Members of the TFG toured Shelburne Farms (near this year's Burlington conference) a few years ago in preparation for a restoration project.
Bits of the Manchester conference
By all accounts, the TFG conference in Manchester, N.H., August 7–10, was a success. The mobile sawmill and hewing demonstrations outdoors featured nice crowds and pleasant sunny weather. Jonathan Bechard led participants in stone foundation techniques in a shady parking lot corner. Also outside, Marcus Brandt, Duke Besozzi, and Capt. Patrick Flynn taught techniques in “saltwater timber framing,” or shipwrighting. Here is just a taste of conference events.
Timber frame: the next generation: Mike Beganyi, Gabel Holder, Josh Jackson, Mark Gillis, Brad Morse
The soul of timber frames: Steve Chappell
I am fairly new to timber framing. I was struck, as I have been before at Guild events, by the passion this craft inspires in me and so many who come in touch with timber frames. As Gabel Holder put it, “There was a picture of [the late] Ed Levin standing in the door frame of a blacksmith shop looking up at the trusses . . . That’s when I knew I was going to timber frame. I had to get that. I had to build that.”
Mainly, discussion focused on how to bring the next generation into timber framing. Thoughts included making Guild events more accessible, bringing presentations to schools, and in some fashion recruiting young people into the trade. Josh Jackson said, “It’s the beauty or soul of timber framing that draws us to it. As long as there are timber frame buildings, people will strive to build their own.”
Something touches us deeply when we take in the strength of a timber frame joint, the sweeping curve of a cruck bent, the gravity of a well-built building, a harmonic hard to find in the world around us. Steve Chappell, in Designing Complex Mortise and Tenon Joinery, said, “Once in a while struggling through the complexity of compound roof framing, you may be forced to cut a joint that perhaps no one else has ever cut. And then seeing it fit together puts a smile on your face. It is the union of perfection and grace.”
What touches us is not only the beauty of the materials, but that the rules and methods of timber framing are not arbitrary. They are based in truths of geometry and gravity. Chappell related one of the most wonderful experiences he has ever had: finding a compound purlin joint during the restoration of a 12th-century stave church in Norway. It was identical to some that he had been forced to work out and cut in the States. The requirements of timber framing had transcended time and space, enabling the same joint to be discovered by craftsmen 800 years and 3000 miles apart.
It seems to me that although it is important to bring others and perhaps especially young people in contact with timber frames, we cannot keep the craft alive merely by instilling the desire to timber frame in others. The soul found in timber frames depends on its participation in these greater truths. Chappell ended by saying, “If timber framing is going to be anything in the next 50 years, it will be found in its qualities of beauty and harmony, not its predominance as a building technique.” No plan will successfully solve the question of the next generation. The answer is found within the craft itself. It is the innate soul of timber framing that will bring people to the craft, so we as craftsmen must do what we love most—build beautiful timber frames.
History of timber framing in the U.S.: Jack Sobon
Just before the conference in Manchester, Grigg III and I were about four miles from where I grew up, on a road in Lincoln, R.I., that I don’t think I’d ever been on. We saw a couple of old houses that looked unusual to us, as if one outside wall was almost entirely chimney. We learned, in Jack Sobon’s Friday conference talk, that these are called “stone-enders,” and are almost unique to that area.
Jack described his talk as a condensed version of his two-day course, so he would be going fast, covering a lot, and also, by design, leaving a lot out. Generally he covered the timeline of building in America, starting with Pilgrim settlers in Plymouth, Mass., in 1620.
An architect and timber framer, Jack had worked on some buildings at Plimoth Plantation, and he explained that in recent years, Plimoth and other living history museums have returned to historically accurate methods as they build and preserve. He described the changes in methods of converting logs to timber as different technology became available: broadaxes for hewing, pit saws, and finally powered sawmills. He also told of the progression in New England from small one-story, one-room houses to larger buildings such as those boasting Connecticut River Valley doorways. Jack explained quite logically a lot of little details of construction we may see today and not recognize or understand even if we do recognize them: match marks, types of sawing, split instead of sawn, and so on. These are things that he told us he’s learned by observation and by duplicating old work and methods the best he can.
L’art du trait: Pat Moore
Pat Moore, a native of Canada and a new graduate of the French Compagnon program, explained that, although trait is commonly translated as “line, “the closest equivalent in English for l’Art du Trait is “roof geometry,” but that doesn’t exactly cover it. It’s a craftsman’s technique, the art of representing volumes in depth through developed drawing. It’s also a departure from engineers’ theoretical values and material strengths, based instead on empirical knowledge discovered through trial and error. There is no calculator needed; no numbers. In his course material, Pat writes, “The concept of l’Art du Trait allows the carpenter to use three-dimensional description to design complex wooden structures. It is empirical-type knowledge, directly connected to practical worksite issues, but which has developed into a genuine intellectual discipline that cultivates the art of solving problems on one’s own.”
This art form was at its peak in skill and creativity in France during the 19th century. However, the First World War destroyed much of the French infrastructure, and this empirical practice largely died out.
It is Moore’s goal to spread knowledge of l’art du trait. “We must bring craftsmen and design together. The separation of these two kills imagination,” he said. In the 21st century, we can find computer programs to calculate any angle and manipulate shapes in almost any way we can imagine. In a few more years there will probably be machines able cut the most complicated compound joinery. But the creative intuition of the human mind is crucial to any art, and we must keep it in our work as timber framers.
Featured presentation: Ken Burns
For the final talks of the Manchester conference, I felt like I should have been in an old New England church, and not a college meeting room. Tedd Benson introduced Kevin Jacoby, son-in-law of Ed Levin. Kevin honored Ed Levin, a founding father of the Guild, who passed away last year. Eloquent from the start, Kevin described with poignancy Ed’s “perfect imperfections.” He told us of the caramel sundaes eaten on their last visit, capped off with a viewing of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. Kevin’s words were moving; I expect there were few dry eyes in the room.
Ken Burns then delivered the inaugural talk in the Ed Levin Memorial Lectureship series. He told us that he had been born a filmmaker, and that his works on historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson were his attempts to “wake the dead.” He knew to whom he spoke, and not just because he has recently built a timber frame barn home on his Walpole, N.H., property. He made wonderful connections between timber framing and filmmaking.
The last story he told us was about interviewing playwright Arthur Miller (author of “A View from the Bridge”) for his film on the Brooklyn Bridge. Burns asked one question, that he doesn’t remember, but used Miller’s entire answer in the documentary. Burns told us he shared Miller’s desire to “make something that would last and be beautiful.” He spoke of the power of architecture, both commercial and domestic. The Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Guggenheim Museum in New York is fairly small and personal, for example, yet it portrays the feeling of a much larger space. He has noticed that when he’s alone in his timber frame barn, he does not feel dwarfed, and that hosting large groups of people does not feel cramped. Relating filmmaking to timber framing, he said, “the intentionality that goes into what we do gives it dimension.”
2013 conference proceedings available PDF (4 meg)
2013 Conference TFG/TTRAG
Champlain College, Burlington, Vermont
August 8–11, 2013
Conference theme—“Back to Our Roots”
This year we combined the Timber Framers Guild and the Traditional Timberframe Research and Advisory Group conferences. The Timber Frame Engineering Council added engineer-presenters and the Timber Frame Business Council took part as well.
John Abrams, architect and author, as plenary speaker wrestled with what he called The Long Now.
Fire Tower Engineered Timber added shear testing to their joint-busting.
Pre-conference workshops included stairbuilding with Billy Dillon; Mike Beganyi on Advanced SketchUp + Layout; Ellen Gibson on chip carving; scribing natural forms with the help of Josh Jackson; the TFEC engineering symposium; and Clark Bremer taking you through compound joinery with Google SketchUp.
Jan Lewandoski and Eliot Lothrop led the TTRAG tour of Vermont churches and barns.
Conference reports to follow soon.
2012 Eastern Conference
The Guild gathered for the second time at the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Virginia, October 17-21 for a round of preconference technical workshops, a tour of local timber-framed structures and two days of presentations. Some 165 members and presenters participated in a rich menu of workshops and seminars on timber frame design, history, engineering and business, as well a lively auction and slide show of new work. The Guild's Timber Frame Engineering Council held its annual symposium and a featured speech by Tedd Benson reviewed the early history of the timber framing revival and the evolution of his own company. The indispensible joint-busting completed a new chapter.