By Dale Mulfinger
One of architecture’s more enduring challenges is gravity, that force that tugs at our buildings, particularly roofs, seeking to bring them to the center of the earth. Architecture’s response has been the development of the column, and all of its manifestations. Greek temples epitomize the potential of a forest of ordered columns in creating a space worthy of the gods.
Why You Should Add a Tree Column
As an architect who has designed many cabins, I’ve often placed columns in sentinel locations, first to solve a structural need, but second to have some symbolic value. Some of my clients have reminded me that steel beams were invented to remove columns, but I feel the column has a corporal quality, as if someone is in the room to greet you.
Cabin clients frequently prefer a rustic appearance for their retreat, and for this I often bring the forest up to and into the cabin. Tree columns of all kinds and shapes give a whimsy to the place while still counteracting gravity’s pull.
Trees can be harvested from the site or purchased from the nearest sawmill. Some of my clients have enjoyed walking their forested properties to select just the right tree for the task. For others, we have even made tree-like columns out of milled lumber that’s easily obtained from a local lumberyard. (Get more tips on finding columns in the sidebar on the facing page.)
Choosing the Species of Tree
The coniferous tree I prefer is cedar; it is readily available in most parts of the country and is fairly rot resistant when exposed to the weather. Cedar columns can be made from straight trunks or divided trunks, which can look like tuning forks. The bark can be left on, or it can be stripped to expose a smooth skin. If a portion of the roots are retained, it will have a splayed base for additional character.
The tree I have used for my own cabin is an ash. It was supplied by Deane Hillbrand, of Hillbrand Woodworking, Sturgeon Lake, Minn. Deane harvests the trees on his property in the early summer, and then rolls them in the wet grass until the bark falls off. Revealed is a smooth surface with a beautiful light color. They are quite strong, even with angled limbs, but should be protected from water for longevity.
I’ve also seen birch columns with the bark intact used inside cabins. This is possible with many tree species, but a fungicide might be needed for critters living in the bark. Columns like these are best located out of high-traffic areas so as not to snag sweaters, and to protect the bark.
In North Carolina, poplar trees are in abundance and can be harvested for column purposes.
Milled cedar lumber is readily available at local lumber yards and can be assembled into whimsical columns on porches or other entries. To give these columns a tree-like appearance, use oversized members (see photo above). Join the “trunks” and “limbs” together with galvanized hardware.
Joyce Kilmer wrote that “Poems can be made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.” Whether you’re “blasphemous” enough to try to make your own tree, or you select one from God’s forest, enjoy having a special tree column as part of your cabin.
How to Find Tree Columns
So, if you're building a cabin or planning a renovation, where do you look for tree columns (other than on your own land)? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Your architect or builder may be able to source the tree trunks for you.
- Search your local area for sawmills and wood cutters.
- Check out the Pinterest board “Tree Columns” at www.pinterest.com/CabinLifeMag.
- You can see columns supplied by Deane Hillbrand in my book, “Back to the Cabin.”
- Several of my clients and builders have purchased their cedar columns from Lonesome Cottage Furniture Company in Pequot Lakes, Minn. (www.lonesomecottage.com).
- Tree trunks from poplar and other wood species are available from Highland Craftsmen in Spruce Pine, N.C. (www.barkhouse.com).
- Bear Creek Lumber in Winthrop, Wash., offers specialty lumber services and regularly sells peeled logs (www.bearcreeklumber.com)
Other Things to Keep in Mind
When purchasing nails, screws and other fasteners to build with cedar, use hot-dipped galvanized, aluminum and stainless steel fasteners, which are all corrosion-resistant. Other types of fasteners are not recommended. They can rust and disintegrate and react adversely with the natural preservative oils present in cedar, resulting in unsightly stains and streaks.
About the Author
Cabinologist Dale Mulfinger regularly designs cabins with Minnesota-based SALA Architects (www.salaarc.com), teaches cabin classes and gives talks on cabin subjects across North America. He has authored five cabin-centric books.