A guy, a saw, a forest: all the makings of home

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The thing that first attracted me to log houses was their simplicity; a guy, a saw, the forest. Stir 'em up, and you've got most of your house. When you're done, it's the same inside as out: logs. There's nothing hidden, nothing complicated. You don't mix anything; there are no sheets, goop, or insulation. Just logs.

The first log house I built was when I moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, after graduating from college. I had always wanted to build a log house, and my wife, Kerry, had been doodling potential floor plans ever since she married a guy who wanted to build a log house. We had our spanking-new music degrees and tons of optimism - everything we needed.

Fairbanks was lacking cheap rental properties when we got there; we were prepared to pay about $10 a month. So we pitched a tent in some friends' woods, figuring we'd stay there until we found the right place.

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Day 2 sent us up the road to check if a friend of a friend had a job for me. But before we got to his place, we spied an opportunity: two hippies leaning against a '72 International Scout. "Hey, you guys know of a cheap, like free, place to stay?" we asked.

"Yeah, go see the guy at the end of the road." They smiled wryly.

Turns out the guy at the end of the road owned a couple hundred acres, 100 dogs, a sawmill, and lots of other cool stuff. He didn't have any cabins available. But he thought my idea of building a cabin for him and living there rent-free was just right. We chose a spot, loaded some logs from his mill into the back of our Suburban, and went to work. End of Day 2.

This log cabin was sort of cheating: We used logs that had two flat sides cut at the sawmill. It goes fast that way, especially for a greenhorn. It takes lots and lots of pieces, though.

Two-sided logs are considered a waste product and are only six inches thick and a maximum of 16 feet long or so. That first cabin was 20 by 20 feet with a high ceiling and a loft. Lots and lots of pieces. Not too warm, either. We had a wood stove made from a 55-gallon oil drum to heat the cabin. That stove spent a good part of the winter glowing red.

Our second cabin was more romantic. After a year in the two-sided-log deal, we wanted a more secluded place. Something you couldn't drive to, maybe.

We built it old-fashioned style: We stacked the logs and then ran a chain saw between them until the high spots were worn down enough to ensure log-to-log contact their entire length. This method of fitting logs is fast and easy, and it doesn't require any serious machinery or skill. It's a little rough, though, so you need to jam sphagnum moss into the cracks. The moss tends to fall out as it dries, so you nail small standing dead poles along the cracks to keep the moss in place.

Perhaps you've noticed log cabins on the covers of clothing catalogs, cabins that have lines of concrete sealing the joints. Moss looks better and it's free.

The "real deal" was our last house. The first cabins were small; logs are really heavy and I'm not that big. The last house was made of 60-foot-long monsters. It was much less physical labor, though, because the only way to move logs that big is with a crane.

Our "crane" was a '52 military tank-recovery unit. It looked like a regular semitruck, but it had a crane mounted on it. A really cool, sit-inside-and-move-lots-of-levers crane, not like the modern ones where you stand on the ground alongside to operate it. It was six-wheel drive and had a huge engine that could run on just about any flammable liquid known.

We spied it rotting next to a gravel pit. The old guy who owned it had no intention of doing anything with it. But after I'd visited enough times he finally let me borrow it just to keep me away for a few months.

For this house we went top-drawer: Scandinavian scribe fit. We set each log on the wall with the crane and roughed in a notch at either end where it met logs forming adjacent walls. When the log was within a few inches of touching the one beneath it, I'd scribe the contours of the bottom log onto it.

To do this, I used a large compass. It had bubble levels to keep the scribed line true. When I had a good sharp line inside and out, we'd roll the log over and cut it out. It's easy: Stand on the log and walk backward with a chain saw running full throttle, perfectly splitting a scribed line. When you're done, you've cut a trough in the upper log. The outer edges of the trough make perfect contact with the log below along its full length.

But wow, what a look: The natural curves of the logs are maintained, and they need no moss or concrete to seal them. If you've done it right, you have a simple house that's plenty warm. Every log-home builder has a theory about fasteners: steel rods, big nails, wooden pegs. Mine was gravity. Anything heavy with notches isn't going anywhere. Besides, fasteners cost money.

Not everyone likes log houses. The settlers in the Midwest thought they were primitive. They boarded over the logs as soon as they could afford to. Yes, logs are a hassle to keep clean, and maybe they don't insulate as well as fiberglass.

But a simple log wall suits this simple-minded guy just fine.

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