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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada


Charpente Houses
(The Timber House)


H. P. Thibault

In Historians,
Preliminary Architectural Studies,
Volume 01, Unpublished Report HG 02
(Fortress of Louisbourg, 1972,
Report Number H G 02 01 02)



The type of building that will be discussed is in most cases referred to as "maison de charpente" although slight variations such as "maison en charpente", "Maison en bois de charpente" and "maison de charpente" occur. The term "maison de colombage" which is used for a building, designated also as a "maison de charpente", appears only twice in the early history of Louisbourg and never reappears after. Therefore the most common term should be used; it has been translated as "timber house" since it corresponds better to the French eighteenth century "maison de charpente" in this type of house, the most important feature is the frame and the fill and/or revetment are secondary aspects that can change or even be absent.




The dimensions of timber houses vary from 90 pieds to 18 pieds for the length and from 30 pieds to 16 pieds for the width. The average would be a rectangular house measuring 40 pieds by 20 pieds. However small square and L shaped timber houses existed.


(1) 90 x n/a

(2) 45 x 24

(3) 35 x 20

(4) 27 1/3 x n/a

(5) 45 x 44 x 22(L-shaped)

(6) 30 x 24

(7) 24 x 16


(8) 80 x 19

(9) 61 x 19

(10) 42 x 22

(11) 30 x 20

(12) 23 x 22

(13) 22 x 22

(14) 60 x 21


(15) 41 x 24

(16) 30 x 20

(17) 58 x n/a

(18) 40 x 30

(19) 30 x 20

(20) 22 x 22

(21) 55 x 20


(22) 40 x 22

(23) 30 x 18

(24) 18-19 x 18-19

(25) 48 x 25

(26) 35 2/3 x 24

(27) 30 x n/a

(28) n/a x 20



The most common timber house has just a floor and an attic, but it can also be just one storied, one and a half storied (à un etage et un ravalement de 3 pieds), two stories and even two stories and attic.


Usually the timber house has a large kitchen, a bedroom and two small "cabinets" on the ground floor; the attic is used as such or is divided in two rooms. In the case of a two storied timber house, the first floor has two bedrooms and two "cabinets".


Generally this type of building has a double fireplace, although there is references to two houses with a single fireplace each, one with two double fireplaces and one with a double and a single fireplaces. It seems that the double fireplace serves as partition and would then be more or less located in the middle of the building.


There is very little information, concerning the shape of roofs, but it seems that roofs with a hip on one end and a gable on the other are more common; however, it is too soon to generalize this evidence.




Only two two timber houses among those that have been studied have a basement, one with masonry walls and the other with earth walls; in the latter, the cellar is smaller than the house itself. The majority have foundations without any basement, which can be:

(1) rubble masonry (maçonnerie de moellon)

(2) dry masonry (mur à pierre sieche)

(3) stone and clay (en pierre et terre grasse)

(4) sill (sur solle - sur saules)

(5) pickets (sur piquets)

(6) planks and pickets, filled with dry masonry (sur fondements de pieux et madriers comblé d'un mur a pierre sieche).

The depth varies from 2 pieds for the dry masonry to 3 1/2 pieds for the rubble masonry.


The frame is the most important aspect of the house, but it is also the most difficult one to conclude on. Basing the hypothesis only on one document and one plan (753-1), it would appear that a heavier fill, like masonry, requires a stronger and bigger frame than a lighter fill, like pickets. For the Lartigue Houses, one filled with brick masonry and the other one with rubble masonry, the frame is said to be 12 pouces by 12 pouces (denviron 1 pied decarissage). In the case of another house, filled with pickets, the 4 corner posts (maîtres poteaux) are 10 pouces by 10 pouces and the other parts of the frame are as following:

(1) sills (solles): 8 x 9 pouces

(2) posts in the interior wall (poteaux qui se trouveront au droit de Refant): 8 x 8 pouces (this is the L shaped house)

(3) other posts (restant des colonnes): 5 x 8 pouces

(4) wall plates (sablières): 8 x 9 pouces

(5) cross-pieces (entretoises): 8 x 9 pouces.

If one takes only that document, it would appear that the size of the corner posts determines the size of the other parts of the frame which would be smaller than the corner posts.

From the plans, it seems that the corner posts are always driven into the foundations or earth; the sill is fixed to the corner posts, the other posts set on top of the sill and/or driven into the foundations or earth, and the wall plate put on top of the corner and secondary posts. Some variations occur, such as diagonal pieces between the posts (725-8) and braces joining, the corner post and the wal1 plate (733-8b, 733-9b and 753-1).

The space between each post varies within the same building, mainly because of the windows and doors and can be 10 pieds apart in one place and 3 pieds apart elsewhere. Not counting the openings, the average spacing is 3 and 4 pieds, from post to post, with extremes of 3 to 10 pieds; note that there is absolutely no symmetry in the spacing within a single wall. The distance between the sill and the wall plate is usually 7 pieds.

All the different pieces of the frame are assembled with mortice and tenon joints and pegged, and in two buildings they are made out of fir or pine (pin).


Mentions of fill between the posts are rare. However, those different types are met:

(1) nothing: in that case, the house is revetted inside and outside with pickets, boards or planks (n'y ayant que les poteaux de charpente ... entourée de planches en dedans et dehors)

(2) pickets or palisades: even if there is no mention it of it, those might very well be assembled with mortice and tenon joints and pegged to the sill and wall plate; in one case, the pickets are squared (garni en piquets en dedans);

(3) rubble masonry (moilon entre les poteaux)

(4) brick masonry (en Brique entre les poteaux)

(5) brick and rubble masonry (garnie de pierre et briques).

The most frequent type of fill is pickets or palisades, but rubble masonry seems to be almost as popular. There is absolutely no mention of "pierrotage" or "bousillage."


Pickets, boards, planks and mortar seem to be the most common revetment for timber houses.

Pickets are mentioned only once and it is difficult to say if it is a revetment or a fill, so that it should be regarded as doubtful. (entouré de piquets par dehors lambris de planches par en dedans). Mortar is used not only to fill the cracks between the pickets or palisades (les vides sont remplis de mortier), but also as plastering over the pickets or the masonry (crépie en chaux et sable).

Very often the whole building is revetted with boards: in one case, it is Boston boards, 1 pouce thick, lapping 1 pouce over each other, (with scarf joint [some historians disagree with this translation]) (en planche de Baston Brutte recouvrant d'un pouce l'une sur l'autre, d'un pouce a sifflet); those are not planed. In another case, it is still Boston boards with (scarf joint) but lapping 1 1/2 pouces (revêtue en planche de baston ... la planche sera jointe recouvrant l'une l'autre, d'un pouce et 1/2 a sifflet). This revetment is more frequent after 1745.


The roof can have 2 main trusses or more. Once again, the size of the different parts varies, depending on the size of the roof, the shape, the number of trusses and the function.

The house for which the dimensions of the frame have been given, includes those dimensions for the roof structure:

(1) Principal rafters (arbaletriers): 6 x 8 pouce

(2) Tie beams (entraits): 6 x 8 pouces

(3) King posts (poinçons): 6 x 8 pouces

(4) Ridge: 5 x 6 pouces

(5) Purlins (pannes): 5 x 6 pouces

(6) Rafters (chevrons): 4 x 4 pouces

In that case, the main trusses are spaced 10 pieds, but there is also a 30 by 20 pieds timber house that has only two main trusses.

The roofing is most often boards and shingles; (always) for the (same - above mentioned) house, it is specified Boston boards lapping on each other (planche de Baston recouvrent d'un pouce l'une sur l'autre a sifflet) (with scarf joints). But there are also single board and double board (de double planches) roofing; bark and slates seem -not to have been used for timber houses.


Almost all the houses have a wooden ground floor. In one case, it is mentioned that the floor joists are 8 x 9 pouces and spaced every 2 pieds and in another case, they are 7 x 8 pouces. In the first case, the flooring is made out of Boston planks and in the second one, it is 2 pouces thick fir or pine planks from Ile Royale, nailed with 2 nails on each joist (en madriers de 2 po. bois de pin du pays cloué de deux cloux sur chaque gisan).

Depending on whether the house has an attic or not, there may be a first floor; there can even be 3 floors in the same building. For the two houses mentioned above, the first one has a first floor with the same flooring as the ground floor and a second floor with the thickest Boston boards; second house has a first floor with boards from Ile Royale, planed and jointed on both sides (planches du pais blanchies et emboetté des deux côtés).


The only reference to partitions specifies Boston planks, but once again this should not be generalized until more information is available.


Doors and windows are rarely mentioned in the documents, but from the plans, it appears that the frame (sill, jambs, lintel, etc.) is cut into the frame of the house.

For the L shaped house, the following specifications are given.:

(1) doors:

(a) with door hinge (ferrée à paumelle)
(b) a latch with handle (un loquet à poignée)
(c) a lock (une serrure)

(2) doors for the "cabinets":

(a) with door hinge (ferré à paumelle)
(b) latch with handle (un loquet a poignée)

(3) door on the street:

(a) double leaf door (a deux battants)
(b) on four pintles (sur quatre gonds)
(c) four hinges (quatre pentures)
(d) a door- counterweight [?] (un valet)
(e) a lock (une serrure)
(f) a latch (un loquet)
(g) two bolts (deux verroux).

(4) Window sashes: on the ground floor:

(a) 24 window-panes 7 x 8 pouces

(5) on the first floor:

(a) 20 window-panes 7 x 8 pouces.

For another house, it is just said that a door in the corridor needs a lock (une serrure à deux tours) and to be doubled at the outside with Boston boards (doublée en planches de Baston en dehors).

There is no mention of, shutters, but plans 743-3 and 753-1 show what might be shutters and plan 743-3 indicates what might be a transom on top of the door.



This general introduction to timber houses should be considered as a guide for further research on specific aspects of architecture. Some indications like the fact that timber buildings have been imported from New England (the barracks of the Queen's Bastion and a house sold in 1753 or built by New Englanders - the A house on plan 753-1) might lead to important changes in the concept of domestic architecture in Louisbourg.