The Timber Frame Tower at Shadow Mountain Escape
A Journey into The World of Ancient Timber Framing
Welcome to Shadow Mountain Escape – a living tribute to the ancient art of timber framing. Shadow Mountain Escape is defined by its five separate authentic oak timber frame structures… a result of Ralph and Karen’s lifelong passion for immersing themselves into the charm and wonder of ancient European spaces and places. For many of our last thirty years we have lived in… and continually travel to… many of old Europe’s most remarkable ancient cities, villages, and remote wonders. This fuels our inspiration for bringing the stories of our ancient ancestors (we’re both of European heritage with family relations overseas) to share with our guests here in the New World.
A short reflection to share with you about what a timber frame is to us… a living structure made from the earth on which it stands… timber, rock, and iron. As natural as the skin on our bones. It bends with the wind, contracts and expands with the heat and the ice; it bears the changing patina of time and carries the scars of history. Authentic and genuine, it resists all things processed and artificial. It is a symbol of honesty in a world of facades. Ultimately, each timber frame structure tells the stories of the people who constructed and cared for it… and the history of the centuries it survived. Each with its own personality, it is a creature of legacy. Touch the warmth of the oak timber. These are not “just buildings” … these are timber frames.
Before we move up the tower, a brief description of the timber frame construction process may help put your experience in context. Notice the different techniques and timber dimensions used throughout to join the oak timbers together. All our oak is Virginia white or red oak. Remember, that our authentic timber frames, just as those of ancient times, are erected using only wood joinery. In the process of creating our timber frames, an impressive team of uniquely skilled professionals come together for many months to complete a single structure. All starts with Ralph’s general design and oversight. Then Shadow Mountain Escape’s Timber Framer, Dreaming Creek Timber Frame Homes, owned and operated by the Shortridge family out of Powhatan, VA get to work. The Timber framer proposes the detailed frame plan and, upon approval, then complete the frame production drawings. Conventional contractors are then called in to prepare the foundation and sub-floor for receiving the timber frame. After a final engineered stamp is obtained and the timber frame is milled, the joinery connections are checked at the milling site and then all oak components of the entire timber frame are loaded onto one or two flatbed tractor trailers for transport to the job site. At the job site, using forklifts and cranes, the actual timber frame is usually raised in less than one week (a beautiful sight to behold). Once the frame is in place a panel team (usually from New England) arrives and “wraps” the timber frame with state-of-the-art insulated panels. After the structure is closed in by the panel team, a steady Army of contractors from plumbers and electricians to carpenters and roofers work together to seam the conventional requirements with the very unconventional timber frame. It is this last part of the process that requires the most time and work. Much of the finishing work and maintenance of our structures is done by Ralph and Karen.
Upon entering the first level of the timber frame tower in Bear Dance Lodge, we hope you enjoy the collection of ancient European designs and materials. Note how the authentic oak timber frame joinery, with its vaulting and heavy beams, set the tone in this space… and is thus complimented by iron work, an Italian mosaic, a large Tuscan pot, a traditional Black Forest grandfather clock and canvas photo images of ancient timber frames and related architectural elements from Europe are displayed. It is at this point that we will now orient on the photo canvasses to continue our journey up the timber frame tower.
The Side Axe hanging on the wall above the front entry door is authentic. It was manufactured and used by our Blacksmith Jeff Crossman to shape the timbers on his original log cabin Blacksmith shop. With its heavy head, razor sharp edge, and ergonomically specific design, this is a very specially designed tool that is just as the axes of early times would have been built to shape trees into square timbers for construction. This is the “miracle tool” that made the timber framing revolution of the past possible.
Although very few original timber frame structures from the middle ages still exist, 16th and 17th century timber frames such as this one in Northern France still carry over many of the classic patterns and designs. It is common for an ancient timber frame to sag and bend. Early European timber frames had very small windows (many without glass… as animal skin and other methods were used to cover windows when necessary). The structural framing patterns could be simple or complex as the skill level in creating joinery among guild carpenters was very high. The size of an early timber frame was determined by quality and resources available, wealth of the owner, and purpose of the structure.
Good lumber was already relatively expensive and in high demand by the middle ages, so Carpenters became very good at joining odd shapes, sizes, reclaimed lumber and wood of different species. Oak was always a favorite. Although simple hand saws existed in the middle ages, most hueing of lumber to make structural timbers was done using the axe and side axe. Augurs, picks, hammers (giant wooden hammer called a beetle) and various other small sharp iron tools were forged to create the details of the joinery. Just as in our timber frames, wooden dowels were critical in linking the joinery together.
The walls of ancient European timber frames were comprised of small and few window openings, wood, waddle, timbers (the outside face of structural timbers); and, sometimes masonry. The waddle or masonry fill was almost always plastered, and lime washed. This gave the buildings that famous rustic “fairy tale” appearance often showcased in films and books that aim to capture the atmosphere of old Europe.
In many ancient towns and cities in Europe, such as this street scene in Normandy France, ancient timber frames can still be seen sporadically arrayed alongside grand buildings of the baroque or empire period. To this day, Europeans continue to value the charm and architectural quality that the old timber frames bring to their cityscapes. Great efforts are made to preserve them into the future. More so than any other buildings, the ancient timber frames keep the stories and traditions of a culture’s past alive.
This image is the Knight’s Hall in the castle at Chinon, France. Although, as was the case with most medieval castles, this castle was destroyed in war and fire on multiple occasions. As one of the safe haven fortresses for Richard “the Lionheart”, son of Elenore of Aquitaine in the 12th Century, Chinon was a major hub for trade and war and the city still showcases many ancient buildings, including timber frames, from the middle ages and the renaissance. The accurately reconstructed Knight’s Hall shown here displays the interior timber framing typical of the time.
On the walls of this ruined fortress just outside the medieval hilltop town of Todi in Umbria, Italy, the many “pockets” for the timber-framing structure of the fortress are obvious. The “pockets” were essential to joining the timber framed elements and superstructure to the masonry walls. This was a stunning ruin long forgotten that required a thorny hike up a hill through brush to access. Standing in this medieval ruin was haunting and inspiring… imagine the stories it could tell.
Germany’s Burg Eltz is one of the few late medieval castles that remains almost in its original state. This castle was never destroyed in siege or bombed in war and has been maintained very much as it has always been by relatives of one of the earliest nobility owners of the castle. It stands as a great example of how the timber framed elements make up much of the castle’s superstructure. Because this castle was more of a “palace” than a fighting fortress (thus, increasing its odds for survival through the warring years), it was built to show-off the beautiful timber framing and architecture. In truth, by the late 12th century the timber framing in castles was mostly hidden behind exceedingly thick masonry walls due to the advancement of war machines to fire projectiles and fire.
This old French timber frame truly bears the weight of time. Clay, slate or wooden tiles were typical roofing materials in the middle ages and the renaissance period. The artistically wonderful thatched roofs were also common and can still be seen on ancient timber frames in many parts of Europe even today. This timber frame has many external artistically carved wood panels and columns. In the day, a reminder that the owner was a person of means who could afford such extravagance.
This building in Denon, France was part of a row of ancient timber frames leading down a cobble stone road from the town to the river. Amazingly, half of this true medieval timber frame from the 1400’s survived a German artillery strike as the German unit retreating the American advance during WWII shelled it because they thought it held an enemy observer. The exposed joinery is magnificent and shows a true example of medieval joinery.
Inside a beautiful old timber frame in Denon, France, these original timber framed stairs are 500 years old. The wood of these surviving ancient timber frames is always very dark in color (sometimes black) and hard as rock. Many have survived multiple fires and seemingly endless wars. For this reason, today, the magnificent timber framed “world” of old Europe only shows itself in brief examples across old town cityscapes.
The masonry foundations of ancient timber frames typically incorporated carvings, frescoes, colored paint, etc. Faces like this one often depicted faces of people of significance to the history of the structure such as the owner’s family and friends. The external art and decoration of medieval timber frames could be extensive and even, gaudy (to our eye today), as those who could afford to build such structures often expressed their status and wealth through grand and artistic expression.
The external timbers of ancient timber frames often did not escape the desire to artistically express. This is a typical decorative carving on the outside wall of an old timber frame. Elaborate structures often depicted biblical stories and scenes, as well as legends and folklore.
To the left on second flight of steps
We love this biblical scene found on the foundation wall of an old timber frame. Notice that Mary’s Joseph (who was a carpenter) has an axe over his shoulder. We wonder how many timber frames he may have raised! Many of these old frescoes were recovered under centuries of wall plaster, whitewash, and paint. Thanks to preservation efforts, more and more ancient art is being freed for viewing.
Looking out from the crypt of a gothic cathedral from the 12th century, some preserved examples of the kinds of frescoes and colors that were used on masonry to adorn structures of the time can still be observed. The great cathedral building period of the middle to late middle ages also represented the height of medieval timber framing. The guild craftsmen who constructed these magnificent structures were true masters of the art. Masons and Carpenters in the middle ages worked as apprentices for many years under a Master until they perfected their skill.
To the left on second flight of steps
This stunning castle ruin is in the countryside of central France significant throughout human history as caves just below this castle are renowned for cave drawings from prehistoric man. Also, an active and dangerous location during the middle ages, the castle was destroyed in war. This castle would have had a magnificent timber framed superstructure and town all around it. Although the town still has remnants of the old streets and structures, the castle is nearly destroyed except for the defensive walls and parts of the main tower. The defense of earlier castles like this became almost impossible by the later middle ages as siege engines and trebuchet type machines became so advanced that the vertical and relatively thin walls (even though they were often over 8 feet thick) could not withstand a siege. In the 15th Century, gun powder and artillery changed everything, no exposed timber framing could survive and the classic “fairy tale” castle morphed into a heavy squat structure with sloping walls. There was no more tolerance for aesthetics… just survival in the age of artillery.
This is one of our all-time favorite ancient timber frame joints. Note how various rough-hewn pieces of timber have been finessed together to create this load bearing joint. Classic hand axe cut pegs are used to pin it all together. This has stood strong for centuries. The mastery of the art required to accomplish a structural joint like this (using hand tools) is astounding. The rounded lobes, clearly cut as an aesthetic solution to locking this joint in place are unusual; and, in their day, were clearly a bit of “showing off”.
As part of a wall from a 15th century French timber frame structure near Portier, this detail reveals a classic method for filling the spaces between the timbers to make the wall of the structure. As you can see here, sticks are cut and inserted into small notches hacked out on the inside of the timbers. The sticks are bent and held in place under their own pressure to make essentially a stick lattice which is used to pack the waddle into. The waddle is usually some combination of dirt, clay, straw, horsehair, etc.… then all is smoothed out, let to dry, and then plastered and lime washed white.
Hopefully, at this point you are sitting on the leather couch looking up at the roof timbers. The roof you see above is no different from the type of timber frame roof that one of our medieval ancestors would have looked up into. Although a novelty in modern construction, the art of the joinery and the massive spanning and load bearing timbers were essential to the building of people, communities, and societies going back thousands of years. It is no stretch to say that the rustic art of timber framing contributed greatly to who we are and the development of the world that we know. From Egyptian barges to Viking Long Houses; to Medieval Manor Houses, Town Houses and Castles; the grand timber frame structures of the past still stand to remind us of who we are and from where we come. The humble timber frames at Shadow Mountain Escape honor this great art of the past and all those who labored and expressed their lives and stories through the time blackened joints and timbers. Maybe someday our Shadow Mountain Escape will enrich others of the stories of our time… as we are enriched by the few ancient timber frames that still stand to tell us theirs.
We hope you enjoyed your journey!
Ralph & KarenPrintable Tower Guide Here