Build your Own Log cabin Homes
The author and his wife chose to build a log cabin following the Norwegian "stabbur" design: raised foundation, small windows, low door, and wide eaves.
PHOTO: BILL SULLIVAN
Living in a cozy little cabin nestled in the woods is part and parcel of the classic Thoreau-inspired lifestyle most folks dream of now and then. But the romantic vision of log-home life is shattered — for many people — by the sheer cost of such structures, which can be as high as that of equivalent conventional homes.
That doesn't have to be the case, however. My wife and I kept down the cash outlay for our “Walden” by gathering most of the materials from the land where our house was to stand, and then building it ourselves, using only hand tools. As a result, our small home cost us only about $100 to construct … and the project was so simple that we’re convinced anyone with access to a few basic implements and a good supply of timber could build a log cabin too.
One of the ways in which we kept our expenses down was to choose an uncomplicated design for our cabin. After researching several log house styles, we decided to build a home patterned after the Norwegian stabbur, which is a storehouse built on a raised foundation of pillars or stilts. A traditional stabbur also features extra-wide eaves, which repel rain and snow; small windows and a low door, which help reduce heat loss; and an upstairs loft, which serves to nearly double the available floor space.
The size of our cabin was limited more by our stamina than by the design. We didn’t want to have to deal with logs any longer than 16 feet, so our home measures 10 feet by 13 feet inside. Creative planning and the careful placement of doors could allow a much larger house to be built, but I always encourage first-timers to think small (and then possibly add on needed space later).
When our plans were drawn up, we chose a cleared and level site with nearby water, pitched a couple of large tents for temporary shelter, and packed in enough flour and beans to sustain us during a summer of hard work. While my father — who had volunteered to help during his vacation — worked on our outhouse, I marked the borders of the cabin’s foundation with stakes and string. Next, I dug six holes, three on each side, to a depth of 2 1/2 feet, right at the wall line of the cabin, and hauled in 20 wheelbarrowfuls of large, flat rocks that we’d gathered on the property. Using four bags of mortar mix, I made sturdy cement-and-stone piers in each of the holes, extending the supports 18 inches above ground level. After the extra spaces in the openings were packed with gravel, I topped the “stilts” with large plates of sheet metal to keep termites and small rodents out of the cabin.
Next on our agenda was the exciting — and often backbreaking — task of finding, cutting, and hauling in the logs that would soon become the walls of our home. We selected trees from our dense second-growth forest which needed thinning. Most of the conifers we earmarked for our dwelling measured only about seven to nine inches in diameter and thus were too small to have commercial value. Working together, my wife and I felled each tree using a 5-foot crosscut saw and then removed the limbs. Then, with an axe or a hardwood barking spud (a 2-foot-long stick with a wedge-shaped tip) we stripped the bark off each trunk. We found that it was better to peel the logs immediately, because if the bark was left on the trunk for more than a few days, it would adhere to the dead tree and have to be laboriously whittled away with a drawknife.
After the trunks were barked, we cut them into lengths and hauled them out of the woods with the help of an old set of iron wheels that we pulled with ropes. (Fortunately, all our towing was downhill. Otherwise, we would have needed a draft horse to handle the chore.)
Collecting the sill logs (those that form the bottom layer on each wall of the cabin) required a special trip, since they had to be the largest of all. We chose trees that were at least 12 inches in diameter, so that the smaller logs we’d already cut would have adequate support when used to form the upper portions of the walls. With the sill logs at the building site, I hewed the top of each piece flat, using an adze (a tool that looks like a sideways axe, and is swung between the legs) … and checked its flatness with a straight piece of standard lumber. Then the two side sills were lowered into place atop the stone pillars I’d already constructed. Finally, I carved saddle notches into the undersides of the end sill logs and fitted them over the side timbers.
A Fine Floor
Once the sill logs were positioned, we decided to floor the cabin before completing its walls. I first hewed flat four 8-inch-diameter joist rounds, squared their ends with an axe, and notched them into slots chiseled halfway through the side sill logs at even intervals along the length of the wall. Of course, if you use dimension lumber for your floor joists, you’ll be able to build a flatter floor faster … but such boards lack the character of — and are more expensive than — logs. We set the joists into notches carved inside the wall line, so they would be in less danger of rotting and would allow the first wall log to fit in place more easily.
Then, for the sake of simplicity, we planked our floor with 2-by-8 pieces of salvaged lumber from a demolished farm house. That underfooting served us well for several seasons. Later, we completed the floor with a tar paper layer and handsome planks of 1-by-10 fir, laid at right angles to the recycled lumber (that is, parallel to the crosswise joists).
Raising the Walls
After our cabin had a sturdy foundation and flooring, we tackled the job of notching and piling logs to form the walls. Many folks pale at the very thought of lifting heavy timbers into place, but surprisingly, we found that raising the walls can be one of the least arduous parts of the whole cabin construction process. Before we could begin, though, we had to decide — by size — the sequence in which the logs would be used, and then cut notches in the ends of each length, so that they would fit neatly into their “neighbors.” (It’s a darn good idea, at this point, to label the logs somehow so you’ll know in what order to pile them on the wall.) I chose to use one-sided saddle notches, since the fancier dovetail and Lincoln-log notches — which are carved out on the top and bottom of each log — tend to collect rainwater in the upper half and can even rot out in extremely wet areas (such as our location in western Oregon).
To make a saddle notch, I simply set a log on top of the timber it will eventually rest upon and mark a semicircle, halfway through it, that exactly matches the dimensions of the supporting log. Then I roll the top log over and cleanly chop out the notched area as marked. If the pole doesn’t fit well when I roll it back into place, I just keep trimming until it does. Sometimes, a saw cut at the edge of the notch will help keep the sides even, but it doesn't matter if the fit is slightly ragged … since any open space will be fitted with mortar.