Timber framing history extends as far back as the need for humans to construct their own homes. Once early humans banded together in their own communities’ larger dwellings were needed to house these populations. Caves and natural shelters would no longer suffice. Hunter/ gatherers were by necessity mobile and needed to erect temporary shelters at short notice with the minimum of work. The most readily available material was obviously timber and the only one early man could capably work with early tools. As mankind developed, timber remained the building material of choice, often combined with others, whether natural or manufactured. The popularity of timber frames has waxed and waned over the centuries through fashion or necessity, but never disappeared entirely. In modern times, the low environmental impact of timber (particularly oak) has made it an attractive choice of building material. Timber frames are now as popular as masonry or steel in construction and this trend shows no sign of changing.
Prehistoric Timber Framed Buildings
In Denmark and England, examples of timber framed buildings have been found dating as far back as the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. One of the earliest examples discovered, at Howick in Northumberland was radiocarbon dated from interior stonework to 7,800 BC. The structure itself consisted of a ring of posts sunk into the ground with crossbeams and spars lashed to them. A conical frame of birch poles surrounded this, covered with turf and reeds to insulate and waterproof the structure. Two reconstructions of these huts stand at the site as examples of the earliest known timber framed homes ever discovered.
At Flag Fen, near Peterborough a 3,500 year old Bronze Age religious site featured a raised causeway using over 300,000 timbers. Along with those used for the nearby roundhouses, many were transported from distant sites. The species used did not grow locally, though whether their use was for practical or religious reasons or unknown. This and the use of metal tools make it one of the earliest examples of an industrial construction site found.
Roman Era Timber Framing
While the Romans are mainly remembered for their magnificent stone buildings, they also created the first half timbered buildings. The oldest example of a half-timbered building is the House of Opus Craticum in Herculaneum. Piers of brick and blockwork supported a frame of squared upright ‘arrectaria’ and horizontal ‘transversaria’ with tenon and mortice joints, with concrete and rubble filling the panels. The house was buried in ash after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and remained hidden until 1927. Excavated over 6 years by Amedeo Mauri, it still stands today, preserved as a historic site. Examples of this style have also been found preserved in clay at British villa sites. Following the departure of the Romans in 410 AD, the Saxons claimed much of their land and timber became the main building material again.
Medieval Timber Framing Methods
Before 1200 AD, timber framed buildings in Britain were built using support posts sunk directly into the ground. Contact with water on the surface and in the soil naturally led to decay, even in oak frames. As a result, few examples of buildings and the carpentry techniques used in their construction remain from before this time. The use of stone pads set into the ground, first observed in a building in Cheddar in 1210, revolutionised timber framing. This soon developed into the use of plinth walls supporting a cill beam at the base of the frame, known as the ‘framed wall’. This greatly increased the longevity of timber framed buildings but made construction more complex. Basing the support posts on a cill beam greatly reduced stability as they were no longer sunk into the ground. Subsequently, new methods of bracing and jointing needed to be developed to counter racking and the action of tensile force on the frame. Improved knowledge of geometry led to the use of triangular bracing to convert some of the tension on the frame to compression on the braces. This provided rigidity to the frame, preventing bending and twisting that would place pressure on the joints and force them apart.
Joinery also saw a revolution in design during this period. Although tenon and mortice joints had been used for thousands of years, they now completely replaced the lap joint as the most common type. Draw boring was used to offset the peg holes between the tenon and mortice, tightening the joint considerably when the peg was driven through. Scarf joints with their ‘toothed’ shaped joint allowed shorter timbers to be combined securely, giving longer timbers than those naturally available. Huge, prestigious buildings could now be built efficiently, largely off – site, with rigid, secure frames that would stand the test of time.
The development of metallic alloys allowed stronger, sharper tools to be manufactured, making carpentry more efficient. Decorative internal mouldings and carvings were easier to produce, even in hard woods such as oak. Steel saws gradually replaced axes that were previously used for hewing logs into straight, useable timbers.
The Victorian Decline of Timber Framing
From the end of the Georgian era, timber framing became less popular. Large sections of hardwood timber were in great demand for boatbuilding as the empire expanded, reducing their availability for building construction. Improved manufacturing processes meant stone, brick and other manmade construction materials were more readily available than ever. During the Victorian era, timber framing was mainly limited to the production of roof trusses. Even this became rare, as strong brick or stone end walls could easily support the weight of ridge beams and purlins.
The Modern Timber Frame Resurgence
Towards the end of the 20th century, timber framed buildings became fashionable again. A move away from city living and the eco-friendly appeal of repurposing existing structures boomed in popularity. Converting barns and other old agricultural buildings into new homes meant a return to traditional building methods. In the case of listed buildings, the need for sympathetic repairs in keeping with the existing structure demanded this. Obviously, the amount of appropriate existing buildings was limited, but demand was not. Carpenters and architects began to produce new buildings using the newly popular traditional methods to fill this void. This trend has continued through to the present day and timber framing is once again a dominant style of construction.
Hardwoods Group offer a range of standard design oak frames to suit many building styles. We also offer a bespoke design service for customers with their own unique vision and will strive to make it a reality. Contact us to discuss your requirements, we will be happy to help.
Need To Know Basics For Oak Framed Buildings
Timber Frame Construction Methods
How Long Do Oak Framed Buildings Last?