In God We Truss: Cape Carpenter Eager To Help Restore Notre Dame Cathedral

By: Ed Maroney

On Saturday night in Paris outside Notre Dame cathedral, a truss built with traditional tools and methods by Carpenters Without Borders offered a sign of hope that the fire-damaged landmark can be rebuilt in an historically appropriate manner. FRANCOIS CALAME PHOTO

ORLEANS Notre Dame de Paris was built eight centuries ago by people who believed in miracles. Something like that happened last weekend, outside the cathedral’s charred ruins, when an international group of volunteer carpenters raised an oak truss created of the same materials and by the same methods as the roof supports lost in the blaze.

“The main thing was showing the public that the cathedral can be rebuilt the same way it was built 800 years ago,” said Carpenters Without Borders member Ian Ellison, who lives in Orleans. Having participated in many international builds with the group, he was confident that would be the case. Even before the dramatic raising by hand of the truss on Saturday, the French government had signaled its approval for a rebuild using historic materials.

Were it not for the pandemic and its air travel restrictions, Ellison and his son Tanner, of Harwich, would have been in France to help build the demonstration truss. The next stage of the work may not occur for several years.

“They built it by hand,” he said of his fellow volunteers. “They got the trees out of the forest up in Normandy. They hewed these logs into square timbers. Then they joined them together, cut all the joinery, wood to wood, secured with wooden pegs. No steel, no bolts.”

The original trusses damaged in the April 2019 fire were 30 feet high. Drawn up timber by timber through an opening in the cathedral’s stone vault ceiling by hand-cranking a “hamster wheel,” as Ellison puts it, they were assembled and raised to support the roof. “They didn’t have a crane, so they used the wheel,” he said of the Medieval-era artisans. After the last stone on the vaulted ceiling was placed, the wheel was left in place.

When the traditionally-built trusses are raised, Ellison said, a crane will be used. The next stage of the work at the cathedral may not occur for several years, but he said Carpenters Without Borders could turn out a truss per year at the site in Normandy where the truss raised Saturday was crafted. In 2018, the organization, including Ellison, built a bridge over a moat to Harcourt Castle there.

In 2005, Ellison and his then 15-year-old son helped repair two barns at a French chateau using traditional materials, methods, and tools. “He was swinging axes and hewing timbers side by side with Czech Republic, French and German carpenters,” he said of Tanner. Training apprentices is an important part of Carpenters Without Borders’ mission, and young people were on hand to help raise the truss at the cathedral last weekend.

Ellison’s own desire to swing an ax in the cause is evident. He spoke wistfully of the cathedral, which he visited twice before the fire. “You walk in and it’s so overwhelming,” he said, “the peace you get from walking in there, just sitting in there and being in a place that’s 800 years old, all stone and huge and peaceful. It’s wonderful.”

Meanwhile, Ellison is building a log cabin – in Canada. He’s a dual citizen, but the borders are closed and he’s not allowed to go to the site. That’s not stopping him.

“It needs roof trusses,” he said. “I’ll cut them here, and my kids can help me cut joinery for the trusses, then put them on a trailer.” With an almost audible smile, he added, “I could even build one of the trusses for the cathedral here.”