During the early years of the rebirth of timber framing in this country, most all of the practicing companies were on a level playing field. All of us (with two exceptions on opposite ends of the spectrum) used electric hand tools plus chisels, mallets, squares, planes, knives and pencils to fashion our work. Reawakening and relearning a craft which had been in a long slumber for the better part of a century was uplifting, labor-intensive work. And it was a challenge to integrate the mechanical and electrical systems which didn’t exist when timber framing was in its heyday. There was a whole bunch of passion and sharing of information. And there was a commonality of purpose and process. There were scant few, if any, pre-designed, “€œpick one”€ timber frame plan brochures. Those who wanted a timber frame weren’t the type to go for something pre-digested and pre-packaged. The craft grew, and, although we were still a very small slice of the construction pie, beautiful structures were created.
In 1995 a small group of companies accepted the invitation of Hans Hundegger to travel to Germany to view the capabilities of his CNC timber jointing machine, of which perhaps 600 were in use in Northern Europe. The machine was quite a piece of work, stretching to 100’€™ in length, and, in places, 30’€™ wide. The joints it formed were unfamiliar, stubby and less than awe-inspiring. There were machine dog marks (incisions put into the timbers by the machine to move the timber timbers down the line) and at those joint edges which ran counter to the grain blow-outs of grain were very noticeable. Present day timber framing in Germany is a whole different animal than what is very much in evidence in quaint German villages and towns such as Rottweil and Bamberg. New timber construction in Germany (as opposed to rehabilitation of historical timber frames) is usually found in roof systems and is hidden behind the flat ceilings much like the situation with gang-nailed 2x trusses in the USA. Thus the work turned out by a Hundegger CNC machine doesn’€™t need to look fine – it just has to function.
Another objection deals with the orientation of individual timbers. In our shop, all the timbers for a frame are first set on saw horses, inspected on all four sides, and then marked with their placement within the frame. Timbers are organic and even within a high grade some faces have a better appearance than others. If we find a post has an unattractive face, that side will be placed against a wall. If we find that a post has two adjacent faces which bear being hidden, that post is assigned a corner position. A post with four great-looking faces will grace an interior location. The machines do not scrutinize the material the way we do. CNC machines perform at their best when the materials fed into them are homogeneous, materials such as plastics or metals.
Another issue I have is that there are limits to the machine capabilities, and I really do not want our designers to make joinery considerations based on those limits. My greatest objection to the machine, however, is that it will, because of its nature, cause the company which owns it, or rents time on it, to become more removed from, less involved with, the joinery and the timber frame itself. Those companies just wonÃ¢€™t care as much since they have less physical and emotional connection to the frame. They will be come mass producers.
Of the six or seven American companies represented on that initial introduction in Germany, we are the only company not won over by the twin desires for higher profits and to become mass producers. I did, however, give the machine one more look years later, after a number of them arrived on this continent and after the machine went through one or two evolutions. A company in Utah that was the North American representative of Hundegger agreed to permit one of our people to come out for a week and observe the new and improved machine at work. We were still not thrilled with the quality of work it produced. If I last another twenty or so years, and if the machine continues to evolve, and if I am willing to alienate the team of artisans it has taken us decades to assemble, I may take another look at the machine. But I doubt it.