up, because I usually have all of these parts cut and stacked before I start. Again, I’m careful to keep these openings on their snapped lines, so that they’re plumb when the wall is raised.
After that, I cut the rest of the studs for each side determining their length using a common difference measurement, and nail them in where they fit (see photo, right).
This strategy works well, and a Construction Master calculator, or similar calculator, makes it easy, especially with odd pitches that I can’t do in my head.
Cripples above and below openings can be measured from the nearest common stud, keeping an eye out for bowed stock. Because gable studs don’t carry vertical loads, I cut them a little shy: Making them tight and forcing them to layout risks bowing the outside components of the wall, which can cause all sorts of problems later.
Rafters go on next
After the wall is framed, I make the rafters to go on them. The starting point for the rafter is the top plate length, taken from the drawing on the subfloor, and usually written down when all the measurements were confirmed. For a typical house, I first make one rafter to test fit, and then four more—two for each gable, and one to keep for a pattern for the rest of the roof.
I rip a few blocks to thickness to hold the rafters off the floor and flush with the outside of the wall framing; for example, a 2x rafter on a 2×6 wall needs to sit on 4-in. blocks. I set the rafters in place and nail them through the top plates. I make the rafters exactly as they need to be for the rest of the roof, but then I ease the plumb cut at the ridge to make it easier to set the ridge later. If the rafters are cut with tails and bird’s mouths (the ones on this project weren’t) I also ease the plumb cut on the birds mouths to keep the rafter tails from binding and splitting as the wall is raised.
The last pieces to go in are perimeter blocking for my sheathing, and firestop blocking at the collar tie (or ceiling joist height). These sundry small pieces are much easier to do while the wall is flat on the deck. I snap a chalk line, lay some scrap stock along the line, and cut the pieces right in place.
Sheathing the wall
Generally, the sheathing on the walls below the gable stops somewhere below floor level, so we install the gable wall sheathing hanging over the bottom plate. After the wall is stood up and braced, the sheathing can be nailed off, thus tying the upper and lower walls together across the floor system. This detail is often specified by the engineers, and is preferable to those nasty metal straps that the side wall guys hate so much. I always leave 1/2 in. or so to spare when measuring the overhang. The gap won’t matter, and the floor system and plates are bound to compress as the house settles and loads up with finish materials. I also mark any overhanging plywood, or even install a temporary guard-rail, to keep people from walking out on the overhanging sheathing. It’s a nuisance having to repair the plywood after they crash through it on their way to the ground.
Other than that, the sheathing is installed the same as on any wall—nailed in place with the openings routed out or cut with a saw. Letting the sheathing hang out beyond the rafters and cutting it in place is a real time-saver, especially when compared to ladder or staging work; and reversing the cutoffs to fit similarly shaped areas significantly reduces waste. Just make sure the top edge is cut about 1/4 in. below the top of the rafter, because the rafter will shrink as it dries.
House wrap or not
I’m all for putting on the house wrap while the gable is on the deck and it’s easy: five minutes on the flat, versus a lot longer balancing on staging.
|Most houses get Tyvek®, Typar®, or some other similar product, although the jury seems to be coming back on these materials, and I’ve been seeing a resurgence of old-fashioned felt paper.|
Whichever covering I use, I leave the bottom edge unfastened to accommodate the wrap from the lower walls as well as any flashing that might need to go under it. And because we’re in an area of frequent high winds, I tack some furring strips (or rips) over the loose edge to keep it from blowing off before the siding goes on.
Occasionally, we’ll frame a house where the sidewall contractor wants to do his own house wrap, usually to integrate custom flashings or siding details. In this case, we still install felt paper or Vycor® type splines to protect areas that will be difficult to cover later.
Fly rafters fly
Most of the houses we build have overhangs on their gables, and these are much easier to build while the gables are flat on the deck.
There are many acceptable details for framing them, depending on the designer, the trim design, the amount of overhang, the siding, etc. Minimalist trim involves just a spacer to accommodate siding, and then the fascia. My gable ends most often have a modest overhang of 8 in. to 12 in., which I build with the fly rafters on top of toe-nailed blocks.
Overhangs wider than 12 in. or so should be built as ‘ladders,’ and will need to be braced straight later when the roof sheathing is installed and nailed.
Even wider or more complicated overhangs with lookout supports can be prefabricated and installed before the gable is raised. I put in temporary braces to carry the overhang until the lookouts go in when the rest of the roof is framed. No matter what the trim detail, I back it with a wide strip of felt paper, which protects the walls from any water getting through the trim or blowing up through the siding.
Trim, windows, vents, siding, paint…
There are many options here, and what you install is limited only by what you feel safe lifting! Almost anything you can install will be easier now than later. I almost always install at least the fascia boards and soffits, and if there are frieze boards, I fit and tack them in place to be removed and re-installed by the sidewallers.
On a small, simple house where I can have a single piece of trim go from eave to ridge, I put the stock on long, and cut it later when I trim the eaves. On a larger house, or one with complications such as box returns, I stop the trim with a miter to which I can fit the rest of the trim details from below. I often leave the ends of the boards un-nailed to allow for fine-tuning later. Two other considerations:
I also hold the fascia above the fly rafter to allow for the roof sheathing thickness.
Small attic windows or gable vents are easy to install at this point. But I usually don’t install larger windows, because they are heavy, expensive, and they should be plumbed vertically after they’re installed. Also, big windows don’t take kindly to the racking that can take place while the wall is being lifted. Labor-intensive stuff like bow vents or louvers are a real no-brainer; nobody likes doing that sort of work from ladders or staging. I often add shingles or siding around these features, especially if there is a convenient horizontal detail where I can make the transition from the siding below.
Decorative shingling is also much easier to do with the wall flat. The pattern can be placed, adjusted, tinkered with, and finally nailed. I’ve never yet had a sidewall contractor arrive and complain that some of his shingles were already installed. He usually just asks if next time we can do the dormer cheeks, too, while we’re at it!
I usually add a few details, like the weather conditions and the names of crew on the job. I like finding these little time capsules myself, and I like the thought of sharing them with some future carpenter. Of course, they’ll have no idea that I wrote the note kneeling comfortably on the deck, while he or she will be standing high on a ladder or staging plank! Or maybe levitating in an anti-gravity belt…
Paint used to be more of a concern, and I’ll still paint when I can, but most professional painters these days seem to have bucket lifts. There are houses with gables beyond the reach of a bucket though, and the paint that these gables get before they go up may be the best coat they ever get. In any case, I do keep a can of primer and a brush on hand so that I can seal the cut edges as I install the trim. But that is part of any good trim job, on the deck or in the air.
Raising the gables
Now that we’ve spent a few days making no visible progress, this is the fun part, when the house suddenly starts to take shape. Raising most gables is a pretty simple process, easily done by two people with two wall jacks. When I had a big crew, we often threw them up with sheer muscle power—a measure of macho, bravado, and risk. Now, after twenty years, my wife and I like to do it slowly, safely, and comfortably.
My wall jacks, made by Proctor, can lift about 1,000 lb. Because they are lifting considerably less than half the total weight of the wall, they’re capable of standing walls that might weigh three times that amount.
The other limiting factor of lifting jacks is height: They are designed to lift at an attachment point no more than 11 ft. from the deck. Depending on pitch, this means they can stand a gable with a peak height up to about 16 ft. Much more than that makes the gable too top-heavy to lift safely.
When I got the jacks, they came with a video demonstrating their use, but because I’ve never owned a TV, I had to read the instructions and learn by trial and error. Nowadays, they’d come with a DVD, and I have teenagers who could figure that out for me.
We did once use our jacks to lift a giant set of gambrel gables that were much larger than the capacity of the jacks. We left two temporary openings in the wall at 11 ft. to put the jacks through, and used extra person-power to lift the peak and the ends. Because the gambrel shape concentrates the weight down low , and because we were careful to use temporary safety supports, the process was safe enough. However, it was a massive amount of weight to handle. I was relieved when the were safely standing, and I probably wouldn’t try it again today!
I start the lifting process by selecting attachment points as high on the wall as possible, generally right at 11 ft. I drive a wooden wedge or a pry bar under the top plate to lift the gable, slip the hook underneath, and secure it with a couple of 12d nails, driven partway in and bent over. If you’re careful, it’s okay to fasten the hooks to the rafter instead of to the top plate, as I did on this project, but I prefer not to, as it tends to twist the trim. And besides, fastening to the top plate gives me some extra lifting distance.
I try to land the bases on joists or beams. If that isn’t possible, I set the bases on blocks of wood to spread the load and keep them from punching holes through the subfloor. After the jack is in place, taking the slack out of the cable keeps it standing on its own. I’m very careful to spool the cables neatly on the drums. I loaned the jacks to someone once who destroyed the cables by winding them up with kinks and over-rides.
With both jacks set, and with braces, blocks, and a long level on hand, we slowly and evenly crank the wall up. Generally, I need to secure the center brace before the wall is raised too far to reach it; this is safer than climbing a stepladder with the wall held only by the jacks. Before I step under a large wall to nail a brace, I put several sturdy wooden sawhorses under it so that it won’t flatten me if something lets go.
|Because the brace needs to pivot from 60° to 90° as the wall continues to go up, I nail the brace to the gable with 3 or 4 nails, driven through at different angles, but with their points going through close together.|
This way, the whole assembly can twist without splitting the brace or the stud. I’m also careful to nail the brace to a full-height stud or to the ridge post. A cripple with a brace nailed to it might rip out of the wall if a tailwind gets behind it.
We continue to raise the gable until it’s within a few inches of vertical. The last few inches can be pushed by one of us holding the brace, while the other holds the level (see photo, left).
When it’s plumb, the person holding the brace shoots a few nails through it and into a block nailed to the floor. The jacks stay on for security, as they’ll stop the wall before it goes too far either way. After the center brace is set, I usually add other braces on either side to keep the rakes straight until the roof is sheathed.
We finish up by sledging the plate to the line where needed, nailing it down and nailing off the overhanging sheathing. Now it’s ready for a ridge and rafters, but that’s a whole other story…
• • •
John Spier started in construction thirty-some years ago, working first for a renovation company, and then as a production framer in the southwest. He worked in a variety of jobs and places as an itinerant carpenter, and along the way picked up a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering. John’s wife, Kerri, became a carpenter because it paid her way through college much better than waitressing and bartending. Together they spent most of twenty years building a construction business, before deciding that life should have other priorities, too.
For the past five years, they have spent 7-8 months of each year sailing their boat around the world with their children, on the installment plan. John did the first edit of this article in Maldives. The final edit was done in Oman. In a few more years, the world will be circled, the kids will be off to college, and full-time work will beckon. When that time comes, they hope to focus on smaller, more interesting projects; John perhaps on smaller houses, and Kerri on furniture, art, and musical instruments. Meanwhile, they write the occasional article, to keep their minds alive, and because the keyboard is mightier than the hammer.