Frères Pontiers

I have in previous entries, alluded to feeling myself as being part of a continuum of sorts. This so ever-present that it perhaps might be better described as something approaching a sense of kinship, both with those few who currently make the work of wooden bridges their chosen field, and maybe more so with those many who built them in the past.

Lately I’ve spent all too much thought on what it is to be Bridgewright. The catalysts driving this wonder being many. My not making my nut, maybe being foremost among those. I’d thought the now years long uptick in potential bridgework, was how I would ride out this time of “downturn”. As it turns out, despite the frequency of rehabilitation’s being let out to bid and the bittersweet windfall of flood damage and loss, this work now comes in no more frequently than in better times when the bread and butter of new houses and barns kept my schedule flush, and the ledger something less than the current state of so damned ugly.

Another influence making me wonder was an unexpected reaction to my last diatribe here on the weblog. I fully expected some negative reaction from some certain direction, I had not held back, my piece was meant to evoke a reaction – Somehow, the expected never materialized.

I was however criticized for my outspoken stand on Glu-Lam. With this coming from someone within the design side of the capitol P Preservation community. I was a bit thunderstruck by this. A seeming condemnation, and this simply because I’d had the audacity to weigh in on both design, and the choice of materials.

I simply did not know how to react – I do know, I can count myself (this being not the time for humility) among those some certain few who share expertise in these structures. Beyond that, timber connections is what I do. Who better might weigh in? I have over time designed timber constructions with regularity. Why would I not?

So this a wake-up call. If some of those within my extended community doubt my sense of who I am, how is it I might expect anybody else might?

Niche carpentry, might be, even in a healthy market, a tough sell…

All the same, my less than trampled road sense of self, is all I have to sell. I also know that almost broken continuum yet exists, and happily, hard as it sometimes is, I am part of it.

I never felt myself more part of a long and continuing brotherhood of carpenters and builders than when I was a decade ago, able to reach through time and hold it in my hands. This while in attendance of the UK’s Carpenter’s Fellowship ’02 conference, speaking and demonstrating on Square Rule timber layout, I sat in on a talk given by Damian Goodburn, Archeologist and expert in ancient woodworks and carpentry. After the lecture we spoke at length, and I was somehow afforded the opportunity to physically examine a tenon which had been part of a Roman built wharf which stood on the banks of the River Thames in the former Londinium, and had survived two millennia in the oxygen deprived silt of the river bottom. The most striking thing about it was that despite the passage of some nineteen centuries and it being an object produced by a far different culture, was just how startlingly familiar it was. Right to the thickness of the tenon itself and its distance from either shoulder, down to the size and placement of the peghole. All measurable in imperial inches, by the six inch rule which still resides daily in the tool pocket of my carpenter’s pants.

Though The Romans are better known for their works of stone and concrete, the oldest wooden bridge we have deep description of is the Bridge of Sublicius, dating to sometime around 500 BC. Then there are the far better known examples of Caesar’s ten day bent piling bridge over the Rhine,

and the segmented arch bridge built by Appolodorus and Trajan which spanned the Danube.

And down through the ages, there are other great bridge building traditions.

Though my kinship felt has little if anything to do with any long lost Benedictine order, except that they also chose to exemplify their devotion in the building of bridges, I feel myself as part of a “Brethren” and find no guilt in borrowing their name.

About Will Truax

I'm a timberframer and preservation carpenter, and regularly work on Covered Bridge restoration projects. Bridgewrighting can be a tough row to hoe, for a myriad of reasons. From scheduling issues to differing opinions and philosophies on what is appropriate in methods and materials, to multiple jurisdictions still not sufficiently vetting bidders resumes - Which is to say, just because a company is on that state approved list and capable of building that seven figure overpass, this does not mean they are capable of restoring a wooden bridge... So, I have much to say about all this and more - And despite my tough row observation, I promise not to whine. View all posts by Will Truax

5 responses to “Frères Pontiers

  • Brenda Holloway

    Wooden arch bridges? That’s simply amazing.


    • Will Truax

      It is simply amazing. The Romans are credited with the segmented arch, so it seems only logical they might extend this to wooden bridges. Though like in stone arches there must have been near as much carpentry in building the form/false/work as there was in the wooden arches themselves, falsework that could well have formed masonry arches. There was vast amounts of stone in the massive piers, so logistics of supply seemingly did not drive the decision. Maybe there was just an abundance of capable carpenters on the campaign, and they could just have the wooden arch and its falsework fully ready to place as a pier reached completion perhaps thereby reducing overall construction time.

      Puzzling as well as amazing.

      Appolodorus oversaw the construction of Trajan’s column also, so it’s representation on it must have been relatively accurate.


  • Dick

    Hi Will,
    Thought about commenting on your last post as I am working on my 6th covered bridge and looking to become a card carrying member of the club. Then I passed as I paused and reflected. I am not going anywhere with this, just throwing some things out there. Did a live load test on some of the 1.5″ by 8″ pine deck boards that are supported 24″ O.C. by 4×6’s with my ’95 Dodge Ram truck (GVW 3850# F and 3600# R). As I rolled the wheels up on the 4 test pieces at full load 2 of them snapped right where there was a nice big ol’ knot. What stuck in my mind was the comment made by my helper. “Imagine what we would be thinking about the strength of the bridge if those pieces would have held.”

    I am also puzzled at the lack of interest by my neighbors and the general public in my bridge project. Maybe I’ll see you if the 55m bridge goes through in BC next year.


    • Will Truax

      Dick – I think at six, you’ve earned your card . A single layer floor does need to be a high grade board.

      I wouldn’t waste thought puzzling over a lack of interest from the general public. Even among those with a passing interest, it tends to the cuteness and a sense of nostalgia, and never goes to the structural side and the framing in the through truss under all that cladding. In some ways I think this not seeing is part of what keeps people from seeing them as a still viable option, then there is the war on through trusses in general.

      I do hope to be in BC, we’ll see.


  • Robert M. Kelly


    I think that the general public as well as the preservation community are in dire need of understanding wooden bridges. Without craftspeople they can’t do that. Therefore your skills and your articulation of those skills are a bridge (sorry) to understanding.

    I would not hesitate to compare this better, truer understanding to natural law. As we know, natural law is at the base of very other type of law that has come along, common, canon, civil. When these other types of manmade law get into a kerfluffle, everyone runs back to natural law to try and make their point and hopefully, straighten things out.

    In the same way, the stresses that wood can endure, the conditions under which it changes, its usable life and so on, all undergird the admittedly beautiful visual aspects of bridges, and especially the depictions of ‘ye olde covered bridge’ in the renditions of Kincade/Rockwell/Walt Disney.

    And yet this beauty can be a distraction. How shallow it would be for our culture to allow a covered bridge to be reduced to a mere ornament on the landscape.


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