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Timber, Balloon, or Platform Frame?

Timber, Balloon, or Platform Frame?

A house’s frame is like its bones. Without a sturdy frame, your house is one gust of wind away from collapse. The most common building material used to frame a house is, no surprise, wood. It’s strong, readily available, inexpensive, and extremely versatile. Wood framed houses typically fall into one of three categories depending on their age. Each of these techniques of wood framing have their own strengths and weaknesses. And if you’re up to a little detective work, you can usually discover what technique was used to build your home.

Timber Frame

Ise Temple Japan

This is the oldest known form of wood construction, and no-one knows exactly how it started or when, but let’s just say it’s really old! In fact, the world’s oldest known timber frame building still in existence today is the Ise Temple in Japan built in 690 AD. Timber frame structures can easily last centuries due to their inherent strength and stability. And what’s more impressive, is that they attain this immense level of rigidity and staying power without the use of nails. Nails weren’t used extensively until the Industrial Revolution because until that time they were hand cut and expensive. Timber frame buildings avoid the use of nails by using complex mortise and tenon joinery to marry its posts and beams together tightly. And you won’t find any 2×4’s in an old timber frame house. The wood used in timber framing is much more substantial in size- 6×6, 8×8, 10×10 timbers are the norm.

Timber frame homes were typical across much of American until the late 1800s when it was surpassed by balloon framing. If your house was built before the 1830s, then it’s almost certain to be a timber frame home. An easy way to tell is to go into the basement or attic where the timbers are still visible. There you’ll find thick, usually hand-hewn, beams of locally grown timbers. The frame is completely self-sufficient unlike other forms of framing that require cross-bracing or sheathing to add racking strength and rigidity to the frame.

While they are the strongest method of framing, timber frames have some drawbacks. However, they are all involved in the construction process. Once the frame is up and built out, I’ll take a timber frame over all other forms of construction any day. Timber frames require large pieces of wood which are not always readily available in certain locations and can be more expensive in materials than the standard dimensional lumber that is available at every lumber yard in America. Though timber frames can utilize ‘green’ lumber which is more inexpensive than dried lumber and this can create a near parity in the cost of lumber for the building. Timber framing also requires a master craftsman, or housewright to build and a skilled craftsman does not come cheaply. Anyone can drive a bunch of nails, but only a skilled housewright can make the perfectly matching joints required to secure a timber frame structure properly. A timber frame is usually the most expensive method of the three, but costs are coming down as of recent years.

Balloon Frame

In the 1800s people started looking for a way to build houses faster and more inexpensively. Unless you were a skilled housewright, most people were unable to cut the complex joinery required for a timber frame house. At this time, dimensional lumber (2×4, 2×6 etc.) was quickly becoming available, along with manufactured nails thanks the Industrial Revolution and railroads. And balloon framing utilized these new materials. Dimensional lumber fastened with nails (not joinery), creates the frame of the house. The aspect that make it unique, is that the framing members run all the way from the foundation to the top of the second story. Balloon framed houses use some very long pieces of lumber. The balloon frame eliminated the need for skilled craftsman and therefore made the task of building a house available to the everyman.

There is plenty of debate as to exactly where the first balloon framed house was built and who came up with the idea. Chicago tends to get most of the credit though. It got its name rather dubiously though, as it was thought of early on as being such a weak form of construction that the houses would be carried away like a balloon on even the slightest breeze. Though not as strong and imposing as a timber frame, balloon frames were eventually regarded as a more than acceptable way to build a house. And from the 1890s until the 1930s it was the most common form of construction in the country.

The one rather large drawback to balloon framed houses is their fire risk. With wall cavities that are typically uninsulated and run the entire height of the building fire is able to spread quickly and often without notice. Balloon frame houses should be be retrofitted with insulation and fire blocking between stories to retard the spread of fires within the home. This risk is not one to be understated.

Platform Frame

By the 1930s, the risks associated with balloon framing had become apparent so the housing industry came up with the next great idea in framing. Platform framing is very similar to the balloon frame. It uses 2x4s spaced 16″ on center and requires the same basic layout except for a few key differences. A platform frame uses shorter lengths of lumber because each story of the building is built individually and placed on top of the one below. Shorter 2x4s cost less per foot than longer ones and the break between each floor created the much needed fire block not present in the balloon frame. Also, platform frames could be built without the use of scaffolding. Since each story was constructed on top of the previous one the second story floor could be used by workers to build the the second story walls upon resulting in much faster and easer construction.

Within just a few years the platform frame took its place as the most common form of framing and has continued to hold onto that title today.

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17 thoughts on “Timber, Balloon, or Platform Frame?

  1. This is an excellent overview for the general interest reader. Extremely clear and informative. It’s always a pleasure to read good writing (says the editor). Thank you!

  2. Timber framing uses larger timbers, but most of them can be unmilled logs or poles, which can dramatically lower their price. Steel hardware can also be used, as opposed to the precisely fitting wooden joinery that requires skill (not great expertise, but skill).

  3. Hello Scott,

    Thank you for the information. My husband and I bought our home 10 years ago. The house was built in 1883, and has the balloon frame. It does have subfloors under the pine floors on the second floor and pine subfloors over the parquet floors on the first floor.
    We have been waffling on what products to use to insulate between the walls and floors. My husband fears that if there is water damage, that the insulation could cause more damage. Our heating bills run roughly $800.00 per month during the winter months (we live in Massachusetts). I was hoping that you may have some suggestions? Thank you in advance.

  4. I bought a balloon framed house built in 1906 in Grand Rapids Michigan 20 years ago. It had never been insulated or substantially updated. The second floor plaster ceilings and walls had been heavily water damaged so we demoed them out. This exposed the framing all the way around and those infamous cavities that go from the basement to the attic.

    One advantage of this construction was that it was easy to pull new plumbing and wiring from the basement to the upper floors through the open voids — I used conduit to bring wiring for a sub panel to the second floor and then distributed the wiring through the attic (again with conduit) to do all new electric in the house that would be safe from damage. Then we were able to stuff chopped fiber insulation into the first floor voids from the second floor and place fire-stops at the top of those voids. We used wood stops for voids with no wiring or pipes or ducts and fire-expansion foam board for any where we had to work around obstacles. I also used fire expansion foam to seal the basement and attic openings into the walls. Then we insulated the second floor voids with batts, and resurfaced the walls, some with plaster and some with gypsum board.

    Remodeling older houses like that requires creating real dimensional lumber. Wall studs back then were actually the full 2″ x 4″ so I ripped a lot of modern 2″ x 6″ (which are actually nominal 1 3/4″ x 5 1/2″ ) down to 4″ where we had to match wall depth.

    In terms of joist spacing, it can be really random in old houses. My 1906 was obviously built by people who did not use tape measures or any measuring tools (possibly including a level!). Joists were spaced anywhere from 17″ to 26″. I put in 3 skylights in the roof and we had to shim all of the framing to get them to fit though they are made for standard modern joist spacings.

    As to floors in those old houses, usually there is no “subfloor”. Both that house and the 1930 Craftsman bungalow I live in now had yellow pine board flooring directly on the floor joists. In the 1930 house the pine is tongue and groove but in the 1906 it was just straight boards butted together and you could see light in the basement through the narrow gaps between some of the boards. In some parts I cut insulation foam board and applied it between the floor joists under the floors (overhead in the basement) to block air passage and add thermal barrier. In another part of the basement I stapled vinyl sheeting up between the joists to block air movement.

    Understanding how a house is framed really helps with planning a remodel.

  5. Thanks for the great information! I’m a writer of historic fiction and my next novel takes place on the construction site of the Hotel Belleview (later known as the Belleview Biltmore) in Belleair, Florida (1895.) I know they built a saw mill on site and used Southern Loblolly Heart Pine for construction of the framing, and because it was five stories tall, I’m certain they didn’t use balloon construction, but beyond that, I’m at a loss. Can you suggest other sites/sources where I might find additional information about early construction methods? Thanks in advance, BonSue Brandvik: BonSue@BonSueBrandvik.com

  6. It’s amazing that timber house frames can be really rigid and stable without any nails. My husband wants to build a large workshop in our backyard for his car restoration hobby, and he wants to make sure that it can withstand the strong winds we get in our area in the spring. Maybe he should look into companies that make timber frames to see if he should build his workshop around one of those.

  7. In timber frame construction, would it work to glue layers of smaller cuts of lumber together under pressure to create the size of beams that are required rather than have to have the expense of lumber milled to non-standard, large dimensions, or would this create a fundamentally unsound structure? I have seen large buildings constucted from soaring plywood posts and rafters (if those are the right words). My college library was one, where the ceiling was four or five stories above the ground.

  8. I have always wondered about the benefits of timber frames in houses. It is interesting to learn that timber frames require large pieces of wood. Thanks for also informing me that a timber frame requires a master craftsman. I appreciate the information. http://www.rallistimber.com.au

  9. We have and older home built in the 1900′ s, It’s been completely gutted,New wire new plumbing, and we are in the process of going back to Timber frame ,old school construction, I will amit its a lot of work, but once its done it will last the span of time. Taking our time and doing it all ourself, with no shortcuts. And its a lot of fun too.. It’s an forgotten Art of construction. Due to a lot of things, but my opinion, Greed would sum it up..

  10. We have recently purchased, gutted and am now rebuilding our Amerucan Foursquare.
    I’m trying to place an age on her

    She is balloon building
    Hip roof
    Front former
    Rafter feet under eaves
    Fancy front centre window

    Can you help
    This house is located in Canada, New Brunswick.

  11. Scott,
    I have an antique triumph style school desk and seat from the 1890’s. I am going to build partial replica of a school room floor the desk and seat were once used in. The school building itself would have been ballon style. But what I do not know and cannot find information on is the thickness and width of the floor joists, how apart on center they were, whether or not there was any type of bracing in between and what the sill plate looked like along the foubdation, whether or not it was a single sill plate or a double and the thickness and width of the sill plate lumber. I do know the size and type of hardwood that would have been used for the floor. But what was the sub surface if any between the hardwood floor andfloor joists? Can you please help with this information?

    Thank you.

    John Vodochodsky

  12. My house was built in 1927. How do I go around to find out if it has balloon framing or platform framing? Can it be seen from the basement or do I need to open a wall?

  13. Virtually all new houses in this country have a foundation built out of concrete and a roof built out of timber, so all homes are to some extent both masonry and timber frame.

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