(310)-306-6900 CONTACT
menu icon

Hand-Hewn Beam Construction: Elegance & Tradition

reclaimed Oak Hand hewn beam construction and natural wood shiplap ceiling installation image

Within the rich tapestry of architectural design, hand hewn beams stand as a testament to the timeless craftsmanship and dedication of artisans from centuries past. Shaped by simple hand tools and the strength of human determination, hand hewn beam construction has fortified a range of pioneer structures, encapsulating the spirit of resilience of our shared history. These beams are often crafted to cover existing beams for modern construction in a way that makes them indistinguishable from their solid counterparts.

image of 8 reclaimed Oak Hand Hewn beams bundled to be shipped

This article takes a closer look at US beam construction history, tracing an evolution that started in the thick forests of early America, and ultimately landing in contemporary living spaces and upscale commercial businesses. We will discuss the inherent beauty and history of hand hewn beams and highlight the expert work being done at E&K Vintage Wood, a company in Los Angeles committed to the sourcing, finishing, and conservation of reclaimed wood.

Historical Context

The early American frontier, replete with vast forests, offered settlers crucial resources to withstand the harsh and sometimes hostile environment. Timber, a fundamental element in early construction, was no exception. Barns from the mid-18th century feature beams cut from raw logs, a testament to the durability of the wood and the settlers’ resourcefulness. There were few US sawmills in this era and wood was often crafted entirely by hand. 

Hand hewn beams went beyond their role as structural elements. Works of art in their own right, they symbolize the settlers’ resolve to transform an untamed wilderness into homesteads. The transition from dense woodlands to developed lands was characterized by the emergence of timber architecture, with hand hewn beam construction at its core.

Techniques of Hand-Hewing

Crafting a hand-hewn beam is a testament to human skill and endurance, requiring a profound understanding of wood and a patient, skilled hand. The hand-hewing process involved using some simple but effective tools, each with its role in beam preparation. The process of turning raw lumber into finished reclaimed wood beams involves several steps.

  • After the selection of a tree, typically Oak, Douglas Fir, Pine, or Elm, a “felling axe” or “felling Saw” was used to selectively harvest them from neighboring forests. While an axe was more common historically, saws became more prevalent over time.
  • The bark of the tree would need to be removed, often with the use of a draw knife, a two-handed tool that was pulled along the tree’s length, or a “spud,” which resembled a modern chisel. 
  • The “hewer” would then use a broad axe to roughly shape the sides of the beam, creating rough, flat surfaces.
  • Next, an “adze” would be employed to smooth and flatten the top and bottom surfaces of the beam. An adze was used with controlled slicing or chopping motions, chopping away small pieces of wood at a time.
  • If necessary, the beam might be split further using a “froe,” a slightly curved blade, and “maul,” a heavy long-handled hammer to split the beam into multiple lengths.
  • Finally, a drawknife could be used for finer shaping and smoothing, although its usage varied depending on the preferences and skills of the hewer.

Vintage wood hand tools like those used in hand hewn beam construction

The Artistry of Hand-Hewn Beam Construction

The allure of hand-hewn beams lies in their distinctive features. Each axe and adze mark tells a story of labor and dedication. These beams are highly sought after for their character, serving as a physical link to our shared history. 

The hewing marks are as unique as the craftsman that created them. Many factors contribute to their look. 

  • The degree of expertise and experience of the person hewing the beam significantly influenced the consistency of hewing marks. Skilled craftsmen could produce smoother and more uniform surfaces, whereas less experienced workers might leave more pronounced marks or irregularities. 
  • Different types of wood have varying grain patterns and densities, affecting how easily beams can be shaped. Grain irregularities or knots in the wood could result in variations in the depth and pattern of hewing marks.
  • The condition of the hewing tools, such as the sharpness of the axe blade or adze edge, impacts the quality and consistency of the hewing marks. Dull or damaged tools might produce less precise cuts or require more effort to achieve desired results.

All of these factors translate into a more or less rugged appearance, something to consider when choosing beams for your next project. Overall, the variability in hewing marks found on hand-hewn beams is a result of the craftsmanship used in their production and the individual characteristics of both the wood and the hewer. These imperfections can add to the charm and historical character of hand-hewn beams, making them a perfect choice for those looking to bring warmth, character, and authenticity to modern design projects. E&K Vintage Wood employs unique construction methods for box beams designed to cover existing beams that appear almost identical to the solid beams from which they originate.

It is worth noting that while many are searching for rustic, hand-hewn beams, E&K Vintage Wood also offers a variety of planed and sawn beams that still convey the same sense of warmth and history and have more contemporary surface styles.

installation photo of reclaimed planed White Oak beams and ceiling in luxury home

Modern Applications and Revival

Today, the rustic charm of hand-hewn beams is seeing a revival. E&K Vintage Wood in Los Angeles specializes in repurposing these historical artifacts for modern use, creating hand-hewn box beams and solid beams that blend rustic textures with contemporary materials. This practice not only offers visually compelling spaces but also promotes sustainable building practices, preserving a fragment of America’s past for future generations. 

Hand Hewn Reclaimed Wood Beams truss installation image

Preserving the Heritage and Craftsmanship of Reclaimed Wood

The conservation and protection of hand-hewn beams and the history they represent are important for their preservation. Barns, factories, and other structures that might otherwise be destroyed are important sources for reclaimed wood lumber, reclaimed wood beams, reclaimed flooring, and reclaimed paneling and siding. From the rolling hills of Pennsylvania to modern beach-side residences in Malibu, and beyond, E&K Vintage Wood products bring warmth, character, and a sense of history to contemporary construction projects.

Hand-Hewn Beams: A Limited Resource

As the architectural and design communities continue to discover the unmatched beauty and authenticity of hand-hewn beams, they become more scarce. Historic hewn beams are a finite resource, salvaged from vintage barns, mills, and homes that are now disappearing quickly. As their popularity rises, sourcing this reclaimed wood becomes more challenging. The demand could soon outpace supply, increasing their value.

Boxed Truss System with Hand Hewn Beams (BM101)

Hand-hewn beams bridge the past and present, showcasing the resilience, artistry, and history of pioneer craftsmen. By embracing the integration of timeless elements into our modern design projects, we help preserve the memory of the past and at the same time bring much-needed warmth and character to modern architecture.

E&K Vintage Wood in Los Angeles, California, stands at the forefront as a leader in sourcing and reclaimed wood and hand hewn beam construction, transforming historical timber into contemporary masterpieces. We invite our readers to contact us with any questions and to learn how they can incorporate reclaimed wood into their commercial and living spaces. 

Let the past inspire our future, creating spaces that are not only beautiful but sustainably crafted, standing as a testament to our shared history.

We send out monthly newsletters with our latest products, projects, and finishes. If you would like to stay informed about the latest in our reclaimed wood products, fill out the form below.

Part of a large order of our Reclaimed Douglas Fir Box Beams with our Shasta stain getting ready to ship to our client in Lake Tahoe. #douglasfirbeams #reclaimedwoodboxbeams #woodpaneling #woodbeams #reclaimedwood #reclaimedtimber #reclaimedbeams #interiordesign #interiordesigner #homebuilder #lahomes #contractor #architect #nydesigner #ladesigner #texasdesigner #manhattenbeach #beverlyhills #malibubeach #lagunabeach #siliconvalley #napavalley #aspen #boxbeams #whiteoak #reclaimedoak #customhomebuilders #farmhousedecor #timberframe ...

Large order of reclaimed White Oak Planed Box Beams shipping to Florida today. - [x] #oakboxbeams #reclaimedwoodboxbeams #oakbeams #woodpaneling #woodbeams #reclaimedwood #reclaimedtimber #reclaimedbeams #interiordesign #interiordesigner #homebuilder #lahomes #contractor #architect #nydesigner #ladesigner #texasdesigner #manhattenbeach #beverlyhills #malibubeach #lagunabeach #siliconvalley #napavalley #aspen #boxbeams #whiteoak #reclaimedoak #customhomebuilders #farmhousedecor #timberframe ...

We just received a truckload of hand hewn oak beams and some other material. What is interesting is the age of one of the barns that the material came from. It was built in 1795, that is 229 years ago. We don’t get the beams much older than that. #handhewnboxbeams #handhewnboxbeam #oakboxbeams #handhewn #handhewnbeam #woodbeams #reclaimedwood #interiordesign #interiordesigner #homebuilder #lahomes #contractor #architect #nydesigner #ladesigner #texasdesigner #manhattenbeach #beverlyhills #malibubeach #restaurantdecor #siliconvalley #napavalley #aspen #boxbeams #farmhousedecor #timberframe #homebuilders #luxuryhomebuilders ...