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.

Log Building Craft & History

Log Buildings are constructed by stacking horizontally placed logs, which are then notched at the corners, tying the building together. 

Logs can be worked in the round, however may also be squared or flattened on two sides for certain corner notches, such as the dovetail notch that students will learn over the course. This can be achieved either by hand (e.g. by hewing) or by sending the logs to sawmills for conversion.

Handcrafted log houses have been built for centuries in Scandinavia, Russia and Eastern Europe, and were typically built using only an axe and chisel. The Scandinavian settlers of New Sweden brought the craft to North America in the early 17th century, where it was quickly adopted by other colonists and Native Americans. Possibly the oldest surviving log house in the United States is the C. A. Nothnagle Log House (circa 1640) in New Jersey.

Historians believe that the first log buildings in the Latvian region were built at least 2000 years ago and presume that Latvians learned their building skills from the Baltic tribes. In vernacular peasant architecture, both dwelling houses and outbuildings typically were built of round logs until the middle of the 19th century, while hewn logs were used for manors and public houses. Axes were the sole tools employed in the construction of log buildings until the 1860s, when crosscut saws won a place in the carpenter’s toolkit.

Norway spruce (Picea abies) and Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), both indigenous to Latvia, were the traditional species of choice for log builders, a preference that continues today. Historically, woodsmen cut and brought timbers to the jobsite in midwinter during the new moon (December to February), peeled and stored them for spring, and the building was cut and raised during the same summer.

Foundations were generally primitive, with walls supported by piers of quarried stone, infilled with loose stone, rubble, clay or sand. Often outbuilding foundations were not infilled at all. After the second part of the 19th century, lime mortar use became widespread even in rural areas, and henceforth the quality of the foundations increased and the lifespan of the buildings lengthened. Birch bark served as a barrier against damp between the first log and the stone foundation.

Dowels or keys placed at intervals along the logs helped bind larger walls. To keep walls in plane at door and window openings, plank jambs (tender) were grooved into log ends at the openings. Side jambs typically cut 5 percent short allowed wall logs to shrink and settle.

Log diameters varied with building type. For houses and barns it was generally 7" to 10" in. In the traditional full-scribe procedure, not always used today, the corner joint (neck) was scribed first and then, once the logs were in proximity, the bottom of the upper log was grooved and scribed to fit the lower.

Good properties of a log house are that the wooden house is warm in winter and cool in summer.

A wooden house smells nice and “breathes” naturally, it integrates in any natural environment and lets its owner enjoy the harmony with it.