Saturday, September 22, 2018

Timber Frames: An Unfulfilled Dream by Antonio SolisGomez

As a young man I became interested in working with wood, an interest that was an easy enough transition from time spent helping my carpenter stepfather. However my interest was now in building furniture, although as a home owner, I also had to tackle basic carpentry projects. My new interest utilized some of the same basic carpentry tools which I had, but eventually I had to purchase a table saw, a band saw, chisels, jigs for drilling accurate holes, rasps, glues and small hands saws for cutting dovetail joints.

I build a few pieces for home use, a desk for my daughter, a chest of drawers, a hutch, a queen size bed and a meditation chair. The magazine Fine Woodworking was a favorite during that early time of learning, reading in depth articles on the finer points of building furniture, including tools, projects and technique enhancement. It was here that I first read about Timber Frame construction and I was reminded of the Episcopalian Church of the Epiphany in Lincoln Heights, whose construction I had long admired, that was build as a Timber Frame, its beautiful interior a testament to great craftsmanship.

Notice that log homes are entirely different from Timber frames, in the former the logs are simply laid down one atop the other, the wall are thus solid except for the window and door openings. In timber frames there are large open spans between the timbers (bays) that support the roof. These open spaces in the walls are filled with brick, plaster or rock or the more traditional wattle and daub, a lattice made of wood covered with a combination of mud, clay, straw and dung.


Far back in history wood buildings and homes were constructed with massive timbers joined together using intricate joinery and pegs. Archaeological sites in Europe, Asia and the Middle East from as early as 200 BC have been found that show buildings constructed in this way. Much of the land was forested in those areas and therefore it was logical for people to utilize wood as a building material. However trees were held in reverence and there wasn’t the wanton destruction of forests that took place in this country. Most of the countries in Europe have a architectural history
of Timber Frames buildings, the one outstanding example that
doesn't is Russia, where log homes were more of the norm.
Shambles Street in the City of york

When Europeans arrived in North America they brought over Timber Frame construction to build their homes and barns, the process a community affair as it took many hands to accomplish the task. What was eventually lost however was the reverence for the forest from whence the timbers grew. North American forests that had been growing for hundreds of years began to be cut down on a massive scale both to clear the land for farming and for dimensional lumber such as 2x4’s that began to be used in the late 1800’s in the construction industry.

Drawing on left depicts use of the broad ax used to square a log. On the right a barn raising

Timber frames required trees of a manageable size. Builders didn’t go looking for the tallest, biggest trees. They left the old growth forest alone, intact, for future generations to enjoy. But lumberjacks in North America did just the opposite. They looked for and cut down the largest tress that they could find and let the lumber mill cut it down to the required sizes. What a difference in values and attitudes.

It is difficult to have a spiritual connection with a 2x4 not so difficult when one is dealing with a whole tree that has to be hewn square by hand, notched and lifted into place to be joined with another large timber. And the fact that one can see the timbers in a completed building, provides an aesthetic experience not possible with dimensional lumber hidden behind plaster walls.

Throughout the world there is renewed interest in timber frame home construction and a wave of skilled craftsmanship has emerged. This renewed interest in timber frames has necessarily brought about the need for the tools that have been employed in this type of buildings. Thus we have been re-introduced to the broad ax, the slick, the adze, the auger, the corner chisel, and larger chisels. Naturally new techniques, tools and materials have also come forth, the most notable being the Structural Insulated Panels(SIPS) used to fill in the bays, the large openings in the wall space between the timbers supporting the ceiling. SIPS are also used to cover the roof so that the roof beams are exposed on the inside.

Hatchet, blue adze without its handle, slick without handle, chisels, broad ax standing, Japanese saw handle not visible

My interest in timber frames was a natural transition from having practiced wood working for a number of years, joining wood and making furniture. They call it joinery because more often than not when making furniture one has to join one or more pieces together in order to get the width that one needs for a project, as most lumber doesn’t come in widths greater than 12 inches.
Lap joint with wooden pins

I became more interested in timber frames when I bought some property in rural New Mexico, adjacent to the Gila National Forest. Forest rangers are always felling trees to thin out the forest and I could buy one designated for thinning for $10, however I would have to cut it down and haul it out, a task that I was not equipped to handle from areas with no roads that would require a team of horses.

Cruck of a tree, naturally bent
My brothers Tito and Raul helping me build a shed in New Mexico using local timbers
There are two trends that are leading the renewed interest in craftsmanship in different areas of modern life. One is that fact that we are living longer and have more time to explore our interests that often lead to the craftsmanship that is involved, be it in automobile restoration, gardening, home construction, building furniture or in one of the many art mediums, etc. The other trend is the loss of employment opportunities due to greater efficiency and or to automation. There is simply not going to be enough places to work. Although this same argument was made at the advent of the industrial revolution, it was then merely a theoretical supposition. Today there is an abundance of evidence that this is happening already.

My desire to build a timber frame in New Mexico was never fulfilled because of the remoteness of the property and my decline in ganas to accomplish such a daunting task. Perhaps in a next life.

No comments: