Traditional Timber Framing - A Brief Introduction

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1 The Beginnings of the Tradition

England and Wales have a fine inheritance of vernacular timber architecture. The majority of timber framed buildings were not originally prestigious but they have become more precious as they have become rarer. Framed structures are easy to put up and therefore easy to remove. It is the process of alteration and rebuilding, in response to changing need and fashion, rather than the false but generally held perception that timber is a relatively short lived material that is responsible for the diminished stock of historic timber buildings in England and Wales.

For thousands of years indigenous timber species provided the main source of structural material for building. During this time a management system developed for trees and woodland which provided society with a renewable and sustainable supply of timber and woodland products. The greatest period of timber building in England and Wales was between 1200 AD and 1700 AD, a period which saw the development of a sophisticated prefabricated building system which provided the majority of buildings throughout the cities, towns and villages.

The growth cycle of the indigenous broad-leaf trees of Northern Europe is such that once the root stock has become established, if the tree is felled, it will rapidly regenerate growth above ground, sending up a series of shoots, known as ‘spring’, as opposed to the original single stem. It is known that some root stocks have lasted for 1000 years, regularly being cut and re-growing thus providing a continuous renewable crop of wood. This process of management is known as coppicing. The expertise lay in selecting which shoots should be allowed to grow-on to produce usable timber for construction (Standards) and which could be allowed to grow for a limited period to provide fuel and other woodland products. Medieval carpenters were supplied with timber from a commercially managed woodland economy that was already ancient.

Many of the sophisticated planning and building techniques which the Romans introduced to England were abandoned rapidly after their departure in 410 AD. The Saxons, who gradually displaced the Britons to the western extremities of England and Wales after the Romans left, were timber builders rather than masons.

There is little evidence of a significant change in either the structural or jointing carpentry techniques immediately following the Norman conquest. One of the main reasons we are only allowed glimpses of the sophistication of the craft of carpentry pre 1200 is that builders retained the archaic means of fixing and stabilising their timber structures by sinking the posts into the ground or a continuous series of logs into a trench. While these ‘earth-fast’ systems provided a stable structure, it was at the cost of their longevity.

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