Distinguished Boards and Beams maintains an extensive inventory of high quality heritage hand hewn timbers that have been carefully reclaimed from historic structures throughout the United States and Canada. When given life in new homes, these hand crafted pieces of North American history create a rustic and elegant complement to modern architecture that showcases their unique beauty and character. They are without a doubt one of the most prized wood products on the reclaimed lumber market today.
Continuing the tradition of hand hewn timbers
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, when lumber mills and nails were expensive or unavailable, large wooden structures in America were knit together by the joinery of hand hewn timber frames.
Each timber has its own story to tell. Its first home could have been a barn in New Hampshire that was built by early English settlers or one of the first land grant homesteads on the Kentucky frontier. Life in historic North America lies buried in each unique patina decorated in character marks and axe strokes.
The process of hewing timbers for timber frame construction has been used in Europe since the 12th century. The passing down of timber framing knowledge and skills was taken very seriously, and the tradition continued on in North America when Europeans began settling the Atlantic coast.
As settlers moved westward in the 18th and 19th centuries they cleared trees to make the land usable for agriculture, homes, and towns. They used the largest and straightest trees on their land to create the structural timbers that would ultimately provide shelter for their loved ones and livelihoods.
Hewing: A Short History
Selecting & Preparing the Log
Trees that were tall, straight, and dimensionally large were generally most desirable for construction, especially when building large structures like barns. After it was felled, a tree was either hewed at its original site or skidded (pulled) by man, horse, or oxen to the building site.
After being felled, de-limbed, and transported, the tree was then placed on two smaller notched logs to elevate it off the ground. The craftsman located and measured what would eventually be the usable timber within the log and marked along its length with a chalk line or string. This line was used as a guide to help square and level the eventual finished timber.
Sometimes trees were felled during the fall but were not used for a building project until the following spring. When this happened, the side that was in contact with the ground often softened secondary to the prolonged contact with moisture. Therefore when the log was hewed, the softer side would end up having a smoother, more uniform surface than the three other sides of the log that were not against the ground.
Using an ax, the felled tree was marked, or scored, every 1-2 feet. These scores went deep into the wood but the goal was to keep them either at or just shy of the marked guideline. Score marks are what give hand hewn timbers their signature look and staggered texture.
Joggling or Juggling
The Final Steps: Hewing
A log was ready for hewing after all the large, irregular areas were removed and the log was close to the size of the timber that it would become. To hew the log, a broadax was used to create a level, squared surface. After two sides were completed, the log was turned 180° and the process was repeated until all 4 sides were level and square. Anyone interested in learning more about how to hand hew timbers can visit John Aubin’s website to read his how-to blog posts on this traditional craft.
*Be sure to read Mr. Aubin's disclaimer on the hazards involved with undertaking the task of hand hewing. While it can be extremely rewarding, it can also be extremely dangerous felling the trees and swinging very sharp tools in positions that your body may not be accustomed to. Hand hewing your own lumber can be a cost saving pathway, versus buying or employing a sawmill, for many landowners, especially if they only need a few large timbers. And the final results are absolutely unique and beautiful!
Before the advent of readily available, standardized nails, timber-framed structures were held together using mortise and tenon joints. In this technique, the projecting end of one timber (the tenon) was inserted into a corresponding slot (the mortise) in another and secured with a carved wooden peg.
The character, experience, and circumstances of a craftsman are most apparent in the mortise and tenon. Each mortise was hand chiseled. Creating a mortise and tenon, which fit together perfectly was an art form requiring precision and patience.
These joinery points give clues to the history of the beam. Was a shallow, out of square mortise created by the settler or apprentice new to building? Or maybe it was a master craftsman who had gotten behind schedule when he fell ill and was now racing Mother Nature to finish the barn before the onset of the winter snows.
When a peg was used to secure a joint it was usually round. It was used to add strength and structural integrity to the joint. However, square pegs were also used. According to Ron Monsour on his website, “The incompatibility of the square peg into the round hole, combined with the wedging effect it provided, made for an unusual but very strong fastening technique. This square peg/round hole connection has held up well for hundreds of years.”
When looking at hand hewn beams you may also notice straight lines extending upward from the edges of a mortise. These lines acted as a guide, which the builders used to make sure that the beam was square with the adjoining timber (which had the inserting tenon).
For these settlers, each log that was transformed into a timber would become a part of their future. Their hopes and dreams were riding on their ability to make sound structures that could withstand the harsh winters and hot summers of their new land.
Markings: Scribe Rule vs. Square Rule
When Europeans first began settling in North America, quickly erecting shelter for themselves, their crops and livestock was their first priority. Therefore they used the building methods that they had learned in the Old World. This method primarily relied on the Scribe Rule.
In Europe, trees had been being harvested for lumber for centuries. Therefore there were few old growth forests left. Any that were left were mostly owned by the church or the aristocracy who needed tall, straight trees to build cathedrals, ship masts, fortresses, etc. The Scribe Rule was developed as a method to enable the commoner to build with lumber of varying sizes.
In the Scribe Rule, each timber was connected to its neighbor with a completely custom connection or joint. Scribing was the practice of pre-assembling all the timbers on the ground and creating reference marks (also called marriage marks) on each beam. These reference marks were often roman numerals and would help the builder identify where each post and beam was to be joined.
After the pre-assembly process was completed, erecting the building was a build-by-numbers assembly method. Reference marks were usually on the side of the beam that would eventually be covered by siding because craftsmen closely guarded their joinery secrets.
Finding a beam with reference marks on both sides almost always means the beam was used in the center threshing bay. Putting the reference marks on both sides of this center beam but only on the hidden side of all the other beams made the marks appear random and thus protected a craftsman’s trade secrets.
In his book Barns of the Berkshires, Stephen Donaldson describes how reference marks can also help to date a beam. The Scribe Rule method of building had been almost completely replaced by newer building methods by the late 1820s. According to Donaldson, after the late 1820s the Square Rule became the predominant building method with its popularity persisting until milled lumber and standardized nails became both widely available and affordable.
The Old Hill Place hand hewn log cabins that were built in the 1790s are a great example of a structure built using the scribe rule method. When we moved this home that was originally built on the Kentucky frontier by skilled craftsmen, we were very careful to label all of the scribe markings so that it could be reassembled to match its original order. When we reassembled it at our facility in Carbondale, Colorado, extreme care was taken to follow the original markings. This attention to detail is vital to ensure that the building remains in its truest, strongest, most level, and most stable state, especially after 225 years of settling. In the reclaimed wood business, this is a crucial best practice since many complete reclaimed heritage structures will be used to become the bones of new architectural designs.
After about a century in the New World, settlers began adapting their building techniques to the resources that were available. Once mere survival was not the sole focus, they saw that they were surrounded by an abundance of old growth forests, which were home to numerous large, straight trees. Out of this reality, the Square Rule developed.
The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation has a project that focuses on historic barns in Connecticut. Their site has a detailed description of timber framing techniques and building methods that were used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries including an excellent narrative about the Scribe and Square Rules. The following is a summary from their site:
The Square Rule was a departure from the Scribe Rule because it utilized uniform joinery. Therefore with this technique various parts of the building, which served the same function, were identical and could be interchanged. This was in contrast to the Scribe Rule in which each joint between a post and a beam was unique. For example with the Square Rule, all corner posts would have the same size tenon. This made it so the mortises where each corner post joined a beam could be cut to the same size. Lengths could be varied as needed but the mortise and tenon were all the same dimensions. This allowed the builder to exchange one piece for another as needed. When it came time to erect the structure, builders merely had to select the correct timber type (post, beam, brace, etc.) for their needs.
This new building technique meant that scribing and reference marks were no longer necessary. By the 1820s it had become the new standard in building because it reduced both the amount of time it took and the number of men needed to build any given structure. For example, a barn that would have taken 20-25 men a month to build could now be completed by 2-4 men in a matter of days.
Reclaimed timber often has nail holes of varying types and quantities. There was a well-documented evolution of nails that is useful in dating beams. For example, if the oldest nails in your beam are Type A cut nails you know that it dates from the 18th or early 19th century.
Before the first nail cutting machine was invented in the 1790s all nails were hand wrought from iron bars. Cutting machines created nails that look distinctly different from hand wrought nails. Also, cut nails were usually made from steel, not iron. Cutting machines made nails more available, but nail making was still a very labor-intensive process that required two people to operate each machine. Nails remained a commodity and continued to be used relatively sparingly until the advent of wire nails in late in the 19th century.
What gives a timber character?
Swing, or tie, beams were used to span large distances and allowed a farmer to create huge, open bays in their barns. These beams were taller in the center than they were at the ends, which made them exponentially stronger. They could be 40 feet long and 24 inches in height at the center. Think about the size of tree needed to create a beam of this magnitude and the horse, mule, ox, or manpower required to move that tree even just 30 feet from the felling site to the building site.
Hammer beams were first used in Gothic English architecture. A hammer beam was a large beam that protruded from the top of a sidewall and supported the roof but did not span the entire width of the structure. These beams were usually big in girth but relatively short. They were supported by a diagonal brace and allowed for large open roof spans and made the loft area of a barn completely open and useable.
When time was of the essence or having four squared sides was not important, craftsmen created live edge beams. Live edge beams have two sides that have been squared and two sides that are largely untouched and maintain their natural curvature.
Wane is the presence of bark or irregularity of an edge due to a natural curvature in the original tree. This may be seen along an entire edge but more commonly it is present intermittently along one or more edges. Wane was created as the craftsman was trying to make a square edge while at the same time compensating for the timber that was not completely straight.
Reclaimed beams typically range from 6”x6” to 12”x12” with lengths up to 40’ long. Barns that were built according to the Scribe Rule will have a greater variety of beam sizes that can be reclaimed. Whereas beams from barns built according to the Square Rule make it easier to get a larger inventory of more or less uniformly sized beams.
Reclaimed Hand Hewn Beams
Many of the larger original structures in rural America were barns. As areas became more settled, barns soon dotted the landscape. They sheltered not only animals and equipment but they also provided a protected space for farmers to process wheat and grains.
Over time many of these barns became almost unusable either out of safety concerns or because they were too small for the equipment and storage needs of the modern farm. Some barns fell victim to rot and were burned to make room for larger new facilities.
Very little written documentation is available about the building process in early American history. There were no blueprints or building permits to be studied and learned from. As time lapsed and barns were being lost to the elements or progress we were losing an importance piece of American heritage.
Today, much of what we know about construction from that era has been learned through a process of reverse engineering. For example, it wasn’t until the 1950s when barns started being dis-assembled and repurposed for architectural uses that it was understood that early settlers had used the Scribe Rule in their buildings. Prior to that, the only reference marks anyone had seen were the ones on the center beams and the marks were assumed to be of no significance.
Integrating reclaimed hand hewn beams into a home, office, or business is to own a piece of American history. The elements endured and lives witnessed by hand hewn timbers add richness to any space.
From Past to Present
Each reclaimed beam has a history. They are old and full of character. Some are pristine and some are riddled with rot. Dismantling old barns requires skill and patience. It demands careful attention to detail to identify, protect and preserve the best hand-hewn beams. Reputable suppliers of reclaimed wood have network of trusted tradesmen across the country with whom they work.
Established suppliers will have a large inventory to satisfy your needs whether you are looking for a single beam for a mantle or 100 beams slabbed for siding your home. If the supplier doesn’t have the timbers that meet your specifications in their on-site inventory, they will work with their network of vetted tradesmen to locate beams that match your needs.
Preparing the Hand Hewn Timbers
After the desired reclaimed timbers have been chosen, the supplier should take care of all processing and logistics. They should meticulously inspect reclaimed timber for usability. The best suppliers accept only the highest quality beams and are therefore able to minimize the amount of processing necessary to prepare the reclaimed timbers for your project. This allows the original character of the beam to remain intact.
The processing of each timber should be customized based on the specifications and needs of your project. It is ideal to do the minimum amount necessary to take your beam from barn to ready to use. Below are descriptions of some of the steps that may be needed to prepare your timber.
Over the years wood that is exposed to the elements can look dull and gray. Depending on the intended use of your reclaimed timber, beams can be power washed to remove the decades of dirt and build-up, which often reveals an underlying rich brown patina.
Every reclaimed beam has a past. That past usually involves metal of some kind. The metal found on reclaimed beams ranges from nails to bolts to hinges. Often this metal is of no consequence and is left in place. It can be hidden or left exposed during installation depending on your tastes. However, any beam that is going to be planed will be thoroughly de-metaled to avoid injury or damage to equipment during the cutting process.
Reclaimed timber is often used for siding, flooring or on ceilings or walls. Old beams have a lot of variation and irregularities. Custom cutting removes any damaged wood, rot or other undesired blemishes. Timbers are cut and planed according to your specific size requirements prior to delivery so everything is installation-ready when it arrives at your job site.
Depending on the application, a rough finish is not always desirable. The most common example is when reclaimed beams are going to be used for custom millwork or flooring. In these instances, after a beam has been processed and cut, the entire surface can be cleaned and brush sanded to create a smooth surface that is free from slivers. The final product is one that is ready for your installer to stain, as desired, and install.
Many suppliers of reclaimed wood have the ability to kiln dry timbers if necessary to kill any mold or insects that might be present in the beam. Kiln drying is recommended if the moisture content of a timber is high. Much of the wood that is reclaimed from historic structures has co-existed with at least some level of moisture for many years. Kiln drying reduces the risk of the wood shrinking and twisting as it acclimates to its new, drier environment
At Distinguished Boards & Beams our aim is to ensure that your reclaimed hand-hewn beams meet your expectations. Our promise is that the timber that is delivered to your job site will be 100% usable and ready to start its next chapter as part of your story.