Timber framing – A rediscovered technique for building a home

Timber framing is a  particular style of building in which heavy timber frames form the structure rather than more smaller dimensional lumber. The method comes from creating things from tree trunks without today’s high-tech saws. Using drawknives, adzes, and broad axes, craftsmen were able to shape tree trunks into posts and beams with rectangular form and later construct a frame that could support the building without losing too much interior space to vertical support posts.

The skill of creating these timber frames and the precise joinery involved was a source of pride and competition among craftsmen. Many of them used to write their initials next to the joinery they created.

Illustration of timber framing from the Lexikon der gesamten Technik (1904)

One of the defining characteristics of timber framing is its unique type of joinery. Heavy timber is joined together by mortises and tenons (like in furniture, just larger) held in place by wooden pegs.

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A significant number of styles have developed through the years because it has been used for a long period of time all around the world. The different styles are usually classified by the type of foundation, walls, the usage of curved timber or the roof framing design.

Timber framing has been popular in regions where climate conditions favored hardwood trees. Half-timbered constructions are found in Denmark, Germany, France, England and Switzerland where the quantity of wood was considerable. Stone and the necessary skills to dress the stonework, on the other hand, were in short supply.

Techniques that we now label as timber framing were first used by the Romans. Numerous examples of timber framing have been discovered at Pompeii but it seems like the technique was more favored at Herculaneum, an ancient roman town located near Mount Vesuvius. It was destroyed by volcanic eruption in AD 79. It is the home of The House of Opus Craticium which is believed to be one of the oldest examples of timber framing construction still standing.

The balcony of The house of Opus Craticium Photo credit

In Asia many temples are timber-framed structures and they have endured for centuries. The Jokhang is a Buddhist temple in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. The temple’s oldest part was built in the 7th century. It is a combination of several different building styles, depending on the cultural influences at the time new sections were added.

Jokhang temple courtyard, 2013 Photo credit

By the Middle Ages, timber-framing was at it’s peak with the construction of marvelous structures such as the hammer-bend roof of Westminster hall, built in late 14th century. There are many buildings around Europe such as castles, manors, and homes that date back hundreds of years. Timber framing was common for buildings constructed in the 19th century and earlier.

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The Ancient High House in Stafford is a great example of a timber frame structure. It was built in 1594, from oak, and it’s the largest timber-framed town house in England. Some of the timber used in the house has additional joinery, which shows that they have been reused from a previous structure. It is also possible that the building had been dismantled and then re-assembled at a different location.

Westminster Hall in the early 19th century

 

Ancient High House, Stafford

Germany has probably the largest number of half-timbered houses in the world. There are towns which escaped war damage and modernization that consist partially or completely of half-timbered houses. The German Timber-Framed Road is a tourist route, more than 1200 miles long, that connects several German towns with incredible examples of the style.

Town hall and Marketplace, Wernigerode, Germany Photo credit

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The Spitzhäuschen, a very narrow timber frame house in Bernkastel on the river Moselle, built in 1417

In France, the traditional home of the Alsatian region consists mostly of houses with walls in timber framing. However, due to the fact that half-timbering was increasing the risk of fire, it began to be rendered in the 19th century. The region’s authorities gave grants to the locals to paint the rendering in various colors in order to maintain the look of the original style.

Colmar’s old town, Alsace, France Photo credit

 

A look of the interior of a modern post and beam home. Note the hand hewn timbers and joinery that characterize timber frame buildings Photo credit

T the beginning of the 19th century, mass-produced nails and board allowed cheaper and faster construction. Timber-framing was much more time-consuming and began to fall out of favor.

However, in Canada and the United States, timber-frame construction has been revived since the energy crisis in the 1970s. Thanks to several practitioners, a rediscovered technique has been given new life and passed on to others.