The Lost Art of Timber Framing: Interview with Master Craftsman Jim Leemon

Creating something that will last forever brings a deep meaning to the work; A tradition of building with ancient techniques, forming structures that will define life experience for decades to come. This kind of eloquent impact can be found in Jim Leemon and his team’s work at Trunnel & Brace Timberframes. Jim has been a Builder for almost 40 years and has specialized in timber frame construction since 1985. In the practice of this lost art, Jim and his team take special care to honor the age-old nature of the craft and each timber as being truly unique. Their timber frame creations range from buildings and barns to pergolas and custom furnishings. No matter the form it takes, every timber frame becomes an unparalleled legacy structure.

Jim admiring the timber, ready to do the dance of crafting it! (Left), Jim & his Team atop a timberframe structure in progress (Center), Looking up in a timberframe building (Right)

How do you define timber framing and how is it different from what we think of as woodworking?

Timber framing specifically uses larger scale pieces of wood (anything from 8×8, to 10×12, to larger). The history of timber framing goes back thousands of years to the Chinese and Japanese. Timber framing was brought to America, and here we started seeing barns and homes built with timberframes. In the beginning, they would cover up the timbers with plaster and lath and not expose them. In the last 30 years or so, there was a group of craftsmen and woodworkers in New England, Tedd Benson, Jack Sobon, Jeff Davis and several others, who described themselves as “Timberframe Revivalists.” They thought that the barns and other structures that showed timbers were so beautiful, why not expose timberwork in homes?

An entire industry was then created by the Timberframe Revivalists to do timber framing with exposed timbers in homes.

How are you utilizing the ancient craft in modern construction?

Snjūsangen-dō Temple in Kyoto. Photo Credit

One critical aspect of timber framing is the complex joinery; how these wooden connections go together and what works. My engineers and I really try not to get too far away from the original craft. We try not to reinvent the wheel or change things because the connections in timber framing work very well and they’re time tested. That’s the most important thing: the time that a connection can stay together.

One of the oldest timberframe structures on the planet is in the city of Kyoto called Snjūsangen-dō. This structure is over 2,500 years old and still standing as a timberframe structure. The point is that I try to protect the joinery that has already been mastered. We stay true to traditional methods of joinery and connections.

 

Would you consider yourself a modern “Timberframe Revivalist?”

I would consider myself deeply rooted in what those craftsmen started, and I was familiar with them early on. I used to visit Jeff Davis in New Hampshire and Vermont, where I am from, to learn the work and begin to study it and understand it.

Now, I’ve been able to create an environment where I have timberframe engineers that back up all of the work that we do. When dealing with wooden connections and wooden pegs, we want to make sure the integrity is there. With engineering and calculations, we get to build these structures that will last for a very long time.

Examples of complex joinery in Jim & his Team’s work

Looking up at a Timberframe ceiling

Where do you find inspiration for your timberframe projects?

The inspiration goes back to growing up in New England where I had many friends whose parents were farmers and had barns. You know what it’s like to walk into a barn when you look up and see the timbers way up in the air, carrying roof lines, with hay stored up in there? That lived experience was a big inspiration.

Japanese Pagoda Photo Credit

I was certainly inspired by going to Japan and studying how the joinery has been created. It’s really complicated and so amazing. I had the opportunity to meet a pagoda builder there. They build pagodas that last centuries, and there are no nails. They’re all pegged together. I was also in Japan for five different projects starting in 1992 and ending in 1995-96.

And of course the work that the Revivalists, Jeff Davis, Ted Benson, and others have done, their books, and being able to see their work is truly inspiring.

What do you want people to know about the ‘Lost Art’ of Timberframing?

In the United States, only about 4-5% of people want a home, building, addition, pergola, or any structure built with timber framing. We have become a society with this lost art where we have tract homes. Tract homes are not timberframed and never will be. Tract homes can be constructed in about six weeks, and the homeowner can move in the seventh week. They’ll last a little while, but down the road they’re going to need to be remodeled. There is only a small part of the population that understand timber framing and consider it. And I’m okay with that! It doesn’t have to be everybody.

Timber framing takes time. Sometimes the joinery takes so much time that I can work on one beam for two days. It can take two days to make mortise pockets and complete all of the effort that then goes into the final connections. It’s not for everyone, and I wouldn’t want it to be.

The people who get it and think it’s fascinating, they’re really fortunate. They’re going to have a structure that’s truly unique and will hold up to the test of time. It won’t need to be remodeled. I consider these legacy structures. They live on, and future generations will be able to appreciate them too. Timberframe structures are special and should remain special. Each timberframe client and their frames are little jewels. I am going to keep the timberframe craft sacred.

Jim & his Team create a wide variety of structures with timberframes including pergolas for outdoor living spaces (Left), mortise and tenon doors at the Boulder hydroelectric plant storage facility (Center), and a storage shed using all beetle kill timber. Jim & his Team have done it all, from barns to reclaimed wood chicken coops, to cabinetry, and more. See more of their diverse work at timberframescolorado.com.

For me and my associates, it’s very spiritual work. And I’m not trying to glorify it; It’s very difficult, complicated work. You’re moving timbers, all the tools are heavy, and it’s a tremendous physical and mental drain. Joinery can be so complicated that you may have to do 3D models to understand where to start the cut. The spiritual side is that you become a piece of what you’re building when you are working through each crucial step. Every step is so important for the next step. But when a frame goes together, it fits perfectly. All of that joinery disappears into the pockets of the mortise. It works.

Some timber framers have moved to machine cutting using a German piece of equipment called a Hundegger. These machines start at $1 million. They can punch in coordinates, send the beam in one end, and it comes out the other with all the pockets done. It’s making timber framing more efficient, but it’s not hand cut. That’s the difference. Some people don’t care, but some people are very specific about wanting hand cut, and that’s what we do.

The project we did in California had over 80 knee braces. Each one takes about an hour to make, and then it takes an hour to mortise them. Each one is unique in and of itself. That’s where the spirituality of it comes into play. The uniqueness is an important factor to connect with, especially when you’re hand cutting.

View from the Trunnel & Brace team’s California project amongst the Redwoods. See more compelling images from this project linked here.

It’s a relationship, really. It’s a relationship with the timbers that are so beautiful. One post can cost $800-900 for one 10×10 foot post. You have to treat every single piece of wood with respect and kindness. There’s no way around it. You can’t do it any other way. When we fit each piece of wood, we scribe them and sand them to fit. The timber is labeled where a knee brace goes into a post and a beam. It’s labeled and has a number, we give it a name, and it’s got a personality. That timber doesn’t fit into any other pocket. Each piece of wood is unique in and of itself.

 

“When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them…”  – John Ruskin

Timberframe barn construction progression in Hygiene, Colorado

Learn more about Jim & Trunnel & Brace Timberframes by visiting timberframescolorado.com. All timberframe images courtesy of Jim Leemon & the Trunnel & Brace Team.