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...

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!

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