DIY

How to Build a Cordwood Garage

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Photo By Fotolia/Iriana Shiyan
Learn how to build a cordwood garage using an easy building design.

How to build a cordwood garage. Once you have a Hobbit Garage under your belt, you shouldn’t find the construction of a “real” cordwood house intimidating at all.

How to Build a Cordwood Garage

The “super-simple, extremely-low-cost,
anybody-can-build-one” cordwood house has been around a
long, long time. (Ken Kern, for instance, first
featured the concept years ago in his excellent book, The
Owner-Built Home
. . . and it was already an old, old idea
then.)

But it wasn’t until this magazine printed an article by New
Brunswick’s Jack Henstridge family (“We Built a $75,000
House . . . For Only $10,000!”, MOTHER NO. 45, pages
96-99) that the idea really began to catch on in a big way.
Since then, we’ve covered the concept again with a
three-part article (“The Return of the Cordwood House”,
MOTHER NO. 47, pages 29-34), the Henstridge family has
published a construction manual on the subject, Jack has
been asked to demonstrate and explain his building methods
to several state and provincial governments and
developmental groups in the United States and Canada, and
dozens of do-it-yourself stackwood houses are already going
up in a number of countries throughout the world.

Nevertheless — as easy and as fast and as low-cost as a
cordwood building is to fabricate — we know that there’s a
whole buncha good folks “out there” who still find the mere
thought of actually putting up their own house with their
own hands . . . well, intimidating, to say the
least. Maybe you even fall into that group yourself.

Well, OK. There ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. You just
need to have your courage reinforced a little. And the best
way to do that reinforcing is to turn yourself loose on a
“somewhat similar but even simpler” building project.
Something like the Hobbit Garage constructed a while back
by Nancy and Mike Bubel up in Wellsville, Pennsylvania.

If you’d like to know even more about the
Bubels, their down-to-earth recycling way of life, and this
example of their handiwork in particular, you’ll want to
get a copy of their new book, Working Wood (Rodale Press,
Inc., $3.95) available from any good bookstore or by mail
from MOTHER’s Bookshelf for $3.95 plus 75 cents shipping
and handling.

NOW PLEASE NOTE: The construction
principles used by the Henstridges and other stackwood
builders are not the same as those illustrated in this
article. In a “real” cordwood structure, short sections of
log (and the “extra” pieces of insulation placed between
them) are firmly embedded in a matrix of concrete
. . . to form a permanent, snug, wind — and
waterproof wall. The Bubels, on the other hand, built the
Hobbit Garage shown here simply by stacking their log ends
up into a rough, three-sided “Pile”, and then adding a roof.
The walls of their building contain no insulation and no
concrete at all.

What this means, obviously, is that Mike and Nancy’s Hobbit
Garage is far less weatherproof and will have a far shorter
useful life than, say, the Henstridge family’s
stackwood house. But, as the Bubels explain, there are
plenty of times such a “minimum” structure is all you
really need to accomplish a particular purpose.

And, as already pointed out in this introduction, we
(MOTHER’s editors) are convinced that Mike and
Nancy’s Hobbit Garage has at least one more very important
value: It’s so bare-bones simple that absolutely anybody
with enough strength and intelligence to stack chunks of
wood can build it . . . and, once you have a Hobbit
Garage under your belt, you shouldn’t find the construction
of a “real” cordwood house intimidating at all!

The nice thing about using what’s available to make what
you need is that you often end up with a finished product
that’s absolutely unlike any other. A finished product
which has a special vitality — a rightness for you
and your place — that could never have come off an assembly
line.

Take our garage, for example. When we bought the
Pennsylvania farm we now live on, its only buildings were a
house and a small shed. We didn’t like the idea of leaving
our car sitting out in all kinds of weather . . . but we
liked even less the idea of spending $5,000 on a
“conventional” garage (we much preferred using that money
to increase the fertility of our soil).

And so we banished dreams of a garage to the hidden depths
of our minds while we pushed ahead with the improvement of
our land. It wasn’t until we had almost finished clearing
the brush and trees from the site of our future pond, in
fact, that thoughts of the building bobbed to the surface
again . . . and then, almost by accident.

The last tree to go from our minilake’s bed was a
humongous, willow with three massive trunks (each 20-24
inches in diameter). My husband, Mike, and a friend cut the
tree down and sliced its logs into 20-inch-long chunks. We
then rolled the rounds of willow up a log-supported ramp
and onto a wagon so we could haul ’em to the house and
split’em for firewood.

As it turned out, though, we never did burn those hunks of
willow. Somewhere between the pond site and the house we
began to think of the 20-inch-long sections of log as
building blocks. And almost before we knew what we were
doing, we were well on our way to using them for the
construction of that garage we wanted. Oh, we stacked our
“firewood” up in a pile all right . . . but it
turned out to be a three-sided pile (with a roof on top)
that we could drive our car right into!

Since willow is not exactly the most rot-resistant of
woods, we started our Hobbit Garage by laying down a base
of long-lasting locust and cedar poles. No, we didn’t
actually pour a foundation or anything like that. Instead,
we just laid down (parallel and side by side) enough of the
poles to mark out three sides of our planned garage
. . . and then we began laying half-rounds of the
biggest chunks of willow along the base of rot-resistant
cedar and locust.

After the first course of “building blocks” was in place,
we continued up with the walls by fitting chunk after chunk
of the willow together as tightly as possible. Naturally we
used the largest pieces of wood first — on the lowest levels
of the wall — where it was easiest to set them in place. At
that, some of the sections of log were outlandishly big
. . . and we’d never have gotten them into place
without straining our backs if we hadn’t had a couple of
things going for us.

In the first place, willow is a very light-weight wood.
(We’d never have been able to lift the same-sized chunks of
oak, locust, or hickory.) And in the second place, we never
lifted any piece of wood we could roll.

We rolled the biggest half-rounds of willow end-over-end into
position on the locust and cedar base. Then, using the
first wedge-shaped chunk of the lowest course of willow
half-rounds as a ramp, we rolled a second layer of slightly
smaller willow rounds into place on the first. For
succeeding courses (of still smaller chunks of wood), we
simply built up and extended our (rather bumpy) ramp with
additional rounds and half-rounds of the willow. This
built-out “ramp”, of course, was removed after we’d raised
our garage’s walls as high as we wanted them.

Our method of construction, while somewhat primitive, was
really quite easy . . . but not too easy. Occasional
rounds of the willow would refuse to fall neatly into place
between the chunks of the previous row (or would exhibit
awkward “bumps” which made them hard to position), and we’d
have to jimmy them to where we wanted them with a crowbar.
Mostly, though, as long as we wore sturdy work gloves and
coordinated our timing (“1, 2, 3, roll! “) we
found the job quite satisfying.

All of the main willow “building blocks” were sawed out 18
to 24 inches long (cut edge to cut edge) and were fitted
together quite firmly without any mortar or nails. After
all the big chunks of wood were in place, we went back and
chinked in the gaps between them with lengths of smaller
limbs and branches.

Our garage encloses a useful space measuring eight feet
wide and 15 feet long. Its open side faces away from the
prevailing west wind and its roof is pitched just enough
(one side wall is 6 foot 8 inches high and the other is 5 foot 11 inches) for
good drainage.

We used a variety of smaller (two to eight inches in
diameter) logs and sections of limb to even out the tops of
our garage’s walls. Then we laid 11 salvaged 2 by 6 rafters
right across the stacks of willow (from one side wall to
the other). These rafters are held firmly in place by a few
vertical oak furring strips which are spiked to both the
roofing supports and the cut faces of several of the logs
in each side wall.

Mike nailed sheets of salvaged, 1/2 inch, exterior-grade
plywood (which he scavenged from a wrecked building) across
the rafters and then nailed some rolled black asphalt
roofing over the plywood. The asphalt roofing and the nails
are the only “boughten” materials in the whole garage.

We don’t deny that our car’s new home has a look “all its
own” and we’ve never claimed the building will last forever
(15 or 20 years seems a reasonable expectation). Still, our
Hobbit Garage more than meets our immediate needs was
constructed almost entirely from, “waste material” we had
on hand . . . cost us hardly any out-of-pocket money at all
. . . and was a lot of fun to build, It’s weathered four
winters so far and is beginning to look quite permanent.

In short, if you have more chunks of firewood lying around
(or available for the cutting) than you have money . . . and
you need a garage, sheep hut, range shelter, woodshed,
outhouse, or other outbuilding . . . we think you’d be wise
to at least consider the “quick and easy and inexpensive”
method of construction used in our Hobbit Garage. And
remember that you can always make one of these structures
more weather-tight in just a few minutes by hanging an old
tarp or rug across its entrance.

You can also make the whole building a lot snugger by
stacking firewood around its “permanent” walls. That’s what
we’ve done. And that’s why our garage now looks even more
like some strange, lovable structure from Middle Earth . . .
hunched, chunky, woody, and slightly lopsided. Sometimes,
in fact — when the mist is swirling around it on a nippy
morning — we can almost see Hobbits and Trolls huddled
together under its funky wooden eaves.