The Soul Within Log Cabins

In a world where we throw away so much of our materials, replacing them with the newest and best, it’s important to take time to cherish the parts of our lives that are timeless. The homes we live in are maybe our most important possessions.

Log homes are among the very first dwellings known to our society. As settlers moved across the world to inhabit our country, they had available only what the forest could provide. As early as the 1600’s, people have been living in log homes. Today, log houses from bygone years still stand as landmarks and reminders of our history. People have continued to build these rustic dwellings in honor of the heritage they symbolize.

Log homes are especially important to the WOMN team, specifically stylist, Courtney Jay. Her father owns a log home company called Arm & Hammer Construction. He started the company over twenty-six years ago in Summit County, Colorado, and has since built over forty luxury log homes. Courtney had the chance to sit down with her dad, not only for a great guide on building a log home, but also for a valuable history lesson.

Your first house with mom (and then me when I was born) was a little cabin. Tell me about the design of that house. How is it different, or still the same, as the houses you build today?

Let me go back a little bit here… I was born in 1956, and I loved putting together tinker toy log homes. I never realized that it would become a business, but it happened. Your mom and I found this little stick frame cabin with semi-log siding in Keystone, Colorado. It was built in the early 1900’s. Because of the time period, it was rare for cabins to be more than one room. Ours was a little bit bigger and had multiple rooms. As far as the difference in houses you see today, it is pretty drastic. People live in mansions now, made out of log, with ten rooms and elevators.

Did living in that cabin inspire you to start Arm & Hammer Construction?

I actually started Arm & Hammer Construction before living in that cabin. Five years prior, I began doing timber retaining walls, which hold up banks and retain soil. That led me into building log homes because it was very similar; it is stacking timber, which is what you do with log homes. After some time, your mom and I decided, ‘Let’s get into the log business.’ Now here it is twenty-six years later, and I think I have built around forty-eight homes now. The biggest one is 35,000 square feet, while the smallest is only 140 square feet.

We have had the honor of being diversified in the size, types of log, and home design. People love to have a great big open floor plan, with big open windows called the “prow.”  It has also been a joy to work with people who truly appreciate log homes for their timeless character, and the knowledge that the tradition of log homes will never end. They are investing in something that won’t ever go out of style.

How have you incorporated old methods of building houses into the much more modernized log homes that you build today?

When people first started building log homes, they would stack logs and make wooden dowels, notch out the corners so that they could overlap, and insert the wooden dowels every four feet. That technique was how they would hold the logs straight. Then they would find grass and mud, mix it together and pack it between the logs for insulation, inside and out. It went from that in the 1800’s, to a vast variety of different methods now. I prefer the “through-bolt” method, where every four feet or so you have a threaded rod that comes up from the foundation. It comes up all the way through the log wall, then you tighten the logs down. This method is the same one used in Southern California for seismic houses, which are designed to withstand an earthquake. Basically, a modern cabin today is totally bomb-proof. The walls are made of a lot of steel.

What was the method of shaping the logs back then? How is it different now?

Back in the day, everything was done by hand. When people wanted to build a log cabin, they would first cut down the trees and let them dry. Then they would peel the bark off with a draw knife and stack the logs. This method is actually still used today and is called “hand-hued.” People wanted to find more economical ways to build log homes, so now milled logs are more often used. They kill-dry the trees, which takes a lot of the shrinking* out of logs. A big factory mills the logs into the right shape, creating the profile for the house. The logs are more uniform this way. It’s a modern way to build log homes more efficiently, with less problems, while still achieving the same look as a classic log cabin.

*Shrinking:  Any wood will shrink as it settles. When a log home is built, the shrinking that will occur is taken into consideration. The wood will settle about an inch. If there isn’t space to accommodate that width, the home’s windows will break.

Is there a difference between a cabin and a log home?

Typically cabins that are not “log” are considered stick-frame. By incorporating log siding, it will give the home a log cabin look. There is much more involved in building a log home. For instance, an averaged sized house is 3,000 square feet and takes about a year to build. But a more modern, man-made house will likely take about six months.

More maintenance is required for a log home, versus a house sourced from man-made material. What kind of special care is needed?

Any wood house needs a lot of care. Staining is really important for maintenance. Wood homes, whether they are log or not, should get stained entirely every five years. Not everyone wants to have to put so much maintenance into the exterior of their home. Many people turn to man-made products to build their modern homes. For example, with metal there is virtually zero maintenance. The trade-off is that you lose a little bit of the connection to the home that you live in every day.

A home is one of the biggest parts of our lives. When you build your own home or buy your home, you become an owner, not a renter. All of a sudden, there is a 180-degree switch in your mind. You now own this home and want to take care of it. To me, this is part of the thrill in owning a log home- that I have to maintain it. There is a special type of bond created.

Interview by Courtney Jay Biebl

Photos by Karin Osterloh Mattern

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