Bowman uses unconventional shapes in his frames, which come from curved branches and crotches. Photo by Susan Campbell.
Dave Bowman is both timber framer and woodlands philosopher. He seems to enjoy the solitude of his shop as much as a visit with the people that come by with a delivery, order, or consultation. With thrift and ingenuity that any Yankee would admire, Bowman builds timber frames using a wide array of native species, as well as portions of the tree that many would discard. Finding uses for the odd burl, an unusual grain pattern, or a graceful crook is a clever way to find value in something that might otherwise become a chunk of firewood. Admired, too, by people over-burdened with the fixings of modern life, he has lived simply and “off the grid” on 80 acres in the hill towns of western Massachusetts for 20 years. There he designs, creates, and assembles timber frames, with only a handful of his work days spent away at the building site. Most of his frames are milled and prepared in the shop that’s just a short walk through the woods from his home and big vegetable garden.
Bowman grew up nearby in a 200-year-old, timber-frame home that apparently worked its influence on him. Spending lots of time in the woods, he learned at an early age that he had a natural aptitude for identifying trees. Those inclinations took him to the University of Maine for forestry, though he ended up in philosophy before leaving academia for the working world back home. He got his start with Jack Sobon, a local timber framer who helped lead the revival of the hand-tool, timber framing movement. Bowman’s first timber frame was his own cabin. To build it, he harvested trees from his woods and took them to a nearby mill to be sawn into timbers.
A few years later, he began operating his own portable sawmill. By mastering this skill, he gained far more control over the quality of the timbers and now he claims he wouldn’t do otherwise. In the long run, getting high-quality milling saves him the time and hassle of trying to return materials that do not meet his standards.
Completing more than 40 timber frames (barns, cabins, garages, porches) over the last 18 years has made Bowman adept at choosing and felling appropriate trees to meet the needs of individual projects. He has developed a keen eye for discerning whether standing trees will meet strength grades and code requirements. Bowman’s profit margin is at its peak when he harvests trees from his own woods to create timber frames, controlling the process from stump to assembled building. Unlike most private landowners these days, one of his chief reasons for owning land is to supply material for his business and to do all the harvesting himself.
In New England, the most commonly specified woods for timber framing are red oak, white pine, and hemlock, but Bowman likes to use a wider range of species and grades in his work. In a pile of log-length firewood destined for the stove, he will find curved logs, branch crotches, and other useable shapes. The proof of his scavenging is in his stunning workshop, a 21-by- 34-foot frame with a second floor on one end to accommodate a storage loft. In the shop’s center are two cruck bents (framing made with curved timbers) with sweeping, cathedral-like arches. Bowman used 22 species of native wood in its construction and insulated it with hay bales and clay. A member of the Timber Framers Guild, Bowman has built a reputation among framers for the kind of ingenuity and skill that creates specialty uses for local wood.
His preference for using local forest resources in projects close to home and passion for healthy rural communities led Bowman to become a founding member of the Massachusetts Woodlands Cooperative, LLC. This group is carving out a new business based on high standards of forest management and working with local businesses to add value to harvested wood within western Massachusetts. Through the Coop, Bowman has obtained Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for his own forest and FSC chain-of-custody certification for his business. This means that he can now build FSC certified timber frames using material that has been harvested from his own woods or from the forests of other Coop members.
To appreciate what the timber framing tradition can provide to the customer, Bowman compares timber frames with more conventional construction methods. First: longevity. Light frame stick-built residential buildings have a lifespan of 50 to 75 years, certainly adequate for any one homeowner. But where would our rural character be without the 150- and 200-year-old buildings that still grace our towns? Timber frame houses can last a couple hundred years because the frame is not only inside the skin (sheathing) but also exposed to the interior space where it is better protected from the elements and kept warm and dry.
Next: beauty. Because the frame is visible, it is appreciated and therefore better cared for. Next: cost. Timber framing requires a different skill level than conventional framing, but a well-crafted timber frame need not cost a fortune. Some can be very expensive, but Bowman has built frames that are comparable in price to conventional framing. Although a timber frame uses a comparable number of board feet in construction, the pieces are fewer and larger and there is less sawdust wasted in creating those pieces. A final, yet perhaps under-appreciated advantage in today’s disposable economy: a timber frame is the ultimate reusable structure, in that it can be taken apart and reassembled on a different site.
To Bowman, this construction technique offers additional advantages. Besides the opportunity to use local wood, most timber-frame designs call for green (freshly cut) wood, so the kiln-drying step is eliminated. Because the processing steps to create timbers are relatively few, the costs of moving wood along the production chain are low. Then there’s the daily opportunity to use traditional tools and the allure of a centuries-old art.
Bowman teaches this art as a visiting instructor at the Heartwood School for the Homebuilding Crafts in Becket, Massachusetts. There students can take his course in converting trees into timbers, which goes from the tree selection process to the shaping with chainsaw or traditional hand tools. Once the timbers and joinery have been prepared, students assemble the components into a real-life project. In a recent barn-raising (actually a garage) project in Chesterfield, Massachusetts, Bowman coached a large group of his customers’ friends and family to methodically and safely assemble the prepared beams, posts, bents, and braces. Bowman’s ability to clearly describe the task and guide a novice team to a safe and successful completion gives his customers a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The timber frame is evocative of our region’s people and their history. It is a simple and strong construction that, because it’s so visible, can be understood and appreciated by anyone. Cavernous old barns recall a farming way of life.Covered bridges shelter a road once traveled by folks with horse-powered wagons and carts. Community barn-raisings symbolize the reliance villagers have had on one another. Dave Bowman keeps this tradition alive, creating structures from his own surroundings and sharing his knowledge and love of the craft. Through it, he finds new ways to stay close to the woods and build community around him.
Susan Cambell is the author of Profiles from Working Woodlands: Exploring Forest-Based Enterprises in Western Massachusetts, from which this article was derived.