• Oakwrights uses French oak for the majority of its frames.
• The company has invested heavily in technology.
• It processes about 1,400ft³ of oak a week.
• Oakwrights combines innovation and traditional values.

If you fancy a short break in rural Herefordshire, there’s a self-catering house that might be just the ticket. And, if you enjoy the experience of living in this beautiful post and beam home, guess what, you can have one made to your own specification.

The house in question belongs to TJ Crump Oakwrights Ltd and offers potential customers a unique “try before you buy” opportunity to immerse themselves in the whole culture of oak framing, from soaking up the ambience of the house, to visiting the nearby workshop and seeing oak frames in the making.

The show house is finished to a very high standard and incorporates a host of eco-friendly technologies. It’s an indication that while timber frame may look and sound traditional and low-tech, it can be anything but – certainly where Oakwrights is concerned.

Take the technology it uses, for example. Bespoke plans are uploaded onto Dietrich CAD/CAM software in order to produce a 3D model. This not only results in a machinery-cutting list, but also provides a virtual walkthrough for the client.

Pride and joy

The file is sent through to Oakwrights’ pride and joy, its Hundegger K2i beam-processing machine, bought as part of a £1m investment programme in 2008.

It’s true that other timber frame companies have Hundeggers – in fact Oakwrights already had a K2, which it bought in 2002 – but it’s unusual for Hundegger to build one for oak, rather than softwood, and unheard of for it to build one incorporating a third head specifically dedicated to tenon chamfering.

“Ours is the most advanced Hundegger in the world – there isn’t another one like it,” said Oakwrights’ founder and managing director, Tim Crump.

“It did cost an extra £56,000 to have that one head fitted,” he said, “but the frames look a lot better when they go out, even though you will never see those tenons [once the frame is erected]. God will know they’re there and so will I!”

Primary processing of the oak is carried out by “preferred supplier” sawmills, which deliver the resulting beams to Oakwrights cut to length and dimension and packed in sequence. “The mills have to be beam specialists for the arrangement to work well,” said production manager John Lloyd.

“It’s then checked and graded by Oakwrights certified graders and we look at where each piece is going to go within the structure – for example, we need top quality for purlins, while studs can be a lower quality,” he said. “We also take the visual aspect into account, so we work out which face is going to be visible and if it can be turned round if necessary.”

The K2i cuts at a rate of 1m³ per hour and with great accuracy – to tolerances of plus or minus 0.5mm – and, as Mr Lloyd said, “it takes the grunt work out of the manufacturing process”.

Set apart from the competition

It’s a manufacturing process that Tim Crump says sets Oakwrights apart from many other oak frame companies. “People say their frames are lovingly cut by hand, which is fine, but when it’s been up for six months and it starts to shrink, which all frames do, you won’t be able to tell if it’s made on a Hundegger or by hand. But if it’s been made on the machine it’s much more accurate and the fit is much better when it’s erected.”

And, he added, the “tricky work” is still carried out by hand. All the arched collar braces and other curved members are still cut, and scribed in by hand, along with other handcrafted embellishments by the 12-strong framing shop team.

Once the component parts are machined they move to the framing shop where they are dry fitted in two dimensions, although complex structures, such as roofs, are assembled in 3D in the yard. They are then disassembled ready for sending on their way to site.

On site

Oakwrights can run five sites at once “at a push”, although three is preferred and the four-to-six strong erection crew includes the designers. “We go out to site to help put the frame up,” said Roland Horwood senior frame designer/project steward. “We have detailed knowledge of how the frame should fit together, plus being on site you can learn by your mistakes if you see something you’ve designed that doesn’t work in the field quite as well as you thought it should.”

Framers from the workshop are also hands-on on site. “If they follow the frame through the whole process they have a better understanding of it and it’s no longer an abstract thing,” said John Lloyd. “Plus the client gets to make contact with someone who’s physically worked on the frame.”

Current throughput is about 1,400ft³ of oak per week, depending on product mix, resulting in about one 800ft² house, plus assorted extensions, garages, summer houses and building components, such as roof trusses and floor sets, per week. “Two or three” Douglas fir post and beam frames are also constructed per year.

Infill panels

The company also manufactures its own patented infill panels for the more traditional style oak frames, while the more contemporary post and beam houses use its newly-developed wrap system, WrightWall.

Oakwrights’ customer base is the self-builder, or the developer who specialises in one-off designs, and its style is “country contemporary”. Tim Crump is a great admirer of the Baufritz and Huf Haus models, but while the company shares some of their Germanic processing technology, its houses remain very English. “Even in our more contemporary style house the oak frame softens the feel,” said Mr Crump. “It gives it solidity, but also character and as it gets older and acquires a patina, it looks better.”