Learn how to source, prepare, and connect timbers to frame a 12x16-foot structure that can be used for any need, from a cabin to a studio.
Using full-color photos, detailed drawings, and clear step-by-step instructions, Learn to Timber Frame (Storey Publishing, 2016) is a guidebook for beginners, showing exactly how to build one small timber-frame structure that’s suitable for use as a cabin, studio, or even a workshop for future projects. Expert Will Beemer takes readers through the entire framing process, beginning with timber sourcing and ending with a finished building. He lays out the tools and costs of this undertaking, and he also explains how to modify the structure to suit your needs and location by adding a loft, moving doors or windows, changing the roof pitch, or making the frame larger or smaller. After following his instructions, you’ll end up with a beautiful building, as well as solid timber-framing skills that you can use for a lifetime.
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Learn to Timber Frame.
In North America in the 1830s, settlers migrating west needed a way to build quickly with unskilled labor. The newly built railroad made it possible to ship smaller-dimensioned lumber to the treeless prairie, and the new technologies of sawmills, drying kilns, and mass-produced nails helped promote a new construction system called stick framing. This system relied on the repetitive use of many small pieces of lumber (2x4s, for example) to overcome the scarcity of skilled labor. Now anyone could build a house — and faster, with a smaller crew. Since the framing was nailed together, one didn’t need the skills of a joiner. Stick framing became firmly established as the predominant method of light construction after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, when a large part of the city needed to be rebuilt quickly.
Timber framing, however, remains a viable option, even though it requires more skill. The structures, with their large, open floor plans (no load-bearing interior walls) and exposed timber and joinery, are a joy to make and to live in. If you have a woodlot or access to local sawmills, the materials can be cheaper than buying kiln-dried “sticks” from a lumberyard.
Size of Pieces
Timbers are defined as members that are 5 inches by 5 inches or greater; lumber is 2 to 4 inches in its smallest cross-sectional dimension, and boards are 1 inch or less in thickness. This is standard lingo; most of us have a fear of looking dumb at the lumberyard or sawmill, so it’s important to have our terminology straight.
Over the last century or so, stick framing developed into a highly modular building system based on the standardization of 4x8-foot sheet materials — plywood sheathing on the exterior and drywall panels on the interior. Spacing the wall studs and other framing members at 16 or 24 inches on center (measured from the center of one member to the center of the next), ensures equal support for the edges of the panels.
By contrast, traditional timber-frame structures used long, solid-wood planks for flooring and sheathing, and the spacing of the framing was not dictated by the size of the planks, allowing for broad spans between supporting members.
While our timber frame design could be built with lumber, we choose timber mainly because of the aesthetic qualities of the exposed framing and joinery. The insulation and sheathing will wrap outside of the frame rather than bury the frame within the walls and roof.
Species (and Sourcing Materials)
Most framing material at the lumberyard is softwood — typically spruce, pine, or fir — that has been distributed through a worldwide commodities network and may come from trees halfway around the world. It has been graded, dried, and planed to produce a consistent product that can be used in mass-produced buildings. Due to the drying, shipping, and storing required, the energy footprint of store-bought lumber is much greater than that of locally milled materials.
Timbers can be of any species and come from your own property, provided they are structurally sound. They can come from a nearby sawmill (of which we have plenty in New England) and thus support the local economy. You can also buy a chainsaw mill or portable bandsaw mill and cut the timber (and lumber and boards) yourself. Hardwoods and softwoods have different characteristics and advantages that will be discussed in the next section. Our timber frame is designed to use eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), though other species can be substituted.
Freshly cut trees contain a lot of water, and as the wood dries it changes shape, as evidenced by shrinkage, cracking, and perhaps warping. Since store-bought lumber used for stick framing is kiln-dried and then planed, most of these changes have been shaved away. In the rush to get product to market, however, rapidly grown plantation trees are dried minimally and may still move a bit after construction. Softwood lumber is easy to nail into after drying, which is one reason it’s used for framing; hardwoods, although perhaps stronger, are generally much harder and heavier.
Timbers milled locally and recently will be green, so for timber framing it’s best to cut the joinery and get the frame erected, then let all the movement take place once the frame is locked together. It’s easier to cut joinery in green wood, especially if it is hardwood and you are using hand tools. For wood to air-dry, it takes about a year per inch of thickness, and kiln-drying large pieces is impractical. (There are a couple of radio-frequency, or microwave, kilns in North America that can do the job, but this technique is expensive and works only with certain species.) Using reclaimed timber from old buildings is another strategy for getting “preshrunk” stable timber, but it may need to be re-milled, with a careful eye for hidden embedded metal.
Stick framing evolved in part thanks to the mass production of wire nails. With the multiple redundant pieces used in stick framing, nails were more than sufficient to hold the building together.
Timbers, on the other hand, are too large to nail together, and there are fewer of them, so the joinery connecting them is much more critical. This joinery is usually designed to connect the end of one timber into the side or end of another and often consists of variations of the basic mortise-and-tenon joint.
Bracing for Lateral Loads
Stick framing usually relies on structural sheathing — plywood or oriented strandboard (OSB) sheets — nailed to the framing every 6 inches or so to provide stiffness and resistance to racking forces from wind and perhaps earthquakes. These sideways forces are known as lateral loads.
Timber framing does not have a stud or rafter every 16 or 24 inches to carry these sheet materials. Instead, diagonal braces provide rigidity, usually running at 45 degrees between a post and a beam, forming the hypotenuse of a right triangle. Shear walls may also be required by some building codes in areas with high lateral load potential from seismic or hurricane events.
With stick framing, the regular spacing of framing members provides bays of equal width to accept standardized batts of insulation, as well as support for exterior sheathing that in turn carries siding and roofing. These same framing members are then covered up on the inside with gypsum drywall or other materials (after wiring and plumbing runs are installed), so the frame is completely concealed.
For timber frames to be enclosed in the same manner, a redundant stick-framed system would need to be built outside of the timber frame (if you want to see the timbers exposed on the interior). Because the timber frame is carrying the loads, however, this light frame, or curtain wall, would not need all the components (such as headers) that a structural stick-framed system would have. This external light frame is common, but the popularity of timber framing really exploded with the advent of the structural insulated panel, or SIP. These panels are made of rigid foam insulation sandwiched between layers of plywood or OSB and can be built to span areas as great as 8x24 feet. They are attached to the outside of timbers with long screws. SIPs have made it unnecessary to build another light frame outside of the timber frame.
Both stick framing and timber framing require carpentry skills such as reading plans and a tape measure and being able to cut a straight line with a saw. A stick framer, though, is usually working with standardized materials of uniform dimensions and following established patterns and methods for assembly. This is why there are rarely stick framing plans included with a set of construction drawings; once the carpenter knows the dimensions of the building and locations of doors, windows, and interior walls, he or she can frame the building using the chosen on-center spacing.
Timber framing, however, requires more of the skills of a woodworker. Wood as it comes out of the sawmill is green and somewhat irregular. Designing, locating, cutting, and assembling joinery in such material must still result in a structure that stands plumb, level, and square. This requires patience, attention, understanding, and specialized skills, including the ability to visualize the finished structure while the raw timber is sitting on the sawhorses. Since the timbers and joinery will usually remain exposed, greater care must be taken since errors won’t be covered up. A job well done, however, results in that much greater satisfaction.
Stick building may only require a saw, square, hammer, tape measure, chalk line, level, and pencil. Power tools and pneumatic nailers make the job go faster, but not necessarily better.
Timber framing requires additional tools, mainly to execute the joinery. Timbers are large and heavy and may require a cart or many hands to be moved. Because of irregularities, framing squares and combination squares are useful for keeping joinery true to reference planes in the building. Tenons can be cut with saws or even with an axe, but mortises are generally harder to cut. They require a boring tool, such as a drill with large bit, an antique boring machine (beam drill), or modern electric chain mortiser. Mallets and timber framing chisels are the primary hand tools for cutting, and even finishing, joints that have been roughly cut with power tools. Mallets may be used for driving pins as well, with heavier versions called commanders (also beetles or persuaders) used to drive timber assemblies together.
Most stick-built houses (excepting manufactured kits) are still cut and assembled on-site, with floors built on foundations that will serve as the platforms for ever-higher walls and, finally, the roof. Weather, access, and distance from the builder’s home can affect the speed at which the project is completed.
Timber framing is, in a sense, a kit or “pre-manufactured” structure. You can cut the frame in a barn, shop, or garage away from the site, protected from the weather, and close to home. Then you take the pieces of the frame to the site and erect it in a matter of hours. You need an area to store the timbers (covered, ideally) and to work them, and then a truck or trailer to transport them to the site. Of course, if the woodlot sourcing the timber is the same as your building site, it would make sense to work them there.
Both stick-framed walls and timber-framed bents are typically assembled flat on the deck and then are tilted up into place. Since timbers are heavier, you usually need more people to raise a timber assembly, or even to install individual rafters. Cranes, forklifts, or other mechanized equipment are used on big jobs.
In terms of the amount of framing material used, similar-sized structures usually use the same volume of wood whether they are stick-built or timber-framed. Wood volume is measured in board feet; one board foot (BF) is the volume of a board 12 inches by 12 inches by 1 inch thick. If you are comparing lumberyard framing materials at $1/bf to local sawmill timbers at $0.75/bf, it’s cheaper to do timber framing. Buying timbers from across the country, however, would end up being more expensive. If you’re paying for labor, timber framing is usually more expensive because of the skill involved. But if you’re doing the work yourself, labor cost is not a factor. However, it will usually take longer to build a timber frame (though you’ll have that pride of accomplishment).
Other factors affecting cost are the enclosure and insulation system and the level of finish. Often people who have a nice timber frame upgrade the rest of the systems to match. Using local sawmill lumber and boards for sheathing, siding, paneling, cabinets, and flooring can produce significant savings. Finally, timber frames have a lower life-cycle cost: the frame lasts longer (sometimes hundreds of years), since it is protected inside an insulated envelope and is often well-maintained.
All in all, if you’re providing your own labor and buying local materials, a timber frame can cost less than a stick-built structure you build yourself with lumberyard materials. The timber frame built with local materials is also environmentally friendly and has a strength and beauty valued by its owner. Of course, if all you want is an uninsulated storage hut in the garden and plan to pay for labor, it’s pretty hard to beat the cost of a stick-built prefab shed from a big-box store. But that’s not why you'd pick up this book.
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