Have Tools, Will Travel: Cape Carpenter's Contributions Know No Borders

By: Ed Maroney

Carpenter Ian Ellison stands below one of the carved anchor beams in the house he built with his family.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS Carpenters are joiners. Ian Ellison says his house in Brewster, which he designed and built, was done “the old-fashioned way: wood to wood joinery, with pegs, not nails. There's no steel in the building.”

In recent years, the owner of Ellison Timberframes has joined not only pieces of wood but also professional colleagues from Europe and the Americas as he travels the world with Carpenters Without Borders (Charpentiers sans Frontiers). In 2005, Ellison (a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S.) worked with carpenters from Great Britain, France, Germany and the Czech Republic to repair two barns at a French chateau. Francois Calame, consultant ethnologist for the regional department of culture for Normandy, had founded what was then called the European Carpenters Gathering as a way to highlight and pass on traditional craft skills.

In 2013, Carpenters Without Borders took on the task of recreating the wheel truss of a castle keep in France on the Seine in Normandy. Joined by carpenters from France, Britain, Norway, Germany and Ireland, Ellison measured and cut timbers taken from the King's Forest by horse carts. Following ancient tradition, they first laid out their plan with string measurements in the courtyard.

“We are 100 percent volunteers,” Ellison said. “We pay to get there. They feed us and give us a place to stay. We bring our tools.”

Speaking English and French, Ellison is right at home “working with guys and women from all over Europe.” He recalled one Carpenters Without Borders project on which “a French carpenter had a question for a Czech Republic guy. He asked me. I translated to English and talked to a German guy. He talked to the Czech guy, who could speak German.”

2016 found Ellison back in France, in the village of Aclou in Upper Normandy, to restore a 15th century barn. As reported in The Mortice and Tenon, the journal of The Carpenter's Fellowship, French and British carpenters worked with colleagues from Estonia, Turkey, Algeria and China.

The following year's project, in Romania, had a strong political backstory. According to Ellison and The Mortice and Tenon, the owner of a manor, Serban Sturdza, was a descendant of a former prime minister whose property was among those confiscated when a Communist government took over after World War II; it was returned to Sturdza's family in 2005. Since then, Sturdza, an architect, has been converting the property to a community and training center.

The goal was literally to raise the roof to allow a building's second floor to be used as a school. A six-truss roof was measured, cut, and raised into place by international volunteers and young French apprentices. “They go to school to be carpenters,” Ellison said, “three to four years, and they work while in school.” They do what he called “The Tour De France”: working in turn for, say, a stair maker, a barn maker, and a cabinet maker before they emerge as full professionals.

Earlier this year, Ellison and other globetrotting carpenters built a bridge over a moat to Harcourt Castle in Normandy, France. The old span had been a drawbridge, resting on stones put in place in the 1100s.

These international trips are stimulating for Ellison, who built his own home down a dirt road in Brewster using traditional methods. His children helped him build it, but now that they're grown, it's too much house for him and is on the market. He has moved to Orleans.

Walking through the sunny, spacious rooms with Ellison is like being on a nature hike in a forest with Thoreau. The carpenter knows the types of wood – Eastern white pine, cherry, ash – and their lore.

“You cut a tree down, hew it with axes,” he said, “but this tree is here forever. It isn't dead.” Ellison points to the stone cathedrals and barns of Europe with their wood still intact. Then he describes how Japanese carpenters position timbers as they stood when they were trees: top and bottom, facing north or south.

The history of the trees in Ellison's home is visible in the grain of the newels at the foot of the free-standing stairs to the second floor (“No glue, no nails. It's just geometry holding it together.”). As he examines the lines that make up the grain, he sees them become closer. “It grew faster in more open forest,” he said.

Another sign of nature being invited indoors is a bird's nest high up in the eaves. It was built before the house had windows, and Ellison waited until the occupants vacated before continuing.

The top floor holds reminders of some of the projects closer to home that he's worked on, including the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brewster and a timber-framed home he designed and built in Monument Beach. Ellison Timberframes continues to welcome new business.

Ellison, who grew up in Canada and has a degree in engineering from Montreal's McGill University, visited the Cape with his parents for summer vacations. He came here after graduation for the summer and stayed on, raising five children in Harwich and Brewster. “They all helped me build the house,” he said. Had the economy been better in the 2000s, he said, two of them would likely have entered his profession.

He's already looking forward to the 2019 Carpenters Without Borders project. “We think it's Peru,” he said, smiling with anticipation.