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Timber framing, Maine style!

The pictures tell the story of converting a pile of logs into a beautiful timber frame by hand. That was only a small part of the experience though. This was a temporary community that came together to show what can still be achieved using traditional methods and tools.

Each year, Charpentiers sans Frontiers (or Carpenters Without Borders) – an organisation that aims to keep the traditional method of timber framing by hand alive ­– run a project. This year, it was building a blacksmiths workshop at Mortice and Tenon magazine, based in Maine, USA. And it wasn’t a hard decision to make! The chance to do more hands-on hewing was appealing. A trip to Maine, together with it being for M&T, made it irresistible.

Getting there was fun. Long flight, immigration questioning, missed connections then five hours on a bus. But all that was forgotten as soon as Joshua from M&T met me at the bus station. We were straight into conversations about hand tools and community endeavour.

It was surreal to be in places that have become so familiar via the Instagram pictures. What the Instagram feed doesn’t adequately show is the warmth and passion that greeted the whole community. Over the next couple of days people arrived from across Europe and America. The scene was nothing short of idyllic, if you’re into east coast woodland and axes (and I mean LOTS of axes). The growing community was divided into teams, each with bents, or frames, to create. We all took to the task of converting the locally sourced logs (mostly white pine) into usable beams. By day three, there were 35 of us swinging axes and hand sawing timber. The experience in the group ranged from full time framers through to students and passionate fellow travellers.

The work was only one part of the experience though. There was another community running in parallel, that was dedicated to feeding and looking after the hewing hordes. The planning for our visit was inspirational, the food provided for us 40+ was all either grown by our hosts, their relatives or came from neighbouring farms. Baking was a French/ American partnership that provided superb bread and the unforgettable afternoon cake supplies!

But back to the job! The timber was mostly converted in the first three or four days, with some ongoing hewing for the rafters. Many friendships were forged as we hewed together. Walking through the site seeing each component revealed by so many passionate people is something I will never forget. And it’s always surprising how what feel like large tasks can be achieved by hand as long as there is common purpose.

We were provided with stunning accommodation, two big houses on an amazing lake, where morning or midnight swims were not to be missed! During the time there, we were also treated to presentations about the roof of Norte Dame, framing businesses and historic projects, as well as some visits. We first went to the Deer Isle Hostel. It was built in 2009 in the style of a 17th century timber framed house, from local materials and using hand tools. Now it runs as a hostel for half the year and is surrounded by abundant permaculture gardens and cabins in the woodland. (Check out the compost heated showers if you’re ever there). Another evening we walked to a neighbouring property to see a 1740s house dismantled and brought to Maine from Boston. The all-original frame and panelling was remarkable. Evidence of the hand tools and processes of building were everywhere, and the same as the finish we were achieving hundreds of years later.

At the mid-point in the project the weather broke and half the group went off for a visit to a local tool maker. This allowed some site reorganisation and planning for assembling frames and raising over the coming days. In a land of plenty the lobster boil evening will take some beating! We sailed out to a lighthouse, swam in the sea and feasted into the night. (Sorry!)

As the frame was going together, two different framing styles – French scribing and American square rule – were explored and used side by side, and much concentration was needed. Tensions rose and eased at different times, with laying out the frames/ bents ready for raising being the highest point. A daily team meeting helped. Bilingual, very safety focused and including readings to inspire us. The site was also open to the public (kept at a safe distance from sharp things), and the interest from local papers, magazines, local craftspeople and residents really pushed us on.

As the frame was being readied for raising, I was asked to add some decorative features. A carved wedge was needed for a visible through tenon, and a spiral rams horns seemed appropriate somehow. I was also asked to collect makers marks to be carved into the underside of the rafters. This was a great project and I got to hear stories about people’s marks and why they used them. We carved twenty four marks, each representing different parts of the project.

Raising day came far too quickly and will never be forgotten. Everything was in place and the planning for each stage agreed. With so many people on site the frame seemed to float into place. That’s not to say the timbers felt any lighter! The collective satisfaction hung in the air as each component was persuaded into position. It was up all too soon, leaving us with an enormous sense of achievement that was fantastic. There were emotional speeches, music and humour as the last pegs were driven home. Dinner that night was in the frame we had created and it’s fair to say that we celebrated hard that last night, with local musicians leading us astray (and maybe there was whisky involved!).

I’m so grateful for the opportunity to go on this amazing project and meet and work with everyone involved!

Images below provided by Mortis and Tenon Magazine. View the full article and more photos here:

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