Hanson talk outlines rise, fall of timber frame building
HANSON — It’s said “they don’t build ’em like they used to” — but there is also an adage that “everything old is new again.”
Both can be applied to timber frame building, according to carpenter and historian of his craft Stephen Kemmett, who spoke on New England timber frame construction during the Hanson Historical Society’s final meeting of the season on Thursday, Aug. 2 at the town’s historic Schoolhouse No. 4.
Timber frame construction, it seems, is on something of a minor comeback among a clientele of means, but Kemmett cautioned that care must be taken in the trade so that demand doesn’t outstrip the raw materials — trees.
It happened once before when, paired with the demand for more economical and faster construction methods, the ancient craft of timber framing nearly died out completely.
“It’s gone 360˚,” he said. “It started off as a tradition of rich people wanting to tell the world about their affluence and their power and it has turned into a building system that’s mostly only available to affluent people.”
Kemmett has worked for six and a half years as an interpretive historian/carpenter at Plimouth Plantation and for the past two years has been learning timber framework techniques in the Midwest.
“These [restored] buildings are worth saving,” he said. “If you have any kind of idea of sustainability … it’s craftsmanship — sometimes good, sometimes bad — but regardless, these are trees that have already been cut down.”
The trees required are big ones.
“There is a serious concern if we become more than 5 percent of the housing market, we’ll deplete all the big trees and that’s something that none of the timber-framers want. … And as a whole, I’ve found it to be a community of people who care about sustainability.”
Before the presentation, Historical Society Co-president John Norton announced that a donation of a volume “The History of Plymouth County,” circa 1880. Norton joked that the hefty illustrated book “looks like ‘Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary’ but includes some valuable genealogical data on Hanson.
“You’d have to know what you’re looking for because the thing’s about 4,000 pages,” he said of the old book, which is in delicate condition.
A pharmacist’s scale once used at Plymouth County Hospital, was also donated to the Society by the David Ryan family.
The scale was a gift to Dr. David Ryan on his retirement and donated by his daughter, according to member Allan Clemons. Norton said the scale, like many of the Society’s artifacts are going to be displayed at the Bonney House when renovations are complete.
Fittingly for a steamy summer evening, the meeting and Kemmett’s talk was capped off with strawberries and ice cream and soft drinks over ice.
Kemmett began his talk with a description of what timber framing is — a building framed with timbers measuring four inches by four inches or larger, with six-by-six being more common.
“You can’t hold it together with just nails,” he said. “You can in some small parts, but generally it’s held together with mortise and tenons.”
The building style came to the New World with colonization, where it is a 3,000 year-old-plus tradition in the Old World with the oldest having been found in Egypt.
“We know that things like Stonehenge were built using mortise and tenons,” he said. “Now, those are stone, but it’s believed that there are more wooden henges far before that and that they led to the stone monoliths that you see in England.”
The early henge-like frames were covered with sticks and woven grasses to make small, low houses that were “comfortable for the times.” Ventilation was also poor.
Invading Saxons brought timber framing to England from Germany. A church built in the style in Cheddar, England between 500 and 800 AD is still standing today, Kemmett noted, providing a wealth of information on the intricate skill involved in the construction method.
But as farming developed economy and permitted specialized labor, carpentry became a skilled craft that created more ornate homes for the ruling classes as well as improvements in housing for ordinary folks.
“As a carpenter, you really can’t survive on building one home every 10 years,” he said. “So they start to find cheaper, easier ways to build these — they make the materials smaller, they find faster ways of hewing — so England develops a vernacular tradition, which simply means other people are doing it including famers building their own houses.”
But, to earn the title of carpenter in England during that era, one had to serve a seven-year apprenticeship to become even a journeyman and work under a master carpenter. The guild system — as a fraternity, social society and entrance to a trade — of that time was more organized and more powerful than today’s unions in their heyday.
With the Norman invasion from France in 1066 came more adaptable styles of framing, involving smaller, modular framing units that revolutionized the trade, Kemmett said.
That was the type of framing that was brought over to the New England Colonies as soon as people could afford it.
“They cut down the trees from here to as far west as they could get, and this really jumpstarts the American timber-framing tradition,” he said. With larger families and the broken guild system, it became easier to find the number of people needed to help build a large house in a shorter time.
Repairing timber-frame housing when rot set in became the bread-and butter of many carpenters of the era.
“There’s a tendency to view traditional houses as all craftsmanship,” he said. “In truth, they had no more an eye toward craftsmanship than any human being throughout the rest of history has ever had toward it. If they need to get a building up cheap and easy, that’s how they do it and, if somebody is willing to spend the time and money to build a nice house, then they do it.”
The saltbox style, which originated in America, combined the traditional English hall-and-parlor house with added storage space. More two-story houses followed and in the South, large airy rooms helped keep houses ventilated in humidity.
Agriculture, including horses and oxen, became vital to the logging industry to supply the demand for timber in New England and the Midwest, giving rise to sawmills. The river system of the west led to a construction and settlement boom. Railroad construction, especially, depleted trees.
“Then they start running out of timber,” he said. “They’ve clearcut everything that’s available, the only big trees are on the mountains and all that’s left is the spindly stuff.”
Builders refused to frame houses with it. And the seven years required to build timber frame houses also contributed to the decline of the trade.
Today, less than 1 percent of houses being built are of timber-frame construction, including log homes. By the 1960s and ’70s there were only four or five people left with the skills needed for restoration work. Most work involved tear-downs.
But that spurred an interest in restoration, especially of antique barns. Through a trial-and-error learning curve, several barns were destroyed, but the skills were relearned.
“You’re starting to see revival of the form, but they were just copying,” Kemmett said. “It’s an industry that’s growing because there’s something about that classic craftsmanship both for the person that’s building it and for the building itself.”