Building a Timber Frame, Building Community

Building a Timber Frame, Building Community

Teacher David Brynn (center) and students carry the sugar maple gable tie. Photos by Alexandra Murphy.

It was the late afternoon of a long day of hauling timbers, sawing posts, and hammering hand-carved wooden pegs. Excitement ran high among the 10 workshop participants as they carried the first section of a timber frame along a concrete walkway that protrudes from the earthen dam of Norton Brook Reservoir in Bristol. The walkway leads to the foundation of what was once a gauging station, back when the city of Vergennes used this reservoir as its water supply.

Master timber-framer Will Gusakov and David Brynn, Vermont Family Forests executive director, were in the midst of leading a three-day course, From Forest to Frame, and the fruits of the students’ labor were about to coalesce into a timber frame “forest hut” built on the foundation of the old gauging station.

On the west side of the foundation is a 14-foot red pine frame with posts and diagonals. “All of this wood is wet – it hasn’t dried much at all since we cut it – and it is heavy,” said Brynn. “And there’s all this enthusiasm. Man, we’re about to raise this thing!”

A lot can go wrong in this moment – an injury, a miscue, an overly enthusiastic effort that pushes the frame too far and sends it toppling into the reservoir below. Gusakov focused the students’ energy to the task at hand.

“We want to do this well and with great care,” he told them, “So I need you to be quiet as we raise the frame.” In a silence broken only by the cadences of songbirds in the surrounding forest, many hands coaxed the frame to vertical, and Gusakov fastened it into place.

“It was meditation with a timber frame,” recalled course participant John McNerney. “It was an eye-opener on how much you can communicate and cooperate without the verbal part going on.”

Next, the students raised the east side of the framework, and then the sugar maple gables whose curving forms reflect the character of the tree from which they were sawn. Finally, they lifted the white pine rafters into place.

By day’s end, a completed timber frame rose above the reservoir’s dark waters. In keeping with European carpentry tradition, Gusakov affixed a hemlock bough to the roof ridge to thank the trees that, in his words, “gave up their bones to the building.”

The hut is an open-air community shelter and gathering place within the Waterworks property, a conserved parcel of nearly 1,000 acres in Bristol and Monkton. Building something useful for the community was one of the many gratifying aspects of the course, according to McNerney. For him, the workshop satisfied a curiosity he’d had since his childhood in Ohio, where he grew up in an old farmhouse with a big, 1830s era timber-frame barn.

“I was interested in seeing how it’s done, especially from start to finish – going into the woods and picking the trees and having the sawmill on site and going up to Will’s place for the joinery.”

From Forest to Frame is the latest in a series of courses that Vermont Family Forests has offered since 2011 through its Hogback Community College (HCC) program, a loose but lively confederation of local teachers and learners.

On the first day of the course, a month before the final frame-raising, McNerney and the other students gathered in Brynn’s sugarhouse, where Brynn led a conversation about ecologically sustainable forestry and the nature of our relationship with the forest.

“As Aldo Leopold said, the health of the forest is its capacity for self-renewal,” said Brynn. “So we first talked about some of the elements we wanted to be sure to maintain while building our forest hut – native biodiversity, water quality, soil structure, plenty of carbon left to rot on the forest floor.”

Brynn then took the students to the Waterworks property, where he had marked the trees that would become the forest hut. “We went from principles and ideals into real application,” he said. “We came upon the first two trees – a hemlock and a very crooked sugar maple – and the students got to know these two living organisms that had been standing in the forest for, in the case of the hemlock, over a hundred years.”

Brynn and the students discussed how to fell the trees to minimize residual damage. “And we talked about what parts of the trees we’d take for the timber frame, and what we’d leave in the forest to restore forest soils,” said Brynn.

In all, the timber frame used eight trees from six species well represented in that forest – white and red pine, red oak, sugar maple, white oak, and hemlock. Logger Paul Cate felled the trees and hauled the logs to a landing using a light-on-the-soil forwarder. Miles Jenness milled the timbers on site, with the exception of a red pine log set aside for the students to hand-hew later.

In the second of the course’s three meeting days, the students gathered at Gusakov’s workshop in Lincoln, just a few miles from the Waterworks property. Gusakov explained the basic methods of timber framing and demonstrated how to create mortise-and-tenon joinery.

Under his guidance, students practiced the art of hewing a pine log with an axe and carving wooden pegs, or trunnels, from white oak with a drawknife and a shaving horse.

The final day of the course – the day all the pieces came together – dawned with a steady rain. The challenging conditions enhanced the experience for participant Roger Howes. In addition to the rain, he said, beavers in the wetland below the reservoir had dammed a culvert just before that final meeting day, causing the access road to flood.

“We had to carry the beams in. It was fun! That was more bonding than if it had all been dropped off.” That sense of community felt particularly poignant to him, even though Howes had traveled more than two hours to attend.

“I told them I felt like I was one of their neighbors,” said Howes of the shared sense of purpose that pervaded the course. “It was awesome in this day and age.”

Alexandra Murphy explores and writes about the natural world in Vermont and the western United States. She’s currently working on a book, Rewilding in the Northern Forest, about cultivating membership in the forests of home.

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