The definition of a cabin is a small house usually built in a rural area. Traditional wooden cabins in the 1800s and 1900s were made from whole logs or split logs to give the traditional “log cabin” look. These days a wooden cabin may be built in your backyard for extra visitors, storage or events. The size and materials will depend on the purpose of the cabin, as well as local building regulations.
We will outline the basics you need to consider before starting on a cabin, give some advice on materials, construction and weatherproofing. You can obtain plans online, but the chances are as you build you may change ideas – ask any contractor who has built a house for a client how many changes take place.
So, you’ve seen a picture and want to recreate the look, or you need a cabin for a specific purpose. It may be for storage or extra accommodation for guests on your property or it may be your primary shelter at a bug out location. The uses to which it is going to be put, the climate in your area and the materials to hand are going to dictate the construction.
Planning the Size
Whenever you peg out a plan on the ground it looks quite small. An acquaintance was building a new farmhouse on his property and told his construction crew to peg it out exactly the size of the old house at the new site. He came over, looked at the layout, pronounced it too small and gave instructions for the sizes of all the rooms to be doubled. As you can imagine everyone who visits his new house comments on how massive it is and he has to explain the reason!
If, for example you have planned a 12-foot by 12-foot space, find a room in a home approximately the same size and gauge whether you would be comfortable in that space.
It is practical to include a deck area outside you cabin – again this will depend on where you live. In areas where you get deep snow it’s best to keep that little porch area sheltered by the roof overhang. If you are living in a milder climate a large deck area for summer evening gatherings outside will enhance the charm of your place and take the pressure off the interior space – we all know about cabin fever.
Preparing the Ground
Try to choose a fairly level area and either bring in machinery to clear the ground or you can do it by hand if the cabin is small. Check the ground so that when you set your foundations there is no water beneath that could cause subsidence. For a small cabin you will need to dig down a bit and built small piers on which to set the cabin if you are not building a basement. This video shows how to set up the concrete piers.
Tools to Use
This all depends where you are. If you are building a cabin in your backyard at home – providing it is allowed by law – you will have electricity and be able to finish the job fairly quickly using power tools. If it’s in a location with no power then you will need access to a generator if using power tools, so hiring the generator will have to be taken into account when calculating costs.
If you are one of those who romanticize the use of hand tools and want to do it the old way then be prepared for it to take a long time and know you will probably have blisters and cuts (make sure the first aid kit is ready. Actually it should be ready anyway – you can do even more damage with a power tool). Battery operated cordless screwdrivers and drills can make life much easier, as will a chain saw.
Below are some suggestions for people starting on a project. If you have been using power tools for a while you will have your own preferences. Building a wooden cabin is not the typical DIY job like hanging pictures or putting up shelves.
Do your homework and ask around for advice, as you will need industrial type tools. The drill used around the home for odd jobs will likely burn out on a big job.
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This is fairly light, has long battery life and will get the job done, plus it’s a combination drill and screwdriver in one.
It’s a personal preference but I find Stihl products long lasting and the back up service is excellent. When you buy one the staff will provide instructions and tips on peak performance and maintaining your product (who ever reads the manuals anyway)
Steel hammer hafts are stronger, wood and fiberglass lighter but weaker. You can choose straight claw or curved claw for extracting nails – it’s all a personal preference.
Buy the best you can afford and test out the hammer for the grip and balance to ensure it is comfortable and efficient. For what it’s worth my preference is for the Stanley hammers. Cheap Chinese made hammers with fiberglass handles are going to get broken fairly fast if you are doing heavy work.
Felling Your Own Trees
A two-man bow saw has the advantage of building muscle while getting your logs cut. Then, you could use an axe to fell trees like this:
If you have friends who know something about tree felling spend time with them getting practical experience – it will be worth it. There have been far too many accidents when trees don’t cooperate by falling where they are expected to fall, but actually it was the tree-feller who didn’t calculate for all eventualities.
What Wood to Use
If you are concerned about deforestation then you should be using softwoods like pine, and spruce, that can grow back fairly quickly – these however are more prone to fungal and insect attack. If you are going to use oak, cedar or a similar hardwood bear in mind how long it takes for a tree to grow, how many you are going to cut down and also that, particularly for oak, the sapwood is prone to degradation by insects – you need to use the heartwood, that is the dense inner part of the wood.
In the photo you can see the damage done by termites to the sapwood – the whiter outside ring of an Australian silver oak tree (Grevillea robusta) but the heartwood ( the redder part) has been left alone.
Close up of the termites at work:
Felling New Logs
Many Americans have adopted the traditional and attractive Scandinavian style of log homes with their bottom-cut notches for the corners. These are cozy and dry but this is going to be no weekend project, particularly if you are going to be felling the trees on your property. For every tree felled you should replant two trees at least for future generations. Trees provide some of our oxygen, the rest comes from phytoplankton in the sea, but no trees on land would mean a huge problem for our oxygen supplies.
Fell the trees you need at the end of autumn, beginning of winter. Felling in early winter also means the ground will be drier and harder for hauling logs out and you won’t be sloshing around in summer rain and mud.
Slower drying can take place during the winter months. The logs should be air-dried for around 2 years and stacked with smaller poles between the courses of logs so there is airflow around them to promote even drying. You don’t want logs that are cracking and splitting because this makes it prone to insect and fungal attack. Bark needs to be stripped before stacking, if not fully, at least partially; and before you build all the bark needs to be taken off as this is where all kinds of insects find a home and can result in damage to the timber. Bark also burns easily and can be a fire hazard if not removed.
Building the Cabin
Of course one can bypass all the labor and time of felling your own logs and simply order. This woman built a home for herself and lives mortgage free. She didn’t fell her own logs but had them delivered from a timber yard:
Before building you need to calculate carefully how many logs you are going to need. This article http://www.logcabinhub.com/log-preparation-tips/will help you do that. One has to calculate in areas taken up by windows and doors, which are going to affect the lengths of logs, you order.
If you are building a basement area and setting you log cabin onto this base then the following article, which appeared in a 1983 issue of Popular Mechanics is pretty clear as it explains how to notch the logs, v them along the bottom so they sit snug against the log beneath it thus avoiding the use of chinking between logs to prevent rain and draughts coming in.
The saddle notch system is similar to the Scandinavian system but the bottom of each log is not cut with a v beneath it, meaning some caulking of the gaps between the logs will be needed to keep rain out and the cabin draught free.
The dovetail notch is explained here but for this you will need a jig:
This chap does it with a chain saw!
The Skip style Butt and Pass was developed by Skip Ellsworth, a fifth generation log homebuilder – his family has been building log homes since 1939 with this system. Skip shows how it is easier and quicker to build a log cabin. But, whichever system you use, there are bound to be little gaps between logs that need filling and this is called chinking.
Oakum (hemp fiber) and Sphagnum moss were traditionally used to fill the gaps between logs. Even if you are building a Scandanavian chinkless log home as explained in the Popular Mechanics article, at some stage as logs dry out little gaps will appear and chinking will be needed. There is synthetic chinking material available but it can be a fire hazard as it is petroleum based and will burn giving off nasty black smoke and fumes.
A properly applied mortar chinking is the least expensive and lasts longest. It is also fire resistant.
For new chinking you will need to put galvanized nails into the logs both top and bottom every few inches apart and then bend them slightly inwards as these hold the mortar mix in place. Push your chinking material in between along the length of the log so none of it sticks out. If you have a few sheep on your property you can use sheep’s wool, otherwise use straw or the easiest option is getting a roll of fiberglass insulation from your building material supplier, cutting it into strips and pushing it into place. Once all the gaps are filled make your mortar mix as follows:
In line with the mantra of “reduce, reuse and recycle”, used pallets are a good source of wood if you have access to them in sufficient quantity. They may not provide sufficient insulation in very cold areas but for mild climates they are useful.
For pallet constructions of around 12-foot x12 foot you need concrete supports every 18 inches. Onto this you build your frame using timber that is 114mm x 38mm. The length of wood you have stripped from the pallets will determine the height at which you place the timber they are to be fastened onto.
I prefer using screws rather than nails as if a piece needs replacing it is fairly easy to unscrew the piece and fit another; also with changes in temperature nails can loosen whereas screws retain a snug fit. I used an overlapping system as you can see in the picture to avoid draughts and for increased sturdiness. Both cabins I built are now around 8 years old and show no signs of weathering. Every year they are treated with a mixture of a product called Waxol, a penetrating oil that protects against termites and provides a water repellent coating. It also makes the wood look darker.
I found second hand window frames complete with glass at a demolisher’s yard and installed them so the cabin has through ventilation and is quite light. We even made the doors from pallet wood as you can see in the picture. The cabin took around two days to built – setting up the frame and fastening on the pallets pieces and setting in the windows on the first day then finishing the roof and fitting the door and flooring – also from pallet wood the second day. This does not count the two days taken in pulling pallets apart and removing old nails, stacking the wood ready to use and constructing the door.
When pulling the pallets apart use a crowbar – using a hammer is going to mean the haft will break if too much pressure is applied – especially if it is made of fiberglass.
The roof was a simple slope – not a pitched roof. In areas where there is snow you need to have a fairly steep pitch so the snow can slide off otherwise the roof will collapse. Watch this video to see how a similar structure can be built:
Roofing is really up to you. Some prefer traditional hand split shakes using cedar or white oak. Shakes or shingles can be ordered in – you don’t need to do your own but prices can vary and are more expensive that using metal sheeting like Galvalume or aluminum. Although aluminum is long lasting it may not look as attractive or as authentic as shingles.
For the interior if you go for a pitched roof you can either decided to install a ceiling using plywood or leave the beams exposed and put the plywood on the outside of the beams, then apply your insulation and metal roof. At the point of your pitched roof you will need the capping, which can be commercially bought and fastened down.
A roofing option is EPDM (Ethylene propylene diene monomer) – a rubber roof. If your cabin is small you simply order to the size you require and fasten in onto your plywood roof covering using EPDM glue paste. Ensure your boards are clean and dirt free, apply the glue paste, then attach the EPDM rubber working from one side and making sure that it attaches properly and that any air bubbles are squeezed out with a roller. Once it is all down take the overhanging bits and fasten them to the topmost logs of the walls. Finish off with a snug trim that will guide runoff water into the gutter. Because the roofing comes in one sheet there are no joins where water can get in.
Rain Water Harvesting
You will need to install guttering so that rainwater can be channeled into a tank for home use or gardening. The bigger the roof area the more tanks you can have. Start with one to see how much water your roof generates during the rainy season then add extra tanks as your vegetable garden expands.
Connections for Plumbing
A free standing outdoor shower is the way to go for summer living, but in winter you want to be indoors – so a built in shower is a possibility however dampness needs to be taken into account. I prefer a freestanding tub installed in a cabin, along with the toilet and hand basin. A number of cabins have rotten flooring due to inadequate waterproofing from the shower and the dampness can also affect the logs directly above the shower.
Many traditional homes in places like Asia and Africa do not have a bathroom attached – ablutions take place in a separate area, but these countries have mostly year round warm weather. A solution in many Asian bamboo-type accommodation units – especially for tourists who insist on a bathroom en suite is to attach a bathroom built of bricks and concrete, accessed via a door from the main bamboo/wood structure, which could be an option in a log cabin.
If you intend having a fireplace then this needs to be constructed correctly. This article shows how to build a chimney using stones and one using sticks. If you have electricity or other types of heating methods then the chimney construction phase can be omitted.
Building under trees means is always the danger from forest fires – especially if the area you live in is prone to these. Homesteaders advise pruning the lower branches of trees so they are not close to the cabin roof. Installing dry walling can also help but if there is a big fire it is best to give way. Installing a stone façade can also be helpful in stopping smaller fires getting to the cabin – but you usually want to keep the authentic feel of the natural logs and not hide them behind stone cladding.
Usually it is preferable to build away from trees, to keep the ground around the home free of combustible materials and perhaps to build a perimeter stone wall if you have locally available stone to protect from grass fires.
Protecting From Insect Damage
A mixture of linseed oil and turpentine painted onto the logs every year or so should keep insects away. There are a number of treatment processes like borates, which are relatively new compared to the chromated copper arsenate (CCA) treated wood. To find out the pros and cons of various wood treatments read this article.
When building responsibly you have to take into account the effect of chemicals leaching into the soil and inhalation of sawdust when working with chemically treated wood. If you use the heartwood of trees like cedar, cypress or hemlock then you don’t have to worry about insect and fungal decay as these woods are naturally resistant, however over time as they dry out they can become prone to insect and fungal attack.
As you proceed with building your log home you will make mistakes but it’s a learning curve and nothing will compare to the pride you feel as you stand back and admire the log home you constructed, then start planning the next one – with improvements.