THE VARIOUS METHODS
When you think of buying a mountain hideaway and building that beautiful log cabin in the woods, you have a vision in your mind’s eye of what it should look like: warm wood, a stone fireplace, big log beams, a steep pitched roof and a big covered porch. Is that what you have in mind? Yeah, sounds good, doesn’t it?
So what kind of a log cabin are you going to build? A kit? Hand-hewn? Swedish cope? D logs? Once you start investigating, there are many types of log cabins, and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. Some log cabins and quick and easy to build and very economical. However, you get what you pay for, and these quick-and-easy log cabins can be drafty, cold, and not as durable as other methods of construction. Other cabins that are hand-hewn out of massive coped logs are very beautiful and durable, but extremely expensive to build and hard to maintain.
So here’s a little primer on cabin construction, and after I find that beautiful mountain parcel, old mining claim, or dream hunting property or fishing ranch (I’m a ranch real estate broker, and I specialize in those types of properties), you can think about what kind of log cabin you want to build. I’ll start from the easiest and cheapest to the most complicated and expensive.
“D Log” Cabins
If you stand at the corner of a “D Log” cabin, you’ll see that the logs have been rough sawn flat on three sides to form an almost-square building log. The end of a log looks like a “D”, with the fourth side left as an unsawn quarter-round. The logs are all one dimension on each end—such as 6”x6” or 8”x8”—and they’re easy to stack on top of one another because they’re all the same size. Quite often the bark is left on the quarter-round natural side of the logs. There have been plenty of “D Log” cabins built all across Colorado and the West. Quite honestly, I’m not fond of them. They can be terribly drafty and cold, and I’ve seen many of them where the logs have started to rot from various reasons of too much snow piling against the logs or poor foundations. Cabins benefit from the mass of the logs absorbing solar radiation during the day and emitting that heat at night, much like a big rock mass in a solarium. Cabins or log homes with 18” logs can store and emit a lot of solar mass, but D-log cabins with 6-inch logs cannot. In fact, did you know that the R value (insulating factor) for wood is 1 R value per inch of thickness? That means a log cabin with walls 6” thick has only an R6 insulation value. If the builder was too lazy to lay down a thin layer of insulation between each log and then chink it on the outside, you’re going to be cursing your cabin on a cold winter night. However, “D Log” cabins can be a quick, effective means of building a cabin for a weekend retreat or hunting lodge. Don’t think that all log cabins are made the same, however, and end up paying the same for a D Log cabin as you would for other higher-quality construction. Another method of D log construction involves sawing just two sides of the log, allowing the builder to stack the logs on level tops and bottoms, leaving inner and outer half-round sides. This method works well when the builder is using larger logs, often 10-12” thick. It can be a good method of construction, because the logs have more mass, more insulating value, and more structural stability. Homes built in this fashion must be insulated between the logs to make them airtight.
Milled log cabins
There are several variations of milled log cabins, and many providers of log cabin plans and kits. Most of these kits are made of pine logs that are grown, cut, and milled in the South from fast-growing pine trees that were planted 40-50 years ago in plantations. The logs are cut and lathed to an exact round dimension that has no taper at either end. The logs are uniform. Some log home package providers mill three sides of the logs somewhat like a D Log cabin, but they chamfer two tongues into the length of the top side of the log and two grooves the length of the bottom side of the log. This allows for a tighter fit and better insulation. You can get several different configurations, ranging from 6”x8” D logs to square hewn logs. The logs are most often kiln dried so the logs don’t twist, curl, or shrink prior to construction. Milled log kits are a definite step up from D log construction, and a middle-of-the-road cost alternative. The insulating factor is better than D log construction, the homes are generally tighter, and it has a higher R value. Milled logs are very uniform and smooth-looking. However, the solar mass of milled logs is not that great, and these kits could require a lot of heating in very cold climates. Some kits offer little 3”x6” logs that fit together. This kind of kit might be fine in a warm environment, but I wouldn’t want to spend the night in such a cabin during a Minnesota or Colorado winter. You’d freeze.
Hewn Log cabins
I’ve always liked the look of hand-hewn log cabins, whereby the logs are squared with an adze and the corners joined by dovetail joints. Prior to the days of chain saws, sawmills, and mechanization, the only was to square a log was with an adze, a hand tool that looks somewhat like a combination between a hoe and a pick. Imagine standing with your feet on either side of a log, swinging a heavy tool to chip the round edge to a flat surface, and you get the idea: extremely labor-intensive. The corners were fitted precisely using a dove-tail joining pattern, and the sides of the cabin were basically flat, except for the marks left by the adze. Today it’s possible to replicate those marks with a machine; still, the packages are more expensive than a round log cabin made of milled logs. The level of craftsmanship on a hewn log cabin is higher, the home is typically more durable, and the look is more refined. There are many examples of hand-hewn log homes that are still standing 150-200 years after being built.
Round log cabins
As opposed to a milled log cabin of round logs lathed to an exact dimension, a round log cabin is made from whole logs, peeled with a drawknife, and still retaining the natural taper of the log. A round log cabin requires more skill of the builder, because he has to marry the tapered end of one log with the butt of another. Tapered logs are often used to build bigger log homes and larger cabins. The goal is to set the logs as tightly together as possible, but there’s still often an air gap between the logs, so a round log cabin must be well chinked to be airtight.
Swedish cope log cabins and homes
The pinnacle of the log home builder’s art is the Swedish cope method of log home construction. This method uses hand-peeled logs with a natural taper, as in round log construction, but the builder skives out a hollow on the bottom side of the log to conform to the round top of the log underneath. As you might imagine, this is a very time-consuming process, and there’s really no mechanical way to accomplish this demanding task. The builder matches the butt of one log to the taper of the logs above and below, and hollows the bottom of the log to the top of the log underneath. When working with very massive logs with butts two feet in diameter and larger, this is typically the style of log construction that is used. The look of massive logs fitted together in a Swedish cope log cabin is truly rugged and impressive. Indeed, most of the log mansions of 7,500 square feet or more on trophy ranches across the West are built of Swedish cope logs, and these structures are highly valued, extremely durable, and structurally strong.
The Swedish cope system is unique in that the entire home is usually built at the builder’s construction yard, until the top course of logs is fitted together. Then, the logs are carefully labeled, the logs are disassembled and loaded on a truck, and the whole building is transported to the construction site, where it is re-assembled.
I hope this little introduction to log cabin construction has been helpful to you. When you’re looking for that dream hunting ranch, riverfront fishing property, vacation retreat, cabin in the woods, Colorado cattle ranch, or western horse ranch, I’ll be happy to show you around and find you the right property. Once you’ve bought the property, I’ll leave it up to you to decide what kind of log cabin to build. It’s all about living your dream, right?
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TIPS TO REMEMBER FOR LOG CABIN CONSTRUCTION
Keep the snow away from the cabin walls. When you get a big Colorado snowstorm, the snow sliding off your roof can accumulate quickly in a big pile next to your cabin. If the eaves of your roof don’t extend far enough, that snow will cause your bottom logs to discolor and maybe even rot. An ideal solution is a porch with a roof all the way around the eaves of the house.
Easy on the big southern windows. Colorado sunshine is intense at high elevations, and sometimes it can become uncomfortably warm in a Colorado cabin with too much solar exposure to the south.
Remember that logs settle. Yes, logs settle. Check out the door and window trim on the outside walls of a well-built cabin. The trim will be unusually wide—as much as 6”. Most builders leave as much as 4” gap between a window or door and the logs above it. When a log house “sits down”, it can cause a door to stick or windows to shatter if there’s not enough room.
Put your entry in a sunny spot if you can, and make sure you have a dormer above your entry. There’s nothing worse than trying to walk into a house where the door is on the north side of the house and the sidewalk is covered with ice from water dripping off the roof. You’ll wish you did it differently.