Building a Timber Frame Barn-The Foundation

Timber Frame Block Foundation Entrance FeaturedBuilding a Timber Frame Barn-The Foundation

Written By Chris

A while back my two daughters started asking about goats.  They wanted to keep and raise goats.  They wanted kids also.  We had no real place to put them.  We have a couple of small barns to keep beekeeping and gardening supplies, but nothing large enough for animals.  At about the same time, Nelle started talking about keeping chickens.  She likes fresh eggs.  We started looking at chicken houses and talking about where we could put one.  I started thinking about how I could build one and what it would look like. At the same time, I saw and bought a reprint of a barn design book called Barns and Outbuildings: And How to Construct Them, written in 1881 at the used book store.  This sparked the idea of building our own timber frame barn.

We could put the chickens in one section and have enough room for the goats.  I told the girls that if they wanted goats they would have to help with the timber frame barn.  It would take a couple of years because I did not want to quickly build a pole barn.  I wanted to have fun and learn how to timber frame.  Not only did I want to timber frame, I wanted to also use all of the historically accurate tools.  I also wanted the girls to learn something practical as well as some history. Nelle has wanted to start teaching classes on canning, hearth cooking, homesteading etc.  This would be the perfect avenue to start teaching outdoor classes.  I even figured that I would have something to share about timber framing. 
Timber Frame RootsThe girls helped with trimming roots out of the trench for the drain line, hauling gravel, moving concrete blocks, back filling dirt, and site clean up.  I tried to find tasks that they could physically handle, but would challenge their skills so that they would learn from the experience.  They also spent a great amount of time watching and asking questions.  I did make them lay at least one block using the trowel and level the block.  By the end of the foundation work, they said they were ready to start doing the wood work and never wanted to work with dirt again.
I began by promising the girls that I would have the foundation done by the fall of that year.  I thought about how to build the foundation through out the summer.  I came to the conclusion that the timber frame barn needed the advantages of a modern block foundation, but I wanted it to look historically accurate.  I decided to build a block foundation on concrete footers up to about ground level.  I would then have a sandstone foundation above ground level. It would give the strength of modern materials and the look of an old barn.  
 I started thinking about the wood for the timber frame barn and how we would acquire it.  I thought there were plenty of barns that were falling down where we could reuse the wood.  As I started looking, Nelle’s uncle, who runs a pig farm in West Milton Ohio, told us that he was going to take down an old barn, the pigs used, now that he had a more modern barn.  We took the opportunity to extract as much siding, beams, and supports as we could from the barn.  We brought it back home, but there was not enough good wood to complete the barn.  At that time, I bought a book detailing the timber framing process, Timber Frame Construction: All About Post-and-Beam Building by Jack A. Sobon and Roger Schroeder.  As I started to read, I realized that I could pull the wood I needed from the land we live on.  Unfortunately, the emerald ash borer has destroyed many trees on our property.  Lucky for the barn that they are still standing and have dried for about a year.  I decided to take down the trees and use them for the beams and supports for the barn.     
I decided that throughout the process we would be flexible on the design because I was not going to plan all the details ahead of time. We would take advantage of free or cheap materials where possible, but not sacrifice on a “cheap” barn in the end.  I wanted to focus on quality and historically accurate construction.  The process needed to be flexible with some planning to prevent major blunders,but needed to provide opportunities for improvement for quality and historic accuracy.  Throughout the process, I would need to acquire some timber framing tools and learn some some new skills.
I thought we could build a barn that would hold goats and chickens and maybe some rabbits in a 20′ x 24′ configuration.  I drew several configurations for the location of stalls in the building to make sure we would have room for everything we wanted. Nelle drew a few designs so she knew that she would get the features she was dreaming about.  In the end, we concluded it was the right size and could change the interior design after the barn was constructed.  We would have a central isle down the middle of the barn with the same orientation as the peak of the roof.  There would be stalls or coops on either side.  There would be a door at either end.  The roof would be a couple of feet higher than you would expect a single story barn  to be; so, there could be a loft to store hay and other equipment.  
Timber Frame Barn LocationI need a place to put the barn.  After talking with Nelle, we decided to place it near the garden barn where they could share the water line that we installed.  When the barn is finished, we will run a permanent electric line to both barns.  There is a path from the house to the garden barn that diverges in two directions and comes back together again in a circle to make the walk more interesting.  We decided to put the barn in the middle of the circle.  We measured and placed stakes to see what the placement of the barn would look like.  Nelle, the girls, and I came to the conclusion that this location would be perfect.  We could have a place for the chickens to free range while the goats cold eat all the poison ivy they wanted.  
Timber Frame Barn ExcavatorWith a plan in place, we started in late August by digging the trench needed for the foundation.  In this case, I went back on my promise of historically accurate tools and opted for the excavator.  I just couldn’t see digging that large of a trench by hand.  We spent a few evenings measuring and marking the location of the walls.  We have a lot of trees in the area and did not want to get into the roots killing the tree or complicating the dig.  I still had to remove several trees.  One because it was dead and two because they were leaning over where the barn was to be located.  One was a maple and the other a hickory.  They should be large enough at least to make good support beams.  I cut them in 10 foot sections and dragged them away to stack them.  It took one day to dig for the footers.  It was 40 inches deep to stay below the frost line and 16 inches wide.  The foundation wall is 8 inches wide which is half as wide as the footers.  We used the walls of the trench as the forms for the footers.  Because we have heavy clay as a sub soil, it was easy for the walls to keep their form in late August with no rain.  We used about half of the dirt from the foundation to help direct water in other areas of the property and seeded it in early September.
Timber Frame Barn RebarWe measured, leveled and laid out stakes in the trench to show the depth of the footers.  We used 4 stakes per side so we could easily see to level the concrete.  The footers are 6 inches thick which should be more than enough for the walls and roof.  There will be nothing supported except the walls and roof on the foundation.  Because we could not get a concrete truck back into the woods, we would need to hand mix all of the concrete.  I decided to use a wheel barrow and a hoe. Timber Frame Barn Concrete Footer I divided the continuous footer of a total length of 90 feet (20.5′ x 24.5′) into 8 pours connected by two runs of re-bar through the whole footer.  The corner pours were larger and about 18 bags of concrete while the straight sections were about 10 bags of concrete.  It took a weekend and a week of evenings to finish the footers.  The dimensions of the barn ended up being a little larger than expected because when I dug the trench, it was not perfect.  I needed to increase the dimensions to get the wall into the middle of the trench and make it perfectly square.
Timber Frame Barn Path 2When the footers were dug, we dug a trench from the barn past the pond to empty into the creek for a total of about 200 feet.  We used the current path that leads to the pond to dig the drainage trench.  We first scraped off as much gravel as possible to save it to put back on top when we were done.  We laid solid drain tile from the creek to the barn footer.  We then laid slotted drain tile around the barn to drain any water away from the foundation.  We also put a silt filter around the drain so dirt particles would not clog the drain.  Timber Frame Barn Center Drain TrenchWe dug a small trench about 8 inches deep down the center of the barn for two drains in the barn.  Each one will be about 1/3 of the way from the end of the barn.  We will tie the barn drains into the foundation drain when the wall is finished before we finish the back fill.  I back filled the dirt in the drainage trench after installing the drain tile.  I compacted it as much as I could with the excavator, but we still had a couple of sink holes after a couple of heavy rains.  We will use some of the extra dirt from the foundation to fill the holes before we cover the path with gravel.
Timber Frame Barn Block FoundationWith the footers set, we started on the block wall.   I originally planned on three courses of block, but needed four courses as the surrounding landscape had a slight slope.  The block needed to be slightly higher than the floor in the inside.  The dirt back fill on the outside could cover the block and slope away from the foundation.  We also plan to pour a concrete floor for the ease of cleaning for the animals.  The first course of 8″ x 8″ x 16″ block was laid directly following the plane of the footers.  The second course of blocks were the most difficult as I needed to make sure any mistakes in the leveling of the footers were corrected.  It took a weekend and a week of evenings for the second course.  The third and fourth courses went quickly.  It took about a week to complete.  We added vertical re-bar about every other block filled with mortar to help with the horizontal pressures on the wall.  Timber Frame Barn Block Foundation with gravelAs we built the wall, we back filled on either side of the wall with gravel (57’s) to help the drainage.  The top of the wall is covered with 4″ x 8″ x 16″ solid block to help support the timber sills.  As we built the wall, I would buy block and deliver it with our pick-up truck.  I could get about 30 blocks and 10 cap blocks in one load at a time because of the weight.  The wall blocks weigh 36 pounds each and the cap blocks weigh 33 pounds for a total load of 1410 pounds.  Each course would take 66 blocks; so, I made about 8 trips for all of the block.  I would buy mortar in 80 pound bags on the way home from work when we needed it.
Once the foundation was complete, we completed the center drain in the barn and finished the back fill of gravel around the foundation wall.  We spread the remainder of the foundation dirt up to the edge of the solid block and sloped it away from the barn.  We used the 411 gravel in the barn as a base for the poured concrete floor as it compacts nicely with the rock dust in the mix.  We used the excess gravel to help pave the paths to the barn doors.

Timber Frame Barn Drains


There were several options for a barn floor.  We could keep it dirt, lay gravel down or pour concrete.  We opted for concrete because of the ease of clean up.  With the integrated drains, a the floor can be hosed down and all washed down the drain which empties out below the pond.  We needed to pour the floor in one continuous pour which was too much for Nelle and myself even if we pressed the teenagers into service; so, we decided to contract that out.  I remained on sight while the concrete was being poured.
In order to prepare for the concrete floor, we removed the loose topsoil and any stumps that remained.  We then added several inches of 411 gravel with dust to compact tightly and make a good base for the concrete.  The drain pipe was left to stick out of the ground a couple of feet to keep the concrete from entering the drains.  The floor was sloped to both of the drains.  One drained the front half of the timber frame barn and the other drained the back half of the timber frame barn.  Once the concrete set up, I allowed the girls and the youngest to make imprints of their hands in the concrete.  I waited about a week for the concrete to harden before finishing the drains.
Timber Frame Barn Drain Hole
I first cut the drain pipe with a hack saw at the concrete level.  I made sure the pipe was level with the concrete even if the pipe was not exactly vertical.  I used a razor blade knife to trim the excess plastic from the pipe.  I then inserted the drain covers without cementing them in place so that I could remove and unclog the drain if necessary.  I then used an exterior caulk to fill any spaces around the drain so there will not be any place to catch dirt or water.
Timber Frame Barn Foundation

Because we want the timber frame barn to look like it is 150 years old, the modern foundation only barely extends above the level of the ground.  I ordered 5 tons of sandstone to complete the foundation wall a foot about the ground.  The wall needs to be tall enough to prevent water or insects from easily reaching the wood and causing damage.  There will be a front and rear door to the barn.  The main door on the front of the timber frame barn will be 6 feet wide to accommodate anything we might want to store.  The back door will be 3 feet wide in order to install a standard width door even though we will scratch build the door to keep with the theme.  I place stones on either side of the doors and allowed and additional 3 inches for standard framing.

About Chris

I grew up in the suburbs of Maryland. I spent most of my time outdoors with organizations like the Boy Scouts. I went camping every weekend and attained the rank of Eagle. I helped to start an Explorer post whose focus was high adventure. I was also a canoe guide and guided backpacking trips into the Greenridge State Forest. I spent a lot of time in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Western Maryland learning how to live off of the land and making the most of my survival skills. The balance of my free time was spent in Annapolis on boats, in the water, academics, and sports . As I graduated from college and started my career and family, it was difficult to find time to go out into the woods. I spent a number of years coaching lacrosse until I felt a yearning to return to the land. We bought a house and property in the country where I could spend time pursuing my dreams. With the encouragement of Nelle, I started homesteading from my point of view which meant projects such as a timber frame barn, a wood shed, a pond, a bridge, drainage for the water logged property, an orchard, perennial propagation, stone walls, and other building projects. My part in homesteading supports Nelle's part. My goal is to be self-sufficient on our property as well as enjoy doing it while keeping the property beautiful in the process.


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