Hoping to one day have a hands-on role in building a home of their own, project editor Hannah Fries and her husband picked up an axe, an adze, and other antique hand tools, and devoted a week to learning the art of timber framing.
This year, my husband, Adam, and I decided on a unique vacation: hoping that someday we’d be able to assist in building our own house, we signed up to take a timber framing course at The Heartwood School for the Homebuilding Crafts in Washington, Massachusetts. With hardly a drop of experience, we, along with the rest of our class, dove into the task of cutting and raising a 14 x 10-foot structure that would become a yoga studio for a couple in Canaan, New York.
One of the amazing things about Heartwood is that the instructors who teach there played a significant role in the timber frame revival in the U.S. that began in the 1970s. They learned how to build a timber frame not through classes but by taking apart old barns and buildings and studying the scribing and square-rule techniques that people used hundreds — or, in some parts of the world, thousands — of years ago. One of these instructors is Jack Sobon, who, along with Roger Schroeder, co-authored the Storey classic, Timber Frame Construction.
After only half a day in the classroom, our group of would-be timber framers headed outdoors for demonstrations and hands-on work. When Adam and I got our first timber to work on, we stared at it a while, sharpened our pencils, got our framing squares ready . . . and called for help. Gradually, it became a little (tiny bit) easier as our dusty geometry skills brightened and we got used to using the antique hand tools. Here I am digging into a floor joist with an axe:
Later we carved out curves on either end of the joist with an adze. Here, Adam is smoothing out a curve with a handy little tool called a spoke shave:
Simultaneously, other students worked on other timbers, including the sills in which the floor joists would rest. Before any cuts are made, the timber must be carefully laid out with all measurements and cut lines clearly marked (Heartwood’s t-shirts sport the motto “Measure twice, cut once” for a reason):
At the end of the first day, we assembled the floor of the structure. The metal pegs shown here are temporary and will be replaced by wooden pegs when we assemble the structure on site. A large wooden hammer called the “commander” is used to bang the timbers into place.
As the week went on, we learned to use more tools and cut more complicated joints. Here is someone using a boring machine to hollow out a joint pocket, or mortise. In the background you can see someone using an adze. The person in the foreground is holding a chisel.
The piece that fits into the mortise is called the tenon. Here Adam is using a brace and bit to make a peg hole in a tenon.
The most complicated cut I made was a step lap rafter seat, which has to include perfect 45-degree angles. I was pretty proud of my chisel work.
Finally, on Friday, it came time for the raising. Up, up, and away!