Hand Hewn

The Traditions, Tools, and Enduring Beauty of Timber Framing


By Jack A. Sobon

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Hand Hewn is a gorgeous celebration of the traditions and artistry of timber-frame building, a 7,000-year-old craft that holds an enduring attraction for its simple elegance, resilience, and the warmth of the wood. Internationally renowned timber-frame architect and craftsman Jack A. Sobon offers a fascinating look at how the natural, organic forms of trees become the framework for a home, with profiles of the classic tools he uses to hand hew and shape each timber and explanations of the clever engineering of the wooden joinery connecting the timbers, without a single nail. Inspiring photos of Sobon’s original interior home designs, as well as historical examples of long-lived structures in Europe and North America, make this a compelling tribute to the lasting value of artisanal craftsmanship and a thoughtful, deliberate approach to designing buildings.

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To timber framing enthusiasts everywhere from those unlocking the mysteries of old frames to those keeping this wonderful ancient craft alive by building anew.


Introduction: We Shape Our Buildings . . . Then They Shape Us

I. The Making of a Timber Framer

II. An Intimacy with Wood

III. History of the Craft in America

IIII. Reading an Old Building

V. Hand Tools

VI. Design, Architecture & Geometry

VII. Why Timber Framing is Still Relevant Today

References & Further Reading



Metric Conversion Chart

Photography Credits

Other Storey Titles

Share Your Experience!

We Shape Our Buildings . . . Then They Shape Us

I built this modest 16 × 24 timber-framed cottage with Dave Carlon in 1984. It was my first "cruck" frame and features an all-wood interior. See more on crucks.

Humans can live out their lives in a variety of spaces, adapt to their particular environment, and learn to survive under incredible circumstances. We have been doing it around the globe for eons. But our living environment shapes our lives and determines their outcomes more than we realize. As living beings we respond to light, air, sound, color, smell, and touch in our surroundings. This combination of qualities so influences how we feel that it can elevate our mood and inspire us to be creative and productive and to reach out into the world, or it can sadden or depress us and cause us to withdraw back into our little shell. We often don't see the connection between our mood and our environment and can go about our lives living in uninspiring surroundings, never reaching our potential.

Unfortunately, most of our built environment was designed and constructed by persons not aware of these influences. While building codes are there to protect us from shoddy building practices or unsanitary conditions, a building constructed to the code's requirements still can be quite unsatisfactory for promoting a good life. Even some of the more successful buildings standing today work well only by happenstance. A house plan that works fairly well on one side of the street may be terrible on the opposite side of the street, since turning a building 180 degrees changes the daylighting and exposure dramatically. It is no wonder that when a property changes hands, the new owner may choose to demolish the existing building and replace it with a spiffier version. However, the new structure will very likely have its own shortcomings, and eventually the cycle will repeat itself. Putting some better thought into buildings would save a tremendous amount of wasted resources and effort.

For most of us, our home is the biggest financial investment of our lives. If we are building from scratch, we should not skimp on design; it is too important to our well-being. Or, if we are buying an existing home, we must be vigilant, for there are far too many poorly configured structures out there. It would be a shame to get stuck paying a lengthy mortgage on something that poses, in effect, a liability to your health and happiness. If you watch the real estate listings over time, you will see that certain homes are almost perpetually for sale. There are obviously some problems with them. The owners may not actually blame the house, but they intuitively want to move on. I have found that a good house encourages you to stay put, to invest your life in it, and to put it above other interests. For instance, if the company that employs you decides to relocate its operations, a good house may keep you rooted rather than have you packing to follow the job.

A cozy window seat, framed by crotched tree posts and peeled pole rafters, provides a place to bask in the afternoon sun.

A central hallway with ample windows at each end can be a very inviting feature, encouraging travel between rooms, between levels, and to the outside. Old timbers, soft colors, and clear finished wood enhance the experience.

An organic timber frame set against wood walls and ceilings, along with a fireplace constructed of on-site fieldstone, creates a very comfortable space in this guesthouse.

In this view of the guesthouse loft, the upper parts of the crucks can be seen supporting the roof purlins. The handrail features organically shaped balusters made from small trees of different species.

Architects are trained to understand how elements like form, light, space, and color affect us. A good architect will create a space that is cozy, nurturing, and relaxing, if it is for a home; healthy and productive, if it is a work space; or perhaps humbling and awe inspiring if it is a spiritual building. While it should certainly meet all the required building and zoning codes, it must also enhance quality of life. I am not advocating for using architects necessarily, but rather for good, thoughtful design that enhances our lives and improves our built environment. If you are not qualified or talented in building design, then involve someone who is. I have lived in a number of different dwellings over my life and, in retrospect, I can see how the various places affected my day-to-day existence. In one place, I literally had to be pried out of bed in the morning, while in another I was the first one up and quickly readied for the day. The only difference was the orientation of the bedroom! In the former example the bedroom was on the northwest corner, where the sun pours in late in the day; the bedroom in the latter was on the east side and received the first rays of the morning. The sun — and the house — were altering my personality. We need to be aware of these influences in our designs.

The Allure of Timber Framing

When building a home, we have an almost endless variety of materials to choose from. The options presented in magazines, on television, and at building centers are all choices that some big industry will profit from. If it is advertised, then there is a vested interest behind it. Even the building codes are written to reflect the vested interests of product manufacturers. It seems that only substantial corporations have the necessary capital to invest in the testing and code certification processes that are required to gain approval for new products in construction. Hence, the industry tends to favor the high-tech, manufactured product over the locally sourced and minimally processed one. Of course, the price of the industrial item is higher to cover the costs of promotion.

Timber-framed rooms are both welcoming and sheltering. Corner posts, a beamed ceiling, and the diagonal bracing are comforting elements. It is best to have daylight entering from windows on two walls rather than only one.

No other material on earth has been used in as many different ways as wood. From the walls, furniture, and shelving to the firewood, window frames, and timber framing, this scene is an example of wood's unmatched versatility.

In the Catskill Mountains of New York State, the meeting room of the Mountain Top Arboretum education center features a timber frame and flooring of wood harvested from the surrounding forest.

What Is Timber Framing?

Timber framing is a traditional building system that uses a skeletal framework of both large and small wooden members fastened together with wooden joinery, primarily mortise-and-tenon connections secured with wooden pins. While some connections, especially smaller, nonstructural ones, may be secured with nails, bolts, or other hardware, the majority of connections rely upon wooden joinery. Simply stacking beams on top of posts and fastening them with metal hardware is not timber framing but rather "post-and-beam" construction.

Timber-framed houses feature prominently in the historic sections of many towns in Britain. This street in Lavenham has colorful buildings built with close vertical studding, a symbol of prosperity in its time.

Door of the Guildhall, a National Trust property in the village of Lavenham, Suffolk, England

Just as the food in our diets should be whole, locally grown, and without additives, so too should be the materials that surround us in our homes.

The craft of timber framing tends to use locally sourced timber and local hands to create the mortise-and-tenon joints that define it. Though there is a small industry of commercial timber framing, you are unlikely to find timber frame components for sale at your local building supply house. There won't be a shrink-wrapped package of 2-inch tenons on the shelf or a box of step-lapped rafter seats. Nor will you see many ads for timber framing in mainstream publications. Because it is a craft, timber framing doesn't lend itself to the typical methods of the building industry. And if it hadn't already seen several thousand years of use, it probably wouldn't be accepted at all by the code authorities or building industry of today. The fact that there are millions of old timber-framed buildings out there means that they have been "grandfathered" in.

Though the building industry does very little promotion of timber framing, timber framing promotes itself. Anyone who has lived in or visited a timber-framed house, whether that house is 400 years old or brand-new, becomes a salesperson for the craft. Though not everyone is smitten with the timber framing bug, those who are become lifetime devotees and promoters. I have never seen such enthusiasm anywhere in the conventional building industry.

What is it about timber framing that inspires such devotion? Certainly the allure of the past is part of it. The countless old timber-framed buildings lining the twisting streets of European towns and cities; the great medieval halls of kings and castles with gracefully arching, oaken frames; the temples and pagodas of Asia; and the utilitarian frames of windmills, watermills, and barns — all are at once enticing and inspiring. Standing in and among these buildings, we become part of the past — we are emperors and knights, lords and ladies, yeomen and serfs. When we build in this time-honored tradition, we keep our connection to the past alive.

The craftsmanship inherent in this form of construction is also deeply appealing. Much like a sculptor, furniture maker, cabinetmaker, or other artisan, the timber framer must account for the irregularities of the material, using each piece to its best advantage. This process is neither haphazard nor routine. While machines can be utilized to carry out the more rudimentary procedures, most of the craft relies upon careful handwork with mallet, chisel, and plane. As with other artists and craftspeople, the timber framer must have a vision of the completed work and how each piece being crafted fits into that whole. Usually, components cannot be pre-fitted. The builder must be confident that the pieces will fit when the raising day comes and must hold off on this confirmation until the end, which can be daunting. When it does come, however, after several weeks or months, there is incredible gratification and a high that lasts for days.

Then there is the wood itself. Wood is like no other material. Having once been alive, it has qualities and characteristics unmatchable by any factory-produced composites. Wood offers a nearly infinite variety of grain and subtle variations of color, depending on the species of tree, the growing conditions, and the method of converting it to usable material. As with people, no two trees are alike. And within each tree, no two pieces of wood are the same. Wood can be warm to the touch. It is supple yet resilient. It is a good insulator and a good shock absorber, and some species can last a thousand years exposed to the weather. It is the only once-living material on earth suitable for virtually all parts of the house and abundant enough to use on that scale.

Wood is also a renewable resource. On my own 60-acre timber stand, over the last 25 years I have harvested the wood for nearly 50 timber frames of various sizes as well as hundreds of cords of firewood, and there is still more timber — and timber of better quality — standing in that forest now than when I purchased it. When I cut down trees, they are replaced naturally. I never have to replant. Nature (primarily red squirrels) does it for me. What other builder's supply yard restocks all by itself, provides habitat for songbirds, and is a joy to stroll through besides?

What other builder's supply yard restocks all by itself, provides habitat for songbirds, and is a joy to stroll through besides?

A logger and his draft horse pull a tree out of the forest. Forests are a renewable resource. If managed with care, they can produce building materials forever.

Let us not forget the obvious draw of the beauty of the frame itself. It gives the dweller a feeling of confidence when one can see the thick posts supporting the upper floors, the diagonal braces that give the building rigidity in the wind, and the structure supporting the roof above. The assembly isn't hidden or tricking the eye (humans don't like to be fooled). Timber framing is honest construction, and one feels secure within its walls and under its roofs. Though timber frames can be soaring, arching, magnificent, awe-inspiring forms, even the smallest, simplest structure can be graceful. Then there is the grain and color of the wood, its changing appearance with natural light and artificial light, and the way it changes as it ages. One can stare at wood surfaces and, like peering at the clouds, make out familiar shapes in the grain and knots. Manmade, smooth, monochromatic materials pale by comparison.

Finally, there is the longevity of the timber frame. While it is still susceptible to the effects of decay, fire, earthquake, and vandalism, it will likely fare better than other types of building materials. Countless centuries-old timber-frame structures around the world testify to their resilience. And if an old timber frame building is no longer used and slated for demolition, the frame can instead be disassembled and re-erected on a new site, or the individual parts can be recycled and become a feature in new construction.

While barns are purely utilitarian structures, their exposed timber frames are often quite inspiring. This barn in Cockeysville, Maryland, features a windlass hoist.

Framed in the late 1280s, the Great Hall at Stokesay Castle, Shropshire, England, is the epitome of medieval halls.

Though the detail has lost much of its crispness, this beautiful carving on a sixteenth-century building in Lavenham, England, testifies to the resilience and versatility of wood.

Two of the buildings that I framed earlier in my career have since been dismantled, moved, and re-erected on a new site. Many older timber-framed structures are already in their third or even fourth life! They are ever adaptable to new uses. Working for a contractor involved in the recycling of 200-year-old barn frames is what first got me interested in the craft of timber framing.

So here we have a building system that combines human artistry with what may be the earth's most wonderful material. By timber framing, we are continuing a tradition that goes back thousands of years.

Classic European Timber Frames

Old Town Hall, Esslingen Am Neckar, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany

Traditional medieval timber-frame architecture of Le Relais Saint Jean Hotel in Troyes in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France

Schiltach, the Bavarian Alps, Germany

Ithe making of a timber framer

Growing up in a small town in Massachusetts in the 1960s, it was easy to get swept away in the Modern movement. Everyone was looking forward to the great future ahead: flying automobiles, space travel, and, most importantly, plastics. We were an opportunistic and futuristic society; no one was looking back. In our haste to try every new fad or gadget, we were losing sight of many of the old ways that had served us well for centuries. No one thought twice about abandoning old stuff. I'm sure the preponderance of young people played a big role in that attitude. The number of students in my high school graduating class of 1973 was the school's largest ever, the peak of the post–World War II baby boom.

From Destruction to Reconstruction

As an adolescent, I was fascinated by all the new construction of highways, bridges, and buildings. Preceding much of this new construction was the destruction of the old. I spent many hours watching old stone, brick, and timber buildings being destroyed to make way for new shopping plazas, drive-in banks, carwashes, and fast-food chains. The most common way to destroy the old was with a crane wielding a wrecking ball or a clamshell bucket. With the sounds of tearing, splitting, crushing, and crashing down, and the resultant dust clouds, it was quite a spectacle — and watching was one of my favorite pastimes.

This scene of destruction was commonplace across America in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s as historic buildings were replaced by drive-up banks and parking lots.

My father operated such a crane and was responsible for much destruction. A couple times I sat in his lap while he maneuvered that clamshell to tear open roofs, and a couple times he brought that lovely 1958 American Hoist & Derrick Co. truck crane home for me to play on. I learned quite a bit about how old buildings were built by seeing them torn asunder. It is too bad there was so much destruction, but it was the times. Old was bad, new was good! I guess as a society, we have to suffer some loss before we realize that what is left is valuable. Oh, and there is some wonderful irony here: My dad tore down old timber-framed buildings with a crane when I was a child; I have spent my adult life repairing old timber-framed buildings and constructing new ones and raising them without a crane. Because he passed when I was a boy of 10, he wasn't around to witness my lifelong restitution for his acts of destruction.

excerpt from an article in The North Adams Transcript, May 1, 1965

epitaph for a beloved and charming building

by grier horner


  • “Drawing on 7,000 years of tradition, Sobon, an architect who specializes in timber-frame buildings, showcases timber-framed porches, rooms, barns, and houses - all built without hammering a single nail.” — Publishers Weekly 

    “Sobon has spent his career turning trees into magnificent structural frameworks for buildings that satisfy our yearning for real strength, warmth, and honesty.” — Max Jacobson, architect and coauthor of A Pattern Language and Patterns of Home

    Hand Hewn is an invitation — through gorgeous photographs, clear drawings, and enticing text — to follow the passion and experience of a visionary master craftsman, historian, and poet whose work and philosophy are sure to inspire you.” — Philippe Petit, high wire artist and author of Man on Wire

    “An essential book for every builder — of anything — revealing the world of timber framing from a true master craftsman.” — Will Beemer, author of Learn to Timber Frame and director of the Heartwood School for the
    Homebuilding Crafts

On Sale
Oct 15, 2019
Page Count
272 pages

Jack A. Sobon

About the Author

Jack A. Sobon is an architect and builder specializing in timber-framed buildings. A founding director of the Timber Framer’s Guild of North America and founder of the Traditional Timber Frame Research and Advisory Group, Sobon has devoted his 38-year career to understanding the craft of timber framing. Using only traditional hand tools, he has framed and erected over 50 structures. He is the author of Build a Classic Timber-Framed House and coauthor of Timber Frame Construction. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Sobon teaches and consults nationally on traditional building structures and timber-framing techniques.

Learn more about this author