Building a barn from scratch

A lens into Collins Heavener's industrious nature.

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Few builders know the provenance of every board they build with. Chappaquiddicker Collins Heavener does because he milled each one from Island trees and used them to build a timber frame barn at Slip Away Farm. The barn will house his furniture business, Marshall Farm Wood-Works.

The idea for a barn goes back seven years, to when Collins moved to Chappy to help Lily Walter establish Slip Away Farm on the former Marshall Farm conservation property, owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank and the Vineyard Trust. The land had an old farmhouse that was renovated by the Trust, but the farm needed a barn. For years, Slip Away tried to figure out how to build one, but it was too big an undertaking for the small business. They made do with an open wash area and storage in the farmhouse basement, where Collins had started building furniture. Soon the basement was getting too small for his wood, tools, equipment, and large pieces he began building. Plus, the farm was growing and needed more storage space.

So three years ago, Collins decided to take the barn project on as part of his business. “I thought, I’ll just make it,” Collins said. “It’s how I do projects — dive in headfirst.” He bought a portable sawmill with his neighbor Zach Pinerio of Chappaquiddick Wood Company, and started collecting trees.

Using Island trees Collins cut and milled himself would save money. He likes working for himself and wanted to take the time to create the barn from scratch. “I wouldn’t have enjoyed stick framing it,” he said, referring to typical construction with lumber yard wood. Frugality was one motivation, but there was also his feeling of connection to the island and the old ways of doing things. “It was built like a barn would have been built a few hundred years ago, only using what’s available,” he said. “In old houses, you see a bunch of different species of wood.” Most of the framing is pitch pine, but there are nine different tree species used in the barn, including Island oak, pine, red maple, and spruce.

Collins had worked on a timber frame structure before, but never cut and put one up himself. He figured out how he wanted the barn to look, and then Evan Taubes, a Vermont friend who owns the custom timber frame company Scratch Builders, designed the framing skeleton. When enough trees were milled, Collins dug footings, poured concrete piers, and framed a floor deck in preparation to raise the barn walls. Collins’ friend, Myles Shorey, was often at the farm helping him, and together they cut and assembled the four wall trusses. The first two were raised by Chappy’s Erik Gilley with his lull, which is a combination tractor and forklift. And last November, about 15 people came to lift the remaining wall trusses, hefting them up while cross pieces were fit into place. It was a true old-fashioned barn raising with food and celebration to follow. With the frame mostly up, more trees were milled for the roof timbers, and boards to cover walls and the roof. 

Collins didn’t make the shingles, but he did construct frames for the window sashes he’d bought — a total of eight windows — some fixed and some that swing open. The two big double doors, windows, and barn trim were constructed from old cedar telephone poles that Collins lucked into — they were piled in an Oak Bluffs backyard after being taken down. He milled them into different widths and depths — he liked the way the mixed non-dimensional boards looked compared to standard milled wood. 

The long door hinges are second-hand. One set was a gift from Chappy ferry captain Tom Mello, and one set was scavenged from a Chappy shed demolished in a practice burn. Not counting the mill, Collins spent less than $20,000 on the barn, which he says would have cost $30,000 for the frame alone.

“It feels really great to be in there,” Collins said. “It feels like it will further the creativity in building furniture.” 

Collins mostly builds by commission and works with his clients to design beds, dining tables, benches, desks, and stools among other pieces. He likes studying the history of furniture and joinery, and recently finished a piece he designed, with some help from Hutker Architects, using elements of a Tansu chest, a traditional Japanese mobile storage cabinet. The piece took him over 320 hours.

Collins says he likes to be alone, and in his business, he works alone. But he’s also a community-minded man who’s learned the roads and Island families since moving to Chappy in 2012. “It gives me a sense of place,” Collins said. He’s also a Chappy firefighter.

Collins grew up in Vermont, majoring in Building Materials and Wood Technology at UMass Amherst. He completed an apprenticeship, but mostly learned furniture making on his own — coming into it from the perspective of how the materials work. Collins arrived on the Vineyard in 2011 to work at Morning Glory Farm. The next September, he moved to Chappy with Slip Away Farm.

Although Collins works less in the Slip Away fields now, he takes care of the property, including the farm equipment and infrastructure. He recently helped construct a new covered wash station near the farm stand, which is located in the former Chappy one-room schoolhouse. Collins is also co-manager of the West Tisbury Farmers Market, a volunteer job, and sells Slip Away produce there. He says he feels blessed with the chance to farm.

Two years ago, Collins and Lily Walter signed a 10 year lease on the property. Being conscious of the fact that it is not his, Collins said, “I built the barn with pegs so I can knock it down and take it elsewhere if I need to.” But he also believes the property is best served if it’s treated and cared for like his own.

The barn got its first use on August 10 when it was transformed to a lit up dance hall for Collins and Lucy Leopold’s wedding. It was illuminated and vibrating with friends and family of all ages . Collins constructed all the tables for his 175 guests, as well as the serving tables and bars. There was much mention of Collins’ industrious nature during wedding toasts, as well as Lucy’s influence on his learning to relax at the end of the day. 

“Building is my hobby as well as my work,” Collins said. “I don’t watch TV or play sports. I just like building stuff.” 

For more information on Marshall Farm Wood-Works, visit marshallfarmwoodworks.com.

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