Book Review: Timber Frame Construction by Jack Sobon and Roger Schroeder

  • Posted on: 15 October 2013
  • By: Jay Oyster

Review of "Timber Frame Construction: All About Post-and-Beam Building" by Jack Sobon and Roger Schroeder. Reviewed on October 15th, 2013. 

Timber Frame Construction cover artMost of the woodworking projects I've taken on over the years have been small projects or pieces of furniture, but I've also had a habit of building in a pseudo-beam construction manner.  Growing up on an Ohio farm, we always had a few extra beams or pieces of construction lumber around, and I would sometimes build little contraptions using screws and nails and other found hardware.  Aside from a grandfather clock I built at 17 from a kit, my first real piece of self-designed 'furniture' was a loft for my bedroom, built the summer before I left for college. And it was not a thing of beauty. I wanted a way to put my bed up high with a desk underneath to increase the usable space in my bedroom. Such things are common these days, but in the 1980s, they were still fairly rare.   Anyway, I built it simply by buying Home Depot lumber, some constuction grade, other pressure-treated landscaping timbers. I didn't really know the difference then.   And I built what could be charitably described as a post and beam loft. It even had little notches cut out of the 4x4 posts to accept the bed frame. I didn't know a lick about joints, so I didn't realize I was making half laps. But . . . it worked.  

While I was working on it in the garage, and had the thing roughly put together with bolts and a few screws, my Dad's construction handyman saw it and said, ' You know, not bad.'  He was being kind. It was strong enough for me to sleep on it, but it had a tendency to rack.  I used it for a few months before leaving for college, and when I came home for holidays for the next couple years. Eventually, it got broken up and used in other projects . . . mostly landscaping stuff around the farm.

The point of this little tale? I have a hankerin' for some traditional timber frame structures. 

Part of this is that I spent my childhood playing in and around several structures built like this. The main barn, which is still there, was built from local timber and raised around 1890. Another barn on the property is likely older. And several other out buildings and sheds are also hand hewn beam structrures. So I just grew up liking the look and feel of these kinds of buildings. (As an aside, I think I really need to publish a couple of photo essays of some of these buildings. They are fascinating creatures.)

Unlike many woodworkers, I don't really see a difference between architectural woodworking and furniture woodworking. They're basically the same exact thing at different scales. We don't really differentiate between woodworkers who build nothing bigger than 10" fancy boxes, and those who build giant pieces of furniture. I don't differentiate between those two, and those who build timber framed buildings.  This philosophical tendency was reinforced in the last few months when I joined the Google+ community, and connected with a bunch of internet savvy woodworkers. One of those was Tom Arrigo, a professional fine timber framer from New York state. Tom posts the most amazing pictures of some of the projects he and his crew are executing for their customers. I and many other wooderworkers have been amazed at the beauty of these large scale pieces of expertly-constructed and massively scaled wood joints and wooden structural members.

A few weeks back, Tom posted a picture of a couple of books he evidently likes. One of these, an obviously very well-thumbed through copy, was simply called 'Timber Frame Construction'. I've been intrigued by this stuff for several months, so I went out and bought myself a copy.  I've just finished reading it and I thought I'd share my thoughts.

Roof structure of the Old Ship Meeting House in Hinham, MA, built in 1681, from page 12 of Timber Frame Construction"Timber Frame Contruction: All About Post-and-Beam Construction" is a 30 year old book, with photos and illustrations largely done by one of the authors, Jack Sobon.  At 204 letter sized pages, it's a nice coffee table sized book, but considering the variety of the topic, it could have been much thicker. But rather complain about that, I see it as an accurate representation of the authors', and perhaps the profession's, attitudes about brevity, clarity, and concision. This is not a book that waxes rhapsodic about timber frame construction, and yet you get a strong sense of a deep and abiding love for the work they do and the resulting structures. The printing is crisp. The line art is helpful, if a bit small. The photos, all black and white, are slightly low in contrast in this printing, which can be a bit unhelpful when one is trying to make out the details of the joinery of a timber frame assembly.   With that said, this was a very fine introduction to the attractions, and the realities, of constructing with timbers. 

For a while now, I've had this delusion that I might tackle an add on to our house in Ohio. As it happens, my wife and I own one of the original homes on the family farm up there. It was built around 1830 by my great-great(some number)grandfather, and although it looks from the outside like any other stick-assembled home, it's bones are 100% hand-hewn timbers. But as was common at the time, and a practical necessity when carving a home to  live in out of the early Ohio wilderness, it's not a very large house. I'd thought to add a great room on the back.  (Maybe after first trying on some timber frame work by building an entry way roof, or something similar as a learning exercise.)

What did I learn about the reality of this from this book? I learned a great deal about how available materials have changed. In the 1980s, when this was written, timber framing seemed in its infancy as a resurgent skill, and the new people trying to make a living doing it were clearly dealing with a changed reality when it comes to materials. In the 19th century in the United States, large, long, straight construction timbers could often be cut straight from local stands of trees. This is obviously no longer the case in most places. The authors spend the first chapters describing the differences between trees cut in 1830, for example, and those cut today. It's harder to get the massive, straight, fine grained beams one needs for large construction.  The most interesting aspect of this part of the book to me was the fact that many of the more sophisticated  beam splicing techniques that had developed in the tree depleted Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries hadn't been necessary in the huge, untouched forests of North America. So many of those skills weren't used much in the building of early America. But now, timber framers have had to relearn those techniques. A 60' long 8"x8" beam of straight grain timber is just not a commonly found thing anywhere in the world today. So one needs to learn to splice a 40' beam to a 20' one.

The middle portion of the book, the heartwood, if you will, is all about the practicalities of cutting joinery in large pieces of wood, and the structural tricks that must be considered when working in the architectural scale.  Although I might have liked to see a bit more math in this section, for instance to show some of the thumbnail or basic calculations needed to figure structural strengths for a large structure, this section is very useful to a small scale woodworker. The ability to cut joints in large timbers allows for some astonishingly complex joints that are strong in three dimensions instead of the one or two that are typical of the joints in a piece of furniture.  The attitude of these timber frame revivalists, as it was for most historical builders, was simply to overbuild for strength. I suspect that this has changed somewhat since the 1980s, as materials have gotten dearer, and techniques have become more sophisticated. I know, based on the postings by Tom Arrigo on G+, that framers now work from detailed contruction drawings, likely done by architects and structural engineers.  An updated edition reflecting these changes to the craft would be welcome. But the book, as it is, is very helpful for someone learning the basics of how things are done.

The impracticaly of an individual amateur tackling a full scale architectural project are presented very neatly in the section on Assembling and Raising. It seems quite possible for a single person or a pair of people to tackle the creation of individual structural members, especially if some mechanical assistance is available, such as a forklift or a tractor with a bucket or backhoe, but the actual assembly of the structure requires a massive crew, like the barn raisings of old, or a small crew and the rental of a very expensive crane. The practicalities of crane expenses and managing a crew are considered in this chapter. 

The most practical and valuable sections of the book, though, I think are the last two. The authors present a few case studies (although they don't call them that) of actual timber frame projects. The two chapters, Projects, and Timber Frame Revivers, present concrete examples of how the techniques presented in the earlier parts of the book have actually been used in real projects. The photos and descriptive text is fascinating. I wish these sections were bigger. But I guess that's the sign of a good work, it leaves you wanting more. 

Overall, I think this will be a very valuable book. I think I will eventually try my hand at a small add-on to our house, like a porch or a sunroom. And I'll probably try that basic 'all-in' project that I've seen mentioned here and elsewhere among timber framers, the garden shed. There's enough in this book to get you started. But I think, due to the age of the work, and also the changing economics of construction these days, that I'll probably want to talk to a local crew or timber framer first, before I take on anything larger than a very small learning project.  From the perspective of a timber frame newbie, this is a good book, and I'll probably reference it over and over as I consider my own project.  A large 'thank you' to Tom Arrigo for pointing me in its direction.