The 57 acres that comprise Cedar Ridge Farm are located in the beautiful rolling hills of South Central Kentucky. My wife, our four children, and I are on a homesteading adventure as we work toward increased self-sufficiency. We grow much of our own food and enjoy being in touch with the agrarian roots of our lives.

One of the major projects we have undertaken is the building of our own home. The house we're building has three major distinguishing features: 1. we're building it without incurring any debt; 2. it is a timber frame structure; and 3. the exterior walls will be plastered straw bales. We live debt and mortgage free, and building our house with that approach makes perfect sense. Large timbers in a home possess a beauty and project a sense of strength, stability, and warmth that we want in our home. Straw bale walls provide insulation and make ecological sense. This blog is a record of our home-building project.

Sunday, July 29, 2007


We have set the day of the frame raising. It will be September 2, 2007. I'm inviting people I know so that they may be involved and to help with the raising. It is my intention to have everything ready so that the raising will go smoothly. I have never raised a timber frame, and I'm trying to anticipate everything. If the raising takes longer than one day, we'll continue as able on September 3. That's Labor Day weekend.

If you want to be involved and help, send me a message.

Building the first bent

On Thursday of last week (7/26), Mark and I laid out the rafter set for the fourth bent and fit it together. We took our time, making sure that the mortises and tenons were properly sized and drilling holes for the pegs. We also needed to chisel the mortises on the tie beam for the rafter posts and the brace. I also needed to cut the birds mouth for the rafter foot on the front of the tie beam (I forgot to cut these when I completed the tie beams nearly 2.5 years ago). I didn't take any pictures, unfortunately.

Since my previous post in which I shared my raising ideas, I've changed my mind. We will not be raising the bents completely assembled to the rafters. I thought it would be simpler and safer to raise each bent completed to the tie beam. Then, after they are raised and attached together with connecting girts and braces, we can assemble and raise the rafter sets on top. I'll still use a gin pole, just not a 30' one. The raising may take longer, but safer and simpler is better.

On Friday morning (7/27), we began assembling the first bent. We laid out the three posts with their feet on the piers and the other ends supported on blocks (scraps from cutting the timbers to size). Things went pretty well. We made sure the mortises and tenons were properly sized. I've been amazed at how the mortises have shrunk over time. I expected they would enlarge.

I've been intending to draw bore all of the joints, but not all are to be done that way. We used a come-along to pull together the posts and some of the beams and then pegged. I decided to do it that way because of how tightly some of the joints fit together, and I didn't relish pulling it apart to drill the tenon. This photo is of the first pegs I've ever driven into a timber frame.

After the bottom beams were pegged, the front post had a pretty good twist visible at the top. It straightened out when we pulled the tie beam onto the tenon at the top of the post. It was pretty neat to watch it straighten out. The other end of the scarfed tie beam over the back post was twisted. It wouldn't straighten out. So, there's a bit of a gap between it and the post on one side. I don't think it'll matter any though.

Here are some photos of the assembled bent.

It was neat to see this piece of the house come together. We'll tackle the next bent tomorrow morning.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Garden

This isn't really about the house project, but I wanted to share some photos of some produce from our garden. We have a fairly large garden (about 200' x 70' plus another plot about 120' x 70' where we're growing squash, pumpkins, and melons). This morning's harvest just looked so nice that I had to take some pictures. The one bucket is completely full of cucumbers. The other bucket is nearly full of green beans. The small bucket has some blackberries from our thornless canes. We've already picked several gallons of wild blackberries this year. Food from the garden tastes better than anything you can buy!

Update and thoughts on raising the frame

On Thursday of last week (7/12/07), I was able to fit up the back wall of the frame. Mark the Intern helped. This involved fitting together 4 posts, 6 girts, and 6 braces and drilling the holes for the pegs. It went together quite well. However, I forgot to take the camera, so no pictures. It looked a lot like the pictures from earlier, though. It's really neat to see what I've been working on for over two years actually begin to take shape.

I'm contemplating raising the frame. Basically, I'm trying to get it straight in my head how it'll be done. I'm not planning on renting a crane to do the job. Yeah, a crane would probably make things easier, but it would also create its own challenges. I think that with enough help and a gin pole, we can get the job done safely and relatively easily. I've never done this before, so I might be wrong.

One of my intentions at this point is to raise each bent completely finished, including the rafters. Because of the design of the bent, the weakest point will be where the rafter and two posts attach to the tie beam. The only thing holding them will be 2"x4" mortise/tenon joints. My idea is to securely clamp three 6"x6"s or 6"x8"s on the back of the bent. These will be long enough to be attached to the lower beams, the tie beam, and the rafters. Then, when raising the bent, I will pull on these braces, not the bent itself. They will hold the bent rigid while they take the stress of the raising.

The gin pole I have in mind is what is called a pair of 'shear legs.' It's basically an A-frame of two poles. I 'borrowed' the picture at the right from The Mountain School. I'll probably use a couple of cedar trees since I have a lot of those here, and they'll be relatively straight and long enough. Long enough for my uses will be 25-30 feet. I won't have to lift more than 22 feet. The shear legs feet are securely anchored so they won't move. I'll probably set them in a couple of holes and chain them to a couple of my foundation piers. It'll also be secured by lines to anchors or trees toward the back. In barn raising from this photo, they used a block and tackle rigging and raised their bents with human power. I'm planning on using a tractor to supply the power to raise the bents.

I'll continue pondering on the raising. I want it to go well, smoothly, and relatively quickly. It'll be an exciting day, I'm sure. I don't know when it'll be yet, but I'll be sure to announce it and invite lots of help!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Cutting a Tenon

I had a few beams to redo the joinery on because of warpage. As I was working on these, I decided to share the process for cutting a tenon. The beam upon which this tenon was cut was a girt along the front wall of the house. It is a 12' long 6"x8" oak beam. It's simple in that it has a 1-1/2" tenon on either end. Because of its location in the frame, I didn't need to cut mortises for braces. Additionally, I needed to make sure that the tenons were the proper height since the original timbers from which the girt was cut was not a true 6"x8". I had notes on the correct height, so matching that isn't a problem. Since this girt will help support the floor, it is important that the top of it is on a level plane with the floor; the bottom level doesn't matter. This post details the process of cutting one tenon. The tenon on the other end was cut the same way.

The first thing to do is to sight down the timber to determine the crown. That is the edge that bows upward (hopefully only slightly if at all). The crown side should be on the top when the beam is in the frame.

The second step is to square one end of the beam. I measured to make sure of the length and if there were any imperfections (knots, primarily) in the timber that would be good to work around or avoid. Then, using the framing square, I mark a square line all the way around the beam near the end. This line is the guide for cutting the beam square.

Then, using my circular saw, I cut along the line on the waste side of it. This saw doesn't complete the cut because it can only cut about 2-3/8" deep. So, I widened the kerf on one side by running the saw a second time. This allows my cross cut saw to fit into the kerf easily. I use this hand saw to complete the cut. This yields a squared end on the beam.

The tenon is to be 4" long. Because this girt is along the outside edge of the house, the tenon is set 2" from the outside. So, using the framing square, I lay out the location of the tenon, marking it clearly with a pencil.

Once it's laid out, it is time to begin making the necessary cuts to create the tenon. I use the circular saw and cut along each of the lines. It is only on the 2" deep cut along the outside edge that I need to adjust the depth of the saw's cut.

Once I've cut along all of the lines, it's generally easy to remove the chunk of wood on either side of the tenon. Sometimes, there is a knot hiding inside that makes this process more difficult, but when the grain is straight, it doesn't take but a couple of blows with the mallet on the end of the chisel to pop off the unneeded piece of the beam.

At that point, I'm left with the tenon with some areas that need to be cleaned up with the chisel. It doesn't take long to pare off the excess wood, leaving a smooth side on the tenon. I then need to check the thickness of the tenon to assure that it will fit in the 1.5" mortise that's already been cut in the post. I used the width of my 1.5" chisel to feel if the edges of the tenon are the right thickness. I also use a straight edge (like the edge of the chisel) to check for high or low spots along the sides of the tenon that need to be corrected.

Because the mortises are already cut for the girt that I'm replacing, I needed to make the tenons on the replacement the right size to correspond with the mortises. Generally, they need to be made smaller. I simply take the necessary amount, whether 1/2" or 3/4", off of the bottom of the tenon. This allows the tenon to fit while leaving the top of the girt on the same plane as the other beams/girts that support the floor.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Figuring out how to cut a dove tail tenon for the floor joists

As I worked on the braces, I gave some thought to one of the next steps in the project: cutting the dove tailed tenons on the ends of the floor joists and purlins. Cutting the mortises for these tenons wasn't too difficult, but I hadn't given much thought to how to cut the tenons. I just knew that I would do so at some point.

The floor joists and the purlins will all be 4"x6" oak. One of the features I want to incorporate is an arc from the tenon into and toward the bottom of the joist/purlin. It will provide a nice aesthetic touch and should help mitigate some of the potential weakening caused by checking as the wood dries. As I considered my intentions, it became clear that I didn't have the right tools for this job. It seemed that a band saw would be a good choice, but a stationary one would present some challenges when working with 12 foot long pieces of oak that weigh 100 pounds or more (depending on how much they've dried while in storage).

Several companies make a portable band saw. Generally, these are used for cutting metal. Apparently, they do a pretty good job of that when equipped with the right band saw blade. I thought that if I had the right blade, this would be a good tool for my purposes. So, I searched on Ebay for one. I didn't want to spend the $260 or more that a new one costs. I eventually won an auction for a used Porter Cable portable band saw. I ordered some 6 tooth per inch blades from MK Morse. After receiving the saw and the blades, I had to try it out.

I marked the dovetail and a shallow arc on the end of a short piece of 4"x6" oak that I had in the shop. I then tried to cut it out. When I was done, there was a dove tail tenon on the end of the timber, but the cuts were a bit crooked and wavy. I marked the other end and tried again. Then, I chopped off the first end and tried a third time. By paying careful attention to the orientation of the saw and making sure I stay on the lines on both sides, I was able to cut out a decent dove tail tenon. I'll practice a bit more before I begin on the 100 joists and purlins that I'll need for the frame. But, at least it looks like my idea will work.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Note-taking during the project

Building a house is a big project. I've tackled the job from conception to finish, and because of finances, I'm not paying someone else to do my thinking and planning for me. Just the timber framing aspect is a large undertaking, as I designed the frame and am completing all the joinery on my own. I'll also be directing the raising of the frame. In light of the immensity of the project, I knew that I needed to keep some notes as things progressed. There are a lot of things that I could potentially forget. So, I have a framing notebook in which to keep my notes all in one place. It may not be the best organized notebook, but it seems to serve my purposes.

When I first began the joinery, I didn't have the notion or the space to lay out all of the timbers I bought to determine where they each would go. I could've chosen which post timbers were to be which post, which beam timbers were to be which beam, etc. But, I didn't. I didn't even think about doing that. I began with the timber on the top of the pile and called it whatever I had in mind to work on next. I did have a method, completing the beams first, then the girts, then the posts, the rafters, the braces, and then floor joists and purlins. I kept notes on the timbers as I progressed.

I also made an assumption that I didn't realize until later wasn't true. I assumed that the timbers I had ordered to be 8"x8" were actually 8"x8" and that the timbers I ordered to be 6"x8" were actually that, 6"x8". they were close, usually, but few were actually as I had assumed. There were timbers that were 7-3/4" at one end and 7-1/2" at the other, or ones that were 8" at one end and 7-1/2" at the other. There were some that were consistent from one end to the other, and some that were truly the dimensions I assumed they would be.

When I realized that my timbers were only nominally sized, I knew that I needed to clearly record their measurements to help assure some degree of levelness for my floors. There are different approaches to timber framing, like scribe rule and square rule. I've worked with a modified square rule approach, meaning I've done what made sense to me. If I had known that the timbers were not truly sized, I would've done some things differently. But, I didn't, so I didn't. I cut the tenons on the ends of the beams and girts to the full depth of the timbers, whatever they were. I then noted the depth for each end for each timber. This allowed me to make sure the mortises on the posts were the right size and placed so that the floors would be level, not varying by up to 3/4" from one post to another. My reference point for each mortise was the side of the beam or girt that mattered, generally the floor side.

I've kept notes of other things, like spacing and location for floor joists and roof purlins. I've also noted the size, shape, and location of tenons and mortises. This has been important since the beams, girts, and posts have been completed with varying amounts of time in between, literally months or over a year for some of them. We'll see how well it all goes together. I suppose that will be the real test of my note taking.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Flashback: The Foundation

Every house needs to be built upon a solid foundation. The site we selected for our house sits on a relatively level area above our garden and at the base of a hill. I've heard that the couple who used to live in the old log cabin in the bottom had a garden where we're building our house. It is a good location for one in proximity to where the old cabin stood. It's also a good site for a house. It's protected on the back by the hill and trees, it overlooks our garden area, it will receive nice sun during the winter months, shadows begin to fall on the site a little after 3:00p.m. during the summer, and it has a nice view across our bottom land towards a hay field. There are often deer and turkeys to be seen out in the fields.

One of our original ideas was to build the house with a walk-out basement. This site lends itself to such a plan quite well. Basements are commonly considered inexpensive floor space in terms of price per square foot. However, on our house the price per square foot is NOT the determining factor; the bottom line is how much it costs overall. So, inexpensive in terms of per square foot is not necessarily inexpensive. We are doing this, afterall, debt free. It should be noted, though, that we aren't building a shack; it will be a very nice house. However, finances dictate certain decisions be made, such as eliminating the basement. Besides, we decided that we didn't really NEED a basement. It might be nice in some ways, but that's not the same as a need.

So, no basement. Another consideration that we didn't consider, basically because I wouldn't consider it, is a slab foundation. I don't want the timbers or straw bales that close to the ground. I'm concerned about moisture and termites. That leaves us with a crawl space foundation. Because of earlier design adjustments (detailed in a previous post), the posts in the frame weren't to be inserted into a sill. We decided on concrete piers for the posts to stand on.

In May 2006, I began clearing the site. I used a borrowed grader blade on the back of my 1966 International 424 Utility tractor. Most of the topsoil had already been pushed to the side when we had our driveway on the hill to the bottom constructed in July 2003. I just tried to smooth things out and to rip out the weeks and grass growing on the site.

After clearing the site, I laid out the house, determining how it would sit. Its orientation is determined by the shape, size, and location of the 'bench' upon which we're building it. It faces a mostly southerly direction -- it wasn't imperative that it be perfectly oriented toward the south.

I measured for squareness, and drove stakes at the corners. I installed batter boards outside the corners. Levelness for the horizontal members of the batter boards depended upon the use of a borrowed laser level. I remember being amazed at how unlevel the relatively level area for our house actually is. I was then able to run strings across the site so that they would cross on the centers of where the piers needed to be.

With the locations for the piers clearly marked with spray paint on the ground, it was time to begin digging for the footers. Time to get out the shovel. And, that's exactly what I did. I dug the first one for the northeast corner of the house. It was about three feet by three feet and 30 inches deep. For the other 11 holes to be dug, I borrowed a friends tractor-mounted post hole digger with a 12' auger. I used this to perforate and loosen the soil to the desired depth. It really made digging the holes a lot easier.

After the holes for the footers were dug, I needed to set the tubes for the piers. I bought 12" sonotubes from Lowes and some 3/8" rebar. The rebar was for strengthening the footers and helping to tie the footers and piers together. I suspended the tubes 12 inches from the bottom of the holes in order to make 12" thick footers. I endeavored to make sure the tubes were plumb and braced. I should've braced them better, though. I marked them, using the laser level and a pencil, at the height they each needed trimmed to and then cut them off to that level. At this point, I was ready for the concrete.

The ready mix truck arrived early one morning in June. I thought we might have to pour the footers and then pour the piers, allowing time for the footers to begin to setup a little. However, by using a rather dry mix, we were able to pour the piers and footers together.

Pouring the concrete went fine. I should have done more to help the concrete settle in the tubes so that there would've been less honey-combing, but I don't believe my not doing so affected their structural integrity. I can live with their appearance. Besides, once the house is built, no one will see them anyway -- they'll be hidden in the crawl space.

When we reached the 12th and final pier, disaster struck. When the tube was nearly full, the braces holding it broke, and it fell over! We were blessed in that I was able to lift the tube mostly full of wet concrete back up into a vertical position. It was then in the right location in terms of being centered, but it was now about 8 inches too short. The quick fix on the fly involved a cut off section from another tube and duct tape!

We taped the extra section to the top, checking the level with the laser. After we braced it, we finished the pour. We were glad that this mishap occurred on the last pier rather than the one of the first ones. That would've been discouraging. As it was, it all worked out fine.

It took only about an hour to pour all of the footers and piers. I pealed the tubes off of the piers several days later, and they stand waiting for the house they will one day support.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


Work continues on the frame. I completed two replacement girts yesterday. If the weather stays nice, I should be able to fit up the back wall of the frame today. That will leave only a few more girts to test fit before beginning to build the bents. I would like to begin putting the first bent together by the weekend.

After completing the rafters in June, I spent a few days working on the braces. They are all the same size and cut from 4"x6" oak. I've bought 4x6 cants in various lengths from Woodstock Mills in Scottsville, KY. Last week a purchased 20 more 12-footers from Cub Run Hardwoods. I'm using these for the floor joists and roof purlins.

For the braces we used some 10-footers I had. This length allowed us to get three out of each cant. Again, I'm saying we because Mark the Intern was helping. We set up a procedure that worked pretty well for us. The tools we used were a 12" miter saw, a 7.25" circular saw, and a chisel.

The first step in the process was to cut the 10' 4x6s into the right lengths for the braces (for our purposes this was 38-5/8") on the miter saw. Then, mark the ends in order to cut the 45 degree angles. It was important to make sure the measurements were correct for this part of the process. We were striving to be as precise as possible.

After the blanks for the braces were cut, we measured them for the tenon location on the ends. All of the braces are fully housed 1/2" on the frame. This means that in addition to the 4" long and 2" wide tenon on the ends, the entire 4"x6" end of the brace is recessed into the timbers of the frame.

With the lines for the tenons marked, the circular saw was set for the required depth (1.75") to remove wood and leave a 2" tenon. The braces are nominally 4"x6". In actuality, they are 3.75" thick and 5.75" to 6.25" wide. Then, I made a series of cuts about 1/4" apart across the brace past the line. After that, removing the necessary wood with a chisel was relatively easy, leaving a brace of the correct dimensions when measured from shoulder to shoulder, end to end, and tenon thickness.

We set up our process with Mark the Intern cutting the blanks and marking the tenons. He was fastidious about measuring and cutting correctly. He stacked the blanks as he completed them while I worked on cutting the tenons. We completed 38 braces in about three days working only part of those days on them (there are still plenty of other things going on around here). Working with these 4x6s gave me cause to think about how to cut the floor joist and purlin dovetail tenons. I'll write about that later.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Full Frame Fit-Up Has Begun

Last week, I was able to begin the full frame fit-up. We moved the beams and posts to a pile near the house site, organizing them for easy access. It became apparent that I would need to replace some of them because they twisted beyond the point of usability. Two 8x8 twisted and four 6x8s. I also discovered that I had cut one post 4 inches too short. I guess I forgot to measure twice and cut once on that one.

Since I needed to replace these timbers, I called Cub Run Hardwoods and had them cut me some replacements. I also had them cut 20 more 12' 4"x6"s for my floor joists and purlins. I'll need about 100 of them, which I have, but some of them will need to be culled because of various factors, including twisting while drying over the last two years. We hauled all of these timbers home on the trailer last Thursday. Being all green oak, the load weighed about 6,000 pounds. I forgot to take a picture of them stacked on the trailer to share here.

We (we is myself and the intern we have here this summer -- he's learning about homesteading in exchange for labor) worked two days on fitting-up last week. We started with the front wall of the house, making sure the braces and girts fit in the posts and that they are square. It went pretty well, actually.

This photo shows the front wall of the frame as we laid it out, minus the first post which you can't see in the picture. we laid things out on the foundation piers for the house, using 2x6s with support in the middle between them. I have to replace the two bottom girts for bays 1 and 3. That's why they are not present in the photo. I'll fit them up in their respective places this week after I remake them. There are two cedar girts in the middle bay, but only one will be visible from inside the house. The girts at the bottom of the posts will be below floor level.

Here's another view looking at the third post (counting from the left in the pictures). The lower portion of the posts from the mortises on down will not be visible from inside the house. So, they aren't planed. In the background you can see part of our garden.

We drilled the holes for pegging the frame as part of the fit-up process. I'll be draw-boring the joints.

The next day we fit-up the posts and girts for the center of the house. Tomorrow or the next day, we'll do the fit-up for the back wall of the frame. I want to complete the girt that needs to be replaced for that wall first. I'll take some more pictures and share them here.