Cap Logs Installed!

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Our cap logs are installed- this means we are almost ready to enter a new phase of construction. It has been a long hard road. Some folks at LHBA claim we are moving at “one gear below breakneck speed” using our lifting poles, but it often doesn’t feel that way…

What are cap logs?

Cap logs are the final logs on the walls. In the photo above, they are the ones that stick way out on the front of the house. Paired with ‘double-butt logs’, they hold up the roof rafters, and give the roof enough overhang to protect the wall logs from rain. In a kit log home, they usually don’t stick out much, but for a butt & pass log home – with an expected lifespan of 350 – 450 years – they are a major part of that lifespan.

Notes on installation

Our plans are for a 40’x40′ cabin. The overhangs on the roof protrude out 7 feet past the walls on the gable ends, and about 4 feet out on the eave side. This means the cap logs have to be 7’+7’+40′ = 54′ long. Also, they need to hold up the roof rafters, so my goal was to make sure they were 12 inches minimum on both ends. With our tapered logs – this meant that the butt end would have to be absolutely huge to ensure at least 12 inches at the tip. This would also throw off our level layers (all 4 corners should be the same height).

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The solution I came up with was to take two normal sized logs, splice them together and put them up as one log together, and let the butts hang out over the ends.

Easier said than done. How do you lift half of a log when the lifting poles are in the corners? In other words, how do you hold up a log in the middle of the house where there are no lifting poles? Easy (not easy)- you chain both together and lift them at the same time.

Although I could have (maybe) installed a temporary center lifting pole- this would take a lot of energy and time- I would basically need a 30′ lifting pole (the size of an RPSL) installed. It would need to be chained to the wall, along with pulleys, etc. Lots of work for something I would use once. So I decided to try everything else before this idea.

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Using a cradle (suggested by Plumb Level), we were able to “safely” hold the logs in place while we pinned them. I won’t go into the details (unless someone is dying to know), but there were a lot of scary moments- like once I got the chained logs in place, I had to remove the unused portion of each log- this involves cutting the excess of the log, and hoping the desired portion just falls into place, with no way to chain it or support it until it was in place. The cradle helped a lot, but there were no guarantees.

Some unlucky (and funny) events from Course 13

First there was the “pinned boot” incident:

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There was a gap in the log I was working on. I was perched up on top pinning it into place, and my boot happened to be placed right where the pin was coming through. Once they go in, they don’t come out. It didn’t pinch my foot- just the edge of the boot- and tight enough that I couldn’t get my foot out. I was stuck. I called for Julie’s help. Now she is not normally one to climb ladders of any size, but she courageously started to climb. She was clinging to the ladder like she was a thousand feet off the ground. I kept encouraging her and she finally climbed up high enough to hand me my crowbar, and I was able to loosen the pin just enough to free my boot. LHBA folks suggested I just leave it there and chink around it, ha ha! ……No.

We had this log that was the right dimensions, but had a nasty hook in it at the tip. No matter how we rotated it, it wouldn’t lay flat. We decided to pin it anyway, and just deal with it later. It ended up being flat most of the way, until about 6′ from the end where it had this big bow in it. Since that corner (NE) has been historically low, we decided having the extra height in the corner would help get the height back up to where it needed to be. But since you can’t accurately measure the height on an odd row, we’d have to wait until layer 14 to find out if it was helping or not. And it is: before the cap logs, our heights worked out great- starting at the NE corner and going clockwise, we have 17’8″, 17’8″, 17’7″, 17’7″. For non-builder types- this means the East and West sides match each other exactly for height, while between the two sides, we are off by 1 inch. Remember- this is all using tapered crooked logs with knots and bends- a real testament to the Butt & Pass method.

And the burned out motor on the drill incident: It is a Black & Decker 1/2″ drill that didn’t really want to drill 300 holes, but it held up for the most part, and then just gave up with the drill bit lodged 12″ down in a log.  So I left it stuck up there; “sword in the stone”-like, for the weekend. I figured more power to the idiot who decides to try and steal it. There were no takers.

And five minutes later, the “what the heck happened to the jack hammer” problem: it just lost power in between pounding rebar. I took it home- I guess all the vibration and the weight on the cord from being up so high pulled its guts loose from the switch. I put a new clamp on the wire, taped it in place, and then put the handle back on. Then I taped the cord to the handle on the outside to alleviate some of the stress.

What’s next

The final height of our cap logs determines the final headroom height at the top of the stairs, since they are on the eave side of the house up against the wall. It works out to be (starting at the NE corner and going clockwise): 18′ 4 1/2″, 18’6″, 18′ 5 1/2″, 18′ 4 1/2″. Pretty good.

Now we finish with double-butt logs – these are not logs with 2 butts on them- they are logs that, instead of being normal “butt and pass” logs, are just logs that butt up against their neighbor logs on both ends. In this case, the logs they butt up against are the cap logs.

After that, we begin the next phase: installing the RPSL’s (Ridge Pole Support Logs). Two of these get bolted to the walls. Along with one in the middle. They are 30′ tall, and they hold up the Ridge Pole – which holds up the rafters and the roof.

The Ridge Pole is a monster sweet gum tree from our woods. It is by far the biggest heaviest longest and straightest log I’ve ever cut down. So far, it has evaded me being able to move it. But it won’t for long.

We also need to commit to a height for our girder log. This log spans the width of the house and holds up the 2nd floor. It also ties the East and West wall together so the rafters don’t push the house apart. It provides the “rigidness” that keeps the house tight. At least a little.

I don’t want to think too far, but I’m hoping we can get the roof on this summer.

We had a lovely visit from some LHBA members- Gary (Mosseyme) from East Tennessee came and looked one day in the rain and gave me a lot of good tips, and encouragement. Also, ‘Sdart’ on the LHBA forum- Sara and Rene were very nice and came out to see our progress. They are building in extreme Northern Idaho in an off grid location. They have been to many LHBA homes over the years all over the country and Sara told me, “even after looking at pictures, these homes are always impressive in person.”

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Our model

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all you need is some grocery store bags, hot glue, and one of my knitting needles to make paper logs…

How we made our model

We made a model of our future log home out of strips of brown paper bag rolled into “tapered logs”. We had talked about it since I took the class. They actually recommend it during the class, and I had been pushing my wife to let me create one, but dowels are $2.50 for a four foot length, and we’d need about 15-20 of them for just the walls, plus some for the rafters, so $60 for a model didn’t seem practical. Loghousenut even mentioned it in a comment to me- people are willing to spend big $$$$$ for a model, then complain that they don’t have the money to get started on the real one.

The other problem with dowels is they don’t have any taper, so it wouldn’t really represent our build- other than the dowels are round.

I thought we could just save some branches from cutting trees and use those, and Julie spent some time one Saturday trying to round up some that were the correct size, but it’s very time consuming to find branches that are to scale, and they still don’t have as much taper as our logs.

Our very tapered logs and the fact that we haven’t seen any actual log homes built with logs with as much taper as our logs seem to have spurred us to build a model to see how things would look. We ended up spending $4 on the thick foam-poster board. $2 for “stirring sticks” that are our 2×12 beams. The “logs” were free (made out of long strips cut from paper grocery bags)…. Construction paper- $2 for a pack of it. The glue- I don’t know- got it at the thrift store. Had to buy a new glue gun- I think Julie said that was $2.50. Also, some cardboard for the roof cut from cereal boxes, and toothpicks for the handrails.

Benefits of a model

We learned a BUNCH working on the model – in fact, I couldn’t believe how much we learned:

  • The clockwise/counter-clockwise “pinwheel” arrangement of the log layers (LHBA people know what I’m talking about) was pretty confusing at first, but the model helped sort it out. Just gotta remember the pattern when building with real logs.
  • Everything is pretty much to scale. Each square on the graph paper represents 1 foot. the walls are a little off scale- they come out at 9 inches thick instead of the usual 6 inches, but it’s still pretty close. Even the logs are to scale (as much as possible). It really gives us a realistic view of what 24 inch logs that taper down to 8 inches will look like. Adding how crooked the logs were wasn’t feasible in the model, so we have yet to decide how that will look.
  • For me, I think that a 40×40 log home looks a lot better with bigger logs- the massive logs offset the massive home, making it look not so big. Julie thinks straight, uniform logs would look better.
  • We can now play with where the stairs are, and how steep they are. I forgot that the floor joists for the second level adds at least a foot to the stair height, so when we build for real, I’ll have to be careful.
  • Ceiling height- 10 feet? 9 feet? 8 feet? I like nice tall ceilings (helps with dissipating heat), but that means more logs. I think we’ve settled on 9 feet on the first floor, and maybe 8 feet on the second level. We might even have enough space for a little third floor storage area.
  • The woodburning stove is going to be an awesome appliance- and Julie’s idea for the location is perfect- it’s sort-of central in the living area, so it will efficiently warm the house. It’s close enough to the center of the roof that we won’t have to extend the smokestack 10 feet in the air- which would look stupid, I think.

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  • The girder support log might be hidden from view by the framed walls- I don’t know yet, but it’s something we have to think about when we build.
  • You can’t see the back doors or bedroom doors from the front door (which we like). It also gives us a great idea of what the place will look like – how the kitchen looks from the living room and how the living room looks from the bedrooms or the balcony. It’s just neat seeing what we are heading towards when we finish.
  • I can’t emphasize how much insight we are gaining by building a model- how high should the walls be on each floor? How steep should the stairs be? How much overhang do we want on the balcony? Does this angle work? How much headroom will we have in this part? Can we move this wall slightly?  It is very, very revealing when you have a model to work from.

Problems / Solutions

We ended up redesigning the second floor several times. We also moved some walls on the first floor a little to make room for HVAC and plumbing. We noticed the massive model logs are actually encroaching on the interior floor space. I got out the plans and looked- and the 40×40 stock plan is measuring 40 feet from the center of the wall log to the center of the opposite wall log. I was thinking outside to outside was 40 feet, so this actually adds a foot to our interior floor plan that we desperately need.

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We also haven’t completely settled on how to finish the second floor.  At first, we thought, just extend the walls of the bedrooms all the way to the roof, but that would make the ceiling in the center room almost 20 feet tall, and possibly hard to heat or cool. So there’s enough room above the bedrooms for a third floor loft / storage in the center area under the roof. We could just “cap” the bedrooms with a ceiling, and then use the space as a loft / storage. But to access it, we would need some stairs- we’re not sure where to put them- maybe next to the bathroom. But this is something we can decide later.

If we do have a third floor, there are all kinds of options- maybe we hang the third floor joists out over the second floor hallway.

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T&G roof- the insulation is above the wood. Pretty!

Maybe we have the walls go up to the roof, or maybe it’s open with just a rail. Tons of possibilities. With this style of building, the insulation that is normally in the attic in a “stick built”home (what log home builders like to call a home built with 2×4 framing), is actually in the roof. So all you see from inside the house looking up is tongue and groove woodwork (T&G).

Here are some early photos of our model:

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Some interior views after we added the rails (we can almost imagine ourselves inside…):

For more photos of the model, see this post: stuck in the mud

Cabin Inspiration

Many are probably wondering- “yeah, but what’ll it look like when it’s done?” I don’t know, and that’s actually complicated to answer because a cabin like ours doesn’t really exist yet- for a couple of reasons:

  • This is kind of a “duh”, but every handmade log home is different- just the logs alone have so many differences from build to build- let’s look at a few differences:
    • Our logs don’t look like other logs- species differences: Southern Yellow Pine (afterwards “SYP”) vs Fir, spruce, Ponderosa, Douglas, Cedar, Oak, Poplar, etc.
    • SYP grown in open field, or close together: close together means they don’t put on as many branches (and they don’t get as thick). Out in the open, they spread out which means they have more knots, but the trunks are thicker. This might seem minor, but consider two log homes- one built with 20″ average logs, and the other with 10″ average logs:
      • taper: taper is the how fast the log gets smaller as you measure it from bottom to top (to find the taper, you take the difference between the top and bottom diameter and divide by the total length).  We wanted to shoot for a taper of less than 1% (didn’t happen- most of ours are 2%). Doesn’t seem like much, but most of ours got dangerously close to smaller than 8″ at 42 feet. My rule was minimum of 8″ at 42 feet.
  • Construction method:
    • methods for joining logs- cope, dovetail, milled, D-logs- I went through and researched all of these methods before I settled on the Skip Ellsworth Butt & Pass method. Skip’s is the most durable, has the lowest maintenance level, the easiest. The only thing it’s not is the prettiest: Swedish cope takes the cake on that one. But I think B&P takes the cake on durability.
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  • Maybe those differences are minor to you, so let’s look at plans:
    • Roof- we have settled for the moment on charcoal metal or gun metal gray. This is just a personal preference.
      • Roof material: metal. We had a brief moment of insanity where we thought about cedar…
    • Roof overhang: I was going to go for ten foot overhangs, but now with a wrap around porch, we’ll only need a bit of overhang- maybe 5-7 feet. This is significant- in the South (where we are), you need a lot of overhang to cover the logs- they cannot get wet. Add to that the fact that SYP isn’t that rot resistant, and a wrap around porch becomes a necessity more than a perk. “Oh, you should have used cedar or ponderosa….” Ok, that adds about $15k – $30k to the price because you have to buy them and truck them in. Or you can follow Skip’s advice and “build with what you’ve got”, which is what we are doing.
    • chainsaw-for-building-a-log-home
    • Two story home
      • We could go for a full size second floor- which means our walls would have to be twenty feet tall.
      • Or we could go for a knee wall and only have log walls that are, say, fifteen feet tall. Then the roof angles down in the bedrooms. We aren’t sure where we’ll end up, but this will affect whether the stairs curve or not.
    • And let’s not forget the foundation: Pier, crawlspace, or full foundation:
      • This is dependent on the water table. We decided not to chance flooding, and just go with piers. Then we found out that in the South, piers are recommended because the increased airflow keeps the house cool in the summer. Keeping cool is the name of the game in the South, whereas in the North, freezing your keister off is the name of the game. Hey, nobody said you had to live up North….
    • Other considerations:
      • Our home will be square, as outlined here
      • Size and placement of windows (we just bought 4 windows for $80 at a thrift store, but we will need more. Many LHBA members mix and match windows from various sources to save on costs).
      • Ceiling height on both floors- we want high (9+ feet) ceilings.
      • stove pipe or rock fireplace? And inside or outside? I like the ease of a stovepipe, and I like it inside
      • Ridge Pole Support log (RPSL): inside or outside? Outside, for us, and completely protected by the porch and roof overhang, of course.
      • Rafters made from logs or beams? Logs.
      • The inside floor plan: this is the best part of a log home. Since the outer walls hold the roof up, you can do anything you like with the inside walls and rooms. Our plan is to have the ability to completely live on the first floor, and then have a 3/4 floor upstairs- 3/4’s for living, 1/4 open to living area.

End result for what it will look like? Something of a mix between everything below. I’ll continue to update this post with photos as I find new inspiration. Now, on to the inspiration:

A lot of these photos are from builds by Ronnie Wiley of wileyloghomes.

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