January 01, 2009


By: Jeanne Marie Leach

As an editor, I often come across a historical writer who describes a log cabin, and I’m surprised at how many fallacies these descriptions contain. I decided to give our readers some little-known, but very important facts about log homes, since these were among the first stable shelters built in the west in the nineteenth century.

My husband sells log home kits for a Canadian company. How do these structures differ from those built in the west in the 1800’s? Other than the huge machinery used to peel the logs, trucks to haul them, and cranes to stack them, there are few differences.

Myth #1: Log homes will sway in a hard wind. This is false. Log homes are so sturdy and heavy, nothing the western winds can throw at them can topple them. They won’t heave or “give” at a gust of wind. I am constantly amazed when four-wheeling in the back country and high mountains to find one-hundred-year-old log cabins still standing in the harshest of conditions.

Myth #2: Log cabins are cold and drafty. This too is false. Logs absorb heat from the sun all day long, and then when the sun goes down and the air cools, they release that heat into air at night. This also applies to fires in the fireplaces, which is a source of radiant heat. The logs would absorb the heat and release it back into the air at night.

The way the logs stack one on top of another can mean as much as sixteen inches of wood between the elements outside and the people inside. In the west, the Scandinavians led the way in log cabin building, but there were three main ways to stack the logs.

The most common found in the old west are full logs that may or may not have been peeled, and then only the ends are notched to keep them from sliding apart. This method is identical to “Lincoln Logs” in that the ends fit together but the logs dodn’t sit on top of one another in perfect rows. The cracks between the logs would have been filled in with at least six inches of chinking, which was made of a combination of cement, lime, sand, mud, straw, or whatever was available to the builder at the time.

The next style is the Scandinavian Full-Scribe (also known as the "chinkless" method) where logs are scribed, custom fitted to one another, and notched where they overlap at the corners. They fit tightly on top of one another and no chinking was necessary. This was the first method used in America, since our earliest ancestors are Europeans.

Finally, there was the flat-on-flat (logs are flattened on top and bottom and stacked) style. In the west, this method was surprisingly common too among the early pioneers. The reason I say it is surprising is because it took a long time to hand-cut the logs into squares. Most didn’t have that much time to spend on their cabins, but you’ll still find antique cabins made this way. They needed chinking to keep out the drafts.

Each year before the snow falls, the owner of the cabin would refill any chinking that may have fallen off and repair any areas that were cracked, thus insuring that his family remained warm through the long winter months.

The possibility of drafts coming from around the doors and windows was a viable concern if they weren’t installed properly, so many people simply covered their windows with heavy blankets, newspapers, and any other item that could be used as insulation. The people wouldn’t see the sunshine for six months, but at least they remained warm.

Fact #1: Log cabins creek, pop and groan for the first couple of years. Having lived in a newly-built log home, I have heard these “checking” noises. They come fast and often and can scare the daylights out of you. Any timber from large to small will have moisture in it when it is fresh cut. Log homes of all types experience varying degrees of moisture content. In the case of "handcrafted" logs this moisture will naturally leave the timber, drying it out until it stabilizes with the climate it is in. This drying out causes movement and adjustment in the timber. As the wood dries the individual cells on the exterior of the crafted log will seal up. The remaining moisture in the center of the timber keeps trying to escape and will eventually open a crack in the crafted log. This crack, also known as a "check," can continue to the heart of the timber, sometimes leaving a large crack on the side of a home. This occurs in all log homes, regardless of construction method or how the timbers are allowed to dry and is considered normal as well as part of the charm of owning a log home.

The horizontal spaces or joints between logs are usually filled with a combination of materials that together is known as "chinking" and "daubing." Chinking and daubing completed the exterior walls of the log pen by sealing them against driving wind and snow, helping them to shed rain, and blocking the entry of vermin. In addition, chinking and daubing could compensate for a minimal amount of hewing and save time if immediate shelter was needed.

Fact #2: Not all types of log buildings were chinked. Corncribs, and sometimes portions of barns where ventilation was needed were not chinked. Tight-fitting plank-hewn or scribed-fit round logs have little or no need for chinking and daubing.

Fact #3: A variety of materials were used for chinking and daubing, including whatever was most conveniently at hand. Generally though, it is a three-part system applied in several steps. The chinking consists of two parts: first, a dry, bulky, rigid blocking, such as wood slabs or stones is inserted into the joint, followed by a soft packing filler such as oakum, moss, clay, or dried animal dung. Daubing, which completes the system, is the outer wet-troweled finish layer of varying composition, but often consisting of a mixture of clay and lime or other locally available materials. Instead of daubing, carefully fitted quarter poles or narrow wood strips were sometimes nailed lengthwise across the log joints.

I hope this helps you create interesting and realistic scenes in your next western.


Rhonda said...

Good information Jeanne! Here's something most people don't know about me. In 1971 I lived in a log cabin that was over 100 years old at that time. We found a Civil War Bayonett buried beside the cabin. We had no electricity and no running water. My brother and I remember the two years we were there with joy and longing to go back to those years. BTW- the cabin is still standing, we go visit it every summer. Why summer? because it is so far back in the Oklahoma mountains that that is the only time we can get back to it :) Thanks for the memories Jeanne.

Molly Noble Bull said...

I love log homes and have always wanted to live in one. You do. Wow! That is so cool.
Your article was great. Keep up the good work.

Ann said...

Interesting about the styles, and about your modern ones, too.

Around here we would mostly see cabins made of squared-off logs. We were told teh settlers did so in order to put on clapboard siding later. When my in-laws started to remodel their 1850s farm house they started to tear down a shed attached with a breeze-way to the main house.

They took off the siding and (as my husband would say) "Lo and behold ya," there was a log cabin underneath.

It was one room, about 10 by 10, made of squared-off logs.

They looked at the abstract of the property and believe it was the first log cabin on the farm. Then the original family went to California for the Gold Rush.

They weren't family or anything. The farm was a rental and changed hands many times before the in-laws bought it.

Anyway, the log cabin was solid after 130 or so years, although later it did have a modern roof and siding.

The in-laws fixed it up and put some antiques in there. It's a family converstation piece.

Leigh said...

Wow, how interesting! Although my story takes place in the South, this is info I'll file away for comparison's sake.

Happy New Year to all you wonderful writers!

Susan Page Davis said...

Jeanne, I enjoyed your article a great deal. Thanks for the information.

brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Lots of good info here, Jeanne. Last night right before bed, I was looking at a magazine called Timber Homes. One that I liked was in Colorado (naturally) and was magnificient. Of course these are modern day homes for the very wealthy, but nonetheless log homes. And then this morning saw your post on log cabins. Cool!