Timber Framing Course Portugal

During our volunteering stint in Portugal this year, we have seen many different types of structures and buildings that have been built with natural materials and using various techniques. One technique that has interested me is timber framing. This traditional technique requires skilled builders that use green timber from local fallen trees with no nails, screws or cement.

timber framing course
Our group standing by the three ‘bents’, that will be joined together by a top beam to make a timber frame for a house.

This course was based at the Terra Alta community in Sintra and hosted by local Portuguese builders that had a broad range of natural building skills, specifically timber framing. We were building a small house made from timber for two community members to live in with bedrooms, a bathroom and a living room.

yoga portugal
Some of the group joined me for yoga in the woods outside my tent in the mornings

The foundations were natural stone with no concrete. These huge stones were placed on top of a half metre of gravel and smaller stones, that were in place for drainage. This seems to be the most ecological and long lasting method for building a house. The stones prevented any water saturating the posts which can cause them to degrade and rot and we want to reduce the use of cement as it is completely unsustainable. I met an engineer from a cement factory once and he told me that the amount of carbon and other damaging chemicals that are released into the environment when cement is manufactured is huge. 

raising a timber frame house
After we created one of the bents and had a couple of late nights finishing the job off, there was a big team effort to raise the bent

There were 20 of us on the course from all round the world. We first got the designs for the house and a plan on how we were going to build it. We split into three teams and each of us would work on one bent. A bent is the side of the house which has the three posts and the top timber that links the three together. There is also another bent for the middle of the house, and the other side. There are also bents that are joined together by joining timber. 

timber frame bent
The team with our instructors, after constructing bent #3

The house is built without the use of nails and screws and is built to last. All of the timbers were extremely big, either 20cm x 20cm or 15cm x 15cm and joined together by hand chiseled joints, called a tenon, mortise or duck tail joint. We learnt how to use the timber framing chisels to make these joints, and also used some power tools to help speed things up.

Tenon and Mortise joints
Tenon joints (at the end of the beam), fit into mortise joints (the holes)

Anyone who attends a timber framing course will be able to select timber, cut out the joints and put a frame together. It’s not that hard but it requires precise measurements and due diligence to make sure that you cut the joints in the right place. We will definitely be using these building techniques at Keela Yoga Farm as well as other natural building techniques as the buildings last longer and tend to use local materials, making them more sustainable.

timber framing bent
The team chiseling away at the joints

This course was part of the Permaculture Intensive that Doug Crouch was running at Terra Alta, and it was great catching up with him on our plans. There was a great community feel at this place due to the owner Pedro’s experience in keeping the vibe in check. We all ate together, cleaned up together, slept in the same camp site, visited the local area and local cafe and watched the Euro football finals which Portugal won, at the local pub. It was a great learning experience, and I hope to start putting the skills that I have learnt into practice soon.

terra alta portugal
DIY solar dehydrator on the right, DIY solar water heater for the shower in the background. Everything else is an ubundant food forest in the making at Terra Alta, Portugal

website: www.terralta.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *