An American Symbol of the Pioneering Spirit

Log cabins have long symbolized the American pioneering spirit and love of independence—and with good reason. Made from inexpensive, locally available materials, they are well suited to homesteaders of any era. For the early settlers, most of whom were neither woodsmen nor carpenters, they provided sturdy, economical housing that did not demand expert skillsor require scarce materials and tools. In colonial days trees were plentiful and free. A rough cabin of logs and split lumber shakes or shingles could be put up quickly by one or two people using little more than an ax. Such a structure would last a lifetime; some survive after more than two centuries. Nowadays, cabins are still comparatively economical to build, and with the help of modern techniques and materials they can be made to last even longer. When putting up a log cabin from scratch, the greatest investment remains time and labor rather than trees and tools. But another option also exists: instead of cutting and peeling your own logs, you can buy an entire log cabin kit complete with precut logs.

Flat stack lumber that will remain undisturbed for long periods. Place 4 × 4 s on floor or on ground treated with pesticide. Lay boards side by side, 1 to 2 in. apart, then stack in layers separated by 1-in.-thick wood strips.boards against pole support so they are nearly vertical, crisscross pieces for maximum exposure of surfaces.
End stack is used only for nearly seasoned wood because it provides limited air circulation. Lean boards against wall or frame with spaces between boards at bottom. Boards can be removed without disturbing pile.
Traditional log-building methods were brought here from Scandinavia. The first American log cabins were probably built by Finnish colonists at New Sweden, near the mouth of the Delaware River, in 1638. By the 1800s log cabins were common from the Atlantic to California and from Alaska to the Southwest. Only a few decades ago cabins were still being built by traditional methods in backwoods areas of the United States and Canada. The chain saw, however, has ended the need for many centuries-old skills, and few men exist today who can notch logs with an ax as skillfully as their grandfathers once did.

Most early log cabins consisted of only one room. Ease of construction plus availability of timber contributed to the enormous popularity of log cabins in colonial America. in turn, log cabins helped make possible the settlement of lands from New England west to the Great Plains.
Pole stack saves labor and space, requires less foundation, and allows lumber to shed rainwater. Lean Logs with the bark removed dry faster and are less susceptible to insect damage. Peeling logs with a drawknife or spud is easiest when logs are freshly cut. stack logs off the ground to prevent warpage and decay. Let them season three to six months.

Choosing Trees and Preparing Logs

Evergreens—pine, fir, cedar, spruce, and larch—make the best cabin logs. You will need about 80 logs for an average one-room cabin. Should you decide to cut your own, be sure of your logging skills and your ability to transport the logs out of the forest. Select trees that are about equal in age, thickness, and height. Look for stands that are dense but not crowded and are located on level land. Avoid trees with low limbs. Good building logs should be between 8 and 14 inches in diameter. Once you select a size, all should be approximately the same. Logs should be straight and free of structural or insect damage. Allow at least 4 feet extra per log so that the ends can project beyond the corner notches.
Cutting is best done in winter when the sap is out of the wood: the logs weigh less, season faster, and resist decay better. In addition, hauling is easier and less damage will be done to the environment, since the ground will be frozen and foliage will be at a minimum.

The Tools You Will Need

Proper tools make the job of building a log cabin much easier and help achieve a high level of craftsmanship. Shown at right are some of the tools needed. In addition, you should have an assortment of basic carpenter’s tools, including a handsaw, chisels, measuring tools, and sharpening equipment. A small winch can save a good deal of sweat and strain, and you will also need a chain or a stout rope. Traditional log-building tools are usually hard to find and expensive if bought new or from antique dealers. Begin collecting the ones you will need well in advance. Farm auctions, flea markets, and tag sales are possible sources.If you are buying a chain saw, get one with an instant chain brake and a 16- to 20-inch bar. Learn how to use it safely, keep it sharp at all times, and always wear protection for your ears and eyes.

A note on safety

Working with logs requires you to be alert and safety conscious. The building site is likely to be uneven, and both materials and equipment are heavy and awkward to handle. Tools such as axes and chain saws are dangerous, especially in inexperienced hands. Wear protective clothing, boots, and safety glasses. Do not take chances.

Foundation and Siting

Although the pioneers often built their cabins directly on the ground, it is better to build on a raised foundation for protection against both termites and damp rot. The crawl space beneath the floor can be used for storage, wiring, plumbing, and under-the-floor insulation. One type of foundation, shown at right, consists of reinforced concrete piers strategically placed around the perimeter of the building and beneath important floor girders. Other possibilities are concrete slab foundation or stone masonry block foundations. Stone is the traditional foundation material. Piers can be of wood rather then concrete. Use log posts of black locust or treated cedar set into the ground on stone or concrete pads.
Locate your cabin in a sheltered, well-drained area, and design it to take advantage of the sun’s changing angle throughout the seasons. Make batter boards to mark the corners of the site and stretch string between them to form the exact outline of the foundation. Consult standard building texts for complete advice.

Sill logs are notched flat and drilled so tops of piers will seat firmly and take rebar anchors. Compensate for log taper by alternating wide and narrow ends when building walls. Termite flashing should also be inserted in any area where this insect poses a problem. Concrete piers can be faced with stone to make them attractive; leave wooden piers exposed.
Ordinary garden hose with 6 in. of clear tubing in each end can be used to find equal heights above grade level at widely separated points. Attach one end of hose to reference point, the other to new location. Fill end near reference point with water until water reaches mark. Water level at the other end will then be at same height. Log builders’ tools: a basic kit includes such old-fashioned tools as a broadax as well as modern implements.

Piers are set in holes dug below frost line. if ground is firm, a 6-in.-thick pad of concrete can be poured directly into hole bottoms without use of a form. Piers themselves require forms. Tubular cardboard forms can be purchased from building suppliers. Tops of all piers should be even with each other and rise at least 18 in. above grade.

Tight-Fitting Notches Mean Sturdy Walls

Well-made notches lock wall logs in place and prevent water from collecting inside the joints. They involve as little cutting away of wood as possible to avoid weakening the logs. Many builders spike the logs together at the joints, but spiking is not necessary for the types of joints shown here. Except in chinkless construction, shown on page 29, notches are generally cut so that a 1- to 2-inch gap remains between parallel logs. This makes chinking easier and more durable.
Round notch is easy to make and very effective, especially when combined with the chinkless construction method. It is a Scandinavian technique and represents one of the earliest notching styles. A sturdy pair of wing dividers with a pencil attached to one leg is essential for scribing a perfect joint. To make the notch, follow the step-by-step procedure shown at right.
V-notch is one of the favorite styles in the Appalachian Mountains. It can be cut with only an ax—the fit is accomplished by trial and error. By adding a carpenter’s square to your tools, perfect first-try joints can be made.