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Occupational Traditions – Timber Framing

The first English settlers brought the tradition of building houses and barns with heavy frames of hewn or rough-sawn timbers to New Hampshire in the early 1600s. The style of building, today referred to as "timber framing" or "post and beam," is based upon carpentry practices of 16th century England.

hand hewing

Hand hewing a wooden peg using
a draw shave.

Timber framing relies upon a self-supporting network of large timbers that insert into one another through closely fitted wooden joinery. The basic element of the frame is called a "bent," which consists of a combination of posts and beams made rigid with braces.

The basic technique for joining two perpendicular timbers is called "mortise-and-tenon" joinery. It consists of a carved post end (tenon) that fits into the accepting carved opening (mortise). The joint is secured with wooden peg, usually hand hewn. Other joints developed to extend the length of a span and to strengthen the frame. These include scarf, lap and tying joints.


With the siding of a historic barn
removed, the construction principles
of timber framing are revealed.
Large beams are supported by
bracing connected with
puzzle-like joints.

Through the 1800s the favorite woods for framing in New Hampshire were oak and Eastern white pine. New Hampshire forests supported much of the building on the East Coast, and timber-framed structures were exported to as far away as Newfoundland and the British West Indies.

In the mid-1800s new sawing technology revolutionized building techniques and much of the country adopted the "stick" or the "balloon" frame for building houses. This method of construction relies on smaller sawn timbers placed in a closely packed grid and fastened with nails.

While most carpenters around the country eventually adopted the balloon frame for building houses, there were some builders in New England who never gave up building timber frames for barns. In the 1960s a resurgence of interest in timber framing began in New Hampshire and has since spread to other parts of the country.

mortisse trimming

A timber framer trims out a mortise
on a beam.

Modern timber framing takes the basic principles of the past and applies them to house designs in which the frame is enjoyed for it's natural beauty. Instead of covering up the supporting beams, braces, and floor joists, they are left exposed. Leaders in the renaissance of timber framing include Tedd Benson, whose three books have propelled the movement to a new level of appreciation and skill. Tedd's feelings are shared by many timber framers who will say, "There's a satisfaction in making buildings that you know will survive hundreds of years."

A powerful vehicle for support for timber framing emerged in 1985 with the founding of the Timber Framers Guild of North America. They offer members a newsletter, a magazine, workshops, conferences, and information on how to get specialized tools. They have become a powerful advocate for traditional building techniques and have trained hundreds of timber framers over the past 40 years.

barn raising

Timber framers traditionally nail
a pine bough onto the highest peak
of a building as a symbol
of life for the building
and thankfulness for the
wood used to build it.

Special note: A 40x60 foot timber framed barn was raised at the New Hampshire program of the 1999 Smithsonian Folklife Festival courtesy of Benson Woodworking (Walpole, NH) with assistance from Timber Framers Guild of North America. Wood donations for the barn and demonstrations were provided by Granite State Forest products and Beaman Lumber, Inc.

For more information on timber framing, visit the Timber Framers Guild website.

Photo credits: Draw shave, Lynn Martin Graton; Beans, Lynn Martin Graton; trimming out a mortise, Lynn Martin Graton; barn raising, Gary Samson.

New Hampshire State Council on the Arts
19 Pillsbury Street - 1st Floor, Concord, NH 03301