A Guide to Building the Traditional Hewn-Log Home

A guide to building the traditional hewn-log home, including information on master logsmith Peter Gott and his log-building workshop, creating a solid foundation, site preparation, digging and acquiring logs.

| July/August 1985

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    Whether you're looking for an inexpensive first home, a rustically luxurious vacation/hunting/fishing lodge, or a retirement cottage than makes a lasting statement about who you are, master logsmith Peter Gott will-in this manual- teach you the basic techniques you'll need to make that dream come true.
    PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    Log cabins are as much a part of America's history and folk tradition as the Fourth of July and Abe Lincoln. But the craft of building with logs has its roots in European soil.
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    Log structures built on relatively level ground can be perched atop mortared fieldstone pillars extending below frost line. Sill loge rest on the pillars, and the walls go up from there. Batter boards (behind corner pillars) aid in leveling and squaring the foundation.
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    Timber carriers take much of the grunt and strain out of moving large logs.
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    To use a draw knife, stand to one side and pull the tool toward you at a slight angle to the log. Peel through the bark and sapwood, down to solid wood.
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    Among the tools of the logsmith's trade are (left to right) timber carrier, common ax, double-bitted ax, broadax, adz, draw knife, and peavey
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    If the math, layout, and saw work have been accurate, corner notches should fit together tight and right. Minor adjustments can be made by running a handsaw between notch faces to remove excess wood.
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    By taking notch measurements from a chalked centerline common to all four logs in a round, and using a couple of straightforward algebraic formulas to calculate notch depths (D and U), you can eliminate all guesswork.
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    The saddle notch has a corner on the notch market for round-log construction. The V notch is especially suitable for use with a small-diameter hewn logs. The half-dovetail is the primary hewnlog notch, offering strong, tight joints.
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    To establish hewing lines, eyeball and chap; a longitudinal centerline, then measure out hall the planned wall-log thickness to either side of the centerline.
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    In half-dovetail notches, the top notch slopes down from the inside to the outside face, while the bottom notch slopes up and in from the end.
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    In the formula for figuring rafter length for a 45° (1:1 pitch) roof, X = ridge height above the plate logs, Y = half the exterior length of the tructure's gable ends, and Z is the rafter length being solved for. To determine full rafter length, add the desired eave over hang to the measurement Z derived from the formula.
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    Large nail driven into joint.
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    Large nails, dowels or bolts.
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    Peter Gott (on bench) demonstrates the balance and temerity required to pin rafter splices together. Locking notches are cut into the plate logs at each point where a rafter crosses. with a chisel or slick. Start the notch cuts with a chain saw, and finish them
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    For chinking, Peter Gott recommends a mortar mix composed of three parts clay, three parts clean sand, and two parts portland cement. Smooth the mortar with a flexible trowel, undercutting the upper edge slightly. After the wood surfaces that will hold the mortar have been dampened (to prevent the dry wood from sucking moisture from the mud), mortar is pushed into the chinking cracks with a trowel. After smoothing, remove the tape. (Mortar stains on logs can be removed with a wire brush.)
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    Locking plate notches.
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Building a log cabin is part of the back-to-the-land movement, this guide to building the traditional hewn-log home follows master logsmith Peter Gott workshop notes. (See the log building photos and diagrams in the image gallery.)

For homesteaders, building a log cabin is a traditional part of the back-to-the-land movement. Owner-built log cabins make cozy, inviting homes, and maintain the rustic yet practical lifestyle that modern homesteaders are working to achieve. This detailed manual gives instructions for laying the foundation and laying of the logs, as well as a history of American log cabins, to get you on your way to building a traditional hewn-log home of your very own.

The first people known for building log cabins and erecting permanent log structures were members of prehistoric Baltic and Scandinavian tribal societies whose homelands were blanketed with dense forests of tall, straight conifers. It was also the Scandinavians who developed the technique of hewing—the squaring of the sides of logs to provide flat walls. And it was they—Swedes and Finns, to be exact—who introduced this rugged, practical form of building a log cabin to the Americas in 1638, at the first and only purely Scandinavian settlement in the British colonies, appropriately named New Sweden (in what is now Delaware).

Over the next few decades, as New Sweden came under the control of first the Dutch and later the English, the Scandinavians' construction techniques were tossed into the cultural melting pot that would soon boil over to become the United States of America.



A variety of more sophisticated forms of abode passed in and out of style as America matured, but the log cabin remained common—especially in the mountainous states—through the early 1930s, after which relatively few new log structures were built. Consequently, a possibility arose that the last few hand-tool-wielding log craftsmen might be allowed to go to their graves with their unique knowledge unshared.

Fortunately, concurrent with the New Frontier visions of the Kennedy era, a number of Americans—most of them young in years, but a few youthful only in spiritheaded back to the land in hopes of finding a lifestyle that would prove to be simpler, as well as more wholesome and meaningful, than anything available in the increasingly impersonal techno-industrial urban culture.

Mike_43
4/6/2007 4:40:11 PM

I am seriously thinking of building log buildings. I read about the skids yy you mentioned to raise the logs,that sounds interesting. I need to figure out how to do it by myself. I have a winch on my truck. But if it is not too expensive I might want to make a derrick like you talked about. Is ther anyy reference material that will helpme in this endever? Thanks Mike







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