Regarding our Resources
In light of these two recent timber frame projects, I believe it's fitting to share a wonderful story that embodies a proper regard for old growth timbers. The story is not my own, but comes from Steve Chappell, a master timber framer. He recounts this tale in his book A Timber Framer's Workshop. For anyone expressing an interest in timber frame construction, I highly recommend Chappell's book as an excellent primer. Hopefully, you find it a worthwhile read, but if nothing else, this post serves as a form of personal reflection on the value of the materials and resources that I use.
"Carpenters, in nearly all cases prior to the Industrial Revolution, built with timbers that grew locally, or directly from the building site. By being restricted to the native timber supply, the traditions and common practices of curing, seasoning, and even joinery design, evolved for a variety of local wood species through experience. If the supply of premium timbers was not available, and as their preferred species became scarce, they adapted to new species and developed new sets of criteria.
In Germany, oak was the timber of choice through the 16th century. By the mid 17th century, the oak forests in Germany (and most of Europe) were nearly depleted, so they adapted to pine and spruce. To the north, in the Scandinavian countries, the stave church builders of the 8th through 11th centuries had vast pine forests as a timber supply, hence the stave churches were built of pine. Pine was the predominant timber in this period, but by the l6th century spruce had become the dominant species throughout Scandinavia, and subsequent frames were built using spruce.
English carpenters, having fewer coniferous forests, preferred the oaks, and were forced early on to manage their forests well. When oak became scarce, they often turned to English elm as a second choice, but their choices were more limited than that of the continent. It was common practice in England to plant a grove of oak trees to replace those harvested for each new building. I have a short story concerning this.
On one of my trips to England in the early 1980's I was visiting with Richard Harris, the Research Director at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, and the author of the great little book, Discovering Timber-Framed Buildings, in a pub in London. We were discussing the English timber framing traditions over a pint, and I queried something about the use of crooked timbers as not being by choice. My understanding was that the English had depleted their hardwood forests by the 16th century making charcoal and tithe barns (so as to collect taxes), essentially forcing them into woodland and forest conservancy not by choice, but by need (as a result, the now centuries-old forest management and reforestation programs of England manage some of their forests on a 300 year rotation). This led to my questioning the purported claim that the English began to plant trees in equal number to that used for each new building they built. Harris responded that there was truth to both notions, and then began to recount what to me was a most amazing story.
A few months earlier, it seems, he had received a call from one of the deans at Oxford, asking him to come to take a survey of one of the timber framed chapels on the campus. The 200 year old structure was built with English oak timbers and they seemed to have problems with beetles. Harris arrived, and sure enough his survey proved the problem to be real. It seems that a common type of powder post beetle had infested the timbers, many of which, he deemed, needed to be replaced. The next question was where to get such timbers.
Just like most of the old estate manors in England had their own woodland forest, Harris knew that the older institutions and universities had their own private forests as well. Upon looking into it he found that Oxford did indeed have its own private forest land, bequeathed by the King when university was charted, and after a bit of research found the number of the forest keeper. Upon calling the man to explain his need, the forester responded, "I have been waiting for your call now for some time." Harris was a bit confused, but the forester went on to say, "It says here in our records that those timbers would be due for replacement some time in early 1980's, and yes, we have the trees here ready to harvest. We've been preparing for that day, so just tell me when you want them and we will manage the felling and delivery of the timbers."
It seems they kept very good records, and in the book it stated that this particular type of oak was prone to powder post beetle attack once it reached 200 years old, and that these particular timbers would need to be replaced within an extremely accurate time frame of the actual date. The detailed notes and prognostications for this building, and indeed, the plans for its refurbishing were made as they were building it some 200 year earlier in the 1770's. Furthermore, they had indeed planted trees sufficient to replace the building—and they were now mature, 200 year old oaks of a quality equal to or better than the original timbers. This is real forward thinking."
- Steve Chappell
May my own plans and records reflect such consideration and care, that is my prayer.
Steve Chappell, A Timber Framer's Workshop (Brownfield: Fox Maple Press, 2016), 132-133.