A Gathering of the Trades: Timber Framers Guild

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Last weekend, Sept. 16-18, the Timber Framers Guild held its 31st annual conference. This year it was in Saratoga Springs, NY, at the historic Gideon Putnam hotel in Saratoga Spa State Park. Saratoga Springs is a gateway to the Adirondacks, and the magnificent pine and white oak trees on the grounds of the spa stand as a reminder of this once resource rich forest land in upstate New York.

Rudy Christian

Conference attendees learning wood identification techniques. Photo: Jonathan Orpin

It was interesting to watch people, who work with heavy white oak and pine timbers in their shops, walking the grounds looking up the tall straight stems like kids in a candy store, except these trees won’t be passing through anyone’s sawmill any time soon. Yet being part of this timber lust is just a small fraction of why several hundred timber framers gathered together to share their common love of turning trees into structures meant to last for centuries.

My wife Laura and I had the pleasure the first evening of having dinner with Jeff Arvin, the Guild’s executive director, Kevin Ireton, past long-time editor of Fine Homebuilding Magazine and architect, author and traditional timber framer Jack Sobon. We were seated on the outdoor terrace and very close to some of the large white oaks, one of which had some pretty severe spiral grain in the trunk stem. This triggered a conversation about whether right hand or left hand spiral was acceptable for timbers, and if the direction of spiral affected ring porous or diffuse porous species the same or differently. Probably not a conversation had at most conferences.

As is typical of Guild conferences, the presentations were divided into “tracks” which included Skills, Design & Engineering, History & Preservation, and Business. I had been asked to be one of the featured speakers and talk about the Timber Temples of Mandalay. Studying these incredible timber structures has recently become a passion as the result of the work we are doing there with WMF, and sharing what little we have learned with so many other tradespeople who have their own passion for all things timber was an honor and a joyful experience.

One of the other two featured speakers was William Logan, president of Urban Arborists and staff member of the New York Botanical Garden. His book Oak: The Frame of Civilization provides some real insight into just how the oak tree has affected the development of the human species, from providing food, tools, shelter and from William’s perspective, the spiritual inspiration to set out to sea, as the Vikings did so many centuries ago. He did an impressive job of preaching to the converted.

Rudy Christian

The ever popular axe throwing competition being held under the mighty oaks. Photo: Allison Aurand

In between the three featured speakers, the three days were filled with inspiring presenters and presentations about topics like Safe Rigging Practices, Design and Stereotomy, Tool Sharpening, Wood Species Identification, Full Scale Joinery Testing, Project Management and even the “Ark Encounter” project. And not for the faint of heart, Mason Lord presented Historic Fabric & Reversibility vs. Insulation & Air Sealing in Antique Timber Structures.

My focus remained primarily on the presentations in the History & Preservation track where we learned about Chinese Timber Framing from Jan Lewandoski, Timber Frame Repairs from Jack Sobon, and Barns of the Empire State from Cynthia Folk, to name just a few. Not to be outdone in the longest title category, Ian Stewart presented De Oude Wereld en de Nieuwe: A Comparison of Timber Frame Joinery in the Netherlands and the Territory Formerly Known as New Netherland.

The conference closed with a presentation by Kevin Ireton. It appeared obvious to me Kevin was a bit concerned about what he was going to say to an audience made up of people who made their livelihood as homebuilders or as a part of a team that did. His trepidation was linked to his reason for leaving Fine Homebuilding, and was seated in his recent revelation that what we had was too many homes, fine or not, being built in a world where it has become critical that anything we build be built with not only sensitivity to energy resources, but an earnest attempt at energy independence.

Kevin likened the post Great Recession home building boom to cancer; the cancer cells being the homes which are multiplying at an alarming rate and destroying the host on which they depend. It is a sobering thought, and one that really struck home being at the foot of the Adirondacks where battles have been fought since the 19th century to protect wilderness areas from being consumed to build more and more homes in the cities and suburbs downstream along the Hudson River. Taking inspiration from Wendell Barry, Kevin has changed his direction in life, realizing every one of us needs to focus on how we can survive our own success.

As Laura loves to say, going to the Guild conference is the best way to charge your batteries. For tradespeople, getting together and wallowing in the joy of how much beauty can come from something as common as an oak tree, is truly a humbling experience. In truth, the timber frames we build from trees are not consuming energy or contributing to climate change to any great degree, but as part of an industry that is focused on comfort and capitalistic gain, they are contributing factors in a much bigger picture that is directly linked to climate change.

If creativity is a key component in our creation of beautiful and durable things like timber frames, then maybe applying our traditional trade skills isn’t enough unless we also learn how to use our creativity to influence the clients and builders we work for in addressing energy and resource consumption. We have gone beyond green, thankfully. And I hope I have succeeded in the past making the case that, contrary to being the brunt of bohunk builder jokes, tradespeople are some of the smartest people out there. Attending this recent gathering of the trades doubtless charged a lot of their batteries. Hopefully it also served to stimulate them to take a fresh look at how our community can become part of changing the way we live.