Natural Building Blogs by Sarah

Building Community Crafts Environment Heritage Natural Restoration Rural Skills Suffolk Vernacular


cutting list
Cutting list (the theory!)

buttress of tree
Buttress of oak tree (before milling)

jowl post
Green oak jowl post (taking shape)


Through the Mill - 9th June 2018

Sourcing Local Timber for a Tudor Long House

As some of you may know in addition to the challenge of restoring a 17th century barn as a community run project, I have also obtained permission to reinstate a Tudor Long House. I can't believe how long the list of jobs is becoming. In particular sourcing materials locally is an ongoing challenge; which brings me to the topic of this article: How to make best use of the local trees Orchard Barn Volunteers have just bartered their time for. So...

Wish me luck.
I’ve got a date with the mobile sawyers this Thursday. As part of my job as Centre Manager of OBee Community Interest Company I get to draw up the cutting lists for our timber framing project, and more crucially to work out how best to instruct the sawyers to mill two big oak trees.

The Lucas Mill - a mobile saw mill

Lucas Mill - mobile saw mill

I started this line of work in 2008 but it doesn’t get any easier. I feel the weight of responsibility keenly sitting on my shoulders. The Lucas Mill and the resulting milled oak is only as good as the decisions I make and there are many things to weigh up when assessing the trees.

So what do we need the timber for? Well … I’m overseeing the reinstatement of a Tudor Long House in a ‘like for like’ manner. This means sourcing trees from the local woods and framing it using traditional techniques and hand tools. Ideally we would be hand converting the trees where they grew using axes and two-handled saws, (and we do occasionally undertake some of that). However I will be sixty this summer and would quite like this project to be complete within the next five years – not fifty! The use of a portable wood mill is the compromise I make and it’s a good one.

Community project supported by volunteers

Greenways are a group of volunteers from Ipswich who operate the mill for local projects such as OBee CIC (the one I run). That said, they mostly mill small dimension trees whereas the ones OBee Volunteers have bartered their time for are 130 years old, and are BIG. Measuring 18” at the buttress and tapering off to 12” at 15’ they pose a challenge as to how to make best use of them.

Top of my cutting list is a 12’ jowl post. The jowl post holds the wall plate which in turn holds the roof up, so it is a key component of a traditional timber frame. Many years back I had a light bulb moment when I realised that a jowl post was essentially an upside down tree. Our ancestors used the knarled buttress with all its knitted together strength to support the upper part of the building. Makes sense! Why go to the trouble of hewing it into a square section when you actually need that volume of timber in a buttress shape. Having said that, it is more effective to hew a jowl than mill it. Machines cut in straight lines and are very wasteful whereas an axe makes much better use of a tree with all its irregularities. (If any of you are up for the challenge of hewing please email me)

It’s these natural tree shapes and forms which I love so much that also challenge me in a visual-spacial manner. I need to carefully assess the trees for depth of sap wood, cracks, knots, rot and undulation (they are rarely straight). Only after I have considered all of these factors can I make an informed decision about how best to instruct the millers.

It’s going to be an exciting date!

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