What is timber framing?
Timber framing is a construction method that utilizes heavy timbers instead of skinny framing wood (like 2x4s). These pieces are connected by elegant and strong joinery, which interlocks the timbers and incorporates wooden pegs to secure them. As a result, this method is way stronger and more durable than using metal fasteners, which, over long periods of time, can attract condensation and break down.
Timber framing results in buildings with open floor plants, flexible wall materials (including all-natural options), beautiful exposed beams, and incredible durability. Plus, this technique doesn’t rely on saw-milled lumber or store-bought fasteners. This is why it’s been practiced for several hundreds of years, since before those industrial goods were commonplace. In fact, before the late 1800s, most buildings in the US and Europe were timber framed.
What is timber framing used for?
This versatile technique can be applied to houses, barns, carports, gazebos, porches, and even the roof systems of elegant cathedrals. Many older buildings were 100% timber-framed, but today it’s common to incorporate timber framing as just one building modality amidst others, such as stick-framing or natural building techniques.
Timber framing can be a great option for builders who are harvesting logs from their own land. Indeed, less milling is involved in preparing timbers than in slicing up trees into smaller dimensional lumber like 2x4s. Then, after the frame is built, there are many creative, ecological and economical options for infilling walls, such as straw bale and cob.
Advantages of timber framing
There are a lot of great reasons to build a timber framed structure. Some of them are:
- Beauty. There’s just something powerful and breathtaking about being within a timber framed structure
- Flexibility. You can get creative with floor plans, put doors and windows wherever, and incorporate natural building modalities
- Strength and durability. If they’re well taken care of, timber frames basically last forever
- Energy efficiency. Well-insulated timber framed structures require less energy (and money) to heat and cool
- Lower carbon footprint. There is usually less wood involved in timber framing (depending on how the walls are filled in), and it’s practical and affordable to use local wood in most areas
- Low-waste. Unlike stick-framing, timber framing produces very little waste in the building process
- Quick build time. It generally takes less time to complete and raise a timber frame than to build a similarly-sized stick frame
- Hands-on craft. Whether it’s you doing DIY timber framing, or you hire a professional, someone with an age-old skill will actually put there hands on the structure and carefully craft it…this, you can feel
Disadvantages of timber framing
In some cases, timber framing may not be appropriate or accessible. Here are some disadvantages of timber framing:
- Cost. If you are buying all of the materials (as opposed to harvesting them yourself) and hiring out all of the labor, timber framed structures cost more than stick framed structures
- Access to timbers. In areas that are far from forests, access to timbers may be a barrier
- Raising realities. In times of yore, folks would come together to literally raise the walls of timber framed barns; nowadays, machines are often used for raising timber frames; this may or may not be accessible to you
- Specialized skill. You may or may not find a timber framer in your area (our response to this: learn to timber frame yourself!)
- Moisture and rot. If you don’t build properly, including vapor barriers, timbers can be susceptible to various fungal invaders
- Less commonplace. Since timber framing is no longer the norm, you may have a hard time finding carpenters and other tradespeople to finish and work on your structure after the frame is built
Timber Framing joinery
One of the key components of timber framing is the use of joinery, rather than metal fasteners, to connect pieces of wood together. In essence, timber framing joinery involves measuring and cutting specific shapes out of each timber so that they fit together snugly like two puzzle pieces. The result is a proper distribution of weight, and a secure connection between each part of the frame. In order to secure each joint, hardwood pegs are pounded through both timbers.
There are many kinds of joints that may be used in a timber frame, the most common being the mortise and tenon joint. Put simply, the mortise and tenon joint is like a square peg fitting into a square hole (at the proper location and angle for the frame, of course).
Here’s a quick list of joints used in timber framing from Timber Home Living magazine:
- Mortise and tenon
- Pocket cut
- Tongue and fork
Timber framing tools
Tools for timber framing include some basic carpentry tools, such as a tape measure, framing square, pencils, and, of course, safety gear. In addition to the basics, there are several specialized timber framing tools:
- Timber framing chisel
- Heavy mallet
- Sharpening stones
- Low-angle block plane
- Japanese pull saw
- Bevel gauge
- Stair gauge
The chisel and mallet are two essential, simple, and elegant tools for timber framing. With these, builders cut and refine the joinery that will hold everything together beautifully. Timber framing chisels are large, durable, and extremely sharp versions of the smaller woodworking chisels you may be familiar with. Combined with a heavy rawhide, plastic, or wooden mallet, these chisels can make precise cuts in the large timbers that will eventually become a frame.
In order to keep chisels sharp, it’s great to have a good sharpening stone or two on hand. And, another important hand tool is the low-angle block plane for cleaning up and softening edges. Add to these a good Japanese pull saw for precision cuts, plus a bevel and stair gauge for measuring and marking angles, and you’re all set.
Along with the collection of hand tools, there are a few timber-framing specific power tools. These are extremely helpful, and most professionals use them. But, they’re not all necessary for a beginner or hobbyist:
- Chain mortiser
- Beam saw
- Specialized large circular saws
- Drilling stations
- Routers and notchers
- Portable band saw
What is the best wood to use for timber framing?
The most common kinds of wood used for timber framing are: white pine, red and white oak, Douglas fir, cypress and cedar. Other kinds of wood may or may not be suitable for timber framing, so check in with an experienced timber framer before you plan to use timber from your own land for this purpose.
The important qualities in wood for timber framing are:
Other considerations include:
Since beams in timber framed structures tend to cover wide spans and support a lot of weight, it’s important to use timbers that are strong. Unfortunately, many strong species of wood, like various of kinds of oak, are strong but also tend to twist and bend. As a result, they’re not appropriate for timber framing. Ideally, wood will be both strong and stable, meaning that it has a relatively straight grain and stays square once it’s been cut.
Along with the qualities of the wood itself, other considerations have to do with how and where the wood was harvested. Wood is heavy! As a result, it doesn’t make sense to ship timbers or logs from very far away for a timber framing project. Get familiar with the local logging operations in your area to narrow down your choices for types of wood. Finally, consider choosing wood that was harvested sustainably, with the future of the forests in mind. One way to do this is to look for FSC Certified wood, or just ask your local loggers or sawyers about their particular practices.
Can you build a timber frame with green lumber?
Yes, you can definitely build a timber frame with green lumber. In fact, that’s how people built them for hundreds of years, before the advent of kilns for drying wood. It’s true that fully-dried wood is more stable. However, that level of stability isn’t necessary for timber framing, and it’s often not worth the cost and environmental impact of kiln drying.
If you choose to build with green lumber, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- The wood will shrink as it dries in place
- Different species of wood shrink at different rates
- Adjust joinery to account for shrinkage and keep things strong and tight
- Wood will check/crack as it dries; most of the time this is no problem, but if a check goes through a whole timber it can compromise stability
Learn timber framing yourself
One of the joys of timber framing is that it’s a time-honored and precision craft; it’s beautiful to behold and also a joy to do. Whether you’re a DIY builder, hope to build your own home someday with sustainable materials, or you’re a contractor looking to expand your repertoire, timber framing is a fabulous skill to learn.