Normandy, France - Framing Course
Having taught traditional timber framing courses in Australia for several years now it was an immense privilege to be invited to co-teach at a timber framing workshop taking place in Normandy, France in September of 2018.
I was to be working alongside a timber framing master craftsman and one of my closest friends Alan Ritchie and his team from the Hewnwood timber framing school. As the two lead teachers, Alan and myself were set the task of coordinating, organising, teaching and entertaining 20 students from across the world and our project was to be a reconstructed Oak timber frame that would be installed within the ruined walls of an ancient barn.
Our hosts, Simon and Julie, had purchased the property a couple of years earlier when they moved from the UK, seeking the more relaxed and laid back French country lifestyle. The farm complex that they purchased had several rooms and outbuildings already, but required extensive restoration and renovation work, which Simon set out to do, converting not only into their home, but also to have a part that would serve as guest accommodation.
All of the timber for the project was sourced from a nearby sawmill and there were some terrific naturally shaped members that would play an important role in creating that traditional oak framed feel and look. The frame had been designed by Alan earlier in the year, but when we got to site, there was quite a lot of site measuring and amending required to create working drawings, that would tie in with the variable stone walls of the existing building.
The timber framing course, covered the complete spectrum of traditional green oak framing which we specialise in. We began, by going through the history and significance of timber frames in the local area and looked at the specifics of the oak that comes from this part of France. Our workshop was to be the field beside the site, so it was fairly straight forward to explain the importance of accurate marking, measuring and cutting etc, when the finished building was so close by. When we started looking at the timbers, we would carefully select each piece, paying close attention to where it would go in the build, the finishing details required and how we would be able to design and craft the joinery.
The most important part of any traditional timber framing project is the accuracy. Many people come to our courses with the idea, that large unseasoned and wonky timbers mean the workmanship can be large and wonky, which couldn’t be further from the truth. We spent much of the first two days, carefully referencing, scribing and marking out the various timbers for the first frame before even a single piece of wood was cut. Every step of the process is highly accurate, which results in a finished project that fits together perfectly first time, and will stand tall for many centuries.
The techniques we covered in this course (and in all the courses we teach in Australia) ranged from timber selection, joinery design, marking and cutting joints with both traditional and contemporary methods, peg making, various design and joinery details, fitting, finishing, assembling timber frames and all the building completion details, designs and techniques. There is a lot to cover in only a matter of days but we try to give a broad taste of the many elements, techniques and skills that go into such fine craftsmanship.
On Thursday afternoon of the second week, (after several long days of timber frame teaching, joint cutting, sawdusting, eating cheese and drinking wine) we were ready to begin the installation. A ‘Genie’ materials hoist was chosen to help us lift the oak, and with 20 eager students, all kitted out with hard hats and safety vests it was sure to be a fun day and a half to raise the frame. Each piece was lifted, hoisted, or stood up. The most important part of any construction project, but particularly a timber frame raising is the safety of all the people involved. Showing people the different lifting techniques, temporary bracing, construction sequencing and general work organisation is a very important part of a traditional timber framing lesson. We lift huge heavy timbers into place high up in buildings, which can be very dangerous, so making sure it is done in a way that not only works for the project, but also ensures the safety of all involved is paramount.
The timbers were dropped into place, the pegs were driven home and the frame completed, as the sun begin to set. It was just in time as the locals from the village began to arrive for a celebratory dinner with some Champagne and Cider to set the mood. In the two weeks of the course, we managed to train and guide 20 novice woodworkers, to measure, mark and cut a beautiful timber frame that was completely erected in perfect alignment of the wobbly walls of a ruined stone farmhouse. The project was an immense success, testament to the skill and expertise of the craftspeople from Hewnwood, and the great work ethic and energy from the cool peeps that came from far and wide to learn about this ancient craft.
As we were all heading home to various places across the world from the beautiful French country side, someone mentioned another training course happening at one of the students properties in Milan next year…. Might incorporate it with a little tour of a few Italian vineyards….. it’s a tough life…
The timber framing courses that we have been teaching at various places in Australia over the past few years have been put on hold now due to the increasing demands on our carpenters. We may reintroduce the courses in the future though, so keep an eye on our socials, and sign up for our mailing list for notifications on this and for plenty of other great info.