Steve Amstutz ’79
This profile originally appeared in Bowdoin magazine, Vol. 72, No. 2, Winter 2001
All nature is but art, unknown to thee,
All chance, direction which thou canst not see
Steve Amstutz saw himself as an anthropologist. His route to timber framing from Sociology and Anthropology was, he thought, merely a detour. Steve turned to carpentry after college primarily to take a break from academics, but also to explore a strong desire to work with his hands. "Ironically," he says, "carpentry provided me with a way to finance travels through the Andes and the Himalayas where the cultures I was most interested in anthropology existed." Twenty years later, the nature of Steve's art reads like a highway billboard, and that well-worn sidetrack has become the thoroughfare of his professional career.
The first time Steve saw a timber frame raised was on the Bowdoin Quad by a local timber framer at a Maine Festival of Arts. "As I recall, I did have some roots in the profession," he confesses. "I once visited my family homestead in Putnam County, Ohio, where I toured a very solid 43-foot by 70-foot oak timber frame barn with original slate roof my great-grandfather built in 1881." When, after ten years in the home renovation business, Steve decided to build a home of his own, he naturally decided it should be a timber frame.
Steve and the three other timber framers who comprise Amstutz Woodworking practice a relatively traditional style of timber framing, cutting frames by hand where all posts, beams, knee braces, and other structural elements are connected to each other with wooden joints. They use a variety of handheld power tools to "rough out" the joinery, but to achieve the required degree of accuracy and exactness of dimension, they finish all joints with the traditional hand chisels and planes. Every timber in a frame, (and in a medium sized house that can be more than 200 timbers), passes through Steve's shop where it's crafted by skilled human hands into a specific frame component before it's transported to the job site and erected in a few dramatic days.
"I have a great love and reverence for wood," says Steve. "And my craft allows me to work with wood in a relatively natural state." He takes pride in the fact that Amstutz Woodworking frames are freestanding structures that don't utilize steel connectors. The houses Steve builds incorporate historical, time-tested traditional joinery with state of the art methods influenced by modern engineering. "It's all a variation of a mortise and tenon joint," he explains, "in which a tenon, (a blade or tongue of wood, cut on one end of a timber parallel to the grain of the wood), is inserted into a mortise, (a squared hole of the same dimension as the tenon), and secured by a wooden peg driven through a hole in both the mortise and tenon." Like the great medieval structures of Europe, the frames that Steve constructs will last centuries if the homes are properly maintained. "In a society where so many or our material possessions-including many of our houses-are disposable, I find that an exhilarating thought," he says. Steve's clients tend to be people who want their home to have a unique and timeless character. They value and draw pleasure from the fact that the timber frame in their home-the major architectural element itself-is crafted and raised by caring human hands, the hands of individuals whom they get to know personally. "I work closely with clients and architects, frequently doing design work myself. In fact, one of the most rewarding aspects of my work is the close associations I develop with my clients."
That in mind, "the greatest pleasure of running a home-based business," Steve says, "has been having my daughter grow up in and around her father's profession."