Laying logs at long last

Finally, we get to the meat (and by meat, I mean wood) of the matter – laying up the logs. We’re building a double-wall cordwood house – what this means is we build an eight-inch thick cordwood wall, have the inside of the wall sprayed with five inches of spray-foam insulation, then build another eight-inch thick cordwood wall on the inside, up against the foam. This gives us a twenty-one-inch thick wall with a very high R-value (R-40+) and a tight building envelope. We’ve been told we’ll be able to heat it with “a hair dryer” and/or “a candle.” It also gives us a whole lot of cordwooding to do.

Because we have so much to do, we have to make it as efficient as possible. One suggestion lots of cordwood builders make is to get a mortar mixer – faster and more thorough than a cement mixer, and much faster (and easier on the back) than mixing by hand. We went with an electric mortar mixer since it’s quieter and doesn’t stink up the whole process. They delivered it to the loading dock where I work, and the receiving manager told me I’d better pick it up quickly, since everyone was eyeballing it. Clare and I managed to roll it off the back of the pickup truck and park it next to the house. It’s the most orange thing we’ve ever owned:

I crown thee King of Mixers

You can bet it won’t look this clean much longer! So we dump in two and a half five-gallon buckets of sand and one bucket of lime putty (half a bag of hydrated lime that’s been soaking in water at least three days) and fire it up. Five minutes later, it’s ready for the “Sploosh test.”

Indeed, Lord Splooshington

This bit o’ cordwood wisdom says you should toss a softball-sized ball of mortar three feet in the air. When you catch it, it should hold together without cracking (too dry!) or splooshing out like a cow pie (too wet!). Having never handled a cow pie personally, I had to wing it a bit. After you lay up a few batches, you get a pretty good idea of how wet the mortar should be. Finally, on August 21, 2008, the momentous occasion:

Return of the Log Lady

Careful with that log, you Clare

Is it wall yet?

Woohoo! One log down, a million billion to go! Because the lime putty mortar sets up so slowly, we build up a couple of feet of one panel, then move on to the next panel. After a few days, here’s how it looks:

Still mostly see-through

Some of the wall panels have windows, so we build window boxes out of rough-sawn cedar and fasten them in place before laying the cordwood:

Windows is OK, but I prefer Mac

We couldn’t resist the temptation to buildall the way to the top as quickly as possible:

Nine logs high and rising...

Finally, done with the first panel:

A panel of amateur cordwood enthusiasts

Don’t forget the details

Note – We’re way behind updating the Nerdwood site, so even though these next few posts are being written in October, the dates on them reflect when we actually did the work.

So, the “few details” we had to wrap up before cordwooding – the ones that would only take a week or so? Pretty much exactly a month. Building a cordwood house (or probably any house if you do it yourself, are not a builder, and are trying for a decent level of workmanship) is much like flying into the event horizon of a black hole – everything sloooooooooows down.

One of the first tasks was to treat the timber frame with a preservative. Since the timbers are untreated pine, spruce and hemlock, and since they are exposed to the elements to varying degrees, we sprayed them with a log home preservative containing boric acid, which protects against both wood-loving insects such as pine-bark beetles, carpenter ants and termites (although we’re too far north for termites), and against fungus and mold. Although you can use a solution mixed up from 20-mule team borax, we spent a few more bucks to use a glycol-based solution, which penetrates much further into the wood and stays there. The only portions we’ll have to re-treat are those that get rained on directly. The cordwood walls use cedar logs, which are naturally pest- and decay-resistant, and are protected under wide overhangs, so we won’t need to treat those at all.

Next up was a drip cap. The cordwood walls are being built atop an eighteen inch high concrete wall (probably faced in stone) to keep them dry, so we needed something to interface between the cordwood portion of the wall and the kneewall. We cut pieces of synthetic decking, attached it to the kneewall with concrete screws, and wrapped it in copper flashing, whichwill develop a nice patina after a few years, and should last pretty much forever.The rear third will be mortared directly into the wall with the rest sticking out.Here’s how it looks so far:

That's quite a few pennies

Finally, we needed to cut and prep some logs:

Those are some logs, all right

“But Greg,” says Clare, “We’re going to need a lot of logs.”Okay,

It's gonna take a lotta logs...

“No, I mean a lot of logs!”Hmmmm…

A picture is worth a thousand logs

Now we’re getting somewhere!

I’m gonna raise the roof, I’m gonna carry on

give me an old trombone, give me an old baton…

Nerdwood welcomes you

We’re building most of this house ourselves; just the two of us with lots of advice and the occasional helping hand. We are contracting out a few steps, though, one of which is the roof. Not only is it a bit too high for us, it would take forever for two inexperienced people to do what needed to be done. John Hamilton and his crew of merry men finished the roof on July 17, 2008. It took them just under a week and a half; here’s how it all came down. First, they put up the rafters:

They'd make a heck of a raft

Those are sixteen-inch high I-joists, which are made from scrap wood (just like OSB sheathing) and can be made to order to surprisingly long lengths. Ours were forty-four feet long; the crew cut them down to just under forty feet for the main part of the roof and used the rest for the overhang in front. Next up was to put up the decking and fascia boards:

Bloody fascias!

They actually laid down a layer of decking, then ran two-by-fours above the joists and laid a second layer of decking on top of that. This allows us to fill the entire sixteen-inch cavity above the ceiling with insulation, and the space between the two layers of decking will provide ventilation to keep the roof cool in summer and prevent ice forming in the winter.

After the decking, they put up felt paper and the metal roofing panels. We went with a white roof, which will help keep the house cooler in the summer. As you can see from the first photo, the top of the roof itself is not really visible due to the shape. This is true from almost every vantage point. Here’s a vantage point I’m unlikely to “enjoy” on a regular basis:

This is the highest I've been yet!

This is standing on the peak of the roof looking down across the front overhang.

The final bits were the soffit (the underside of the roof) and the fascia covering (sides of the roof). The soffit was a bit tricky for the crew since they had to wrap it around the many angles of the post-and-beam structure.

No critters getting in here!

The crew said it was the largest soffit they had ever built; this was due to the large areas of overhang in the back since it’s a square roof over a semicircular building. Finally, they brought it all together by finishing the fascia and related trim:

Go ahead. Rain all you want.

Whew! Now the frame will stay dry and we can work under cover from the sun and rain. We have a few more details to build before we start cordwooding, but these should only take a week or so. Here’s a gratuitous vantage point looking northeast from the house:

That's what I love to see

And a visitor to the house:

Please eat some bugs, fella!

My old frame

Time to wrap up the final framing details.

The big ones

The picture above is of the rear roof supports. The house is sort of semicircular and the roof is a big sloping square, so this line of posts and beams catch the bottom of the roof. The corners are large areas of overhang, suitable for firewood storage, rainwater catchment tanks, and a screened porch (eventually). As it turned out, the brackets we used to tie the posts to the concrete piers we had poured were a bit larger that I had envisioned, so we had to rout out mortises on all four sides of each post bottom to get the brackets to bite into solid concrete:

That's one Shimmy Disc you got there, Kramer!

Some of the concrete piers weren’t exactly level, either, so a number of hardwood shims were in order, as you can see. At some point we’ll cover the brackets somehow in order to prettify the base. These posts and beams are eight-by-eight; overkill from an engineering standpoint, but just right aesthetically.

Once done with this, the next (final) phase of the framing was to provide support for the front roof overhang. In the front of the house, the roof sticks out about four feet, so angly bits and beams were in order.

How's it hangin?

Since these were twenty feet above ground and sticking out over three feet from the house, you can bet I was wearing a fall-protection harness clipped to the frame!

So now the frame is done. Hurray! We celebrated with a glass of ice wine from Canada. The frame ended up taking six months of working nights and weekends, as well as a week or two of vacation and holidays. Longer than I expected, but if we hadn’t had a fifteen-inch circular saw to make the cuts, we’d still be on the first floor! Next up, the roof. But first, summer flowers abound, both planted:

Sweet, sweet william

and wild:

Not that I'd push daisies on anyone

Back on the Frame, Gang!

Spring is sproingy. Pincherry:

Mmmm...cherries with pins. Tasty pins!

And green, green, yello fields:

Claro que si!

So now back to the framing. We had hoped to finish the framing and have the roof on by May 15 so we could maximize our cordwooding window this year. Because we are using a pure lime mortar (no portland cement, just lime, sand and water), we have to be sure the temperature won’t dip below freezing for thirty days after we lay up a wall. Unfortunately, due to a number of factors including a cold, wet spring, and gross miscalculation of the amount of time needed to complete the framing, it looks like July is a more realistic estimate of when we’ll start stacking logs.

The roof style is a shed roof, so it starts low(er) in the back and reaches it’s peak at the front of the house. Thus, we have to finish building up the front:

I'll never be a skyscraper builder

Front’s done:

The Towering Edifice!

The top level was by far the trickiest part – lots of funny compound angles to cut (yeah, a real laff riot!) and fit. They say “Measure twice, cut once,” but for this part it was more like “Measure twice, check the drawings, mentally rotate the pieces in three dimensions, measure a few more times, double-check the angles, cut, test-fit the pieces on the ground, then hoist them into place.”

Good thing I had that squangle

Finally, finished with the main house part of the framing. You can really see the roof angle here:

it's looking housy!

Note the screened tent in front. The bugs in late May and all of June are brutal, and this year was spectacular, first with hordes of hungry black flies then mosquitos that seemed unfazed by swatting – they would just shake off even a direct hit and get back to the annoyance business. At least this year we had a tent we could take a break in and taunt the lil’ vampires.

Back on the Chain Gang

Well, it was a long, snowy winter this time. By mid-March, there was still plenty of snow on the ground and a few good foot-or-more snowfalls to come, but we couldn’t wait any longer to get out and start chopping logs. We shoveled off the log pile and got to work. Some logs are too wide to fit on the sawbuck, so they require “freestylin’.” In this case, a big pile of snow is great since it supports the log, and when you cut all the way through, there’s no ground underneath to dull the chain, just snow:


We continued working on the log pile while the snow slowly retreated from the house site:

This was completely covered a week or two ago

A river briefly runs through it

The BOLD winter

Well, we hoped to get the roof up before the snow fell. Here’s how it went:

We got to work on the center section of the second floor. This is comprised of eight-by-eight posts and beams and holds up the roof where it passes over the middle of the house. We used the Little Lifter to hoist pallets of timbers up to the second floor, then we set them in place by hand. The two beams on either end stick out over three feet past the outside wall, to provide a wide roof overhang. Because these beams were so heavy, we set them into place with the crane. This was fun, not unlike those games in the arcade where you try to grab fabulous prizes (i.e., disappointing junk) with the claw. Except those prizes won’t kill you if you drop them on your head. For the most part. I’m wearing the orange “please don’t shoot me, I’m neither a deer nor a partridge” hat, manipulating the crane with a little control box:

So far, so good


Almost there... Allmosssst therrrre...

Once it’s really close, Clare gets up there with a two-by-four to help the beam into place:


Of course, after all that work, it’s a good idea to drive into Tapiola and get some pie at The Feed Mill:

No funny comment here - pie is no joke

The pictures above were all taken around Thanksgiving. As you can see, very little snow, in fact it all melted Saturday after Thanksgiving. I finished cutting timbers for the top level and stacked them in the house Sunday afternoon.

The next evening, Monday evening, the snow started. It stopped for a few hours here and there, but pretty much continued all week. The following Saturday, December 1st, Richard Brooks and I went to rescue his truck – in the winter, it’s his plow truck, and we had at least three feet of snow for him to use it on. Here’s how the house looked one week after the pictures above:

Honey, could you shovel the bedroom?

We went skiing that same day – over a month and half earlier than last winter. Granted, it’s not unusual to have lots of snow by December 1st here in “Big snow country,” but it really did hit all at once and has not let up since.

Unfortunately, I think those timbers I cut are going to have to wait until spring, as will the roofer. A bit of a disappointment, but I don’t see how we could have worked on the house more and still kept our jobs. Since we can’t cordwood until there’s no chance of frost, which is May 15 around here, I think we can still start cordwooding on time next year. We just might not have as many logs stacked as we had planned. Still, it sure is pretty around here:

Snowflakes keep fallin' on my house...

Farewell Horizontal

We’re in the middle of framing the second floor now, hoping the weather continues to play nice. The posts and beams we’ve used so far for the second floor have been brought up the old fashioned way – with two people, a few muscles and a couple of (quickly tired) backs. This will change soon (more on that later). After the first day of framing (posting? No, wait – that’s what I’m doing right now), we had four posts up:

Make the pie higher!

One of the many time-consuming tasks before we could put up the posts was to put the deck joists in place. You can see them in the photo above sticking out of the side of the house under the new posts. These will hold up the second-floor deck on the front and sides of the house. We eventually need to put up three more sets in between each of the ones you see here, but these particular ones had to go up now since they are holding up the posts above them.

Besides the fun of having a deck, it serves the purposes of protecting the first-floor cordwood walls from direct weather and shading the first-floor windows from the high summer sun. In the winter, the sun is low enough in the sky to get in and heat up the first floor slab.

We continued with the front posts and beams until we finished a week or so later. At that point, we had to put up two massive (six-by-twelve, thirteen foot long) beams that go over the living room. Since these were way too heavy to lift ourselves, we asked Richard Brooks (inventor of the Lizard, see past post) if we could rent his crane truck:

Not so little to me

This truck is another of his inventions, the “Little Lifter.” Richard and I hoisted the big beams into place in about half an hour – not only a time-saver, but a back-saver as well. We’ll use the crane to hoist smaller timbers up to the second floor in twos and threes, then place them by hand. We’ll also use it to set some larger timbers that support the roof.

The pretty-good pumpkin rises

After a pumpkin break, we enjoyed “Sunset over Nerdwood:”

It's getting housy

A floor to some, a ceiling to others

Well, a month and a half have flown by, and we’ve been hard at work trying to achieve house altitude. The joists that hold up the second floor were the next order of business. We wanted them to be open from below, to add to the spaciousness of the first floor and to show off the planking that will serve as both first floor ceiling and second floor floor. Floor floor floor floor floor <ahem> Anyways, we found a guy who had some rough sawn two-by-twelves and two-by-fourteens in lengths up to nineteen feet that he never got around to using, and they worked out great for our joists.

More wood! More wood!

The only issue was it took forever to cut them to a uniform height and get them into place. Here are the joists in mid-place (mid-put? Nahh…):

Not much of a shelter yet!

Once in place and secured, we had to install flashing under where they exit the house, to keep rain from rotting away the ends of the joists and the beams they sit on. Again, this seemed to take forever. But they turned out well – here’s the view from the second floor:

Fall in the Upper Penninsula

And here’s the view from the first floor. Almost seems a shame to cover the view of the sky through the floor!

What a web we weave!

Our next task is to continue the post-n-beam structure upwards, building the second-floor walls. Once we’re done with that, the roofer will take over and we’ll have a skeletal frame with a roof overhead, ready for us to start cordwooding next spring.

The weather has been really crazy this year. From the beginning of July until the first week of September or so, we received almost no rain whatsoever. Terrible drought, complete with wildfires burning tens of thousands of acres here in the U.P. Since then, it has rained buckets, completely saturating the ground, washing out roads, and making it difficult to work outdoors. So, at this point, it’s a race against time and the elements to try to meet our goal for this year of a roof in place.

One nice effect of the rain was the magnificent crop of mushrooms that sprang up in mid-September:

Yes, they actually are magic!

These are very interesting toadstools, see this page for all the gory details of the amanita muscaria formosa.

Snappy & the Lizard

In mid-July, Mike from Frog Valley Woods delivered the first load of timbers, now nicely seasoned. We tried to design the house to use short lengths of timber, mostly 8- and 10-footers; all but two are 6 X 6 inch, 6 X 8 inch or 8 X 8 inch. These were all fairly easy for Mike and I to unload and stack next to the foundation, but for the 12- and 14-footers he brought an electric winch with a claw at the end, sort of like one of those carnival games. Except you wouldn’t break your foot if you dropped a stuffed animal on it.

Well, it's a start

The vertical posts are a bit tricky – we have to make sure they’re truly vertical both side-to-side and front-to-back (i.e., plumb). Then we have to brace them in both directions to make sure they don’t shift out of alignment. Still, after the first weekend, we had a row of them in place:

Like a row of Rory Calhouns

The full birch logs we planned to put in the center of the house were much more of a challenge, though. We had hoped Richard Brooks, a friend of Dave Bach, could lift them into place with an invention of his – a small crane mounted to a pickup truck. He asked me to calculate the weight of each one, and they came out to over a thousand pounds each! Well, no way could he lift them with his crane, and we didn’t want to have a big crane brought in at great expense and disruption to the house site. He did have some ideas of how to put them up, though, and he loaned us a rolling truck/dolly type thing to move the logs around on. The thing is low-slung with tall tires, and Clare started calling it “The Lizard” – see for yourself:

Pretty easy to catch this lizard

Once we used the Lizard to get the first log near the spot it was to end up on, Dave Bach (who also had some great advice) and I tied a rope to the top of the log, ran it through a pulley at the top of a tripod I built, and tied the other end to the ol’ pickup.

Pyramid Power!

Then, I backed up the truck and hoisted the log up:

Never did this in Driver's Ed

Finally, we move it into just the right position and let it down slowly.

Precision birchery

These pics are of the second log, which Clare, Matt and I raised on a lovely Saturday morning. After raising the first two, we decided against using four logs – it would have been overwhelming in a not-very-large room. So, these two will flank the masonry heater:

The Logs of Today

Then it was time to put some horizontal beams across the vertical posts. This went more quickly since we don’t have to brace them, just put them in place, make sure they’re level, and screw them down with gigantic timber screws. We borrowed a rolling scaffold from Dave to do this. He called it “Snappy,” which I thought was a bit odd since I hadn’t known Dave to name inanimate objects like Clare and I do. Upon closer inspection, though, I saw that Snappy was indeed the name of this model of scaffolding.

Finally we’re in the third dimension!