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Seventeenth-Century Timber Framing

timber framing


Text adapted from The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony
© by James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz
(New York: W.H. Freeman, 2000)
© Photographs by James Deetz, 1973

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            However modest the first dwellings erected at Plymouth may have been, they were constructed in the timber framing tradition that characterized English domestic buildings. Timber framing of the period involved setting large vertical posts into sills which in turn rested on some type of level footing, either stone or brick. These posts were tied together by equally sturdy horizontal beams which marked the division between floors in houses of two stories, or the floor of the space under the rafters, which was termed the garret or loft, or what we would call today the attic. The rafters rested on the uppermost pair of horizontal beams, known as plates. Each pair of major vertical posts, usually spaced a distance of the order of sixteen feet, though that dimension could vary somewhat, defined what is termed a bay. A hall and parlor house then would consist of two bays, one defining each room, with a third located in the center, known as the chimney bay since the chimney would be built within it; this bay would be roughly half the width of the other two, on the order of eight feet. Between the large vertical posts were smaller vertical members known then as today as studs. The studs would be slotted or notched in such a way that flexible branches could be set into them, and these in turn would have other branches woven at right angles. These sticks were known as wattles, and would be given a thick coating of clay, known as daub, giving rise to the term "wattle and daub construction." In more elaborate houses, brick could be used in place of the wattle and daub, but all evidence points to the extensive use of wattle and daub in earlier seventeenth century dwelling houses, and it is almost a certainty that this type of wall construction characterized the houses that lined the first street in Plymouth. The exterior of such houses would be sheathed with clapboards, narrow strips of wood produced by a process known as riving.


            In 1973, an experiment was undertaken at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Plantation had moved into a phase referred to today as "living history," in which visitors to the village of 1627, a construction of what the first settlement in Plymouth Colony could have been like, experience all of the aspects of day to day life. Craft demonstrations that were routinely part of an open air museum’s exhibits had been abandoned, as had static house interiors and the use of mannequins within them.. Guides and hostesses to show visitors around the village were replaced by interpreters, dressed in seventeenth-century-style garments made of fabrics that would have been used in the 1620s. The changes took place over a period of time, between 1960 and 1969, and were based on research obtained in the process of creating a major data base on early Plymouth material culture and life ways, that incorporated both documentary and pictorial material. The changes implemented radically altered the nature of the village exhibit, but others were yet to come, one of which was a move to construct timber-framed houses such as could have been built in the original 1627 village. In 1972, the house site of Isaac Allerton had been excavated by a team of archaeologists from the Plantation under the directorship of James Deetz. What was discovered was the first earthfast or post-in-ground house to be excavated in New England. As it was more than probable that the first houses in Plymouth had been built in this manner, in the summer of 1973 James Deetz and  Henry Glassie of Indiana University, a vernacular architecture specialist employed by the Plantation to assist in research on the architecture of the period,  decided that it would be a very worthwhile effort to construct a house in the village based on the excavated Allerton site plan, using period techniques and tools, and to employ the interpretive staff to build it. Prior to this time, the houses had been built by contractors who used modern tools and simulated seventeenth century features with, for example, colored concrete to resemble a daubed chimney. This was expensive, for the work could only be done during the hours when the village was closed, which in some cases required overtime compensation. In comparison, building a house with the assistance of the interpretive staff would involve little more than the cost of the materials. Neither Glassie nor Deetz were experienced carpenters, but this in no way served as a deterrent, since Glassie was intimately familiar with how mortises and tenons were cut and how a house was raised and assembled. Plans proceeded apace, Glassie drew a sketch of the proposed house, and sufficient oak was obtained from a local lumber company to construct it. The roof was to be thatched by the Plantation master thatcher, Peter Slevin, who amongst other contracts had thatched the roof of Anne Hathaway’s cottage in England, as well as numerous other British and American houses. The lumber arrived, and construction began.


            The location chosen for the erection of the house was that occupied in 1627 by John Billington, its position being shown on Bradford’s sketch plan of "the meersteads and garden plots of those who came first layd out 1620." It was on the south side of the street, across the highway from the house of William Brewster. The erection of Billington’s house would provide the fourth and last of the houses located at the intersection of the two byways. Further incentive to represent John Billington’s house was the fact that, given the then current policy for house construction, it was highly unlikely that it would ever have been built. Billington was the first person executed in the colony, for his murder of John Newcomen in 1630, and at this time funds for the construction of houses were provided by the various associations of descendants of the person indicated as living there. Except for four dollars contributed by a Plimoth Plantation staff member, there were no funds in the Billington house account.


            The lumber yard had sawed all of the pieces that would be needed in framing the entire house, following specifications furnished by the Plantation. The only remaining work to be done on the framing pieces was to smooth them with an adze, removing the circular saw marks which were clearly visible. In the seventeenth century, dressing such timbers with an adze would also have been done, but in that case to remove cut marks made by the broad axe used to shape the piece. Once this had been accomplished, all mortises and tenons were cut so that the house could be fit together. At this stage the studs were fitted to the plate, each one being custom cut to its respective mortise, and sequentially numbered using traditional Roman numerals. The ends of the massive corner posts were charred, following what appeared to have been a practice in timber-framing in early Plymouth since charcoal was found in the postholes at the Allerton site.


            Once all of the framing pieces had been adzed, and all of the joints cut, it was time to raise the frame. Following seventeenth century practices, this was a community effort in its initial phase. Work on raising the house began at seven in the morning with some thirty interpreters and volunteers in period dress on hand to assemble the very heavy primary parts of the frame. The four corner posts were inserted, two each in the two major horizontal framing pieces, or plates. This produced two large U-shaped sections, known as bents, one of which would form the rear wall of the house and the second, the front. The building was earthfast, so they were placed adjacent to deep post holes excavated to receive them. Since each section weighed well over a ton, most of those present were needed to raise the house frame. Ropes were attached to the plates, and while some people pulled on these, others pushed from behind with their hands, or poles. Slowly the first bent rose from lying horizontal on the ground to its proper vertical position, firmly seated in the holes dug to accommodate the corner posts. The second bent was then raised. The next step was to lift two massive, horizontal beams, known as girts, which tied the front and rear bents together, and then to raise the small chimney girt. At this point a rectangular frame stood in place and the post holes were filled and solidly tamped. The basic frame was now quite stable, permitting further framing to take place. This last step involved raising two large pairs of rafters (principal rafters) on either end. Each pair of rafters was connected by a horizontal piece of timber known as a collar beam that served to keep the rafters from spreading under the weight of the roof. The principal rafter pairs were connected by two horizontal timbers known as purlins, one on either side, on which smaller rafters (common rafters) would rest with their lower ends mortised into the plate. The assembly of the frame was done entirely with trunnels (wooden pegs known as tree nails or trunnels). The basic house frame was now fully assembled. The entire process was completed by seven p.m. of the same day. Further work, such as setting the studs, attaching the common rafters, and building the chimney would need only a few workers in comparison to the major effort required in raising the frame.


            In the ensuing months, the wooden chimney was framed and wattle was used to fill the space between the studs of the main house frame and also in the chimney frame. Thatch poles of peeled cedar were attached to the common rafters and these in turn would have the roof thatching bound to them with heavy twine. The walls and chimney were given a thick coat of daub, and covered with hand riven clapboards on the exterior. Riving clapboards was a skill well understood by the Plantation’s cooper, James Blogg. It is a process in which a tool known as a frow, its blade at right angles to the handle and driven with a mallet known as a beetle, is pounded into the end of a log to produce rough boards which would then be finished and smoothed with a spokeshave, or draw knife. The rough clapboard would be held firm in a shaving horse, a long wooden frame slanted in such a way that a worker could sit at one end and smooth the board by pulling the knife toward him with the sharp edge facing him. The house was whitewashed on the inside, and there was a dirt floor that in the seventeenth century would have been covered with rushes, and the roof was thatched. Shutters were installed inside the windows and a hearth of cobbles, similar to that excavated at the Allerton site, was placed beneath the chimney. When the Billington house was almost complete, work began on the frame of the Isaac Allerton house that was to be built next to it.


            The visiting public showed great interest in the process of building the Billington house, and there was always a large number of people watching the craftsmen at work. When complete, the house was by far the most comfortable of those in the village due to its thick walls of daub and thatched roof, relatively cool in hot weather, and snug and warm in cold. The construction of the Billington house initiated an important new phase in village house building. Professional building contractors were no longer employed, and all work was done by the Plantation artisans, assisted by interpreters. A second house, the Allerton house, just west of the Billington house, was framed entirely in place, but later houses were fabricated in the Plantation workshops and assembled on site, much as would have been done at the Plymouth trading posts in Connecticut and Maine.



Timber-framing diagram




bay       section of a framed building between principal supporting posts.


bent      post and plate, or post and girt assembly. Posts are mortised into the plate or end girt making a U-shaped section of the house frame.


collar beam

            horizontal timber connecting principal rafters below their apex and above their base.


girt       a main horizontal timber placed between the wall plate at the top and the sill at the bottom.


joist      one of a number of horizontal timbers supporting a floor or carrying a ceiling.


lath       narrow timber (1 to 2 inches in width) used in a partition as a base for plaster, or on rafters to support the roof covering.


plate     horizontal timber on top of the wall frame, supporting the rafters.


post      strong vertical timber that is part of the main framework of a building.


purlin    horizontal timber that ties together the principal rafters and supports the common ones.


rafter    timber set at an angle, and that support laths under the roof covering

            principal rafters          inclined timbers that coincide with the main posts of the framework and support the purlins.

common rafters           inclined timbers, lighter than principal rafters, spaced evenly between the latter along the length of the roof.


sill        the bottommost horizontal timber resting on the footings or the ground into which the posts are mortised; wooden  horizontal base of a widow or door frame.


stud      smaller vertical timbers set between posts in the framework of the building.



For further reading


Cummings, Abbott Lowell. The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), Chapter V, “Assembly and Rearing of the House Frame,” pp. 52-94.


Recording Timber-framed Buildings: An Illustrated Glossary (York: Council for British Archaeology, 1996).


Woodburn, Preston. “The House Building Program at Plimoth Plantation” (Plimoth Plantation in-house publication, 1998), 9p. Illus.


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Seventeenth-Century Timber Framing

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© 2000-2007 Copyright and All Rights Reserved by
Patricia Scott Deetz, Christopher Fennell,
and J. Eric Deetz