With the passing of Labor Day the pace of summer finally slows down. Time is once again available for projects that had been put on hold since May. I uncovered the stack of timbers that I’d spent much of last winter cutting, moved them to the equipment shed foundation, and the process of assembling the timber frame bents began.
I was nervous – really nervous – as Marion and I laid out the timbers that I’d cut months earlier, completely trusting that they’d fit as intended come raising day.
With a block plane and chisels at the ready, we assembled the pieces. I knew that there’d be shrinkage between the time I cut the joints and the day they were fit for the first time but the question of how much had been a guess. When I shaped the mortises and tenons in January and February I’d left the tenons a little thick to allow for contraction as the wood dried. My guess as to how much to leave was close. A few swipes of the block plane or a bit of shaving here and there with a framing chisel were all it took for the pieces to fit tightly together.
After starting the tenons into the mortise pockets, webbing straps and come-alongs are called into action as the timber framer’s clamps. The mechanical winches are capable of applying thousands of pounds of pressure.
I have yet to build myself a timber framer’s “commander” (a large wooden hammer used for driving timber joinery home), so I substituted a chunk of apple wood and a small sledge hammer. In the process of driving the joints together I must have struck that piece of apple wood hundreds of times, yet it hardly showed a mark at the end of the day. (Earlier this summer I'd tried to split pieces of an old, downed apple for firewood but, try as I might, I could not get a wedge into it. With that in mind, apple will be my wood of choice when the time comes to make my commander.) With the pressure applied from the winches and the sharp blows from the hammer the bents came together snugly.
My anxiety was steadily relieved over the course of the day as Marion continuously checked the corners for square and no surprises or mistakes emerged.
With the joints tight and square, peg holes were then drilled through the thickness of the timber and the inserted tenon.
Tightly fitting oak pegs are driven home and the joint is secure.
The beauty of a timber frame is undeniable. Over the course of building this relatively small barn I’ve developed an incredible respect for the framers whose craft had been nearly lost over the past hundred years or so – the result of our modern-day quest for rapidly built structures that can be constructed using low-skilled labor. I’m much indebted to those who’ve done so much in recent decades to revive the truly craftsman-built timber frame.
Assembling the first bent required six hours, but the learning was applied to the next bent and our time was reduced to four hours for number two.
By the end of yesterday, two of the four bents had been pulled together and pegged. Today the forecast called for rain by mid-afternoon. Before it arrived, another successful four-hour session produced a completed bent number three. What had begun the weekend as a neat stack of timber has now started to take its final shape. The pieces are fitting as planned – so far.