Over the years I’ve noticed significant changes within our industry and craft. A number of these I’ve applauded, others I’ve resisted. At the top of the list of the latter — those in which I most obstinately avoid participating — is the use of third party erection crews.
When I first began timber framing I knew of no company that didn’t erect their own frames. The same guys who carved the frame raised the frame. In the mid-nineties, though, CNC machines, primarily from Germany, began arriving on our shores. As more and more companies jumped on this bandwagon it became obvious that while the machine could really spit out frames, it couldn’t put them up. At the same time, many of these companies lost their best and most experienced craftsmen — people who chose not to be handmaidens to a machine.
So, faced with more frames and fewer people to erect them, some of the machine companies “offered” to send a factory rep to assist a local raising crew, often assembled by either the GC or the homeowner. About this same time, we saw the rise of third party timber frame erection companies. Some of these erection companies were comprised of timber frame companies that didn’t have enough work in their own shops to keep busy. Some were small gangs of former steel erectors. These third party companies often raised frames for several different machine companies. I know of only one company that purchased a machine and continued to raise their own frames.
As time progressed, another change occurred. Some – ostensibly “hand-crafted” – timber frame companies started subbing out some or most or – in some cases — all of their frame “carving” to machine companies that had open time on their CNC’s. So now it’s possible for a timber frame company to function solely as a broker — and some do.
Personally, as well as speaking for all the souls here at LCTF, I see no good in either of these changes. We insist on raising our own frames because:
– Doing so gives us total control, total care, and total responsibility. There is no way that a third party raising crew, showing up to raise a timber frame – which they didn’t design, lay out, carve, pre-fit or sand and finish — will handle and work the timbers with anywhere near the same care, caution and respect as those craftsmen who worked the timber from the beginning. For example, cranes arrive at the site with a goodly number of slings which are used to fly the timber into place. The problem is that these same straps have been used to fly steel girders and pipe and are embedded with grease and oil and steel particles and mud and grime. Long ago, we purchased our own straps which we keep away from all the bad stuff. Additionally, the men who climb on the timber truck to strap up the timbers wear white-soled sneakers which they put on when they need to walk on the timbers. Such little details carry through throughout the raising and they do make a difference.
– Maintaining control of safety on the job-site is another big concern of ours. An accident on a job-site is an event whose repercussions extend far into the future. Our least experienced craftsman here and Lancaster County Timber Frames has been with us for over five years. And since we raise 25 or more frames a year we have the dance down very well. Everyone knows what to do and how to do it. Everyone knows where the land mines are. Everyone knows the safety protocols. A lot of things can go wrong at a raising. A crew of very experienced, dedicated, and – above all, invested — men can and does diminish the possibility of mishaps significantly.
– Lastly, we raise our own frames for the sheer joy of it. Ten or so years ago I sat down with Josh Coleman whom we had hired shortly after he graduated with a degree in engineering. Josh’s main duty was design. We’ve always had a policy that requires designers to spend time on the shop floor and to participate in the erection of the frames they design. Josh was a maestro on the computer, but we had him spending an awful lot of time at raisings. In a moment of trying to be sensitive, I said something like “I’m sorry that you’ve had to spend so much time away from the computer.” Josh looked at me like I had just uttered the dumbest thought ever. “Tony, getting to go to raisings is why I’m still at Lancaster County Timber Frames. I want to be part of the whole process. I need to be there, I want to participate in the final act.” I’ve come to realize that for everyone here the raising of the timbers is more of a ceremony than it is a task.