Timber framing is a construction method that involves the use of large, heavy timber beams and posts to create the structural framework of a building. It’s a traditional building technique that has been used for thousands of years and is known for its durability, strength, and aesthetic appeal. You’ve probably seen many timber framed structures, in person and on TV, whether or not you realised it at the time! These hardy structures can last for centuries and comprise many of the historical buildings still on show—or even lived in—around the world.
When you think of a black-and-white Tudor home from the 1400s and 1500s, that’s a timber framed house. When you picture a traditional New English red barn, that’s a timber framed barn. Even the ancient House of Opus in Italy, some 2,000 years old and recovered from under the ash of Mount Vesuvius’ explosion in 79 A.D., is timber framed! Heavy timber construction is a major feature of the world’s structural history.
Historically, timber-framed buildings are found in regions that are abundant in forests and wooded areas. This method of building was particularly popular in the medieval period in Europe, when indigenous oak was used to frame castle keeps and the houses of the aristocracy. You can still see examples of such buildings, including Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Warwickshire, and the house at 173 High Street, Berkhamsted, considered to be the oldest timber-framed home in the United Kingdom—having been dated to the 13th century. Many older homes in York, England, and New England in the United States also feature this type of construction.
Key characteristics of timber frame construction
1. Large Wooden Beams: Timber framing typically uses large, solid wooden beams and posts that are often squared or hewn to create a solid and robust framework. In some cases, half-timber construction uses split logs, like those you’d see on a stereotypical log cabin.
2. Mortise and Tenon Joints: Timber frame joints are one of the most important features of this kind of structure. The most commonly used joint is a mortise and tenon joint, which involves a hole (mortise) in one piece of wood that matches the shape of a protruding tongue (tenon) on another piece. This creates a secure and strong connection.
3. Wooden Pegs: Wooden pegs or dowels are used to secure the mortise and tenon joints, creating a durable and long-lasting connection. This eliminates the need for screws, nails, or bolts.
4. Exposed Timber: In many timber-framed buildings, the structural timber framework is left exposed on the interior, showcasing the beauty of the wood and the craftsmanship of the construction. This can also be achieved with quality post and beam construction.
5. Infills: Between the timber framework, various materials can be used as infills, including wattle and daub, brick, stone or modern materials like insulation and drywall.
6. Truss Systems: Timber framing often includes intricate truss systems to support the roof structure, and these trusses can be both functional and decorative. You’ll see exposed trusses in many historical church ceilings.
Timber framing has evolved over time, and modern timber framing techniques may incorporate newer engineering principles for structural stability while maintaining the traditional aesthetic. The process is meant to utilise the strength and sustainability of natural timbers to create beautiful, traditional, long-lasting structures. It’s also a way to support and showcase the immense talent of craftspeople who must practice woodworking for years to create these kinds of joints and frames.
What’s the difference between timber framing and post and beam framing?
Though both types of framing use wood, the main difference in these methods is how the pieces are connected. Timber framing is done with traditional joinery, meaning that no metal fastenings such as screws or nails are used to connect individual pieces. The dovetail joints that many of us were taught in high school are one of these methods, used to connect two flat pieces of wood together at a 90-degree angle. Large timber beams are connected using a similar method called mortise and tenon, in which a vertical beam is connected to a horizontal beam by cutting a rectangular protrusion in one piece (the tenon) and an equal-sized hole in the other (the mortise), then inserting one into the other. Some of these joints may be fastened using dowels or pegs.
In post and beam construction, screws or nails are used to fasten two pieces of wood together, and half-lap joinery is commonly employed. Half-lap joinery involves paring down the ends of each beam on opposite sides, then placing the remaining half-ends together to form one. Metal fasteners secure the pieces in place, while at other corners, brackets may be used to add integrity to the structure. The process of raising these structures differs as well. In timber frame construction, the sections of the frame are first assembled on the ground and then individually erected until the entire framework is complete—picture a good old-fashioned barn raising. Post and beam construction, however, is done from the ground up.
How long will a timber frame structure last?
A well-constructed joint will stay functional for centuries, even as the structure shrinks and expands during seasonal weather changes. Favoured woods for both timber framing and post and beam construction include oak and pine, but other hardwoods or hard softwoods (like pine and fir) can and have been used. Historical buildings crafted with oak have tended to last longer than those constructed of other types of wood, though Douglas Fir has become a popular modern option for its strength and ease of access. Either way, if you’re looking for a structure that will truly stand the test of time, timber framing is the right way to go.
Comparatively speaking, properly constructed and maintained timber can withstand the same range of weather conditions as alternatives like steel or brick. Though the latter are more popular modern options—particularly because steel has the strength to support immense skyscrapers—a timber framed home built with #1 or #2 lumber will last for generations. In regions that experience high winds or earthquakes, the main benefit of timber frame construction is the wood’s ability to flex and move without cracking under a little pressure. For this reason, historical wood framed homes in Japan have stood longer than their stone counterparts. For the same reason, most new home construction in windy Scotland is done with timber.
Timber framing in Niagara
The Niagara region is full of historical buildings, many of them constructed with timber frames in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, in some homes and buildings throughout Niagara where exposed timber is not visible, the architect’s original timber frames are actually hidden within a later 20th-century expansion. If this is the case in your home, we’ll work with you to design the space you want while preserving those beautiful, skillful original features.
Keep in mind that many homes and commercial buildings in Niagara-on-the-Lake, St. Catharines and adjoining areas are protected by the Ontario Heritage Act, meaning that their historical features must be preserved. In some cases, architects and designers are only allowed to make minor improvements or repairs to these properties, though others are to be conserved exactly as is or returned to their original state. Though a full open plan may not be in the cards for historical homes, depending on the specific rules there may be ways to design around the beams and posts of an earlier era while opening up your home into a more modern and spacious floorplan. You may even want to open up your garden space with a coordinated timber pavilion.
As for new construction, why not design something that appeals to your modern aesthetic while using traditional timber framing and joinery? Of course, timber framing will always lend itself to the construction of classic-style homes and shops, but there’s no need to feel boxed in by this method. Modern timber frame homes can mix contemporary design with traditional materials and building methods to showcase a structure unique to you. External customisation means that there’s no need for each timber frame house or structure to look the same. Anything is possible with the right craftspeople and a good design!
Ready to start your custom project?
We at Timber Frame Solutions in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fenelon Falls are excited to talk to you about your building plans! We’re experts in timber framing and are happy to work with you on your designs and turn your vision into reality. Whether you want to redesign an existing structure in your home or yard, or start from scratch to get that perfect gazebo or pergola, we’re here for you. Get in touch with us today via our website or give us a call at (905) 341 5768 (Niagara-on-the-Lake) or (905) 341 5768 (Fenelon Falls). You can also send us an email about potential projects and ask any questions you have about the planning and building process. Talk soon!