Using time-honored techniques to build frames meant to be seen

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“I have always loved the look of a giant, handsome barn, especially a timber-frame structure,” admits Howard’s Head resident Paul Gill with a big smile that has a lot to do with the satisfaction he derives from having become a skilled post-and-beam craftsman who has many good-looking barns to his credit. But his route to becoming the sole proprietor of Gill Timber Frame Company was by no means direct.

After graduating from the University of Vermont in 1999, both Gill and his eventual wife, Missy, began crewing on traditional wooden schooners. Living and working at close quarters on those ships, he says, gave him an appreciation for the artistry that went into their construction. “It instilled a sense that if you’re going to build something, do it right. Use the time-honored techniques and the best materials possible. Use joinery that has been proven over the centuries.”

After several years of crewing ships, some out of Rockland, others out of Baltimore and the west coast, the couple decided to come ashore. “I told my wife that the only place I’d seen that I liked was midcoast Maine and she said ‘Okay.’” They ended up renting the apartment in the Marshall Point Lighthouse, which proved to be a dream come true. “When we were sailing we used to explore all the peninsulas near Rockland between cruises. One time, when we were at Marshall Point, we said to each other, ‘Someday let’s move to a town like this.’ And that’s what we did.”

The Gills arrived at their new lighthouse home in January of 2001, neither having a job. “People thought we were crazy,” Gill laughs. “But the first day we were here I literally ran into George Emery, who was then operating the Tenants Harbor Boatyard. He happened to need someone to hold the other end of a board and to fetch tools, so he hired me. I worked with him for the next four years learning all he had to teach about boatbuilding and joinery. George was a great mentor.”

Following his work at the boatyard Gill began doing some house construction, but soon landed a job working for Charlie Conlan of Camden. “That’s when I began doing timber framing. Charlie didn’t set out to teach me what he knew, but I absorbed everything he was doing. I built about a dozen frames with him and then continued working on my own when he left the business.”
Although Gill does do conventional “stick” construction, from renovations to new buildings, he vastly prefers timber-frame work. “The frame is the finish when you do post-and-beam construction,” he explains. “It’s part of the cabinetry, the furniture of the house. It’s what you look at. In a stick-built house they call it rough framing and it usually is truly rough. Everything is nailed together with gun nails and half the nails miss. Also, all the lumber is coming out of faster growing trees that are usually warped and twisted and full of live edge. But you cover it up with sheet rock and you never see it again.”

Big barnSMGill’s experience is that some people just appreciate being able to see what is supporting the walls and the roof. “But if you are going to accentuate the frame it had better be done right,” he cautions. “All the joints need to be clean and tight.” Gill adds that with timber-frame construction his interaction with the client also involves more back-and-forth discussion. “With stick construction the client doesn’t need to be involved with framing decisions. With timber framing every detail is discussed because every detail is seen.”

For houses and other special projects Gill gets all the framing materials planed. “I sand all the imperfections out of it and put a couple of coats of oil on it,” he notes. “The frame is meant to be showy.” Curved braces and chamfered corners are among a whole host of special details he might also employ. “I’ll do something a little different on just about every frame.”

The materials used in timber-frame construction also tend to be of tougher quality than with stick construction. Gill uses hemlock for the posts and beams, white oak for the pegs, and cedar for roof shingles when the budget allows (using strips of copper between every fifth course or so, he points out, helps to extend the life of the shingles because when the rain washes off the strips’ patina it kills any growth that might have started). “I try to be as efficient with my materials as I can because nothing in these buildings is cheap and all these resources are being depleted everywhere,” Gills says.

As for sheathing a timber-frame building, Gill’s first choice is SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) which consist of two layers of plywood with insulation in between. “SIPs are very strong and very energy efficient. So you have a very traditional frame with a very high-tech panel system. It’s the best of both worlds.”

The interplay between tradition and modern technology, in fact, is frequently on Gill’s mind. “I often think about how the old timers would have done a project I’m working on,” he says reflectively. “They probably wouldn’t fuss over all the things we fuss over. But they probably would appreciate the tools we get to use today. We do things the same way, but we do it with power tools. I still end up having to use chisels and mallets and planes to finish everything, but I use circular saws and electric sanders—they had cheaper labor than we have.”

In the end, however, Gill’s heart seems to be more in line with the old timers’ plain and earthy sensibilities, which leads him to enjoy building those big, handsome barns he’s always admired the most. “Most of the big barns are very utilitarian,” he says. “That appeals to me—the materials are rough sawn and everything is all about function. You don’t fuss over anything.” —JW

To contact Gill at Gill Timber Frame Co. call 207-691-1968 or go to www.gilltimberframes.com.

PHOTOS: Top, Julie Wortman, bottom, courtesy of Gill Timber Frames Co.

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1 thought on “Using time-honored techniques to build frames meant to be seen

  1. Steve Cartwright

    It’s encouraging to see timber-frame tradition and high standards go hand in hand. And to see a man who likes his work. I believe when we build something with passion, it shows. And when we don’t, that shows, too. I’m not sure exactly how, but being a sailor seems to teach us good lessons, whatever path we’re on.

    Reply

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