Ancient Timber Framing in the Pacific Northwest

Dan admires joinery work on a reproduction timber frame home of the First People of the Northwest Coast ( Canadian Museum of History , Gatineau, Quebec)

Dan admires joinery work on a reproduction timber frame home of the First People of the Northwest Coast (Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau, Quebec)

Timber framing as a building practice has arisen independently in several different places throughout the world, most famously Europe and Japan. But also (we recently learned on a visit to the Canadian Museum of History) in the Pacific Northwest.  There, huge coastal cedars were skillfully felled and worked by master carvers among the First People of the Northwest Coast using hand tools similar those we use today; maul, adze, and chisel. Walking through a reproduction of a traditional timber frame home built by modern craftsmen according to the ancient tradition, we could recognize the skill and appreciate the impressiveness of the feat, especially given the lack of modern equipment.

Wanting to learn more, I picked up a book in the museum gift shop, Cedar, by Hilary Stewart, and found in it a passage that resonated with me, speaking to the feeling I always get when standing within a timber frame: something indescribable that has to do with the immense size of the timbers juxtaposed against the gentle beauty of the wood:

As I walked among the remains of the twenty-four houses in the old village of Tanu, on the Queen Charlotte Islands, I thought about the process of felling, bucking, skidding, towing and hauling the massive beams and posts. When I stood beside one of these giants, now thickly moss covered and sprouting spruce seedlings, the immensity of its size was a far greater reality than the actual measurements …. I could not even guess at the weight, but the thought of the amount of physical labor and teamwork involved in acquiring and raising this single beam stirred my imagination.” (p.40)

And it does, even today with modern equipment, require feats of physical labor and teamwork to craft and erect a timber frame. It’s an endeavor that can only be undertaken with care, humility, respect for the land and specialized skill developed over years. We are in awe of the Indigenous master woodworkers of the Northwest Coast, what they achieved hundreds of years ago. Our imaginations too, are stirred, as we also strive to do this work with care, humility, respect and skill.

An example: OCH’s Rich Harris told me how he chose a particular tree for our recent Michigan frame. Walking through the customer’s property, thickly forested with sky-scraping white pines, he became aware of two bald eagles sitting high the branches of one, talking to each other, oblivious for a time to his presence. When they did notice him and moved away, Rich knew he’d found the right tree for the frame and need look no further.