I discovered the Heartwood School while attending the recent NWA Saratoga Woodworkers Showcase and wrote about it in my April 3, 2011 Chiefwoodworker’s Newsletter. All I knew about the school at that time is what I had seen at the show and read on its website. I sent the owner, Will Beemer, a copy of my newsletter and he wrote back inviting me to an active class. I took Will up on his invitation and visited Heartwood School on June 23, a damp and rainy Thursday.
Located in Washington, MA in the Berkshire mountains, Heartwood is run by Will and Michele Beemer. For the past 34 years Heartwood has been teaching students to design and build their own homes, mostly in timber frame construction.
Will has an extensive background in home design and construction, as well as teaching design and construction. He has taught at Cornell, Palomar College in San Diego and Colorado State University. He has written for Fine Homebuilding, Joiner’s Quarterly, Wood Design & Building, and Timber Framing. Michele is office manager, provides lunches for the students, is an on-site instructor and an author.
Heartwood has a full range of courses in design and construction that run from April through October. Courses include energy efficiency techniques, fundamentals of woodworking, traditional cabinetmaking, building a workbench for woodworking, converting trees to timber and much more. They even teach SketchUp for timber frame designs.
Using my GPS I managed to find a small sign on a wooded road in Washington, MA. It said simply – Heartwood. I turned onto a paved and winding drive, which turned to a dirt drive that broke out into a clearing. The view reminded me of a childhood campground. Nestled in the woods to my left was a timber frame building with a sign over the door, once again announcing I had arrived at Heartwood. To my right were two long tents, open on all sides, like the tents used for a country fair. Under the tents, and protected from the rain, were eighteen students, an instructor and owner Will Beemer; all busily working away on 7” x 7” timber frame beams.
Trucks and cars were scattered everywhere, randomly parked under trees and I saw no defined parking area. As I sat there looking for a place to park my truck Will approached, introduced himself and welcomed me to Heartwood. He gave me a quick orientation introducing me to students, staff and showed me the shop, classrooms, library and kitchen. The latter rooms all resided in the timber frame building, which was the first building the students constructed when the school was opened in 1978. Will and Michele were not the owners at the time, though Will was an instructor. In 1985 they purchased Heartwood and have owned and operated it since.
Heartwood’s business model is simple and elegant. It brings together property owners who desire a timber frame home, barn, shop or other structure with students who wish to learn timber framing. Sometimes the owner and student are one in the same.
The first half of the business model is an owner who contracts with Heartwood to design, mill and erect a timber frame for about $30 a square foot. This includes frame only; finish materials, pre and post construction are the responsibility of the owner. If the owner’s site is more than 1.5 hours from Heartwood, trucking and other costs may be extra. Timber frame materials are rough cut Eastern White Pine, un-planed. Since Heartwood is a school for woodworkers and all work is done by the students, the owner must accept occasional constructions flaws, though Heartwood does its best to hide such mistakes. From my observation I doubt this is ever a real problem. The work I saw was top notch.
The second half of the business model is students. They come from all sorts of backgrounds and experience levels. Some have never held a woodworking tool before or never made a wood joint. Some are experienced woodworkers but who have no experience in timber framing. Many are hobbyists who want to build their own timber frame and attend the school to learn how. Still other are professional woodworkers or construction professionals who want to expand theirs skills and trade. I counted two women wielding chisel and mallet in this class of eighteen students.
Sometimes a class is held without a contracted owner. In that case a modest sized timber frame is crafted on speculation, though finding a buyer never seems to be a problem. The class I visited was building a studio for a contracted owner. Raising day was Friday, June 24th, the day after my visit. But there didn’t seem to be any schedule pressures, nervousness or frenzied activity. All seemed to be in control. There was a large stack of completed beams and the work-in-progress seemed near completion.
My brother-in-law designed and built his own timber frame home and barn from hand hewn timbers. So I am familiar with the excitement of raising that these students had to look forward to. As I am writing this article on the 24th I am looking out the window at the rain coming down. Par for the course in the trades and a good lesson for the students.
My primary interest in woodworking is furniture crafting. The interest I share with these students, however, is hand tools and joinery. The dovetails, mortise and tenons I use in my joinery are not all that different from those used in timber framing with the exception of size (I will post a follow-on article on one unique and interesting joint used by these students). Most of the joinery these students use are cut by hand with a combination of handsaw, chisel, mallet, spokeshave and drawknife. To be sure, those joints are larger than one would use in a furniture shop, but they are used in very similar ways.
In my shop I use a power mortiser and I was surprised to see the timber framer’s equivalent sometimes used by the students. It is driven by electric motor and plunges in to the timber much like a plunge router would. However, instead of a square chisel and drill bit, the cutting blade is three – stacked side by side – chain saws. The beams used are 7” x 7” and the tenons are 1 ½” thick. So I suspect the chains are designed to be 1 ½” in width when stacked, and long tenons are formed with repeated plunges, though I failed to ask about this. A fence can be adjusted to place the tenon the appropriate distance in from the edge of the timber. It appeared to me that the “blade” could be plunged a little more than eight inches for a through mortise, or adjusted less deep for a stopped mortise.
Most of the mortises I saw were hand cut with a mallet and chisel. A couple of students were being instructed in the use of the power mortiser. So this may have been the one signal that the scheduled raising was requiring the use of more rapid methods, though once again I failed to enquire about this.
I was struck by the accuracy and smoothness of finish of the hand cut joints. Obviously not the kind of finish you would find in hand crafted furniture, but still I found myself needing to wipe my hand across the joints and marvel at the smoothness. I picked up a few tools and checked out the sharpness and found myself approving what my hand felt. As I studied the joinery I could see the light pencil lines that provided guidance for hand cuts. All in all I could relate to the work of the students and I even had a feeling of wanting to join in. That’s when Will came out of the timber frame building and yelled “Lunch”.
Lunchtime at Heartwood
When Will invited me to visit he said I should plan to arrive at noon and join he and the students for lunch. I had read about Michele’s fine cooking on the Heartwood website and I was eager to sample the food. My eagerness was aided by the fact that I was just plain hungry. Hunger is a feeling I get if I spend too much time watching others hard at work. So I joined the rush to the dining room.
Dining at Heartwood is cafeteria style and all the food is home cooked. I had a soup, sandwich and crab salad. If you are a New Englander there are three chowders of choice: clam, seafood and corn. I love all three and I thoroughly enjoyed Michele’s corn chowder and crab salad.
Over lunch I talked to several students I sat near. One was from a town not far from where I was born and raised and we shared news of that area. I learned that students stayed in B & Bs, hotels, friends homes or even commuted to Heartwood. Those I talked to came from all over New England and New York, though I suspect Heartwood draws from a much wider area as well.
After lunch I took more pictures, including the shop, library and classroom. The library has a wonderful collection of books on timber framing, general construction techniques, drawing, energy efficiency and many other home building related topics. If I go back to Heartwood I would like to spend some time in this library and get some titles for my own collection.
I said my goodbyes and thanked Will and Michele for the visit and lunch. I left feeling I had visited a woodworking school I could really enjoy and learn from. And I left with more questions than I had answers. So one day I hope to go back and talk with Will in more depth – and of course have another lunch.
I spoke to Michele on Friday late. She and the class had just returned from the raising. All went well and the class finished the raising early afternoon. Though it rained in my area the rain held off at the building site. The raising marked the end of the class. Eighteen students were going home newly proficient in timber framing. It doesn’t get much better than that.