Timber Framing on a Budget (Part 1)

I haven’t completely built my timber frame home yet. But I’ve done enough to find out what does and doesn’t work when it comes to framing up timbers for a home. Specifically, I’m referring to the tools. As a novice to the sport, I went in expecting to build a home for cheap since the timbers weren’t going to cost me anything. (I’m collecting logs from a recent pipeline right-of-way.)

Needless to say, I was horrified when I started to price some of the tools it would take to complete the task. I’m going to spend the first part of this subject by showing what the professional tools are and approximately how much they cost. In the second part, I’m going to show you what I’ve been using and how effective those tools are.

Of course one of the first things that comes to my mind when I think of timber frame tools is a good saw. There are a plethora of saws that are meant for this kind of job. Some are big and some are incredibly big. A good mid-range circular saw that has a great reputation is the Makita 5104 10 1/4″ saw. The max depth cut on this puppy is 3 3/4″ deep, which is pretty impressive, but if you were to go after an 8″x8″ timber with this thing, you’d still have a half inch of material to cut through to make a clean cut after cutting on both sides. It comes in at a whopping 450 bucks… Once again, these figures are approximate and are bound to change as time goes on or where you shop.

Another great 10 1/4″ saw that has a good reputation in the timber framing business is the Bigfoot brand. The price is very similar to that of the Makita. It’s a worm drive saw and excells when it comes to power.

Makita also makes a 16 15/16″ circular saw, but it just looks plain scary to me. I can only imagine the kickback this thing can provide if it got caught in some of the oak I’ve been cutting. These run around 6-700 dollars.

If you’re looking to cut through and 8″x8″ with one cut, you need either a worm drive saw with a chainsaw bar adapter or a “chain beam saw”. There are cheap chainsaw bar adapters on the market but I can’t speak for the accuracy of them. The chain beam saws are sexy but are a seriously expensive tool. I’m serious when I say that the chain beam saws are anywhere from 5 to 8,000 dollars. I’ll let you lust after it just a little bit here.

So that about covers the top of the line saws. I left out the bandsaws that are available but that’s mainly because I doubt they would be fast enough to even justify the price. The tools above are the ones the professionals use and have big reputations. (and price tags)

The other main job that comes with timber framing is mortising. With mortises comes very expensive tools. Though, not as expensive as the the chain beam saws. The most popular mainstream tools for cutting mortises are chain mortisers. They also look very similar to the chain beam saw. Average price on these is anwhere from 1500 dollars to 3500 depending on the brand you go for.

Even after you use one of these mortisers, you still have to clean up the mortises a bit with a chisel. If you plan to buy new timber frame chisels, prepare to fork out the cash. Not only will the chisels be expensive but those chisels call for a quality mallet as well. Quality chisels come in at around 150 bucks a pop. A good site for sourcing these chisels is timbertools.com. I’ll show what kind of mallet I went for in part 2.

No timber frame is complete without pegged joints so a quality drill and bits are in order as well. To do the job effectively, you need a high-torque, low rpm drill. The one that I went with and am overly satisfied with is the Bosch 1034 VSR high torque drill. It comes in at 200 bucks at home depot.

If you go to buy bits, I recommend Irwin bits. I’ll share much more on what bits I use in part 2, but trust me when I saw a quality bit is an Irwin bit.

So aside from planers and sanders, I think this about covers it. Finishing timbers is a whole separate subject alone and requires a very different tool set. For cutting the joinery on your timbers, these are the tools the pros use…. I, however, am not a pro. While I’ve spent a good bit of money on tools, I think it’s safe to say I’ve avoided thousands of dollars worth of tool debt.

Stay tuned for part 2.

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