What is Timber Framing?

Learn the difference between two building styles, timber framing and stick framing.

| February 2017

In an age of mass production, flimsy building materials, and cookie-cutter homes, timber frame structures stand out as a testament to the timelessness of true quality. Learn to Timber Frame (Storey, 2016) by Will Beemer shows the elegant simplicity and craftsmanship of timber framing and gives timber frame enthusiasts the tools needed to get started. Instruction is supplemented with full-color photos and instructive diagrams that illustrate every step of the way. This excerpt comes from chapter 1, "What is Timber Framing."

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Learn to Timber Frame.

Timber Framing vs. Stick Framing

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 (2 x 4s, 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.

This chart outlines some of the principal differences between stick framing and timber framing. Let’s look at each of these differences more closely:

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.

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