The Kingston Whig-Standard


Carving a 500 Year Old Tradition
Robin Harvey For the Whig-Standard

HARROWSMITH - It took backbreaking 12-hour shifts, but in just seven days, 10 strangers became fast friends, forging a timber frame structure that will stand for generations.

"That is what is so amazing about this work," says Ivan Tattoli. "Timber frame construction attracts me because it is built to last. People have been using these techniques for 500 years. You know they have to have gotten something right."

Tattoli was one of 10 men who signed up for the Gibson Timber Frames framing course, which concluded Saturday near Harrowsmith, where the fruits of the students' hard labour was finally assembled into a five-by six-metre structure made from 40 separate pieces that stood almost six metres high.

The 34-year-old from Shefford, Que., is an organic farmer who aims to build a timber frame home for his wife and two children, who also work on their farm.

He calls himself a bit of an "eco nut" but says it is important that the skills of permanence and durability not be lost to future generations.

"You have to have a passion for the wood and this type of carefully crafted work," says Dennis Hilliker, 51, a soon-to-be-retired police officer from Niagara Region, who plans to expand his family sawmill business.

"It draws you in and you lose track of time, but the work is very hard and exacting, too, so you have to have patience and be the kind of person who will pay attention to detail. I used to have a log cabin kit when I was a boy."

Hilliker says the camaraderie developed among the group was good for his spirits.

"Watching guys who were really new at things and how they picked things up as we went along was great," he said. "This kind of work, you put yourself into it and you know you've accomplished something. (It's) work with your real hands."

In this class, students came from as far away as Dryden, Ont., and Throis-Rivieres, Que. In previous classes, students have come from as far away as Vancouver, Calgary and Virginia to learn the art from instructor Jason Gibson and his team.

During the week the men, whose occupations ranged from software developer to engineer, to electrical plant manager to hydro linesman to machinist, worked through rain, sun and fog.

They started with a towering pile of eight inch by eight inch rough-sawn pine. Then they planed it with hand and power planes. After that, they got just a partial blueprint and studied the theory behind timber frame construction.

Next, they took on tasks in teams of two. The first step was layout, drawn on the wood by one man and checked by another. Then, in pairs, they worked on the tie beams and sill beams.

Then, they each got their own special piece of the puzzle to manufacture by hand, including the posts, rafters plates, girts, knee braces and pieces for traditional joinery (called mortise and tenon). Then they made sure the rafters and pieces for the roof would fit together.

They had to be sticklers for accuracy as the building had to be within one-sixteenth of an inch of the prescribed dimensions to work.

Gibson says people are drawn to timber frame construction for many reasons. A major one is practicality - many have plans to make their own timber frame structure and decided to take the course to learn the basics or to get tips.

"The people come with the idea they want to build something - a cabin, cottage, house or porch," he says. "They may go away and build a small woodshed or a full house.

"Many have told me, 'I used to lie in my grandfather's barn, and I always wanted to make one' or they want to make something that has a connection to the past, things that last."

Others say they want to build a legacy, Gibson says, something with permanence that you can't get with modern construction.

"You can see the tool marks in the wood, where the person's hand has worked with the tools. It is unique and has a part of that person built into it," he says.

"People say you can't place value on that."

Gibson believes many people are looking for that permanence when so much these days is mass produced and disposable. He's also amazed, by the third or fourth day, at a sense of synergy that takes hold of the group, how they become a team that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

"That is an experience people do not often get in the modern work environment and I think they miss it," he says.

Timothy Andrews