The cerebral, and lucrative, world of heritage carpentry in Charlottetown


It took four years of labour and the skills and care of many craftspeople. You’d probably never notice, but that’s the point.

The three sets of black wooden doors at the front of St. Dunstan’s Cathedral are the same ones which were installed when the church was built over a hundred years ago.

Holland College students were enlisted to repair the doors a few years back. Recently, they put the finishing touches on the final set.

“We kind of slowly started taking the door apart piece by piece … It wasn’t just putting pieces apart and throwing them out. Even if we weren’t going to use them again, we still labeled them to make sure we knew where they came from,” said Heather Harris, who worked on the last door.

“We measured everything so that the new pieces we put in are going to match up with, say, the width or the thickness of the door. And then basically the pieces that we were going to be replacing, we kind of started from scratch with rough sawn oak, and mill that and cut it and worked on the joints.”

Instructor Josh Silver and some Holland College students working on one of the St. Dunstan’s doors. (Submitted by Heather Harris)

Harris is training to become a heritage retrofit carpenter, specializing in the traditional and modern skills necessary to restore and repair old structures, some of which could be hundreds of years old.

“What we try to do is replace in kind,” said Josh Silver, Harris’s instructor and the lead learning manager of the college’s heritage carpentry retrofit program. The program is one of only three in the country dedicated to that specialized trade.

“[That] means if something is irrepairable, we would have to make every effort to replace it exactly the way it was with a host of techniques and skills. Or ideally, we can conserve it.”

You take your time and make sure you’re doing a really thorough job versus just rushing through.— Heather Harris

The students are trained on things such as using old-fashioned tools such as the end product looks as similar as the original as possible. 

They have helped do restoration work all across Charlottetown, which Silver said has the highest number of heritage buildings per capita in Canada. 

Most notably, some former and current students were brought in for the restoration of Province House, a project which Silver said involved lots of research before any of the real work began.

“It’s no longer the traditional carpentry where how much can you lift and, and how tough you are, and all that,” he said. “It’s a lot of brainpower, they are using their brains more than their back and making sure we do the right thing.”

The nitty-gritty

Paul Coles has been working in heritage buildings since he bought one such home in Charlottetown three decades ago. His work has earned him eight heritage awards from the city.

Coles often takes some Holland College students through some of the projects he’s working on. He said the work usually starts outside the home set to be restored.

“You might work on [a building] from the early 1800s, and the next one is early 1900s. And there’s different tech, building construction techniques and different trim details and styles that you have to have a well-versed knowledge of,” he said.

“[I worked on what] happened to be a William Critchlow Harris property, who was a well-respected Maritime architect. We had a picture taken in the house in 1993 to look at. But so we could see some of the details, I had to go to find a list of William Critchlow Harris properties that he had designed, which is available in a book, and tour around those properties.”

Sometimes the work can be like a freeform puzzle. One of the buildings Coles worked on had asbestos siding applied to it in the 60s, so all its details had been removed.

“You had to analyze paint lines that showed you where trim details used to exist on moldings around windows, and that was very exciting. You have to look for the evidence that exists … you just have to be able to be patient and look for it and not just be quick and throw everything in the dumpster,” he said.

“Even the demolition process, although it’s quite dirty, you’re always thinking of how am I going to put this back together.”

‘Endless amount of work’

Coles said having that sort of knowledge can be pretty lucrative because there aren’t a lot of people who have the required skills. 

“There’s people moving into the area who are willing to spend money to get these buildings back to what they would have been style-wise and architecture-wise, when they were built. And most people don’t want to do this kind of work,” he said.

Silver said heritage homes need a little extra care “because they’re just that much older. So there’s a seemingly endless amount of work that needs to be done.

“The homeowner can’t just run to a box store and buy a new bracket. There’s no such thing. They were custom made originally and they have to be custom made now. So we look at how to build those, how to reproduce them faithfully.”

Work to make heritage houses more energy efficient is in big demand, Silver said, particularly as prices for heating oil continue to climb.

For Harris, the big appeal is to be able to turn something which has fallen somewhat into disrepair into something that’s once again beautiful.

“I’d never lived in an old house or anything. But more recently, I started seeing, mainly on the Internet, accounts of people who are working on restoring houses that were really rundown and kind of bringing them back to their former glory. And that just got me really interested in it,” she said. 

“It’s really detail-oriented, which I like. You have to pay attention to a lot of different things. And it’s also a little … slow in a way, which is good. Like, you take your time and make sure you’re doing a really thorough job versus just rushing through.”



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