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Hammerbeam Roof: Definition & Design

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

How do architects build a ceiling over a wide open space? Can they do it using only wood? In this lesson, learn what a hammerbeam roof is and explore how it is designed.

What is a Hammerbeam Roof?

Sometimes, builders want to create a large open space that's not broken up with columns and other vertical support devices. But how do they construct it if they're using wood? They might build a space with a hammerbeam roof.

Hammerbeam roof in an English church
Hammerbeam roof

A hammerbeam roof is a roof that has short horizontal beams attached to the main rafters in a ceiling. Basically it's a truss system. A truss system is a combination of beams, braces, and rafters that help support a roof's weight. In a hammerbeam roof, a series of short wooden horizontal beams, curved support beams, and wooden struts support the weight of the roof. The 'hammer beam' is the short beam at the base that attaches to the wall.

Diagram of a hammerbeam roof
Diagram of hammerbeam roof

Hammerbeam roof systems developed in English architecture in the medieval period. They allowed for higher ceilings while using timber frame construction instead of masonry or stone.

Design of a Hammerbeam Roof

When building a hammerbeam roof, you use a series of short horizontal beams that go upward and inward. A curved support brace is added under them. The curved brace is important because it holds the hammer beam rigid and keeps it in place. A strut, another wooden roof timber, connects the hammerbeam to the rafter above. Sometimes an arched wooded rib spans the length of the ceiling between the hammerbeam trusses. A ceiling then has a whole series of these beams and arches running the room's length, usually placed at intervals of around ten feet.

Hammerbeam roofs were used in places where large gathering spaces were desired, like churches, colleges, palaces, or civic structures. One wonderful example of a hammerbeam roof can be found at Westminster Hall, built for Richard III in London around 1398.

Hammerbeam roof in Westminster Hall in London
Roof of Westminster Hall

There, an oak hammerbeam roof helps span a long ceiling in impressive style. Sometimes buildings might have a double hammerbeam roof, which repeats the system of beams and braces twice, creating a more complex ceiling appearance. Later, builders in places like the United States also used hammerbeam roofs, especially on large structures like churches.

Close up view of a hammerbeam roof in a building in Maryland
Hammerbeam roof detail

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