A Lost Art

Emmanuel Benetollo builds for the future based on the past

by Cindy Riley

Emmanuel Benetollo can hardly remember a time he wasn’t captivated by wood.

Emmanuel Benetollo

“I grew up going to bed at night staring at an old farmhouse timber-framed roof structure,” explains the Le Vesinet, France, native. “From the age of 12, I would just look at the perspective lines going up to the ridge beam and fall asleep. I’d walk in a city looking at buildings and perspectives, and I tinkered with wood some. It took me a while to identify timber framing as an answer.”

As the owner of  Red Mountain Timber Frame, Benetollo, 46,  generally works solo as a wood artisan. He’s perfected his skills over the years, allowing him to provide the initial drawings, raise a frame and drive the last pin in a joint.

“From a sketch to delivery, shop drawings, calculations, joinery design, wood species and timber selection, layout, cutting, fitting, assembly and raising — these are traditional techniques that go back to medieval Europe and can still be entirely accomplished by hand, although modern technology has brought other ways of delivering frames,” Benetollo says. He specializes in classic mortise and tenon joinery to create timber frames for one-of-a-kind homes, lodges, barns, bridges and other structures.

“I have a passion for traditional European — primarily English and French — and American timber framing,” he says. “I understand the regional characteristics, their evolution as well as the traditional means used to build a frame for a church porch entrance to an octagonal turret roof.”

The most difficult part of his work  is solving the initial geometry, according to Benetollo, who perfected his skills by attending workshops in Maine and Massachusetts, before apprenticing with a company in Guntersville.

“It can be tricky, but it’s such a sense of accomplishment to identify the solution, apply it and see it fit,” he says. “Understanding what the owner has in mind and being able to materialize this vision into a sketched rendering or examples is the most critical step. Beyond that, it’s a matter of following diligently the path that takes you through selecting timbers, making joinery decisions, cutting joints, fitting and raising the frame.”

Benetollo, who arrived in Tuscaloosa in 1987 for school and graduated in 1990, returned to France and worked for two American companies in Paris until 1995, when he and  his wife, April, moved to Orlando and later Birmingham. A father of two, Benetollo has established  both professional and personal priorities. And his work is clearly more than just a business.

The most difficult part of his work is solving the initial geometry, according to Benetollo

“In 2003, I was rooted in creating something from start to finish, with a strong sense of ownership and a set of simple and honest rewards,” he explains. “Getting into this groove where your hands know so well what to do that you can lose sense of time and space and let your mind wander as you work is the most rewarding part of what I do.”

Benetollo’s Old World-style creations can be time-consuming and require a great deal of focus.

“It really depends on the size of the frame and its complexity and detail,” Benetollo says. “A frame such as the Cullman Farmers Market took about four months and from six to nine framers to cut. The Farmers Market is an open hall about 152 feet long and 42 feet wide, built in 2006. It’s used for weekly markets and events, one of the most popular being Octoberfest. A great room addition, meanwhile, can take me and another framer a couple of months.”

Close friend Richard Carnaggio, a partner with the Birmingham architecture firm Cohen Carnaggio and Reynolds, admires the fact Benetollo never takes shortcuts.

“With the attention to detail, the materials, structure and precision of the joinery, his work encapsulates centuries of artistry,” Carnaggio says. “You feel a connection to the past when you see his pieces. Having grown up in Europe, Emmanuel was exposed early on to authentic timber framing and had a true understanding of it. He’s also an amazing example of a Renaissance man. He speaks multiple languages, cooks, plays piano and has taught me an appreciation for opera. He’s always wanting to learn.”

Classical Beauty

Benetollo says experienced  craftsmen who  share his passion for building continue to inspire him.

“Most of the people at the timber framers guild who are into traditional frames and techniques remain my primary influence. I also enjoy talking every four or five years to a roof framer in France who has restored old castles, manor homes, farmhouses, barns and dovecotes.”

As for the most exhilarating part of his work,  Benetollo explains, “Seeing for the first time a stand-alone raised frame never leaves people indifferent. The comments and questions are always very pleasant and rewarding. You can easily feel like a four-year-old who’s been told he did a great job on something he’s never done before. I know of a number of timber framers who are faster than me. But it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is to want to do this for hours and days and to keep enjoying it as much as the day you started.”

2 Responses to “A Lost Art”

  1. Liesa Cole says:

    Beautiful story and images of a beautiful craft, worthy of preservation. BRAVO!

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