How to Acquire Timbers For Building Your Own Timber Frame Home

by ziggy on December 3, 2012 -- 1 comment -- Follow


Figure out how you will acquire your timbers… early!

This is the first of many posts where I travel back in time, and fill in missing parts of the Strawtron building timeline with essential information for how we built our timber frame and straw bale home.

If you want to design and build you own timber frame home, you should be prepared to determine how you will acquire the timbers for your frame. You almost can’t determine this too early, nor start your search too soon. The timber frame can be a significant portion of the total expense of construction for an owner-builder, and as always, it is helpful to know how to keep costs manageable.

Here are a few tips for how you might acquire timbers for building your own timber frame home.

#1: Saw Your Own Timber with a Portable Sawmill

If you are fortunate to live on land with abundant timber, consider yourself lucky — you may have the ideal scenario. If you have a portable sawmill, you are in even better shape. I personally do not have either, unfortunately, so this scenario does not apply to me, but sawing your own wood can be the most cost-effective, and sustainable way to get materials for your future house.

With access to timber, you can select and choose exactly the wood you need, and cut it exactly to your own specifications. Perhaps you don’t have a portable sawmill yourself, but a neighbor might. Call around and see if anyone has the equipment and experience, and you may be able to hire or barter for the milling work. Being able to harvest timbers from your own property also means that you can avoid the transportation cost of hauling material to your building site, too.

On a side note, truly ambitious individuals may choose to go the all hand tool route, and after cutting timber, hew the wood with a broad axe. Oh yea! (That’s my own dream… one day….) That’s a whole (and massive) art unto itself, of course.

#2: Reclaim & Recycle Timbers From an Old Barn

Old barns litter rural America. Many are neglected, falling down, or ripe for deconstruction. Building material reclamation is becoming increasingly popular, and many individuals are finding a niche market by selling recycled wood.

Old Barn

Some old barns are ripe for deconstruction, and recycling

Taking down a timber frame barn is serious business, and definitely not for the inexperienced. If you’ve got the experience, you probably aren’t even reading this, but for those that want to consider the recycled timber route, there are some possibilities. Again, call around to see if anyone in your area has experience taking down old buildings. (This is rare, as many old buildings are typically pushed over, sadly.) You never know. You may also find that someone has a cache of old barn timbers, or is specifically selling them. Depending on your local market, it could either be really expensive… or not. (Oftentimes, reclaimed lumber and wood is sold at a premium.) The point here is to do some research, ask around, and look at the barns in your area.

#3: Contact Your Local Sawmill

If all else fails, it is likely that you can find a local sawmill within a reasonable distance that is capable of fulfilling a timber order. Call around, and ask your local sawyer about their experience cutting wood specifically for a timber frame, where they source their materials, and of course, the cost. Make sure they are familiar with the quality of the wood necessary, ask what species they have access to, and find out if they are able to deliver (and if not, whether they know someone with the equipment).

Rough Sawn Oak Timber

Our sample timbers, before we submitted a full order

The downside of dealing with a sawmill is that, more often than not, you have no choice where the timber is sourced (which in my opinion, is not necessarily a deal breaker, but is disheartening to not have any connection to the source, and to have no guarantee whether the felling was done truly responsibly). The upside is, of course, the ease of picking up the phone and calling in an order.

The cost of having custom sawmill work varies wildly. You can expect to pay anywhere from $0.60 to $2.50 a board foot. The cost may or may not reflect the quality of the work, but it’s safe to say  you can expect the cost to be less in a more economically impoverished area. I have gotten satisfactory timbers milled at $0.60/board foot (see below), which is almost unspeakably cheap. I would recommend submitting a partial order with a mill you are considering, to be able to have an example of their work before you go and submit an order for potentially thousands of dollars worth of wood.

My Personal Experience Acquiring Timber

We went the local sawmill route, as I don’t have access to a portable sawmill, nor does Dancing Rabbit land have significant mature/suitable timber for cutting (tragically). I consider ourselves extremely lucky that we paid only $0.60/board foot, as anything more expensive would have meant building a different type of home — we simply would not have been able to afford it. The quality of the work was good, especially given the price. Our timber frame workshop instructor Tom Cundiff was very surprised by the quality, especially given the price tag.

The most unfortunate thing in our situation was the sheer wait — we placed our order in March, and barely got the timbers cut in time for a mid-June workshop date! It took call after call after call to ensure that our sawyer was working on getting our order fulfilled. The sawmills in this area are mostly set up to cut wood for pallets (yea, I know…), and custom orders at this particular mill were a sort of second priority. I really had to hassle the sawyer to get our stuff done. It was also somewhat challenging to specify particular species of wood for particular timbers.

Next time, I would place the order even earlier to ensure that we are able to meet our deadlines without stressing ourselves out as much. It would also have been nice to know where the trees were felled, but at this particular mill, they have almost zero connection to where the wood is sourced. Again, I would not specifically choose this situation — in fact, it felt like a major compromise, but given the lack of sawmill choices in this area, it was all we could do to be able to build our house.

Despite the challenges, it worked out in the end.

Send Me More Updates Like This!

  • Brad

    Two thoughts: First, consider a chainsaw mill—ideal for making timbers. The major downside of a chainsaw mill is the huge kerf it cuts – not a problem when just squaring round logs into timbers. Also, they are inexpensive enough to be worth the investment in house building. Finally, many of the portable bandsaw mills are limited in the length they can cut, so a two story house with 20′ plus poles would be an extra challenge (realizing that you may have to cut timbers longer than their finished length to remove shoddy bits at either end).

    Second thought: As I understand, it is preferable to include the heart of the tree in the timber you are cutting, to reduce checking, bending and warping as the green timber dries. Hopefully you can find a sawmill who can accomodate that request as well!

Previous post:

Next post: