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“Summer Beams”

By Sue Baldwin on May 15, 2014

What is the proper definition of a Summer Beam?

Exposed Beams in Von Trapp Family Lodge

a.  A ray of light coming from the sky on a sunny day

b.  A timber beam harvested in the summer months

c. A large horizontal timber used as a load bearing beam

If you guessed “b”, you are absolutely incorrect!  Here’s your consolation prize and a little education before you go….

“There are many explanations and speculations about the etymology of the term “summer beam,” which has been used since the fourteenth century and refers to the massive beams that you can see in the center of the ceiling of each room.

Residential Exposed Beams and Stone Fireplace

Residential Exposed Beams and Stone Fireplace

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the origin to the Anglo-French word sumer or somer, meaning packhorse, and referring to the function of the beam bearing a heavy load.

Another possible derivation is from the Latin word summa, meaning highest or greatest (as in summa cum laude), and referring to the great size and primary importance of the beam.” **

A Summer Beam has also been defined as ‘a major and usually massive horizontal timber which spans the girts or plate’. It is the epitome of ‘load-bearing’ and is derived from the word ‘sommier’, which is French for “beast of burden”.  This makes sense, since it is carrying the burden of the structure above it.

In short, the correct answer is “c”.

Timber Home Kitchen

** http://www.historicnewengland.org/historic-properties/homes/boardman-house/faqs


About the Author

Sue Baldwin

  1. Ben Lucarelli says:

    Thanks for your insights. Had to look up after a discussion at lunch with the guys at work who had never heard of a summer beam. I’m a finish carpenter, so I’m usually not timber framing but have renovated old houses and thereby heard summer beam thrown about.

  2. John Schmid says:

    I had never heard the term “summer beam” but here in Ohio Amish country where I used build pole barns and I’ve been on ten or twelve timber frame barn raisings, I have heard the term in the Pennsylvania Dutch language, “deich zug,” or “dike tsuke,” which roughly translates, “through train.” The French “beast of burden” becomes an “express train” in Amish country (Holmes County).

  3. Bob Flanagan says:

    Our house along the Delaware Bay in Cumberland County in deep southern New Jersey was built (the original portion, anyway) in 1690 and has its original summer beam. It’s 17.5” broad and 7.5” deep and has 1.5” wide chamfers ending in lamb’s tongue stops.
    (Tried to include a photo but couldn’t.)

  4. Anne Dwyer says:

    I’ve been watching the new season of “This (Really) Old House”; the project is a First Period house in Ipswich MA. Summer beams were mentioned several times in one of the early episodes, and I was curious abt what a summer beam is. Thanks for the info!

  5. Malik Nawaz says:

    Question 1: Is summer beam is similar to what we have steel girders in steel construction. Which takes the load of other beams.
    Question 2: I am helping a friend to convert his hold barn into wedding hall. Any technical sources to use as reference?

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