Notes from Windward: #64

The Timber Framing Chair

      Timber framing is an ancient craft that uses beams cut from the center of a tree to build structures which derive their strength from interlocking joints. There is something truly special about hewing a timber from a tree, notching into the beam just so, and then seeing it lifted into place as part of a barn or home.

      Timber framing is both an art and a craft, a discipline which involves the merging of old skills and new tools. It's the melding of natural variation and unyielding geometry. It's fine detail, and larger than life. It's about working alone to create a strong joint, and working together to lift a strong wall.

      Earlier, in discussing the Chair of Mycology, I talked about how disturbing it was to see a truck load of oak going into the fireplace, instead of some more value-added use. There's a similar thing that happens with small quantities of timber trees that need to be removed for construction or forest thinning. All too often, they're just cut up into firewood. How much better for these trees to be hewed into beams and fashioned together into structures that will last a lifetime.

      One of the fascinating aspects of timberframing is that it's like a massive, three-dimensional puzzle. Once the beams have been fashioned, notched and fitted into place, it can all be disassembled, transported and reassembled somewhere else where a little bit of the old ways will serve the needs of the future.

      The Chair would study and teach the in situ processing of trees into beams using tools ranging from primitive techniques such as snap line and broad axe to the more modern tools such as the different types of chainsaw mills and the portable saw mill.

      The Chair would study and teach the design and implementation of the various joints used in timber framing, and then organize a "bee" that re-created the way that communities would come together to raise a timber frame structure.

      To the human eye, Windward is a very tranquil place, but when this land is looked at from the perspective of the trees, this place is a war zone where Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine battle for the supremacy that each enjoys thirty miles east or west of here. In dry years, the pines gain ground against the firs, but in wet years, it's the fir's chance to prosper. Consequently, we have many trees that fall as casualties to this silent war as rainy years yield to dry years and then back again.

      There's only one way for a person to become really good at making the precision joints used in timber framing, and that's to get lots of practice. The problem is that six by ten inch timbers don't come cheap, and it really hurts to turn a good beam into firewood.

      And so we do the opposite by taking a tree that's a casualty of this perpetual forest war, or perhaps just a particularly bad freezing rain storm, a tree that would otherwise wind up as firewood, and making a good beam out of it. That way, if the saw slips or a calculation is off, then . . . well, it was going to be firewood anyway :-)

      But if the eye is sharp and the hand steady, then the result is a structure which will stand the test of time. Something which a craftser can point to with pride and real satisfaction.


For an example of another potential Chair, Click Here

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 64