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The Barn Builder

He makes you think of the Longfellow poem, "Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands ..."

In a clearing in the forest outside Medford, under a spreading canopy of maple, alder and fir, a solitary craftsman shapes his wood with simple, timeless tools, much like the smithy in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem.

His name is Christoph Buchler, and he builds barns. Beautiful barns. By hand. No nails, no power tools, no two alike. He uses the tools and techniques of Old World craftsmen, erecting works of art that will outlive our children's grandchildren.

"I like using hand tools because you can't work fast; you can't use up resources," says Buchler, 54. "We don't need to find excuses for using resources, we just need to act responsibly."

It takes Buchler a year or so to build a barn, working slowly and painstakingly by himself. By the time he's finished, he knows these barns intimately.

"I could tell you where each stick comes from," he says.

Each "stick" comes from very close by. The wood is harvested and milled locally using trees too small in diameter to be sold to lumber mills. If not salvaged, they would be burned in slash piles or left to rot, wasting decades of growth.

Buchler has taken the motto "waste not, want not" and turned it into an art form. He believes that trees, no matter how small, have value.

"We human beings act like we're extraterrestrials who came here from some other planet, but we didn't," he says. "We're part of the ecosystem."

A cluster of Buchler's timber-framed barns stand in the Wagner Creek valley outside Talent. Each was built with wood from a forest just a few miles up the road. The beauty of one barn inspires the beginning of another. One by one, by word of mouth, customers find their way to Buchler.

"I'm slow and I'm difficult," he warns his clients.

His process is laborious, intentionally slow. The process is the point. So is the craftsmanship.

"It's about the integrity of the craft, respect for materials," explains Buchler. "This is real timber framing. Some timber framing is hokey, fake, the timber is added, not really framed. To be real it has to be independent; it has to hold itself up."

Slow, stubborn and demanding, he's also funny — very funny. Christoph Buchler bounds through the world in clogs and overalls, leaving no unconventional opinion unstated, no corny joke uncracked. With Buchler, ask a question, get a punch line.

Irrepressible and irreverent, Buchler sounds proud when he announces, "I'm 400 years behind my time."

He uses building techniques straight out of the Middle Ages. Originally from Augsburg, Germany, west of Munich, he returns often to visit his parents. During his trips, he studies the old ways of construction.

"I climb around old buildings in Germany, look at old barns in England and France, check out hay barns and inside churches. You get permission from a priest or vicar to take you up above the ceiling to look at the structure."

Buchler doesn't use nails in the framing of his barns. Each timber is connected to the next with mortise-and-tenon joints, a construction technique as old as wooden buildings themselves. A chiseled wooden tab on the end of one board fits into a chiseled notch in the next. The two pieces are pegged together with whittled wooden pegs.

Why not nails? "You don't need nails, Buchler insists. "Wood construction is stronger and lasts longer. And in a fire, wood construction is safer because metal transfers heat. Besides," Buchler adds, "nails are just ugly."

The wood for the barns on Wagner Creek was cleared from private land just up the road. When Jim Curtis and Laurie Wenzel bought their property, it was cluttered with dead standing trees.

"It was a wall of wiry debris," says fine art photographer Jim Curtis, owner of On the Wall Inc. frame shop. "We left some areas alone, but now we can see 300 feet up in the canopy."

The timber was cut and milled on site by Darryll Starr, owner of The Northwest Pole Company. Starr has worked with Buchler for years. "I do all the hard work, and Christoph gets the fun," he jokes.

Buchler can use trees as small as 6 inches in diameter. Starr can go even smaller, down to 1 inch for the artistic pole furniture he makes.

"We don't let things go to waste," Starr says. "We get what we need, make the best use of it. And we use almost all of it. Even the bark coming off goes right back out to the owners for pathways. Even sawdust is used. Not very much goes to waste."

The milled lumber is delivered to Buchler, who builds his barns not once, but twice; first on his property, then at the site. The hundreds of pieces he must take apart and reassemble are coded with incised Roman numerals, timeless symbols that add to the mystique of the barn.

Buchler and his wife, Debi, live in the woods southwest of Medford. Their shingled house, handmade outbuildings and fir pole fences are all soft gray, weathered wood. Buchler's timber-frame workshop was built from trees washed out by an Ashland flood.

On their property, narrow paths wind past fruit trees, berry patches and laundry drying on the line. A small log footbridge over a seasonal creek leads to a clearing in the creek bottom. Here, under a canopy of very tall, very old trees, Buchler builds his barns. Unhurried by time, he measures, chisels, cuts and fits in his kingdom under the trees.

"My work is very contemplative," says Buchler. "I sit on my sawhorse, chiseling away for hours. I have plenty of time to think. It drives my wife crazy."

Buchler, a free-range thinker anyway, comes up with musings so intricate and questions so unanswerable that his friends have given them a name — "Chiselisms."

"When I start going on, all my friends shake their heads — he must be cutting lots of mortises again." Buchler gives a mock sigh, "Lots of mortises, lots of chiselisms."

A couple of chisels, a couple of hand saws, a hatchet and a few measuring devices — that's all you'll find in his old wooden tool box. "These are the tools that build the barns," Buchler announces cheerfully.

Right now, Buchler is building a "monster" three-story barn, high on the flanks of Grizzly Peak.

"We were looking for a barn that would be more than a pop-up structure," says owner Maureen Horn, a forest service hydrologist and geologist. "We wanted it to last for several owners beyond us. And we wanted it to be beautiful. If something is going to last for a hundred years or more, if it takes an extra year to build, it doesn't matter."

An extra year is likely. And that's fine by Buchler. "I have more fun when I'm by myself."

While a barn is going up, Buchler becomes close to his clients. Bob Hackett, marketing manager for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, describes how Buchler became a part of their family.

"Our kids would bring him cookies in the afternoon, and he would tell them stories. He enjoyed it as much as we did."

Hackett appreciates the little extra touches found in a Buchler barn. "For venting air holes, Christoph made animal shapes. He let the kids pick the shapes. He didn't tell us ahead of time, but he carved our initials in the head piece."

Their neighbors, Joe and Mary Ellen DeLuca, also enjoyed their time with Buchler.

"It was delightful to have him here," says Mary Ellen DeLuca, manager of the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market. "Our son, Ezra, was just a little boy. I have photos of Christoph showing Ezra how to hold a saw ... It was wonderful for the whole family."

"It wasn't just having a barn built," says DeLuca. "It was a life-changing experience."

In Germany, there is a tradition called "Richfest," a ceremony to celebrate the completion of the framing of a house. The owners, architect and builders get together for a meal and some beer. A tiny tree is decorated with ribbons and attached to the ridge.

For Buchler, the ceremony is smaller, "Just between me and the barn," he says. "Oh, and maybe a beer.

"It sounds sort of weird, but when the building goes together, it's like me, the wood and the building all come together," he says. "Maybe it doesn't hold up to scrutiny, but I feel like I'm continuing the trade."

Addendum: The spreading chestnut tree immortalized by Longfellow in his 1841 poem, "The Village Blacksmith," was later cut down to make way for a road. The children of Cambridge, Mass., salvaged the wood and had it made into a chair for Longfellow's 72nd birthday. Longfellow wrote a grateful poem that included the line:

"Only your love and remembrance could,

Give life to this dead wood."

It's a sentiment Buchler exemplifies every day.

- Photo by Jim Curtis