In the summer of 2000, my family fulfilled a long-standing dream and built our own log cabin. My husband and I and our two children (ages 9 and 12) were all eager for the adventure, little knowing what was in store over the next five months. The plan was to live in a pop-up camper on our land for the summer as we built. Yep, gluttons for punishment doesn’t even begin to describe it.
So in early April, amidst buzzing black flies, we set out to clear a spot for the cabin. The land we bought had an old logging road running into it that was fairly level, or as level as anything gets in northern New Hampshire.
We worked just uphill of the driveway, hauling out brush and small trees to make a burn pile the size of a small circus tent. With the proper permits from our local fire department, we set the pile ablaze around noon, creating an impressive tower of flames.
We soon found out just how visible those flames were when three abutting neighbors arrived expressing fears for the safety of their own houses. (HINT: When planning a bonfire, invite all the neighbors and provide marshmallows in the interest of future amicable relations.)
By 9 p.m. it was getting dark – except around the fire, which was blazing away merrily, showing no signs of dying out. My husband stayed to baby-sit the burn pile until 2 a.m. (HINT: If you need to do a burn, start at dawn, not noon.)
After that, things moved very quickly. We hired a subcontractor to do the site work and pour the cement for the foundation.
It was interesting how the perceived size of the house varied as we built. For instance, the hole for the foundation seemed tiny, and I panicked at the thought of living in a closet. But two days later the foundation seemed huge, and I panicked at the thought of heating a mansion.
A Simple Home for an Amateur Workforce
We had chosen a kit from Northeastern Log Homes, located in Groton, Vt. It was the Mansfield model in the “Traditional Homes” line. The single story log cabin sported an inviting full-length front porch, a central great room and vaulted ceiling. A master bedroom, two smaller bedrooms and two bathrooms completed the living space.
This kit had several advantages. The structure was small (about 1,300 square feet of living space) and square, with no complex angles or jutting corners to complicate things for our admittedly amateur work force. Plus, the dealer selling us the kit was less than an hour away.
Our base crew consisted of my husband (a chiropractor who had worked in construction during college breaks), a teacher friend who wanted to build her own log home one day, and another friend who had his own odd-job/construction business and lots of cool tools like laser beam levels and nail guns. (HINT: When you draw up your budget for building, take whatever your initial figure is for tools and double it. As soon as you see the cool tools real construction workers have, you’re going to want some too.)
Other assorted friends, acquaintances and family members drifted through our job site to help. We encouraged this as much as possible by providing free lunches, lots of homemade brownies and raucous music. (HINT: Consider the lunches a construction expense.) Fortunately, we have a lot of friends who are teachers or work flexible hours, so we were never short of labor.
The logs and components for our kit arrived on a hot day in early June on two enormous tractor trailers, one equipped with a crane to unload all the pallets. We had ordered a complete kit, including not only the logs for the walls, but all materials for the floor and roof, windows, interior and exterior doors. Our theory was that with our compressed building schedule, we wouldn’t have time to run around getting these things ourselves.
The truck drivers, naturally enough, wanted to know where to put all this stuff. Snag #1: Where do you store two trailer loads of logs and other building materials? Fortunately, our property was the last lot on a private dirt road. So for the next two months, we commandeered the cul-de-sac at the end of the road for our building materials. (HINT: When you do your site work, clear a large, level, accessible space for the logs to go. It will make a great spot for a garden or garage later.)
After the pallets were unloaded, we tipped the truck drivers with money and brownies. Then we rolled up our sleeves and started to move logs – and hit Snag #2.
In a kit, the logs are all numbered and lettered. “A” is the bottom row or “course” of logs, and they are numbered in order from the front left corner of the house. Great system. The problem is, when they’re loaded onto the trailers, they’re not loaded in order. Instead, they’re loaded to make nice squared-off bundles, so our “A” logs were scattered through all seven bundles of logs. We spent an entire day just sorting. (HINT: Buy lots of heavy leather gloves for your work crew and encourage everyone to work in long sleeves, no matter how hot the day is.)
Several of us had pinched fingers and a forearm rash after log-moving day. (Another HINT: Mortgage your soul for a medium- sized tractor with a loader on the front for moving heavy materials. Ours kept working long after our kids’ wagon broke and our garden tractor turned belly up.)
While the unskilled labor – me and two teacher friends – were moving logs, the skilled labor – my husband and our contractor friend – were installing the main beam, floor joists and plywood sub-floor.
Now the big moment had finally come. At 4 p.m., we set the first log for our cabin. We made a little ceremony of it: everyone took turns pounding in the first stake. (HINT: Take pictures obsessively throughout your construction process. When you look at them later, you won’t believe what you’ve lived through.)
Look How Quickly It Goes Up
A word about how the logs go together. In our kit, the logs were D-shaped – flat on the interior walls and rounded on the exterior – six inches thick, eight inches high, Eastern white pine.
Northeastern uses what it calls a Triple Seal Weather Lock System in the walls. Along the entire length of the top of each course of logs, there were several grooves cut out that matched the corresponding grooves on the next course of logs. One groove was for foam insulation tape, the other for Puttylastic Caulking, a brown gooey caulking agent that looked a lot like goose poop. This stuff is a great adhesive, sticking not only to the logs, but to our hands, clothes, any tools within two feet – and the family dog. (HINT: Begin saving old clothes at least a year before you start construction. Any clothes you use during construction will be trash within two weeks.)
The logs are held together by 12-inch-long, spiraled iron spikes that are pounded into and through one log then into the next with a small sledge hammer. (HINT: If you’re using spikes, be very sure each log is exactly where you want it before you spike it. Once the spikes are in, they DO NOT come out.)
Within two days we had a rhythm. One crew brought the logs over, one crew applied the foam insulation and goose poop (trying to limit it just to the logs), and a third crew spiked the logs.
The wonderful thing about building a log home is how quickly the shell goes up. Within a week the walls were over six feet tall, and we were working on ladders.
Our contractor friend measured the house from corner to corner regularly to make sure we were building a rectangle and not a parallelogram. (Evidently the roof won’t fit unless your corners are square.)
Raising the Roof
Things slowed down when we came to fitting the top course of logs for the windows. The logs that went directly over the windows had to have space cut out so the windows would fit. Our logs are 6x8 inches, not something your average electric saw can cut through, even the cool ones our contractor friend owned. Chain saws were not precise enough, so we ended up chiseling out the openings, a long labor-intensive process that frayed tempers and played havoc with our time schedule. (HINT: Build a week or two of extra time into your construction schedule for bad weather, log chiseling, a plague of locusts or other unforeseen problems.)
By August, our tempers had shortened along with the hours of daylight available. The ends of the house went up quickly and were ready for the roof trusses. We had 60 to install, and frankly, we were running out of steam.
But on truss day, our friends once again proved it takes a whole village to build a house. One of our neighbors, an airline pilot, showed up and took over as project foreman. Confidently barking out orders, he had us scurrying to keep up. Under his direction, my husband and I placed trusses, and our contractor friend, walking along the tops of the walls like a mountain goat, hammered them into place. (HINT: Make sure you have at least two people on your crew who are not afraid of heights.)
Once the trusses were in place, the log shell suddenly began to look like a cabin. With that for inspiration, we got the roof sheathed with plywood in two days. Another day for tar paper and the roof was weather tight.
Now for the windows and doors. My husband’s cross-country ski partner turned up that Saturday to see how we were doing. At 6- foot-two, my husband is not a small man. But when he stands next to his ski partner, he looks like a hobbit. This guy was able to lift our double hung, wood clad, double glazed low E glass windows and look bored doing it. His help freed up the lesser mortals – like myself – to jobs more suited to our physiques. (HINT: Cultivate friendships with large body builders as construction time draws near. They can accomplish more in one day than three skinny friends can in a week. See physics textbooks on force/lever arm equations.)
The shingles were applied over Labor Day weekend, with our contractor friend reprising his mountain goat act and my husband doing his best to imitate him. We used our tractor’s bucket to move the shingle bundles to roof height and nail guns to apply the shingles. Once again, the right tools made the job much easier.
By late Monday afternoon, the roof was complete. We cleaned up the last of the tools and stood back to look at our cabin. The light honey-colored pine logs seemed to glow in the late afternoon sun, complimented by the green shingles of the roof. The windows were dark, since no interior lighting was in place yet, but it was easy to imagine them bright with welcome. (HINT: As you get close to the end of construction, be sure to have champagne cooling somewhere on site to celebrate your cabin’s completion.)
We had done it! With a lot of help from our friends, we had completed our dream log cabin by ourselves. It had been exhilarating and nerve-racking at times, but looking at the completed shell, we agreed it was worth it.
With the walls complete, we looked forward to what we considered would be the fun part – completing the interior. Little did we know that would provide its own set of challenges. But at least we budgeted enough for tools!
Cathy Strasser is an occupational therapist and freelance writer who lives in Sugar Hill, N.H. She is currently working on her first book, “Autism: A Therapist’s Journey Toward Enlightenment,” due to be published in late 2007.