History of Timber Framing in New England

Traditional timber framing, or post and beam construction, is the joining of vertical and horizontal timbers together with mortise and tenon joints secured with hardwood pegs to create the structure of a building. The art of timber framing had been mastered in Europe for many centuries before the first European settlers set foot in America. In the New World, settlers found virgin forests rich with the resources to build timber structures but initially lacked the tools and the skills to do so.

After the first few years of living in crudely built thatched huts, much like people did before the advent of timber framing in Europe, settlers began to explore the methods of building with timber. Removed from European influences where timber buildings were commonly embellished with ornamentation for the more wealthy members of society, the pragmatic settlers chose to construct very basic structures. They did this by using simple joints and by using wood that was larger and longer than what had been available in Europe, where wood at the time was very scarce and frames were constructed of many smaller timbers. By the 1700's, specialized tradesmen, including master builders and skilled timber framers and carpenters, were recruited from Europe to help build barns and homes in America.

With the increase of settlement in America grew a spirit of cooperation among people that helped influence the development of timber frame construction. Whole communities comprised of neighbors, friends and relatives would gather for the raising of one family's home or barn. To make the most efficient use of the available manpower, the timber frames were assembled and raised in large sections called "bents." A bent is the framed structural unit of a timber frame, dictating its height and width and its shape in cross section. Many barn frames of the era were constructed of 3 to 6 bents with the length of the timbers connecting the bents together dictating the final length of the building. By making full use of eager neighbors and large bent sections, large buildings could often be erected in a single day.

Timber frames in colonial New England were initially cut from hardwood species such as oak as they had been in Europe. As the supply of hardwood diminished however, softwood species such as spruce, hemlock and pine were more commonly used. By the mid 1800's, when hardwood became scarce, most timber frames were built from these softwood species. Hardwood still remained the preferred material for pegs, which secured the timber joints. Before the mid-1800's, most timbers were hand-hewn from logs with broad axes or hatchets. A straight line was created along the length of a log with chalk or charcoal on a string and the log surface was scored with an axe to the depth of the line. The outer wood was then chopped away along the length of the log with downward axe swings to create a flat surface. This process was repeated on all sides of the log until a square timber emerged. An adze, a hoe-like tool swung between the hewer's legs as he straddled the timber, was sometimes used to smooth off the rough spots. Because timbers made in this manner were not uniform in size, each joint in one timber was custom cut to specifically fit a joint in another timber. After a joint was sized and trial fitted, it was inscribed with "marriage marks" to insure it was assembled correctly. This method for making timber frames was known as the "scribe rule" method. Using this technique timbers over 50' in length could be hewn from a single tree for long sill pieces, top plates and ridgepoles.

By the mid 1800's, sawmills became more common in the region and an increasing proportion of New England barns were built with sawn framing timbers. Because timbers could be manufactured to uniform sizes, joinery techniques changed to allow the production of interchangeable parts by using a framing square. This was called the "square rule" method and is the standard for most timber frames constructed today. This method was more efficient because joinery could be completed faster, less skilled craftsmen were required to cut the joinery, and the fitting of the timber did not occur until the bents were assembled on site. Because the first sawmills didn't have the capacity to cut timbers over 24', longer timbers of this era were created by joining two separate timbers end to end using a scarf joint. Some structures of this era, particularly in areas where sawmills were just introduced, were constructed with both, hand-hewn timbers for the longer members, and sawn timber for the shorter ones. Today with modern sawmills able to cut over 40' long timbers, the length of available logs usually dictates timber lengths.

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