How to Build a Log Cabin | A Homesteader’s Memoir

For fifteen years, I unknowingly put myself on the back burner.

The hopes and dreams I had about security and independence had simmered down. Somehow, I stopped taking any action to get there.

In my home, only a notebook titled “Wants and Needs in a Home,” and a filing cabinet stuffed with log and timber­frame ideas that revealed my yearning.

Becoming an apartment-dwelling single mother, waitressing in the big city was not my idea of the good life, nor did I expect it.

However, something in my genes insisted I create a massive medieval fortress designed in early pioneer style. I wanted to have a house that the Wolf himself couldn’t blow down! I wanted a beautiful log cabin.

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Working For The Dream

With this in mind, I diligently searched for a lovely small town, secured a decent job and apartment in advance. I loaded my kids, Eric and Cynthia (along with his piano and her horse), along for the start of a journey and new beginning. I left Reno, Nevada, behind and watched my less-than-fulfilling life disappear in my rear-view mirror. My dream took me to idyllic Ashland, Oregon, to find an excellent, affordable piece of land and secure a farm loan. It took another year to drill a well and get electricity.

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The third year I finally cut my baby (saw) teeth on remodeling a couple of old outbuildings and converted them into storage structures.

As I got bombarded by parallelograms, I learned about harsh lesson #1:“Plumb, Level and almost Square” and tricky rule #2: “Measure Twice, Oops, and cut Twice.” That summer instead of using the hand tools, the hand tools used me. I’ll admit, I was not the best when I started out.

Even the dog would slink away when I donned my carpenter’s belt, but I furrowed my brow in grim determination.

For a newbie, there is a great thrill in the tactile, kinetic experience of whamming a nail home in three blows and burying its head using an extra two wacks. It is the sign and evidence of beginner’s overkill to anybody. A job is never finished until the nails vanish.

There is no such thing as gimmicks or shortcuts in the learning process. I sweated, strained, and bruised myself each day while building this log cabin. As hard it may sound, I had a great sense of satisfaction sawing a clean square cut with my hands. To me, it was comparable to sewing a beautiful seam or baking a perfect loaf of bread, and eventually the results become just as predictable.

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It wasn’t long before I discovered power tools to help make my job easier with my Sears charge card either. Still, for someone like me, it meant making twice as many mistakes in half the time! My circular saw was one powerful force. As I braced myself to use it, with gritted teeth and squinted eyes, my dog scurried away from view.

A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes

Every once in a while I’d take a break from building my log cabin, take a sip of my coffee (liquid motivation) and gaze upon my 10 acres of star thistle and poison oak. I would envision a proverbial rose garden (without thorns), and a beautiful log home on top of the hill, surrounded by multicolored fruit trees and kittens prancing around outside the log cabin. I was a long way from that dream becoming a reality. For now, though, I wanted to enjoy the red ­tailed hawk circling overhead and coyotes howling in the moonlight.

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Just as a farmer makes his self ­portrait in a field, I was driven to attain a relationship with this hilly, hostile chunk of land. There was no such thing as turning back to the comfort zone to get what I wanted. I noticed when I focused my energy, lucky things began to happen.

Some time later a stranger told me about lodge pole pine logs available out of the forest. This economical choice inspired a fresh idea in my head. It confirmed my decision in favor of vertical log construction for minimal notching and relative ease of handling and transporting material.

I was excited to discover that my hobby was also rubing off on my children. One day my son Eric was playing a Bach prelude; the next day his white knuckles had a grip on a chainsaw and began cutting trees!

After several hair-raising trips, we stockpiled about 200 logs for $50 and carried them 100 feet or more. We stepped over slash piles, hobbled, staggered, groaned, and whimpered along the way. My grip weakened with each step as I mumbled to remind myself: “It is 3 cents per foot, it is 3 cents per foot.”

Although we worked together, my son and I had different goals. Eric wanted an eight-­sided piano studio (1000 square feet.) for excellent acoustics, and I wanted a barn-style house (1800 sq. ft.). The terrain ultimately was the deciding factor on which foundation we would focus on doing.

We decided to practice on the studio first. Flushed with enthusiasm, we sketched his “blueprint” on a napkin in a restaurant. Two heads are always better than one, so we got a book from the library and set up the batter boards. Upon a visit to the lumber yard, I noticed there was a huge pile of large timbers in the back lot. My pulse instantly quickened from excitement.

It was love at first sight. The salesman quietly wrote up my order for 10,000 board feet at $250/thousand that was equal to all my savings. He looked up with a raised eyebrow and said, “Lady, do you know what you’re doing?” To that, I boldly replied, “No, but I see what I want.”

Check out How to Build a Log Cabin | A Homesteader's Memoir at

Check out How to Build a Log Cabin | A Homesteader's Memoir at

The stack I purchased included 30 massive pressure-treated pilings salvaged from an old railroad trestle. It was such great luck because I actually needed 29 pilings! A week later, a neighbor stopped by, curious about my timbers, and said he owned a boom truck and giant auger bit. After a short conversation about both foundations, he offered to drill holes and set pilings for $10 each. I grabbed the opportunity began the tough labor of cleaning the six- foot deep holes in the morning and “slinging hash” at the café during the night.

With all this type of physical work I acquired some major muscle, and I needed every fiber. It seemed as if the crow’s feet near my eyes were turning into eagle’s claws and my hands into lobster claws. Again, I kept whispering to myself, “Only $290.00, only one week’s wages,” (for the piling holes). I once read that you could get rich by spending. I was rich alright. Filthy, sweaty rich. My sister even mentioned I was becoming the man I wanted to marry! As if I wanted to hear something like that.

After the piers were set, the backhoe man I hired to dig a water line trench happened to have a laser ­beam transit on him. He offered to mark all the piers level with each other. I cut them and notched them to get 4×12 rim joists for my sons’ piano studio and 6×12 girders for the house. Finally, it came time to examine the architectural overview of both structures, and draw up the final plans, for county approval.

Ideals Vs. Reality

Logic told me to build something within my capabilities, but what can I say, aesthetics won out. The saying, “When ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise,” couldn’t be more true.

The piano studio was to have an octagon shape converging into a square cupola, with triangles and trapezoids dancing heel and toe on the roof. It was beautiful just imagining it. I was like a spoiled child who wanted everything on my list except there was no elves or Santa to help me. I wanted archways and bay windows, vaulted ceilings and skylights, wide window sills and a cushioned window seat to read my magazines. I also wanted to eat chocolates on a rainy day on top of it all.

Check out How to Build a Log Cabin | A Homesteader's Memoir at

Check out How to Build a Log Cabin | A Homesteader's Memoir at

There was plenty of stuff I would love to do, but still there are things I would never do. I absolutely refused to use a center post to support the roof! It would completely ruin the romantic idea of a nine-­foot concert large piano in the center of the 30-­foot room, with Chopin bouncing off the walls.

Nonetheless, the laws of physics have a way of humbling even the most deluded of egos. I scratched my head and tried to locate my memory banks for a plausible solution. Then it hit me, and I remembered the “yurt principle.” A hidden cable would defy gravity.

Yes, I wanted it all completed during my lifetime, on a shoestring at that. Time and energy are the fundamental currencies of life; lack of money is merely an inconvenience. A sense of urgency suddenly gripped me the longer I did this project. The project that started out as “we” ended up as “me.” Eric and Cynthia went to college and made friends. Nature had its way I guess.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I was fluttering about creating a nest so my kids could always return to something. Someday the chickens might decide to come home to roost. I thought about the future music festivals: spontaneous gatherings of diverse and harmonious spirits, and rosy­cheeked grandkids giggling and dancing about the room. Goals are dreams with a deadline.

Building the floor was laborious but uncomplicated. Joists and subflooring were secured by screws with no creaking. When there were occasions where I needed to “rest,” I’d peel logs with my trusty draw-knife. I documented all progress with self­-portraits. Photography is also another hobby of mine.

The library was typically my best friend, but when it came time to square off the logs, there was no book on it to provide me with assistance. With the optical illusions involved in staring at a gnarly tapered log, it is impossible to eyeball the cut without breaking a sweat in concentration. One can end up with a pile of firewood. After trial and error, I made a device using my chainsaw as a chop­saw, and it worked like a charm.

Lifting the vertical log walls kept me busy like a Beethoven sonata. For me to get from here to there with my cut logs, I had to hug them real tight to waddle with it. I did not care what other neighbors would think as I passed by. I was still bound to run into a few people who wanted to pull my leg. One sunny afternoon two bicyclists rode by me, and one yelled, “Hey look, they put the logs the wrong way!” I brush it off as if I never heard it.

Check out How to Build a Log Cabin | A Homesteader's Memoir at

Check out How to Build a Log Cabin | A Homesteader's Memoir at

With the walls laid erect and the headers in their final resting places, it was time to place the square cupola overhead. A gin pole put it there, and scaffolding held it fast. Cutting the compounded angles where three rafters met at the corners required some finesse with the 12” electric chainsaw.

Next, to challenge my capabilities, each bird’s beak cup had to be individually measured with a template and custom cut.

The hardest job was going from the sweet solitude of the country and my log cabin to work at the café. At home, I had the freedom of a monkey, as I climbed the bars of the temporary staging. While I was still building, my goal was two rafters a day, 60 in all. At the start of the day when I worked, I put on my war paint, fire up old Bessie, and curl my eyelashes with one hand while steering with the other. Sadly I discovered I am not the greatest at multitasking. I tearfully lost a few eyelashes that summer, but I would still work right up to the last minute of the day.

I glued and screwed every rafter, and made holes in their tails (just above the top plate) to receive the cable and four turnbuckles and I bushed the holes with annealed nylon. The moment of truth came with tightening the turnbuckles and removing the scaffolding. Fortunately, nothing creaked, croaked, or settled. The integrity of my design did not get compromised! This log cabin was looking good!

Eight of the main rafters are pure 2x12s. The remaining 2×10’s, provide a 2” recessed nailing surface for the lx12 pine ceiling. With age, pine mellows to a warm and beautiful patina. I helped speed up the process along with a coat of semi­gloss lacquer.

Every now and again when people would happen to pass by while I was working on the log cabin they tried to offer their advice– most were not even experts on the job I worked hard to complete. I never wanted to ask for a second opinion however these people still came by the dozens, unsolicited. I discovered that ‘Common Sense’ was not so common, and there are still others out there that can’t take a hint.

After I had attempted to give the benefit of the doubt to a few wild geese, I became pretty skeptical. “Why don’t you just…,” was the swiftest phrase to make me secretly roll my eyes at and would feign snoring, and attempt to get back to work when they left. In all my brief encounters, I never met a man who hadn’t once lived in a teepee and built a log house though it would have been curious phenomenon indeed. I continued to build alone.

I had an old friend that taught me how to use clamps as a “poor man’s assistant.” With these assistant “hands,” the roof plywood went on fast. I topped it off with shingles just before the first rainfall of autumn. The walls were a foot deep, so I made the window framing to accommodate it. I used 11⁄2 boards (one whole and one ripped in half) of 2×10’s pine trees mechanically grooved together, screwed and plugged in place.

I also ordered double ­pane glass to fit each opening and secured the windows with my molding. Simple brass casement adjusters I inserted open some of the smaller windows for cross ventilation. Built-­in sliding windows I added in the cupola and a ceiling fan whisk out hot air. The foundation was looking better and better.

Spatial relationships reigned throughout the palace I created. Windows in clusters of threes, tile work in the entryway, hearth, and bay windows were repeat themes for visual appeal in the place. Archways are the crowning glory in a home in my opinion. I built them out of 2×10 “meshed­pine,” by cutting the curves on my band saw, then laminating to the right thickness.

I glued, screwed and clamped the material, butcher­block style, and sanded the attractive end­grain until it was smooth. The stout arches provided significant in spanning the doorways. I covered the 1” subfloor with 3⁄4” particle board and topped it with carpet.

I tallied my expenditures. The cost of the piano studio came to $15,000, the total “tips” I earned and spent daily. I was glad to know at least I was debt-­free.

Living The Dream

Three years went by, and I was putting the final touches on my “baby.” I rested on the deck to rub sawdust out my bloodshot eyes when I saw Eric! After piano tuning school and a three-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail for college, he came back to visit mom and his piano. I cleared the sawdust out of my ears and asked him to play. When I heard beautiful Mozartian trills wafting out the Dutch door and across the sunlit hills, it was all worthwhile, a labor of love.

Eric is now a tuner, teacher, performer and composer in Ashland. Cynthia is a model, actress, and photographer in San Francisco (and she still loves horses). I was extremely proud of how both my children grew up.

Having finished my apprenticeship, I was ready to get started on the main house. As luck would have it, I met an enormous and handsome man (Kurt) at a fitness center. He helped me out with moving a lot of the material back and forth. He would also help me build. When I could not lift my end, “Paul Bunyan” carried the whole 300 lb. log on his shoulder! I swooned like a teenager and snapped pictures. Kurt was no carpenter by the way; he had his career.

I appreciate him being with me, but I wanted to tackle this new project myself. We both agreed he would help me with the logistics of raising the frame and any task I was able to do, I would be doing it solo. He only comes running to my rescue when he hears a blood­curdling scream.

When I bought 2200 square feet of steel panels, 4000 screws, and all the trimmings from my log cabin, the salesman commented, “This is, without any doubt, a two ­man job.” I gulped, “How about one woman?” It’s been a little scary to be honest because I was flirting with the Undertaker on a 6­in­12 pitch, 18’ up. But, it was worth it to me with it being affordable. This winter, as the rain patters down, christening the new roof, I’ll be working inside with a Mona Lisa smile on my lips, so glad to be on level ground again!

I have learned a lot compared to when I started building my log cabin. But I’m still the same old me, full of big dreams and eager to make them all come true.

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