by Cornelius Lundsgaard
It was a hot day for hitching in Saratoga County, and my toolpack got heavier for every car that passed me by and disappeared into the heat shimmer. The late-summer air clung humid to my clothes, and the tarmac stuck to my old steel-toes. Nonetheless, I was in high spirits as I held out my thumb and prayed for someone to pick me up and take me to Christ the King Spiritual Center.
I had seen the light, so to speak, only a few weeks earlier—in the Kootenay Rockies, British Columbia—when a dedicated brother had recommended that I take up this journey. But it wasn’t so much Jesus that I was in search of as it was the secrets of his worldly profession. They say that Jesus was a carpenter too, and I was about to discover a way of woodworking that has been practiced since long before he was born and our calendar began: I was about to take my first steps into the world of timber framing.
Being a self-taught carpenter and a compulsive traveler to boot, I had come from my native Denmark in search of adventure and to hone my skills (and pay for it all) with some interesting carpentry work. To the European mind, Canada’s forests are near-mythological, and since childhood, I have been drawn to see, with my own eyes, where these enormous trees grow. As I later, rather haphazardly, myself grew to become some kind of carpenter, I often thought that Canada would be a sort of promised land for all things wood. So when a work permit last year suddenly materialized for me, I naturally packed my bags and made my way across the Atlantic.
Chance would have it that my nomadic path soon meandered through the Kootenays and left me fresh out of fiscal power, as I rolled into the small town of Nakusp. My one local contact suggested that I should look up her friend—the industrious and talented carpenter and entrepreneur, David Madden— and this turned out to be a sound piece of advice, with ripples still spreading into the present time.
Having himself worked as an itinerant carpenter in my Northern European neck of the woods, he was naturally sympathetic to my cause, and so he hired me on the spot. Furthermore, upon hearing about my fascination with large trees, he recommended (with much conviction) that I join the Timber Framers Guild and participate in their upcoming workshop in upstate New York.
A reverent lot
Thus, I found myself on the sunny side of the road, looking for a ride to the campsite for the Timber Framers Guild’s Community Building Project in Schuylerville, New York. The address was listed as the Christ the King Spiritual Center and— not knowing much about the Guild to begin with—I was tentatively brushing up on my best behavior when a Vernon-bound arts teacher (bless her soul) volunteered to drive me the rest of the winding and picturesque way through the rolling green hills.
I had no need, however, for rekindling what little religion I could muster, because the venue turned out merely to be a convenient and, may I add, comfortable accommodation arrangement. That said, I did feel a distinct sense of reverence throughout my whole stay, albeit one with a more tangible object.
There seemed to be no end to the commitment and almost faith-based obsession that one could have for timber framing, as I overheard lengthy debates and pointed discussions between the unofficial TFG clergy on every known and unknown aspect of their beloved craft. I was awestruck with the dedication I was witnessing and quickly realized, that I had stumbled into something more than a practical workshop—this was more like a way of life.
One of my new friends at “the build,” a 20-something self-employed carpenter from the next state over, pretty much summed up the following ten days for a lot of us when he said: “It’s like a fantasy world! All you have to do is to wake up in the morning and go to this amazing place, where everyone is a timber framer, and all day long you are just cutting beautiful timber and talking about tools!”
With every logistical detail taken care of, we had the privilege of being able to focus on the work at hand, and the valuable learning we could glean from it. Thanks to the hard-working TFG organizers and the many local volunteers and partners, for us participants it was one long wonderful blur of cutting timber, being served great food, attending interesting lectures, jamming by the fire, and sometimes catching a bit of sleep too.
As the only person from outside the continent, and having virtually no prior timber framing experience, I was sometimes the odd one out. Already at the breakfast buffet, I would hear words like “birds-mouth” and “French
snap,” but to my relief these were not menu items. Timber framing certainly has its own vernacular and my brain was often stretched to the limit in learning the lingo. Fortunately, stupid questions were always welcome.
Come gather round
What I know about woodworking I have learned on the job through asking those stupid questions. And to put it diplomatically: it is not my impression that being a builder automatically makes you an empathetic and supportive
teacher. On a regular work site, the nuggets of knowledge often come with a measure of mockery, and I have, sadly, grown accustomed to draping my thickest skin, when I want to learn something at work. But here was suddenly an environment where mistakes were regarded as opportunities to learn!
Even when I mistakenly knocked a borrowed chisel onto the gravel floor (the horror!), the ever-attentive project manager, whose personal chisel it was, only shrugged his shoulders and commented, “Yeah, that looks like a good half-hour on the stone,” and then he showed me how to use a sharpening stone. Admittedly, I did spend more than an hour getting that chip out, but now I have another skill, and a reason never to drop a chisel again.
It occurred to me that timber framers seem to be of a different breed than most of the builders I have talked to in the many lunchrooms of my life, where extracurricular topics usually consist of last night’s TV program. At “the build,” when the conversations—quite often—strayed beyond timber framing, there was a plethora of enlightening stories to be heard, and many a discussion to be had, on anything from politics to potatoes, and, more often than not, with a humorous twist.
It takes all kinds
The diversity of the whole crew was striking. Drawn together as we were by our common enthusiasm for timber framing, we still came from so many different places and professions. I personally befriended an ex-Marine, a rocket scientist, a medieval martial arts fighter, an urban cowboy, and a high-school teacher. Even one of the most seasoned Guild-elders seemed to have, at least, a few more careers under his vest, including a good decade on the road as a touring musician.
I felt right at home with my own improbable resume but, contrary to my habit, I decided not to throw myself into the deepest end. I was advised to start on the rafter crew, and together with a bunch of other keen learners and our two sympathetic and straightforward instructors, we were having lots of fun from the get-go. To my surprise, the age range among us ran from late teens to mid-70s, with an almost even distribution. Several of the old-timers told me that this was a recent and joyful development, as the craft seems to appeal more to the youth these days. With my mere 36 summers, I am arguably one of them, and it was inspiring to see so many other younger timber framers.
I was also pleasantly surprised to see more than just my own gender represented at the workshop, and not just among us learners either. After graduating from the rafter-crew, I enrolled in “braceland,” where the intricate art of cutting braces was expertly taught by a most competent young woman. Presently, the TFG board members are made up of equal part yin and yang, and after years of listening to the endemic mindless misogyny that I have consistently come across on building sites around the world, I now feel very grateful to have found a trade with a history that may stretch back several millennia, but which still has a pertinent and open culture.
A new beginning
After ten days of only doing layout and cutting, I was beginning to understand why even the old hands were saying that the learning never stops. It was refreshingly humbling to find myself learning how to use a simple handsaw properly, yet my carpentry experience was, of course, still useful. I definitely felt that I picked up a ton of tricks, and gained some solid basic timber framing skills. As we passed the half-way mark, it felt like a lot of us beginners were taking leaps in our learning, and it was immensely satisfying to see a whole building being produced as a result of it.
By the time the whole thing was all-too-suddenly over, I was positively hooked on everything about timber framing, and I had that same melancholy feeling like after a great festival, when you realize that normal life has been suspended and now you must leave the magic and go home to wherever you came from. This time, however, I was still on the road, and now with a better idea of where it was leading.
In a world full of moral shortcuts and compromised quality, I have been shown a way of woodworking, and a way of life, that embodies integrity. I have seen how an ancient tradition can still be important and relevant to present generations, and how a tree can give humans not only shelter, but community too. Governments and gurus may come and go, but as long
as the earth has forests and folk, timber frames will likely stand and friendships will be forged through them. Thanks to the Timber Framers Guild, I am now going to be one of the lucky people who can help to make that happen!
“Faith and Framing in America” was first published on impromptuimmigrant.wordpress.
com. All photos by Cornelius Lundsgaard.