Built with native wood and held together without nails, a timber frame structure keeps no secrets.
Honesty is a trait we associate with humans, and I’d never thought of using it in reference to a building until I heard Will Beemer, author of Learn to Timber Frame, use it to talk about timber-frame construction. Timber framing is the craft of building with solid timbers (greater than 5 x 5 inches in section) that are joined together with traditional wooden joinery, a type of post-and-beam construction. “Picture the barn raising in the movie Witness,” says Will.
He got me thinking: what is it about a timber frame that might make it honest? Since my own home is graced with a timber-framed addition designed and crafted by another master framer and Storey author, Jack Sobon, this description resonates with me. First, ideally, timber framing uses native lumber, whatever species of tree are found on or near the property where the building is being constructed. So the wood itself tells a true story about the place where this building lives. For my house, the timbers came from Jack’s land, just up the road from where we live in western Massachusetts — a combination of birch, maple, oak, and pine. He selected trees with forked branches, all of which are exposed in the interior. He hewed each of the posts by hand, leaving bits of bark on each one, retaining some of the identifying features of the species and character of each tree.
Second, timber framing uses wood that’s green, not dried (as most standard lumber is today). Once the building is constructed, the wood dries and changes shape, cracking and even warping. Since the timbers are exposed, they, too, tell a truth: cracking, shrinking, and warping are part of aging, the marks of the passage of time. Another identifying feature of timber-frame construction is the use of mortise-and-tenon joinery with wooden pins to make the connections between timbers. There is no material other than wood holding the pieces together and no hidden nails. This is a challenge to the builder; you could even say it keeps the builder honest, as the pieces (crafted in the workshop) must fit neatly into each other when assembled on site — there’s no room for fudging.
Finally, there’s the raising of the structure. I remember the day our addition was assembled, with five workers assisting Jack. While one person can prepare the timbers him- or herself, erecting the structure requires a community. There’s an honest truth in that fact, too: each of us can do many things on our own, but ultimately, we need community support to accomplish bigger actions.
In the epilogue to his book, Will Beemer sums up his philosophy (and that of his building school, The Heartwood School for the Homebuilding Crafts), by saying “We wish to empower our hands, to train our eyes for quality and beauty in the design of things, and to explore the ways we might live in a more honest relationship with our planet … and claim back our right to build places that express our care for the life that will happen within them.”
Sitting in my house and looking up at the timbers, the honesty of the timber frame evokes gratitude and a sense of connection within me. It’s the hands of humans, working in partnership with nature, that shelters us. It’s goodwill and honest relationships with each other that bring beauty and specificity into our lives.