Property / Going with the grain: The Craftsmen: Caroline McGhie finds that timber is back in the frame, thanks to a West Country firm

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FOR Bill Keir the erection of a timber frame is almost like an orchestral performance, the culmination of lengthy rehearsals. 'You spend five to six weeks with a team making it in the workshop, then you put the whole thing up in three days,' he said. 'The wood smells good, you are psyched up and it is very physical.

People always stand and watch.'

This display of modern medievalism, the sight of a symphony in wood being created, never fails to impress. 'We have been miles off the beaten track in North Wales, where the local builders have regarded us as a bunch of hippies behaving in a deeply eccentric way. But when they see how hard and effectively we work, they look at us with respect.'

Carpenter Oak & Woodland began to rediscover timber-frame methods during the barn- converting heyday of the late Eighties. The workshops lie in a former RAF barracks, a short drive from Bath. The team consists mostly of those who have renounced previous lives in

music, philosophy, photography. They have been converted to wood. Their knowledge of the timber-frame method came from studying the old barns they were asked to repair, many of which were in such a poor state that it was cheaper to dismantle them then bring them into the workshop and reassemble them.

Outside, young oak trees grow in a small nursery garden, just yards from their 150-year- old brethren which lie sliced and jointed

on trestles, ready to be assembled into all-

weather swimming-pool buildings or exported as houses for American timber-frame revivalists. It is all green oak. 'Academics who write about using only seasoned oak know nothing,' says Keir. 'Green oak does move and shrink, but the secret of working with wood is understanding how to join it together and to orientate it so that the defects and the shrinkage aren't going to cause a problem.'

As you would expect with a kind of three-

dimensional jigsaw puzzle, no single piece of timber is interchangeable with any other. Each one is assessed and cut in such a way that the knots occur at the point of minimum stress on a rafter, away from the middle where wood has a tendency to bend, and away from the ends where it might break. The sturdy core of the wood, the heart, is placed at the point where the risk of rot is highest. 'You have to read the wood when it comes off the stack before you decide what to do with it,' says Keir.

Carpenters then use their own system of markings, etched into the timbers, to indicate where each piece will be placed within the frame. Among the symbols they use are half- moon shapes, 'curlies', which indicate that a piece is destined for one side of the building, and straight notches, 'straights', indicating that they will go on the other. Other markings identify more precisely where the piece is to go.

Each carpenter keeps his tools in his own wheelbarrow. All here work with an adze (a kind of small axe with a cutting blade shaped like a boot sole), just as their medieval counterparts did. Unlike most modern carpenters they opt for mallet and chisel rather than machines. And there, among the leather bags, tin mugs and donkey jackets is another ancient tool, the pit-saw, used by two men sawing at different levels. 'The person on the top was known as the top dog and the one on the bottom as the underdog,' says Keir. Some even suggest it is to the pit-saw that the terms owe their origin.

This is also one of the few places where old- fashioned laths are made - stakes of split oak or chestnut (though pine was used in the 18th century) that are plaited between timber struts and coated with plaster to make walls. Carpenters use simple timber A-frames as props against which they split pieces of wood into laths. In fine weather the frames are tied to trees; in the winter they are tied up near the wood-burning stoves in the workshops.

At another barracks building, oaken roof shingles are cleaved and bundled while, elsewhere, old-fashioned wooden pegs like tapered toothpicks are produced for pinning roof tiles. They come in at least 20 sizes, each one handmade, the smaller ones forced through a die like meat through a mincer. They are slung from the roof in sacks like dead pheasant.

The pride and joy of the yard, however, is lying outside, beside the waste-heaps of kindling and logs - huge, weathered slices of tree that have a natural curve. These are the great beams that will go into making cruck frames, just as they were made 300 years ago with vast curving timbers meeting at the rooftop. 'They are of no value at all to the timber merchant, who is only interested in straight wood,' says Keir. 'But they are of huge value to us and take months to find. This is a real tribute to a tree that has spent the first 120 years of its life stooped against a Welsh hill. It may seem an expensive way of building if you consider it short-term, but looked at over several generations it's a good investment.'


Jim Boutwood, 3 Watling Street, Thaxted, Essex (0371 830067) is an architect with a passion for timber-frame buildings.

Philip Aitkens, Mill Farm, Mill Road, Hengrave, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk (0284 704756) is a historic buildings consultant who is also available to carry out archaeological exam-

inations of individual houses when required.

Bakers of Danbury, Eves Corner, Danbury, Essex (0245 225876) specialises in the restoration of ancient buildings, from cottages to castles, from timber-frame to stone.

Carpenter Oak & Woodland, Hall Farm, Thickwood Lane, Colerne, Chippenham, Wiltshire (0225 743089) specialises in heavy oak carpentry, conservation repair, and constructing new timber frames. It also supplies relevant building materials including riven oak and chestnut, plaster laths, oak pegs, Cotswold stone tiles and cleft oak shingles.

Cornelissen & Sons, 105 Great Russell Street, London WC1 (071-636 1045) supplies paint pigments and specialist decorating brushes to give a dry, crumbly appearance or fresco effect.


Timber Building In Britain by R W Brunskill, new edition with an expanded section on regional variations, published by Victor Gollancz in association with Peter Crawley, pounds 27.50. The Pattern Of English Building by Alec Clifton- Taylor, published by Faber and Faber, pounds 30. Repairing Panels In Timber Framed Buildings by Kenneth Reid, and Panel Infillings to Timber Framed Buildings and Basic Limewash, available from the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, 37 Spital Square, London E1 6DY. The first two cost pounds 2 inc p&p, the third pounds 1 inc p&p. Discovering Timber Framed Buildings by Richard Harris, Shire Album 242, Shire Publications, Cromwell House, Church Street, Princes Risborough, Bucks HP17 9AJ, pounds 3.95 plus pounds 1 p&p. Timber Framed Buildings in Cheshire available from Cheshire County Council, Commerce House, Hunter Street, Chester, Cheshire CH1 2QP, pounds 7.30 inc p&p. Old Houses And Cottages of Kent by R J Brown, published by Robert Hale, pounds 17.99.-