Country Cordwood was inspired by a feature in the old Mother Earth News magazine, sometime in the late 1970's. We remember reading an article about a unique, new, low cost construction method called "cordwood". In the article, I think they were building a chicken house, or something, but we were so impressed with the charm, low cost and practicality of the concept that it stayed with us over the years.
My wife and I have raised (are raising) nine children on a 48 acre tract in the Northeast Tennessee mountains. We made the decision several years ago to homeschool the children. In the course of attempting to teach four sons practical living skills in addition to "book learnin", we struck on the idea of having them build a house. We reasoned that there would be many opportunities for developing practical skills, budgeting, teamwork development, and in the end, a completed home.
The problem: We didn't have much money!
The solution: cordwood construction! We did have plenty of trees.
The cordwood construction process had been developed over the years since we first read that article, primarily by advocates and authors such as Rob Roy and Richard Flatau. There was quite a bit of written information available, so we researched all that we could and ultimately took the plunge.
The rules: We shared our newly formed vision with our sons, who at the time were 11, 13, 14, and 15 years old. They were an enthusiastic bunch, after all, anything beat schoolwork! We laid out the rules as follow:
1. You can't buy anything that you can make from our property
2. You can't hire any outside help
3. The project emphasizes developing hand tool skills and old methods of building, therefore, no electricity or power tools allowed.
4. You'll work every Saturday from daylight to dark, no exceptions. In spite of weather, more attractive offers, etc. No exceptions!
5. When you turn 18 years old, and have graduated home school, you can live in the cabin for free to gain independent living skills.
The project: We started by clearing the brush off of the lot we wanted to build on and quickly decided we were going to temporarily suspend rule no. 2, outside help. The lot turned out to be a rock pile. Our wonderful and helpful neighbor brought over his backhoe and dug the footers for us. We needed an extra wide footer to support the 18" thick walls and would have spent most of the first winter trying to dig them by hand. With the footers established, rule no. 2 was reinstated.
The first order of business was to cut the trees and move the logs down to our sawmill site. Our property is mountain land, so it was quite a learning experience for our young sons to master chain saws, wedges, tractors, chains, cables and when to get the heck out of the way! Here are the three oldest looking quite pleased with their days work. All in all, it took a couple of months to prepare all of the logs for the project. We used mostly tulip poplar and white pine, although, there were a couple of nice walnut trees that needed to be cut that made their way into the project.
We've got a Foley Belsaw M14 sawmill that we pulled with a John Deere 2010 tractor. it was a wonderful chance for the boys to learn good safety habits, there's no more important place to learn than in front of a whirling 4 foot diameter saw blade.
The next lesson was in blocklaying to prepare the foundation. This step was a little trickier than normal, due to the walls being 18" thick. Cordwood construction is basically firewood layed up like a free stack of wood in a special mortar matrix. In the finished wall, all that's seen is the end of each log. For this foundation we ended up laying a double block wall, or wall inside of a wall. Two rows of 8" concrete block with a 2" airspace between, left us with an 18" wide foundation to lay up the cordwood on.
Concurrent with all of the other parts of the project, the cordwood for the walls had to be prepared so it would have ample time to dry prior to being used. We used the logs to saw the house frame and lumber, then cut the remaining tops of the trees into 18" lengths. these firewood size pieces had to be individually peeled of their bark to dry properly and eliminate bugs. The peeling seemed like it would go on forever! This is Preston using the "bark spud" that now hangs on display inside the cabin. This part of the job really got old fast.
In the pictures, above, you can see the first sill log being laid in place. On the right, Forrest is using the adze to begin leveling this main beam. Notice in the left picture the double foundation.
This picture shows the 4X6 floor joists being anchored in place. The framing lumber had been air drying for about 6 months at this point. The dimensions of the foundation are 24' X 32'. The main sill log down the center allows for 12' joists.
The beginning of the timber frame. It's all put together with mortise and tenon joinery, secured with locust pegs. Here, Derek, the youngest, holds the framing square to enable his brothers to bore the mortises true. The hand crank beam boring jig shown in this picture got a real workout on this project. It used a 2" auger to bore the beginning holes for the mortises.