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Diary from a Timber Frame Workshop

from Timber Frame Homes Magazine, Summer 1997

You've decided on a timber frame as the basis for your home's structure. But what do you know about timber framing beyond its providing you a home with wide-open spaces, towering ceilings and graceful posts and beams? Do you know how the beams are hewn? Or how joinery is cut? How the frame is raised? Or even what types of tools are used? Do you secretly want to know more than what you've read in your producer's brochure or plansbook? Well, if you do, you're not alone. Each year, many people learn about the construction of their frames through timber frame classes and workshops. Workshops are a great way for you to get hands-on experience building a timber frame from scratch. Whether you plan to help in your frame's construction, supervise the job site or just stand on the sidelines and watch, attending a workshop will give you a greater appreciation of this aged craft.

Classes range from one- to three-day seminars to night classes for commuters to week-long workshops. One-day classes tend to focus on giving students a firm knowledge of the basics of timber framing. Classes that last three days or more usually culminate in the raising of a small timber frame.

The experience level of the participants varies from inexperienced enthusiasts to those who have tinkered in woodworking to advanced carpenters. Make sure you choose a class that fits your level of interest and expertise. Most schools try to limit their class size to 15 to 20 individuals, or fewer; in order to keep the student-teacher ratio as low as possible. Don't worry about not having the right tools. Most schools provide all the tools you'll need to take the class. If the school doesn't, they will provide you with a materials list when you register.

The cost of attending a timber frame class or workshop varies from no charge to several hundred dollars for a weeklong, or longer, workshop. Lodging, meals and materials are usually included in the tuition fee, but check individual programs for details. Interested in finding out more about timber fame workshops? We asked Duane Gauger, who attended the Heartwood School, to keep a diary of his experience during the school's weeklong basic timber frame workshop last summer. Here's what he reported back to us.

Monday. I learned a lot today by watching and doing. I guess I can really do this work. Dave Carlon, our instructor, demonstrated cutting a post. He cut the 7-by-7-inch timber with the confidence and ease that I have when cutting 3/4 of an inch stock. The massive timbers have their own grace and magic. It takes a leap of faith to believe they will really go together to form a house. There is a special harmony in seeing all the posts and beams laid out next to each other. I'm looking forward to seeing them joined together.

Tuesday. I cut a lot of timbers today. I'm beginning to cut the tenons much quicker. I can start to see how the frame will go together to create a house. I still have a lot of incomplete pictures in my mind, though. Maybe when I see the site it'll get clearer.

Whew, I'm beat! All this physical labor is a lot different than sitting behind a desk. I keep vacillating between thinking: I can and I can't do this. There is so much to learn.

Wednesday. I cut a post and finished a connecting girt today. Both ends of the girt had to be reduced. One end had nasty knots. But using the adze, a spoke shave and a scraper, I finished it to a beautiful, smooth finish. I also started to lay out and cut the 10-by-12 inch plates. I'm getting used to working in large scale. I'm making progress in understanding this frame and the drawings. I'm also cutting the joints quicker.

Thursday. I worked on cutting the plates and the purlin plate. Both are huge timbers. Then, I laid out and cut a rafter. I can't visualize how the rafters' layout works. It seems that any question I have on the rafters can be explained with 6/12... the pitch of the roof. Perhaps as we assemble the frame it'll become clearer.

Today was a long day. I cut for 11 hours. But tomorrow we finish the cutting and raise the frame. I am really looking forward to Friday.

Friday. We began the day cutting the rafters and the mortises for the plate and the purlin plate. I did the rafter layout for the plate by mapping each rafter to its correct position.

There was a great sense of teamwork as we all worked hard to finish the cutting, planing and loading of the truck. We went to the site and began erecting the frame. We put the frame together in four bents. We raised one bent at a time, then backed the bent off vertically to put in the connecting girls and braces. I can now see how each of the pieces I cut fit into the completed frame. It's a neat feeling.

We then tackled the purlin plates, the heaviest pieces. We all strained together to lift and drop them into place. It was great to see those massive beams seated on top of their posts. Finally, the rafters were hoisted and placed into their mapped locations. I drove in the pegs at the ridge joints. The frame was complete and looked spectacular!

Looking back. The school was great! The instructors were very knowledgeable, well-organized and patient.

I enjoyed using all the tools, but my chisel was my favorite. I am still amazed how well the same chisel worked to split a six-inch chunk of wood from a tenon as well as shave 1/16 of an inch from the shoulder of a housing.

Measurements are critical. Even 1/8 of an inch extra on a housing would stop the frame from coming together. Timber framing takes skill, wisdom and hard work to cut a good frame. But the result is a beautiful, functional use of wood that adds harmony and security to a home.

I will cut a timber frame myself someday. The Heartwood School gave me the knowledge, the skills and a greater appreciation for the majesty and grace of a timber frame home.


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