Maryan McCamey shares her story of learning a fool-proof log cabin chinking repair recipe that helped her and her husband fix their depression-era log cabin in Southern Oregon.
In June of 1973 my husband, Butch, and I moved to our very own log home on 40 acres in the southern Oregon woods. The old homestead had been neglected for over 40 years (the house itself was built entirely by hand during the Great Depression) and we had come to bring it back to life.
The cabin was really dilapidated and in need of a new roof, foundation repair, plumbing, wiring, and a general face-lift. So we set out — with a lot of help from our neighbors — to give our new home some good old-fashioned TLC (tender, loving care). During that first summer, the place began to smile again.
By fall the dwelling's roof was on and our stock of firewood was dry. Which left just one major project to be completed before we could settle down to a cozy winter inside our spruced-up house: The whole cabin needed to be rechinked. Although bits and pieces of the original filler were still solid, we had no choice but to remove what remained and start from scratch.
Our problems began when we set out to research methods of log cabin chinking repair and sources of appropriate materials. Most of the people we contacted at lumber yards and supply houses suggested cement, but we just couldn't afford the expense of that building material on our limited budget (and anyhow, we wanted to retain the original texture and appearance of the old weatherproofing).
We rummaged everywhere for more log cabin chinking information — in the library and bookstores, at the nearby ranger station, in catalogs and old farm magazines, even in a 1926 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica — and found a lot of good advice on log cabin building and living . . . but not much on how to plug those all-important spaces between the logs.
The most helpful source was Bradford Angier's book How to Build Your Home in the Woods (hard cover edition, 1972, from Sheridan House, New York, $7.50 . . . paperback, Hart Publishing Company, Inc., New York, $3.95, both available from MOTHER'S Bookshelf) . . . only Mr. Angier dwelt mainly on what materials to use and very little on how to use them.
Then we had a bit of luck: The man who had built our log cabin (for $12.50, we were to learn . . . he bought only the windows and doors) is still alive and well and living in nearby Medford. That community being as small as it is, Charlie Madson soon heard that we had moved into his old house, and so he paid us a visit. The spry 86-year-young gentleman spent several hours speaking of his years in the woods and telling us all we needed to know about the art of chinking. We tried his method at once, and found that it was everything he said and more.
Grandpa Madson's recipe is durable and easy to make, and — best of all — can be prepared at practically no cost. Here's the basic formula, as our visitor gave it to us:
2 parts clay (or dirt)
1 part sifted wood ashes
1/2 part salt
Water to mix
We're fortunate enough to have a nice bank of clay on the hillside behind our house . . . but if you don't have access clay, plain old dirt will do. Break either material down to as fine a consistency as possible. If the earth is really tough, you may have to sift it into a 55-gallon drum or steel washtub through screening mounted in a small wooden frame.
You'll need a sifter, in any case, to free the ashes of coarse clinkers and debris . . . and if you find that job to be too much for you, you can substitute hydrated lime for the ashes at a slight additional expense.
Don't, however, attempt to eliminate the salt from the above recipe. It gives the mixture its cement-like properties . . . and I'm not exaggerating. Even after 40 years, we needed a hammer and chisel to get the old batch of chinking out of the cracks between our cabin's logs.
Fortunately, salt is inexpensive. You can buy 50-pound bags of mill salt at your local feed store for about $1.80 . . . or you should be able to locate 25-pound sacks of the ordinary table variety through a friendly grocer. In any case, be sure you're buying granulated — not rock — salt.
We measured the ingredients out with a big bucket and mixed each batch of chinking in a wheelbarrow with a small garden spade. If you try our formula, remember that the water should be added slowly, until you can "feel" the mass sticking together. A little experimenting is needed to get the hang of this part of the job: Make your mix too dry and you won't be able to spread it . . . too wet and it'll drip all over.
The actual chinking is slow and steady work and we learned to do it when we had lots of time (a batch every few days on and off, preferably when the weather was on our side). It's not much fun to stand out there with the winter winds beating on your back and, according to Bradford Angier, chinking shouldn't be done during a cold spell anyway because frost will expand the moisture in the filler and force the mortar out of the cracks. Our cabin is fairly large — 22 by 28 feet — and plugging all the crannies was a big job. Once you get the knack, though, it's possible to cover about 10 to 20 running feet per hour.
We applied the mixture with a wide-bladed putty knife, since the spaces between our building's logs are quite large. Charlie Madson suggests a garden trowel. A small putty knife — or even a kitchen spatula — would work as well, though, depending on the size of the gaps.
Whatever tool you choose, insert the chinking into the cracks as far as need be. Then, if there's still a hole to fill, apply more of the compound and smooth the surface with the flat of the blade. Any droppings on the logs may be wiped off with water and an old rag.
Certain conditions of climate and temperature may cause the mortar to crack as it begins to harden. If that happens, go over the chinking every week or so with your putty knife and some water until the damaged areas are once again smooth and stay smoothed.
By the way, although Grandpa Madson's formula should always contain salt when it's being used for chinking, the recipe — sans salt — produces a "glue" that will cement any cracks you may have in your cast-iron stove. Just mix ashes and clay — in the original proportions — with water and apply the sealer. It works great, too! We used the altered mixture to patch a break in our firebox, and the trouble spot is now as solid as rock. (Incidentally, a neighbor of ours intends to use the chinking recipe to make mortar for a stone wall around his garden. It could be worth a try!)
We're truly grateful to Mr. Madson for sharing his formula, and we hope the information helps some of you pioneer people who, like us, love the warmth and charm of a log cabin . . . and can appreciate the benefits of the lost art of chinking. Peace.
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