Saturday, October 23, 2021

Hidden Secrets of Timber-framed Buildings

Within the parish of Dodderhill there are a number of timber-framed buildings.

Some were small dwellings constructed on assarted land originally as squatters cottages on the edge of the forest or parish boundary, and others, built as more substantial properties. Timber-framed constructions were also used in farm buildings.

Farm building at Avoncroft Museum showing the timber-framed construction

Members of the research group view a timber-framed barn at Avoncroft where the construction methods and carpenter’s marks can be readily seen.

The timber-framed buildings were constructed using a wooden framework with large uprights structures forming the end walls. Simple constructions had two large A frames, and made a rectangular box which were known as single bay constructions. Larger buildings had three or more uprights creating two, three or more bay properties.

To erect the uprights, the frames were constructed on the ground, before being raised to the upright position. Frequently the frames were constructed elsewhere, and then moved in pieces to the construction site. To ensure that the pieces were put together correctly the carpenters marked the joints – for instance 1 matched with 1; 2 with 2 ; and so on. These marks are known as carpenter’s marks. When the timber frame was constructed, the best side was laid to the ground, and the carpenter’s marks were on the back. The carpenter’s marks always faced away from the “best side”, even in barns.


The carpenters would look for trees which had timber with suitably shaped branches. Curved wood might be split in two to make a cruck for the ends, or forked branches for bracing. We even have an example in Dodderhill where a trunk has been uprooted to make the corner of a house where roof timbers may be fixed.

The timber was cut and used “green” as it was easier to cut. Sometimes bark was left on the wood. Much of the timber used in Dodderhill was elm. It seems that this timber was once plentiful, but due to the localised tree-ring growth patterns it has for historians the disadvantage that unlike oak dating the timber by dendrochronology is impossible.

Timber-framed buildings - Richard Harris

Timber-framed buildings could be altered when required. Dendrochronological evidence has shown that the date of an extension to a local property matches the documentary evidence for the date of a wedding. Elsewhere an additional and more impressive wing has been added and construction techniques and changes to the roof identified by building research.

Fashions in building changed. Structurally the timber-frame needs to be strong, and this is often achieved by cross braces, or diagonal timbers, but as timber was expensive, it was prudent to use other materials as infill. The spaces between the timbers were filled with wattle and daub – woven hazel or withies twigs, filled with daub (a mix of clay and straw) or lathe and plaster. The whole building then being lime-washed.

Timber was expensive, so the wealthy used more timber than was necessary, and the more affluent houses displayed close studding or elaborate timber-framed patterns. Brick was also used sometimes as an infill material rather than wattle and daub or lathe and plaster.

It appears that over time, suitable timber for buildings was in short supply, and as a result buildings came to be constructed in the local sandstone. This may be contrary to most assumptions where one might think a stone building indicated a greater wealth of the owner than a timber-framed construction.

We also find examples in Dodderhill where the original timber-framed property is hidden behind a later brick facing. This has transformed an earlier building into a “modern” Georgian one.

Now timber-framed properties are valued by their owners. Many are historic in their own right. Some Dodderhill properties are listed as Grade 1 or Grade 2 by English Heritage to ensure that important features are not destroyed. Others are being carefully restored and preserved by their owners.

The Dodderhill Parish Survey Project is greatly indebted to the householders who have granted access and given permission for their properties to be researched.

The local Avoncroft Museum is an ideal place to see how timber-framed buildings were constructed.

The Hall House at Avoncroft Museum

The early Hall House has a hearth in the centre of the hall, and the smoke would drift up to the roof and out of a lourve in the roof. Some of the properties in Dodderhill might have been similar. A cross-wing contained the private rooms for the family (shown below).

Avoncroft - the upper room of the Hall House

The timber-framing was important and created a rigid framework. The design of the framework varied, and as timber was expensive the wealthy sometimes chose to display their wealth by using more timber than was really necessary. Close studding was created by placing the timbers very close together, it was expensive, and used only for the wealthy. During our research we have discovered a property where a tree trunk has been “turned up-side-down” in order for the wider base to give additional support for the roof (pictured below).

Upturned tree trunk used as a corner post

Above, the corner of the house has been created by using an upturned tree trunk, and the wider part used to support the roof structure.

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