Construction Time Again

This past winter was surprisingly brief. By mid-March the ski trails were mostly bare, as opposed to years past when we would be on the trails through early April. So, back to Nerdwood. Surely we’ll get it closed in this year! We’re going through logs at an alarming rate, though. The pile that was three years old in late 2006 is getting more and more rotten as it sits out. If we had it to do again, we would de-bark, cut, split and stack the entire pile of logs first so they would dry out quickly. Since we haven’t built a cordwood time machine, though, we’ve been cutting up what we can this spring and looking at obtaining some additional, fresher logs to make up for the rotters.

Someone Clare works with had cut some cedar this spring and offered it to us (thanks, Bill!), so we’ve been stopping by his place for pickup-truck loads, debarking and cutting it up straightaway, and putting it in the kiln to dry. We’ve also been expanding our food production. We love mushrooms, so we’re cultivating some varieties this year. Here’s a mushroom bed, with a potato bed to the left:

No badgers, but occasional snakes

We also put in some fruit trees; someday there will be a nice orchard in front of the shed. We had to put the trees in “jail” since deer munched the leaves almost immediately after we planted them:

Tasty cherries? Or world's most enticing deer food?

Starting in June:

More Cordwooding!

The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth

Now that we’re done cordwooding for the year, we turned to our end-of-the-year tasks. Cutting brush, sealing the deck, making a compost pile, preparing garden beds, moving lumber inside and of course, cutting more logs. Like last year, we decided to tarp over the open bays to keep out as much snow as possible. Rather than tarp over the window openings, though, we decided to fill them with actual windows and be done with it. Fortunately, Matt was around to help out. And by help out, I mean do most of the work. Thanks, Matt!

Here’s the house all ready for the winter. Excuse the blurry photos, all we had that day was a phone:

Here we snow again

You may notice the first floor door opening has no door. Next year, for sure. What you don’t see is the French door on the second floor – it’s tarped over since the cordwood has not been filled in around it yet. It’s in the middle of the giant silver second-floor tarp:

Hidden Door is hidden

The rear French door is quite visible, though. It’s really weird going through an actual door to get inside the house:

La bonne porte-fenêtre!

Approaching the porch-side of the house:

Yeah, a bit too chilly for open air dining.

So, back to the cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Could be worse.

Clare's makin' tracks

The Gales of November Came Early

So last year we were pretty conservative and stopped cordwooding the third week of September. Remember, the mortar we are using sets very slowly since it contains no cement – it’s just lime, water and sand (Lime Putty Mortar, or LPM). Conventional wisdom says it shouldn’t be allowed to freeze for thirty days. This year we decided to push it.

We figured that in the five years we’ve been here, we haven’t really had a hard frost until the tail end of October. We also figured thirty days seemed a bit much, that after a week or two the mortar was set to the point where a hard freeze wouldn’t harm it. We were half right.

We had taken the first week of October to work on the house; we laid up logs Saturday and Sunday, then the following Thursday and Friday, 8- and 9-October. On Saturday, it rained so we didn’t go out to Nerdwood. Then it got colder and the rain turned to snow. It wasn’t bitter cold by any means, but it did snow. Sunday the snow/rain mix continued and we couldn’t get out to the house until Monday.

When we checked under the tarped-over wall panels, we saw the areas we had laid up Friday hadn’t enjoyed the cold one bit:

Don't flake out on me now

The outer layer of mortar had frozen and flaked right off! Using a wooden shim, I was able to scrape off spongy mortar to a depth of about half an inch on both the front and back of the wall. Ugh! Not very attractive:


By now, the cold snap was over, so we decided to wait until the weekend to try and fix the damaged sections. The sections we had cordwooded six and seven days before the freeze had no trouble at all, so at least we were right about the mortar not needing a full thirty days before being exposed to any freezing.

The weekend weather was sunny and fairly warm, and looked like it would continue warm for at least a week to come, so we decided to repair the outside of the damaged sections and finish cordwooding the bays we were currently working on. After scraping away the crumbly mortar, we mixed up a new batch and slathered it over the damaged sections. It was a bit tricky, but adhered well enough once we got the hang of it.

Here’s how the repairs looked:

Slather me timbers!

Sorry to parge in like this

And here’s how they look a month later:

It's like it was all a bad dream...

I can't tell either

So, looks like we’re done laying up walls for the year. All fifteen panels on the first floor are done and four panels on the second. A bit of a disappointment, but now we know how long it takes us to build a cordwood wall. One of the second-floor panels had the largest area of cordwood of any of them – this one became known as the “Devil Wall.” It’s the solid second-floor panel:

Their Satanic Majesties Cordwood

And here are the other two panels:

Note the orange hat to prove hunting season non-deerness

A Likely Story

Finally, at the end of August, it was time to start laying up walls on the second story.  This starts out a bit tricky since we have to mortar in between the joists that stick out of the wall and support the deck. We also have to lay the logs up to, but not quite, touching the deck. Looking up from the ground, it looks like this:

Inbetween days

Fortunately, we got some more helpers – our friends Gail and Jeff came out for a day of muddin’. They caught on right away:

Tray Chic!

Another thing that’s tougher about cordwooding on the second story is that we have to bring all the logs and mortar upstairs to use it. After hanging a pulley on a beam that cantilevers out over the deck, we toyed with  the idea of using mechanical assistance to bring up the loads, i.e., a winch or truck. Ultimately we realized the fastest way to do it would be to convert food into the energy needed to lift the goods to the deck. Here’s Clare’s view:

Clare's-eye view

And here’s me hoisting up a tray of mortar:

Look out below!

As an aside, see all those buckets of lime putty in the Clare’s-eye view? Here’s what they look like from the side:

Mu shu mortar?

Our friend JJ heard we needed lots of 5-gal. buckets to mix and store lime putty in. JJ runs a Chinese restaurant in Houghton and set us up with a stack of empty soy sauce and duck sauce buckets (with lids!) at no cost. Thanks, JJ! This is what cordwood guru Rob Roy calls “cultivating coincidence,” the idea that somebody is probably trying to get rid of what you could use, and by talking about what you are doing to everyone who will listen, your chances of meeting this person greatly increase.

Remember, if you’re around Houghton Michigan and are looking for great Chinese food, stop in at JJ’s Wok & Grill in the Pearl Street Market across from Jim’s Finer Foods. He really does make excellent food. Food that you can then turn into mortar-lifting energy. I’ll bet he won’t use that in his ads, though.

Back to the house, Dave S. asks for more explanation about what we see from various angles in these pictures. Here’s a picture of a wall in what will be the recording studio:

Another Green World

This window will be one of the views from the studio, the view to the west looking at the woods. Nothing more inspiring to the recording artist than the sight of hungry bears massing. Or maybe just chickadees.

It was an incredibly cool summer, but now that it’s September, we’re having a bit of a heat wave! The basil has bolted, the coneflowers are finch-feeders, but the blanketflowers are happy as can be:

Red, gold and green...Red, gold and green...

Finishing the first floor (for now)

Time is getting a bit tight and we’re still working on the first floor walls. Fortunately, three of the south-facing walls are almost all window (to take advantage of free solar heating during the winter), so the “panels” we have to fill in are very narrow indeed. Each one only takes about three batches of mortar as opposed to around eight for the average wall panel. The leftmost window required tiny, tiny logs to fit:

Thin little panels? Or giraffe necks?

Working our way around the house, Clare decided to incorporate a bottle feature in the panel near the front door. The inside bottles will be blue and green – a river in the wall:

Still bottles run deep

Finally on to the fifteenth and final panel on the first floor – the front door panel:

The gateway... To Logs

So, mid-August and we’ve just finished about half the outer wall. Think we’ll finish the second floor before freezing weather hits? Nah, me neither. Looks like we may be doing a lot of cross-country skiing again this coming winter (oh, darn!).

Besides being the “Summer of Mud,” 2009 also seems to be the “Summer of Bees.” They’re everywhere right now – if you stand still you can hear the whole field buzzing with nectar-lapping fuzzballs.

Give us all your pollen...

The ‘Monsters of Cordwood’ 2009 tour

This summer we had several distinguished guests visit Nerdwood. Richard and Becky Flatau built a lovely cordwood house in northern Wisconsin in 1979 and have lived there since. They’ve done a great deal to promote this style of building, including publishing how-to books, conducting workshops and hosting the 2005 Continental Cordwood Conference (CoCoCo). Clare and I met them at a cordwood workshop held immediately after the CoCoCo – one week after we closed the sale on the property where Nerdwood now sits. They hosted a party for workshop attendees at their (very cool) house, which was most inspiring for us would-be cordwood masons, and they proved to be gracious and entertaining hosts.

Richard had emailed me saying that he and Becky were conducting a workshop this August. The folks building this particular house were using lime putty mortar (LPM), same as us, and the Flataus, who have mostly used traditional portland cement-based mortar mixes, were trying to get as much hands-on experience with LPM as they could. They asked if they could stop by for a weekend and build walls with us. Naturally, we were delighted – not only would we be enjoying their company, we’d be getting help building the house and expert advice from true cordwood veterans.

The Flataus would be staying at the house of another cordwood legend, Wayne Higgins. Wayne finished his cordwood house, Stonewood, in 1991 (although he’ll tell you he isn’t quite finished yet!) and it’s one of the first cordwood houses we ever saw. Wayne (who is also a talented sculptor, painter and illustrator) is very involved in the cordwood ‘scene’ here in the Copper Country; when we signed up for the CoCoCo in late 2004, he called us out of the blue to invite us over to see his house since we were interested in the subject. Wotta guy!

The Flataus showed up Friday evening and we went to visit both them and the Higginses. Much merriment ensued, as did much learning. For example, I learned that one should never offer Wayne a trip to Graceland, even all-expenses-paid, or offer to put on some Elvis. I’d imagine Gary Numan is right out, too. Saturday morning, we met the Flataus at the jobsite. After Clare and I explained our methods of creating LPM, Becky caught a pic of us mixing the first batch. That’s Richard on the right:

The latest in Men's Cordwood Hat fashions

Lime putty mortar requires advance preparation, since you mix up lime putty (lime and water), let it sit for awhile (current conventional wisdom is at least three days, but I’ve found a minimum of five days to be much more workable) then mix the putty with sand to produce the mortar. The putty I had prepared for the Flatau’s visit was experimental for me – I had seen that some people were mixing a bit of dish soap into the putty to help it retain moisture better, thus reducing cracking when the wall cures. I tried it with this batch of putty, but misread the ratios and added about ten times the recommended amount of soap. Whoops!

The first batch we mixed with the overly soapy stuff had a really weird texture, much too soft and pillowy. It laid up OK, but wasn’t as easy to work with as the non-soap mix. Fortunately, I also had some of the non-soap putty as well, so we were able to blend the two to get a decent-feeling mixture. Soon, the Flataus were cordwooding like a runaway train. A train that lays up walls. And shows you helpful tips. And jokes and puns with you. Y’know, that kind of runaway train.

Nerdwood slowly gets woodier

Above, Target: Utility Wall. Below, Target Engaged.

Whoo! Look at 'em go!

And, from the inside,

But Richard, you're already on the other side!

Saturday afternoon, we got a visit from Wayne Higgins, his first visit here. We were pretty excited to have him over, since it’s quite a jaunt from Stonewood to Nerdwood. He invited us along on a visit to George and Paulette Beveridge’s cordwood house, which we had visited a few years ago (when George cut the birch logs that now hold up our second floor). They’ve made quite a bit of progress; their house is amazing and unique – truly a work of art. Richard took some great pictures and posted them here.

Richard and Becky stayed till Sunday then rode the happy trails back to Cheese-land. We certainly enjoyed their company and their help, as well as them giving us an excuse to visit some friends we hadn’t seen in awhile. Of course, I’m forgetting to mention the third Flatau. They said they would be bringing Summer with them, which I wasn’t too happy about since I was really enjoying the cool weather so far this year. In fact, here’s Summer, all tuckered out after a weekend laying logs:

These are the log days of Summer

The Summer of Mud

No, not that kind of mud! Although we have been getting a normal amount of rain this year, unlike the previous two years of drought.

By mud, I mean mortar. The plan this year is to lay up the outer cordwood wall and if we’re really on the ball, install the windows and the in-floor heat, and have spray foam insulation, er, sprayed, on the inside of the walls. This way, we can continue working on the interior this winter.

Since we’ve only done one wall of the shed and three wall panels (out of 30 outside panels) of the house, we’re still not sure how quickly we can work. It seems as though different people have a very wide range of cordwooding speeds. Of course, things would go faster if we didn’t both work full time!

So, we’re cranking up the mixer, making lime putty and hauling buckets o’ sand around. The first new panel is in the back of the house – it features the French door that leads to the the porch:

Oui, c'est tres jolie!

Ha! That didn’t take very long! Of course, that panel is mostly air…

Next in line is the panel next to the proch and the panel that the upper deck stairs are next to. It would have been much easier to cordwood these two walls before the stairs went up – there’s only about a half-inch gap between the stair treads and the wall, making it a challenge to lay up logs and mortar, as well as to point the mortar (smooth the surface) after the logs are in place. No gap at all between the deck of the porch and the wall either. Couldn’t be helped, though; we really wanted the deck finished this spring. Here’s the stairs panel:

No Potter under these stairs

Those two took quite awhile – hard to lay up, plus no windows in either of them. It’s looking pretty cool from the inside though:

It's a home all right - to LOGS!

Here’s the most recent one to date. It has a small window in it for the downstairs bathroom:

Home wasn't built in a day, after all

So, as of July 7, 2009, that’s seven panels of thirty done, three finished last year and four so far this year. Ulp…

Some nice bottles ought to cheer us up:

So many wines, so little time

And, how about some poppies?

And now, my beauties, something with poison in it, I think. Something with poison in it, but attractive to the eye, and soothing to the smell. Poppies... Poppies. Poppies will put them to sleep. Sleep. Now they'll sleep!


One of the (few) benefits of taking so long to build this house is that we’re able to save up a bit of cash along the way. We can use this to hire out some of the things that would take us forever to do ourselves, like the roof. It became clear that another one of these things would be the wraparound deck and porch. The deck is very important in that it will keep the rain off the first-floor cordwood walls. The large roof overhangs protect the walls higher up, but it’s a long way from the roof to the first floor.

We contacted our builder pal John Hamilton (he of roof-putting-up fame) and asked him to quote out the job. The quote looked good to us, so we asked when he could start. He had some time at the end of April; this was also a good time because he could beat the biting bugs (who deserve a good beating).

So, while we continued prepping logs and getting the house site cleaned up after winter, John and his merry men got to work. Their first task was to extend the interior floor joists to the outside using treated lumber, and nail a board (rim joist) across the ends:

Can I get a rim shot!?

Next, they laid down deck boards, fixed posts at the edge of the deck, and installed rails:

Yarrrh, matey, best not be goin' overboard

Here’s the nearly completed deck. Note that there are no posts holding it up, it’s all cantilevered out from the inside floor joists. Because of this, using synthetic decking was out of the question; it’s much heavier than the treated lumber we used, and the engineering gods said no way to that kind of extra weight:

I'm always railing against something...

The final (extensive) task was to build a screened-in porch under one of the rear roof overhangs. Clare had the idea to raise it a few feet off the ground and have one set of stairs going from the back of the house to the porch, then from the porch to the deck. John and his crew did a great job helping us figure out the details, then making it happen:

Try and get us now, ya wee flyin' vampires!

Now we have a really sharp-looking place to eat lunch and get out of the sun and bugs, and it won’t always be blowing over like last year’s tent.

We anticipate spending a lot of time here

Woohoo! Here come some early (for us in the frozen wastes) spring flowers. Marsh marigold in the vernal streams:

Your rich uncle died - and left you all his marsh marigolds

And wild strawberries everywhere else:

Strawberry surprise? Or The Apples in Stereo?

The strawberries they produce are tasty, but no bigger than a blueberry.


The snow hit hard in December and continued through January. Temps stayed cold and the snow piled up an the roof. Up and up and up! Had to have had three or four FEET of snow on that shallow roof. Fortunately, the frame didn’t budge. In February, it warmed up enough that all that snow came off the roof at once, creating a GIANT mound of snow behind the house. Here I am, standing on the mound. I can easily see into the second floor:

Somewhere under this mound there be timbers

Another couple of late snowstorms left an additional mound in the back, closer to the house – apparently it didn’t come down with as much velocity as the original avalanche. By late April, all the snow had melted except for our roof remnants:

Temporary Tumuli

Time to start cutting more logs – whooooo!

Look out! It’s a tarp!

Once again, we’re way behind updating this site, so I’m typing this in June 2009 but dating it November 2008. With winter breathing down our necks (should’ve worn scarves), one of the tasks was to tarp over the empty bays between the posts to keep as much snow as possible out of the house. If there’s one thing we’ve accumulated on this house project, it’s tarps, tarps, tarps:

Under the sea, under the sea...

Here’s the outside after the first floor was done, and after a bit o’ white stuff fell:

May all your Thanksgivings be white

Another vital task was to brace the house a little bit better, since we were counting on the rigidity of the cordwood infill to help resist racking – particularly with a heavy load of snow on the roof. Since there is precious little cordwood infill, we put up a couple of large diagonal braces on the first and second floors (you can see the second floor braces above, in the first and fourth bays). These will come down next year when we finish cordwooding the outside wall.

In addition, the row of posts & beams holding up the roof in the back of the house needed permanent bracing, since they are outside the house and won’t be cordwooded:

Gravity vs. Engineering - Who Will Win!?

In addition, we cut up a few more logs. Since we hope to be able to work on the house next winter, this may be our last guilt-free goof-off season until we move in. Here comes winter!

They call him Old Man Winter. Pretty tough old man. Like, Clint Eastwood tough.