Several years ago, my family’s back-to-the-land dreams came true when we moved onto a chunk of rural acreage in Utah. There was a house on the property, but neither outbuildings nor fencing — both of which would be needed for the menagerie we planned to assemble. Fortunately, one thing the place did have was a large stack of peeled pine logs left behind by the previous owners. The logs were all exactly 24 feet long and ranged from 4 to 12 inches in diameter.
After getting settled into our new home, I began mentally casting about for ways to construct the fencing, outbuildings and other homestead structures we’d need, using, as much as possible, the materials I had on hand … meaning that big stack of pine logs.
But there was one small problem with the idea of building with logs: Although I had construction experience and was familiar with standard framing, those logs were round. Obviously, I’d either have to mill them into lumber — which was out of the question — or find some way to use the logs “in the round” to build the structures I needed.
I discovered the solution to my problem one day as I was driving through our valley. A neighbor had recently built a log rail fence, and the unusual method of construction caught my eye: The logs weren’t attached to the sides of the posts, as I would have expected, but were somehow suspended between them.
I stopped for a closer look and was delighted at what my inspection revealed: My neighbor had drilled holes into the ends of his log rails and bored matching holes horizontally through the upright posts. He then used pins made of lengths of 1-inch-diameter galvanized pipe to peg the rails to the posts.
Since then, I’ve worked extensively with this unique log-framing technique, and I’ve found it to be both easy to work with and inexpensive. Once you collect a few basic tools — an electric drill or hand auger and bits, a handsaw or chain saw, a hacksaw or bolt cutters and a sledge (or the back of a maul) for driving in the metal pins — you’re in business.
Well, almost in business. First you have to get a supply of material from which to cut the metal fasteners. But not to worry, because virtually every construction project that involves concrete — which is darn near every construction project — is a potentially lucrative source of rebar (short for reinforcement bar); scrap pieces of this ubiquitous iron rod are therefore generally plentiful and are free for the asking. (And to help preserve the good reputation of your fellow scroungers, please do ask.)
Sure, you can use galvanized pipe rather than rebar, as my neighbor did and as I did in my early experiments with the technique. But I’ve since come to prefer rebar because it’s easier to come by, stronger and more resistant to rusting out. When pinning together logs with diameters of less than 6 inches, I’ve found 1/2-inch diameter rebar to work well; however, for logs with diameters of 6 inches or larger, your structure will be stronger if it’s pegged together with 5/8-to-1-inch-diameter rebar pins.
The following four projects are only a sampling of the many practical homestead structures you can create — easily and inexpensively — when building with logs.
Log Rail Fence
Fig. 1 in the Image Gallery details the construction technique used in log fencing. Begin by boring holes in the ends of your precut rails to a depth of 12 inches, and just a fraction smaller than the diameter of the rebar to be used (so that the pins will fit snugly when driven in). Now tightly wrap each end of each rail with a couple of turns of No. 12 galvanized wire to minimize the possibility of the drilled-out ends splitting when you insert the pins.
(I didn’t have to worry about water seeping down between the post-and-rail joints and rotting the wood, because the climate here in the West is extremely dry. However, those of you who live in wetter parts of the country might want to coat the drilled ends of your rails with a clear wood preservative.)
There are several ways to cut rebar to the length you’ll need. If you have access to a large pair of bolt cutters, use them; they’re the best tool for the job. An oxyacetylene cutting torch also makes quick work of it (though it can leave blobs of metal on the ends of the pins, making them difficult to drive into their holes). But since I owned neither bolt cutters nor welding torch, I simply cut the bar about three-quarters of the way through with a hacksaw, then bent it until it broke.
To protect the buried ends of my fence posts from ground rot, I dipped them in a 10-to-1 mixture of diesel fuel and pentachlorophenol (“penta”). A 55-gallon oil drum filled to a depth of 3 feet with preservative is dandy for soaking the ends of the posts. (While penta is an effective wood preservative, it’s also highly toxic, and as of this writing the Environmental Protection Agency plans to ban sales of penta-containing products effective February 1, 1985. As an alternative preservative for wood that will be buried or exposed to prolonged contact with the ground, the Institute of Wood Research recommends copper naphthenate-based products diluted in used motor oil [the heavier, the better] at a rate of three parts oil to one part copper naphthenate preservative. –MOTHER EARTH NEWS)
Among the critters our fencing must keep corralled are ‘a number of sheep, so we took the added precaution of stringing wire field fence beneath the lower rail to keep the wandering woollies from ducking under and crawling through. For horses and cattle, however, the basic log rail fence has proven to be more than adequate.
Fig. 2 shows our hoisting derrick. The legs are made of 10-inch-diameter logs set 18 inches into the ground to prevent shifting. The hoisting beam is a 12-inch-diameter log selected for its density and strength. I opted to build the derrick 12 feet high so that large animals could be hoisted clear of the ground for butchering … while the beam width of 7 feet allows a truck or tractor to be driven underneath for loading and unloading cargo, pulling engines, etc.
The beam is attached to the tops of the legs with rebar pins driven into holes bored down through the beam and into the tops of the legs. The leg-to-beam braces are made from scrounged 2-by-2-by-3/16-inch-thick angle iron and secured to the structure with 1/2-inch-diameter bolts. (I used large washers to keep the bolts and nuts from cutting into the soft pine logs when tightened.)
Log Swing Set
My next project was a swing set for the kids. The construction technique was similar to that I’d used when building the hoisting derrick, in that it employed A-frame log legs, a heavy top beam, and angle-iron reinforcements.
The swing set, however, is composed of lighter logs (8-inch diameter on the average) and its overall dimensions are different. (Fig. 3 provides the details.) I first tried using sections of 2-by-4 board for seats, but they didn’t last long. For the best-and safest-results, I recommend from experience that the seats be made from planks no smaller than 2-by-6 (I settled on 2-by-8) and cut from wood that’s sturdier than pine. The seats can be suspended from the beam with chain, cable, or heavy rope.
After constructing the fencing, hoisting derrick, and swing set, I’d gathered enough confidence to tackle a more complicated structure. We needed a shelter in which to store hay for the winter, and since we still had a sizable stack of logs on hand, I decided to build a pole shed. (This project is a bit more involved than the first three, so you might want to refer to the lettered drawings of Fig. 4 as we go along.)
I decided on floor dimensions of 12-by-24 feet for the shed, which would minimize the need to cut the 24-foot logs. After staking the corners, I dug six 30-inch-deep holes — laid out on 12-foot centers — for the upright support posts (Fig. 4-A). (As with the fencing, the buried ends of the posts were treated with preservative to prevent rotting.)
After standing the six posts in their holes and using a level to make certain they were vertical, I filled in the postholes with dirt and tamped it down thoroughly. I used a string level to mark the tops of the posts for the roof slope I wanted, then cut them off. (To create a moisture-shedding pitch, the front of the shed is higher than the back.) I then bored a 12-inch-deep rebar-pin hole in the top of each post (Fig. 4-B).
The next step was to roll the roof beams up against their respective support posts. Using the bottoms of the posts as guides (Fig. 4-C), I drilled three holes through each of the two beams. (Since all three holes must lie in exactly the same plane, take care to keep the beams from rotating as you drill.)
I had access to a tractor with a front-end loader to lift the beams to the top of the posts, but — unless your logs are much larger than mine were — the beam raising can be done by a two- or three-person crew standing in the bed of a truck. With the beams up, I locked them in place with 1-inch-diameter rebar pins driven down through the holes in the beams and into the tops of the posts (see Fig. 4-D).
After checking to be sure the walls were plumb, I measured the inside distance between the front and rear beams to establish rafter lengths, then cut three rafters and pegged them in place with rebar pins (see Fig. 4-E).
To prevent the walls from drifting apart and pulling the rafters away from the beams before the roof was attached to hold everything in place, I strapped the rafters to the beams with strips of galvanized metal sheeting. I used 16d nails to spike the metal strips — beginning at a point about a foot from either end — to the top of the rafters, then wrapped the bands around the beams and back along the bottom of the rafters (Fig. 4-F).
Next, between each pair of rafters — and still using the rebar-pin technique — I mounted three poles running parallel to the beams. These purlins, along with the front and rear beams, provide 3-foot intervals of roof support (Fig. 4-G).
The “lid” of my shed is made of 14-foot lengths of 26-inch-wide, 30-gauge corrugated galvanized steel roofing, nailed down with ringshank, flathead, 8d nails equipped with neoprene gaskets for watertightness. When installing the roof, I allowed a 2-inch overlap where the sections of metal meet, plus a generous overhang at all four walls.
To provide anchor points for the siding (the siding isn’t shown in the accompanying photo of the shed, but it’s in place now), I rebarpinned smaller poles horizontally between the upright support poles around the sides and back of the structure, positioned 18 inches above the ground (Fig. 4-H). On the front of the shed, I set horizontal poles 8 feet above the ground to allow for barn-door openings.
For siding, I used unpeeled log mill-ends (purchased in 16-foot lengths from a nearby lumber mill for $20 a truckload, hand-selected and – loaded). One truckload of mill ends sided — in my shed, with enough left over to make a good start on next winter’s firewood supply.
I cut the mill ends to length (roof to ground, as shown in Fig. 4-I) and nailed them vertically to the rafters and beams along the top, and to the horizontal poles near the bottom. (Using such heavy siding might, at first glance, seem wasteful — but the mill ends were inexpensive, provide an eye-pleasing, rustic appearance, and add greatly to the loadbearing capacity of the roof.)
The Possibilities for Log Framing Construction Are Endless
With surprisingly little effort, I’m sure that you, too, can find many ways to use log-framing construction techniques to erect practical structures at modest cost.
But for me, economy and ease of construction of building with logs are of less importance than the special joy that comes each time I finish a project, then stand back to admire a practical, attractive structure created with my own imagination and hands, a few basic tools … and very little else.