Row of cows at farm in Shropshire

Marks of excellence – carpenters’ marks

14/11/22Marks of excellence – carpenters’ marks

We often find ourselves surveying some really intriguing old properties that bring to light some interesting findings. We were carrying out a survey at an old cottage in Bucknall in rural Shropshire when we saw some unusual marks in the vicinity of the property. We’ve already looked at the benchmark we discovered, but on the woodwork of this timber-framed cottage we also saw something of interest. Pictured here is a carpenter’s mark, a symbol expressed in Roman numerals. These can be seen in many timber-framed buildings and are actually an important part of the construction process.

Historical accuracy

Half-timbering refers to the construction process used to build these old properties. Before the advent of thermalite blocks, cavity walling and other modern innovations, many rural properties were built this way. Timber framing and half-timbering both refer to construction methods that involve wood as the principal construction element. It is the structure that forms the roof – as it does in many brick or stone buildings today – but also is a key component of the load-bearing aspect of the walls.

Timber-framing, or ‘post-and-beam’ construction, is rarely used nowadays, but was once a popular way to build dwellings of all sizes. The process uses heavy timbers to create a framework, which carefully slots together and is secured with wooden pegs. If the structural frame of load-bearing timber is left exposed on the exterior of the building it may be referred to as half-timbering. The infill panels are often brickwork, rendered plaster panels, or even wattle and daub. The country where this style is most prevalent is Germany, but there are many examples in the UK, especially in rural areas such as Shropshire and Cheshire. Properties built this way are often distinguished by their black and white décor, with the timbers painted black and the panels white.

Making their mark

Most timber-framed properties will have multiple pieces of timber that, to the untrained eye, are identical. The carpenters’ marks we found in the Bucknall property were on an oak truss. These carpenters’ marks were created with a race (or scoop) knife and used as tags, to distinguish the various elements of a timber frame. As the elements were made piece by piece from raw timber, the marks would indicate how the entire ensemble should be pieced together. It’s exactly the same principle used in something as simple as flatpack furniture, for example, with ‘affix tab A to tab B’ instructions. The various numerals would correlate to other elements of the timberwork, so the joiners could create the frame in-situ, piece by piece. The one on our oak truss probably dates from around the 17th century. It offers a fascinating insight into construction methods from times gone by and is also an interesting feature to highlight to its current or future owners.

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