Tips and Suggestions for Cabin Building
by Jim Yount
- Build a Mini Cabin -
Before you read further, look over the Mini Cabin web site (http://www.minicabin.com).
The concept presented is that a building of 120 sq. feet or less (some places as
much as 144 square feet) can be built without a building permit. Some zoning
regulations allow the building to have a loft or even a full second floor and
still be within the 120 square feet.
Of course, there are many places, especially in rural areas, where there are no
such restrictions, or the regulations are largely uninformed. If you are
fortunate enough to live in such a place, then lucky you! Even for this
fortunate few it is often a good idea to build small, especially for a first
The web site was intended as a brief introduction to the mini cabin concept, and does not give much details on building. Since building my mini I have constructed three additional small buildings on that site, and read and study more on consecution and architecture, especially as applied to small structures. I make no claims to expertise, but have come to some very definite opinions about building, architecture, and lifestyles in general. Some of these suggestions and opinions I would like to pass on.
- Construction Tips -
Do It the Easy Way
There is a lot to be said for keeping projects simple, and for employing labor saving building techniques. Any time you are relying on your own labor to complete a large part of any building project, it often happens that the builder (you!) gets discouraged, or runs into frustrating complications and doesn't get the project done at all. Also to be considered, is the wear and tear on the builder's nerves created by half-completed projects. The darn things need to be protected from the weather, from vandals, and it just doesn't feel right when you are out fishing when you know you should be out on the property putting in windows!
A lot of the suggestions that follow are on ways I have found to do it easier, cheaper, or both.
More and Lighter Support Members
A structure may be engineered to use relatively few support members for the floor, walls, and roof which means less nailing and can sometimes cut down on the time of construction. This trade-off often means using very large and heavy timbers. My own preference is to make the trade the other way: to be willing to use more support members where the lumber can be smaller dimensions boards. Thus roof rafters that would need to be 2 x 10's, with two feet spacing between them can be replaced by 2 x 8's at 16 inch spacing, or 2 x 6's with 12 inch spacing. Just because you can "struggle that struggle" to heft heavy timbers into place and somehow secure them temporally does not mean that you will willingly do so. I prefer to take a little longer and have the building experience be less an arduous task.
There are times when building with big timbers makes sense. For example, if you are milling your own lumber with a chainsaw mill, then the fewer pieces of lumber that need to be surfaced, the better.
Prior to building my mini cabin I had the experience of helping friends and neighbors prepare foundations for small buildings. This always involved a great deal of cement work and even more labor and expense to prepare the site prior to the cement pour. Such projects are, of course, quite doable for the owner-builder, and with some kinds of cabins a cement foundation is necessary. For example, if you plan on having a basement, then there will be some digging involved -- either by man or machine, likely followed by a lot of cement work.
The buildings I have constructed on my own (entirely with my own labor, except for an occasional assist from my wife) have all used a pier foundation. The pier foundation, I am convinced, is a much cheaper, easier, quicker, and less stressful way to build.
The pier foundation also disturbs the land at building site a whole lot less, and allows consecution on sloping sites that would be impractical for a cement foundation. It allows the building to be easily placed well above the ground, so concerns about flooding or even tracking in mud following heavy rains, are less of a problem.
Pier Foundations of Treated Wood?
Most people will find that pier foundations made from treated wood are the easiest way to go. Remember that treated wood had been engineered for a number of applications: 1) wood used outdoors, but not in contact with the ground; 2) wood used outdoors made for ground contact but not to be buried in the soil; and 3) wood that can go directly into the ground. This third type of treated wood is what is needed for the peers themselves. Any foundation wood should have been factory-treated to resist wood-eating insects. A word of caution: all treated wood, especially that which goes directly in the ground, has been treated with some pretty nasty stuff such as strychnine. If there is any chance that small children or animals will ingest sawdust or handle the wood, best use cement piers.
The Elephant Test
There are some unique design concerns for building a home on piers. If the project is very large, especially if a building inspector may have to look it over either now or in the future, then it is best to either buy plans which call for a pier foundation, or have an architect design or modify blueprints for your home on piers. For small buildings you design yourself, it is best to "overbuild". That is, make sure that your foundation structure is so well built that you feel very comfortable it will stand up to most anything that nature has to dish out, or that it will do at least as well as your neighbor's architect designed place.
For my own small buildings, I apply "the Elephant Test." I try to build my structures in such a way that an elephant count sit on them without them breaking apart. Now mind you, I have never actually persuaded an elephant to sit on one, but if any elephant should come along who happens to be tired, he or she is welcome to sit down.
I have concluded that my chicken's town house is so well built that it would survive a major earthquake that would make splinters and cinders of most other structure in California. So, when the San Andreas fault levels California if there happen to be any survivors, at least those lucky few will have eggs!
How Many Piers?
My 8' by 15' mini cabin uses nine 6'' by 6" peers, three in front, three in the middle, and three in back. Stretched laterally across the peers are 6'' by 6" horizontal support members called "girders." When I can give myself the luxury of not having to do exact fits, I do so. A master carpenter I am not! The cabin cantilevers a few inches out from the girders on the sides. This cantilever construction allowed some latitude in positioning of the peers, made necessary by variations in the rocky soil of the site. So the cabin cantilevers a little more on one side or another, but still sits solidly supported by the nine piers. It would have been possible to build this structure with as little as four piers for
support. The added piers make the building more "fail-safe", and also allow for smaller (cheaper and lighter) floor joists to be used for the floor support than would be the case with just four piers.
And what should the support members be made of, my love? There are engineering tables that give safe spacing for various species and grades of wood. These are available from many sources, including from the U.S. Government's publications on farm building construction (government printing office, Boulder, Colorado). They are also printed in the back of many "how to" books.
If you are making use of wood that you mill yourself (not a bad plan for people with forest land), then be sure and use the "ungraded" category to determine spacing between supports, even if your timber is good strong wood free of knots. Also be warned that use of self-milled ungraded wood, especially where used "structurally," will likely cause all kinds of problems with building inspectors.
There is a lot to be said for making the piers themselves of cement. You can buy tubes for the forms in which to pour the cement. Easier and cheaper is to roll roofing (tar) paper into the proper form size. The rolled tar paper is then simply held to it's tubular shape with string or electrician's tape.
Preparation of Footings
Footings are rock-solid slabs of concrete or stone that go into the hole where your piers will rest. A rule of thumb often quoted is to make the footings 1 1/2 times the area of the piers themselves. With just a little extra work and cement you can easily double this. You will need even more substantial footings for poor soil. A good easy-to-read reference on this subject is "Low-Cost Pole Building Construction by Ralph Wolfe," Garden Way Publishers.
Don't be Intimidated
Anybody giving advice always tries to err on the side of caution. No one wants to give bad advice that results in a person being injured. That said, a would-be do-it-yourselfer could be so intimated by the advice to play it safe that he or she doesn't dare to try! Start small. Overbuild. Ask a friend with building experience to look over your plans and to act as kind of an informal building inspector. There are a lot of people with experience in consecution. Many are more than glad to give advice or even help out with the building of the trickier parts of your project. Be sure and ask the favorite flavor of Cool Aid your "expert" enjoys, and have plenty on hand!
Platform Framing or Timberframe Construction?
The frame of a house is it's basic skeleton so it is important that the frame be sturdily build. Most of the houses built in American use platform framing (sometimes mistakenly called "balloon framing"). The majority of the remaining American houses use a framing system of more antique origin called "Timberframe" construction Which framing system is better for the novice builder?
For my first projects I used platform framing, and have no regrets for that choice. Here are some reasons why:
Most modern building materials (such as T-111 siding panels) are constructed for use in platform framing. Likewise, you can find off-the-shelf plans for many such buildings easily and readily.
Since most building are made this way there are lots of people who can give good advice. Also building inspectors (a curse on that swarthy breed) are most familiar with platform framing, hence less likely to make your life a living hell!
There are a lot of do-it-yourself books written on platform framing.
The materials used for platform framing are generally lighter and much easier for a builder working alone to manage.
When timber framing is used, it is often necessary to "fill-in" the spaces between the large members with 2x4 or 2x6 studs to form about the same kind of stud-walls that are used in conventional platform framing. If all that work is needed anyway, why not just do platform framing to begin with?
Except for pole barns, platform framing is generally cheaper than timber framing.
Timberframing has a lot going for it as well. The nice little pole barns you see through out the countryside are made with timber framing techniques. These barns are built pretty-much like your backyard "privacy" fence. Here is the formula for a pole barn: build fences on four sides, put on a roof and "presto-chango," instant pole barn!
Timberframing is used for some of the more expensive homes in America. Since it allows a larger expanse between walls, it lends itself to the "open architecture" so popular with the moneyed set. When the framing members are left exposed, the structure has a very beautiful rustic charm. Timberframing, with its large framing members, goes better combined with log construction than the lighter-framed platform technique. Large framing members burn more slowly than many small studs and rafters, so a timberframe house (other things being equal) may be somewhat safer in case of fire.
My advice is to learn platform framing first before taking up timberframing. An exception to this is in building concrete or earth floored pole barns.
Lots of "how to" building courses teach students to use wooden shingles (especially for wall coverings) as a technique that is fairly easy for the novice builder to master. Because shingle building is forgiving of mistakes and the singles are light and easy to work with, the results apprentice builders achieve are often about as good as those of a real carpenter.
Shingles are not necessarily just for small structure or cheap buildings. Some of the best examples of American architecture make use of cedar or redwood shingles. The "Shingle", "New Shingle", "Wrightian" and "Craftsman" and "Bay Area" styles (see discussion in "American Architecture" by Lester Walker) are good examples of up-scale shingle shacks, to say nothing of the fancy shingle work on Victorian and Queen Ann
Building with shingles is older than American. Such luminaries Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau made use of the craft. The technique became especially popular with the invention of the cheap and plentiful shingle nail when machines were perfected that could turn strands of wire into shingle-nails.
Make Your Own Shingles and Shakes
I have written an article on how to make your own shingles and shakes that will soon be available on the net (I'll set up a link then, so check back please). The beam machine chainsaw mill, or a small Alaskan chain saw mill can be used to make the backing strips that hold the shingles in place and could even make the framing studs and rafters. These backing strips can also be simply split (rived) out using the shingle making tools. A third alternative is cutting them with a chain saw but just doing it "by eye”. The strips cut out this way are far from perfect, but work OK for rustic cabins or outbuildings.
When Thoreau was crafting American's most famous cabin in the woods near Walden pond he made his studs and rafters from small pine trees he cut on site, finishing only the sides of the studs and rafters needed to provide flat building surfaces. There is no reason we can't do the same! A building constructed in this fashion can be very cheap to make indeed. You are not only providing the labor with no cost except your own time, most of the building material is crafted by you as well!
After platform framing the traditional building method is to put on sheathing, usually plywood, though oriented strand board is fast replacing plywood for this application. After the sheathing is applied, the builder next adds a siding material. T-111 siding, which comes in 4' x 8' sheets, is designed to serve as both siding and sheathing, thus one step in the process is eliminated.
Using T-111 as outside wall coverings is one of the easiest, fastest, and (unless you can make some of your own building materials) is also one of the cheapest wall covering methods available.
There are a number of variations on the T-111 that present interesting possibilities. Several products combine plywood with hardboard to produce a tougher outer layer. One of these, called "Duraframe," was used for my mini cabin. I used traditional T-111 on a more recently built structure. Both materials worked well, though the duraframe had the tendency to be "curly" and was thus a bit more troublesome. We'll see how the two kinds of materials hold up to the elements (duraframe is guaranteed by its manufacture for 20 years).
The duraframe people make a similar panel but with a texture to imitate stucco. I haven't tried using this material yet, but a person should be able to craft half-timbers onto these panels to have a cabin or home in the Tudor architectural style.
Bracing Stud Walls with Stimpson Strapping
Stud walls that consist of just the studs and top and bottom plates can wobble like a Stork high on Moonshine mesh. Traditionally the wall is stabilized (prior to sheathing) by running catty-corner (lateral) lengths of 1/2 by 4 boards. The studs are notched out with a hand or circular saw to fit in the 1/2 by 4 boards, a time consuming and tricky process for the novice builder. An alternative is to run lateral strips of Stimpson strapping to take the place of the 1/2" by 4" boards. The Stimpson straps are more expensive than the boards, but not appreciably so. The advantage of the Stimpson strapping is that it goes on very quickly, and it is not necessary to do any time-consuming notching. The resulting wall is also somewhat stronger than the one made with the 1/2" by 4" boards since no
material is removed from the studs.
Don't Make What You Can Buy
How do you decide what to make and what to buy? Do you make your kitchen cabinets from scratch, or do you buy them ready made? For that matter, what is "scratch"? Do you start with a tree and end up with kitchen cabinets, or do you start with plywood and laminate and end up with kitchen cabinets?
Ideally the things you make should be items that are very expensive to buy but which can be made by you fairly easily or with materials native to your site. Items that require a lot of time and high skill level are "no brainers': you will want to buy them.
For example: I usually buy doors, windows, skylights, kitchen cabinets, heating stoves, tile.
Most people will make the "rough carpentry" items themselves, but from lumber they buy from the local lumber yard. A lot of the opportunity for very inexpensive building comes from finding building methods that allows you to use rougher, less expensive material, often that which you have made yourself.
The final way to make substantial savings is through use of salvaged or reworked materials.
- Log Cabin Building -
I'll start with the usual caution: that building with logs is not the easiest or
cheapest of consecution methods. That said, logs and cabins seem to go together,
and apart from building with stone, logs homes can last longer than any other
Log Home Kits
There are lots of nice log cabin kits, where the manufacturer has taken a lot of the work out of log home construction. Often these kits go up quite quickly on your site, and the manufactures have worked out a lot of the problems (such as those caused by the heavy logs "settling"). Links to dozens of fabricators of these kits is given on our links page.
Live in the Woods? Use Cedar
With dry logs, free from rot, your home should last a long time. That is, unless you plan on building where the climate is damp a good part of the year. Some of our nicest forests have damp climates, besides which there is plenty of wood around undergoing decay all of the time, which means lots of airborne wood-loving spores flying around just aching to take up residence in your logs.
So if you plan on building in or very near a forest or other damp location, one solution is to build with logs of naturally rot-resistant species, notably redwood or cedar. These days redwood is being used almost exclusively for fencing and outdoor wood, but there are many log home manufactures who have cedar logs as an option. The cedar will cost more, and pine logs are perfectly fine for most climates. If in doubt, build with cedar.
Homes from Logs: the "old method"
Why would anyone not want to just buy a kit? Most people, building log homes these days, do simply buy a kit or pre-made log home. With many of the kit homes the logs have such a high degree of finish that it is debatable whether the homes made from these materials should still be called "Log Homes." Even when the manufacture is working with logs as they came from the forest, the log-home is built on the manufacturer's site, numbered and disassembled for shipment.
When pioneers cleared their home-site for farming there were often plenty of trees that had to be taken out. These trees were put to use to build log cabins and other log structures right on-site.
Back in Grandpa's day, hand-crafting of individual logs was still the way that log homes were erected.
It is still possible to use the "old method" of log home construction. There are a variety of building techniques you can learn through "book learning", should you be like most of us and not know a friendly and willing old-timer to teach you the ropes. Some of these techniques require a lot higher skill level than do others.
I admire greatly the intricate joinery and notching that goes into a highly crafted log cabin. However, I don't particularly want to learn to do it. Yes, homes build that way are "built to last" and may well last a century or two. Practically speaking, however, most such structures will be demolished far before that time. People make other plans, the county appropriates the land for widening the road, your nephew who inherits the cabin from you just doesn't like the looks of the old cabin. Unless I can find short-cuts to build with logs without spending years putting up the walls, I'm just not going to do it.
The price of the logs themselves is often quite reasonable. It is the transportation and handling of logs that boosts the price. Even adding these costs in, the logs for home-building are still quite reasonably priced. Here are some tips for buying logs:
Buying Pulp Wood Logs
These small logs are cheaper and easier to handle)
Owners of forest land who grow trees for timber sale will often do thinning cuts of their forest land. This is much like gardeners do with their vegetable garden, taking out extra plants to make more room for those that remain. Trees removed during the thinning operation are often not big enough to be marketed as "saw logs", so they are sold for pulp wood, to be made into paper products. Logs sold for pulp will command much less money per ton than will the larger saw logs.
Pulp logs are 3 to 6 inches in diameter and come in 8 to 20 foot lengths. They will have their bark still on, but often with the bark pretty-well skinned up from the machine-handling of the trees.
Costs of Pulp Logs
Probably the best place to buy pulp logs is from small lumber mills. Be prepared to offer the mill considerably more than they paid for them. You are asking for something "not on the menu". The mill will normally send these small logs on to paper companies in very large bulk. Your order of logs, if the mill will mess with it at all, involves the mill doing more handling and sorting than they do routinely. Be glad you have found a mill willing to deal with you.
Other possible sources of pulp logs: 1) Timber Harvesting Companies; 2) Private Foresters (who can perhaps arrange a purchase)' 3) Tree Farmers; 4) Paper Mills.
For what it is worth, as of the late Summer of 2002 the timber grower in the Southern US was getting as little as $1.00 a ton for pulp logs!
When you buy larger logs you are obtaining timber that could be cut into lumber for building. Consequently, the price you will have to pay per ton is considerably higher than for the small logs. If you stick to the 6 to 10 inch logs (you probably won't want to try to build with any larger ones), this premium will not be unreasonable. As of late Summer 2002, saw quality Loblolly pine in the Southern US was selling for $40 to $60 a ton.:
Cutting Your Own Logs
Most cabin builders will stop short or picking up an ax or chain saw and heading for the woods to cut their own logs. Leaving the cutting of logs to the experts is a wise choice, in most cases. Modern tree harvesting uses expensive specialized equipment. With such machines a timber cutting company can very quickly go through a forest for a thinning or even a "maximum harvest" operation. Although these machines are very expensive to purchase, if an operator can keep them in operation continuously, the cost for harvesting any one acre of forest land is very low.
Cutting your own logs is dangerous back-breaking work. Once the tree is felled and limbed, comes the task of getting the tree to your building site. Most owner-builders don't have the equipment or skills to get any but the smallest logs in from the forest. For one thing the harvest site may be on very steep terrain, where moving logs uphill is required. Then there is just the sheer weight of the logs. A redwood log eight inches in
diameter and just eight feet in length will weigh about eighty pounds. Increase the diameter to 10 inches and the weight goes up to one hundred sixty pounds.
There are three ways that come to mind to make your logs manageable: 1) reduce the length; 2) Use smaller diameter logs) 3) sizing and shaping your logs in the woods.
Short Logs for Building
The old-timers method of log cabin construction was to use full-length logs for building the wall of the cabin, then cut in the doors and windows later. Most modern log cabins have more door and window space than did the pioneers log cabins, so building techniques that use shorter logs are often now employed.
Palisade Log Walls
Palisade log walls are like those you see in the westerns where the settlers take refuge inside the "Fort" as the Indians lay siege. The logs, running vertically around the Fort are palisade walls.
If you are building 8 or even 10 feet high walls, then your logs need be no longer than 8 or 10 feet. The ones used below or atop windows will be even shorter.
The "gable ends" of your cabin with palisade log building often are finished in boards or shingles, though logs can be used for this as well.
The Main Woods Method
In the book "Your Cabin In the Woods," by Conrad Meinecke, first published in 1945 a method of cabin construction called the "Main Woods Method" is described. Meinecke's book can often be bought used, my reprint has a 1979 publishing date.
This technique consists of constructing "V" studs at each corner of the cabin. Each V stud is made by nailing a 2" x 6" by 8 feet board to a 2" x 8" by 8 foot board (for eight foot walls). After standing a V stud at a corner, logs are nailed to each side of the V by spiking through the sides of the stud into the log-ends with 20 penny spikes. The mouth of the V is later closed (just for appearance sake) by nailing on a rounded slab from a "split log".
The advantage of this method is that the logs need not be lapped at the corners so logs about two feet shorter can be used. This method should work fine for relatively small cabins using small to medium sized logs.
Cordwood Building Technique
The cordwood or "stackwood" techniques makes use of log-ends typically cut to one foot lengths (six inch to two foot lengths can be used). This is really a masonry building method using log-ends rather than stone. There are a number of good books that describe this technique. Check the mini cabin bookstore for information.
This method of building is very labor intensive, but it is also very cheap since logs of just about any size and species can be used. A drawback is that it is often difficult to get airtight walls since logs tend to develop cracks in drying. The old timers who used this technique would often cover the outer wall with plaster, stucco or shingles. This made for very cozy houses but hid the quaint log pattern from view from the outside.
Combining Log Home Construction with other Building Methods
It doesn't take very many logs used in construction to give the cabin the rustic coziness we associate with log construction. Logs can be combined with other materials to make very attractive structures, with many hours of backbreaking work avoided.
I especially like the look of cabin walls made from hand split shakes and logs. The logs can be used at corners and around windows. Another pleasing combination is to use logs for the first four feet of walls, then shingles or board and baton sidings above.
That's all folks, of my brief suggestions.
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