For fifty years so far, I have loved old log houses, particularly the hand-hewn square-timbered ones that I find superior to all other styles. I love restoring these log houses for families who also appreciated them. And I’ll go anywhere to find a vintage log house. They seemed easy to find back in the 60s and 70s when they stood abandoned, neglected and forlorn in forest settings or on the first street of a pioneer town. There came a time though when they became harder to find. Others were looking too.
So I thought I should explore for them a little further afield. I did have the occasional client in the USA; Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming, North Carolina, and Texas to name a few. While there with our crews, building their vintage log house for them, I took some time to search out any old log houses that might be available. I found a few. I was not impressed. For one thing, most seemed to use small logs with large chinking between; 8 or 10 inch high logs (sometimes less) with near a foot of chinking between the logs. It was not a look I favoured.
But I was spoiled I suppose by our great Ontario log homes of the last century. In the great migration to Ontario by Empire Loyalists came great craftsmen among others, who were skilled at hewing wood and building. They could not help but be impressed by the virgin pine timbers that abounded. They loved the way the wood worked and yielded to their tools. Taking advantage of their size, they typically created standing story and half walls with the laying up of only six logs, most with two or three inches of chinking between. We find the odd one available like that still today but they are rare, although we have some currently in inventory. My first log house (c 1835) that I lived in so comfortably for many years was one such. Almost every log’s width laid up 24” at a time.
Then too, the species that I found in America was often of the soft variety; cottonwood poplar, cedar and others. I found more rot in them than we see in Ontario. Decay occurred also at the corners with the strangest cornering techniques I’d ever seen, folky and whimsical but poor at deterring the weather. So its not surprising when clients from all over North America see our Ontario houses they commit to them. I just wish there were more of them to go around.
The few vintage log homes we found in the early 70s were quite popular. Trouble was, there weren’t enough of them to satisfy a particular clientele. So we tried fashioning them in the old way. We found the old bark spuds, broadaxes, chisels, slicks and other ancient tools to give us the same hand-crafted product. Even our sweat duplicated exactly that of yesteryear’s lumbermen. Finding big enough pines to do the job was the first challenge. Getting them out of the bush another. Once to our yard we had to invent the device to move them around, up, down and on and off the trucks. We were able to hew the second floor joists from the logs too. I must admit, the final product must have looked the same as those hewn in the last century with their expertly fitted dovetailed corners. We assembled them on new foundations, fitted them up with our Tradition Windows and roofed them with cedar shingles. In a couple of years you would swear they had stood there a hundred and fifty, silvering in the sun.
But soon after, came the problems, the worst of which was the shrinkage of the logs. A wall of logs could shrink six inches over time. Fragile window glass couldn’t bear the weight. Of course, many broke. Door panels would split too.We’ve learned that a log needs a year of drying time per every inch of thickness. So our logs would take eight years before we should consider using them. So the movement of the natural, almost live material was our undoing. It undermined the seals around the windows and created splits in our labor-intensive chinking method. It also forced our dovetails to move, something that was almost impossible to remedy. There were some of our reproduction houses that were given more time and they served well but the time required was not conducive to the production process that is part of a business. Remember those old pictures and films you see of logs being rafted in the rivers? That was actually a slow drying method. We certainly didn’t have that kind of time …or the river either. We came to the realization that we were often spending more time trouble-shooting clients problems than crafting the houses. Many a modern log home builder has attempted to mitigate these obstacles with complicated methods built into their kits, but needless to say, they rarely found total satisfaction or lasting results.
It was then I decided to go back to the vintage log houses. I came to realize that once restored they were basically trouble free. They’d had decades, actually over a century and more to dry, to climatize, to settle, to be. They didn’t move. You could count on them. Once chinked, they kept the weather out. I’ve been back to vintage houses we built forty years ago and the chinking still looked good. The windows didn’t crack from shrinkage or break their seals. Then too, there was the history which most of the old ones had. It sometimes took some digging through archives but it was worth it have real stories to attach to the venerable old house.