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23rd August 2013 / posted by JakeOakley

Jake Oakley of Oakwrights visits America to experience the American timber framing scene


So there I was, working away on a clients site for Oakwrights when my ears pick up at the sound of my foreman shouting out, "Anyone fancy going to work in America for a month?” Of course I want to go to America for a month! The way this work experience trip came about was through the Carpenter’s Fellowship which is an international organisation run by timber framers for the education and preservation of the timber frame craft. During the annual frame event each company involved in the Carpenter’s Fellowship organisation offers something up for auction. One of the companies involved, Trillium Dell, run by Rick Collins and based in Galesburg Illinois, America, offered into the auction the opportunity for a candidate to come to Illinois for a month’s work experience to see how timber framing stateside compares with English timber frame building. As it happens Tim Crump, owner of Oakwrights, won the auction and so asked the guys who he thought this would be a valuable experience for, to see who would like to go. I raised my hand as soon as I heard about the trip and luckily I was then chosen by the powers that be to make the trip across the pond and learn a thing or two about American timber framing.

On Arrival

My Arrival into Chicago, United States of America

I was pretty excited about the prospect of going to America, having never been to the states and having always loved to travel; now I had the opportunity to combine two of my passions, travelling and oak framing! I was particularly excited about seeing Chicago as it has a very strong history with blues music, which I’m a big fan of. As soon as I knew I was heading to Chicago I got it into my mind I wanted to find the old recording studio building for "Chess Records", famous for recording artists such as Chuck Berry, Etta James, Minnie Ripperton began her music career as the receptionist there and of course the one and only Muddy Waters. So yeah, it was safe to say I was excited about seeing Chicago!

I also figured it would be rude not to take some holiday at the end of my time at Trillium Dell, so I planned to take some time off and visit Niagara Falls and New York; originally I planned on heading down to New Orleans and working my way up along the Mississippi to Memphis. Again that was all part of my blues music trail, tracing back the roots of it all. But then I changed my mind in favour of snowboarding in Canada! If I had been finishing at Trillium Dell two weeks earlier I would have definitely gone to New Orleans as that was the week for Mardi Gras and I have heard it is meant to be a heck of a party! I know America is known for some crazy food as well and I do enjoy a nice burger so I was looking forward to seeing what they were serving up on the food front.

I understood before I left that America had a rich history of carpentry especially in the north-east such as New Hampshire, when the Europeans first began the colonization of what we now call America, one of the most abundant available building resources was timber. It is because of this abundance of timber as well as the fairly urgent need for houses, that timber framing became so prevalent during this time. With different European countries bringing different styles and techniques, just like the music in America, timber framing in America became a melting pot of ideas and designs from all over Europe.

I flew into Chicago on the 26th of January, jumped onto a train from Chicago Union station (which I instantly recognised from the famous Brian De Palma film The Untouchables) and headed to Galesburg IL. I had already looked at the Trillium Dell website so I knew I was in for an interesting month. They hand cut frames and do a fair amount of restoration and preservation of old frames, they even uproot entire barns, put them on a truck and transfer them to new locations! I was welcomed warmly by Rick and his children in Galesburg, we then drove out to the farm/workshop/home for the next month. Around 20 minutes out into the country we arrived at the shop, Ricks property includes a fair sized amount of woodland, some of which he fells and mills on the farm. Rick has a lovely self sustaining property, all the timber waste fuels furnaces for heating and hot water, he rears livestock, grows vegetable and best of all, he brews his own beer! All of which comes from the confines of the farm and workshop. In exchange for a room and board I am only required to fill the furnace to keep the place warm and take rubbish and recycling out, sounds like a fair trade!

My first week

The first week working at Trillium Dell involved assisting experienced carpenters with the construction of some large scale trusses for a commercial project, Douglas fur roof trusses spanning 48 ft and with lots of ironwork.

I was required to make wedges for the bolster blocks which sit underneath the end of a tie beam in order to channel the load onto the bearing wall. After making the wedges I began cutting the angle for the bolster blocks and also routering out channels for the wedges I had made.

On Wednesday I cut out tenons for one of the trusses, we made one complete truss and then mirrored the rest of the trusses from each of the original truss members. By Thursday I was rough cutting struts to length in order to be marked out off of the original truss strut piece.

Trillium Dell SignCutting Sgoulders for Strut Tenons

Cutting Shoulders for Strut Tenons at Trillium Dell

Friday of my first week I was on site at a local job which was a new build barn, in traditional American style with a mansard roof, vertical siding and a north facing lean to, we were focused on erecting the lean-to, we spent some time marking out where to start and then raised the posts and tied them back to the main barn using coach screws.

Once they were standing we temporarily braced them and made them plumb. It was great fun being on site and seeing a traditional style barn up-close and personal, but my word it was cold that day, quite possibly the coldest I have ever been in my life. Whenever the weather gets cold back in Blightly I will always remember what it was like on that day just outside the town of oak run in IL. 

Week 2

Start of week two I was back on site at the barn job finishing off the lean-to by cutting rafters and running them up the tie beams into the existing mansard roof. We also had braces to put in for each frame in the lean-to run.

When we had finished the lean-to, we went back to the workshop to return to the large Douglas fur truss job, whilst we were on site the rough cut member I had worked on the week before was now marked and ready to be cut, which I spent all of Wednesday doing. I also found out at the start of the week I had been invited to attend a timber framers guild workshop on compound roof joinery and scribe work on irregular and live edge material. This workshop was being held by a timber framing company in Fort Collins, Colorado called Frameworks Timber run by a man named Adrian Jones. I was really excited about this as I had always been curious about the "framing square" which American carpenters use in order to work out roof calculations, back home we use what is known as a speed square which does the calculations for you.

Calculations for hip roofs

Calculations for hip roofs

So Thursday we headed out early on the 15 hour drive to Fort Collins from Oak Run IL, it was a great opportunity to see some of the open plains of the Midwest as we drove through Iowa and Nebraska to Colorado.

That night we stayed at Adrian’s house, the owner of the shop hosting the workshop.

Fort Collins

So we needed a plan, this came with much help from the workshop tutor Curtis. I had been working with Curtis already back in Illinois so I knew he was a guy that knew a lot about timber framing. A very knowledgeable man and well respected in the industry. Curtis broke down the octagon roof and made it so each three-dimensional angle we would need could be worked out first on a piece of paper. Using paper models to represent the breakdown of roof components and angles we were able to work out every angle and measurement we would need for building the octagonal roof all with only 3 bits of information, rise and run and the timber size.

Once we had marked out in 2d what we were going to do, it was on to marking out on some timbers. This began mid way through Saturday. At this point I was floating between the octagonal roof floor layout and the scribing technique class that was just beginning, as I had never seen this style or marking out I joined in with the apprentices learning this traditional technique. A scribe such as this is usually used when working with irregular materials and live edge timber, by live edge we mean that the timber isn’t square and still holds the shape of the original tree. This is opposed to using square dimensional timbers.

Workshop on scribe techniques for irregular and live edge material

Workshop on scribe techniques for irregular and live edge material

On the Sunday we had a planned site visit to visit a local job which the host company had been working on. Someone got wind that I had previously worked as a chef therefore I was nominated to cook the Sunday lunch, which we brought over in a cooler from Illinois, we bought with us a turkey and two guinea fowl, all of which Rick, of Trillium Dell, had reared, slaughtered and dressed himself so you don’t get much more organic than that! At around 2 o’clock I put the turkey in and then we all left for the site visit. The house we visited had some beautiful curved timber work and some huge dimensional membered trusses; it also had a beautiful view of the Rocky Mountains!

We returned to the shop and I continued to prep for the evening meal as well as jumping out and helping with the scribe work, then diving back in the kitchen to check my spuds, and then back out to the scribe work. We sat down to eat at around 6:30pm. One of the timber framers guild apprentices was also graduating that day and so a few words were said and gifts given as a congratulations. After the words and celebrations we all sat down to eat. My food went down a treat which is always nice, everyone was really happy and it was a lovely way to end a great weekend. I learnt a heck of a lot during my time in Fort Collins, especially learning about the mathematics involved in complex compound roof work. One of the biggest parts of this was having an amazing teacher such as Curtis showing you and explaining in a non baffling way of how these compound angles related to each other.

Jake cooking Sunday Lunch for the timber framers huild entourage, roast turkey and guinea fowl.jpg large.jpgA few of the timber framers guild tucking into my roast turkey dinner.jpg large.jpg

A few of the timber framers guild tucking into my roast turkey dinner

Monday morning we headed back out to Illinois. On the way back Curtis said he knew of an interesting place to have lunch, so we stopped at ‘Big Ole’s’ game steak house. Inside was quite possibly one of every animal head in the world which was stuffed and mounted. It was slightly morbid but with each stuffed animal was a picture of the hunter that shot it, many of the images were from around the late 1800s to the 1960s.

I figured it was only appropriate to have a buffalo burger for lunch as we were in a big game steak house.

The road home

The road home

Week 3

Starting week 3 on Tuesday I spent most of the day helping to build a hollow box encasement beam that is used to conceal a structural LSL beam, this was good fun as it is something that we do not do back home, it was also useful for me as I have to do a similar task in my own house, so good practice!

Wednesday was spent planing and waxing the end grain and preparing timbers ready for a stain which the client had specified. I also found out we would be heading to Milwaukee on Friday for a job on site, putting some posts and braces into an existing frame, and installing the LSL beam encasement box.

Box Beam EncasementCan't let those furnaces go out

Box Beam Encasement                                Can't let those furnaces go out

After I found this out I spent half the day gathering tools and materials and loading the truck and trailer and the other half of the day on the chainsaw chopping firewood for the furnace.





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