How Log Cabin Kits Work


Log cabins embody a closeness with nature that few other dwellings can match.­
Log cabins embody a closeness with nature that few other dwellings can match.­
iStockphoto.com/Keli Boling

­For a certain generation, no books defined American life more ­than Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series. Girls everywhere thrilled to depictions of the Ingalls family -- Ma, Pa, Laura, Mary and Carrie -- huddled in their isolated one-room log cabin, facing blizzards, starvation, grizzly bears, malaria and all the other hazards of frontier life. The log cabin was humble, romantic, the product of Pa's own labor.

Wilder might be shocked to see the log cabin of today, with polished hardwood floors, a great room, cathedral ceilings, picture windows, a two-car garage, septic-tank plumbing, solar panels and floor plans of up to 5,000 square feet (464.5 sq m) [source: The Original Log Cabin Homes]. Not only have log cabins become a strikingly individualistic housing option, but some of them aren't even being built in the United States. And the Pas of today may be getting a bit of help from a log cabin kit.

­Pa Ingalls had to go out into the forest with his hatchet to fell the trees that would shelter the family. A log cabin kit does all that work for you. Depending on the kit, the logs may even be pre-assembled into walls. Whereas Pa had to make a day's journey to the nearest town to retrieve the precious panes of glass for the cabin's single window, a kit may include large energy-efficient windows tailored to fit precut frames.

Some things haven't changed, however. Log cabins are still an unusual blend of function and romance, and they still embody a closeness with nature that few other dwellings can match. For today's aficionados, log cabins are a direct link to the pioneer spirit of yesterday [source: Log Home Builders Association].

In this article, we'll look at different kinds of log cabin kits, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of this approach to building a home.

Choosing a Log Cabin Kit

Before you buy, think about your goals for the cabin and your property. Why do you want a cabin? Which style of cabin best answers that question?

Other questions to consider are:

  • What quirks of your property (such as elevation and trees) do you need to accommodate?
  • How much effort can you personally put into the construction?
  • Are you willing to do deep excavation for a basement, or are you content with a shallower foundation?
  • How many rooms do you need?
  • How much money can you spend -- not just now, but in the future, when you're paying utility bills?
  • What local building codes and zoning ordinances do you have to meet?

Take some time to learn about the different methods of log cabin construction. In virtually every method, logs are notched or shaped so that they fit together with a sound, airtight seal for stability, even weight distribution and insulation.

In a Scandinavian chinkless cabin (sometimes called Swedish cope), each log has a shallow, rounded groove, or cope, running the length of the log. A cross-section of a coped log looks like a cookie from which someone has taken a small bite. The point of this bite-shaped groove is to create a log custom-fitted to the log below it [sources: LHBA, Cedar Knoll].

The Canadian chinkless method assembles logs in much the same way as the Scandinavian chinkless. But the Canadian method uses uniform, V-shaped grooves. A cross-section of the log looks like a pie from which a large piece has been removed. The V can introduce some structural problems. The log is more prone to splitting at the apex of the V. If it splits, even slightly, it may settle into a new position, threatening the integrity of the wall above it. The spaces between logs are also more vulnerable to termites, mice and other pests [source: LHBA].

By contrast, a chinked method of construction retains the irregularities in the logs. Rather than fit logs together perfectly for their entire length, a chinked construction uses another material to fill in the gaps between the logs [source: Log Home Directory].

Chinked or not, not every log is round. Some are D-style -- flattened on one side. Some are cut in the Appalachian square style. You'll also need to pick a corner style; options include saddle notch (familiar to everyone who ever played with Lincoln Logs), dovetail and butt-and-pass [source: Donaldson].

On the next pages, we'll look at the good, the bad and the ugly of log cabin kits.

Advantages of Building with Log Cabin Kits

According to the Log Home Builders Association, a log cabin is either "the best (and least expensive) home in the world or . . . the worst (and most expensive) home in the world" [source: LHBA]. First, let's look at what makes log cabins so attractive.

One of the chief appeals of building a log cabin is just that -- building your own home. In a world of mass production and McMansions, few people ever get to experience something that was commonplace only a few generations ago. If you do it right, the cabin is a legacy.

Working from a kit lets you accomplish that within a manageable framework, even if you're not a master builder. You'll have access to a customer-service line in case you make a mistake. If you have a basic set of tools -- a ladder, a hammer, a power drill -- you may already have most of the equipment you need [source: Panel Concepts].

The absence of heavy equipment means you may be able to construct your cabin with minimum impact to surrounding trees and wildlife. And, on the subject of ecology, it's worth mentioning that log walls have better heat retention than many other building materials [sources: Log Cabin Homes, Lincoln Log Homes]. Many dealers are green certified, and some engage in extensive reforestation efforts. Kits can include options such as wood stoves, solar panels and composting toilets that help you live off the grid in comfort.

Adaptability is a major advantage of log cabin kits. A cabin might be no larger than a spacious studio apartment, taking up only 500 square feet (46.5 sq m) of ground; it can turn a small or odd-shaped lot into a perfectly usable piece of ground.

A kit can also ensure that your construction passes muster with the building code. You'll know that the kit's floor plan and engineering are relatively sound, and its doors, windows and roof will have to meet certain specifications.

Price can also be appealing -- but this depends very much on the size and floor plan, which materials and method you use and how much upkeep the cabin requires. Some kinds of log cabins might be as little as $7,500 [source: LHBA]. Others cost the same as conventional houses. Labor is a major factor; if you build the cabin yourself, you don't have to pay anyone else to do it [source: Lincoln Log Homes].

A home for $7,500? Why would anyone choose not to use a kit? Read on -- then make your own decision.

Disadvantages of Building with Log Cabin Kits

Any product -- and any home purchasing decision -- carries its share of risks. Here, we'll examine some of the down sides of log cabin kits.

Some kit providers smooth out the logs to uniform size by rotating them on a lathe. This method is sometimes called "machine peeling." At least one member of the Log Home Builders Association laments that the method turns logs into "giant dowels." Although the uniformity may make the logs fit together more easily -- or at least more predictably -- it may not lead to long-term stability. Removing the bark and surface irregularities strips the logs of their natural defenses against rot, which makes the cabin more vulnerable to termites and other problems.

To protect machine-peeled walls, you may need to treat the wood every few years with chemical sealants. This can aggravate respiratory problems. Or it could remove the ecological appeal of building a log cabin [source: LHBA].

It also removes a less tangible value: aesthetics. The individuality (sometimes called "personality") of logs rests on their irregularities; remove the irregularity and you remove the character [source: LHBA]. (To draw an analogy to more conventional homes, think about the difference between cinderblocks and genuine masonry, or linoleum and tile.)

Surprisingly enough, cost can also be a disadvantage. When you buy a kit, you're buying components bundled together. But that may mean some hidden costs are bundled in as well. After all, the suppliers have to make a profit, and they do that by marking up prices on materials that may be available directly to consumers. If you trust your ability to purchase construction materials, or if you know you're going to want a lot of customization anyway, it may be more cost-effective to purchase individual components than a kit [source: Wholesale Log Homes].

If you're concerned about cost, but you still want the backup support of a kit approach, a good compromise may be a walls-only system. In such a system, sometimes called a "panelized" cabin, you're responsible for purchasing, placing, and installing windows and doors. You receive walls -- and nothing but walls -- in modular sections, usually four feet each. The logs have been fitted together; their configuration is up to you [source: Octagon Homes].

The bottom line? Thousands of people use kits to create beautiful, unique dwellings. But you must go into it with open eyes. Do your research. Talk to log home associations. Talk to log-home owners. Shop around. When the blizzard winds are howling, and you're sure there's a grizzly outside, you'll want to know you built the best possible cabin.

To learn more, visit the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Donaldson Log Homes. "Log Profiles: Options for Construction of Your Log Home." 2005. (Accessed 2/23/09) http://inthesmokymountains.com/log_homes_and_log_cabins_byDonaldsonLogHomes/Log_Homes_ Log_Cabin_Design_Build_Log_Profile_options_Donaldson_Log_Homes.shtml
  • Log Home Builders Association. "Warnings about kit log homes." 8/10/2007. (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.loghomebuilders.org/warnings-about-kit-log-homes
  • Log Home Builders Association. "Why you shouldn't buy log home kits." 7/13/2007. (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.loghomebuilders.org/why-you-shouldnt-buy-log-cabin-kits
  • Log Home Builders Association." The difference between the different styles of 'chinkless' construction." 2007. (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.loghomebuilders.org/difference-between-different-styles-chinkless-log-home-construction
  • Log Homes, Cabins, and Kits. "18 Ways to Save Money When Designing and Building Your Dream Log Home." 2008. (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.log-home-plans.com/
  • Log Home Directory. 2009. (Accessed 2/23/09) http://www.logcabindirectory.com/
  • Log Home Plans via the Internet. (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.log-home-plans.com/
  • Octagon Homes. (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.octagonhomes.com/
  • Panel Concepts. (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.panelconcepts.com/
  • Wholesale Log Homes. "Frequently Asked Questions." (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.wholesaleloghomes.com/faqs.html