Back in early September I had the pleasure of attending a roundwood timber framing course led by woodsman Adrian Leaman. Adrian works near Stroud, Gloucester on a woodyard within the beautiful setting of the Duchy farm there. You may have heard of him through his work with Ben Law and Kevin Macleod and “that” episode of Grand Designs, or you may just have heard of him. His courses are held in a fantastic location for discourse and learning on the subject of wood, and on harmony with nature in general. The woodyard gives way to lush pastures (great camping) and forests backing onto fields and fields of clover to keep all the bees happy.
Most of the people on course were drawn to Adrian’s course (other roundward framing courses are available) with the sense that, whilst it may be a bit harder to get to, the structure promised to be very hands-on and intense, but with the definite potential for Serious Fun to be had. None of us were proved wrong with this assumption and personally the experience far exceeded my expectations. I think I should break down the fun into categories to give you some idea of the experience. Not in order of priority, of course:
The food. Oh my goodness the food! I’ve never been vegetarian, and so I never thought I could be vegan for 5 days and actually never want to eat anything different ever. I shouldn’t say this but go for the food if nothing else!
The people. You couldn’t ask for better crowd. Clearly we all shared many common interests as we all had chosen to be there. However, this was just a mutual starting point and it was fascinating to meet people with very different stories and reasons for coming along, some travelling a great distance to attend.
One of the great things about how Adrian runs the course is that come the end of the day he doesn’t disappear. Instead, at the risk of being grilled about timber framing details until midnight, he takes great interest in getting to know all of the people on his course. From obligatory singing of songs around campfire (Adrian’s wife Kath is a musician as well as an excellent cook (see above)), we had the combined jokes, stories, talents of the dozen or so on the course, ending in the showcase that was the “gurning competition”, now surely to be an annual event on the course; you will have us and a curiously shaped framing jig to thank.
The teaching. Many, on hearing that I had been on this course, asked me “what did you build?”, which is a fair question. However, to give a bit of background about the raison d’être of Adrian’s course will help explain why we didn’t build what and why, and what we did build and how. Adrian teaches timber framing for buildings. Buildings are big and take a long time to build. Over a five day course you could not hope to learn how to and build a whole or even part of a timber frame building. Building on a smaller scale would have been one solution, however, a small structure would imply a different design and rationale to a large building, and therefore would not help with the latter. Plenty of people on the course had already, or were wanting to, build a large building so getting this real experience was important.
So we practiced making joints. If that sounds boring and detached from the process of building a real frame, it wasn’t in the slightest. We laid our logs out on a framing bed, just as you would with a real frame. We were working directly alongside others working on the same log, just as you would with a real frame. The only difference was that the lattice of practice logs created couldn’t be called a building in the end. To compliment this process, Adrian ran in-depth consultations on our individual ideas and projects, to help us make the sort of informed decisions necessary to build in this way, and was always happy to try and answer our questions however inchoate. We also investigated an A-frame pre-assembled on site, discussed how all the joints would work together in a building, and practiced raising it at the end.
Doing a number of different joints in round timber requires thought and care, involving lots of tools, special measuring jigs and instruments and new techniques. It would be very easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of information required. However, Adrian’s style of pacing and staging the teaching over the day was pitched so this did not happen, without necessarily sacrificing the speed and intensity of the the course. We were handling the logs and cutting joints from day one, so there were no classroom activities or bookish studying, everything was hands-on.
My personal reasons for attending the course were firstly to learn about the building technique of roundwood framing, so that I could bring that into the practice and be able to design with it. Secondly, as a keen woodworker making small fiddly boxes and the like, I was interested in how working with larger scale and unpredictable timber could loosen me up and show me a very different way of working with timber. What intrigued me was that the standard and precision of marking out joints, and to an extent cutting them, was directly comparable and shared a great deal of the techniques you would use in cabinetry. In fact marking the roundwood joints was at times a sight more involved, and there are very interesting and transferable concepts to cutting straight joints in bendy wood. The final tolerances may be greater, yet the combination of accuracy, discipline and invention is everything you would expect from a professional craft.
No experience is necessary for Adrian’s course, and whatever your skills and wherever you are from you will be catered for royally, and I would recommend it to anyone and everyone. As well as roundwood framing, Adrian also teaches roundhouse building and other wood related courses on the same site, all can be booked here: www.wholewoods.co.uk.