Sunday, February 20, 2011

Post and Beam Class at the Shelter Institute

The following is taken from notes and photographs collected during the week of 13 - 18 February 2011. True, it's a little afar from our usual topic of gardening, but we consider this a part of our homesteading adventure. Learning to construct your own buildings is an enriching experience that, having done it, we highly recommend.   

And finally the moment has arrived! We’d been looking forward to doing the 5-day Purely Post and Beam class at The Shelter Institute in Woolwich, Maine for a solid year and a half, talking about it at least once a week, and fully prepared for it to be a life-changing event. Ensconced at the Holiday Inn in Bath, Maine, we’re rarin' ta go. 
In the classroom
On Sunday evening our class of 21 students are treated to a presentation of what-to-expect, and Monday morning finds us in the classroom. If we didn’t learn it in high school we are now: how to draft. With pencil, triangle, rulers and drawing board we each draw a plan view, then a gable elevation of the 24’ square building that we will be framing. Drawing the posts, beams and braces gives us a preliminary understanding of how the structure will go together.
Drawing the plans
Monday afternoon we relocate to the workshop- a large, scantily heated building. Winter has been cold lately, and we now appreciate the value of wearing clothing in layers.

Using a Japanese hand saw
We get right at it by learning to use a Japanese hand saw to cut through 8x8” and larger Eastern White Pine timbers. The timbers had already been cut to shape and planed at the sawmill, reducing our labor considerably. Sawing, at first is tricky because the teeth are large and the saw easily jumps out of the groove. Very soon throughout the room one can hear blocks of wood falling to the floor.   
After  a few practice cuts we saw the timbers to the lengths needed for our building. Then, with two people assigned to a timber, we mark with pencil and framing square to show exactly where to cut out areas for various types of joins- dovetail, lapped, mortise and tenon, carefully following a diagram for each post.
Sharpening a chisel
On the second day we sharpen our chisels. This turns out to be more of a job than we had figured on. It takes the entire morning. The chisel is set into a holder to keep it at the right angle. Using stones that were soaked in a bucket of water, we start with the coarse one, proceed to the medium, and finally put on a chrome-like finish with the finest. When finished, the chisels are razor sharp and will shave hair which you can try out on your arm if you like.
Using chisel and mallet
Back from lunch we get to try out our chisels. Gil and I are assigned to the post that will be at the center of the building. Gil is shaping a tenon at the end of the timber. My job is to cut out four rectangular mortises, each of them 8-1/2 x 2” by 3-1/2” deep that braces will fit into. There is a technique to the process and once we get going with our mallets and chisels the job moves right along. The chiseled areas are refined by using a handy tool called a slick, a Japanese tool that is razor sharp like the chisels. As we go, we check for straight sides using a combination square.  
A really cool tool that someone brought
Finished for the day we set our sharpening stones under the wood stove for safe keeping. 
On day three we are noticing that it’s a week of hard work no doubt about it. We continue to chip away. We have moved on to the rafters and are forming a lap joint at one end. We measure, score, make three saw cuts, chisel, and finish with a slick. 
After a full day in the shop we get together in the classroom and are treated to pizza and a two hour lecture on how to do the mathematical formulas to know if a beam is in line with building codes. We calculate beam load strength at the various surfaces to be sure we are using adequate timbers. Our 8'x10' beams are fine for supporting the live and dead loads that will be impacting them.
It’s now Thursday morning and we are finishing up with chiseling. We then measure and remeasure everything. One by one the finished timbers are machine planed, and then coated with a natural citrus oil, and end grains painted with wax. This keeps the timbers from twisting while they dry.

Waxing ends

This afternoon we tour several timber framed homes and barns. There are some fabulous examples including a three story barn with a cupola, a passive solar home, and a home with ceramic tile flooring and a lap pool. This gets many us to thinking about the designs of our future homes.

Barn with cupola

Barn interior

Window detail of a home

Detail of framing

A 20 x 30' home

Kitchen detail

Friday is the big day. We put our building together. This takes the labor of all of us, with come-alongs, sledge hammer, and a forklift.

It takes ten people to carry a beam

Pulling pieces together with a come-along

Raising the second bent

Hauling up a joist

Joining the 3rd bent to the second

Adding the top plate
We are finished at noon and heading home. It's been a fabulous week- hard work in a chilly space but worth every second of it. We met some wonderful people and made some new friends. Many thanks to the Hennin family- Pat, Gaius, Ethan, and Blueberry for offering this very unique experience! -G.H. and jmm 


  1. thankyou for sharing this, so interesting&inspirational photos&story!
    Jaana K, Finland

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jaana! We're happy you found it both interesting and inspirational...!

  3. What a lovely job compiling the photos and recording the process! Thank you for posting this!