There I was, in the middle of a small meadow, standing almost waist deep in the wet snow of early spring, high in the Southern Rockies. Can you be cold, soaking wet, and elated all at the same time? Katie and I were looking for a place to build a small (700 square feet) rustic log cabin (kerosene lamps, outhouse, etc.). I didn’t have much money, but I had a plan.
Let’s step aside here for just a moment. I am serious when I say it can be done, but we live in a society today that has a throwaway mentality and we pay for everything—our water, our entertainment, our food, even our “adventures”—all packaged up neatly for us to “buy.” How often do we see a kid build an orange-crate racer, or make a toy gun out of a piece of wood?
How often do we cut up our own meat, grow our own vegetables, go for a walk or play charades, or swim in the pond instead of having a personal trainer and a membership in a health club? Everything doesn’t need to cost money or be packaged in plastic. The early pioneers didn’t have a Wal-Mart or Home Depot just down the street. The nearest store-made items were a thousand miles (and several months) away. Now I’m not saying that Jeremiah Johnson wouldn’t have used a chainsaw if he could have gotten his hands on one. What I am saying is that we live in the 21st century, but we don’t have to allow it to control our lives. Take what you need from it, be adaptable like the coyote, and remember the lessons of your forebears.
Cabin Size Matters:
The cabins you build will be different from the ones I build; they will be different sizes, cost more—or cost less. They will reflect you, your interests and needs, and the land/environment in which they are built.
In the desert, like the Navajo, you will build with mud, short cedar logs and stone. The Plains Indian tipis (buffalo hides and lodgepole pine) were constructed to lean back into the wind and face the morning sun; the Vikings used their environment to their advantage and built sod-roofed log halls, some of which are still standing after seven centuries or more. Celtic monks, 1,200 years ago, built beehive huts out of dry-stacked stone (no mortar) on some sea-stacks off the shore of Ireland. They are still there and they don’t leak! This is your legacy from your ancestors. The key words are work, imagination and resourcefulness (lots of it!).
Here is an expanded version of the tips mentioned in the last issue.
1) Do All The Work Yourselves. When others see what you are doing, they will want to help (but remember, you can’t rely on them). We had lots of invaluable free help from friends, relatives and complete strangers. Read everything relevant you can get your hands on, talk to people, teach yourself/learn the skills that you will need.
2) Cut your own “house logs” and material for lumber from your own property, if at all possible. Gather timber, rocks, sand, gravel, and adobe, etc. Your land will shape your project, but it will also help you take advantage of what it offers. It has at least some of what you need. Study the seasons, the sun and wind at your site. I needed a piece of land that had the following characteristics: a good (fairly level) building site, some grass for my horses, enough timber to build the cabin and a stream, or some other source of water nearby.
3) Have access to a “local” saw- mill or find/purchase one and, when finished, re-sell a small bandsaw/timbermill. (They retain their value). This step is critical to the success of your project. You also need to have access to inexpensive or free materials. Actually, nothing is free. You may have to work for it, barter for it, etc., whatever it takes. I used slabs from an old sawmill pile to make slipforms for my foundation. Sawmills will have piles of seconds sitting around drying, warping. WhenIwasaboy,IhadanoldCherokee cowboy for a friend who built his whole house—walls, furniture, cabinets, doors—out of thousands of 1-inch by 1-inch by 4-foot strips of wood. It was incredibly beautiful; everything looked like it was made out of wooden stalactites. He got them free from a local furniture factory.
4) Use recycled materials and seconds as much as possible. I either scrounged or bought all the windows, fixtures, appliances, and corrugated roofing from friends, yard sales, or salvage places. It’s good for you, and good for the planet. This throwaway society we live in will discard usable sinks, toilets, faucets, light fixtures, doors, windows, hinges and cabinets. End lots of nails, lumber, flooring, car- pet, shingles, roofing, etc., are often available and deeply discounted.
Don’t forget to barter and bargain. Don’t be self-conscious, it wouldn’t be for sale if they still wanted or needed it! You will be doing someone a favor if you tear that old shed/barn down in exchange for the materials.
My wife, Katie, said I should tell you about the time we went to a farm sale and found our future back door (cherry with a large oval window) being used as one wall of a pigpen. It had a chain through it so the farmer could keep in his hogs.
5) Buy your cement in bulk (if you can). Your local cement plant will (maybe) sell you cement for your foundation in bulk. Use an old 55-gallon barrel to store it in. You can screen your own sand and gravel by digging it out of a creek bed, or gather rocks from a creek bed, along the road or from some farmer’s field (ask permission). Mix your own cement. It’s a lot of work, but if you’re afraid of work, you are wasting your time reading The New Pioneer magazine.
6) Use good sharp tools and acquire a 4×4 pickup. I bought a new chainsaw, (I made my own log scribe) and found the following in antique and junk stores: cant hook, adze, hand planes, a broadaxe (had to make a new handle to fit it) and drawknives (you can also make really good ones out of old planer blades). If you are not handy with tools, please take my advice and don’t even begin this kind of a project. Learn to weld. Sharpen those old tools—that’s the key to everything. Buy a new winch for your pickup; you’ll be glad you did! And don’t forget Craigslist and eBay as sources for tools and equipment.
7) Talk to people—neighbors, local farmers or ranchers, and especially old-timers. Maybe your friends are plumbers or electricians? Supply house employees can be very helpful if you genuinely ask for their help/explanations. (I once had a guy helping me with pipe fittings show me how to plumb my whole bathroom on the back of an envelope.) Read a lot, search the internet, but don’t believe everything. I met a man who sat in a chair in his basement and wrote a whole series of how- to books on mountaineering, log cabin building, wilderness survival, etc., and he had never left that basement.
8) Have patience.Don’t borrow money! Keep the bank out of it! It took me three years of working whenever I had the time, money and materials I needed for a phase of building our log cabin home. Credit cards will kill you, unless you are very conscientious. Building your own home needs to be a great experience—not a hair-pulling, gut-wrenching, endurance- contest. Take your time, think/dream about what you are doing. If there is a special touch or unique idea you want to incorporate, do it right. There are always areas where you might want to spend a little more money. Do it! You’ll be glad you did later on.
Retain your sense of humor.Life is uncertain at best. Live it to the fullest, follow your dream. Love, laughter and dreams—they all take work, but believe me, they are worth it.
This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Summer 2014 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.
Coop-to-table freshness starts and ends with how sharp and clean you are when it comes...
by New Pioneer / Apr 24, 2014