It is one of the building industry’s most ancient arts and one Suffolk tradesman is keeping alive its time-honoured techniques. Professional Builder talks to Rick Lewis of Traditional Oak Carpentry about his work to preserve period properties.
Whilst it might not have been a revelation as significant as the road to Damascus it was certainly an ecclesiastical experience that would put carpenter Rick Lewis on a very different path in life. “As a young man, I was working as a chippie on some quite substantial new build sites when the company I worked for got a job renovating a church,” he recalls. “I already had an interest in history and working on a medieval structure opened up a whole new world of traditional building skills to me – and I’ve never looked back since.”
We caught up with the 53 year old on a mid-sixteenth century property in Bungay, Suffolk – a project typical of the repairs Rick will undertake. Here, elevated levels externally, and the addition of a concrete slab in the 1960s, has raised the floor levels inside the house, and left timbers subterranean, with the inevitable consequences for damp, fungal and insect damage. As a consequence of the sole plate occupying a level below the floor it has decayed and reduced in size, whilst the framing above had dropped causing some damage to the infill panels. “How we choose to approach a renovation will depend on what we find when we get into the structure of the building, because there will inevitably be generations of alterations to contend with. One of the repairs we’ve undertaken here involved removing two courses of brickwork, sliding in a new section of sole plate, fixing it to the uprights with mortice and tenon joints – using traditional hand cleft pegs – then building the brickwork back in.”
Heritage building work has developed its own vocabulary of solutions, and one that Rick subscribes to is a modern take on a timber lath and plaster substrate in the form of Savolit wood wool boards, and it is this that has been utilised to repair those damaged panels. “It’s actually spiralised wood that’s bound together with ordinary Portland cement,” he explains. “That’s not a material you would ordinarily use on historic buildings but, because it’s full of holes, it still allows a structure to breath, which is critical for timber frame. The panels are available in various thicknesses, it’s flexible enough to deform to irregular surfaces, and simply screws on with plastic washers. Used as a lining internally, or a cladding externally, it will provide a good key for lime plasters, and will help to stiffen and strengthen the timbers to which it’s fixed.”
Any initial encounter with a historic building will involve some detective work, first as to its age, but then to what subsequent work has been undertaken. A queen post roof puts this Suffolk property in the 1500s, and it uses a scarf joint throughout that was common in that century, but it’s been much modified since. In addition to his practical skills, Rick is able to communicate all of that information, and much more, to his clients in a Carpentry Condition Report. “A prospective buyer can often encounter issues in period properties that might scare them, and talking to someone like me, who understands those concerns, can often save a lot of problems in the future. Evidence of wood boring insects, for example, can often terrify a homeowner, but in truth most timber buildings of any age will exhibit signs of some kind of an infestation at some period in their history. What we can do is determine if it is an ongoing problem or past decay, and what action, if any, needs to be taken. Even if there is evidence of death watch beetle, for instance, it is invariably indicative of substantial levels of damp, and that is the issue that needs to be addressed first.”
Traditional Oak Carpentry specialises in the repair of structural timbers in old properties, whilst Rick’s company also commands a 5,000 sq ft workshop in Wetheringsett where they will fabricate high quality and bespoke timber frames for new builds. When it comes to that heritage work, experience and a hugely diverse range of projects, has built a formidable level of expertise.
“Every period of history has its own styles which inform how they would have been built,” concludes the Suffolk carpenter. “As well as that, there are substantial regional variations over a relatively small geographical area. We can encounter some very unusual joints in our work that site carpenters would simply not recognise. That’s not to denigrate what other carpenters might do, but there’s simply no need for them to know what a face bridled and edged scarf joint might be.
“Similarly, we’ve done a lot of work with historic tools, which are themselves antiques, because we’re not just repairing to make it look like it did previously, we’re often forensically and carefully employing the techniques that were used in that period. That’s why conservation is so fascinating, because it’s a subjective business that requires a case-by-case approach.”