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Modern timber framing: create beautiful, sturdy buildings with this update of a versatile, time-tested method.

Many natural building methods--such as straw bale, cordwood masonry and cob building--benefit from timber-flame construction primarily because these methods can involve infilling between the timbers that make up the building's structural framework. Unlike conventional 2-by-4 stick flaming, the center-to-center spacing of timber-frame posts is somewhere between 6 and 10 feet. This makes infilling much less tedious; imagine trying to fill the narrow spaces in regular stick construction with cordwood masonry or straw bales.

Also, there is a great practical advantage in erecting a timber frame first--getting the roof on as a protective umbrella, and then infilling the structure using one or mote of these natural building methods.

Yes, you can accomplish all this with "traditional" wood-on-wood--such as mortise-and-tenon mad dovetail--joining methods. But these methods require intricate cuts and exact measurements, and to do it right, a great deal of time and study must be expended, and there are a few specialized tools that need to be purchased. The reality is that most farmers, contractors and owner-builders use methods of timber framing (also called post-and-beam) that they have simply picked up from colleagues, relatives or neighbors. With the advent of relatively inexpensive mechanical fasteners, most builders--contractors and owner-builders alike--rely on other methods of joining, using truss plates, screws and bolts, pole-barn nails and even gravity (see illustration, Page 89).


Whether you go with traditional timber framing or (modern) "timber framing for the rest of us," you will discover certain advantages and disadvantages in both systems.

* Strength. Timber framing by either method is strong in real structural terms. Heavy-timber flames, with or without infilling, are more resistant to trauma from earthquakes, wind uplift and heavy snow load than light-frame construction.

* Conducive to infilling. Heavy-timber framing is more appropriate than stick framing for infilling with natural building techniques. With infilling, it is not critical that exact spacing be left between vertical studs or posts; mammy and cob can fit any space, and straw bales can be made to fit almost any width of space.

* Esthetic appeal. With many of the contemporary timber-frame houses, structural insulated panels (SIPS) axe fastened to the outside of the frame, and the beautiful heavy timbers axe exposed on the interior. On some cordwood homes, the heavy timbers are in evidence on the exterior, but not on the interior. In all cases, the exposed timbers lend character, texture and an esthetic sense of strength. All of this translates into comfort--spiritual and otherwise.

* Ease of construction. If you've never before built a timber-flame structure, you might find it easier than conventional studding, which requires fairly exact tolerances for the application of sheetrock, plywood mad the like. With timber framing, far fewer pieces are handled, and tolerances, at least in the post-and-beam frame, do not need to be quite so exact.

* Economy. If you are buying from a local sawmill, you will likely discover that timber framing is more economical than buying finished lumber. When buying heavy timbers from a distant source, this advantage is lost, and timber framing may become more expensive. The key to building anything economically by any method is to use local or indigenous materials.

To learn more about timber framing, we recommend Timber Framing for the Rest of Us by Rob Roy, a MOTHER EARTH NEWS BOOK for Wiser Living from New Society Publishers. To order, see Page 111 or go to

Rob Roy is the director of Earthwood Building School in West Chazy, N.Y. [(518) 493-7744 or]. The school conducts workshops in cordwood masonry, earth-sheltered housing and timber framing.
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Author:MacGregor, John (British travel writer)
Publication:Mother Earth News
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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