Restoring a heritage log cabin isn’t something I set out to do. It was never a grand life goal, or something I thought I might like to do ‘someday’. It just happened, and now, 12 years later, I’m so glad it did.
I bought our little house in the forest somewhere around 1999.
Actually, let me rephrase that – I bought the ‘pieces’ of our little
house. Then the real work started.
Here’s how we did it.
Step 1 – Find Decrepit Log Cabin in the Woods
in the late 1990s, my father was traipsing around in the woods outside
our family’s property and came across an old, original homesteader’s log
cabin sitting on what at one time must have been a sunny knoll. Now
surrounded by fully grown trees and covered with moss, the building was
probably a year away from the roof collapsing and the whole thing
rotting into the ground.
It was remarkable it was still intact, as most of the old
homesteading cabins in our neck of the woods fell to the ground decades
ago. But for some reason, this one, built in the early 1930s (according
to local records) and left abandoned for 40 years, was still standing.
Incredible. And, I thought, a sign.
My dad told me about the building, and being a bit of a heritage
buff, asked him to show it to me on one of my weekend visits. Well, one
look and I was hooked. You know those moments when you seem get a
‘download’ from above, when you just know that there is something you simply have to do? This was one of those moments.
“Let’s restore it!” I said, entranced by just the thought of
bringing a historical building back from the brink. In return I got a
look that oozed, “Are you nuts?”
Once the incredulous vibe subsided, we talked about it and discussed
the possibility of approaching the owner of the 45 acre property the old
cabin sat on to see if he might be willing to sell the entire piece. I
located the owner, asked if he might be interested in selling the
property, and got an ‘absolutely not’ in response. But not one to be
foiled, I thought I’d try another approach.
“Would you be interested in selling the old cabin?”
The ‘yes’ didn’t come right away, but after a bit of time, I met with
Mr. D at a coffee shop and signed some very informal paperwork selling
me the building. $150 cash, and I was the proud owner of a mossy,
falling down, hand hewn log cabin.
OK… Now what?
Step 2 – Move It
I bought the old building, my parents and I had long discussions about
how we could get it from where it sat down to our family property.
Basically, it came down to numbering each hand-hewn log with a coding system, taking it apart piece by piece (which turned out to be the simplest part – it basically just fell over with a push), and moving the pieces
a few hundred feet north to the new building site. Sounded simple
enough – until the property owner mentioned he didn’t want any trees
removed or trails widened. More challenging? A tad.
After a bit of brainstorming, we decided the simplest solution would
be to pull the cabin out of the bush via a cable attached to an ATV.
One… piece… at… a… time. Not terribly efficient, but it got the job
done over a weekend.
Step 3 – Clean It Up
Once all the logs were moved to the new building site, they were
piled and covered for an entire year to let them ‘dry out’ a bit. As
wood tends to swell and shrink depending on moisture content, and this
building had been abandoned for 40 years with a decomposing roof, the
logs were pretty much wet through. And HEAVY, which would make
reassembly more cumbersome.
reassembling the logs, any areas of rot were removed with a chainsaw,
using the rounded end of the blade to ‘carve’ out any punkiness.
Remarkably, there were few of these spots to remove – a testament to the
amazing resiliency of our native western red cedar. We only had to
replace the very bottom logs that essentially had been sitting on the
dirt in the original building – the rest of the logs were almost
Finally, each log was cleaned using a home model pressure washer to
remove the years of algae and dirt that had affixed to the wood
surface. As you can see in the photos, the difference is amazing!
Step 4 – Put it All Back Together Again
Here’s where the real work started. For a variety of reasons, we
decided to put the building on a platform rather than a foundation:
- to make it easy in case we ever wanted to move it later;
- to keep costs low; and
- to allow us to do most of the work ourselves (rather than hiring cement layers, etc.).
This decision has served us well over the years by providing a
crawlspace for storage, plumbing, etc., but there are a few drawbacks:
- the crawlspace allows for cool air to circulate under the floor –
great for summer, not so great in winter (we insulated, but there’s more
work to do);
- sitting on posts makes parts of the building a bit shaky – heavy
footsteps can rattle the dishes in the dish cabinet… the bonus, though,
is that we’re well set in case of an earthquake, as we won’t need to
repair a concrete foundation;
- I think there are certain critters who take refuge there… but maybe
that’s OK, so long as they’re not invading or causing structural damage.
- Eventually we'll need to replace the posts.
the logs were cleaned and prepared, the job of reassembly kicked into
high gear. As you can imagine (and see in the photos), this was a bit
of a chore. And as is always the case when you think everything is
going swimmingly, we found that some of the inventory numbers had rubbed off some
of the logs on their way from one site to the other. Needless to say,
there was much reviewing of photographs and trying logs this way and
that. Kind of like a giant jigsaw. A really heavy jigsaw puzzle!
The logs were reassembled using a winching system, lots of muscle,
and a tonne of building experience on the part of my dad. It truly was a
labour of love.
Finally, to make the cabin more ‘modern’ to accommodate a kitchen and
a bathroom, we added a shed-roof addition on one side, and increased
the pitch of the roof from the original in order to fit in a sleeping
loft. The original building was two rooms and a storage loft – we
thought we’d need a bit more space than that.
Step 5 – Finishing
Once the building was complete, we installed some antique wood
windows (single pane, unfortunately), added the back sitting porch,
nailed in the window and interior trim, and had a chinking party to do
the exterior chinking using a traditional ‘recipe’ of cedar sawdust,
cement and water. Over a decade later, the exterior chinking is still
solid. The interior chinking, however, has dried out from the
continuous heating, cooling and dampness of winters here and is falling
out in chunks. I know what I’ll be doing this year!
The doors came from a used building supply store, and we managed to
repurpose the original cabin’s front door, complete with the owner’s
initials, as our bathroom door. I love the additional sense of history
it brings – the whole building is a conversation piece, but that door is
in a whole other category. I simply adore it.
The Nitty Gritty
Over the years, the cabin has been a rental, a home for my brother in
his younger years, and a family gathering place. Friends have stayed
here on retreat, we’ve had a wedding and multiple birthday parties.
When we moved in in 2009, it had gone through a major renovation, which
only served to add to its charm.
been an incredible gift for our entire family, our friends, and
everyone who sees it. There’s just something about this building that
exudes ‘cozy’ and a whole lotta love. Maybe it’s all the handwork that
went into it, both originally and in the rebuild. Maybe it’s the
location. I don’t know. All I know is that it’s a blessing, and I
absolutely love living here.
If you can find an old cabin and have the team available to help you
restore it, my recommendation would be ‘go for it’! You’ll be very,
very happy you did.