Hewing Timbers With Hand Tools

Hewing Timbers With Hand Tools

The Humbling Art of Hewing by Hand

It all started with a simple log – a 14-foot-long pine that stood before me, waiting to be transformed from a humble tree into a sturdy, square timber. Little did I know the journey that lay ahead would humble and inspire me in equal measure.

I had signed up for a week-long timber conversion class with the Timber Framers Guild, eager to learn the art of harvesting and processing raw materials for the buildings on the St. Dunstan’s campus. As someone who had worked with dozens of timbers over the years, I thought I knew what to expect. But the moment I laid hands on that log, I realized I was in for a rude awakening.

The task at hand was to hand-hew that pine log into a 9×11 timber – a process that would require a combination of skill, strength, and unwavering patience. Armed with a collection of simple hand tools, I set out to conquer what would become one of the most demanding and memorable experiences of my working life.

The Rhythm of the Axe

The first step was to carefully lay out the lines that would guide my hewing. Using a level and a pencil, I drew plumb lines down the end of the log, then transferred them down the length using a chalk line. This was no mere formality – these lines would be my roadmap, ensuring I stayed true to the task at hand.

With the lines in place, I climbed atop the log, balancing myself as I gripped the long-handled felling axe. Taking a deep breath, I began to cut a series of V-shaped notches, 16 inches or so apart, from the butt end of the log up to the top. The rhythmic thud of the axe against the wood was both exhilarating and humbling, as I realized the sheer physical effort required to transform this tree into a workable timber.

As the “juggles” – the wood between the notches – fell away, I switched to a short-handled, heavy-headed broad axe, designed for paring rather than chopping. Positioning myself with one knee at the top of the log and one foot cocked out to the side for balance, I began to shave and smooth the remaining wood, working my way down from the top to the butt end.

The broad axe, a tool I had never used before, quickly became one of my favorites. The dance of the blade against the grain, the steady rhythm of my movements, and the gradual emergence of a flat, lightly scalloped face – it was all part of a mesmerizing process that challenged both my physical and mental capacities.

Patience, Perseverance, and the Power of Practice

As I hewed the first face, I encountered moments of sheer frustration. The blisters on my palms, the banged knuckles, the grumbling voice in the back of my mind suggesting I abandon the task and reach for a machine – all of these obstacles threatened to derail my progress. But I pressed on, channeling the wisdom of Josef Pieper, who wrote that “to be patient means to preserve cheerfulness and serenity of mind in spite of injuries that result from the realization of the good.”

And as I persevered, something remarkable happened. The second face I hewed was much smoother than the first, and the third face went by even quicker. With each passing hour, my confidence grew, and my technique refined. The task that had once seemed arduous and unforgiving was now transforming me, nurturing an inner faculty that simply would not grow any other way.

In that moment, I was reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet, “Patience,” which so beautifully captures the connection between strain and patience, hardship and endurance. The “rare patience” that roots in the face of adversity, the “rebellious will” that bids us to persevere – these were the forces that were guiding my hands, shaping me into a more resilient, more capable version of myself.

The Rewards of Hewing by Hand

As I stepped back to admire the four-sided timber that now stood before me, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe and pride. This was no mere product of modern technology, but a work of art, crafted through the sweat and determination of human hands. And in that moment, I understood why the Timber Framers Guild had chosen to teach this ancient craft – because in the act of hewing by hand, we not only create something of lasting value, but we also nourish the very qualities that make us human.

In a world increasingly dominated by machines and automation, the art of hewing timbers with hand tools is a radical act of reclamation. It’s a way of reconnecting with the natural world, of honoring the inherent beauty and strength of wood, and of cultivating the virtues of patience, perseverance, and attention to detail. And for those of us who take the time to learn this craft, the rewards are manifold.

Not only do we end up with a timber that is uniquely our own, shaped by the contours of our hands and the rhythm of our movements, but we also forge a deeper understanding of the materials we work with and the processes that bring them to life. Every scallop, every smooth plane, every imperfection – all of these become a part of the timber’s story, a testament to the human touch that has imbued it with life.

And for a company like Timber Building, this kind of hands-on engagement with the materials is not just a means to an end, but a vital part of the company’s ethos and identity. By celebrating the art of hand-hewing, they are not only creating exceptional products, but also nurturing a community of craftspeople who are passionate about preserving the traditions of timber framing and woodworking.

So if you’re ever tempted to reach for a machine, to opt for the “easy” way out, I encourage you to take a step back and consider the power of hewing timbers by hand. It’s a humbling, challenging, and ultimately rewarding experience that has the power to transform not just the materials you work with, but the very person you are. And who knows – you might just discover a new-found appreciation for the rhythmic thud of the axe, the satisfying shave of the broad axe, and the quiet triumph of a timber well-hewn.


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