Timber Frame Construction in Minnesota: The Old Craft
Updated: Jun 12, 2019
“So you wanna build a timber frame?,” I ask you with a slight grin on my face. I’m smiling as I remember the last timber frame project I worked on. They are a grand thing to behold; a structure that has the ability to stop you in your tracks and ask you very politely with a shine in its eye to please appreciate and reflect on its boldness. A very charming piece of architecture indeed. These great wooden beauties tend also to be simultaneously the best and worst part of one’s day. Timber frame projects come with their very own brand of obstacle and reward. All rhetorical questions aside, is it worth it? – Absolutely. Let’s get started.
So what is a timber frame? Quite simply, exactly what it sounds like. Most houses built in America have wooden skeletons. The lumber that holds them up is often a combination of pine 2x4, 2x6, and plywood material that is then covered by a layer of drywall or plaster. Timber frame structures apply the same principle but with a much more striking and impressive technique.
Rather than a hidden network of matchstick supports, timber frame structures rest on a system of heavy, broad beams and posts. These, as you may have guessed, are called timbers; great coniferous or hardwood logs hewn to have, often, four faces; notched and carved to achieve a family of complex and sometimes not-so-complex locking joints. (More on this later). Because of their strength, timbers are able to be spaced further apart and are designed to be left exposed, showing off their quiet confidence in form and function. This is the great appeal.
If you can imagine a giant Lincoln Log set you’ve pretty much got it nailed down. Heh, nailed down. Get it? In fact, after witnessing the fabrication, layout, and assembly of one of these projects you’d swear the comparison isn’t too far off. Still, standing in one and looking upward is enough to bring to mind words of appreciative depth like “jeez”, “holy smokes, and “what a beaut.” When I first feasted my eyes on a timber frame home my own heart stirred with the sound of fiddles, the soft touch of flannel, and an inexplicable urge to chop down a tree. I soon grew dizzy and blacked out. And when I awoke the smell of pine boughs was thick on me. I was covered in maple syrup and had grown a full beard despite the fact that I’d shaved just that morning.
In truth, Renaissance Builders got its first opportunity to work on a timber frame home in 2010. We of course knew nothing of the process and so introduced ourselves to a crew of timber frame carpenters who specialized in the craft and were led by a gentleman by the name of Phil Bjork.
A real man’s man. Really, the guy had such a calm cool nature as to rival a mountain stream. He wore band collared shirts and a Wyatt Earp mustache. I once got the chance to visit his shop in northern Minnesota. It was situated back in the woods where the cacophony of milling wouldn’t be a bother to anybody.
His shop was impressive and our conversation eventually drifted from business. “Man, I’d love to have a shop like this. I want to build a boat,” I said.
He turned to me, “Oh? Are you a sea-faring man?”
“Not yet, but I have plans to learn to sail.”
He waved his hand, “Come look at this. I think you’ll appreciate it.” We walked over gravel to a large building across the yard. The huge carriage door slid open and inside was a thirty-foot steel tug boat. Well, it used to be a tug boat. Phil was in the process of remodeling it.
“Wow,” I said. “This is great.” I walked around one side and stuck my head in through a large hole in the hull. The whole surface had been scoured to a uniform dull gray. Inside was an incomplete set of ribs. “Where did you learn to weld?”
He looked at me and very calmly raised his eyebrows. “I’m learning right now.” We both laughed and I shook my head. Right about then I thought, ‘When I grow up I want to be like Phil’.
We learned a lot that year from Phil’s crew and soon fell in love with the style of timber construction. One of the more critical and intriguing concepts is that of joinery. (Isn’t that a great word?) That is, a point where two or more timbers come together and are fastened to one another by any combination of pins, gussets, and joints. They are marvelous to look at.
We walked away from that project with a new found passion. Since that day we’ve enjoyed incorporating timber accents in various other projects. Marrying classic design with modern finishes and rustic timber accents makes for a home with a beautifully refined appreciation of architecture.
Thinking about a timber frame yourself but have some reservations? Give us a call to schedule a free consultation or click the link below. We would love to share our experience in the matter and help you design and build the home of your dreams. To see more of the timber frame projects we've completed, click on one of the photos.