John Ebersole’s workshop, deep in the countryside of Christiana, smells of wood warmed by late-morning winter sunlight.
It’s not a large space. Three visitors, plus Ebersole, are enough to make it a cozy fit, scuffing around in a fine layer of wood dust left over from previous projects.
The workshop is filled with the well-organized clutter familiar to many woodworkers: Half-finished window frames are stacked upright against the far wall; boards ready to be reconfigured into useful objects lie stacked on a worktable.
And Ebersole, his hands strong from decades of building barns in the Amish tradition, knows exactly the location of every tool needed, every piece cut, for his most recent projects.
For decades, Ebersole was in the business of building timber-frame barns. Central Pennsylvania is full of sturdy, solid construction built by him and his crew. They would cut out all the pieces and then travel to Virginia and Maryland, too, as well as Wayne County, Indiana, to raise their barns. But Ebersole, who started building barns in 1963, turned 81 last year. He says his barn-raising days are behind him — almost.
Instead, these days, inside this workshop on his son’s property, Ebersole is crafting barns of a different type: airy model barns, using the same kinds of joinery employed on his real construction. They’re barns with everything extraneous stripped away, the outer layers absent so that the barns’ skeletons are completely exposed.
“I just think they’re exquisite,” says Richard Humphreys. Best known as the owner (and resident “gnome”) at Gnome Countryside in Colerain Township, Humphreys has known Ebersole for years and is a longtime admirer of his work. It was Ebersole who years ago combined two old buildings — including a log home more than 200 years old — into one to serve as Humphreys’ house. It also was Ebersole who built Humphreys’ current home after that log house was destroyed in a 2014 fire.
The legacy of Ebersole’s career can be seen on just about any drive through the Lancaster and York countrysides.
A member of the Amish community, Ebersole has been in charge of designing and constructing hundreds of timber-framed barns and other buildings. It’s an exacting craft. Massive beams must be precisely measured so they can act as support for each other and for walls, upper floors and a roof.
“When I first started building, my uncle, he was a retired carpenter ... he taught me a lot of things,” Ebersole says, “and I appreciated that. He said, ‘Now, you keep a diary of all this work,’ and I did not do that. Now, sometimes, I wish I did.”
A model craft
The construction process doesn’t completely change when building a model, Ebersole says. “If you’re off by a sixteenth of an inch up or down” when building a model, he says, “that really shows in a small scale like this.”
The similarity doesn’t end there. Ebersole raises his model barns in the same way real-world barns are constructed. The model barn’s timbers are sized and the joinery cut according to the plans. Each section, or “bent,” then is laid out and assembled horizontally, each joint fitted to the next, before being lifted to vertical and fitted to the bents already in place.
“First, I lay out all these posts, mark where the holes need to be (for peg connectors), drill and then start assembling,” Ebersole says.
Main post, floor braces, nail tiles, a purline, the purline posts ... “piece by piece, I get it together,” he says.
What does change, though, are some of the materials Ebersole uses.
His model barns are made of white pine, but he points out an ingenious use of some other wood pieces incorporated into the structure. Pegs used to join the model together? “They’re little round toothpicks,” he says, shaking a supply from their box into his palm. “I cut them in half.”
The ladder rungs stretching up from the ground level into the loft? “Matchsticks,” he says.
It takes the craftsman about two weeks to create one of his barn models, he says, working along for several hours every day. “For me, it’s something to do,” he says. “It’s so much fun. I didn’t just want to sit on the rocking chair, so I’m playing with this.”