Topping Off the Timber Frame

Last Thursday was the start of an intense week of building at Bunny Vista. With the arrival of Jordan Finch and his crew, the number of workers at the house doubled. Lewis, Braxton, and Aaron worked alongside Jordan, Justin, and Mike to add another beautiful element to our new house. Jordan’s crew had been working on the timber frame at Jordan’s workshop in Mount Jackson for many months.

All Thursday afternoon, the crew unloaded the frame and laid it out on the house decking. They joined the wall posts to the top plate and added cherry braces while the walls lay flat on the deck. On Friday, they raised the timber frame, beginning with the west wall. They attached the floor beams for the loft, laid the loft floor joists, and raised the east wall. They maneuvered the giant cherry sling braces into place and added the four principal rafters. On those two days the men worked very hard and very long, and at the end of the day on Friday, we stood on the deck with the amazing timber frame structure surrounding us. It was very emotional for all of us.

Jordan used three woods in the timber frame. Most of the timber frame is made of cypress, which Jordan bought from a sawmill in South Carolina; it is very clear and has a lovely soft color. Kelley tells me cypress was Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite wood. Cypress is widely used in Japan, where builders often bury it for years to deepen the color. The cherry for the braces came from a sawmill here in the Valley; the sling braces on two of the bents are about twelve feet long, eighteen inches or so wide, and six inches thick. Kelley and Jordan sawed them at the Taylor and Boody sawmill so that they retain what Kelley calls “live edges”–the edges are not sawed but follow the natural outline of the tree. They will make a stunning frame for the stone fireplace at the south end of the house. Kelley really admires the handplaning job that Mike did on the cherry, not the easiest wood to plane. The top plates run the full thirty-five foot length of the frame and are made of very dense yellow pine; Kelley and Jordan chose this wood because they were able to use one timber for the entire length of the room.

At the top is the yellow pine top plate

The top plate is yellow pine. The post is cypress, as are the beam running perpendicular to the top plate and the girt directly above Kelley's head. The braces are cherry, which is my favorite wood. In this photo, the crew is preparing to join the first sling brace to the frame.

The posts flare at the top and are narrower at the bottom. Jordan specified that the lumber be milled so that the bottom of the tree (the famous butt swell) would at the top of the post to support all of the joints in that area.

The sling braces have "live edges," which are not sawed but follow the natural line of the curved tree trunk.

The sling braces have "live edges," which are not sawed but follow the natural line of the curved tree trunk. The heartwood of the cherry tree is the reddish color we always associate with cherry. It's really interesting to see the contrast between the heartwood and the sapwood on these braces.

Kelley recruited Nick and Erin to help him put finish on the cypress ceiling boards. Although they spent several hours on this project Sunday afternoon, they were not able to finish. There were a lot of boards.

Cypress ceiling boards

Cypress ceiling boards

On Monday morning, the timber frame crew returned to Bunny Vista to add the common rafters and the cypress tongue-and-groove ceiling.

Jordan and Lewis consult about rafters at the fireplace end of the timber frame.

Jordan and Lewis consult about the rafters at the fireplace end of the timber frame.


The larger rafters, visible at the right and the left, are called principal rafters. The common rafters (there are four in this photo) are the smaller rafters between the bents.

After putting the rafters in place on Monday, the builders were able to apply finish to the rest of the ceiling boards, saw them to length, and nail half of them to the rafters.

Justin saws a ceiling board.

Justin saws a ceiling board.

Almost finished with half of the ceiling.

Almost finished with half of the ceiling.

At the end of the day, we had a “topping off” ceremony, which is a traditional centuries-old ceremony among timber frame builders. It marks and commemorates the completion of the timber frame; it recognizes and honors the builders. One important component of the ceremony is the nailing of the “whetting bush” , an evergreen bough, to the highest point of the frame. The origin of this tradition is obscure, but it is probably Scandinavian. Possibly, nailing the evergreen bough to the timber frame once offered appeasement to the gods for using the wood of the forest to build a structure. It may also serve to give thanks to the forest for providing wood for a new home. Kelley climbed onto the roof of the log house and nailed the whetting bush to a principal rafter of the timber frame. Jordan read a traditional German topping off toast and a house blessing which our friend Emily brought to us on Friday. Then he smashed a wine glass against the foundation of the house, and we served our first meal from what will soon be our kitchen.

The whetting bush

The whetting bush

Today, the rest of the ceiling boards went up. Tomorrow, Kelley and Aaron will drive to Winchester to pick up the panels that will insulate the ceiling. Thursday, the builders will add the panels to the ceiling, and we will be on our way to the next house-building adventure.

The final ceiling boards and the whetting bush

The final ceiling boards and the whetting bush


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3 Responses to “Topping Off the Timber Frame”

  1. Matthew Shull Says:

    Looks Great!!!! Topped off!

    How about a picture taken from the Willard’s house across the road?

  2. Susan Says:

    Kelley read this and reminded me that the cherry used for the braces came from this area, rather than from South Carolina, as I wrote in the original post. I have corrected this error in the post and noted that Kelley and Jordan milled the cherry at the T&B sawmill.

  3. Karin Says:

    The evergreen whetting bush is not all that obscure in meaning. It is still widely known what it means. Juniper was meant to ward off witches and evil spirits. It was erected as an insurance policy to prevent harm to the building and its occupants. The use of wreaths on the doors has the same origin. Glass balls on Christmas trees is similar. During the darkest days of winter people were more frightened and confined. The glass ball deflected the evil eye and the evergreen warded off the evil spirits.

    Long forgotten history for modern people without superstitions of witchcraft. Runes and other symbols including the letter M or upside down version W were often carved into the beams or plaster. M was for Mary, mother of Jesus to give a protected blessing to the house.

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