Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).
Log Home Living
It's more than just an architectural style; it's a mindset. Learn about the wide array of log homes available today and what choices buyers of these homes now have.
September 1, 2007
Log houses have truly stood the test of time.
They emerged in the United States as early as the mid-1700s, serving as a sturdy home-made structure for settlers to call home. Hundreds of years later, a loyal segment of home buyers are still in love with log-home living. And thanks to specialized builders and remodelers, buyers can choose from numerous styles, from authentic rustic cabins to sprawling, luxury, high-tech homes.
Here's a primer to help you and your clients understand the origins of log homes and stay current on the latest trends.
Although the very earliest homes in American were shacks, tents, and other more transient structures, log homes began to be built as early as 1725, with the arrival of immigrants from Sweden, Finland, England, and other countries, says Ralph Kylloe, founder of Ralph Kylloe Rustic Design in Lake George, N.Y.
By 1740, the style became more mainstream, thanks to English settlers who improved upon the ax, says Kylloe, who authored The Rustic Home (Gibbs Smith Publishers, 2006).
The refined tool, dubbed the "American ax," had a heavier form and a sharper blade, which helped settlers build log cabins more easily from indigenous tree species such as spruce, white pine, hemlock, cedar, and oak, Kylloe says.
Since nails weren't readily available, early log homes had notched corners that allowed logs to stack solidly atop one another. Gaps between the logs were filled with twigs, stones, mud, and wet clay — a mixture known as chinking, Kylloe says. These bare-boned structures typically lacked windows because glass was scarce and easily broken.
Over time, the log home was transformed into an America icon: Grade-school history books often note that Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky. Author Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about growing up in a log cabin in her popular Little House books. Legends about hulking lumberjack Paul Bunyan further romanticized the log house. And children could even build their own small-scale versions with Lincoln Logs, a toy introduced in 1916 by John Lloyd Wright, son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Remaking the Log House
Computers and advanced construction techniques helped to further interest in log homes in the 20th century. A host of manufacturers began to produce designs on a large scale in the late 1970s and '80s using computer-aided design (CAD), says Jeremy Bertrand, executive director of the Log Homes Council, a division of the National Association of Home Builders.
"When you stack round logs, there can be gaps in between. But with computers, you can take a log and mill it to almost the same dimensions as other ones, and stack them with a tighter seal," Bertrand says.
Bertrand's group represents 60 manufacturers, but he estimates that 400 to 500 companies now produce a variety of log homes. The demand for this style isn't limited to America; more than 10,000 log homes are exported annually to Japan, Kylloe says.
And today's home owners don't have to give up modern-day comforts to live in a log home. While some of these homes are tiny no-frills cabins, many newer models are multi-room residences that are just as posh as any stick-built home.
Some people, like Frank Groff, opt to rehab an older log home. Groff, who lives most of the year in Southern California, transformed a small 1930s log house along the Salmon River near Portland, Ore., house into an elegant weekend retreat with rustic vibe. A skilled contractor matched missing pine paneling, and designer David Michael handled the rest, he says.
Bill and Darla Soles, like many log-home buyers, decided to start from scratch. They conjured up a design for a 4,500-square-foot, Northern white cedar log weekend house near a lake in western Maryland, and then took their drawings to Katahdin Cedar Log Homes, a builder in Oakfield, Maine. The couple intended for it to become their retirement home.
Log homes even have come to the chic Hamptons in New York. The 7,000-square-foot weekend house of Jill Rappaport, contributor to NBC's Today show, recently was featured in Architectural Digest magazine. The magazine showed off the Western-themed styling of Rappaport's 11-room, seven-bathroom house, which overlooks her 18-acre horse farm.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
With so many options for log homes, buyers must be prepared to make lots of decisions — especially when they plan to build.
- Construction method. Architects and builders can design a custom home in the traditional log construction method, or they can construct a traditional stick-built house and apply logs on the exterior and interior for an "authentic" look, says Chris Seile, director of corporate sales at Kuhns Bros. Log Homes Inc. in Lewisburg, Pa.
- Building plan: Custom or ready-made? Most manufacturers have a collection of ready-made plans, which can be adapted for custom designs or used as-is. Some manufacturers preassemble parts of homes in a factory, where logs are predrilled for electrical wiring and lettered and numbered to speed up on-site construction. Other companies produce modular designs with the shell totally completed at the factory. Plans also can be found at log-home shows, in books, and on the Web. Simply type the term "log home plans" into Google and you'll see just how many vendors exist.
- Shape of the log. For a flat inside wall surface, you can use logs with a "D" shape, which are curved on the exterior but flat on the interior. For a more traditional, rounded look on the interior, you can choose a log shape that's called the "Swedish cope" profile. There also are a variety of ways that the logs can interlock at the corners of the home. Some popular options are the "Scandinavian saddle notch" and the "dovetail."
- Choice of woods. Your choice of wood affects the look of the home and its required maintenance. Paul Puryear, a builder and founder of Roaring River Log Homes in Hilham, Tenn., says he prefers Northern or Eastern white pine because the grains tend to twist and warp less. General contractor Christopher Hodshon, who built a log house on the DIY Network's documentary "Blog Cabin" with his twin brother Simon, prefers cedar and hemlock because they're decay resistant. He avoids poplar because it's soft.
- Treating the wood. The wood you select should have its bark removed. It is then usually air-dried or kiln-dried to remove moisture, and stained to protect it from weather, sunlight, animals, and bugs. The wood also may need to be treated to repel water, Seile says. Logs can be stained a lighter color to achieve a brighter look inside the home, or can also be covered with sheetrock for a smooth finish and painted.
- Amenities. As with any other style of home, the sky's the limit when it comes to what materials, furnishings, and amenities you can choose for your log house. "Anything that goes into a conventional home can be incorporated — smart-wiring, radiant-floor heating, wine cellars," Seile says.
- Pricing. Manufactured log homes generally run between $145 and $165 a square foot to build, Seile says. Adds Puryear, "The wild card's the cost of the site."
With so many aesthetic details to determine, buyers shouldn't overlook the quality factor, experts say. Log homes have special engineering and construction needs; joints need to be put together precisely and vertical posts should be placed to allow for some shrinking, says Hodshon, co-owner of Clinch River Custom Builders Inc. in Knoxville, Tenn.
Because of that, Bertrand, of the Log Homes Council, says that it's essential for buyers to work with a builder with experience in the log-home industry.
One of the council's top goals is to ensure quality, and one way to do that is by requiring its members to use logs certified by a third-party grading program. "Logs with too many large knots can affect the structural stability," Bertrand says.
Whether it's a rustic retreat reminiscent of America's earliest cabins or a brand new log-style McMansion with media room, chef's kitchen, and spa-level suite, buyers have an exhaustive list of choices that would have made Abe Lincoln, Laura Ingalls, and other early inhabitants turn green with envy.
The Log Council
Get essential information on log homes. Browse featured homes on the site, access a directory of log home products and services, and find details on the next log home expo.