When you admire the majestic beamwork and intricate joinery of a timber frame structure, you might wonder just what it takes to build something like that. Although it’s possible to lay out and cut a timber frame with surprisingly few tools (pencil, square, string line, chisel, mallet, saw, and drill), it’s easier and faster to use specific timber framing tools. Most of these “timber frame” tools would be familiar to any woodworker—but they’re much larger versions.
The first power tools most new timber frame companies acquire are a (large) circular saw and a chain mortiser. These two tools do a lot of work (and make a lot of sawdust), quickly. From there, the sky’s the limit—up to state-of-the-art, 6-axis computer-controlled timber frame joinery cutting machines.
So what’s in our timber frame shop? We compiled a list of our team’s preferred timber framing tools so you get a better sense of how we build timber frames—or so you can put together your own tool set.
Our Timber Frame Tools Guide
A framing square, also known as a carpenter’s square, is an essential layout tool for measuring and marking angles. Despite its name, a framing square typically has an L shape—but some variations may be square.
The L shape features a wider and longer side (body) that meets the shorter and thinner side (tongue) to create a perfect 90-degree angle (at least until it’s dropped—AKA the concrete kiss). The sides also act as rulers and have scribed notches that indicate measurements.
We appreciate the versatility of framing squares, and in addition to using them daily to lay out and check angles and lines on timbers, we also use them as straightedges and winding sticks among other uses.
Combination squares are similar to framing squares in that the long flat arm acts as a ruler. However, combination squares also have adjustable heads that slide along the ruler. These components can include a simple fence for 90-degree angles, adjustable knobs to transfer measurements, bubble levels for measuring level and plumb, or protractor heads to change the ruler to any angle between 0 and 180 degrees.
If you need to measure something, simply move the adjustable head to the specific measurement you need from the end of the ruler. We like to use combination squares for any project that requires measuring depth and squareness of adjacent surfaces such as mortise depth. By setting a specific measurement along the ruler, the combination square can speed up joinery layout for repetitive measurements.
Block planes are small and versatile tools that can smooth the end grain of timber. Since the blade is set at a low angle, it performs this job better than a standard woodworking plane. These planes are great for beveling the edges of tenons on timber joinery.
A framing chisel is a handheld tool that can cut or shape timber joinery. These longer and more robust chisels typically have a 1- to 2-inch blade width. When pushed by hand or struck with a mallet, they can cut almost any type of joinery. Either way, when using a framing chisel, you aim for a close, precise cut.
Mallets and chisels go hand in hand, as we use the former to strike the latter. A good mallet is neither too heavy nor too light. We look for well-balanced mallets designed to minimize impact when striking the chisel. Dense wood makes a better mallet head than metal as it transfers all of the driving force through to the chisel, without splitting or damaging the chisel handle.
Hand saws can come in many variations and can cut any type of wood. Some timber framers prefer a Japanese hand saw, which cuts on a pull stroke, while others prefer a western-style hand saw that cuts on a push stroke. We often prefer to cut with hand saws instead of electric saws for more control over finer details and small cuts.
Electric saws are similar to hand saws, but with built-in electrical motors for power. Some timber framers cut material using chainsaws, circular saws, or bandsaws (with metal guides and long blades):
- Chainsaws can do the rough work of segmenting longer timbers into smaller pieces.
- Circular saws do most of the cross and rip cuts for timber joinery.
- Bandsaws are preferred for long radius cuts like curves in knee braces or arches.
Chain mortisers cut recessed “pockets” into timbers. Like a chainsaw, this tool has a rotating toothed chain that removes material from the timber to create the mortise. Because mortise and tenon joinery is integral to timber framing, this is one of our most used tools. This work was previously done in two steps by drilling and chisel work, but is now much faster with this specialized type of tool.
Similar to chain mortisers, chain slotters cut narrow “slots” into timber. This specialized tool is more precise than a chainsaw, although it is less common than a chain mortiser.
Also known as a drill press, a drilling station is an alternative to a portable drill. This setup has an adjustable drill table, as well as a base and pillar to keep the drill stationary. A clamp keeps smaller timbers in place, allowing for more accurate drilling.
Unlike handheld drills, drilling stations offer larger and more powerful motors that can speed up any repetitive processes and improve efficiency for larger projects or mass produced timber components. There are also portable drill presses that can be clamped to large timbers when moving the tool is more efficient than moving the timber.
Planers and Sanders
Electric or power planers are mechanized versions of block planes in that they can quickly remove, even, and smooth out the surface of the wood.
We typically opt for power planers when working with large timbers. Similar to planers, sanders smooth out imperfections and provide a softer finish using a rough or fine grit sandpaper disc or belt.
Routers and Notchers
Routers and notchers make grooves in the surface or certain profiles along the edge of timber components. A router can use a variety of differently shaped bits to create various decorative effects. We also rely on routers to create housings or notches for some specialized timber frame joints.
Oversized Timbe Frame Tools
Hundegger ROBOT-Drive CNC Machine
By this point, you can likely tell that timber framers have a tool addiction problem. In photography, it’s known as GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)—pity the spouses of timber framers who also dabble in photography.
Craftsmen have always looked for the best tools to execute their craft, and in timber framing, that means robotics: state-of-the-art, CNC (computer numeric control), timber framing machines.
These machines offer speed, precision, reliable delivery times, and sustainability.
- Reliable delivery times because the software tells us, in advance, how many hours it’s going to take to cut a job—so we can schedule our workflow in the shop very precisely.
- And sustainability, because the software optimizes every cut—to get the most out of a given timber with the least possible waste.
These machines are a fusion of old-world craftsmanship and new-world technology, combining the best of the nineteenth century with the best of the twenty-first.
The 6-minute video below tells the story of a radical investment Carolina Timberworks made. It’s radical for two reasons:
- There’s an inherent conflict with our passionate 16-year commitment to hand-cut traditional timber framing.
- The cost of the investment is significant.
The story of why we did it is here.
We’re not giving up traditional craftsmanship—in fact we’re growing and plan to hire even more craftspeople. And whether or not you’re a timber framer, we think you’ll agree that there’s something truly mesmerizing about watching our Hundegger in action.