Choices

People build timber frame homes because they choose to – nobody has to have a timber frame in their house. If you’re building a timber frame home – or thinking about it – you’re in effect telling everybody that when it comes to creating a Timber Framing Design Choicesdwelling for yourself and your family, it’s you that’s deciding on how it looks and goes together, not a builder/developer putting up cookie-cutter McMansions on a tract of old farming land.

 

With heavy timbers, you don’t usually just open a sample book and say “I’ll have one of those, please.” So get ready to make a lot of choices; choices about architectural style, materials, surfaces and finishes, extent and scale and complexity, and so on. We hope the following will shed a little light on the kinds of things you’ll have to think about.

 

 

 

 

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Architectural Style

We’re fond of saying that timber framing is a method of construction, not a style. In other words, you can adapt heavy timber construction to a wide spectrum of architectural styles and philosophies. Not so with building methods such as adobe or log. With these construction methods, they are the style. Who can – or wants to – imagine an adobe Victorian house, or a post-modern log structure?

Since building with heavy timber has been around for so long, it has been adapted to architectural styles spanning centuries and continents. We’ve built timber frames for homes and commercial spaces that have run the stylistic gamut from medieval hall to contemporary, from craftsman to postmodern. All of this to say, timber framing can be naturally adapted to your personal sense of architectural and interior style. Your architect or one of our designers can help to realize your vision.

Timber Frame Design

Architectural decisions have a big influence on the design of a timber frame. Is the timber frame a major component of the structural system, or is it a purely decorative retrofit “trim-ber” frame? How do window and door placement, interior walls and partitions, floor plan and roof layout affect the overall design of the timber structure? Should the feel of the frame be massive and hulking, or light and airy? Is there timber framing everywhere in the house, even where you won’t see it, or are only certain areas timber framed to maximize visual impact and your timber framing dollar? (Every one of these questions has budgetary ramifications, too.)

Within a given set of factors affecting design, there is a seemingly inexhaustible range of design options and permutations available. A competent timber frame designer should be able to elicit from you the information needed to create a design that will match your vision exactly. Often it’s as simple as showing one of our designers an image or two of something that really speaks to you. Of course, there’s also a vocabulary that it helps to know, so that you don’t have to rely quite as much on gestures and phrases like “that vertical thingy”.

The Timbers Themselves

Just as there is a wealth of architectural and timber frame design possibilities available, so too is there a plethora of options for the timbers themselves. This choice is highly personal, and is driven mostly by the overall feeling that you would like to evoke. Timber frames can feel rustic and simple, or sleek and contemporary; and there are plenty of in-between design sensibilities that can be satisfied, too. Here’s a list of some of the basic options:

We’ve built timber frames from Douglas fir, white and red and mixed oak, hemlock, white pine, southern yellow pine, longleaf yellow pine, cedar, maple, poplar, American chestnut (recycled) and even Mahogany. This isn’t by any means an exhaustive list of the species of timber that could be used. In our company Douglas fir is by far the most popular species. Each has its advantages and disadvantages – in appearance and suitability for a particular project, and in cost.
Many species are available in various appearance and structural grades. The grade selection of a timber frame depends partly on personal preferences – some people prefer a rustic, simple look; and structural requirements – some frame designs need timbers of the highest strength to accomplish long spans and handle tension, for example.
This has to do with its moisture content at the time of fabrication. Historically, timber frames were fabricated from fresh-sawn or partially air-dried timbers. This is still true today, but kiln-dried timbers are also available now, and a good many timber frames are fabricated from recycled timbers. The moisture content of a timber determines how much shrinkage you can expect to occur in the timbers after they have been erected. By far the most stable are recycled timbers, since they’ve had plenty of time to reach equilibrium.
As we’ve already mentioned, both new and recycled timbers can be used for a new timber frame. Recycled timbers lend themselves well to a more rustic feel, but we’ve done timber frames with recycled material in very contemporary spaces. Recycled timbers are taken from factory buildings dating back to the 19th century, and from barns and other old utility structures dating even further back. In recent years, the recycled flooring industry has started to compete for these old timbers, and the cost has climbed steeply. Consequently, a timber frame fabricated from recycled timbers can be significantly more costly than one using fresh-sawn timbers.
A lot of our frames are fabricated from timbers planed on all four sides and sanded dead smooth. But by no means all of them. We regularly fabricate timber frames of rough-sawn timbers – band-sawn or circular-sawn. These are usually wire-brushed to minimize the “hairy” surface of the timbers. At the far rough end of the spectrum, there is a true hand-hewn surface, replete with hewing marks. Recycled timbers are frequently hand-hewn, but on occasion we have taken smooth-surfaced timbers and given them a faux hand-hewn appearance with a broad axe and adze. Another treatment of the timber surface is “curve planing”. This process is accomplished by using a hand power planer with a blade that has a slight curvature. The blade “scoops” out the wood something like an adze might do, and gives an approximation of a hand-hewn surface. Note that any surface treatment other than the standard “surfaced 4 sides” (S4S) mill finish will add cost to the timber frame budget. Note also that rough-sawn timbers attract and hold dust more than smooth timbers.
The most common finish for an interior timber frame is a clear penetrating Danish oil, a polymerized Tung oil product. This finish isn’t really suitable for exterior applications, though, and some form of UV light blocking and moisture repellent finish is required wherever the timbers will be exposed to sunlight and the elements. Many clients ask us about dark stains. There are a number of good reasons why dark stains on timbers don’t make a lot of sense. The most common timber species for frames are softwoods and these tend to accept stain less evenly than the hardwoods like oak. A dark stain on Douglas fir tends to look blotchy and uneven. Probably more objectionable, though, is the way the stain looks after the timbers have moved around and checked a little bit. Since the stain isn’t a natural color, any areas that are exposed during shrinkage and general movement of the frame will be conspicuous and unsightly. Handling the dark stained timbers during the raising is also a problem, since if they are marred by the handling they can be very difficult to re-touch. And dark stains are generally more difficult to re-touch after they have been in service for a number of years. Even though there are good reasons to avoid the darker stains, aesthetics often overrules these objections. In the right environment, with the right kind of design, a dark finish on your timbers might just be the ticket. Light finishes can be stunning too. We’ve done frames with pickled or whitewashed timbers, and while they can be just as troublesome as dark-stained timbers, the effect can be equally dazzling.

Next: What We Do & Don’t Do

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