Justin Dietrich is an M&T reader and woodshop teacher in Lincoln, Illinois. Inspired by timber framer Rob Hughes and the CSF timber-frame project here in Maine, he decided to explore the possibility of working with his high-schoolers to design, build, and raise a timber frame in a local park. Dietrich was kind enough to share their experience with us.
“I decided to use just my "Advanced Woods" students on this project, as these students had already taken my “Introduction to Woods” course where we build a picture frame, a box, an end grain cutting board, and turn a bowl on a lathe,” he said. “Right before our Christmas break (2021), we began prepping for the timber frame project.”
After getting his school, the city, and a local tree service on board, Dietrich and his students got to work. “Despite having raised frames before, once all the material was delivered for the 12'x16' simple king post frame, the project became a bit overwhelming with finding space for the timbers, and just exactly how I would get 16 students to buy into cutting this frame every school day for the next 4 months.” But the excitement grew.
“We started with basic square rule layout, to try and keep things as simple as possible,” Dietrich said. “Teaching students how to find a reference face and think of the “perfect timber inside the timber” was challenging to students who had literally just learned what a timber even was.” The learning curve was steep for these students, and mistakes were made but overcome. “But just as my father taught me growing up, ‘Every good carpenter just knows how to hide his mistakes,’” he said. “We did what we could.”
Although some power tools were utilized for the project, the use of hand tools became a big draw for the kids. “Students who would typically walk in, sit down and sit on their phone until they were instructed to get to work, suddenly would walk into class and not even wait for the classroom bell to ring,” Dietrich said. “By the time the bell rang, they already had a mallet and chisel in hand and working on cleaning up some joinery. There is something to that, right?”
Through the project’s highs and lows, Dietrich was reminded about the power of learning by doing – getting your hands dirty and seeing where your skills come up short. “In this day and age, we are quick to just tell students what they need to be doing, instead of letting them take ownership over their own educational journey,” he said. “It might lead to a few more mistakes along the way, but isn’t that how we all truly learn?”
Finally, it was time for raising day. After what had seemed like months of muddy, rainy weather, the sun broke through and everyone was ready. They began promptly at 8 a.m.
“We were definitely a bit clunky on the first bent,” Dietrich noted. After some wrangling to get all the pieces and people in place and aligned, a student began driving the first peg. It was a momentous occasion. “Everyone got quiet, and just stood back and watched,” he said. “I think it finally grabbed their attention.” With many hands, the first bent was raised to applause.
“After the students stood back and saw what it was going to look like, they suddenly got a rush of excitement and energy. Students started grabbing posts and beams and knee braces, and they set up their own little assembly lines. One group got out the can of wax and wooden pegs, while the other group of dry fitting the next bent.” All of a sudden, the students grasped the significance of all the effort they had put into this structure. “Now they could see what 4 months of work could create,” Dietrich said. “Bents went together and pegs were driven in place. Bent 2 went up, and about 10 minutes after that one, Bent 3 was up and standing.” The day progressed, rafters were raised, and the frame was completed. The students were justifiably pleased with what they had accomplished. “These boys had cut, raised, and stood a timber frame in their home community that they could come and visit anytime they wanted. Something that they would drive by and see for many, many years and be able to talk about how hot it was the day they set that frame.” Naturally, they all had ice cream to celebrate.
Dietrich offered some reflections to us about the state of education and the new generation growing up. “As a teacher, I hear a lot of ‘Kids these days!’ and ‘This generation…’ etc. My first question to that is, what have you done to pass along your knowledge of hard work and accomplishments to these children? Or have you let the phones, computers and tablets become their babysitter? Are you complacent in their dependency on technology? What have you done to show them that working with their hands, outdoors, using tools and their own minds to design would be a far better option in their socio-emotional learning than a piece of technology that you will throw away in a year?” Young people and students are hungry to learn hand skills, he believes. “We must afford ourselves to teach the things that our predecessors and mentors taught us… to pass the torch to the next group and keep the candle burning.”
Hear, hear, Mr. Dietrich! And congratulations to you and your students on a job well done.