More Cabin Motivation

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I’ve written a bunch about how we are building this cabin, but not much lately on why we are building this thing. Since we are at a point between the first and second floors, and I’m back to peeling logs (more on that later), now seemed like a good time to review. Not only do people use widely varying methods of building a log cabin, but they have widely varying reasons for building a log cabin. Talking to other LHBA members and other builders on facebook, I’ve discovered that not everyone is going to live there full time. The reasons for building also vary.  You could slice the reasons and the types of people who build into a crazy number of categories, but I’ll try to keep it simple.

I did an informal poll on one of the cabin groups I’m on to see why people build log cabins.

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It breaks down this way:

  • Total responders: 40
  • don’t have one but will: 50%
  • live there full time: 18%
  • get away: 15%
  • live there eventually: 13%
  • building one now: 2%

The allure of a log cabin

Half of the people on the survey don’t have a log cabin, but say they will someday. I believe that is probably true of the general population of the United States, as well. I found this article from the National Park Service stating that originally, log cabins in America were meant to be temporary dwellings, and they may have lost popularity completely, except that in the 1930’s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (part of a “make work” project during the Great Depression) built many cabins in the National Parks. The most famous example of log architecture is, of course, the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. I’ve been there many times, enjoyed sitting in one of the mission style chairs in the lobby, and climbing the log staircases. It is truly an inspiring structure. A photo that captures all of the essence of this world-famous structure is hard to find, but I found a few:

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But what is the allure of a log cabin? The National Park Service article states:

Had it not been for these [the log cabins built by the CCC in the 1930’s] the log cabin might have disappeared, but because people saw the log structures and liked what they saw, many began to build modern log cabins and log houses. These homes seemed to represent all that a family could want: a sturdy shelter from the elements and a simple, self-sufficient lifestyle. The log cabin remains a popular building style.

Popular, but yet rare. There are no statistics on how many log cabins are out there, but they remain a very popular (at least in the imagination) and an iconic building style. I think the answer to “why are they so alluring” is simply because they call us back to simpler times when quality mattered.

For most folks, the cost of building one is the limiting factor. Whereas a normal frame home costs about $120 per square foot, a log home can cost $150-$175 per square foot. But that’s really not that much difference for a dream. Hard to get a loan? Maybe a little. Cabins are considered unconventional building styles by many lenders- meaning they are hard to find “comparables” (other property in the area used to determine if the asking price is valid). Maybe permits and city inspections are more complicated? Yeah. But not by much, depending on where you live. Of course, this doesn’t cover our build. Our “per square foot” cost is much, much cheaper- about $20 per square foot. In our case, a log cabin was cheaper than a framed or a brick home.  One reason is that the building materials can be cheaper than 2×4’s. As in free. Or, the cabin can be extremely expensive if you hire out the actual construction and contracting. But I guess you could also argue it’s only cheap because I’m pouring 30 years worth of work into building it in about 2 years. Maybe 3….

It’s always seemed strange to me that everyone loves the idea of a cabin in the woods, but not many people have them, even though price, hassle, etc. isn’t much different from a regular home, not to mention how much more environmentally friendly they can be than other styles of homes. I just haven’t been able to square why there aren’t more of them.

Why have a log cabin?

According to my poll, people have different uses for their cabin. Some live in them full time, others use them as a get away. Why have one?

The get-away

The first cabin I had was definitely a get away- we drew a circle on a map with our full-time residence as the center. The edge of the circle was how far we were wiling to drive to “get away”: which was a two hour drive. Then, every weekend, we would take a different route until we were 2 hours away from home, looking for property or a cabin for sale along the way. The one we bought was built by an old farrier in his 70’s- as a get away on 20 acres. No power, no running water, too far away from cell coverage, and an outhouse. It was a simple one room cabin with a loft. And it was awesome- I could sit out on the porch some days and actually hear the nothing. At night, we were at least 60 miles from the nearest city, so the stars were extremely bright. But at 6,000 ft+ elevation, it wasn’t a place you could stay in the winter, as the county would close the road when the snow got too deep. We had a few family parties there, but eventually found that keeping up with two houses was some work. After the divorce, I had to sell it. That was painful, and I realized that I really liked cabin living better than city living. I wanted to get another one, and this time, live in it full-time.

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20 acres, a cabin, and a 1973 Ford HighBoy- what’s not to like?

The homestead

This is where I’m headed. But when I remarried and moved to the South, it didn’t look like it was going to happen. My wife wasn’t that interested at first. A brick home was what she wanted. I was ok with that, I thought, so when I finally got through school and started making a little more money, we started looking at homes. We needed a big one- 6 kids between the two of us, and we both have lots of hobbies- sewing, knitting, art, music, woodworking- we needed plenty of space. Of course, I wanted as much property as we could afford. Which meant very few homes made it on the list, and the ones that did were usually in need of major renovations, and many of them had plenty of smells to go along with them. You can read more about the beginning of our log home journey here.

Now they do have cabins here in the South- but not like the ones out West. Here we have dove tailed square oak beam cabins. Out West, it’s more solid log coped cabins. They are ALL pretty in my book.

The eventual plan is to have a small hobby farm, and of course I want my garage for woodworking and building rustic furniture. The idea is to become more self-sufficient. We are building this cabin without a loan, paying as we go. There’s no mortgage on the house- when we’re done, we’ll own it. We’ll try gardening, and raising chickens and bees. Maybe some of that will provide some income. When you’re peeling logs, it’s easier and more fun to think about this kind of stuff than how sore and tired you are from all the work.

Back to Basics (like peeling logs)

Which brings me back to peeling logs, which I did almost all of last week. See, when we started stacking, we decided that we were going to stack logs in this manner: the biggest logs would go on the bottom, and decrease in size as we worked our way to the top. That way, even though our logs have more taper than anyone else’s home on LHBA, at least we would have control over the size of the logs. We also decided to stack so that the butts of the logs faced the front of the home- this gives the home a “massive” feel to it, and also provides extra support for the roof – which hangs about 6 feet out from the corners.

 

There were still some trees on our property that needed to come down, and as we got higher with the stacking, I noticed that  few were too close for comfort to the house (in case of a tornado). So I cut a few down. Julie measured them, and what do you know- they were the same size (about 5 feet around) as the ones we were using on layer #6- which meant we needed to use them now, or risk stacking big logs on top of little logs. I cut down about 8 more of that size.

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sweet gum tree. 55 feet long. Log arch to lift it onto the trailer (on right, almost out of frame).

I also cut down a sweet gum tree that is about 55 feet long, has a 29″ diameter base, and a 15″ tip, and is almost perfectly straight with no large branches. In other words, the perfect size for a ridge pole – the longest, straightest, biggest, “most righteous” log. But I’ve heard from folks that they twist as they dry. I can’t even budge it with my tractor. If I don’t use it for a ridge pole, it would make an awesome dining table, along with some end tables, and maybe a door.

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The other choice for my ridge pole is a giant oak further back in the forest- it’s about 26″ at the base, with minimal taper. I don’t know the tip diameter, but it is even longer- almost 65 feet by my estimation. And according to woodweb (they have a weight calculator), it probably weighs about 7,000 lbs.  I’ll need help moving it. Did I mention it’s an oak tree? How awesome would that be for a ridgepole?

That’s it for now, back to work. Leave a comment if it suits you.

 

 

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2016 June 24: Military trailer Log arch

I’m finally ready to tackle this log loading problem. Here’s the issue:

I’m getting trees from the property next door. I’m cutting them myself, bucking them (I figured out that bucking a tree means taking off the limbs), then skidding them (dragging them) with a tractor over a small ditch and onto my property where I stack them on some sacrificial logs to keep them off the ground until I peel them. With a smaller log, the tractor can pick it up with tongs, lift it high enough to skid, and I can easily skid it and get it to where I want, and this process takes about 1 1/2 hours:

  • 30 minutes to fell and buck
  • 30 minutes to load and skid
  • 30 minutes to unload

Unfortunately (or maybe I can be positive and say ‘fortunately’, two years from now when I look at the finished house and see massive log eye-candy saving me tons of money on A/C and heat), my logs are usually more than 18″ diameter- some of the bigger logs (A.K.A. “monster logs”) are 26″+ and 50’+ long. It takes anywhere from 4 hours on a good day, to a couple of days to move one log. It’s extremely exhausting – I’ve lost 10 lbs in a month of working. I’m estimating these logs weigh about 6,000 lbs. My tractor is a Ford 3000 diesel. I think it’s rated at 47 hp. It’s not 4wd, but it has a lift on the back rated at 2,000 lbs. It gives up on monster logs. Me too.

Problems multiply when the log gets bigger. The log outweighs the tractor by 2,000 lbs, so lifting it makes it nearly impossible to steer, so ‘just plain skidding it’ is out. I have a military trailer, which is rated at 2.5 tons, but it is about 30″ off the ground, and the tractor can only lift to about 29″ (or some amount extremely close to whatever the trailer height is). But seriously- does it matter what the height is? It can’t lift it high enough to clear the bed of the trailer, and I’m sure it’s that way by design. Yes really. Some guy at the Ford tractor factory colluded with another guy at the military trailer factory 50 years ago, and they are still laughing about their “little joke”. I’m sure of this. It’s a conspiracy.

Cheap, fast, or good: you can only pick two.

‘Why not just get a bigger tractor,’ you may ask? I might reply, ‘Why not just buy a house that’s already built?’ But actually the answer is: I’m doing this debt-free. Pay as you go. You understand when I’m done with this, I’ll have a $400k home that cost $40k to build. Some folks love a telehandler- and I do too- but the cheapest I can get one that I’ve seen is about $18k. My brother-in-law has one, but getting it from Utah to here would cost about $2,000. And he uses it all the time, so he doesn’t want to part with it for even a month. I understand. So the solution has to be cheap. And good. The kicker with my solution, is that it actually ends up being ‘fast’. -er. Instead of 4 hours minimum on a monster log, I’m hoping it is 4 hours maximum. Maybe even 1 hour. Ok, let’s not get greedy.

I came up with a few work-arounds before settling on my current solution:

  • tie two tractor jacks together with a beam bolting them together. But 29″ (the height of the tractor jacks’ lifting height before they begin to buckle and get very unstable (also on my list of conspiracies….) is also not high enough to get it on the trailer.
  • hope that the tree falls near a still-standing tree that I can use with a chain hoist for lifting. This is rare.
  • build a tripod and use the chain hoist in that for lifting. But the trailer usually can’t fit under the tripod. And I have to move the tripod when I unload it, too.

All of these methods take time. Lots of time. And lots of muscle.

I’ve been thinking about a solution for a long time. First, I’ll get a helicopter…..No. It’s something called a “log arch”. You can buy one for like $800 that claims to handle logs “up to 15 inches in diameter”, but I know I can make one cheaper. I searched for “log arch” on google and found a ton of videos and methods. My favorite one, and the most elegant and simplest solution in my opinion is this one:

I already have the trailer. Just need to mount some kind of pivot system.

I got out my copy of LibreCAD, and drew up some plans. After tweaking them a bit, I had my logarch.  I’ll make them available for free.  I checked my math a few times -mostly the shear calculations for a bolt: I figured a force equal to a 6,000 log at standard acceleration of 9.8 m/s^2 gave me about 132,000 psi to work with. I ran it by Ellery (my super-practical better-than-an-engineer mechanical genius friend), and his immediate response was “3/4 inch grade 8 bolts”. I felt proud that it took me an hour of calculations from an engineering standpoint to come up with what he said in 1 second. He plays guitar, violin, banjo, etc., and I play piano, accordian, and now, ukulele.

I bought some 3″ x 3″ 1/4″ sidewall steel tube, and a 1/4″ flat plate. The guys down at C&J welding were super impressed with the youtube video. They all gathered around to give me advice on what kind of steel, welding techniques, issues I might encounter. The owner wants pictures of the completed log cabin. It’s the business that my buddy Ken H. recommended when he was still alive. I can see why. Super nice down to earth hardworking guys.

I need to make all my cuts and learn how to weld (yes, from Ellery), but hopefully, I’ll start welding it on Saturday.

2016 February 20: Transformative

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Class is over. Boy, that was rough- waiting in line in Vegas to get off the plane, then another line to get on the shuttle, another one to get on the bus that takes you to the rental car place, where you get to wait in a line to get your rental car, and finally, a line to leave the parking lot in your car. How I love to travel….:) (my wife says if you put a smiley face on your stuff, then people know you’re friendly).

The class was amazing, fast paced, and chock full of advice from Ellsworth and Steve, who have both built many homes using Skip’s method. Topics were how to save money on the build, where to get logs, how to get tools, what to say to the permit office, to the logger, to the cement truck driver, the forest ranger supervisor. There was a workbook that I filled with notes in the margin.

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But, in the end, I didn’t learn much about construction that I didn’t know. The Skip method is stupid simple. What I did learn is that it’s possible to build a home in less than two years, and do it without a mortgage, and without specialized construction knowledge. I learned a pioneering philosophy of can-do that our ancestors likely had. This isn’t a class on how to build a log home as much as it is a class on becoming self reliant and independent.

Which is kind of funny. I mean, they have a class about being independent from the government, the bank, and just about everything else on the planet.  And they hold it in Sin City- the best example on earth of where dependence and slavery rules- being a slave to money, passion, power, vices- it’s all there. Pretty ironic, huh?

I can’t figure out one thing, though: why aren’t more people interested in this lifestyle? Why are people willing to slave away for 30 years to pay off a mortgage, when they could be free of that bondage for a little extra effort up front?

The reaction from my family was polite and supportive: “Oh, that’s nice”.
“But- look at this piece of debt-free log-home-building-gold I found!”
“That’s nice.  Good for you guys.”
“No, it’s a ‘get-out-of-mortgage-jail-free card’, and it’s good for the next 30 years.”

I do have to add that my sister’s husband did ask a ton of questions. And he has a telehandler – the most talked about piece of equipment in the entire class…

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I guess it’s just that I’ve been researching various log home building methods for the last 10-15 years. I settled on the Skip method about 10 years ago, and have been learning about it since then. The beauty is getting a crazy awesome log home, and doing it mortgage-free.

The bottom line: it’s not how much you make that makes you rich: it’s how much you spend. That is the beauty of doing it debt free. I dunno- I’m just really excited about it, I guess.

Now, about that land with the fruit trees and a creek…. Where is it?

2015 December 22: The owner-built Log Home Philosophy

images.duckduckgo.comThis post should have been first, but the anvil was hot on the other topics. Reading through them, though, I realize I haven’t even discussed my philosophy. Why am I so interested in a log home? Why not a brick home or a traditional frame home? Why not a stone house? How about straw-bale, cinder-block, timber frame, trailer (hey- they are cheap, if nothing else)? And why not just buy a traditional home that someone else built and save myself the trouble?

I think it boils down to a few things:

1. Finances

Most Americans’ financial path looks something like the following:

live off parents (0-20+) ->  get a minimum wage job (16-20+) -> go into debt for a cell phone and a car ($10k-$20k) -> Go into debt for college ($20k-$60k) -> Get married (go into debt for ring – $2k, honeymoon- $6k) -> go into debt for a house – $180k, credit card debt – $40k -> go into debt for a minivan – $20k -> get a blue or white collar job and hopefully break even by the time they retire.

From the point they go to college until the point of retirement, they live in debt- something like 45 years of debt, and anywhere from $300k to $350k of debt. Student loan debt, car payments, credit cards, home loans- by the time we’re done paying off our homes, we could have bought two of them. Why do we (as a country) follow this path? Why doesn’t the path look like this:

live off parents, learn how money works -> get a minimum wage job, save for college or tech school -> go to school debt-free, while working and save for a home and drive a crappy car -> get a job, save even more for a home -> hefty down payment on home, go into debt only $100k – $150k -> able to use leftover from small house payment to maintain a modest car, or save for a nice car -> pay off house early, set up investment accounts -> retire early -> enjoy retirement.

The answer is really and simply: easy credit. It is getting easier and easier to borrow money.

A few years back, I was living the dream like I described- all except for the car payments, credit card debt, and student loans. But while my job paid well, I was in debt for a house, and was going to pay for it for the next 30 years. My then-wife (now ex-wife) was also working, so we had a bunch of extra cash. We decided to buy a vacation home near a lake (Bear Lake, Utah). It was great- 20 acres and a cabin. Then we got divorced, and had to sell. In the middle of selling it, I got remarried and moved to Alabama. When the cabin finally sold, it sold for more than double what we paid for it. After paying off the loan, and giving my ex her share, I had just enough to buy a fixer-upper hud-home. So we were still debt free. But I was having a hard time getting ahead financially- the economy wasn’t my friend.  After going back to school for a second degree – this time in Mathematics, and a scary sidetrack as a teacher, I ended up finding a better job as a systems support engineer.

My credit is awesome. I should get a loan….Which brings me to my principles.

2. Principles

“Interest never sleeps nor sickens nor dies; it never goes to the hospital; it works on Sundays and holidays; it never takes a vacation. … Once in debt, interest is your companion every minute of the day and night; you cannot shun it or slip away from it; you cannot dismiss it; it yields neither to entreaties, demands, or orders; and whenever you get in its way or cross its course or fail to meet its demands, it crushes you.”~J. Reuben Clark, famous attorney, and prominent leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church).

Being a slave to debt: I would like to avoid debt as much as possible. If I should suddenly kick the bucket, I do not want my wife to have to go get a job to support the family, or pay off the house or debts. After my LDS mission, I had a goal of “be debt free by 35”. I actually reached that goal….and then went back to school (and into debt)- that was a mistake. I could have probably saved in between each semester and paid cash for my classes, but my income from contracting fluctuated wildly, and it was hard to determine ahead of time where our next meal was coming from. But the house was paid off, and so were the cars, and we had no credit card debt.

Of course, the idea is to earn interest, not pay it. Still working on this one. The stock market- over the last 8 years at least- has been funded by funny money from the U.S. Treasury, so land or gold seems to be where it’s at if you want any security.

3. Practicality

This is where it gets interesting: just look at the layers on a brick home: you have bricks, some kind of moisture barrier, maybe some OSB, some 2×4 framing, insulation, drywall, and then paint. A stick home is worse- instead of bricks, you have vinyl siding or something, moisture barrier, OSB, then the 2×4’s, etc. All of those layers require a specialist- a brick mason, siding person, a framing person, someone to insulate it, a drywall specialist, and a painter.  How about a log home? Well, you’ve got logs….and that’s it. I actually think you use less wood for a log home over a stick home by the time you cut all your 2×4’s and OSB, but that’s probably debatable. At the very least, logs require far less processing than 2×4’s. Why isn’t this more popular? Well, it takes longer….

How about special skills for building a log home: the ability to follow directions, the ability to sweat a lot, the ability to finish what you started. Little 90 lb women are building these things with a block and tackle.  As far as I can figure, you lay out your logs so that a big end will alternate with a small end. With the butt & pass method, you don’t have to “cope” or carve the logs to fit- just butt them up against the corner of the other one. Then spike the whole thing with rebar every 2 feet. Add a ridge pole and purlins or support beams for the roof, add decking and shingles or tin, then chink as necessary. Put in floor, stairs, interior walls wherever you want (the interior walls are never main supports- the outer walls hold everything up). Plumb, do electrical, HVAC, counters, appliances, finish and enjoy. Lots and lots of work, but when it’s done, it costs literally 10-15% of what a home of similar size (but not quality) would cost you.

4. Philosophy of life

So, how do you avoid going into debt and still buy a house? Building your own home does not seem possible to most people. But why? My two favorite reasons:

  1. It seems complicated- Permits, engineering, materials, tools, heavy equipment, labor, inspections, and general know-how seem to be just out of reach for most people.  I’m lucky enough to know which end of a hammer to hold, so half of those issues are not an issue. What’s weird is that when you go to college- it’s just as complicated- maybe more so: you have no idea how to pay for it, you don’t know what to expect from each class, everything changes every semester, you have to learn what each professor expects, you have to juggle your schedule to get everything done, not to mention if you change your major (which everyone does). So what is the big put-off? I believe it’s reason #2:
  2. Media/commercialism: the media tells us that you get a loan to buy a house. “It’s my money, and I want it now.” It seems easy- just get a loan, and then pay for it for 30 years. I was thinking that way, too- until my cabin tripled in value (yes, I only sold it for double what it was worth- that was in 2007- looking back, I’m lucky I sold it when I did). I could sell it after 5 years and make a profit because the market had changed, and it was suddenly worth 3 times what I paid for it. I didn’t have to remain in debt.

Doesn’t it make sense to – if you could – spend 3 years building a house, and then the next 50+ enjoying the fruits of your labor? What if you could get it all done debt free, but the price was 3 years of your life? Well, the alternative is: it costing you 30 years of your life, which is the Master Mahan principle- turning life into property: the bank turns 30 years of your life into their property (interest). Enter the Skip Ellsworth log home method.

I’ve looked at log homes ever since I bought my cabin. The guy who built it was in his 70’s when he started building it. It had a rock-pile-and-cement foundation, gas lighting, a loft, a living area, and a kitchen. But it wasn’t a log cabin-it was framed in. I started looking into how to build a log cabin- there were classes, methods, builders, dealers, kits. And everyone was saying it takes years to learn how to do it, and you can’t do it yourself. Hmmmmm. Then I found the Skip Ellsworth method. You do it yourself. In a nutshell, you find property, get logs for free or very cheap ($0.05-$0.10 per log – yes, really!), peel them, build a foundation, stack the logs, put a roof on it, chink it, finish the interior. A few have done it for $9,000. Most do it for under $60,000. A few end up at $100,000.  The quickest people get it done in 9 months. Most people take about 2-3 years. A few masochists really enjoy not finishing things they start, and end up taking 25 years (no. just no.).  Then, if you decide to sell it, log homes always sell for more than regular homes- most of the owner built log homes sell for more than $300,000. Yes. Spend $40,000 to build, sell for $300,000, profit = $260,000. And you don’t have to pay off the bank. Skip goes on to say that at that point, you can use the profit to build 4 more log homes, sell them, and now you retire. You’ve made your millions.

5. Summary

I think we’ve been duped as a country to believe that “that’s just the way it’s done” on waaaayyyy too many issues. They (whoever they are) have got us right where they want us: believing there’s only one way to do anything. I’m not buying what they are selling. I guess I’ve never done things the traditional way; maybe that’s been a mistake- maybe, if I put my nose to the grindstone long enough, I’ll get rich….but I think I’d rather build a cabin.

Cost analysis

I got bored while looking for land, so I priced out all the materials I could think of that I will need to build this log home. I went to HomeDepot online, and just looked there for everything. I’m sure that I can get stuff cheaper if I keep my eyes open- for example, I saw an ad recently on Craigslist for 3/4″ OSB for $7.00/sheet.

The cost is very surprising. Assuming I can get the logs for free (I found a Craigslist ad for a guy that wants someone to come take 50 mature trees out of his yard), everything else prices out as below. I’d have to hire a logging truck to come pick up the logs, but I already found out it’s about $300 or less. So, here’s my price list: log-home-cost-analysis

For less than $10,000, I get the shell. That includes a sawmill, a chainsaw, other tools, concrete for the foundation, the logs, the spikes, and the roof. I forgot to add one thing: a tractor. Found out I’m going to need a way to load the logs onto the sawmill, dig holes, drag chains attached to pulleys, level the ground, build driveways, move dirt, and basically lift heavy stuff. I’ve been looking, and it appears I can get one for about $3500, so the shell will cost about $13,000.

The whole thing (not including the land) will cost about $40,000. I’m using the sawmill to make the beams, and also the flooring. We may even do concrete counter-tops like this: concrete-countertop

Our plan right now is 36’x48′ two levels, with 5 bedrooms, 3 baths, an atrium for plants, and a balcony. $40,000 for a 3,000 sq ft log home is pretty darn cheap!