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


We’ve spent the last three or four weeks cordwooding the rear wall of the shed. This is the first real log laying we’ve done on our own, and it’s allowed us to get our mortar mix right and work out the (ahem) kinks in our technique. Eventually we’ll get a mortar mixer, but we’ve been mixing by hand (well, by hoe) in a wheelbarrow, with the idea that we’ll get more “hands on” experience of what makes a good mortar mix. Also, it will be easier to cough up the cash for the mixer if we know what kind of back-breaking labor it’s saving us from.


The first thing we have to do is some log prep – the logs we’ve cut, split and stacked are sixteen inces long (easier to manage), but the logs going into the wall are eight inches, so we cut them in half (using a jig attached to the sawbuck) and clean them up a bit. Here are some eight-inchers:

A bunch of Stumpy Joes

Now, at last, we can mix up some mud and start:

Scientific log structure...

We keep laying logs in the mortar and glopping more mortar between and on top of them. After the first day, we’re off to a good start:

Well, it's a tall wall to the small

Cordwood wisdom says the top third of the wall takes as long as the first two-thirds, and this definitely seemed to be the case. But hey, wall!

It's really mesmerizing...

Mixed in with the log-ends are “bottle-ends,” two jars or bottles with the mouths taped together and laid up in the wall like a log. They let in a bit of light and color, and provide us with a visual history of our jar-food consumption.

We'll pour our jars in reservoirs