ALSTEAD – Early Thursday morning, the old Benson woodworking shop seemed especially quiet, with fresh snow muffling any sounds that might otherwise be heard from the surrounding woods. Painted in faded red, it looked, at first glance, like a barn, with a few additions built on its west side.
Soon, however, the building plans will undoubtedly bring new life, noise, people and stories to the workshop, which should be the base for students, professionals and enthusiasts of the framing craftsmanship in drink. Last week, Walpole-based construction company Bensonwood announced that the Timber Framers Guild of North America, along with the Guild’s Heartwood School, would soon be moving into Alstead’s workshop.
Inside the studio Thursday morning, Tedd Benson – owner and founder of Bensonwood – and his wife, Christine, were seated at a conference table in one of these additions. The room, with exposed beams, was built as part of a timber framing course Tedd had taught. And through a large window at the back of the room, there’s a view of the cabin he built when he and Christine first moved to the area and lived there for nine years. (They now live next door, in a house visible from the workshop through the leafless trees.)
Though modest, many point to the workshop as the home of the wood-framing revival, a craft that was once a key feature of the New England landscape but had largely fallen into disuse by the turn of the 20th century, Tedd said. The historic construction method is to build using heavy lumber and nailless joinery.
Prior to the 1860s and 70s, timber framing was an extremely popular construction method, especially in New England, according to Tedd Benson. It was a time before nails and sawmills, when lumber was hewn by hand and wooden dowels and joints secured entire buildings. As a young carpenter working on old structures in New England, Benson noticed the beauty and durability of timber framing, but found no one to teach him how to build such structures himself.
So, in the early 1970s, he and his brother Steve started asking locals if they could take a look around their old barns and attics. When the opportunities presented themselves, the brothers deconstructed the buildings.
“Deconstructing was the perfect way to learn,” Benson said Thursday. “How they broke up is how they go together.”
But at that time, there were financial constraints.
Here’s a Benson myth: Tedd and Christine moved to New Hampshire in the early 1970s with $ 40 in their name, then spent $ 25 on a dog. The details may be a bit hazy, but the truth was the couple didn’t have a lot of money (and they bought a dog). And they certainly didn’t have the money to build a workshop with new materials.
So in 1974 Tedd Benson built his own studio, putting together pieces of local architecture – beams from an old mill and a railroad trestle, windows from a renovated house, timber from old barns of neighbors. The entire workshop is the result of salvage and trading, Benson said.
Two years later, the Bensons company completed its first complete wood-frame structure for very important customers – Christine’s parents in Deering. A few years later, Benson wrote his first book – “Building the Timber Frame House: The Revival of a Forgotten Craft” – and he started teaching. From there, there was only more momentum.
“There you go, the idea of the wood frame was taking root all over the country,” Benson said.
In 1983, Tedd Benson invited a handful of other carpenters to Alstead, and on the second floor of this reconstructed workshop, with great enthusiasm and energy, they began to organize what would eventually become the Timber Framers Guild, a he declared. .
Today the guild is an educational organization, according to board chairman Bo Foard.
“We’re seeing this ultimately as a facility that we’re going to expand and make even more of a home for the guild,” he said, “and will house the legacy of the people who are members of the guild.”
In 1995, the Timber Framers Guild held its first conference at Shaker Village in Hancock, Mass., According to the Bensons.
“We didn’t know if anyone was going to show up,” Christine said with a laugh. But somewhere between 60 and 70 people turned out, the couple said, and today the guild has around 1,500 members.
In 2000, Bensonwood outgrown the workshop and moved to facilities in Walpole and Keene. Alstead’s workshop was then used for woodworking, to create assets such as stairs, doors and cabinets. But a few years ago this operation also exceeded the capacity of the workshop, and the building has been largely unused since then.
Christine Benson is a board member of Heartwood School in Washington, Mass., Which the Timber Framers Guild acquired in 2020. When she learned that the guild was preparing to launch a fundraising campaign to build a new facility , she thought her family might be able to offer a better solution.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” she said. She came up with the idea about two months ago, and the Guild and Heartwood School plan to start moving into Alstead’s workshop on Saturday.
The guild headquarters has rebounded for years, depending on who the executive director is, never finding a permanent home, Tedd Benson said. The group was recently based in Easthampton, Mass.
The Timber Framers Guild bought Heartwood School two years ago, and the institution is nearing the end of its lease next year. The guild wanted to find a space that could accommodate more students more frequently, according to general manager Neil Godden.
The timber framing school runs classes from May to June on everything related to timber framing, such as the use of hand and power tools, felling trees and converting them to timber, using the SketchUp design program, including woodwork and elevating frames. There is a four-week crash course, a course specifically for women, and courses for non-woodworking trades, such as building concrete counters and earthen ovens.
Godden took his first course at Heartwood in 1997.
“It’s very addicting, at least for me,” he said. “I fell in love with the timber frame the first time I did it. “
In its last session, Heartwood School enrolled more than 230 students, ranging from retirees and homesteaders to those developing careers in timber framing. The school has 16 instructors.
By moving to Alstead, Heartwood will likely have the opportunity to expand its course offerings, Godden said. Where the school is now, the building is not fully insulated and cannot operate in winter. The Bensonwood Workshop, on the other hand, is kept warm year round by burning wood waste from the lumber.
Classes will be offered at the Massachusetts site next year, but students can expect to register for classes at Alstead in 2023, Godden said.
The original Benson carpentry shop is what Foard, a West Chesterfield resident, describes as “the sacred grounds of the timber frame.”
“It means a lot to have that place and that history and that timber framing heritage there,” he said. “Our members and board are also very excited about this – it was so good, it suited so well.”
The workshop is a place that seems to be filled with people. There is a small kitchen and above the sink is a shelf full of mismatched cups and a reminder asking people to wash the dishes; books and magazines with large photos, illustrating structures that lie at the intersection of engineering and art; tool outlines are sketched on the wall to indicate where wrenches and saws should be returned; a sign reminding everyone who walks in to “Wear your safety glasses – better plan than not see”.
Standing in the middle of the workshop on Thursday, Christine Benson recalled all the space has seen over the decades – not just the work of carpenters and carpenters, but also the many parties that have brought together dozens of friends and neighbors, and even two marriages.
“I am so happy that he will have another chapter in his life,” she said. “It almost looks like fate.”