Heritage Restoration, Inc.

Timber Frames

We live in a culture of impatience and instant gratification. But for the first European American settlers, nothing was instant. When the Pilgrims finally landed in Plymouth of December 1620, they were hungry, weary, and desperate. They arrived without a place to live, grow crops, and raise families. They did not seek assimilation, but rather to bring their culture to a new world. Their first years were harsh, losing over half their population. Their attitudes of the “savage” Native Americans prevented them from seeking help on how to adapt to this new place, instead stealing their food and building settlement fortifications to keep them out.

Settlers quickly discovered America was not like their homeland. The seasons were harsher and the crops did not grow. The used their scant European building tools like axes, hand saws, hammers, augers, chisels, hatchets, grinding stone, nails, and locks for doors to build structures like their homeland. The first structures were crude and woefully inadequate for the region. But they were surrounded by a resource like nothing in Europe at the time: trees. They were tall, straight, and plentiful. But their construction methods needed to adapt to fit the climate, as they exploited this vast, seemingly infinite, resource.

Their native structures had thousands of years of refinement. The timber frame (post and beam) used complex short, crooked timbers (from a lack of good, straight trees) with pegged mortise and tenon jointed systems. Residential roofs were covered in thatch, or dried vegetation such as straw. Walls were finished using an infill called wattle (sticks) and daub (a mixture of clay and chalk with a binder such as grass or straw and water or urine). While this system was tested over thousands of years in central and northern Europe, it did not work here.

Planks with interior timbers

New England’s harsh temperature and moisture variations caused the thatch to rot or burn and the daub to crumble or rot the frame. Over several generations of mixed cultures, technology, resources, and experimentation, their building assembly methods changed to better suit the new world. Saw mills sprang up within 20 years, raw materials were made into a variety of building materials, and simpler assemblies were created to better suit the limited craftsmanship, sporadic settlements, and broad cultures.

Frames and exterior cladding were modified over generations, using the abundance of wood. Craftsman

Vertical planks over frame

shaped larger logs into rectangular hand-hewn posts and beams, and saw mills produced planks, studs, joists, and rafters. The frames stayed true to their homeland, still secured using wooden pegs and marking them with the symbols of their ancestry. In Rhode Island, practiced shipwrights would build spectacular frames, with timbers spanning over 40 feet.

A unique feature of the Southern New England timber frame was a simpler sawn vertical plank sheathing over the timber frame. They removed the studs and corner braces, with each plank nailed to each beam to create a wall and prevent rotation. The exteriors were covered

Peace Dale Congregational Church

with riven shingles or clapboards, and the interior was finished with horizontal lath and lime plaster on the inside. The new building system was time efficient and effective in new world.

Today we perceive these structures as obsolete and inefficient. Yet they truly are a reflection of the cultures and technologies during our country’s development. These buildings may not meet Energy Star, but they are incredibly resilient. I have seen buildings missing major structural timbers yet still stand. I have seen buildings repel repetitive poundings by the harsh New England climate and remain after hundreds of years. The buildings that remain are tested and proven, requiring proper care to exist for centuries to come. So if have such an icon of American building history, tip your hat to the artisans and craftspeople that made such robust structures stand the test of time.