Tom Vanderhyden – Master of a Traditional Craft
Tom and I stood in the middle of the room and looked up. The space was large and yet comfortable, defined by the wooden posts, beams, walls and trim. There was a warmth that filled the space all the way to the peak.
I have spent many hours in this 20 x 26 foot timber frame-structure, much of that time playing music, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone just listening to the beauty of mandolin or guitar notes resounding off the walls and ceiling.
In timber- frame construction, beams and rafters that are the building support are fitted together with intricate joinery, and they are exposed, a visible part of the space they create. I always enjoyed being in this room, the beauty of its construction creating a warm, inspiring atmosphere. The room is a studio built over a garage at the house of a friend, and it is so beautifully and artistically crafted that being in this room is like inhabiting a piece of fine furniture.
This studio building, one of at least a dozen timber-frame projects with which Tom Vanderhyden has been involved, was built in partnership with Jim Smith, another Wisconsin woodworker living in the Kickapoo Valley at that time. Building began in the summer of 1988. Now as I stood with Tom, I wanted to know more about the process of timber -frame building and how this particular building was constructed.
There are many ways to frame a building, to erect the supporting elements that will hold the roof, walls, and floors of the finished sheltered space. In timber-framing, the “framework,” the structural supports, are made of heavy posts that can support great weight, connected with heavy beams that can span great distances. The posts and beams fit together with simple interlocking parts that unite the structure.
With chisels, mallets, drill, and saws, Vanderhyden and Smith transformed a stack of select Douglas fir beams into the three main sectional supports of the building. The sections are called bents, each bent a pair of vertical posts that hold up the roof rafters, boards which run from the top of the posts to the peak of the roof .
The corner posts are joined horizontally by a girt. Girts, posts, and rafters meet at the corners where they are joined and pegged together with wooden pegs. The girt that spans the twenty foot width of the middle bent of this room is a magnificent 8 x 12 inch Douglas fir beam that sturdily defines two spaces: beam to the floor ten feet below and beam to the ceiling ten feet above.
The bents form the two end sections of the structure as well as the middle section in this three bent building. The rafters of the three bents are held stable by purlins that span the distance between the bents. The 4 x 8 inch beams in the Studio are joined to the rafters with dovetail joints.
Collar ties hold the roof rafters together near the peak of the roof, and knee braces form the hypotenuse for each of the ninety degree corners, assuring the stability of the structure. The gleaming white basswood ceiling boards in the Studio room are fastened to the top side of the rafters and purlins, leaving the beams exposed. The whole presents a pleasing array of earth tones, beauty and functionality the hallmark of timber-frame construction.
Seeing the whole structure in place, I marveled at how the separate parts could possibly have been hoisted and placed with such precision, given their great weight and intricate construction. The three bents, which had been built horizontally, at ground level, were hauled to the deck of the new building and raised into their vertical positions by a boom truck. With sturdy braces to hold them in position, the purlins were fitted into their dovetail joints on the rafters and the knee braces were pinned.
Tom’s first timber-frame job was the construction of his own house in 1979, a project he began as a novice, learning as he went. It was the first house Tom had built, and in his direct fashion, he chose to build with posts and beams because, he said, “It was the simplest.”
By 1988, he had mastered the process and could move quickly through the steps of joinery for bents, which were laid out and joined and pegged on the ground.
The time consuming aspect of the work is actually in the design process and the drill and chisel work to complete the joinery. Once the bents are constructed on the ground, a two or three week job in the case of the Studio, the actual raising is done in a fraction of the time.
To raise the bents on earlier jobs, Tom had assembled volunteers, friends who came for the house raising and helped lift the bents. With human muscle power and ropes, the bents were raised into position and the heavy beams were lifted up onto scaffolding and then put into place.
In this more recent building of the Studio, the bents were raised with the help of a machine. Tom said the bents for the entire frame of this building were put into place and pinned together in one long day.
It is always interesting to learn how a craftsperson comes to the work and develops the necessary skills. Tom began his first house building project knowing about basic building construction, but without any other particular experience in the craft of woodworking. He needed a house, and as he worked to build it, he found deep interest in the craft.
He credits Malcolm Greeley for introducing him to the world of fine woodworking. Soon after Tom finished his house and established a home with his wife Connie, he began working with Greeley, who at that time had a shop in rural Blue River, Wisconsin, where he made Windsor chairs.
A master in this craft, Malcolm started Tom making spindles for the chair backs and found a kindred spirit. Tom moved from spindle making to assisting with steaming and bending of other chair parts, and soon he was participating in the complete process of chair construction. He had discovered his passion for working in wood.
Acquiring his own tools and eventually starting a woodworking shop of his own, Tom began making furniture that was influenced by the simple and elegant form of the classic Windsor chair, and his work was eagerly sought after by a growing clientele. Chests, cabinets, doors, and tables soon made their way from his shop to homes throughout the region, his style influenced by the chairs of his early training and by the simple and practical lines of the timber-frame building.
Today Tom Vanderhyden shares shop space with a luthier near Blue River, Wisconsin, and there he continues to build simple, practical and beautiful furniture, doors, and lamps of wood.
The five nesting tables in the Studio room are a recent example of Tom’s custom woodworking. These polished tables, his original design based on a Shaker motif and made from locally harvested red elm, grace this beautiful room. With the Douglas fir beams, basswood paneling, and red elm window frames, these tables combine to create a pleasing blend of earth tones that soothe one’s soul.