Brothers revive hole-and-peg technique

HOMES TOUGHER THAN NAILS

July 11, 1993|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Staff Writer

Meshing old-world techniques with modern technology, Glenn James feels he's found his niche in the world.

A Westminster builder who specializes in timber-frame homes built without nails, Mr. James said that the ancient technique -- used in colonial homes that still stand today -- fits in with the ideals he embraced in the 1960s.

"There is a new revolution in this country about the environment, health care and treating people with respect," said Mr. James, who owns Craftwright Inc. with his brother, David. "Timber framing fits in with that quality revolution. People are taking pride in what they are doing and how they interact with other people and the environment."

The two college-educated brothers began their careers as engineers, said Glenn James, a graduate of Wesleyan University. David James graduated from the New Hampshire Institute of Technology.

"We both dropped out of the rat race at the same time and became carpenters," Glenn James said. "Then we realized there was a carpenter rat race and dropped out again."

Their company was formed 10 years ago after Glenn James discovered timber-frame building. Impressed with the natural, exposed wood in this type of home, he apprenticed with a New England builder.

"I had been building homes for a long time when I went into a timber frame home and was shocked by how beautiful it was," Glenn James said.

"I was convinced in a matter of minutes that it was the only way to build houses," he said. "These houses are built to last many generations."

People began using the mortise and tenon -- or hole and peg -- building technique around the time Christ was born, Glenn James said.

"Previous to that, people were lashing poles together with pieces of rawhide and string," he said. "Then, someone sharpened a tenon and cut it to fit tightly into a hole. They found the hole and peg to be more strong and permanent."

David James said he is unsure why timber framing creates a more lasting structure. One reason may be the size and strength of the timbers, usually about 8-inch by 8-inch oak, and the tight fit of the joints.

"Nails can rust or pull out of the wood," he said. "Engineers don't seem to know why the buildings last. They just know they've been standing for years."

The technique has not changed much over 2,000 years, Glenn James said. Although builders now cut the holes and pegs with power tools, they use the same shapes and still must fit the pieces tightly with hammers and chisels.

"This is very exacting work," he said. "You have to be very crafty so everything is just right and fits right."

Timber-frame homes -- which often required a whole community to raise the large pieces -- fell out of favor during the westward expansion of the 1830s as people began to demand homes more quickly, Glenn James said.

The current building style of putting together homes with two-by-fours and nails became more common because they could be assembled faster and with fewer people, he said.

"Carpenters didn't need much skill to put the houses together," he said.

But timber framing became popular again in the mid-1970s when people began experimenting with expanded polystyrene and urethane to insulate the homes and make them easier to heat, he said.

"A way was finally discovered to super-insulate them [the houses] and make them more beautiful," Glenn James said. "The houses are now airtight. You need an air exchange system in them."

The firm usually takes about three months to build a timber-frame home, using a crane to lift the pieces into place, Glenn James said.

"We place an order for timbers about a month before they are cut," he said.

When they can, the brothers use Maryland timber, preferably from old barns that are being destroyed or trees being removed to make way for power lines.

"BG & E typically burns those logs," Glenn James said. "We really enjoy rescuing old timber frames and remilling the wood. We like to brag that our homes are great for recycling."

The brothers then rough-cut the pegs and holes in their Railroad Avenue shop, number the pieces and bring them to the site. Once on the property, they form-fit and assemble the pieces with chisels and hammers.

Each joint is sealed, and the majority of the structure is built without nails, Glenn James said.

"We bring in people to help raise it, but usually there are no more than three of us," he said. "We use a crane, so there's not too much manpower needed to put one together."

The homes' cost -- which runs from $15 to $25 a square foot for the timber-frame shell -- are about the same as a traditionally built custom home, Glenn James said.

Individual prices are based on customer's choice of size and style, he said. The company has built structures ranging from 2,000 to 10,000 square feet.

"It depends on what the customer wants," he said. "We have a little Cape Cod that's about $15 a square foot."

The brothers will then help the homeowner find other tradesmen, such as plumbers and electricians, to finish the house.

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