An Overview of Timber FramingPounding pegs into a goshen timber frame

Okay, so you’ve researched and ruminated. You’ve determined that timber frame homes are much more energy efficient, more beautiful, and more enduring than either conventionally stick-framed houses or log homes and have made your decision. It will be a timber frame for you — nothing less.  Timber framing is an amazing building method. Now the real work begins.

Now what do you do…where do you go? You’ve bought the magazines, been to the trade shows, visited the websites. Just where do you start?

First – determine the size of space you need (want), the style you like, and your budget. These items are often at odds and it will often take some professional input and some compromise to make it all work. Take heart, many timber frame companies are capable and willing to help you with this conundrum.


Where will you build your timber frame?

Your land, be it a suburban lot or acres of countryside, will define your timber frame.  The style, orientation, and size will be restricted or revealed by the lay of the land.  Take your time and choose wisely.  Consider access, development, and the contour of the land.  Selecting the right location can save thousands in excavation and site preparation.  The right location will add many thousands of dollars to the value of your home. 

What will it look like?

Look through magazines and home design books.  Drive around and look for a style that catches your eye.  Take
craftsman timber frame home elevation
photos.  Pick out a floor plan or two that fit your lifestyle.  Take your time. This is a major investment and it should be an investment of time and energy before you ever write the first check.  You will live with this house for a long time and generations of families will be amazed at your foresight. 

How much help do you need?

Determine the scope of your project.  Do you want a turn-key operation or will you be more comfortable working with a local contractor to complete the home?  Will the timber framer enclose your frame and bring it together so there is a clear delineation in work they perform and the contractor’s area of responsibility?  Will you need an independent architect or does the timber frame company offer design/build services?

What is your budget?

A timber frame will cost roughly the same as a custom stick-built home.   Spend your dollars where they are most important to you..  Remember that the open floor plan of a timber frame will allow you to be comfortable in less square footage.  There are typically fewer halls and walls…more livable space. Be realistic.  You won’t be able to build a timber frame (or a well-built conventional home) for the cost of a manufactured home.  Timber frames are built to last centuries, not decades.

Where will the money come from?

Prequalify for your home loan and discuss your project with the loan officer.  He/she will often have some suggestions and advice that will help you define your project. Discuss draw schedules, terms, and the schedules.  

Three important words.  Plan…Plan…Plan

During the design process, you will make decisions on windows, flooring, air conditioning and heating, plumbing, cabinets, wall treatments, roofing,  and light fixtures.  Everything from switch plate covers to exterior wall treatment must be identified and selected.  Your designer and contractor will be of much assistance, but the final decisions will be yours.  This is where you stay on…or blow your budget.  Chose wisely and, if money is an issue (and it is for most of us), budget larger amounts of money on the things that matter most to you.

Think through locations for electrical, data, audio/visual, and security wiring.  Since most timber frames are enclosed in insulated panels, determining the location of outlets and switches is important before fabrication of the panels.  Some panels will have chases for wiring and others will have conduit and junction boxes in place.  You can make changes after the panels are in place, but it will be much easier to have plans in place prior to construction..

Windows are important, not only because they are a “big ticket” item, but because they will be energy efficient…or not.  Roofing is another big expense…now or later.  You decide.  The exterior finish will be almost maintenance free or…labor intensive.  Decisions…decisions…decisions.

Time making these decisions is time well spent.  It is much, much easier to make a change on paper than after the work has commenced.   Now the easy part…waiting.

While the timber frame company cuts your frame, your contractor will prepare the site, build your foundation, install floor trusses, if needed, rough in plumbing and electrical,  and lay down the decking or pour you slab.  The frame, often trial assembled at the timber frame shop, then taken apart, will arrive by tractor trailer at the site.  Unloaded, it will again be assembled and readied for erection.

Raising day is finally here.

Amidst cheers, oohs, and aahs, the frame will be raised into place with a crane and joints secured with tree nails (hardwood pegs). The crane flies in the final pieces – purlins and floor joists. The timber frame crew checks the frame for square and makes any necessary adjustments with straps and a beetle (a very large wooden mallet). The decking for your roof is installed and the panel installation begins. The panels, ranging from 4′ X 8′ sheets to 8′ X 24′ sheets, depending on the manufacturer, will be installed. The core, (expanded polystyrene, or polyurethane), sandwiched between two sheets of oriented strand board provides energy efficient insulation. The loft decking is nailed into place. The roof is ready for roofing materials, the doors and windows are often pre-framed. The contractor usually takes it from this point forward. Roofing, siding, interior curtain walls, doors, windows, wallboard, plumbing, electrical, flooring, lighting, paint, and trim are all completed and your home is ready for you. Sit back…enjoy.You’ve done it. You’ve built the home of your dreams. From inception to completion…it was an exciting, sometimes frustrating, but in the end worthwhile experience. You will enjoy your space and relive the experience. The what-ifs will be met with the we’re-glad-we-did-it and there will be no regrets. 

Choosing your timber frame company.

As you’ve read advertisements,  perused websites, and queried the trade show folks, you’ve found a company or two who have the services you are looking for and the quality you require, and most importantly, a philosophy about their work that feels like it will work for you.  A good fit between owner and builder is key to a smooth project.

Call the company or companies that you have identified as “most likely to succeed” and let them know that you are interested in their timber frames.  Most love what they do and will spend the time necessary to discuss your project in length.  Send them any materials you have gathered…pictures, your sketches…along with information about your budget, building site and schedule.

Once the timber frame company has this information, they can evaluate the feasibility of your project.  If there are budgetary constraints, most timber frame companies will help you make choices that will bring your home in line with your budget.  They will work to make these changes…work for you.  Beware of companies that suggest cutting corners without considering the impact on the finished home.

Quotes based on the information you’ve provided will further narrow your choice of builders.  You will find that most quotes will be fairly close.  Take a close look at each one and try to get “apples to apples” information.  Determine which quotes are far out of line, either too high or too low.  Go back over your notes from a meeting or phone call.  Choose your timber frame company not only based on numbers, but on a feeling of confidence that the company will work closely with you to bring your project together in a timely and cost efficient manner.

Does the company have the skill and manpower to cut a quality timber frame and to meet your schedules?  Can they work with you and your contractor from project beginning to end?  Can they communicate effectively?

Check references and affiliations (Timber Frame Business Council, Timber Framers Guild, Better Business Bureau).  Ask former customers if any problems or issues were solved promptly and satisfactorily.

Make your choice with the information you’ve gathered, but don’t overlook that “gut instinct”.  Once you’ve chosen your builder, put your expectations and scope of the project in writing, along with a request for a formal agreement.

Choosing a contractor.

With your project under contract, you are ready to move forward.  A preliminary drawing will usually be presented before the project moves to the blueprint stage.  Take a copy along with you as you interview contractors.  It isn’t imperative that the contractor has “timber frame experience”.  It is necessary that they have an open mind and are enthusiastic about the opportunity to help build a timber frame home.  The same skills that are needed to complete a conventional home are needed to finish your timber frame. Check references and look at the contractor’s work.  Again, a good “fit” is key to a successful project.

Engineering stamps and other surprises.

Contact your local building department, or have your contractor call, to verify whether your plans will need to be sealed by a structural engineer registered in your state.  If so, notify your timber framer so an engineer from the appropriate state can be located and brought into the design process early on.