The Timber Frame Is on the Way

On Monday, Jordan Finch, who has been working on our timber frame room since January, will raise the frame at Bunny Vista! Picture the famous barn raising scene from the movie, “Witness.” Leave out the Amish farmers. Add a crane and a bunch of builders. You get the picture. I can hardly wait.
This drawing gives an idea of the scale of the timber frame room. At left will be the fireplace.

This drawing gives an idea of the scale of the timber frame room. At left will be the fireplace.

From the time we began planning our house, Kelley has been determined to include a timber frame section.  The timber frame at Bunny Vista will be one large room, 30′ x 20′, which will share a wall with the log house. It will have posts and beams of cypress and braces of cherry. Two sets of long braces, called sling braces, are sawed from curved cherry trees. The ceiling will be about 20 feet high, and the beautiful wood framework will be visible throughout the room. The end of the room opposite the log house will have a stone fireplace, which will be framed by the cherry sling braces. As in the log rooms, where we will enjoy seeing and touching the wood, with its axe marks made two hundred years ago, in this timber frame room, we will be able to see and touch the wood and stone that frame our house. We will be able to enjoy, in large scale, the kind of beautiful joinery Kelley has used in building furniture and organs for the past thirty years.
The famously beautiful curved cherry forms the sling brace attached to the collar. The sling brace will enter into the living space of the room more than a shorter, higher brace might.

The famously beautiful curved cherry forms the sling braces attached to the collar of this bent. The sling braces will enter into the living space of the room more than a shorter, higher brace might.

Before we began building Bunny Vista, I had only a nodding acquaintance with timber frame structures. I have been reading some of Kelley’s books in hopes of not embarrassing myself when I actually have a timber frame room as part of my house. (Kelley points out to everyone that I have recently read several non-fiction books–somehow he thinks that is unusual.) I have found out a little more than I once knew about this traditional method of building. I supplemented the non-fiction books that Kelley left in my path with this helpful Wikipedia article.

Timber framing was the primary building technique for residences, churches, barns, and other structures  in many parts of the world for centuries.  In the middle of the nineteenth century builders began to use the “stick-framing” construction we are most familiar with today, and timber frame construction almost ceased, because stick-framing was quicker and less expensive. In this country, timber framing began a renaissance in the 1960s.

In early times, timber framers hewed and shaped timbers with felling axes and broadaxes and joined them together in a system of upright (posts) and horizontal (beams)  timbers with the same kind of joinery found in fine furniture. To ensure the rigidity of the frame, they used trusses and braces in various configurations. When European settlers arrived on this continent, they built timber frame houses, barns, and churches. Now, as timber framing regains popularity, many timber frame companies build houses off-site with the aid of computer numerical control machines and other modern equipment. Although Jordan uses machines in his work, every piece of wood in our timber frame will bear the mark of his own handiwork. He will use traditional joints, such as mortises and tenons. He will use wooden pegs to secure the joints, which Kelley will adjust as the wood shrinks and moves.

Jordan is making all of the parts for the timber frame at his shop in Mount Jackson.

Jordan is making all of the parts for the timber frame at his shop in Mount Jackson. Jordan also built this timber frame workshop.

Jordan sent Kelley some labeled drawings of the timber frame room. Our room will have four bents and three bays, as seen in the drawing below. Now, if you don’t know what bents and bays are, I will explain as Kelley explained to me: if you imagine the side view of the room as the side view of a sliced loaf of bread, each of the four slices coming up from the bottom of the loaf represents the side view of a post rising from the floor. Between each post is an open area called a bay. At the left will be the fireplace. At the right will be stairs leading up to a loft and down to the basement.

Jordan's labeled the elements of this wall elevation of our timber frame room.

This is a view of the 30' wall. Imagine this as the side view of a sliced loaf of bread.

The photo below is a labeled view of one of the four bents. Imagining the loaf of bread again,  think of the bent as a slice of that bread. The main parts of the bent are the posts rising from the floor, the beam, and the braces which form triangles between posts and the beam. (These braces keep the bent rigid. Triangles are rigid forms, but squares are not. Structures built without triangular bracing are going to fall right down in a strong wind.) There are also rafters. The drawing below combines elements from a couple of the bents. The sling braces will be only on the two bents near the fireplace. The floor beam will be on the two posts nearest the log house and will support the loft floor. The railing for the loft is also pictured here.

This is a labeled elevation of one of the bents.

This is a labeled elevation of one of the bents.Imagine this as one of the slices from the loaf of bread in the first elevation.

Many of the terms Kelley, Jordan, Lewis, and our architect Peter use with such authority and gusto are completely foreign to me. I found this useful glossary of timber frame terms on the beautiful Dreaming Creek Architectural Timbering Website. I sneak peeks at it rather often.

These are some of the almost-ready cypress timbers at Jordan's workshop.

These are some of the almost-ready cypress timbers at Jordan's workshop. Jordan and one of his assistants are in the background. Also, there seems to be a yellow boot in this photo. It has been a rainy spring.

The joinery is amazing.

The joinery is amazing.

Kelley met Jordan when Jordan was doing a demonstration at a conference on traditional crafts at the Frontier Culture Museum near Staunton. Kelley visited the timber frame house that Jordan built for his wife’s parents near his own home in Mount Jackson. He is doing splendid work on the timber frame.

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3 Responses to “The Timber Frame Is on the Way”

  1. pufferbelliestoys Says:

    Thanks for the explanations of the different parts of the timber frame. I am going to keep studying up so I can talk about it intelligently. I love the links to the different timber frame companies – very cool. Also, nice work getting those sketchups into jpegs and uploaded, Google Mom!

  2. skowroneck Says:

    I love this post with all the drawings and explanations. Is the use of cypress Japanese-inspired? I’ve seen it a lot there as well as the kind of elaborate joinery and the neatness. One tends to miss that a little in old European constructions. I’ve looked a lot at the roof inside of the Gothenburg Kronhuset, which is from “the 16hundreds” (as they say here): it’s hand-hewn and all that but very rough. And north Germany has a lot of timber frame farmhouses, which too are usually quite roughly made.

  3. Susan Says:

    Kelley says that he and Jordan chose cypress for several reasons:

    It is very stable, so the joinery stays tighter than it might in some other woods like pine or oak. It is very durable. It is easier to obtain the large clear pieces that they needed. Ours came from South Carolina. On the west coast timber framers often use Douglas fir, which is readily available there. Cypress is also a beautiful wood–Kelley says it was Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite wood.

    Kelley also tells me that in Japan there is a tradition of burying cypress for some years before building with it to obtain a somewhat darker, soft color. A similar result can be obtained by treating the wood with diluted sulfuric acid. Kelley experimented with this, and the results are definitely beautiful.

    He bought extra cypress lumber to use on the screen porch, since it is weather resistant, and for paneling for one of the bathrooms.

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