Introduction To Balloon Framing

If you are an engineer or a student of engineering, you probably know a lot about the technical parts of designing and building a building.

But have you ever stopped to think about how framing has changed over time? Enter balloon framing, a method that used to be common but isn't used as much in modern building projects.

Even though it isn't used as much as it used to, balloon framing is still an important part of engineering history that can teach us a lot about how building design has changed over time.

So, whether you're an experienced engineer or just starting out, get ready to go back in time and learn all about balloon framing and how it fits into the world of engineering.

Introduction to Balloon Framing

Formal definition:

Framing for a building in which each stud is one piece from roof to foundation.

Balloon Framing vs Platform Framing

The way the studs are set up is the main difference between balloon and platform framing.

In balloon framing, the studs go from the foundation to the rafter plate in a single line.

In platform framing, however, the studs on each floor are separate.

This makes it easier for fire to spread in balloon frames because it creates a continuous span.

On the other hand, platform framing uses shorter pieces of wood because each floor is built separately and then placed on top of the floor below it.

This creates a much-needed fire block.

Balloon Framing

In balloon framing, long timbers are used that go from the floor to the roof.

From the late 1800s to the middle of the 1900s, this method of building was used a lot in the United States and Canada.

When you want a vaulted ceiling, a tall chimney, or an open foyer on two floors, balloon construction is a good choice.

It makes long spans without any breaks, which makes it easier for a fire to spread.

But cracks in the drywall are unlikely with balloon construction, which makes it more durable.

Platform Framing

The process of building a platform frame is easier than building a balloon.

It is also a faster way to build because of the way it is done.

One building is built on a solid foundation, and then the first floor is used as a platform to build the next floor.

Platform framing is a good way to save money because shorter 2x4s cost less per foot than longer ones.

Platform framing is safer than balloon framing because each floor added gives a much-needed fire block.

Is Balloon Framing Really Worth the Risk? Debunking the Myth of This 1800s Building Technique

Still hard to understand? Let me change the point of view a bit:

Want to make your next building project more interesting? Don't worry about high-tech materials or designs.

Instead, you could try balloon framing, which has been around since the 1800s.

Because who needs safety or stability when you can have all your studs in one piece from roof to foundation, right?

Okay, that was just a joke made to look like a TV ad.

Now let's go back to the explanation.

Evolution of Framing Practices

Before balloon framing was invented, most houses in the US were made with post-and-beam construction.

Heavy wooden beams and columns were connected to each other with mortise and tenon joints, and floor members were placed between the beams.

Log cabins were another option, which used even more wood but didn't need as much skill or sawing.

Invention of Machine-Made Nails and Lumber

In the early 1800s, machine-made nails and machine-cut lumber made balloon framing possible.

This method uses long vertical 2" x 4"s for exterior walls.

This method was cheaper and faster than post-and-beam construction because it used less skilled carpenters and was much lighter than post-and-beam construction.

Rise of Balloon Framing

Balloon framing was made before technology and tools got as good as they are today.

This makes it hard to make wall panels and put them up on site.

But it quickly caught on in North America from the 1830s to the mid-1950s because it was cheaper and worked better.

Balloon framing used longer pieces of wood, which made it possible to build spans without any breaks.

This made it a popular choice for vaulted ceilings, tall chimneys, and two-story foyers with no walls between the floors.

Fall of Balloon Framing

Even though balloon framing was popular, it is no longer used in modern construction because it lacks structural integrity and isn't safe.

House fires were made worse by balloon framing because there were no fire breaks between floors, which is a major safety concern.

Also, the International Residential Code (IRC) of 2006 doesn't allow balloon framing because it isn't strong enough.

It has since been replaced by techniques like platform framing and advanced framing techniques, which are more efficient and cost-effective.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Balloon Framing

Balloon framing is an older way of building with wood.

It involves building light wood frames around studs that run from the top to the bottom of a building.

The roof is made up of horizontal ceiling joists and sloping rafters that form a truss.

One benefit of balloon framing is that there isn't much vertical shrinkage, which means that the house will settle less over time.

But the wood used in balloon framing is big and hard to move, and the hollow spaces in the walls make it easy for fires to spread quickly.

On the other hand, platform framing is a more modern way to build.

In this method, one structure is built and well-supported by a foundation.

The second floor is then built using the first level as a base.

Platform framing has several advantages over balloon framing.

Simplicity and Cost-Effectiveness

It is easier to build than a balloon, so it can be put up quickly and with less trouble.

The method also uses shorter pieces of wood for each story, which saves money compared to using longer pieces.


Platform framing is safer than balloon framing because each floor adds a much-needed fire block.

Because balloon framing has hollow spaces in the walls, fire can spread quickly between floors.

Drywall Cracking

Also, drywall is less likely to crack in platform-framed buildings than in balloon-framed buildings.

With balloon framing, there are no breaks between the spans, which makes it easier for fire to spread.

Over time, this can cause the building to settle, which can cause cracks in the drywall.

Reinforcement and Updates of Balloon Framing

There are several ways to make balloon frames stronger or bring them up to date so they meet current building codes.

Between the studs, you could put fire-resistant materials like gypsum board or mineral wool insulation.

This can make it harder for fires to spread inside walls.

Installing sprinklers can also help put out fires and stop them from spreading.

Horizontal Blocking

Another option is to put horizontal blocking between the studs at regular intervals to stop fire from spreading up the wall through hidden spaces.

Horizontal blocking can also help keep the structure stable by keeping the studs from warping or twisting over time.

Compliance with Local Building Codes and Regulations

It's important to remember that any changes made to a building that already exists must follow the local building codes and rules.

This is done to make sure that the building is safe and up to code.

Before making any changes, it may be necessary to talk to a licensed professional engineer or architect to make sure they are in line with local codes and rules.

Load-Bearing Walls in Balloon Framing Gable Structures

The walls that hold up a balloon framing gable structure are made of 2x4s or 2x6s.

These walls support the structure's vertical and horizontal loads, such as the weight of the roof, floors, and any furniture or people who live there.

Most of the time, the load-bearing walls are the outside walls that go from the foundation to the roof.

Most interior walls aren't made to support the weight of the structure, so they don't carry any load.

Balloon Framing for Second Floors

With balloon framing, the wall studs run the full height of the outside walls, from the mudsills to the roof plates.

This makes it possible to build second floors.

Before platform framing came along in the 1950s, this method was used a lot.

Long, vertical 2" x 4" boards are used for the outside walls, and the floor joists for the second floor are usually nailed to these studs.

Fire Hazard

This method has been criticized, though, because there aren't any fire breaks between the floors.

Without firebreaks, a fire can spread quickly through the walls' empty spaces.

When fixing up an old house with a balloon frame, fire blocking can be added to deal with this problem.

Fire blocking is horizontal framing members that run perpendicular to the studs and stop fire from spreading through the wall cavities.

Fire Blocking in Balloon Framing

The two different ways to build with wood are called "balloon framing" and "platform framing".

The main difference between the two is that in balloon framing, the studs go from the foundation to the rafters, while in platform framing, the studs on each floor are separate.

Fire Blocking in Platform Framing

In platform framing, fire blocking is usually put in between the studs horizontally.

This makes a barrier that stops fire from spreading between the wall cavities.

This fire blocking is needed at regular intervals, usually every 10 feet or so.

Fire Blocking in Balloon Framing

In balloon framing, on the other hand, there is no fire blocking between the floors because the studs go all the way from the floor to the roof.

This makes continuous spans without any breaks, and it makes balloon framing more likely to catch fire, which is dangerous.

To fix this problem, extra fire blocking can be added to balloon-framed walls, like horizontal blocking between the studs or mineral wool insulation, to help stop fire from spreading.

In conclusion, balloon framing has less vertical shrinkage, but because it doesn't have fire blocking, it can be a fire hazard.

When compared to balloon construction, platform framing uses less wood and is automatically fire-proof.

This makes it easier and safer to set up.

Before making any changes to an existing building, it is important to follow local building codes and regulations and talk to licensed professionals.

Identifying and Repairing Balloon Framing

To tell if a house has balloon framing, look for long vertical 2" x 4"s that go from the sill on top of the foundation to the roof without stopping.

The style of the house and the use of thick planks for the outside sheathing are also signs.

Repairing and Updating Balloon Framing

If a house is found to have balloon framing, it may need updates or repairs for safety or to meet building codes.

Some of these are:

Fire stops are pieces of wood that are put between studs to slow the spread of fire.

  • Installing fire-resistant materials: Gypsum board or mineral wool insulation can be put between the studs to improve fire resistance.
  • Adding horizontal blocking: Between the studs, you can put horizontal blocking at regular intervals to stop fire from spreading up through hidden spaces in walls.
  • Meeting local building codes and rules: It is important to make sure that any changes made to an existing building meet local building codes and rules.

It may be necessary to talk to a licensed professional engineer or architect.

Sprinkler systems can help control fires and stop them from spreading.

It's important to remember that updates and repairs that are needed for safety and legality must be done by licensed professionals.

To make sure the changes to the structure are safe and effective, the local building codes and rules must be followed to the letter.

Platform vs Balloon Framing

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Use cases

Used in:Description:
Preservation of history:Many older buildings were built with balloon framing, and when making repairs or renovations, it may be necessary or desirable to keep the original building methods. In these situations, balloon framing may be the best way to keep the truth and integrity of history.
Cost savings:In some places where the cost of labor is low, balloon framing may still be a cheap way to build. This is especially true in places where building rules aren't as strict or where fires don't happen often.
Unique design:With balloon framing, walls can be longer and taller without having to have support points in the middle. This can be helpful in designs that need large open spaces or high ceilings because it gets rid of the need for walls or columns that carry weight.
Building in out-of-the-way places:In some remote places where it's hard to get to or move traditional building materials, balloon framing may be a good option. The method requires few materials and can be put together with hand tools, which makes it a good choice for building in remote areas or in places without electricity.
What the owner wants:In some cases, a building owner may just like the way a balloon-framed building looks or feels. Even though it might not be the most practical choice, it is still a good option for people who care more about how something looks than anything else.


As we come to the end of our discussion of balloon framing, it's clear that this once-popular way of building has been used less and less.

But that doesn't mean it doesn't have anything to do with today.

When we look at the history of balloon framing, we can learn a lot about how building design has changed over time and how engineering practices have changed as well.

Possibly most importantly, balloon framing shows that even the most well-known and long-lasting building techniques can change as new challenges and opportunities arise.

So, as you study or work in engineering, keep an open mind and don't forget the lessons of the past.

They may be the key to the future.

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