Carpenter’s squares and tape measures are handy and all that, but they don’t carry nearly the same appeal as say, a sharpened chisel, an antique boring machine, or a Swedish axe. Marking and measuring, though arguably one of most important steps of timber framing, lacks the “cool” factor that comes with cutting joinery. People’s eyes tend to light up as soon as they see the ol’ Millers Falls boring machine come out, what with its fancy gears, the double handle, and the amazing wood chips it produces once set to motion.
Needless to say, enthusiasm ramped up on day two of our Timber Frame Workshop as people got a chance to saw and waste tenons, bore holes for mortises, and get busy with chisel and mallet.
Timber Framing with Hand Tools
Timber framing with hand tools is a totally different experience than using power tools. Gone is the noise, the sawdust, and cords running to and fro. Instead you get the rhythmic sound of a boring machine pulling up wood chips, conversation between folks able to actually hear each other, a closer attention to the individual characteristics and quirks of each timber, and no doubt, more sweat.
We started off folks with practicing their hand saw skills on kerf lines on each tenon, and when people felt confident about their ability to stick to a line, they moved to end cuts and shoulder cuts, the more critical cuts. I have to admit, I personally really enjoy sawing by hand. There are few things more satisfying than sawing through an 8×8, sticking to the line, and getting a nice clean, flat cut when the waste end drops off the timber. Practice makes perfect, as with all hand skills.
Our two antique Millers Falls boring machines got big workouts, as we had many purlin pockets to bore, and enough mortises to more than satisfy anyone’s curiosity. People quickly realized how much more energy it takes to drill a 2″ hole versus a 1 1/2″ hole. We all mused on the more arduous options of drilling mortises by hand with either a brace and bit or a t-auger, and all of a sudden the boring machine didn’t seem so bad after all…
These Millers Falls machines are truly a thing of beauty, and whenever they come out I am in awe of the amazing engineering and design that folks came up with at the turn of the century. I keep my fingers crossed and hope that they hold up to another 100 years of good work.
Cutting tenons can be accomplished in a myriad of ways, but we focused on using chisels and mallets. (Have you seen this video of a French carpenter cutting a tenon with an adze?) Handling a chisel takes a good level of skills, especially when it comes to reading funky grain and knowing how to approach it. We had a fancy antique slick on hand for students to try out, too (thanks Mike!), and it was a popular choice for paring.
We couldn’t keep the axes away completely, so some folks had a chance to try wasting wood with an axe later in the cutting process.
All in all, folks did good work, and you could see the comfort level and quality get better even in a short period of time.