The charred roof of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was once a legend that “astounded the Middle Ages” and still fascinates master carpenters, Thomas Buechi of the Charpente Concept group told AFP.
It is possibly one of the greatest masterpieces for French master carpenters. For a painter it would have been a bit as if the Mona Lisa went up in smoke.
The framework (known as “the forest”) was mythical, it was a legend for several reasons. It was so complex that it astounded the Middle Ages.
First of all, it took 50 years to prepare the timber. They began cutting around 1,500 trees, sometime around the year 1200.
These were laid for a year with the top turned to the North to align them with the energy of the earth. The bark was then removed and they were immersed in a swamp for 25 years to preserve the wood from fungus and insects. Around 1225, the wood was removed from the water and the trunks were sawed into beams and allowed to dry for another 25 years.
Given average lifespans at the time, it meant that most of those who cut down the trees never saw the roof structure.
The French revolution left the cathedral in ruins. In the middle of the 19th century the decision to redo the spire was made.
Rebuilding this masterpiece would involve all professionals in the wood sector. It will be a massive mobilisation.
But thanks to a small yet enduring corps of artisans specialised in traditional stone and woodwork techniques, France’s ambitious goal of restoring the fire-ravaged Notre-Dame cathedral within five years may be within reach, experts say.
But officials in the sector add they will probably need to hire hundreds of new apprentices to carry on the intricate and often arduous work, much of which can’t be replicated by modern technology.
“It’s a niche market. There aren’t that many projects but there aren’t that many of us either,” said Benoit Dulion, who heads a firm in the central Yonne department that restores timber roof frames.
For decades the French state has spent heavily on the exacting upkeep of its cultural treasures, ensuring the preservation of artistic and architectural know-how dating back to the Middle Ages.
Maintaining the country’s 40,000 registered monuments is effectively a full-time job, with schools passing on time-honed techniques to successive generations.
In France there are plenty of oaks, the wood will not be a problem. They could use old trees and leave more space for young ones to grow. In the Troncais forest (in central France) there are oak trees that are several hundred years old.
Experts say today’s technology would allow work to proceed faster. For seasoning of wood and replacing the roof, they say, it won’t take more than five years.