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DayCreek Journal

October 9 , 2006

The Passing of a Cordwood Legend

I just received some very sad news this evening of Jack Henstridge's passing. Jack probably wouldn't have ever considered himself a legend, but HE IS. Without a doubt, Jack was responsible for the building of hundreds of cordwood dwellings across North America over the past 30+ years. It was JACK who got the proverbial log rolling back in 1977 by writing an article for Mother Earth News. It was Jack who piqued the interest of Rob Roy, Richard Flatau, Cliff Shockey and others.

Now Jack would probably say it wasn't him. He'd say it was because his house burnt to the ground. Or because of the Canadian Army! (You'll have to read his first article in Mother Earth News to understand why it was the Canadian Army.)

Without question it was Jack.

My first encounter with Jack was a phone conversation back in 1998. At the time I was just learning about cordwood masonry and discovered there was this "Canuck" who had written a book on stackwall construction who lived in New Brunswick, Canada. Being the inquisitive fella that I am I had to call this Canuck to learn more. About an hour later, I felt like I just got done talking to a long lost relative.

Every conversation I had with Jack was memorable. His wit and down-to-earth common sense approach to things was his gift. He was always willing to take the time out of his day to talk to you and you always felt like you were talking to your best friend.

The first time I met him in person was the day before the Continental Cordwood Conference last year. Richard Flatau had a reception party at his house and as soon as you walked in the door, you knew who Jack was— he was the guy at the center of the conversation. He was a great story teller and a wealth of common-sense knowledge. You just couldn't get enough of him.

That following day at the conference Jack gave a very touching speech about the friendships that have been built throughout the cordwood community. It was quite a moving speech and one I will never forget.

Jack was without a doubt a very unique individual and the world has lost a good friend today. He will be sorely missed.

In conclusion I have added some of the text from an interview that Richard and Becky Flatau did with Jack prior to the 2005 Cordwood Conference:

Thoughts from the Godfather of Cordwood:
“Stackwood” Jack Henstridge

(Compiled by Richard & Becky Flatau)

Just as James Brown is the Godfather of Soul Music, Jack Henstridge is certainly the soul of the cordwood movement. When we built our cordwood home in 1979 Jack was there with encouragement before we started, consolation when we learned the true meaning of “sweat equity,” praise when we proudly completed our task, and uncompromising friendship ever since. These next paragraphs come from Jack’s phone calls and letters.

Jack wrote the book Building the Cordwood Home in 1977. He has taught cordwood courses at universities and other institutions throughout North America. He founded the Indigenous Materials Housing Institute in 1980 to conduct research on “do it yourself house construction”. He has published articles in numerous magazines and newspapers. His latest book is entitled About Building Cordwood.

What is the main reason for building with cordwood?
Cordwood Construction is a simple, easy way to build yourself a comfortable structure, without spending an arm and a leg. It is a very simple and easy process. If you can pile wood, you can build cordwood. Compared to other methods of “sweat equity housing” Cordwood Construction gives you the “best bang for the buck.”

How did cordwood get re-started?
The first question to ask is “Why did it stop?” The mortar that was originally used was a mixture of lime and sand. This was much better than the clay and straw that was originally used as “chinking”, but there were still a couple of problems with it – first you had to find a source of lime and if you had no access to natural lime “i.e. gypsum deposits” you made your own by burning oyster shells, clam shells, limestone or whatever did the trick. The second problem was that it didn’t “weather” very well. It took a long time for the lime to calcify in the mixture and it would “weather out.” The early cordwood houses (circa 1800’s) have either been sided over or the mortar has eroded. The main reason that cordwood fell out of favour was the invention of the circular saw. There was a time when everyone built their own home, primarily log cabins. Cordwood, stackwall or whatever the locals called it was just another option. The circular saw made it much faster to produce accurately sawn lumber and “the building boom” got under way. Cordwood started as low cost housing. Some structures that were built over 100 years ago in North America are still standing and in use. In the 60’s & 70’s people were again looking at a “back to the land,” sustainable lifestyle. Cordwood enjoyed resurgence because we now had Portland or hydraulic cement that would harden even under water. Cordwood had always been low-cost, do-it-yourself housing. Recently it has begun to appeal more to mainstream society interested in building beautiful, unique log homes, while incorporating the latest technologies. Some of the newer cordwood homes, like their predecessors, are works of art.

In almost all of your designs, you seem to prefer arched openings rather than rectangular. Is this just for aesthetics or is there another reason?
Very definitely another reason: The ancient Romans discovered the principal of the arch and a great many of their structures are still standing after thousands of years.

If you are going to have an opening in the wall why not make it an arched opening? Not only is it stronger than a rectangular opening, it’s also real funky.

Some people feel that it looks “too churchy.”
Well, not exactly, those early Romans with their gladiator games, barbaric treatment of prisoners - and lets not forget orgies and other such sports - were far from being “Churchy People.” However, they were fantastic architects, engineers and builders. The early churches, cathedrals and castles used the arch technique because it was the best way to go. I feel the same way about incorporating them in your cordwood walls. It’s a matter of preference.

What advice would you give to people building with cordwood?
• Build with adequate roof overhang. “Splashback” is not really a good thing. You don’t want water running down your walls.
• Use good quality wood that is barked, rot-free and well dried. Splitting helps to speed up the drying, stress-relieve the block and thus eliminate “checking “
• My favorite mortar mix is (for a load bearing wall): one Portland, two soaked sawdust, three aggregate. For non-load bearing walls, simply double the amount of sawdust. The sawdust holds moisture within the mix, allows the mortar to cure rather than to dry out. If it cures, you have a strong wall, if it dries out, the mortar crumbles. It should take about a month to cure properly.
• I prefer coarse sand and pea sized gravel and even larger for the aggregate. This works very well because the cement, which is an adhesive, has better surfaces to grab onto. It’s not like laying up bricks or stonework where you have a relatively thin bead of mortar. Personally, I don’t like to see any mortar joint less than one or two inches wide. You must realize that what you are actually building is a mortar wall. The blocks of wood are a sort of form that controls the width and direction of your wall and fills the spaces in between the mortar web. This is the reason that I came up with “The Mortar Stuffer’s Certificate” because that’s what you do to make your wall strong. That’s what holds it all together.
• To find out if the cordwood method is for you, build a small structure, a shed, a doghouse or even a small wall. Then you will know.

What was the inspiration for your wonderful Master Mortar Stuffer Certificate and what do all the drawings mean?
When I came up with the idea it was sort of “tongue in cheek.” It wasn’t meant to be serious. People seemed to like the idea so I started mailing out the certificates to people who had completed their own structures all over North America. Personally I think it is time for something new, so I’ve come up with something to fill the bill—and you’ll have to agree—totally original. I haven’t come up with the art work yet. I think we should call it the “Cordwood Constructors Commendation” We could call it the CoCoCo Award.
The gloves and trowels are self explanatory, especially after you’ve mortared up a few walls. The Viking ship represents the introduction of cordwood to North America. There is lots of evidence being uncovered that it was quite common in Scandinavia. The first cordwood in North America was in L’Anse-aux-Meadows (Lansing Meadows), Newfoundland at one of the earliest Viking settlements. The flight of the saucers from left to right is there just in case someone brought the idea here from somewhere else. The Wood Nymph signifies the experience that lots of people have when they are building. The wood will talk to you and tell you where it wants to go in the wall. The Indigenous Materials Housing Institute symbol is at the lower right hand corner. It represents environmental coexistence. The diamond on the gloves in the upper right hand corner is what they are worth to protect your hands. This is self evident if you have ever had a cement burn.

Would you care to share a story or an anecdote that you find especially appealing?
We were building a demonstration cordwood building for the MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association) Fair at Litchfield, Maine. We erected the building in three days. We had two cement mixers going, lots of rubber gloves and everybody pitched in to try the technique, including the Governor of Maine. Everyday there was a man who stood on the sidelines and watched what was going on. By the third day, I walked over and asked him what he thought of the building. With his typical Maine drawl he said, “What’s the matter, you think someone is gonna steal your woodpile.”
Another one that I remember was at the first “Mother Earth News Seminar.” I was talking about the problems that most people create when they are contemplating a house design. Their primary concern is “What’s it going to look like on the outside?” And the last thing they consider is “How are you going to ‘live’ on the inside? “
One man held up his hand and asked me to repeat what I had just said. I asked him if I wasn’t speaking loud enough and he said “Oh no, I just wanted to make sure that my wife heard it.” That broke everyone up.


Jack Henstridge speaking at the 2005 Continental Cordwood Conference.