By Robert Hughes
As a self-taught, middle-aged timber framer, I sometimes lament all those wasted years prior to finding my life’s passion. How nice it would be to know what I know now, yet still be a curious, bulletproof twenty-something. Then again, there is something to be said for experience and wisdom, and you can’t have it both ways—or can you?
If you’re in the trade you are likely working hard to pay your crew and keep the shop lights on. Maybe you can sneak away for a weekend to a Guild conference now and then, but most of the time you are focused on safely crafting the best frames possible while developing the best team you can.
While there is great satisfaction in reflecting on the frames you’ve raised, you could discover that the greatest reward comes from sharing the craft with others and knowing that your role as a teacher of the next generation of framers could be your greatest legacy. This can be done as an active Guild member, working with an apprentice, or even teaching workshops, but the silent challenge we face now as an industry is that we are running out of disciples and it is increasingly difficult to bring young people into the trade.
This is not a new dilemma (Tim and Wynter Chauvin raised the alarm in their article “The First Step’s The Hardest” a generation ago in the Summer 1992 issue of Joiners Quarterly), yet still there exist few opportunities to mentor and work closely with folks in their late teens and early twenties. That may be changing with some recent Guild conference programs for children that have been wildly successful, and the handful of community colleges that have begun to develop courses of study focused on timber framing. In addition to these great programs, there is a unique class being taught at a rural high school in upstate New York that has the potential to become a model for other high school trade programs.
Raising frames, training students
In the early 2010’s, Jim MacLaughlin and I, high school teachers at Wayland-Cohocton School District in Western New York, collaborated to develop a holistic, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) program. Given our background, we naturally chose timber framing as the medium to tie everything together. Rob teaches mostly science and runs Big Beams Timber Frames during the summer months; Jim teaches technology and crafts wabi-sabi-influenced wooden boxes during his free time. We had raised our first timber frame together in 2004 and haven’t slowed down yet. Their long friendship and diverse skill sets seemed like a perfect blend for a creative approach to a meaningful course of study for high school juniors and seniors.
Our class, limited to just 15 students, meets for one 40-minute period per day, five days per week, over our 40-week school year. Although that totals out at 133 hours, when you factor in snow days, fire drills, assemblies, and so on, we actually have about 110 hours together. In that time, students learn the history of timber framing, basic frame engineering, design elements, shop safety, several layout methods, how to properly use professional grade tools, all necessary joinery, and how to safely raise a frame. We seek out community service organizations in need of a structure, meet with them to determine the footprint, dripline, and purpose of the structure, then the students develop a sound design using SketchUp and go through an approval process with the host organization. Once approved, students create shop drawings and generate a materials lists and work schedule that will allow us to raise the frame in mid-May. Our first year, students even helped mill the logs, although we have since ordered timbers from a local mill in the interest of efficiency. Students are deeply involved in the process from start to finish and all students learn all skills. In a truly win-win situation: the organizations we partner with cover materials costs and the students do the rest and learn the myriad skills necessary to understand timber framing.
Problem-solving and cross-disciplinary training
The hallmark of our course is problem-solving. Whenever possible, students are asked to find efficient solutions and you’d be surprised to see what they come up with. In a process we refer to as “Imagineering,” students are encouraged to find new approaches that allow us to create the best frame possible. This occasionally means designing a router (or table saw) jig, but has also involved designing a timber cart, and the invention of a tool we call a peg pounder to seat pegs without mushrooming the head. Additionally, the students make all of our pegs which are octagonal with decorative heads, often using locust, red oak, white oak, and occasionally black walnut.
We have also developed a network of assistant teachers from all disciplines who sometimes join our class to lend their expertise. English teachers come in to guide students with press releases and newsletters; math teachers lend their help with geometry and trigonometry; history teachers discuss historical topics such as North American colonization and the Pine Tree Riot; art teachers are heavily involved during the design phase; our physics teacher delivers lessons on centripetal force as it relates to spinning circular saws, orbital sanders, and resistance in a wire for background knowledge on appropriate cord sizes and lengths; physical education teachers provide instruction on proper lifting techniques; our business teacher instructs on the soft-skills employers are looking for and helps students create resumes; our French teacher is called upon to help translate the occasional French reference or term; and our culinary arts chef discusses the importance of sharp knives in his kitchen, which we follow with sharpening lessons in our beamery. Big picture thinking is the key to our course and we take every opportunity to show students that all things are connected and instill the significant value of synergy.
The frames our students design and build are remarkably challenging, particularly for teenagers, many of whom have never even built a birdhouse. We set the bar very high and are always trying to maximize our level of sophistication. The project in our first year was a dining pavilion on campus that included king-post trusses with walnut splines, ships knee braces, hammer beams, prow gable ends, dovetail purlins, and a splendid center arch truss. For year two, we partnered with a local Lions Club to build a vented-roof grill pavilion with scissor end trusses patterned after an existing adjacent structure. In year three, we built a grill pavilion for a local volunteer fire department: a two-tiered hipped-roof frame with dragon beams, rotated posts with compound brace joinery, and a ridge hipped-roof cupola. This year our students will be completing an 18-ft diameter octagon shelter for the Finger Lakes Museum that will provide a nice challenge. The only limit we put on our designs is that they must be able to be raised in a single day. Beyond that, the sky truly is the limit.
Community support powers the course
Our school district has been remarkably supportive in funding the necessary equipment, largely through grant money we receive as compensation from a local wind farm as well as donations from several vendors. We use a variety of hand and power tools and have many of the tools you would expect to find in a professional beamery.
Our program would not have been possible without the generous support of our Timber Frame Guild friends and others in the timber framing community. Steve and Tait Chappell, Collin Beggs, Peter Gron, Clark Bremer, John Booker, Leon Buckwalter, Autumn Peterson, and David Powell have all been positive forces and have helped guide the direction of our program. We have yet to be turned down by any Guild member we have asked for advice, and there are others in the trade who will likely hear from us in the coming years as we seek to expand our program and tackle new challenges. Ideally, we hope to provide a solid understanding of the craft so that our students can easily transition to an apprenticeship at a professional shop.
Although we are uniquely blessed in our breadth and depth of resources, we believe our program could serve as a model for other districts to follow. We hope that folks from other communities will reach out to develop similar programs across the country and we welcome any input from the Guild community, particularly anyone looking to take on an apprentice.
Perhaps Tim Chauvin said it best in his article so many years ago… “As craftspeople we have a responsibility to seek out youth to whom we can pass on our skills.…” We can only hope that wherever Tim may be, we are answering the call.