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September 3, 2021

The Beautiful Borgund Stave Church in Norway, Built From Wood Without a Single Nail From the Late 12th Century

Norway became a Christian nation during the tenth and eleventh centuries, following the age of the Vikings. No sooner had the new religion taken hold than a period of church building began which lasted for several centuries.

The Borgund Stave Church (Norwegian: Borgund Stavkyrkje) was built sometime between 1180 and 1250 AD outside of what is now Lærdal, Norway at the end of the longest fjord (Sogn fjord) in the country. It is one of the oldest and best preserved stave churches in Norway.

Built by the same people that built Viking longboats many of the construction techniques are similar. Norway has a long history of wood construction, probably due to large forests and rough terrain. It was one of a few countries that refused to build their early churches out of stone and instead chose wood to build places of worship.

The stave churches were built of a special type of fir called “malmfuru” (no longer available) which was very hard, with great size and straight trunks. The closest approximation to this favored fir in North America is the Douglas fir of the Pacific Northwest. It is of Douglas fir the Chapel in the Hills is constructed.

Although simple in appearance the techniques used to build the church are intricate and a marvel of engineering. The name Stavkirke comes from the use of staves (the large pillers) used to support the church structure. The church was built on a foundation of flat stones used to elevate the foundation beams from the ground and moisture. The walls were made from vertical planks topped with four more beams to support the roof.

The first churches would have had simple peaked roofs. The typical stave church became taller and taller, with a series of roofs, each one offset and becoming smaller as the church reached toward the sky. To support all this, an intricate system of beams and additional staves became necessary. In addition to the main body of the church, very often there was built a covered passageway, or “ambulatory,” entirely around the outside of the structure. This provided additional protection to the foundation from the harsh weather found in the region.

The only metal used was on the ornate door furnishings and locks. Instead of nails, they used wooden dowel pins. This may very well be one of the reasons why some stave churches have stood for over eight hundred years. The wooden dowels allow the building to expand and contract with the changes in temperature and humidity, instead of being rigidly held in place with iron hardware.


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