Timber with a Tale

By Beacon Staff

Timber framer Derek Swanger’s work always has a story.

It’s in the growth rings at the wood’s core, or the scratches on its surface where furniture sat for years. It’s the wood’s history, the forest where it originated or the dairy barn or grocery store where it was last used. It’s in the centuries-old traditions of his craft.

“Every time you do something to (the wood) you should be adding craftsmanship to it,” Swanger, owner of Kalispell-based Swan Woodworks, said. “I don’t like the idea of it getting chopped up into two-by-fours.”

Swanger largely adheres to a traditional timber framing approach: design the home based on the materials available.

All of Swanger’s timber frames are built from reclaimed wood. Before any designs are made, a new project begins with a “big pile of wood.” It could come from almost anywhere – old Wisconsin dairy barns, a defunct Safeway grocery, a Georgia textile mill or a former Cooper tire store.

“We let the materials dictate the design,” Swanger said. “It’s a simple concept. You don’t decide what you’re building until you know what you’re building with.”

Wood in hand, Swanger then uses old-fashioned timber frame techniques, methods that have been in practice for centuries, to make each frame custom.

Every joint is still hand fit to ensure tight, attractive joinery that stands the test of time. Diagonal bracing is used to prevent racking of the structure. Rather than being hidden, the frame becomes an integral part of the interior finish.

“Modern architecture is a repulsion of structure,” Swanger said. “They cover everything in drywall.”

Swanger’s meticulous approach recently gained nationwide recognition, when one of his Colorado homes was featured as “Home of the Month” in the April edition of “Timber Home Living,” a national niche magazine.

When it came time to build their “dream timber home,” Swanger encouraged Leonard and Kathy Winograd, two community college professors in Colorado, to act as their own general contractors to stay within their budget.

The couple navigated the permitting and inspection processes on their own and searched for materials and finishes on eBay and other Web sites. Reclaimed timber came from a dairy barn in Wisconsin and a Goodyear Tire factory in Denver.

The result was a 1,200-square foot home, where the framing is the focal point and a testament to Swanger’s knowledge and skill. “My role ultimately is as a coach,” Swanger said. “I have to stop people from hurting themselves.”

Closer to home, Swanger was integral in building the Flathead Valley Montessori Academy. Two years ago, the academy’s administrator Jeff Pernell bought St. Catherine’s Church in Bigfork and moved it north of Somers. Swanger helped renovate the old church, building on an addition with reclaimed wood from an old Safeway grocery store.

“There’s a consistency of exposed wood running through the building,” Pernell said. “It’s a simple design, but it has a nice feel to it. There’s character.”

Swanger says he started timber framing as a kid, building forts in the open space near his family’s home. At the University of Montana, despite his interest in forestry and architecture, he ended up with a degree in marketing and business. “But I wrote every paper on timber building,” he said.

When his father had a stroke, Swanger took on one of his first official building jobs: finishing his parent’s timber home in Bigfork. After working in the Flathead Valley for a while, he headed to Boulder, Colo. where he learned from “some of the smartest people” in the industry. He started his own business in the early ‘90s and returned to Montana almost a decade later.

Throughout that time, Swanger says he’s done everything from skirts and roofing for mobiles homes to multi-million dollar houses. Regardless of the project, he tries to bring the same quality and character to the work.

“You can learn about a civilization through its architecture,” Swanger said.

Unfortunately, he says, the recent building trends in this country – slap-dash jobs and cookie-cutter subdivisions – don’t speak highly of American’s taste. If the home looks like the austere “inside of a spaceship” or is in danger of falling apart in a matter of years, it’s a good sign Swanger won’t approve.

“When in doubt, build it stout,” he says. “And when you want it temp, build a tent.”

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