Our Race to Build a Homemade Cabin Before Winter

Five Maine adventurers built a wooden cabin in three months and for only $400, including diagrams.
By Richard Holicky
November/December 1975
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Figure 1 cabin diagram.
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How five manually illiterate individuals constructed a snug Maine homemade cabin in three months and for only $400!

The building of a house, barn, or garage strikes most people as a formidable task reserved only for professionals (or at least experienced weekend handymen). We were no exception . . . and when our group began to construct a homemade cabin in September, it was with mixed feelings of uncertainty and youthful exuberance. For five more or less manually illiterate individuals to attempt to fabricate a year-round dwelling in the western "mountains" of Maine seemed preposterous (though, at the same time, somehow natural). Yet, three months later — as I sit at this desk and look out through double-paned windows at the cold, snowy landscape — I remember the job as rather simple. ("Uncomplicated", I mean . . . not "quick and easy"!)

Building a Homemade Cabin Before Winter

Our intention was to build a survival shelter — one which could serve as a house for a year or two and as a woodshed and workshop for many years after — and I think we succeeded pretty well. The fruit of our efforts is a 20 feet by 30 feet building with two 8 feet by 15 feet lofts upstairs, separated by a storage area that measures nearly 15 feet by 20 feet. That's space enough for two couples and most of their necessary possessions.

No, the house isn't the Ritz or the Waldorf-Astoria, but it certainly is adequate protection against even our demanding central Maine climate. The dwelling didn't take us long to erect, either. The first post went into the ground September 5, and we moved out of our tents and into the lofts on October 16 . . . a total of six weeks. We didn't buy a stick of lumber, and the whole shebang cost less than $400 to put up.

Work actually commenced in July, when two people began cutting balsam firs for framing and walls. Within six weeks we'd felled, peeled, and hauled to our building site approximately 175 poles that averaged 5 inches in diameter and 20 feet in length.

Meanwhile, three more of us were busy scrounging and salvaging lumber, windows, and other building materials from Portland, 70 miles away. The booty included over 600 feet of 2 by 4's, three large sheets of metal roofing, eight sheets of 1/4-inch plywood, a few 8 by 10 beams, 10 doors, and about 25 windows. The bulk of the wood came from a building that was being remodeled . . . and not only was the lumber free, but our crew got paid for tearing it down and carting it away After countless trips to and from Portland in two pickups and a van, we had almost everything we needed. By the first of September, it was time to start construction.

Our first step was to hand-dig holes 4 to 5 feet deep for tile posts (all of which were treated several times with flowing coats of Pentapreservative to keep them from rotting in the ground). We laid out the locations for our house supports as shown in Figure 1 (see Figure 1 in the image gallery), with the holes along the long walls spaced about six feet apart. (A few buried boulders that a four-wheel-drive jeep wouldn't budge caused us to place some of the uprights closer together or farther apart.) On the ends of the building the poles were set almost 7 feet in from each corner, and a line of five uprights, spaced 7-1/2 feet apart, was added down the middle. These and the posts of the side walls would of hold up the roof.

We installed the largest fir trunks we had — most of them 6 inches in diameter at the small end — plus two center uprights of milled lumber (one 6 by 8, the other 6 by 10) in the above holes. All were set with a plumb line, as nearly perpendicular as possible. If the whole batch of uprights had been lumberyard stock we could have done the job more quickly and easily with the help of a 6-foot level . . . but small curves in the fir trunks made this impossible, and a certain amount of estimating went into getting the supports straight.

Next came the plates (horizontal pieces on top of the uprights which support the rafters). We chose milled lumber for this purpose, on the theory that it would be easier to notch the roof beams to fit their rectangular surfaces.

Plates for the long walls were made of 2 by 4's and 2 by 6's, nailed together as shown in Figure 2 (see Figure 2 in the image gallery) to provide a seat for the joists. The end walls were topped with doubled 2 by 6's. This type of construction meant a number of splices in each beam (how many 30-foot-long 2 by 6's have you ever seen?) and we took care to make the joints fall directly above vertical poles. The plates were nailed together on the ground, then lifted onto the uprights and toenailed in place.

Next came joists, the horizontal timbers which reach from one long wall to the other. These provide support for a second floor, and — more important — hold the walls together when the weight of snow on the roof tends to force them apart. Since most of our milled lumber was under 10 feet long, we substituted poles placed 3 or 4 feet apart. Every 5 feet we installed a set of "lockers" . . . timbers which are notched into each plate and into each other (see Figure 3 in the image gallery). This strengthening system more or less assures that the walls will stay in place unless the joists literally break in two.

Then the fun started: We began work on the roof. The first step was to install a massive ridge board (more than 4 by 6, and probably much larger than it really needed to be). This was done by running uprights to ridge level from the center plate (directly above the posts set in the ground), cutting 2 by 5's to match the distances between supports, and splicing them on each side with 2 by 4's the entire length of the house.

The rafters are poles which rest on the ridge board at the housetop and on the plates at the walls. Those second ends were tricky, since a notch — traditionally called a "bird's mouth" — had to be made in each one to make the timber sit flat for nailing and to prevent it from sliding off the beam. Cutting the two necessary angles into a round surface with a moderate degree of accuracy proved quite a task . . . but after hours of practice, we came up with a miter box that gave us 50 fairly good rafters. These we nailed two or .three times into the plate and once (twice if the pole was large enough) at the ridge.

By this time we were excited. The thing we'd spent four and five hours a day building for the past two and a half weeks was beginning to look like a house! The only problem was that the structure shook in the breeze and would obviously have to be reinforced. Old-time barns have numerous diagonal braces to prevent racking and swaying, and we chose to follow the same method (see Figure 4 in the image gallery). A number of 2 by 4's notched into the uprights and run up to the plates at an angle not only stopped the shaking but gave the horizontal member some extra support.

So far, so good . . . but we were running out of lumber and still had nearly 900 square feet of roof to cover. This problem was complicated by the fact that our pole rafters, not being perfectly straight or of uniform size, gave us an uneven surface on which to work.

After talks with several local people, some pricing of new boards, and much thinking, we decided to buy metal roofing. We felt that — with the aid of some shims — such a covering should be able to handle irregularities better than wood and tar paper . . . and we liked the idea of being able to apply it in just one day (an important consideration, as it was — by that time — already the middle of a Maine October). So we placed old 1 by 3 flooring, about 12 inches apart on center, across the rafters and shimmed the planks to make the surface as even as possible. Then the metal roof went up . . . eight hours' work for four people. After that, the rest of the building was a cinch.

Two walls were closed in with 1-inch-thick boards of various widths nailed to the uprights, a third —- one of the house's long sides — was made up entirely of doors salvaged from burned-out buildings, and the last was covered with vertical fir poles. These various surfaces were battened on the inside and covered with tar paper on the outside (except for the pole wall, which was left bare). The house was then banked to the eaves with baled hay for insulation . . . which we planned to remove in the spring and spread on the garden.

We made all our own windows by framing each one with 2 by 4's, separating the double thicknesses of glass with small strips of wood, and nailing the entire units in place. Come spring we'll install ventilating slots in the walls to get a breath of clean country air.

Within seven weeks of our start, we'd finished closing in the house and had begun work on its inside. The floor was built of pallets and platforms, nearly all of which were scrounged from various dumps. Two interior walls were made of old barn and shed boards — free for the tearing down and hauling away — and the other partitions were covered with several layers of cardboard. Shelves and hanging pots and pans help to hide this material and make the place look more lived-in and homey.

Building the shed house was an incredible experience which taught us more about construction — and about each other — than we'd ever anticipated. We understand the structure we live in . . . and we learned a lot which should be passed on to help others avoid the mistakes we made. The following points may seem obvious, but still need to be emphasized.

[1] Plan. After you think you've got everything thoroughly together, plan again and force yourself to anticipate every conceivable hassle. We didn't do this, and wasted a lot of time as a result. Each new phase of the project presented new problems, and we soon realized why builders work with blueprints. It's not union red tape, it's simply good sense.

[2] Scrounge and salvage everything you can. Enough wood is thrown away each day to make a thousand houses, I'm certain. Given time, patience, and a place to stash the finds, anyone can accumulate nearly all the raw materials he or she will ever need to build a pigpen, barn, house, or penthouse.

[3] Don't be intimidated by your own lack of knowledge. Construction, if kept simple, is a fairly rational procedure. Look at garages, barns, and similar structures-their exposed framing has much to teach you-and read a few good carpentry books several times each to gain an understanding of the basics. Then, with hammer, saw, patience, perseverance, and planning, do it.

[4] Take your time. Unfortunately, we couldn't follow this advice ourselves. Two weeks after we began to build there was frost on the ground nearly every morning, and we had neither a house nor any wood cut to heat it with. We had to hurry . . . but if you can take it easy, the whole trip is both more rational and more exciting.

[5] Seek out old-timers and local country people for help and suggestions. Everyone we ran into and every passing visitor had something to offer. . . a building to be torn down, old metal roofing for the woodshed, the names of dealers with the best prices, hints on bracing, or — at the very least — a kind, tactful word of advice or encouragement.

WHAT WE SPENT 

Nails $ 60.00 We used about 40 pounds of screw nails. . . pretty necessary, as a good deal of our wood was extremely green.
Pentapreservative and kerosene $25.00 We treated nearly everything with Penta at least once, and all the poles at least three or four times.
Metal roofing $215.00 This included sixteen 8 by 14 sheets, ridge caps, and nails. If you use metal roofing, get sheets 2 feet wide. . . I'm sure they're easier to work with. Aluminum nails, by the way, are really delicate, bend easily, and cause much cursing.
Window points and putty $5.00  
Stovepipe $20.00 We have two stoves, one for heating and one for cooking.
Tar paper $10.00  
Plastic $7.50 We used a roll on the inside of the walls to cut down on moisture leakage and drafts.
Total:  $342.50 

I'm sure we laid out a bit more than this (we're rather poor bookkeepers) . . . but I'm also certain that the "bit more" was less than $50.00, which still makes the total under $400. In addition, we spent money on gas for hauling wood, and time — labors of love, excitement, and learning — on the tearing down of the old buildings and the building of the new.

Yes, we made mistakes . . . yet somehow we came out OK. Right now it's snowing outside and the thermometer reads 25 degrees Fahrenheit . . . but it's 65 degrees in the house as I sit here typing. I look around and see old friends in some of the rafters and joists (the ones I dragged out of the woods or peeled in humid, buggy 90 degree weather). I remember the rush I got from sitting on the ridge board and looking at the bright autumn colors . . . or the day we moved in and experienced a hailstorm (which was outside) from the snug inside. I remember and I smile.

All can tell you is, "Build . . . it's a great experience!"


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