WHY WE ARE PAINTING OUR TIMBERS WHITE

I have had good friends become dumbstruck because of something we are doing as we build our unmilled, timber frame house.

Everyone forms an image when you say timber frame.  They see massive posts and beams stained to a golden glow, criss-crossing and defining a space.  And what you’ll see in all of the previous houses that Whole Trees Architecture and Construction has built, using their signature unmilled and sculpturally beautifully-branching timbers, is a similar  earth-toned stain finish to the wood.

Well, Underhill House is taking a different tack.  Our timbers are being painted white, and some well, probably most of the people I have told have a startled and negative initial reaction.

Even Doug and I have had moments of doubt.   But over time, we’ve become convinced this is a great choice, and we’re winning over supporters as well.

Fabulously dynamic wood grain patterns can be formed when saws cut across  annual growth rings of tree trunks.  But unmilled timbers don’t have any grain because we are deliberately not cutting through them.  What unmilled timbers do have are unique shapes and surface textures.  Each type and each individual timber is different – even each pine and spruce has it’s own character, which I became exquisitely aware of as I methodically sanded my way through dozens and dozens of them.

The natural surface of most timbers has a mottled color because of their individual growth habits and the way fungus and molds have grown on their surface after being peeled.  It’s a pleasing look, but if these timbers are stained instead of painted, the color variations act like camouflage which masks the subtle surface texture.  When painted white, yes, the color variation is removed, but a remarkable variation in texture pops into relief.

Truth in advertising, this rich texture was a bit of an unanticipated bonus to the painting process, and we’re very happy to see it.  But the original reason for choosing paint over stain is that there are a number of wood types in our timber, and they all take stain differently.  The “look” can get more than a bit busy.  Besides, we will have some great live-edged slabs of wood making up stair treads, window seats and shelving, and the grain in those pieces will indeed be highlighted throughout the house, all the more so with the non-grain unmilled timbers painted uniformly white with their rippling texture on display.

Before smoothing.

After smoothing.

Prepping these timbers has been a labor of love.  Most of the pines and spruce that will make up the joists and rafters were peeled standing last summer.  But the oaks, black walnut, elm and cherry that are destined to be posts and beams were too tall and complex in shape to reach with our peeling equipment while standing and have had to be peeled after felling.

After peeling, angle grinders were used to smooth the places where branches were cut off, and then they were power sanded.

At that point, the pines and spruces were ready to be painted.  We found the best way to coat them smoothly was to work in groups of three.  One person would spray, and two of us would follow up with brushes to fill in any areas missed and smooth out any splattering.  (Our sprayer is temperamental.)

We started the same technique on the hardwoods, but small remaining pockets of  the cambium layer that hugs the sapwood underneath the bark  where bleeding through the primer.  So we went back and sanded more meticulously, diving deeper into these pockets and revealing a more highly textured surface to the timbers.  The process took days, and left me with a pair of pretty sore hands, but it was strangely satisfying to get the edge of the sander into a pocket and see a residual dark cambium powder come flying out till there was nothing but a series of smooth hollows following the natural shape of the wood.

We also switched to a more heavy duty primer before painting again.

Each timber has a coat of primer and two top coats, and they will need touching up when they are finally in place.  The fork lift that will carry them over to the house will be a little tough on the paint job.

But I think the final result is dazzling.  And I think many (not all) of the nay sayers who opposed painting natural wood will like what they see.

I have spent weeks and weeks with these timbers working with the Whole Trees crew, prepping them to this stage.

We are now just days away from starting to assemble them into the form of Underhill House, and I can hardly wait to see them come together into a gleaming white frame against the blue, blue May sky.

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10 replies

  1. I love the idea of painting the timber white. It will make your home stand out from all the cookie cutter stained homes. Another advantage is It will make the interior look a little larger and brighter.

  2. Thanks, Dan. I agree, it will feel larger and brighter, and as we are working with a pretty small space, that will be good.
    We also wanted to paint the woodwork white to create a less “woodsy” look and open of the idea of unmilled timber frame to people who like a more modern or urban feel to their interior.
    Whole tree construction is such a green idea, and we hope our house will inspire others to use this same building technique.
    Most people live in towns, and want a style that fits their life.
    I believe whole tree timber frame should be one of their options.

  3. Great idea! I love wood and the various grains, but I also think that it can be over done and too much grain takes away from the beauty of the individual grains. Adding the white will make it look brighter and “airier”. :o)

    • You are right on, Monique. That is exactly what Doug and I are thinking. I can hardly wait to see the timbers start to come together to put this theory to the test!

    • Thanks, Lorijo. Yes, it is very interesting. At first the crew working on the wood kept point out to us how interesting it looked natural, but as we have started painting, they have all commented on how the texture pops out on the white pieces. These guys were die-hard leave it natural proponents, and they are admiring it now. That makes me feel good. I would hate to have the crew working on a project that offended their sensibilities.

  4. I think the white timbers will be stunning. I ran into your blog looking for information on timber frame homes in Wisconsin. We’ll be on 38 acres, also in the driftless area with some similar building goals. Radiant heating, wood stove or fireplace, passive solar and LP backup. We’re considering geothermal. We have a bad old farm house we have to dispose of first. We’re still planning and it will be interesting to watch your progress.

    • Thanks, Aster.
      We were considering geothermal at first, but were guided away from that plan by the very knowledgeable people at Focus on Energy http://www.focusonenergy.com/.
      They said it would not be appropriate for us because our house is small, and we are not incorporating a whole house air conditioning system. Since then I have hear many people say that geothermal is seldom cost effective for home owners.
      I’m inclined to agree.
      I’ll be interested to hear how your project is going, please keep me in the loop.
      And, I just added a widget to make it easy to follow this blog. It’s in the upper right corner, just click the “follow” button. It will make it easy for you to watch our progress.

      • Thanks! We may make different decisions as we find out more things. For now, we still need to get rid of the old house, but we have a small orchard to tend, we’re gardening, tending a young walnut grove and eradicating invasive weeds and restoring some native plant communities. I never dreamed when we put in a strip of prairie in our Madison front yard that it would function as a nursery and seed bank for some of what we’re doing out there. I’d already subscribed by email. I’ll keep you posted as well.

  5. Prairie is powerful! I’m working on an article for Isthmus right now on wild places you can get to easily from Madison, and it’s amazing how many prairie remnants there are out there that have been snatched back from the brink of extinction.
    There is something about those prairie plants. They get in your psyche — even as remnants, they are an amazing ecosystem.

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