Have you considered building a log cabin but didn’t know how to do it or where to start? We’re here to make it easy with our DIY step-by-step guide on how to build a log cabin that covers everything from selecting logs, laying foundations, and constructing a roof.
This article explains how to build a log cabin from scratch for an owner-builder. We will give you a step-by-step guide; answering dilemmas such as how to treat your logs and how to build a log cabin by hand. We have combined the innovation of the American pioneers, with the technology of today to provide everyone with the opportunity to build their own home.
We recommend that beginners read the whole article, but if you are an advanced builder then you may want to skip ahead using the contents below:
- What you need before you start
- 9 Step Guide on how to build a log cabin
- How to get logs for your cabin
What do you need before you build a log cabin?
Before we get started you’re going to need to plan how and where you will build your cabin, as well as familiarize yourself with some of the tools and jargon that you will use throughout the process. We have broken this down neatly into three sections:
- Planning Your Home
- Tools You Will Need
- Jargon You Should Know
Planning Your Home
Planning your log cabin is the most important stage of the build. At the planning stage, you can make your entire house cost less just by making it a little bit smaller. We recommend that beginners start with the easiest, simplest design to build, which is a small, square house. Adding corners also adds complexity and expense that is better suited to more experienced builders.
One of the first decisions to make about your log cabin project is what style of log construction you will use. Many log cabin kits use the full scribe (sometimes known as “Scandinavian chinkless”) or saddle-notch methods of construction. Both of those methods require complicated notching of the logs, which is usually requires a trained expert with years of experience, due to the complexity of the work.
But we have great news — there is a much easier method that does not require an expert, or even 10 minutes of experience with a chainsaw. It is called a tight-pinned butt and pass log home. This method does not require any notches at all and goes together very quickly, even if the builder has no previous experience building.
The next step will be to draw up log cabin plans that comply with your local building codes. Call your local town planning department to find out what codes you need to follow, and create your plans accordingly. Lots of owner-builders use a free drafting program such as LibreCAD to draw their house plans on computer. After that we recommend getting your plans checked out and approved by a qualified structural engineer who is licensed in your local jurisdiction.
Finally, go visit your town’s planning department with your plans to get a building permit.
Tools You Will Need
To build any house requires ordinary carpentry tools such as hammers, drills, and saws. In addition, you will need a few specialty tools for log building. Those should include (at a minimum):
- Peavey or cant hook (two or more)
- Log dogs (two or more)
- Four foot auger drill bit
- Medium sized chain saw
- Bark peeling spuds
You will also need some tools for lifting the logs to build your log wall. If you are in a hurry you can use a boom truck or telescopic forklift. If you want to save money, consider lifting the logs using a pioneer style block and tackle.
Jargon You Should Know
Throughout the guide you may find terms that are going to be unfamiliar for you – but don’t pull your hair out or stand there scratching your head! We’re going to cover some of the fundamental terms below, but you may want to contact us if you have more questions.
- Chinking – the material that fills the gaps between logs in a log wall. Many professionals use expensive synthetic products that would cost over $10,000 for a small house. However the Log Home Builders Association (LHBA) recommends inexpensive mortar for chinking, which would cost a few hundred dollars to chink the same house.
- Full scribe – a log construction style that employs notches along the full length of each log to match the log below. Sometimes known as “Scandinavian chinkless” style because it does not require chinking between the logs. This style takes years of practice to do correctly.
- Saddle notch – another notched style that only uses notches at the corners, and has gaps along the length of the logs that require chinking. This style saves time over the full scribe method, but it still requires years of practice with a chainsaw to get right.
- Butt and pass – the only popular log cabin construction method that does not require notches or years of practice. Whole, round, natural logs are stacked and held in place with rebar. This style also has the advantage of not settling like other styles, making it easier to build.
- Settling – a phenomenon that occurs in notched log homes as the logs lose moisture and shrink over time. The walls of notched log homes actually get shorter as the logs get smaller. This can cause windows and doors to be crushed over time, so notched log homes need extra planning and building steps to accommodate for settling issues. These steps add time and expense to your project schedule, and are prone to developing problems after your house is finished. Tight pinned butt and pass log homes do not have this problem.
- Keyway – a special method of fastening a window or door in a log cabin so that it does not get crushed as the walls of the cabin get shorter. Keyways are required in log homes that settle, but not in tight pinned butt and pass style cabins.
How to build a log cabin step by step
Once all your preparations are complete, you’re ready to begin the step-by-step instructions to building your very first log cabin from scratch. Don’t worry – it’s not as daunting as it sounds and with this guide as a reference and our expert advice, we’re confident that you have all the tools you need to succeed.
Step 1 – Selecting your logs
One of the biggest myths surrounding log cabins is in regards to the species of trees that are suitable for log construction. Companies that sell log kits frequently claim that the species of wood they use to build their product is superior to other types of wood on the market. But actually each builder generally builds with whatever wood they can get cheap and local (to save on transportation).
We recommend that you do the same. Talk to local loggers, land clearing companies, mills and foresters to find out what species are plentiful in your area, and choose whichever species suits your home design. As a rule of thumb, you can build with almost any species that grows tall and straight. Each species will have pros and cons in regards to strength, rot resistance, and insulation value, so remember to compare those points when choosing your species.
If you want to save money and be kind to the environment at the same time, you should consider building with standing dead trees. Standing dead timber makes great cabin logs, and there is very little commercial demand for it, so it is often free or very inexpensive. Building with standing dead will save you money, save the tree from being wasted, and save a live green tree from being chopped down for your house. Everyone wins!
Step 2 — Treating your logs
Borate wood preservatives are made from of naturally occurring minerals that are useful to prevent fungus, rot and wood boring insect infestations. Borates are considered safe for humans, and they are even used in some laundry detergents to clean clothes (such as “20 Mule Team Borax”). We recommend treating your logs with a borate solution after peeling and again after the walls are up. You don’t need to use an expensive commercial product for this — many of our members make their own from a homebrew recipe.
Stain is optional and can help your logs maintain their color. Stain with UV protectant can prevent UV rays from turning your logs a grayish color over time. If you choose to apply stain, you should keep it up with additional maintenance coats every few years.
Tip: Each stain will look a little different depending on the species of log on which it is applied. Use a bit of scrap log from your pile and coat it with different stains to see how they look after they dry (see picture).
Step 3 – Foundation
A foundation needs to hold up the weight of a log house. As long as that condition is met, any type of foundation will do. We generally recommend against using a slab on grade foundation because the lower logs are too close to the “splash zone” where water can hit the ground and splash back onto the logs. Water is bad for logs and anything you can do to protect them will help your house over the long run.
One of the biggest factors to consider when deciding on a foundation type is whether you will build it yourself or hire a subcontractor to pour your foundation. If you are doing it yourself, or if you are building in a very remote location (without concrete trucks) then the foundation you want is probably pier blocks. These are poured concrete blocks that stick up out of the ground a minimum of 18 inches. These can hold up the weight of a log house and also get the logs up away from splashing rain.
If you plan to hire a concrete subcontractor, you may wish to consider cost and which are the most popular foundation types in your area. The most popular foundations to subcontract are a traditional stemwall and crawlspace foundation, or a full basement. Either of those will do the job and can be designed to lift your logs up 18 inches above the ground.
Step 4 — Laying the logs
Laying the logs is mostly a question about how to lift your logs into place. Logs are heavy and take a lot of work to get into place.
If you are building in a remote area without access to rental equipment, or if you want to build for the lowest cost, you will probably use pioneering tools such as a block and tackle to lift your logs. A few blocks and tackle combined with a towing hitch on your car can lift relatively heavy logs without too much difficulty.
If you want to speed things up and you are close enough to civilization to rent heavy equipment, you should consider renting a telescopic forklift. Rental is in the neighborhood of $1000 to $2000 per month.
Once you have your logs up on the wall, you will need to secure them in place. If you are building a tight pinned butt and pass log home, you will fasten each log in place using short pins of rebar. Your structural engineer will approve the locations and sizes of your pins to produce a strong house that meets earthquake codes, snow load requirements and building codes.
Step 5 — Rafters
As soon as the walls are up, it is time to add the rafters and ridge pole (sometimes called a ridge beam). The ridge pole holds up the rafters, and the rafters hold up the roof. Rafters can be any size as long as they are strong enough to meet snow load requirements in your area.
Traditional “stick frame” builders will usually box in the rafters, fill them with insulation, and put roofing material on top. We think it is looks better to leave the rafters exposed, and build up the roof on top. Regardless of which one you choose, you will end up with a beautiful cathedral ceiling all through your house.
Step 6 — Roof
The roof will be a question of cost vs. longevity. If you want to do it yourself and save the most amount of money, you will probably go with a traditional three-tab shingle or rolled asphalt roofing. Those are very inexpensive and give you a reasonable lifetime of service length.
If you have some extra money to spend, you might consider putting on a standing seam metal roof. These cost more but last much longer and come with much longer warranties than asphalt products.
Step 7 — Floors
The floors in your log cabin will be similar to the floors in any other house. You can build them out of traditional lumber or engineered i-joists. Your finished flooring material should go in last to prevent it from being damaged during construction.
Step 8 — Kitchens and baths
Want to accomplish the ultimate DIY coup? Save money by installing a used kitchen, and replacing it later when the opportunity presents itself later. Building a house is expensive and you will have lots of other items to purchase. Start with something basic and functional, and practice delayed gratification. Finish your kitchen with your dream designs a few months or years down the line.
Or if you have the budget, feel free to splash out on your dream kitchen right away.
Step 9 — Finishing and moving in
In a tight-pinned butt and pass cabin, none of the interior walls need to be load bearing. So you can build ordinary stick frame walls to partition rooms inside as well as hide your plumbing and wiring. Most of our members subcontract plumbing and wiring, but you can do those yourself if you have the skills or the time to learn.
Whatever level of finish you require can be accomplished inside and outside. You can build a beautiful show home or basic accommodation. Your decks, windows, doors, and trim all contribute to both the cost and the final value of your home.
One of the advantages of being an owner builder is that you can save money by moving in when the house is livable, but continue finishing at your own pace and budget. Welcome home!
How to get logs for your cabin
What kind of step-by-step guide about building a log cabin wouldn’t include information about acquiring house logs for your cabin? Not this one!
The best way to get logs for your cabin is to buy property with suitable trees already growing on it. This will save you money in two ways: first, you don’t need to pay anyone for the logs if you already own them. Second (and this is the big one) you will save money in transportation costs. Skidding logs across your property is a lot cheaper than hauling them by truck, and you can do that part yourself.
The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says that logging is “the most dangerous occupation in the United States.” We recommend against owner-builders cutting their own trees, including trees that are on your own property. Instead, hire a qualified professional who has his or her own tools and training to do the job safely. Cutting trees down without hauling them is a pretty small job and should not add much cost to your budget.
If you don’t have trees nearby, the easiest way to get house logs is to walk into a lumber mill and ask to buy some. They usually have a huge log yard full of logs waiting to be cut into lumber. But this is one of the most expensive methods, and you should avoid it if you can. In our log home building classes we spend a lot of time discussing methods you can use to get house logs — including 4 ways to get your logs for free. We also have a bulletproof 5-step plan for getting your logs cut and delivered, if you have trees that need to be chopped down and delivered to your house site somewhere else.
How To Become An Expert Cabin Builder!
The Log Home Builders Association was formed in 1965 to train and support owner-builders like you build their own log cabins from scratch. What you have read above is just a small taste of the over 50 years of log home building experience that is imparted to the students at our in-person class.
Joining the LHBA gets you access to our class, along with follow up support while you build your house. You will also get full access to our members-only forums where other members exchange tips and tricks and discuss up-to-the-minute best practices. Above all you will grow the confidence to build a log home yourself, knowing that the full weight of the LHBA is backing you up as you achieve your goals. If you have any more questions on how to build a log cabin, feel free to contact us.