What Is "Half-Timbered" Construction?

Medieval Tree Houses Expose Their Timbers

Half-timbered 16th century Little Moreton Hall, Tudor moated manor house in Cheshire, England
Half-timbered 16th century Little Moreton Hall, Tudor moated manor house in Cheshire, England. Photo by Martin Leigh/Britain On View Collection/Getty Images

Half-timbering is a way of constructing wood frame structures with the structural timbers exposed. A half-timbered building wears its wood frame on its sleeve. The wooden wall framing—studs, cross beams, and braces—are exposed to the outside, and the spaces between the wooden timbers are filled with plaster, brick, or stone. Originally a common type of building method in the 16th century, half-timbering has become decorative and non-structural in designs for today's homes.

Definition of Half-Timbered:

"Descriptive of buildings of the 16th and 17th cent. which were built with strong timber foundations, supports, knees, and studs, and whose walls were filled in with plaster or masonry materials such as brick."—Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw-Hill, 1975, p. 241

Where are half-timbered structures?

Until the fairly recent invention of rapid transportation, such as the freight train, buildings were constructed with local materials. In areas of the world that are naturally forested, homes made of wood dominated the landscape. Our word timber comes from Germanic words meaning "wood" and "wood structure."

Think of yourself in the middle of a land filled with trees—today's Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain, Switzerland, the mountainous region of Eastern France—and then think about how you can use those trees to build a house for your family.

When you cut down each tree, you may yell "Timber!" to warn people of its impending fall. When you put them together to make a house, you can stack them up horizontally like a log cabin or you can stack them vertically, like a stockade fence. The third way of using wood to construct a house is build a primitive hut—use the wood to build a frame and then put insulating materials in between the frame.

How much and what kinds of material you use will depend on how harsh the weather is where you are building.

Why is it "half" timber?

For economy, cylindrical logs were cut in half, so one log could be used for two (or more) posts. The shaved side was traditionally on the exterior.

A Construction Method Becomes a House Design:

After 1400 AD, many European houses were masonry on the first floor and half-timbered on the upper floors. This design was originally pragmatic—not only was the first floor seemingly more protected from bands of marauders, but like today's foundations a masonry base could well support a tall wooden structures. It's a design model that continues with today's revival styles.

In the United States, colonists brought these European building methods with them, but the harsh winters made half-timbered construction impractical. The wood expanded and contracted dramatically, and the plaster and masonry filling between the timbers could not keep out cold drafts. Colonial builders began to cover exterior walls with wood clapboards or masonry.

The Half-Timbered Look:

Half-timbering was a popular European construction method toward the end of the Middle Ages and into the reign of the Tudors.

What we think of as Tudor architecture often has the half-timbered look. Some authors have chosen the word "Elizabethan" to describe half-timbered structures.

Nevertheless, during the late 1800s, it became fashionable to imitate Medieval building techniques. A Tudor Revival house expressed American success, wealth, and dignity. Timbers were applied to exterior wall surfaces as decoration. False half-timbering became a popular type of ornamentation in many nineteenth and twentieth century house styles, including:

Examples of Half-Timbering:

Sources: Architecture through the Ages by Professor Talbot Hamlin, FAIA, Putnam, Revised 1953; American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994, p. 100

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Craven, Jackie. "What Is "Half-Timbered" Construction?" ThoughtCo, May. 4, 2016, thoughtco.com/what-is-half-timbered-construction-177664. Craven, Jackie. (2016, May 4). What Is "Half-Timbered" Construction? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-half-timbered-construction-177664 Craven, Jackie. "What Is "Half-Timbered" Construction?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-half-timbered-construction-177664 (accessed October 20, 2017).