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Notre Dame Carpenters Turn Back the Clock with Medieval Techniques

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With precision and energy, a team of carpenters used medieval techniques to raise — by hand — a three-ton oak truss on Saturday in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, a replica of the wooden structures that were consumed in the landmark’s devastating April 2019 fire.

The demonstration to mark European Heritage Days gave hundreds of people a firsthand look at the methods used 800 years ago to build the triangular frames in the nave of Notre Dame.

It also showed that the decision to replicate the cathedral in its original form was the right one, according to Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, who heads the cathedral’s reconstruction.

“It shows … firstly that we made the right choice in choosing to rebuild the carpentry identically, in oak from France,” Georgelin said in an interview.

“Secondly, it shows us the … method by which we will rebuild the framework, truss after truss.”

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A debate over whether the new spire should have a modern design or whether the trusses should be made of fireproof cement ended with the decision in July to respect Notre Dame’s original design and materials.

A total of 25 trusses are to be installed at an unknown date in the cathedral nave. Philippe Gourmain, a forestry expert working on the cathedral project, said the carpentry phase will not come before 2022.

“The problem of Notre Dame is not a carpentry problem. We have the wood. We know how to do it,” Gourmain said. “The big issue is regarding the stone.”

Some stones which support the carpentry were damaged by the fire, and “it’s not so easy now” to find similar stone, he said.

Do you support the decision to honor Notre Dame's original design?

French President Emmanuel Macron wants the cathedral reopened in 2024 in time for the Paris Olympic Games, a deadline that some have called unrealistic.

For the moment, the delicate task of dismantling melted scaffolding, which was originally erected to refurbish the now-toppled spire, continues. That job, started in early June, will be completed in October.

The soaring cathedral vaults are also being cleared of debris by 35 specialists on ropes. The organ with its 8,000 pipes was removed for repair in early August.

It is not yet known what technique will be used to create and install the wooden trusses.

The truss mounted for the weekend display is a replica of truss No. 7. With rope cables and a medieval pulley system, the carpenters slowly pulled the truss they built in July up from the ground where it was laid out.

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“It’s a moment to see, ancestral techniques that last. There is the present and the past and it links us to our roots,” said Romain Greif, an architect who came with his family to watch the display. “It’s an event.”

In a final touch, once the No. 7 truss replica was raised on high, a carpenter shimmied up the wooden beams to tie an oak branch to the top of the triangular structure, a symbol of prosperity and a salute to the workers, a tradition still honored in numerous European countries.


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