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Reprinted with permission from Back Home Fall 1991

by the Cord
Or how I spent my summer vacation.
By By Rich Prange

For years, log buildings have caught my fancy—partly for their looks but mostly because, being a northwoods guy from central Wisconsin, I liked the thought of harvesting my own timber and building everything from start to finish.

So when I finally made the decision to build an addition onto the A-frame cottage that I'd finished several years ago, my first choice was naturally a log structure. I'd be more than doubling the size of my existing home, and logs would give my house a sturdy presence I'd be comfortable in for years to come.

My first step was some outside research. I began with drive-by house inspections and frequent trips to the library, where I spent hours in the how-to section poring over log-building books. Finally, with some background under my belt, I enrolled in a hands-on weekend workshop.

There, my needs were met, my questions were answered, and I learned two things: 1) a chain saw
I can do some tricks I'd never even considered while cutting firewood, and 2) reading about massive timbers is a world removed from actually handling them.

To be honest, I began having some serious doubts. How would I get the logs down to my site without tearing up the resident landscape? Would I be able to lift and move such heavy timbers safely by myself, even with the help of a gantry? And what would the long-term rental of a power winch set me back?

While talking logs and sawdust with a local mill operator, he pointed me down the road to look at a recently built cordwood hunting cabin. I'd seen a cordwood house or two, but had dismissed the "firewood" building method immediately because I was so locked into the idea of logs. In this new light, I took a second look at cordwood construction ...and decided it was everything that I'd been hoping for.

In case you don't know, cordwood, or stackwall, construction is a fairly old wall-building method that uses split or round firewood-length logs stacked horizontally, but perpendicular to the plane of the wall, and held together at both ends with a cement, sand, lime, and sawdust mixture. The center gaps are insulated with wood chips and lime, fiberglass,
cellulose, or what have you. The doors and windows are framed post-and-beam style with heavy lintels.

Rainy Daze
My choice of raw timber was smalltooth aspen, locally called popple. When it's cut and cured properly, it's probably as good as any construction-grade lumber and will last as long as pine, given the same care. I bought some, and cut some from my own property. In the spring, I slicked off the bark. Then in the fall, I cut the logs to 16" lengths and split them. All told, from the day I peeled the bark, the wood took ten months to dry.
Meanwhile, I'd been in contact with Richard Flatau, a local teacher who has built a number of cordwood structures and written what many consider as the definitive book on the subject. That summer my intention was to plan and promote a cooperative work-study project for potential cordwood builders with Richard Flatau instructing.

Ha! As the rain gauge for the summer of 1990 filled (and my construction schedule and enthusiasm drained away), I changed the game plan again. Between rain clouds, I rushed to dress out the excavation and assemble the 24' X 24' treated-wood basement, so it would be ready for its cordwood load by August 1. Unconventional as stud-framed basement walls may be, I was willing to give them a shot because they'd go up quickly. After pouring a hefty footer, I was able to nail up 2 X 12s on 12" centers, sheathe them in plywood, and lay on the waterproofing and install the drain system before backfilling the earth. Then I hired Richard to work with me for three very long, labor-intensive days.

I'd learned enough just in talking and planning to know that pulling off a successful cordwood project is like following a recipe. The method has already been tested, so the only allowances you have to make are for variations. One particular thing I'd been warned about—which I can't stress too strongly—is to plan the mixing site for an efficient traffic pattern beforehand And then be ready to work!

The Log Cabin Look
I planned my addition to be a bit different, in that the design called for stacked-timber corners to give the structure a log cabin appearance. These timbers were cured, rough-cut 6" X 6" aspen, raised in a double course inside and outside, then tied together Lincoln Log style.

I assumed that, being large, they would stack up really fast. I was wrong. Each corner took one l-o-n-g day to complete, mainly because—in true masonry style—the job requires extra attention for accuracy. It makes sense when you consider that the corners become benchmarks for the stacked walls once a string line is drawn between them.

On Flatau's suggestion, I used post-and-beam construction to define the main entry and the place where the addition would tie into the existing cottage. I set double 6" X 6" lintels over the window openings and at the sills to insure that the roof load would be evenly transferred to the walls.

Actually laying up the walls became a labor-and time-consuming process. Tuck-pointing—the sculpting of mortar around each piece of cordwood—demanded continuous attention until the mix had set up a bit. I came to realize that having a partner more man doubles what can be accomplished over working alone. And maintaining organization is essential enough to be worth an occasional shutdown to set things straight if needed.

Throughout this period I depended heavily on the help of good friends and family, and the presence of these willing and working souls shortened considerably what would've been a very drawn-out affair.

Ten 12-hour days later, the structure was ready for roof trusses. Rather than order them, I built my trusses on-site from dimension lumber handpicked at a local discount yard. I made them specifically to accommodate a 12' X 24' attic room, as I considered the nearly 300 square feet of additional space well worth the extra effort.

I convinced a local contractor to let me rig an extension boom to his front-end loader in order to set the finished trusses in place. I'm not sure which was worth more—the look on his face, or the fact that it worked. I do know that the by-gosh-and-by-golly setup of the ropes, braces, and long popple logs did the job and saved me a bundle in the process.

Beforehand, between cloudbursts, we had taken the extra trouble to line up the top plates with a transit, and that effort paid off. Roof sheathing, fascias, and siding just about fell into place—no shimming and no extra nailers were used, because they just weren't needed. The roof shingles went up almost as easily.

What Next?
I've got to admit that my cordwood addition isn't quite finished—but what owner-built project ever is? I have, in fact, some flooring, dry-wall, and ceiling jobs ahead of me that'll probably take a good fraction of the time it took to build the structure in the first place.

As for the interior cord wood cosmetic details, I'm busy disc-sanding the butts, or end-grain faces; wire- brushing the mortar; and coating the walls with urethane to keep the dust where it belongs.

Outside, extra-long eave overhangs help protect the exterior walls, but my next assignment is to give them a few coats of an environmentally benign moisture sealant before winter sets in.

The wooden basement, by the way, has gotten comments from a number of people. Obviously, it hasn't been there long enough to prove itself, yet it's been through extremely heavy fan rains and one fun winter, and so far has remained warm and dry.

Would I do anything differently the second time around? I'd probably draft a few more willing helpers and a couple of good friends to assist—or to rub tired muscles. Considering that I picked the worst summer of the decade to build something that required a big hole in the ground, I should probably be thankful that my completion schedule was delayed only one and a half months instead of into the following year.

Though the discouragement index ran high at the worst of times, I'm very pleased with the result and still surprised at the low cost of completing such an ambitious project. When I read that even modestly designed contracted homes cost $60 per square foot, and far more in some areas, I figure that the typical cordwood cost range of $6 to $15 is a real bargain, even with the intensive work schedule involved.

It's a quantum leap into the owner-builder arena, but I'd recommend the cordwood course of action to anyone with the energy and determination to see it through.

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