How to Build a Log Cabin
By D.C. Beard
D.C Beard, founder of the Boy Scouts of America, teaches the 21st century homesteader to build likes it’s the 19th. Celebrate your independent spirit with Shelters, Shacks and Shanties (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011) as you pick up essential skills and advice to build a homestead. With a range of styles and detailed instructions for constructing, even the lay-carpenter can build everything from a tree house to a log cabin. In the following excerpt, from Chapter 36 “The American Log Cabin”, Beard details how to build a log cabin that is quintessentially American.
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American Log Cabin
Now that we know how to make doors and door-latches, locks, bolts, and bars, we may busy ourselves with building an American log cabin. It is all well enough to build our shacks and shanties and camps of logs with the bark on them, but, when one wishes to build a log cabin, one wants a house that will last. Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin is still in existence, but it was built of logs with no bark on them. There is a two-story log house still standing in Dayton, O.; it is said to have been built before the town was there; but there is no bark on the logs. Bark holds moisture and moisture creates decay by inviting fibrous and threadlike cousins of the toadstool to grow up on the damp wood and work their way into its substance. The bark also shelters all sorts of boring insects and the boring insects make holes through the logs which admit the rain and in the end cause decay, so that the first thing to remember is to peel the logs of which you propose to build the cabin. There is now, or was lately, a log cabin on Hempstead Plains, L.I.; near the road leading from Mineols to Manhassett; it is supposed to have been built when the first white settlers began to arrive on Long Island, but this was what was known as a ‘Blockhouse,” a small fort. In 1906 Mr. I. P. Sapington said: “I think that I am the only man now living who helped build General Grant’s log cabin.” Grant’s house was what is popularly known in the South as a “saddle-bag” log house, or, as the Southwestern settlers called it, a “two-pen,” the pens being two enclosures with a wide passageway or galley between them, one roof extending over both pens and the gallery.
General Grant was not afraid of work, and, like a good scout, was always willing to help a neighbor. He had a team of big horses, a gray and a bay, and the loads of cord-wood he hauled to St. Louis were so big that they are still talked about by the old settlers. In the summer of 1854 Grant started his log cabin, and all his neighbors turned in to help him build his house.
American Log Cabin Style
The American log house differs from the Canadian log house principally in the shape of the roof. Our old settlers made steep gambrel roofs to shed the rain.
“Gambrel! Gambrel? Let me beg
You’ll look at a horse’s hinder leg;
You great angle above the hoof,
That’s the gambrel, hence the gambrel roof.”
The Canadians put very flat roofs on their log cabins, usually composed of logs laid over the rafters, making them strong enough to support the heavy weight of snow. The American log cabins, as a rule, are built in a milder climate, and the flat sod roof is peculiar to our Northern boundary and the hot, arid parts of our country. We build the chimneys outside of our log cabins because, as the old settlers would say, “thar’s more room out thar.”
Fig 229 is a one-pen cabin. To build it we first snake our logs to a skid near the site of our proposed cabin (Fig. 176), from which we can roll our logs to our house as we need them. Lay out the corners and square them (Fig. 80); notch the logs with a rounded or U-shaped notch (Fig. 165). Remember that all logs should be two or three feet longer than the walls of the proposed building, but the notches must be the same distance apart in order to make even walls. The protruding ends of the logs may be allowed to stick out as they happen to come, no matter how irregular they may be, until the cabin is erected; then with a two-handed saw and a boy at each end they can be trimmed off evenly, thus giving a neat finish to the house.
The largest, straightest, and best logs should be saved for sills or foundation. If you are building a “mudsill,” that is, a building upon the ground itself, the sill logs will be subject to dampness which will cause them to rot unless they are protected by some wood preservative.
If the logs are painted with two or three coats of creosote before they are laid upon the ground, it will protect them for an indefinite time and prevent decay. Hugh P. Baker, dean of the New York State College of Forestry, writes me that—
two or three applications of warm oil with a brush will be very helpful and will probably be all that the ordinary man can do. Creosote is the best preservative because of its penetrating power and the way it acts upon the fibres of wood, and in the end is cheaper than a good many other things which have been used to preserve timber. In fact, various forms of creosote are best-known preservers of organic matter. There is no advantage in using charcoal at all and I presume suggestions have been made for using is because we know that charred wood is more durable. Linseed-oil is good; ordinary white-lead paint will be better, but neither of them is effective as creosote, and both are more expensive. You will find that carbolineum and other patent preparations are recommended very highly; they are good but expensive and the difference in price between these patent preparations and ordinary creosote is much larger than is justified by their increased value. Creosote can be procured in large or small quantities from a number of concerns. I think we have been getting it for about ten dollars per barrel of fifty or fifty-three gallons.
May be purchased in large or small quantities from various manufacturing companies, such as the Barret Manufacturing Company, 17 Battery Place, New York City, and the Chattfield Manufacturing Company, Cathrage, O., handle it in large quantities.
Build the pen as if it were to have no openings, either doors, windows, or fireplaces. When you reach the point where the top of the door, window, or fireplace is to be (Fig. 229) saw out a section of the log to mark the place and admit a saw when it is desired to finish the opening as shown in the diagram and continue building until you have enough of the logs in place to tack on cleats like those shown in Figs. 229, 230, and 231, after which the openings may be sawed out. The cleats will hold the ends of the logs in place until the boards U (Fig. 232) for the door-jambs, window-frames, or the framework over the fireplace can be nailed to the ends of the logs and thus hold them permanently in place. If your house is a “mudsill,” wet the floor until it becomes spongy, then with the butt end of a log ram dirt down hard until you have an even, hard floor-such a floor as some of the greatest men of this nation first crept over when they were babies. But if you want a board floor, you must necessarily have floor-joists; there are easily made of milled lumber or you may use the rustic material of which your house is built and select more straight logs for your joists. Of course, these joists must have an even top surface, which may be made by flattening the logs by scoring and hewing them as illustrated in Figs. 123, 124, and 125 and previously described. It will then be necessary to cut the ends of the joist square and smaller than the rest of the log (Fig. A, 229); the square ends must be made to fit easily into the notches made in the sill logs (B, Fig. 229) so that they will all be even and ready for the flooring (C, Fig. 229). For a house ten feet wide the joists should be half a foot in diameter, that is, half of a food through from one side to the other; for larger spans use larger logs for the joists.
If your house is not a “mudsill” you may rest your sill logs upon posts or stone piles; in either case, in the Northern States, they should extend three feet below the ground, so as to be below frost-line and prevent the upheaval of the spring thaw from throwing your house “out of plumb.”
All the old-time log cabins were roofed with shakes, splits, clapboard, or hand-rives shingles as already described and illustrated by Figs. 126, 128, 129, and 130; but today they are usually shingles with the machine-sawed shingle of commerce. You may, however, cover the roof with planks as shown by Fig. 233 or with bark weighted down with poles as shown by Fig. 234. In covering it with broad or plant nail the latter on as you would on a floor, then lay another course of boards over the cracks which show between the boards on the first course.
The gable ends of the cabin should be built up of logs with the rafter of the roof running between the logs as they are in Figs. 229 and 233, but the roof may be built, as it frequently is nowadays, of mill lumber, in which case it may be framed as shown by Figs 49, 51, and the gable ends about the logs filled in with upright poles as shown in Figs. 173 and 247, or planked up as shown in the Southern saddle-bag (Fig. 241), or the ends may be boarded up and covered with tar paper as shown in Fig. 248, or the gable end may be shingles with ordinary shingles (Fig. 79).
Remember that the steeper the roof is the longer the shingles will last, because the water will run off readily and quickly on a steep surface and the shingles have an opportunity to dry quickly; besides which the snow slides off a steep roof and the driving rains do not beat under the shingles. If you are using milled lumber for the roof, erect the rafters at the gable end first, with the ridge board as shown in Fig. 263 and in greater detail in Fig. 49. Put the other rafters two or three feet apart.
Let your roof overhang the walls by at least seven or eight inches so as to keep the drip from the rain free of the wall. It is much easier for the architect to draw a log house that it is for a builder to erect one, for the simple reason that the draughtsman can make his logs as straight as he chooses, also that he can put the uneven places where they fit best; but except in well-forested countries the tree trunks do not grow as straight as the logs in my pictures and you must pick out the logs which will fit together. Run them alternately butt and head; that is, if you put the thick end of the log at the right-hand end of your house, with the small end at the right and thick end at the left; otherwise, if all the thick ends are put at one side and the small ends at the other as is the case with some of our previous shacks and camps (Figs 190, 191, 192) which are purposely built that way.
If it is planned to have glass window lights, make your window openings of the proper size to fit the window frames which come with the sashes from the factory. In any case, if the cabin is to be left unoccupied you should have heavy shutters to fit in the window opening so as to keep out trespassers.
If your logs are uneven and leave large spaces between them, they may be chinked up by filling the spaces with mud plaster or cement, and then forcing in quartered pieces of small logs and nailing them or spiking them in position. If your logs are straight spruce logs and fit snugly, the cracks may be calked up with swamp moss (Sphagnum), or like a boat, with oakum, or the larger spaces may be filled with flat stones and covered with mud. This mud will last from one to seven or eight years; I have some on my own log cabin that has been there even a longer time.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties and How to Make Them by D.C. Beard and published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2011. Purchase this book from our store: Shelters, Shack, and Shanties.
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