Back in the day, John Sweet Jr. was an ironworker who helped build paper mills. But in 1982 he made a big career shift into a much more ancient craft: timber framing. That was in 1982, and he’s never looked back.
He figures his company, Sweet Timber Frames, on Mt. Desert Island, has done 70 to 100 homes in the years since. He’s built woodsheds, barns and boathouses in “all kinds of configurations.. I’ve built octagons.” All using pegged mortise and tenon joinery.
“This has consumed my whole life. There’s just so much to it,” he said. “This is my work. You can step back and look at a building and take real pride in it. This is my passion.”
In the 1980s there was a lot of interest in timber framed houses. It’s waxed and waned in popularity over the years, as has the number of builders who employ it, and now appears to be on a bit of an upswing, said Sweet. “It’s the quality, the aesthetic appeal, the simplicity and the tradition” that account for its perennial appeal. “It gives a different feel to the house.”
“It’s popular,” said Jence Carlson, who with his wife Katherine runs Maine Mountain Timber Frames in the tiny western Maine town of Avon. “I think because of the open concept. You can make a small house feel bigger. People just like the overall aesthetic of heavy timber and seeing the structure of the house itself.”
While many Maine building contractors may employ full-size beams in their projects, those who count traditional timber framing as a major part of their business are probably few in number. There are no hard numbers. Sweet estimates “there’s probably seven or eight in Maine that are very serious” about timber frame construction.
Scott Lamer, the program coordinator of the Sustainable Construction Program at Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield, said he talks regularly with 10 timber frame companies, some of them very small shops, and adds there are another 10 or so he knows of, but hasn’t had contact with.
KVCC teaches timber framing as part of its Associate in Applied Science degree program as well as two one-year certificate programs in Sustainable Construction. Its program was recently endorsed by the Timber Framers Guild, a national organization promoting timber framing education.
While Lamer agrees that post-and-beam construction is a “small niche as far as the construction industry as a whole is concerned,” it is a viable one, and those trained in it can find jobs: “We have timber framers calling all the time asking for our students. It’s out there and it’s happening,” Lamer said.
There are numerous programs teaching timber frame construction, including at The Shelter Institute in Woolwich. An internet search will turn up a variety of options for the person looking to hone the skills to build a new frame structure.
Post-and-beam construction takes time. Sweet said it takes a year to build a good-size building and the company he runs with his son, John Sweet III, completes one to three a year, depending on the size of the crews they field.
One project ran from 2007 to 2012 and produced over 12,000 square feet of buildings. “At the height of that I had 22 people working for me,” Sweet said. Now he’s working on a more modest project, a 24 by 32 foot house that will rise two stories above a basement. The client has a limited budget and so it will be only partially built out by Sweet’s crews.
While Sweet loves traditional joinery, he will also do hybrid stick-built and post-and-beam buildings, depending on what the client wants. And he doesn’t by any means eschew power tools: he uses circular saws to cut beams to length, for instance. “I have to meet a production schedule,” he said. “But I would say 50 to 60 percent is done with a hand tool. And you can see the difference.”
While committed to the old ways, most timber framers are like Sweet, willing to employ modern tools and equipment that definitely make the work easier.
Carlson said Maine Mountain Timber Frames uses the computer-aided design and drafting software known as Autocad to design all its timber frame structures, then sends the plans to a consulting engineer for review. The company works on maybe a dozen structures a year, of various kinds. Some are turnkey homes, others just the frame. While the company works mostly in Maine, the Carlsons have “done a couple in Vermont and we have a frame going to New York at the end of the month. We’ve done a couple of projects on Martha’s Vineyard and areheaded back there in the fall,” Jence Carlson said.
These days the big challenges for timber framers fall into two groups — getting the wood, especially longer lengths, say, 24 feet, and finding the workers.
Carlson said getting good timbers “can be a struggle. We can get it, but you just can’t call up and get big specialty timbers in a two-week time frame.” They draw up a preliminary list of needed timbers months in advance and work with the mills they’ve been dealing with to find them. “It can be a fight for sure.”
Sweet works mainly with hemlock and gets most of his stock from Parker Lumber in Bradford. He says using Maine woods is a selling point for him.
Parker Lumber owner Brian Parker said he deals with only a handful of professional timber framers and supplying their needs is only 1 to 2 percent of his business. The mill sells 10 million board feet a year, everything from guardrail posts and wharf and bridge timbers. It’s difficult getting logs that will yield No. 1, “appearance grade” wood for exposed post-and-beam construction, he said. Defects might show up only after sawing and it may take sawing six trees to get one appearance grade beam. As far as the demand for timber framing material, “it’s pretty stable, though it does correlate somewhat with the overall housing industry locally,” Parker said.
Faced with a dearth of high quality timbers, especially longer lengths, some timber framers have embraced engineered beams — known as glued laminated timbers or glulam — to get the timbers they need.
Bensonwood Homes in Walpole, N.H. is one of them. The company was founded 40 years ago by Tedd Benson, who helped jumpstart the timber frame revival.
Bensonwood artisans use CNC machines to cut the joinery, then finish the joints by hand, according to the company’s website. All that work is done-off site. Benson wood also designs roof and wall panel systems to finish off a structure.
Carlson said Maine Mountain Timber Frames will probably never turn to CNC machines to cut timbers, but they have used engineered timbers for speciality work, including the entrance to a building on High Street in Farmington. “Ninety to 95 percent of the frames we do are in local pine or hemlock, unless we have some specific strain requirement,” Carlson said. Unlike Sweet, Carlson said going with Maine woods is not necessarily a selling point for him. “For most people price is the determining factor,” he said.
Carlson said finding workers is a challenge and is the key to growing his business. “You can get all the work in the world, but if you can’t get it done . . .” he says.
Another challenge timber framers face: weather. Sweet says he tries to work year round, but sometimes weather makes that difficult. And, then, Sweet added, there’s the time that must be spent educating the client about the basics of building a timber frame structure. “I’m doing precision timber framing within a sixteenth of an inch . . . I have to explain to people the lengths I’m going to to make a house.”
Lloyd Irland, a forest economist and president of The Irland Group, said in an email that post-and-beam construction and “use of wood in natural forms and in high-end ‘faux rural’ styles” may be increasing in the state.
“I think it’s a great style, growing or not. It lends itself to various hybrid systems, and can use hemlock and other local woods, lending itself well to local purchasing,” he said.
KVCC’s Lamer agrees that one way to help mitigate the climate change is to support local economies and build sustainably. Sourcing post-and-beam timbers locally can be a part of that, he said, though the style probably isn’t any more, or less, sustainable than other building methods. “It depends on the builder, the size, the site, the structure. But what we’re doing with timber framing is creating a mindset” and a dedication to craftsmanship.” Lamer added. “I think the future in building is we’ve got to build better. That’s the primary thing we’re trying to influence in our students.”
Lamer is a college administrator and self-described jack of all trades, not a timber framer himself, but he’s tried his hand at it. “It’s a lot of fun. I’ve learned how to chisel and helped put the structures together. It’s just a different mindset, a different way of looking at the wood. You can put a structure together with no nails, no hardware. I’m definitely hooked.”
Joe Rankin writes on forestry and nature for magazines, websites and non-profits. He lives in New Sharon.