Timber Framing Craft & History
Timber frame construction is one of the oldest forms of construction that remains in existence today. Joints from timber frame structures can be found as far back in history as 200 B.C. Timber frame structures have been uncovered in archeological sites throughout the Middle East, Europe and Asia.
The art of timber framing dates back to some of early man’s first primitive structures. Europe is full of timber-framed structures dating back hundreds of years, including manors and castles, homes, cabins and inns, whose architecture and techniques of construction have evolved over the centuries. In Asia you will find timber-framed structures, many of them temples, which have stood for centuries.
It is necessary to draw a distinction between log buildings and ‘log cabins’, the latter often being the first to mind when discussing solid timber construction. Log cabins are simply a small, rustic and quickly built log house, such as a hunting cabin in the woods. This style is not representative of log building as a whole, it being a far cry from the fine craftsmanship employed in constructing log buildings for a variety of other uses.
Wood from local forests provided a convenient supply of building materials. Craftsman shaped these logs into rectangular hand-hewn posts and beams through the skilled use of axes. Instead of using metal hardware to connect the timbers, the craftsmen carved precise mortise and tenon and dovetail joints, which they secured with wooden pegs. The skill in creating these precisely jointed and intricately engineered timber frames, was the source of great pride and competition among the timber frame artisans. So much so, that it became a tradition for craftsmen to inscribe their initials next to the joinery they created.
European settlers brought the art of timber framing with them to America and the practice was the predominant means of construction until the middle of the 19th century. The invention of mass-produced nails and the ability to manufacture smaller timbers quickly and cheaply gave rise to more economical forms of light frame construction using structural studs and braces connected with nails.
Light frame construction enabled builders to enclose large areas with minimal cost, while achieving a wide variety of architectural styles. On the rapidly expanding American frontier, the demand for quick and cheap housing meant that light frame construction soon replaced timber framing as the dominant building method. This is still true today, as these techniques evolved to become what is commonly known as stud construction. Despite this, many of today’s carpenters return to timber framing as a revival of a forgotten craft, employing the use of durable and time tested joinery.