Woody homes. The new-old wooden warmth: Of logs ... [ cf. and of redwood ]
Knoxville, Tenn. — THE house sits on the brow of a hill, an impressive structure of hand-hewn logs that, even by rural Tennessee standards, is worth about half a million dollars. It helps that the home is surrounded by neighboring farmlands and the countless tree-covered hills that are such a feature of this corner of East Tennessee.
But it is also an example of woodworking craftsmanship at its best - a blend of engineering and design skills that in recent years have shattered the dirt-floor-and-outhouse image of the log-home industry.
On the one hand, moderate- to medium-priced homes built of machine-turned logs remain a major part of the growing industry.
But on the other hand, there are the handcrafted homes such as the one pictured above belonging to Bud and Pat Dietricht.
After 18 months in the new home there's no doubting Pat Dietricht's feelings: ``I just love everything about it,'' she says.
Bud Dietricht expresses his emotions this way: ``Every time I enter the front door, I feel I'm walking into a piece of fine furniture.''
The Dietricht home, including the floor plans, is fully covered in the June design issue of Log Homes Guide magazine.
Mr. Dietricht, a businessman, is joined in his preference for the quality, handcrafted log home by such luminaries as Dennis Weaver, Barbara Mandrell, Paul Newman, and Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Mt. Everest.
The trend is particularly satisfying to Ken Thuerbach, whose Alpine Log Homes company assembles handcrafted structures in his log yard in Victor, Mont., before disassembling them for shipment and reassembly elsewhere in the United States and even overseas. Alpine is one of a small handful of companies specializing in log homes.
Mr. Thuerbach bought his company 15 years ago ``when there were fortunately still a few older craftsmen around'' to train the 20- to 30-year-old artisans he brought in.
``An old American art form was dying out. Now it's being revived. We do everything by hand,'' he says, and that includes the long wall timbers. Nothing is milled.
Why go to all that trouble? Thuerbach lets a client, Dr. Bud Perrott of Colorado Springs, Colo., speak for him: ``Since all the logs are hand hewn, no two are identical, and that makes us feel as though the house has its own personality. It's unique, it's warm, and it's alive.''
Doris Muir agrees. She became a crusading voice for log-home building when 10 years ago she founded the industry's first trade magazine, Log Homes Guide, headquartered in Cosby, Tenn.
Mrs. Muir adds more reasons for the still small but growing appreciation for log houses:
A renewable raw material
``People relate to logs the way they never do to vinyl siding or wall board. What do you do when you come across a piece of fine furniture? You touch it. People constantly run their hands over logs. They stroke them like pets.''
Dietricht does the same thing when showing his home to a visitor. ``I sanded each log three times,'' he says. ``If I'd had more time, I would have sanded them again.''
Log homes also pose no threat to timber stands, in Muir's view. Many log homes can be built with the thinnings taken from a well-managed forest.
``The 6-inch-diameter log that yields only a single two-by-four at the saw mill is used with only minimum milling in the log wall,'' Muir points out.
Very effective log homes are also being built from the new super-poplar tree (a one-time forest weed) that grows to log-wall diameter in a matter of years.
``The human voice sounds pleasant in a solid wood structure. It modulates the voice. All the rich-toned instruments are made of wood. Can you imagine an aluminum or plastic Stradivarius?'' Muir continues.
Log homes, with their high thermal mass, had lower year-round en ergy costs than six other conventional homes constructed for a National Bureau of Standards test in Gaithersburg, Md., in 1977 and funded by Congress, ``though HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] still chooses to ignore this fact,'' Muir says.
Hauling logs from the forest and milling them also uses a tiny fraction of the energy it takes to make aluminum or vinyl siding from the raw materials.
When you build a log home, it's not just for yourself but for your great-great-grandchildren as well. Log structures many hundreds of years old are still standing in Europe. Switzerland's famous Ballenberg open air museum has log buildings dating from 1568.
Whereas a solid wood wall takes hours to burn through, the stud-framed wall of a conventional home can become engulfed by flames in minutes. This has been proven in repeated tests.
While some log homes can run close to a million dollars, there are numbers of manufactured log homes that the do-it-yourselfer can build (shell only) for little more than $20,000.
``Even if you don't do any of the work, you can cut 25 percent off the market value of your house by being the general contractor,'' according to Muir.
Carl Heldman even wrote a book titled with the concept: How to Afford Your Own Log Home. Save 25% Without Lifting a Log (Eastwood Press, $9.95).
Muir throws in a final plus that catches the uninitiated by surprise. ``It's movable,'' she points out. ``You can disassemble the log home, move it to the new building site, and reassemble it relatively easily.'' That new site can be clear across the country - or maybe you've been able to buy that piece of land next door with a much better view of the lake!
Bud Dietricht's comments about his home explain this flexibility: ``There's not a single nail or bolt in any of these walls. They're held together by notched and dovetailed joints.'' The supporting roof beams are also held together by the joiner's skill, though the roof sheathing is nailed on in the conventional way.
The sheer weight of the 14-inch squared logs in the Dietricht home helps hold the wall together. Lighter structures are often given additional holding by bolting the logs together at corners and around door and window frames. Long bolts are passed through pre-drilled holes after the wall has been erected.
When spiking or nailing is done, the nails are countersunk a good inch or more to allow for shrinkage, which occurs in all green wood construction and to a certain degree even with kiln-dried logs. If this is not done, the nail, which does not shrink, eventually protrudes above the wood surface, preventing the log above from settling properly. The result: a leaky house.
A log home built with newly felled green logs does most of its settling in the first two years, but takes about five years to fully settle. After that, says Muir, ``the building adjusts back and forth with the change of seasons,'' as all wooden structures do.
Structures must be built correctly
This points out one disadvantage of some log homes.
``If it's not built right in the first place,'' says Muir, ``it's an invitation to disaster.''
By ``built right,'' she means constructed so that nothing impedes the natural log shrinkage. A window, for example, is fitted into a grove overhead so that the wall can settle down naturally over the top of the frame. Nothing destroys the value of thermal mass more readily than constant air infiltration from the outside, in Muir's view.
A skilled carpenter is not automatically a skilled log-home builder, though he certainly has the potential to become one, Muir points out. ``The carpenter is used to nailing and bracing everything so that it won't move. With a stick house, that is vital. It's the worst thing that can happen in a log home.''
A common complaint of many owners of log homes is that the structures are dark, almost somber, in the interior. This need never be the case. You can have any interior finish you want - from conventional wallboard to light-toned wood - log-home builders insist.
The Dietricht home has a notably bright interior, because a pleasing mix of logs and wallboard is reinforced by generous windows. In addition, the smooth-sanded logs are treated so that the wood retains its natural light color. Broad bands (between 2 and 3 inches) of white chinking between the logs brightens the interior look still further.
Finishing interiors can be expensive
Experience has shown that finishing the interior of log homes is not inexpensive. As log-home owners frequently express it, there's a feeling of quality to solid wood walls, so you go out and buy solid wood kitchen cabinets to match. Hardwood floors and brass door handles don't come cheaply, either, but many log-home owners opt for these good-quality items.
In Muir's experience, owners don't start out following the top-quality route, but once the shell goes up, they go for the best they can afford. ``This is the way log homes seem to affect people,'' she says. They affect them in other pleasing ways, too.
Of all single-family homeowners in the US, those who choose log construction are the least likely to move. ``If a log-home owner sells,'' says Muir, ``it's probably because he's being transferred to another part of the country.''
For further information on log homes, including courses on construction, write to the Log Home Guide Information Center, Highways 32 and 321, Cosby, TN 37722; or to Log Home Guide, 1 Pacific St., Anne de Bellevue, Quebec Province, Canada H9X 1C5.
Chink it over
Bud Dietricht grew up on a Colorado farm, where every structure was built of logs - house, barn, icehouse, the lot. ``Every second year my dad would have to rechink the house [fill in the spaces between the logs] to keep out the wind.''
The material used by the senior Dietricht: cow manure reinforced with horse hair. It was a superior product to the cement mortar chinking used on the barn, Mr. Dietricht recalls. The cement might have been more durable, but it was less flexible and bonded poorly with the wood, so air always leaked in.
In short, chinking was the weak link in log construction. Many years later, when Dietricht gave up farming to go into log-home sales, it was still ``the garbage product of the industry.''
So he began to experiment with various polymers and eventually came up with a substance that looks and feels like cement plaster, but is both flexible and durable. When green logs shrank or otherwise adjusted to the changing climate, the new product had the flexibility to adjust. Moreover, it retained this flexibility indefinitely.
Building log homes is an ancient skill, using a natural renewable resource - logs - as its major component. Recently several modern construction materials have been developed to bring the log-home industry fully into the modern world.
These materials include stains and preservatives that can retain wood's new, light color indefinitely; clear sealants for repelling water; gaskets for effectively sealing between scribed logs (milled or handworked so that the top log fits neatly over the contours of the lower log); and chinking, used to fill in between more widely spaced logs.
In short, they are all products ``that enhance the longevity of an already durable product,'' says Steve Kemper, a spokesman for the Sashco Company, which also markets a flexible chinking material.
In the view of Ken Thuerbach, owner of Alpine Log Homes in Victor, Mont., modern chinking ``has given us the opportunity to revive an old American art form'' - the saddle-notched, chinked home.
After developing an effective formula, Dietrich named his product Perma Chink and began manufacturing it a decade ago. But he points out, ``polymer chemistry is evolving so rapidly that improvements can be made almost by the month.'' His current Perma Chink is ``fourth generation,'' an improvement even over the product he used on his own house just one year ago.
Chinking is usually applied with a caulking gun and then smoothed over. Inventor Dietricht uses a common spatula, which he gets from a supermarket, and cuts the blade down to about half its length. Take a file and smooth off the end, he says. ``It works as well as any of the high-ticket items in the hardware store.''
For more information on chinking, write to Perma Chink, 1605 Prosser Rd., Knoxville, TN 37914; or Sashco, 3900 E. 68th Ave., Commerce City, CO 80022.