Holding it together

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CLARIDON TOWNSHIP, Ohio – Scott Carlson has built the framework for everything from a house to a horse barn, but you won’t find any bolts, nails or steel plates holding his work together.
Carlson is a traditional joiner whose work includes timber framing, cabinetry and chair making. Instead of bolts and nails, joiners like Carlson cut the wood so it fits together at the joints. Variations on traditional wood joinery such as mortise and tenon, dovetails, and laps, are secured with wooden pins and wedges.
Although timber framing is typically associated with barns, Carlson said a timber framer can use heavy timber to build any frame structure. In fact, during the Middle Ages, timber-framed churches, theaters and intricately-designed private homes were fairly common in northern Europe.
“It’s everything from very utilitarian barns to something as majestic as a cathedral,” Carlson said.
Long lived. According to the Geauga County joiner, timber-framed structures easily stand the test of time and many have been proven to last 300-500 years.
Carlson, who owns Sweetgrass Joinery in Claridon Township, doesn’t venture too far from historical traditions when it comes to the materials, methods and patterns he uses in his craft.
“Basically, I do what was common 170 to 200 years ago,” he said.
In recent months, Carlson has begun using a few power tools to facilitate the construction process. His tool table is a cross between 19th century implements and modern technology. Framing squares, chisels, a draw knife, planes, mallets and cross-cut and rip-cut saws sit alongside a circular saw, drills and a chain mortiser.
“I’m trying to do the dance between a very traditional craft and modern times,” he said.
Hand powered. That’s not to say contemporary timber framing can’t be done without power tools.
When Carlson and his family moved to Ohio, the joiner relied on nothing but hand power and wood to frame their home.
The timber came from the family farm’s woodlot, where it was milled on-site. For six months, Carlson cut the joinery in a makeshift tent. Then, with the help of 80-100 friends and family members, the frame was raised in a single day in June 2004.
According to Carlson, it doesn’t usually take six months to cut the joinery. While it depends on the structure, three months is a more typical time frame.
The joiner creates his own designs and does his own computations before taking them to an engineer for approval.
The key to timber framing is understanding geometry, especially triangulations, which are the angles that give a building strength against wind.
Square rule. This understanding becomes particularly important when it comes to the square rule, which is a layout system that lets a joiner cut perfect joinery, even when the timber is imperfect. Using the square rule means there’s no need for a practice run while the pieces of wood are lying on the ground. The first time the joints go together is when the building is being raised.
Carlson said comprehending and using a specific mathematical system – just like the original timber framers – allows him to make the proper cuts.
Carlson, who has a bachelor’s degree in forest resource management, uses as much local timber as possible. He works with unseasoned, or green, timber, which means it still has the water from the tree in it. Since the outside of the wood dries and shrinks faster than the inside, checks – or cracks – develop in the wood.
Carlson said the checks are commonly mistaken for structural failures, but that is not the case because checks generally don’t go deep enough to compromise the strength of the wood.
A native of Montana, Carlson became interested in timber framing while working with a log builder in Vermont. The log builder, who was a hand-crafter himself, had some books on timber framing and during lunch breaks, Carlson would read about the technique.
However, finding more information on timber framing was like looking for a splinter in a forest.
Wiped out. During the 1920s in the U.S., timber framing basically ceased to exist and it wasn’t until the 1970s that a group of home builders revived the craft.
Unfortunately, for about 50 years, no one had passed on the trade. So the craftsmen had to learn from what they could observe in old structures.
Carlson takes the timber framers who came before him very seriously. Whether he’s working on a sugar house or a pergola, he knows any problems he encounters during construction probably aren’t new. And solving them is a matter of studying the work of others.
“That’s why observing what’s been done in the past is so important,” he said.
Carlson began doing timber framing full time in 1997. He mostly works solo, but said his family and friends pitch in when he needs extra hands.
One of the most unique things about timber framing, is that no two frames are identical.
“I don’t know that you’ll find any two buildings anywhere exactly the same,” Carlson said.
Influences. The originality of each frame is due, in part, to the traditions of the ethnic groups that built them. Patterns vary from Asian to French to German to Welsh influences and sometimes the styles combine to make entirely new designs.
According to Carlson, that’s the beauty of his craft.
“I get to pick and choose from all these traditions,” he said.
And for this joiner, it’s that combination of labor and creativity that takes the craft from a job to a passion.
“I get to use my hands and my head,” he said. “I couldn’t survive in a job where I was doing one or the other.”

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