Building a Timber Frame Home

Building a timber frame home from scratch, including selecting wood, creating the foundation, road, water and power, walls, roofing and insulation.

| April/May 1997

Timber-framing: The art of joining timbers with neither nails nor screws is a pioneer art, create your own homestead by building a timber frame home. (See the timber-framing photos and diagram in the image gallery.)

Had we opted for the conventional route, I'd be sitting in rush-hour traffic now, sucking in the fumes and wondering how the hell to pay my $2,000-a-month mortgage. Nope, not us. Instead I'm looking out the window of our four-level 3,700-square-foot barn house we built for under $50,000, we decided on building a timber frame home, a project we managed without a penny from Mr. Banker Man or Ma'am. No 30-year financial albatross and no sacrifices either. Here is our story and almost four years of sweat and tears to go with it.

Building a Timber Frame Home: Finding Timber and First Steps

First we had to find the land. Being from Massachusetts, we started there first ...and ended there quickly. The average land values were far too pricey for our kind of acreage. Then we trekked on to New Hampshire briefly, then finally to Maine, "the way life should be." In April of '92, we found 20 acres of harvested land in Bridgton, Maine (two hours northwest of northernmost Mass.). The land was rugged and marred by skidder trails, but for $15,000, how could we refuse? The only access, however, was via a fire lane, a narrow dirt and barely maintained road. The lane was very steep with 2' boulders throughout and many deep ruts, making it tough to travel along even when it was bone-dry. A fire truck would have to have wings to make it down this puppy. The road is utterly unpassable after the winter season, when the thaw produces a river of mud often a foot deep. Once we arrived at our "L"-shaped property, however, we discovered that it was not only breathtakingly beautiful, but had access to a remote, copper-colored bass pond. A swimmer or fisherman's dream come true. On the east shore, there are three small camps, very private and barely visible. The fire lane is directly off Route 302, a two-lane interstate, which meanders northwest from Portland to Montpelier, Vermont. Although we are 2000' in the woods, we are still only a few miles to Bridgton, a small rural town just 40 minutes northwest of Portland. We couldn't have asked for more-except a few pieces of wood over our heads.

Our first challenge was to clear a small swath to build on. We made our first attempt with a couple of friends, and it was immediately apparent this was going to be a bit larger project that we estimated. It took us all day to clear a 40' x 40' section, dragging the bush to form 6'-high stacks. The land is full of small beech trees and a multitude of mature hemlocks. The clearing process occupied the entire summer and fall of '92. During that time, Mike and I lived in a two-man nylon tent. Our "facilities" consisted of jugs of water that we hauled to the site, and a small sun shower. The previous summer, my husband Mike took a workshop, taught by Steve Chappell at the Fox Maple School of Traditional Building in Brownfield, Maine, on the basics of timber-frame construction to prepare him to build the house. Though the course wasn't exhaustive by any means, the basics that Mike was able to acquire were absolutely indispensable and saved weeks of head scratching.

Mike instantly fell in love with the simplicity of the timber-frame design and its efficient use of timbers. Timber-frame or "Post & Beam" construction, as opposed to conventional stick framing, uses beams of various sizes joined together with wooden pegs. The interior space it provides is open and airy, often with cathedral ceilings and exposed beams. We elected for a timber-frame "gambrel" (32' x 42') for our house, and Mike sketched his design with his instructor, Steve Chappell. Among other things, Steve managed to help us instantly determine the size timbers we'd need to cover the 32' spans. There were so many things to consider in the design-ceiling heights, joinery, and most important, how much lumber we could acquire and utilize from Mike's residential tree business in Mass. Mike and his dad also owned a portable band saw mill which, as might be imagined, became invaluable to us. There are a lot of guys out there who make a living with their portable mills. A bunch of money can be saved in this step alone.

We were able to use and mill trees Mike cut down in Boxford, Mass. These same pine and spruce trees would have been of no use to us before our project began. In fact, many tree companies have to pay to dispose of this soft wood. We managed put that very lumber to use and ease our conscience in the process. We continued to mill the logs until we had enough to start "cutting" or chiseling the timbers. We cut the entire bottom two floors (phase one) of our four-level monstrosity in Boxford and transported it to Maine to assemble. While still preparing the timbers for the raising, we bought a functional, old $3,500 John Deere backhoe that we used for everything from raising "bents" or trusses to digging the foundation.

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