by Megan Avila, New Energy Works
It’s the story of some massive 48-foot long (37″ x 42″ x 48′) Douglas fir timbers from one of the Welland Canal locks in Ontario, Canada. Serving as a canal lock for nearly 60 years, the original trees culled for the timbers had been growing in that region for 400+ years when they were harvested.
History of the canal’s timbers
To create an uninterrupted waterway from the Atlantic Ocean to the American heartland, the falls and rapids of the Niagara River needed to be tamed. The decision was made to circumvent the river by creating the Welland Canal. Eight large locks initiated by local businessmen with the first canal built in 1829. Today, the Welland Canal is in its fourth version. 43.4 km (27 miles) of canal overcome the 99.5 m (326.5 feet) of water level difference between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
Douglas fir timbers were installed in Lock No. 8, one of the longest canal locks in the world, during the 1927 canal renovations. Updates and repairs to the canal continued over the decades.
A new life begins
The story of timber framing with these giant beams begins in the late 1990s when the wooden locks were removed and updated. Weighing over 20,000 pounds, the enormous salvaged and water-logged timbers headed to Farmington, New York, by the pair, with work done by Pioneer Millworks, sister company to New Energy Works.
Heavy equipment was used by the de-nailing team to remove metal artifacts from the old canal timbers. Then, before heading to the timber frame shop, the timbers were resawn using an Alaskan Mill, also known as a PortaMill, which required two operators. The sliced timbers revealed unique mineral staining and incredibly tight grain.
When the timbers arrived in the yard, the teams marveled at the size, texture, and tones of the then-waterlogged wood. The timing was perfect, since we had a client who wanted “timber-frame-with-a-story” for their new venture, the Cove Restaurant at Steamboat Landing on Canandaigua Lake in New York.
Working with reclaimed timbers brings a unique set of challenges. Special consideration is made to the orientation of each timber (fresh or reclaimed), to celebrate character marks, original mortise pockets, or clean, bright grain. The storied sides of the timbers – those with the most character, including mineral staining, bolt holes, and ferrous staining from old metal artifacts – were intentionally exposed.
A fourth life for the timbers of Welland
Unfortunately, in 2015, Cove Restaurant was slated for demolition, doomed by incoming development. Our craftsmen, many of whom had cut and joined the restaurant frame decades ago, returned to the site and carefully dismantled the joinery, removing the timbers in anticipation of finding a new use for them again.
A new business, Point of the Bluff Vineyards, was interested in giving the old timbers their fourth life. Working with our design team, they detailed their vision of an event and tasting space situated at the top of their vineyards with open views of Keuka Lake in New York. The final design took cues from the original frame layout, maintaining a specific iconic element: the cupola.
The reclaimed frame was modified for its new role at Point of the Bluff, but the design plans sustained the original cupola. Recognizing that the timbers continue to have a purpose, now with Point of the Bluff Vineyards, is a best-case scenario. The decades these timbers have served as shelter, and will continue to do so, is evidence to the longevity and value of the craft of timber framing.
Other lives for the Welland timbers
Some of the reclaimed timbers were crafted into other frames, fine furniture, flooring, and more:
Learn more about this project and view more photos from Point of the Bluff HERE.