When Houses Were Furniture


Late one evening the phone rang. I answered it, the man on the other end identified himself and asked if I knew of a joiner. Thinking he was wanting a machine to put lumber straight and flat. I asked what size he was looking for, a 6″,8″,12″, or 24″ machine. No,he said – he needed a “joyner” to come and timber frame a house with him and his brother. I offered to help him out. I knew the only difference between a house of this construction and furniture was scale. This began my love affair with timber framing.

Before “the recent unpleasantness” building was done with local materials – stone, brick, or wood- because of the high cost of transportation. In the 18th century it cost as much to ship mahogany from the West Indies to Charleston as it did to transport it ten miles inland by wagon once it had arrived in Charleston. After the Civil War, expanded railroads allowed materials to be shipped throughout the country at a much lower cost.

Two factors were necessary for a house of substance to be built – skilled craftsmen and materials. The availability of these determined the construction. Building materials were abundant. There was stone to be quarried and cut, clay for brick making, and semingly no end to the stands of virgin timber.

In coastal cities there were shortages of craftsmen in the building trades. In 1700, three carpenters and three bricklayers were brought over from England to build the Capitol in Williamsburgh, Va.Even in coastal areas, like the Low Country of South Carolina, craftsmen were brought over from England. Sometime before 1788,  Ralph Izard of Charleston, S.C., brought Thomas Hope from England to build his house, Cheraw Hill, out side of Charleston. By 1795, Thomas  Hope had moved to Knoxville, Tenn.  In the 1770s Landon Carter brought house joyners from Winston-Salem, N.C., to what is now Elizabethton, Tenn.to build his house. This is the earliest frame house in Tennessee and is now open to the public. General James  Winchester brought carpenters from Baltimore to Summer County, Tenn.,to do the woodwork at his house, Cragfont, built between 1798-1802. Although of stone construction, the roof of Cragfont is timber framed. In the 1820 census, there are only two or three carpenters listed in Blount County, Tenn.

With stands of virgin timber that went from the East Coast to the Mississippi River, there was no shortage of raw material for houses. These trees were six to twelve feet in diameter. The trees were cut in the winter and would be sawn the next spring, usually either by two men and a pit saw or by a water powered sawmill. Because of their large size, the logs were split into quarters before sawing. Smaller logs could be hewed squared. The wood was worked when it was still green. If you use the rule for air drying of a year per inch of thickness, a ten by ten inch timber would have taken ten years to season out. The woods used in  East Tennessee were yellow poplar, longleaf pine, hemlock, and oak. Cedar was used in Middle Tennessee for the sill timbers next to the foundation and for window sashes.

What made these joyners different from  carpenters of today? The method by which a house was built depended not on nails to hold the structure together, but rather on interlocking wooden joints-the same joints that are found in fine furniture, just on a larger scale. The principal joints were the mortice and tenon, dovetail, and scarf joints. Nails held on the clapboard siding, trim, hardware for doors, and roof shingles.

The frame of a house was made of heavy timbers. The corner and chimney post, girts, summers, and sills would measure 8″x 8″ to 10″x 10″. The floor joist, braces, rafters, and roof purlins would be of smaller size, 4″x 6″. I’ve seen an old piece of timber that was used in an early house that measured 18″ by 24″.

Once the joints had been cut in the members, they had to be fitted together. This was done on the ground. When a joint was properly fitted a Roman numeral was scribed in both faces of the two timbers. This was so the joyners would know where that part went later on. The parts of the frame were then assembled on the ground and a peg inserted into the joint to hold it in place. A derrick would be built to raise the frame. With men or horses pulling, the frame would rise into place. Sometimes in the raising if a joint didn’t go right into place, a commander was used to drive the joint home. The commander is a 25-pound wooden mall.

Now, with the frame finished and under roof, sheathing was applied vertically and clapboarded over.The walls were sometimes in-filled with bricks ,known as nogging. (In Kingsport, Tenn., you can see nogging filled walls at the Netherland Inn.) The house was ready to be finished. The carpenters then set about building the doors, windows, stairs and handrail, wainscot, chair rail, mantels, and moldings. This was all done on the house site. They didn’t have a Home Depot to go to and buy stair parts or other things.

Covered bridges, churches, grist mills, and barns were timbered framed aswell as houses. Balloon framing came to be used in the 1830s. This was the forerunner of todays modern framing. Balloon framing wasn’t in widespread use until after the Civil War.

The next time you’re going down the road, you may see a little blue pickup truck going very slowly or trying to find a place to pull off, with the driver craning his neck to catch a glimpse of an old house. Please be patient- it may be me.

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One response

  1. Marian

    That kind of thnkiing shows you’re an expert

    September 28, 2014 at 9:35 pm

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