Some traditions are passed from father to son. The Allens of SwiftSure Timberworks tapped into a tradition together.
Tim Allen had worked as a house framer on large-scale projects for more than 30 years following various construction booms that took his family everywhere from Seattle to Japan.
While son Colton enjoyed the excitement of moving every few years when he was younger, over time he grew bored of "rough" framing.
"You just work really hard; no one cares what it looks like," explains Colton. "There's a prevailing mentality that 'close enough is good enough — you're not building a piano.' But personally, I like doing good work."
The Allens attained a higher level of craftsmanship when they accepted a contract for a house that included some timber-framed components. The contractor found himself facing a time crunch.
"He showed us some shop drawings and said we could take on as much of the work as we wanted," says Tim. He gave the Allens a four-hour crash course, during which the seeds of SwiftSure Timberworks were planted.
Their first few jobs in the Aspen, Colo., area gave the Allens a false sense of how lucrative the trade could be.
"We thought, if we can make this kind of money, let's keep doing it," says Colton. By the time they realized this wasn't necessarily the case, they'd fallen in love with the craft.
"It was Colton who talked me into timber framing," adds Tim.
A typical, modern house relies on a skeleton of relatively thin "sticks" held together with nails and metal connectors. In contrast, a timber-frame structure consists of heavy timbers connected with mortise-and-tenon joinery. The tenon, or "male" end of one timber inserts snugly into a square or rectangular "female" mortise chiseled out of the accepting timber. Because wooden pegs secure the joints, no nails are used. Such structures show off craftsmanship by leaving timbers and joints exposed.
Most Early American houses, churches and barns were timber-framed; examples from the 1600s still stand in New England. Over the past two centuries, light-frame construction gradually replaced timber framing, and the tradition all but disappeared until the 1970s, when disenchanted carpenters began rediscovering the craft.
"With typical, low-end construction, there's nothing in a house that says, 'Oh, wow, let's keep this for generations,' " says Colton. He claims the North American building industry counts on every new generation building a new house.
"That's great for the industry in the short term but terrible for resources."
In contrast to the short lifespan of modern American houses, many wood-framed buildings in Germany, England and Japan survive for centuries. Both father and son say they admire the Japanese approach to carpentry, which they describe as part spiritual, part practical.
"The Japanese will ask questions about the wood," says Tim. "How did this grow? Which end is up?"
Such questions guide decisions about placement and orientation. For example, a Japanese carpenter wouldn't cut a square column out of a tree and install it upside-down, in part because he believes the tree's life continues even after it's felled.
"Put it this way," says Colton. "How would you like to stand on your head for a thousand years?"
Though the Allens never sought formal training, Colton read everything he could find on the tradition of timber framing. The high-school dropout already had taught himself AutoCAD and learned to apply the computer program to timber-frame designs. In 2005, he and Tim attended a conference put on by the Timber Framers Guild and helped build a timber-framed Rotary Club pavilion in Salem.
"That was two weeks working full time with 50 carpenters, plus night courses," says Colton.
Since then, the Allens have remained active in the guild, which holds educational workshops and organizes civic-minded projects across North America.
Although the Allens design joints based on old methods and rules of thumb, everything they build must be approved by a structural engineer.
"Designing joinery is the trickiest part," says Colton. In particular, a craftsman must account for the natural shrinkage of wood, which continues to dry out even after timbers are joined.
"Our shop is a 'hand-cut' shop," says Colton.
They use small power tools to make rough cuts and hand tools to finish joints. Employees have their own carts outfitted with unique sets of chisels, hand planes and Japanese saws. Although some shops use computer numerical control equipment to make precise cuts, the Allens say relying on machines would "take the fun out of it."
Their current project, a house in Shady Cove, includes a timber-framed "great room" and nine roof trusses. The trusses incorporate 10-by-10 and 10-by-12 timbers and feature hand-beveled, curved braces. They will build each one in their shop in Talent before trucking them to the job site.
"About 70 percent of the work is done in the shop," says Colton.
Somewhat larger than their typical job, the Shady Cove project will require about 12,000 board feet. They use mostly Douglas fir from the Roseburg area, much of it certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Though the beefy trusses can be spaced farther apart than conventional rafters or manufactured trusses, timber-framed structures don't necessarily use less wood than a more common "stick-framed" house.
"The cost benefit of timber framing is that you put a bunch of money into it up front, and it lasts for generations," says Colton.
SwiftSure is a family business. Colton used to run the shop, but in 2004 he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive motor-neuron disease.
Tim has since gradually taken over his son's role while his wife, Shona, handles the accounting and administrative tasks. Their daughter, Renee, served as crew supervisor until she moved to Portland to pursue an Master of Fine Arts in sculpture. Daughter Rayelle and son Logan also have worked in the shop at different times. The Allens regard their few employees — anywhere from four to eight — as an extended family.
Moving to Southern Oregon from the Aspen area in 2001 wasn't just about seeking work, but a different quality of life.
"We've lived all over the country," says Colton. "But there's no place I've liked as much as Southern Oregon." They planned to commute to Colorado regularly for jobs, never expecting local projects would sustain the business. Slowly but surely, SwiftSure has earned a reputation as a premiere timber-framing contractor in Southern Oregon.
See examples of SwiftSure projects at www.swiftsuretimber.com.
Juliet Grable is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.