Are you curious about the history and the basics of timber frame construction? Let’s look at how this building method has withstood the test of time and why it may be the right choice for your next building project.
What is Timber Frame Construction?
What separates timber frame construction from other building methods? Timber framing doesn’t use concrete, metal, or mass-produced commodity pieces of lumber. Instead, timber frame structures are built with large, exposed timbers and wood-to-wood joinery.
The timber frame construction process starts with a design customized to meet the client’s plan, needs, and budget. After engineering the timber frame, timber is ordered, and detailed piece drawings are created, which our timber framers and/or CNC machine use to measure and cut each timber to exact specification.
Finally, we send all the pre-cut timber, hardware, and specialized timber framing tools to the building site. That’s where our crew will raise the timber frame and sometimes install the 2×6 tongue and groove roof decking and structural insulated panels (SIPs).
Timber Frame vs. Post and Beam Construction
Although it’s similar to timber framing, post and beam construction has some key differences. Both use posts (vertical timbers), beams (horizontal timbers), however, post and beam structures often use glulams, or structurally engineered laminated timber, while most classic timber frame structures use solid wood.
Additionally, post and beam construction often incorporates metal plates and other metal hardware. In contrast, timber frame construction utilizes traditional wood-to-wood joinery (often mortise & tenon) held together by stout wooden pegs.
Timber Frame vs. Log Cabin Construction
Timber frames are not a type of log home. That said, some log homes do incorporate timber framing–think timber frame roof trusses and/or front entries. The difference between a log home and a timber frame is how they’re built and the way they look. Log home walls are constructed from horizontally stacked logs (think of the Lincoln Logs you played with as a child).
Log home walls look unmistakably like log homes. It’s a rustic look, but in the right setting, it just seems to fit.
Unlike log homes, timber frame (and post and beam) buildings are built with large horizontal beams and vertical posts to create a structural framework (think of the Erector or Tinker Toy set you played with as a child).
While log homes almost have a “preferred habitat”, timber frame and post and beam homes are great at blending in. The exterior of a timber frame home is indistinguishable from a conventional home–so it can be brick, or siding, or stone. Once inside, the gorgeous timber frame structure is revealed, and the interior walls can be anything you’d like them to be–from sheetrock, to brick, to painted nickel gap shiplap paneling.
Timber Frame vs. Conventional Construction
Unlike timber framing, conventional construction requires load-bearing walls and relies on nails to connect small pieces of lumber (think 2x4s). Conventionally built structures also use spray foam or batt fiberglass insulation instead of the high performance SIPs that typically enclose a full timber frame structure.
A Brief History of Timber Frame Construction
Hardly a new type of construction, timber framing has existed for millennia. Over the centuries, skilled craftsmen have constructed barns, homes, inns, businesses, and even massive factories using timber framing in areas as far flung as England and Japan.
In the United States, timber frame construction experienced a decline late in the 19th century. With the invention of mass-produced nails, steam-powered sawmills, and the demand for more housing (as the population pushed west) came conventional balloon framing, which was later superseded by platform framing (pictured above).
However, a 20th-century revival brought timber framing back to the forefront. Today, there’s a growing demand for this building method, thanks primarily to the visual appeal of timber framing, but also due to the passionate and dedicated men and women who practice and grow the craft.
Timber Frame Terms You Should Know
- Timber frame raising: This timber frame tradition refers to the process of erecting a frame. For centuries, a timber frame raising has been a cause for celebration. Today, we continue to celebrate the hard work that goes into a new or restored timber frame structure.
- SIP: Structural insulated panels wrap timber frame structures in a blanket of high-performance insulation. They’re known for shrinking utility bills and their ability to create a cozy indoor environment.
- Joinery: Timber frame construction relies on wood-to-wood joinery. Most structures use mortise and tenon joints to connect posts and beams.
- Trusses: Timber frame trusses are triangular frames made from heavy timber. Trusses provide structural support for timber frame roofs and can also serve a decorative function.
What Are the Benefits of Timber Frame Construction?
There are so many reasons to appreciate timber framing. Here are some of the biggest benefits:
A timber frame is more than a mere structure. It’s also an experience. The exposed wood framework evokes a sense of being close to nature, eliciting on some level a secure, grounded feeling (after all, you can see exactly what is holding up the roof and walls).
Many timber frame owners also enjoy the varied ceiling heights, long diagonal views, and wide open spaces these structure provide, as there’s often no need for load-bearing interior partition walls.
Wood is the only renewable building resources we have. Think about that. Everything else depends on using up something. While necessary, concrete, steel, and plastics require huge amounts of energy (and resulting CO2 emissions) to make. And unlike 2x4s or particleboard, at the end of the building’s life, nobody is going to throw the timbers from a timber frame into a dumpster. Wood, if kept dry, will last centuries, and the new timbers from your timber frame will one day become tomorrow’s prized antique timber and almost certainly salvaged and reused for other projects—making timber framing highly sustainable.
Timber frame structures are known for their ability to withstand snow, wind, storms, and other severe weather. That’s because the joinery and timber sizes are designed for the loads (take time to thank an engineer’s mother) and because of another one of wood’s wonderful characteristics: elasticity. Just like people, wood bends and gives a bit under load.
Finally, since timber frame buildings are often loved, they’re usually well-maintained, and houses that are maintained can (and do) endure for centuries.
Timber frame structures work beautifully in either residential or commercial settings—and they can easily be multi-purpose structures. For example, you can use a timber frame barn for equipment storage most of the time, pull out the New Holland baler and that pile of barn boards you’re going to get around to cleaning up one of these days, and transform it into a wedding venue anytime your best friend decides to get hitched (again).
What Can You Build With Timber Frame Construction?
From custom homes and barns to gazebos and pavilions, we’ve got quite a few ideas for timber frame projects:
- Homes: Whether a small cottage or a legacy home, a timber frame house can be the perfect place to call home.
- Businesses: More and more businesses are timber framed because they make really nice places to work, and visit.
- Gazebos and Pavilions: Ideal for anything from hosting parties to relaxing with the family, gazebos and pavilions make being outside even better.
- Barns: Whether you need a space to house animals, store equipment, or entertain guests, a timber frame barn is a beautiful and versatile space.
- Carport: A timber frame carport can be much more than a shelter for your vehicles. In nice weather, it can also double as an outdoor entertainment pavilion.
- Reclaimed Wood Bench: A timber frame bench can add rustic (but refined) beauty inside or outside of your home. Try it in the foyer, in the mud room, or even as a garden bench.
- Want More Ideas? A collection of cool timber frame dreams and ideas that are still stuck on paper…