Building a Shelter With Log Scraps

The art of building a shelter with log scraps and a little experience, including skin, rack and stack wood, laying out a log, linking logs, a glossary of terms and illustrated instructions.


| November/December 1988



Lob Cabin Uprights

The uprights were cut flat on two sides and lined carefully.


Photo by David Clark

Just a few years ago, I Discovered what could be the most convenient log-building technique in existence—while working for British Columbia's regional recreation commission. The fact that I wasn't the first to discover it (Canadian settlers, Hudson's Bay Company and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had put it to widespread use over three centuries) highlights just how adaptable and functional the method is to have survived, soul intact, for more than 300 years.

French-Canadians call the technique piece sur piece (piece on piece), but I prefer the term short-log construction because it's more descriptive. This method of log building doesn't require arrow-straight whole timbers 20 feet or 30 feet long, as a traditional log cabin would; instead, logs 6 feet and 8 feet in length are used to make what's essentially a post-and-beam framework that's filled in with equally short pieces laid horizontally in between the posts.

For anyone, especially the would-be homebuilder with a creative bent and a tight budget, the technique has a lot going for it. For one thing, most of the timbers are short and can be managed by one or two people and a pickup truck—usually, only parts of the roof require logs longer than the standard vehicle bed. For another, chunks of this size can be smaller in diameter than full-length logs, making the selection process a whole lot easier. Too, trees that can't yield a sound 25 foot run may well provide two perfectly good 8 foot sections.

And short logs are considerably less expensive than longer ones if you're buying felled timber—especially in areas where pulp logging is big business. Aesthetically, the piece-on-piece method also offers a flexibility that's just not part of many other log-building repertoires: Logs that are round, square or a combination of both may be used; outside corners can be overlapped and notched, dovetailed or set into posts; the bays can be widely spaced, or narrowed to match the width of doors and windows; and infill material between the posts needn't be strictly timber or even horizontal—rock, masonry or pre-insulated panels are all reasonable candidates, whether the structure is a cabin, barn or outbuilding.

Finally, the technique is very forgiving to the part-time builder—particularly the novice who may be juggling the demands of a paying job and a still-alien skill. Common sense, a good back and little more than a chain saw, a broad hatchet, a slick and some measuring tools are collectively a fair substitute for experience in this game. Also, short log construction is not the kind that needs to be gone at hammer-and-tongs to the end; work on a wall or section can proceed independently of efforts elsewhere. The infill logs can be precut, and in one variation, the roof can be finished before the bays are even filled in.

Skin, Rack and Stack Wood Logs

I don't mean to imply that building a short log cabin is a summer picnic. In my case, the project started as the most frustrating experience I'd had in a long time. I was one of a three-man crew for the recreation commission, and our job was to build a small cross country ski shelter. As a team, we had little construction experience, and certainly not in the specialty of log building. At any rate, we did have a free source of rot-resistant red cedar, and began by peeling the bark off the logs that met our criteria: seasoned, straight and no less than 8 inch in diameter. We came up with a number of solid 10 inch logs about 12 feet in length, so they became our posts, to be sunk 3 1/2 feet into the earth, with 7 1/2 feet or more left aboveground to provide at least 6 inches for top trimming. It happens that this is the way we opted to anchor our structure.





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