For a number of reasons, in the past few months I’ve been pulled into thinking again about historical timber frame construction and the evolution to light wood framing in the 19th century. It’s an incredibly interesting topic in any event, but even more so as our contemporary wood building systems continue to evolve—now, as they did 200 years ago—continually responding to changes in technology, economics and cultural expectations. Building history seems to be in the air. I have recently accepted speaking engagements at the Weare, New Hampshire Public Library in May and another for the Monadnock Center for History and Culture in July. Both will be talks about timber frame building, past and present, and the sponsors have an interest in referencing the historical timber framing in their towns. With these engagements coming up, I’ve been doing some research about the history of a few towns in this part of New Hampshire, particularly Weare and Peterborough. Staying with the history theme, we are also currently working on a timberframe project that requires the use of reclaimed hand-hewn timbers. We are purchasing these timbers from salvage contractors who dismantle old, out-of-use barns that are often a tax and maintenance liability for the owners. This is a rather sad story, as America is quickly losing one of the most beautiful and enduring parts of our architectural heritage. Yet without programs to support the costs borne by the property owners, the demise of barns will continue. We wish we could save them all, but a second best alternative is to try to save the timbers when we can, and this project will do that well, and celebrate their rugged hand made beauty in a building that should stand for another few hundred years.
The timing of that project turned out to be serendipity when the producers of a new TV show called to ask if I could help narrate a short segment with them to give a little insight about traditional timber frame building methods. I agreed to do it, knowing that the authentic hand-hewn timbers we had on hand would make it easy to explain the fundamentals of the traditional process using the visible hand-tooling evidence as the best explanation of the work involved. The timbers we used to describe early timber framing in the short film segment are remarkable. They’re mostly white oak and chestnut, with sizes up to 14” x 14” and up to 40’ long. To understand the task, you have to understand that each of the timbers was a tree growing in a primeval forest we can’t imagine today, and every one of them was worked with both skills and toil most of us can’t fathom. Wresting timbers from trees was accomplished, as many things were back then, “by dint of severe effort.” Looking at these timbers now, you can know a lot of truth about the men who labored over them 200 years ago. The marks of their axe, adze, scribe, chisel and handsaw are right there, as if made yesterday, and they reveal patience, perseverance and pride. It’s quite a story.
But that work only resulted in a timber frame. For this kind of structure, it was still necessary to have boards for sheathing, cladding, flooring and various millwork. As towns were sprouting up in the expanding new world in the 18th century, it was usually just too much effort for most people to make all of those materials by hand. The traditional method for making boards was to use a two-man saw over a pit, with one person on top the log and another below, making up and down strokes through the log length. That work was brutal, even by the work standards then. Therefore, as soon as watermills became possible, they almost simultaneously became a requirement of colonization. The agreement to establish a settlement in Weare, NH was based on the condition that a mill would be in place. That took a few years, and therefore, “House construction in the early settlement was primitive. Logs were used to build houses, and were hewn flat for flooring, ” according to the town history. By this method, they nearly eliminated the need for boards and the massive amount of handwork needed to make them.
When sawmills were finally in place, timber frame buildings became more common in Weare, but nails were scarce and precious, so most of the boards were attached with wooden pins instead. The sawmills solved one big problem, but another remained. It must have been frustrating to be in the midst of a limitless forest resource, but still many man years of work away from turning that raw material into the kinds of buildings they ultimately intended. The buildings we know, use and revere today were the dream of every family, but most early settlers never achieved the dream, and lived instead in crude log houses, or worse. In the Peterborough, NH town history written in 1876, the typical homes of the mid 18th century were described this way:
They were open, cold, and uncomfortable, and it required much hardihood to endure the exposure to which all were subjected in abodes so imperfectly constructed. We can hardly imagine how they could live in such houses, and carry on so much work besides the regular household duties; but they had made up their minds to receive everything in the best spirit, in hopes of better and more prosperous times to come, and thereby they made of their hovels, of their wretched cabins, and half-built houses, homes consecrated to religion, and to all the social and moral virtues.
I like the word “hardihood.” Along with “dint of severe effort,” it kind of says it all. Theirs was a struggle to get out of the hovels and into real homes, and live in civilized villages, and ultimately they did, but it was accomplished the truly old fashioned way. For all these reasons, easier was better because it improved the quality of life sooner. Sawmills became more efficient as the mechanical equipment improved, making it much more practical to saw the timbers from the logs as well as the boards. At the same time, manufactured cut nails replaced hand-forged nails, and even later wire nails replaced cut nails. With these advancements, timber frame building evolved to use more sawn lumber, and then sawn lumber parts became smaller, and the connections were made with thousands of nails instead of a few hundred timberframe joints.
Coincidentally, on a bike ride the other day, I happened by a building in the process of being razed and stripped to its structural bones, revealing nearly the whole of the evolutionary history between early timberframing and the light wood framing that eventually completely displaced it. I learned that original building was built in the mid 19th century, possibly before the Civil War. The older part was built with some typical timber frame methods, but most of the timbers were sawn, with tell-tale up-and-down strokes visible. Interestingly though, there are also quite a few hand hewn timbers in the frame that clearly came from an earlier structure with “ghost” mortises and notches suggesting their previous frame position. Clearly, they eschewed hand-hewing as soon as possible, but they still were frugal and respectful enough to reuse the timbers with so much labor invested in them by earlier generations of builders. And you just have to wonder: just how old ARE those timbers?
he other story in the older part of the building is the number of sawn studs, rafters and joists of smaller 2x dimension that are interacting with the old timberframe. You can almost see these builders getting comfortable with light wood framing replacing heavy timber framing, just step by step.
When they built the larger section of the home a few years later, they took giant leaps toward balloon framing, but still could not quite give up the use of a few timbers. The front wall is like a classic balloon frame with small, vertical studs going from sill to eave plate uninterrupted. But there was still a timber post and girts at the corners and mid-wall to carry the floor joist loads, and maintain the heavy timber asset. However, there’s no diagonal bracing, leaving the vestiges of the classic timber frame to be very minimal. And if the front wall shows the balloon frame that would soon dominate, the gable end wall is more like platform framing that is ubiquitous today. So there it is: one building, and a 1ooo year wooden frame building history.
Some say balloon framing (light framing) was invented by George Washington Snow in 1832. (From Keene, NH, right next door, by the way.) Some say it was Augustine Taylor in 1833. Some credit others. But I’m with those who say it just evolved, pulled by sawmill efficiency, nail innovation, and a tremendous need for good quality homes to be built with less skill and labor in the growing and expanding country. Thomas Friedman said, “Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.” Big breakthroughs have happened again, including our ability to bring timberframing back with new capabilities and needs, and an ever-evolving, wood-centered construction method that’s getting ever more durable, energy efficient and adaptable.