Building a Log Cabin

When the Williams family's home was destroyed by a tornado, and the insurance company refused to pay, they decided to build a new home on their own. Log by log, they created a 4,300 square foot home, even though they had never done construction before.
By Robert L. Williams
April/May 1995
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After a tornado destroyed their home, the Williams family decided to build a new one. And they didn't let a lack of experience stop them.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/KROPIC
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" If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost," Henry David Thoreau once wrote. "That is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."  

Thoreau's words came back to me with doubly renewed emphasis recently when I read an article in the Charlotte Observer about a series of "dream" houses in the Queen City. To me, the dream was a nightmare: the "everyday" house in the development costs $400,000, while the "middle priced" house sells for $739,000!

But, the article went on to say, there is much more than mere house at these prices: the buyer also gets, in addition to the 3,500 to 4,500 square feet of living space, a 0.7-acre lot with an impressive view and a guarantee that someone will not put up a mobile home next door.

At that point I put down the article and announced to my wife Elizabeth and our 17-year-old son that we should all go out and hug as much of our house as we possibly could. The truth is that we did hug the house, in bits and pieces.

A Life Interrupted

You see, we built our house recently from trees that were uprooted by a horrible tornado that, in passing, also demolished the pre-Civil War house we had lived in for the past two decades. When the high winds had left the scene, so had our home insurance company. Not a cent did we manage to collect on the house, furnishings, personal belongings, or out-buildings. So what we had left to show for our labors was a heap of debris (which the Federal Emergency Management Agency decreed was not a total loss) and a heartful of memories—and the crying need for a new house.

We reasoned, not originally, that if we should make lemonade when life gives us lemons, we should also make log hoses when life gives us storms and uprooted trees. My wife wanted to know if I had ever built a log house, helped to build one, watched one being built, or read a book about building one. When I answered negatively to all four queries, she demanded to know why I thought we, as inexperienced carpenters and totally novice house builders, could in fact construct a log house.

"There are only two major requirements," I said facetiously. "You must have a sharp chain on your saw and you must be smarter than a log." The truth is, I was scared to death.

But as we stood among the debris of our former house, and our son Robert asked, sadly, what we were going to do, I pointed to a battered old chain saw that had survived the storm and reminded Robert of his favorite poem by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling advises that if we can bear to hear the truths we've spoken "twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools," or watch the things we gave our lives to, broken, and stoop to build them up "with worn-out tools," we'll deserve the title of "Men" and, in my wife's case, "Super Woman."

So we began to work. Later, when people asked what our greatest motivation was, I responded, "Desperation!"

We started by drawing our own house plans. Actually, my wife did. Her plans included wiring and plumbing diagrams, although she had never drawn plans even for a doghouse before.

Her drawing, which took place on a yellow legal pad that somehow survived the storm, included a basement level with a huge second den, a play room, a large writing office for the three of us, a workshop, and a photo darkroom. The ground level included a large kitchen, a familyroom/livingroom combination, a dining room, two huge bedrooms, one bathroom, and a sewing room/pantry combination. The upper level featured a sitting room overlooking the downstairs level, two more bedrooms, and an open area with full cathedral ceiling and exposed beams with space to add six more rooms if needed. In total, we would have 4,300 usable square feet of heated space and the equivalent of 25 rooms. (Some of the rooms are 32 feet long and 20 feet wide. The bedrooms are 20 x 16; the office is 15 x 18, and the smaller upstairs bedrooms are 16 x 16.)

When we asked about borrowing money on a low-interest rate, we were told that we'd need $150,000 to build the house of our dreams (spawned by our real-life nightmare), repayable in three convenient payments of $50,000 per year, plus interest, or we could take the easy-payment route and pay only $1,300 per month for 30 years—a total payoff of $468,000.

That was the final straw that impelled us to build our own house. When we told a few friends what we intended to build—for $20,000—those who did not think that I was a raving lunatic were convinced that I was simply avoiding reality, that I was living a fantasy to keep from facing the real world.

Tackling the Logs

We began to work by counting, as accurately as possible, the number of logs we'd need. We determined that we'd mill or square logs (actually, rectangle them) that were eight inches thick and 10 inches high. Length would range from 60 feet to the shortest distances in the house—between windows. We did not want any logs spliced: all would run in one piece from point to point. We'd need 118 logs, we decided, of varying lengths, and we set about cutting the 60-footers first, to be sure that we did not somehow misuse the best logs.

The first steps were to measure and cut the logs at both butt and top and then to maneuver the logs onto four-foot blocks of wood we called saw blocks, which would keep the tip of the chainsaw bar from striking the ground and rocks.

Next step was to use a quick-square to outline the exact size of the milled log we'd need: 8" x 10". We used a level to assure ourselves that the top mark was perfectly level. The basic approach was to mark the small end first, to be sure it was large enough to yield the log we needed, and then mark the large end. We used the level on both ends.

Then we pulled a chalk line from the upper right corner on the small end to the corresponding corner on the large end. When we snapped the line, we had our first saw mark ready.

To saw off the slab, which is all that was needed, I cut a one-inch groove, a sort of guideline, along the entire length of the chalk line. Then I returned to the starting point and sawed deeper and deeper until the bar reached through the log slab. I then pulled the saw along the entire length of the log, until the slab fell away and left one nearly perfect flat surface.

Next we rolled the log so that the flat surface faced upward and chalked the next lines from end mark to end mark and repeated the process of sawing the groove and then the entire slab. When we rolled the log one-quarter turn and marked and cut the final slab side, our log had four flat surfaces and was essentially as straight as an arrow should be.

This was a long, grueling chore, and we devoted a full month to sawing the logs we'd need. When we were finished and had bought the fluted spikes to hold the logs in place in the house, we had a grand total of $132.64 tied up in the log walls.

While the logs air-dried, we concentrated on the basement and foundation walls. We found earlier that we could borrow a cement mixer and mix our own concrete. In this fashion we had poured the entire basement floor for $600. We also learned that we could lay our own foundation walls and, while we were slow, could save hundreds of dollars.

How to Make a Timber

As for framing timbers (We checked with building inspectors before doing this!), it was an easy matter to chainsaw timbers 2 x 10 or 3 x 10 that were 16 feet long. Here's how we cut accurate and true timbers without any chainsaw lumber mills or other attachments.

If the log was large, we chalked a line straight down the center of the log from end to end and then made the usual groove cut and ripped the log into halves. Then we decided how wide the boards we needed should be, and we marked off the width from the center of the log half.

For instance, if we needed a 2 x 10 board, we used a rule or tape measure and held one end of the tape near the edge of the log half where the wood was thick enough to yield the needed lumber. We marked that point and then marked again at the 10-inch point. Doing this on both ends of the log, we chalked a line along both edges, from end to end. Then we cut the groove and ripped off the edge of the log on both sides, leaving us with a log half 10 inches wide and with three straight or flat edges. Then we stood the log half on one edge and marked off 2.5-inch dimensions.

I realize that lumberyard 2 x 10s are less than two inches thick, but we were building this house for us, not for the building inspector and a 2.5-inch board supports more than a two-inch board, even if full cut.

With the 2.5-inch marks made and the log chalked, we did the groove cuts and ripping cuts and within minutes we had beautiful timbers to show for our efforts. We made our share of mistakes, but we soon learned ways of minimizing them.

First, we allowed at least a quarter-inch extra for each cut. The kerf of a chain saw is at least one-fourth inch and sometimes more, particularly if the saw is allowed to wander. When I made the groove cut, I took a little more time and cut the groove two or even three inches. This extra depth helps to keep the saw within the groove when making the final cut. To keep from wavering and leaning, I'd lower the saw head until the bar and chain aligned perfectly with the groove. By doing so I didn't let the chain cut out of the groove line.

To construct floor framing, we ran a cement block wall one half of the length of the center of the basement and then we installed a huge girder (10 x 12 inches and 28 feet long) from the end of the wall to the outside foundation wall. Then we added sills and headers around the entire floor area and then butted joists from the header to the girder. Despite the thickness of the joists, we maintained a 16-inch on center plan.

Sills, Sub-floors, and Heavy Hauling

Before we installed the sills, we also constructed our own anchor bolts for the foundation walls. We bought threaded rods five feet long and attached a metal plate and washer and nut at the bottom and placed these inside the block wall. Then we filled the blocks with concrete and let everything set until the anchor bolts were firmly secured. The length of the anchor bolts was great enough that any force sufficient to pull the bolts from the wall would have to move 15 cement blocks. We bolted the sills to the anchor bolts and completed the floor framing. Then we added the subflooring.

Subflooring is one area where chain sawing is not totally economical. We found that we could buy plywood cheaper than we could saw it—in terms of time and energy as well as cost. It is somewhat difficult to maintain a true cut when sawing three- quarter-inch or one-inch wide boards. It also costs considerably more to saw a one-inch board 12 inches wide than it does to saw a 12 x 12 squared timber. So we bought plywood and installed it in the traditional way. This was one of our greatest costs in the entire house. When we had installed the sub-flooring, staggering the panels at the halfway point, it was time to stack logs.

This was one of our greatest challenges and one that we met with unexpected ease and efficiency. The problem was getting enormous logs that weighed hundreds of pounds to the house site and then hoisting them, without equipment, up to the level of the sub-flooring.

To solve the problem, we located a poplar tree 15 inches in diameter at the large end and 20 feet long. I ripped the log down the center and leaned the two halves, sawed side up, against the foundation wall. Then we used the pickup truck to drag the logs into position alongside the house.

I cut 18-inch squared chunks of wood from the leftover part of a log. Leaving one end straight cut, I slanted the other end gently and drove a 20d nail downward through the slope until the point had started to emerge on the flat bottom side. Then we used pry bars to push one end of the house log up the ripped log to a height of about three feet. I held the log in place while my wife or son nailed the chock block in place.

Starting the cost cutting:

When the sawing was finished, we had a total of $132.64 tied up in the log walls.

Then we did the same on the other side, and we continued to work first one end and then the other up the log halves until the entire log was lying on the subflooring. We then used short sections of round tree limbs (Broomsticks are wonderful for this!) as rollers under the log, pulled it into position and spiked it down.

Spiking the Wall Logs

For spiking we used foot-long fluted spikes (which turn like a screw as they are driven into the wood and will not work loose no matter how hard you try to free them). First we drilled a quarter-inch pilot hole through the top of the log and out the bottom, then I used a five-eighths drill bit to enlarge the first five inches of the hole. Using a four-pound hammer, we drove the spikes through the log and into the sills. We used a spike every two feet, and this pattern remained true throughout the rest of the log-stacking operation.

We did the long sides first, spiking all the logs into place. When it was time for the end logs, we chose to use a butt-and-pass corner style rather than the more traditional dovetail joining. The butt-and-pass is very easy and saves on logs because there is no overhang on every other log—a savings of about four feet per course on each end or eight feet for the entire house for each course. To install the end logs, we cut the end log eight inches longer than needed and worked the log into place and then laid it so that the ends of the log rested atop the along-side wall logs. Then we undercut the log by placing the chainsaw bar flush against the inside face of the long-wall log and cut upward until the log was cut through. It then fell into place at exactly the proper length.

In the second course, the end logs lapped over the tops of the long-wall logs; in the third course the long logs lapped over the end logs, so that every other log butts into the log going the other direction. We drove spikes through all four corners of the outside of the overhanging log and into the end of the butting log.

As the walls rose, we spiked each log to the log beneath it, so that when we reached the top, every log in the house was tied securely to every other log in the house.

We found that as walls rose, we could lean our poplar log halves against the wall itself and allow several feet to extend over the wall and into the floor area. As we worked the logs up to the tops of the poplar halves, one person went inside and pulled down on the log halves so that the huge logs slid very slowly and gently down the inside slope. They didn't even bump as they reached the sub-flooring. When the walls were too high for this operation, we slid the logs in by the back door opening.

Turning Our Attention Inward

When we reached the proper height, we installed the rough window and rough door opening frames by using 2 x 8 timbers that we leveled and plumbed and braced. When the later logs were high enough, they were butted into the rough frames and we used 60d nails driven from the inside of the framing and into the ends of the logs.

As the logs reached the top of the window and door openings we let them stretch over the window and rough door openings and continue, when possible, the entire length or width of the house.

When our walls were completed, we framed the walls inside the house and tied the framing into the log walls. The entire front half of the house was left open so that we could enjoy exposed beams and cathedral ceilings.

Then, with the log walls held safely, we worked one end of the huge girder so that it reached the long-way from the top of the log wall to the top plate of the studded wall. Then we cut and installed posts under the girder. And in the basement we added other posts precisely under the first ones.

From the outside log walls to the central girder we installed 16-foot girders, all 8 x 10, to the system.. These girders were spaced four feet apart. All of these girders were sawed just as the other timbers were—by using chalk line and chain saw—no attachments of any sort. In fact, my leg was broken and in a cast at the time, and I stood on one foot and hopped backward as I sawed.

The Roof and Chimney

It was now time to saw rafters. To secure the proper length for rafters, we used the ancient Pythagorean theorem by measuring the length of the rafters (16 feet plus two feet of overhang, or 18 feet) and the rise of the roof (high enough to permit room in the upstairs. or third level). We squared the length (18 feet) and rise (12 feet) and added the two figures. The result was 468. Then we took the square root of 468, 21.6 feet, which was the final length of the rafters.

We installed the ridge beam in the traditional way and added the rafters in pairs so that pressure on both sides of the house remained constant. I learned to make a rafter hanger from some scrap wood and used a C-clamp to keep the holder in place. By using the holder, I could hold the rafter while nailing it to the ridge beam.

In fact, I could nail two or three rafters without having to come down from the ridge beam. Sheathing for the roof is much like the sub-flooring plywood. It is easier to buy and install it than to try to cut the boards and nail them in place. It can be done however, by anyone with the time and energy and trees to complete the job. I felt that we were going to need virtually every usable tree we had at this point, and I chose to momentarily sacrifice our money saving goals for expediency.

From other roofing projects I had learned that I could install nearly all the roofing from inside the house. When rafters are in place and the dormers, if any, have been framed, it is easy to install one course of sheathing and building paper. Then, with a temporary floor laid over the joists or girders, erect a scaffold work surface and lean over the top edge of the sheathing to nail up the shingles.

When the first course of sheathing has been covered, it is time to nail up the second course and roof it in the same manner. All of one slope could be done this way, and then on the other side all but the final four feet can be roofed from inside. We put up dormer siding completely from inside, while dozens of people stopped by to tell us it could not be done that way.

When the roof was installed, we turned our attention to chinking the logs. We didn't use the more traditional mud and horsehair mix; we went modern instead and used one of the newer vinyl products that can be applied with a putty knife and which dries to a hard rubber consistency and will expand and contract as the house heats and cools.

It was now chimney time, and we chose to have a woodstove in the basement and a fireplace in the family room, which meant two flues and a chimney 30 feet high. We used the traditional cement block (filled with concrete) structure and then covered it with rock. We had an abundance of flat rocks in our creek, but everything was covered with brush and debris, and we were forced to buy stone in the nearby mountains. This was one of the few expenses that could have been avoided, but we felt (and still feel) that we made the right choice under the circumstances.

A $700 Door!

When we priced doors, we quickly decided to make our own. Store-bought models were either outlandishly expensive or of such low quality that we would not have them in our house. And we found that we could make our own with very little difficulty. To make a strong and attractive door, we cut 2 x 6 tongue-and groove timbers. No, to be more accurate, we cut spline-and-groove lumber.

To cut such timbers, we cut six-inch lumber two inches thick (plus an extra quarter-inch to allow for kerf) and cut several boards out of one log and left a small amount of wood holding at the end so the log wouldn't wobble around when it became thinner. Then, when all boards were ripped, we cut the two or three inches holding the timbers and the boards fell free.

To create a tongue-and-groove effect, we stood a 2 x 6 timber on edge and chalked a line down the exact center of the board, then made the groove cut as before. We did this on both sides and then cut a quarter-inch strip two inches wide. The strip or spline was fitted into the first groove and the bottom edge of the next board was fitted over the spline.

We continued this process until the door was wide enough. The splines weatherproofed the project and also concealed any cracks that may have appeared between boards.

We also cut one-inch boards five and six inches wide and grooved the edges. These one-inch boards make excellent wall covering and they are far cheaper than lumber from the supplier. To cut five-inch boards that were one inch thick, we repeated the steps described above: we cut a rectangle five inches wide from a log. Then we simply sliced off boards.

We found that we could cut a five-inch board 10 feet long in about 30 seconds. In an hour, taking time off to rest briefly and to fuel and oil the saw, we could cut 25 to 40 boards if we had the logs handy and already cut into five-inch rectangles. Much of the time needed is devoted to dragging logs and setting them up on saw blocks.

We made doors in several ways, depending upon how we planned to use them. The first way was to cut 2 x 6 timbers 85 inches long and to groove cut the edges and then cut splines, as described above. Then we stood the first timber on edge and drilled a three-eighths-inch hole six inches from the top, six inches from the bottom, and in the center. We then constructed a sort of mold or holder that kept boards in place while we worked.

The holder allowed us to place two boards so that the edge of the top timber rested on the top edge of the lower one. Then when we drilled through the top timber we let the drill cut at least an inch or two into the bottom timber. Then we removed the top timber and placed a new timber under the one with the shallow holes drilled in it.

We kept repeating this process until we had enough timbers drilled for the door we needed.

Because we started the new holes in each board as we drilled the one above it, the holes were all perfectly aligned for the next step, which was to insert threaded rods through the holes and then use nuts and socket wrenches to pull the timbers tightly and uniformly together. We then cut off the excess rod and packed homemade wood putty (composed of glue and sawdust mixed thoroughly) around the nut and bolt ends. When the door was hung, there were no nails or bolts or screws visible, and the doors are as strong as any we have found.

Each door, exclusive of threaded rods, cost less than $1 to make. We also made Z-style door construction similar to the old barn-door fashion. And we made spline- and-groove doors held together by the Z-style structure. The final doors were made along the hollow-core fashion, with a framework of 1 x 4 timbers and three-quarter-inch boards installed on each side of the framing and held in place by nuts and bolts.

The Deck

We weren't stubborn to an unreasonable degree. When we found a superior bargain on tongue-and-groove knotty pine, we bought a truckload and used it for wall coverings and ceilings in several rooms. But when we priced a stairway that sold for $10,000, we quickly returned home and built our own stairway, balusters, and rails for a total of less than $30.

We did rough and finish wiring, plumbing, and carpentry all over the house, learning as we went. Some of the work was very long and tiresome, while other duties were delightful. Perhaps the most fun we had in the entire experience was building our deck.

To gain the proper determination, we always got cost estimates for the jobs if contracted out. We learned that our deck would cost us between $4,500 and $7,000, the high and low estimates for the entire job.

So we mixed mortar and built piers, then filled them with concrete. We framed the deck and bolted the framing to the house by drilling holes through the cement block wall and using huge bolts and nuts. We installed joists 16 inches on-center and added the ledger plate for extra support. When we installed the flooring, we staggered ends of decking boards and nailed happily for a day and a half.

We bolted posts to the headers of the deck and cut and fit railing before we installed bottom rails and balusters. We built the bottom rail and balusters upside down, and when we put the assembly in place, all we had to do was use a level to align the balusters and then nail through the top rail and into the ends of the balusters. During the job there was not even the slightest hitch, and we literally saved ourselves thousands of dollars in the process.

A Lasting Victory

When the house, including kitchen cabinets and all the flooring and wall covering and ceilings, had been completed, we sat down and did our arithmetic. We had determined to build the entire house for $15,000, but we wound up spending $20,000. But this figure included the cost of chain saws, fuel for saws and for driving to the store, electric drills, all the tools we used on the job, kitchen range, and much of our furniture. We counted each purchase, even if it was only a washer.

So we saved $450,000, roughly, by not financing the house and by building it ourselves. To date we have not had a single complaint about our most challenging endeavor, and even after having lived in the house for months I still cannot return home after a brief trip, even to the store, without experiencing a sudden and tremendous thrill of excitement at seeing the house again and recalling what a retired English teacher, a church musician, and a teenager could accomplish.

That reward ranks right up there along with seeing the looks on the faces of all the people who warned us that we were doomed to failure and the final visit from the building inspector who asked if he could invite some local builders out to see the house. I asked if he wanted to show them the defects.

"No," he said. " I want them to see how a house should be built." I can't recall many words more welcome than those.


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