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Building a Cabin with a Portable Sawmill


The world is still dark when I wake with only the faintest hint of red on the eastern horizon. It’s cold outside. As daylight begins to emerge, the early morning greyness is reflected on the frost covering our world.

I slowly make my way down the stairs to add wood to the stove and pour a cup of coffee. My wife, Paula, is already up getting ready for school with bacon and eggs frying on the stove. After breakfast, we say our goodbyes as she heads off to teach her students. I walk down the hill and get on my tractor to feed the cows before I also head to my day job. By now, the sun is breaking over the horizon and smoke is rising from the flue.

The world is waking up and the horses are kicking their feed buckets nickering for my attention. The heifers start working their way to their feed troughs. On most mornings, I can see a dozen or so deer grazing in our hayfield below the cabin. I set my coffee mug into its holder as I crank the tractor to life.


Responding to Economic Shocks with Self Sufficiency

This is our life. It’s a good life. A life we worked hard to have. The financial crash of 2008 hit a little too close to home. Watching so many others lose their life savings and homes as the result of a financial system out of control, we realized how close we came to being part of that statistic.

It was then that we decided we would choose a different life. A simple life. A good life. We wanted to invest in things that matter and remove ourselves from the things that offered an illusion of security and nothing more. We wanted to be self-reliant, but money was tight.

We had a couple of things going for us. A year earlier, I had purchased a Wood-Mizer LT15 portable sawmill to mill lumber for repairs around the farm and we had a plot of land that was mortgage-free. But with it feeling like the world was falling apart around us, we decided to do what it takes to build a log cabin from scratch. We just had a few rules:

1. It had to be built completely debt free.

2. There would be no deadline on when it would be finished.

3. It had to be built strong enough to endure generations of use.

4. It had to be beautiful.

Cabin Built from Downed Trees

So one night I sketched out a floor plan on a piece of paper and started searching for trees. A few months before we made the decision to build, a wave of tornadoes blew through Arkansas and caused a great deal of damage across the state. Part of that damage was in the Ozark National Forest about an hour north of the farm where the storm had blown over about 50 mature yellow pines.

When I called the forest service, they offered me a salvage permit to log the trees. And over the course of a month I logged out the timber with nothing more than a chainsaw, a tractor and a utility trailer. Then during what seemed like one of the hottest Arkansas summers in history, I cranked up the LT15 sawmill and began milling the pine into lumber and 6-by-12 logs.

It was over the course of the next four years of working weekends and evenings and cutting out all the unessential expenses in our lives that the pile of pine logs became an 800-square-foot log cabin. And when the last nail was driven, it was ours. With the exception of some plywood, every stick of lumber in that cabin was milled by me and my sawmill.

I am asked quite often where I learned to build a log cabin and the truth is that’s the wrong question. The knowledge of building a cabin isn’t the hard part. You learn as you go. The hard part is getting over inertia. Newton’s first law of motion says that an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by another force. That cabin wasn’t going to build itself.

The hardest part was getting up one day and actually doing something tangible to make it a reality. After that, the hard part was dedicating what little free time I had to the cabin and learning to be okay with slow progress.

It was cutting out things we used to consider necessities and working part-time jobs to pay for materials. It was the cold weekends I slept in the cabin without windows or heat so I could save gas money and time driving back and forth. And it was stepping away from building it when I was getting tired and sloppy. But then one day it was finished and as much as the landscape had changed, so had I, for the better.

Home Milling Lumber

I owe a lot to that LT15. Of all the tools at my disposal, it proved to be one of the most valuable at making my goal a reality. While not a large mill, it’s a workhorse. It chewed through every log I offered, no matter how hard, and never failed me. It isn’t complicated to operate and it’s willing to work all day every day. And that’s the way I like it.

Years later, it’s still going strong as I mill lumber for barns, sheds, fences and other projects around the farm, saving me thousands of dollars in lumber. So we continue to build our world a little at a time as money and time allow. Each day a little closer to being completely self-sufficient. Each day building the life that we want. A deliberate life. A good life.

The Wood-Mizer Team includes a diverse group of individuals including woodworkers, farmers, homesteaders, arborists, entrepreneurs, and more who are excited to share their knowledge and experiences of working with wood from forest to final form. Connect with Billy Reeder and Cabin People on Facebook and YouTube, or visit the Cabin People website.

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