Amanda Merchant interviews Nick Whittaker (MD), who presides over the…
Wood is one of the worlds oldest building materials, and the skills which are used to shape wood have developed and improved tremendously throughout the ages. carpentry skills have been passed down from craftsman to craftsman through the tried and tested apprenticeship system. Written knowledge, guides and pattern books did not come into play until the arrival of the printing press in the 15th century.
“He who works with his hands is a labourer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist”.
St Francis of Assissi (1181 – 1226)
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, and the invention of the steam engine, mass production and modern building materials, traditional timber framing in Europe started to decline. Most importantly, the lack of good quality timber production and forest husbandry, along with the enormous deforestation carried out to supply the British navy and international traders for ship timber, led to a serious depletion in resources.
For a skilled tradesman, who is passionate and dedicated to his chosen material, modern design and build must be frustrating at times. To become a skilled carpenter involves both acquiring theoretical knowledge and hands on practice, learning skills by observation, reading and working in the trade for many years.
Dave Matthews from Oak Homes, based in Branscombe, has spent most of his life doing just this. After growing up in South Africa, he returned to the UK at the age of fourteen with dreams of studying architecture or engineering. As his education developed, however, Dave decided on a more practical route and embarked on a City & Guilds Carpentry and Joinery course in Peterborough. This proved to be incredibly satisfying and led on to a lifetime of woodworking.
Over the following ten years Dave worked as a journeyman in a variety of carpentry and joinery jobs in Britain and across Europe, learning different techniques and refining his skills. He found that even though the end result of a particular piece of work appeared identical, the methods used within the process were often very different.
After working at a small artisan’s workshop in Provence, producing high quality joinery and timber frame buildings, Dave realised this was where he wished to focus his energies. Dave moved back to Britain and set up his own business with this aim.
Oak Homes was established in 1997, with Devon being an obvious first choice due to the climate and quality of life it had to offer Dave and his family. With his first workshop in Chideock, Dave continued his travels in pursuit of new techniques, working in the burgeoning timber frame restoration areas of Cheshire and the borders of Wales. He then went on to join the Timber Framers Guild and the newly formed Carpenters Fellowship to study and share knowledge of traditional timber framing skills. Oak Homes also carried out several prestigious restoration works at Portmerion and other heritage sites in North Wales, working with the conservation bodies of Wales and England, CADW and English Heritage. During this time he also worked closely with Stuart Interiors, one of the few British companies still producing hand carved oak interiors to rival the best of the past five centuries of British craftsmanship.
In 2005 Oak Homes moved to a new workshop in a large barn, situated in the middle of fields and farms in Branscombe. Over the past 10 years he has transformed the barn in to the perfect workshop to accommodate the production of new timber frames and joinery, putting his plans and dreams he had on return from France into reality. Dave works alongside his apprentices and uses sub contractors to help on projects when needed. Walking into the workshop is almost like stepping back in time; huge timber frames laid out ready for marking and cutting. The workmanship which is carried out in here is simply outstanding, testament to the history surrounding such skills.
There are important and complex factors which are required when building with wood. For example, a standard 6m x 200mm x 200mm length of oak would take a minimum of 100 years growth, therefore, not only is serious planning ahead required (2-3 generation!), but the timber must be farmed efficiently in order to grow straight and true, without disease. Most timber framing is carried out using green timbers as they are far easier to work with. The joinery must take in the rough sawn timber, often not square when it arrives from the sawmill, and the shrinkage will occur over the following 5-10 years at a rate of approximately ½ inch per year. The design needs to work within these boundaries to exacting standards to create strong, long lasting joinery. These skills are put to practice with the benefit of many years of expertise.
It is no wonder given the growth time and processing, that oak frames are such a precious and labour intensive item to purchase. However, in doing so, you will have created a building which will be around for centuries and is incredibly beautiful to live in.
There are many homes which require high quality and sympathetic timber restoration and repair works, and this is where skill really comes into play. Oak Homes` work involved in restoration of such buildings is in essence, what to keep and what to replace. It is a highly complicated process, where hard wood which has been drying, sometimes hundreds of years, has to be fitted together with new sections of dried timber using modern resins, stainless steel plates and rods, alongside the traditional mortice and tenon joinery. No green wood can be used in these situations, and a lot of hard work and sharp tools are needed to carry out these repairs. Each restoration project has unusual features, which need unique solutions and a thorough grounding in timber knowledge, along with imagination. There is a lot of creativity involved when working on old buildings. Working on an old manor house in Marshwood for instance, Dave used an old supply of elm coffin boarding to line an internal wall, and he built a complete oak staircase as support ‘under’ the existing 400 year old elm staircase. A Viking style feasting hall in Norway which Dave worked on even had hand carved dragons at the bottom of the staircase, each attached to gas pipes so they could breathe real fire from their mouths!
These days, it is sometimes thought that only those with money have the option of using one of our oldest construction materials. However, there are ways to overcome this, as contemporary design allows us to mix up tradition with new technologies. An imaginative use of other timbers can reduce costs dramatically. For instance, Douglas Fir demands a half to a third of the price of oak and can be used in much the same style of building. Not only that, but drying times are almost 10 times quicker than that of oak. As a designer and manufacturer, this means that Oak Homes and their clients can efficiently plan a year in advance, drawing the plans, ordering the timber from the sawmill, then stacking to air-dry. As construction begins the following year, the timber is re-machined to final sizes, thereby removing most problems associated with shrinkage. Actual construction is generally quite a quick process.
In terms of design, it is possible to have that home of your dreams, without necessarily having the finances you may think you need to get it. A contemporary designed home could be enhanced by constructing a gable end or front wall using traditional timber framing, and glazed using modern dry glaze systems. A contemporary designed home could be enhanced by constructing a gable end or front wall using traditional timber framing, glazed using modern dry glaze systems and an Oak Homes hand made pair of patio doors could cost in the region of £9000 – £14000. This kind of design gives the impression of grandeur, creating a light and open space along with the warmth and beauty of the timber. Dave designs most of his buildings, working with specialist timber frame structural engineers, his own team, and other sub-contracted skilled tradesman where required.
For Oak Homes, this may look to be the future of business, where traditional ideas and skills can be combined with modern day design and building regulations to create the timber frames of the future. See their advert further on in this section.
By Amanda Merchant