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.
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.
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.
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.