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VMI Engineering Teacher Takes Students Back to Timber Framing

Civil engineers build roads, bridges, canals; heavy-duty stuff. It’s what you’d expect to learn at a school with a strong engineering program, like at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. One civil engineering professor there has taken the construction process way back for his cadets – we’re talking thousands of years – by teaching them how to timber frame, in the process exposing them to a much wider world. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler has the story.

It’s a sunny Monday, and Colonel Grigg Mullen, Jr., a professor of civil engineering at VMI, is teaching his wood engineering class to a group of cadets out on the parade grounds. The cadets, clad in crisp, white uniforms with high, tight haircuts, are tasked with assembling a small-scale timber frame—a wood frame the size of a shed erected without nails. Or walls.  Or the use of any modern tools beyond a mallet and pegs. They have one hour to do it.

Colonel Mullen, dressed in camo, is joined by his longtime friend and timber framer Bob Smith – long hair, ponytail. Smith owns a small building company in Lexington. Together, they’re teaching the cadets a centuries old craft in which a minimum of pre-cut, heavy timbers lock together with wooden pegs to form a structure. Think of it as old time-y, artisanal construction. It’s very natural and very strong.

COLONEL MULLEN:  Up until 1850 timber framing was just called carpentry because that’s just what it was.  And then they invented wire nails…

In some ways, timber framing is not what some of these engineering cadets thought they’d be learning at a place like VMI. It’s so pre-industrial. But that was exactly Colonel Mullen’s point.

MULLEN:  A number of them have been exposed to normal “stick” construction—

“Stick” construction – that’s what timber framers call structures made with those new fangled nails and a whole bunch of smaller 2x4s. You know, “sticks.”

MULLEN: —Okay, yeah, you cut things to length, you nail it together…but the timber framing is odd.

A timber framed home costs roughly 30 percent more than conventional construction, says Bob, but aesthetically, it can’t be beat.

BOB SMITH: There’s richness to it. When you walk into a timber frame home it just excites your senses. It’s beautiful to look at. It’s inviting to touch. And depending on how fresh it is, there’s even a great smell.

Every Spring since 1997, VMI’s timber framing club, under the direction of Colonel Mullen and his wife Cindy Mullen, spearheads a philanthropic building project somewhere around the community: timber framed picnic and shade shelters, pergolas, softball dugouts. Every year the projects grow bigger and more involved, with seasoned timber framers flying in from all over the place – England, Canada, Boston – to help out. Crews have grown from 60 to 150. If you think that means the non profits hosting the builds funds 150 hotel rooms, think again.

MULLEN: Nope, that means a flat dry place to throw down a sleeping bag. The back creaks a little more when you’re sleeping on the floor.

What do all these skilled artisans not affiliated with Lexington get out of it? Experience, camaraderie and the chance to timber frame. 

SMITH:  We bring different cultures, different age groups together. It’s something that a lot of people don’t have an outlet for or another opportunity to experience. 

MULLEN:  All I promise them is that we will work them very hard and we will feed them and they keep coming back.

The annual builds are a display of cultures colliding; clean cut military types like Colonel Mullen swinging mallets and hauling timber with “aging hippies” – his words, not mine – like Bob.  Again, that’s part of Colonel Mullen’s master plan.

MULLEN:  Another one of the sneaky ideas to doing the timber framing was to introduce cadets to people like Bob who are very skilled but not through a college degree program. But if you’re going to be any good as an engineer you have to be smart enough to shut the heck up and listen every now and then and there are a whole lot of people out there who have a lot to teach you who aren’t in your formal education process.

MICHAELA WRIGHT:  We have a lot of people like Bob who teaches us not only how to use the tools but also how to see what looks right.

That’s Senior Michaela Wright, a civil engineering major and one of the leaders of the timber framing club.

WRIGHT: We cut all the wood by hand with chisels and hammers and all that fun stuff.

It all started back in the mid ’90s when a visiting history professor specializing in medieval artillery approached Colonel Mullen about building a trebuchet. That’s the fancy way of saying, “catapult.”

MULLEN:  We got a bunch of aging hippies to help us build a weapon, which kind of tweaked their karma a bit. And after that we’ve been doing public service projects ever since to square ourselves away with the aging hippies.