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The ubiquitous log cleaning tools.

After spending the last couple of months cutting and cleaning logs, mixing lime putty, and tidying up the place, July 4 was Opening Day of our cordwood wall building season for the year.

One of the loose ends that had to be addressed was what we have been referring to as This Whole Front Door Situation. Greg installed a temporary front door. Of course “temporary” can end up meaning a pretty long time at Nerdwood!

Beats a slab of plywood and some blueboard.

Very civilized.

Greg fired up the mortar mixer, and after a couple of work days we have some very nice new walls in progress.

First logs of the summer.

That ol' devil wall.


Keep calm and keep stacking logs.

Never Enough Logs

Logs, glorious logs.

Last spring we were very eager to get started building cordwood walls on the inside of the house. As is usually the case with cordwooding, there were a million and one tasks that had to be completed before we could get going. Cordwood — is it a noun, or a verb, or an adjective, anyway?

We needed more logs! There are never enough logs! The more the merrier, and the more varied your selection, the more interesting the cordwood pattern will be. So we prepped all the logs that had been drying in the kiln all winter, and chopped up lots more on the sawbuck.

Greg hooked up an outdoor spigot so we could mix mortar and water the garden.

This really made life a lot easier.

When those trees you ordered arrive in the mail one day, you have to put them in the ground quickly.

A pair of pears.

We also spent some time trimming out a few windows and installing screens so we could start taking advantage of the warmer weather and let the fresh air into the house. It’s always amazing how quickly everything greens up when the snow melts.

Somehow, this overwintered.

Peak Log!

Sure, Peak Oil is a problem, but we have experienced Peak Log here at Nerdwood. As of July 2010, the pile of logs we have been drawing from – cut in 2003 – are getting more and more rotten. We have to discard more, the ones we use take longer to clean, and we’ve realized that we might not have enough to finish the house.

To help speed things along and to ensure we have plenty enough logs, we asked our neighbor Emanuel (who has a sawmill and has been providing us with cedar boards for the window boxes) if he could help us find five or six cords of recently-cut cedar. Not only did he find us some, he delivered it to our house as well.

We hired a couple of students from he nearby University (we called them Nerdlings) to come out and peel the new logs for a few days, thinking the best way to keep them from rotting would be to peel, cut, split and stack them as quickly as possible. This is what we should have done with the initial pile of logs but we didn’t since we couldn’t wait to get started on the house.

Unfortunately, peeling the new batch of logs ranged from somewhat difficult to impossible. They had been cut in February and the bark was just cemented onto some of them. The Nerdlings peeled the less-cementy logs and did a bang-up job of it. We then cut them and put them into the kiln. While all this was going on, we continue to cordwood the upper level in the back of the house:

The tall walls are all full tall walls

It’s now early September and we have a LOT to do if the house is to be closed in, insulated and heated by early December, when the snow usually starts to get serious around here. We hired our friend Matt to help with a bunch of carpentry tasks. Here he has framed out part of the top level:

'Well there there, Mrs. Black, uh ...' 'Well, wedge shapes.' 'Mrs. Wedge' 'everywhere' 'There there, back on the couch.' 'Oh, what does it mean?' 'Er, rectangular, black, and with wedge shapes inside.' 'Oh, I see them everywhere, everywhere ...'

We also picked up some storage tanks. we plan to put them under the porch and direct rainwater into them to use to irrigate the garden and possibly the orchard in times of drought. They had been used to hold garlic-flavored oil for industrial food production (i.e., frozen pizza) and are pretty garlicky right now:

Is it about my cube?

So now we have logs drying in the kiln and we’ve just about run out of wall-ready logs. In addition, the rain has been frequent and I’m getting a bit worried about “Peak Sand.” Can we get the outer wall cordwooded before October’s frost? Stay tuned…

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!

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


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

The bashful winter

Look at all the choice ones!

Like much of North America, winter seems very hesitant this year in the U.P. Usually by the end of December, we have had many feet of snow (I believe we average around 240-250 inches a year) and are merrily cross-country skiing along the miles of great trails up here. Aside from a foot or so in early December and a snow shower here and there, we’ve had nothing. Nada. Bubkes. Very annoying for skiing, but great for log prep.

Well, it looks as though winter has finally arrived. You know that saying “Too cold to snow?” Not here. We are on a peninsula surrounded by Lake Superior, so when the air is cold and dry it picks up more moisture from the lake and dumps it on us as lake-effect snow. Just last week the icy Canadian blasts came to town and it looks like the trails will be ready this weekend (the U.S. Nationals were held here a few weeks ago and they had to truck in snow!)

In the meantime, here’s how it goes:

Makes me feel Scottish...

I throw the eight-foot logs off the top of the pile. The neighbor’s dog, Grady, is very excited about critters living in the log pile, but by the time I hoist the logs off, they’re long gone.

Choppy, choppy

We set the log on our sawbuck/cutting table and peel the bark off (usually it’s mostly fallen off anyway). We “borrowed” the plans for this from Bruce Barna, who helped his daughter Nicole build a cordwood “dorm room” not too far from here. The chainsaw attaches to a hinged plate. All we do is slide the log down the table until it hits the stop, pivot the saw through the log, pull the saw back up and repeat until we’ve cut up the entire log. At this point there’s a pile of 16-inch logs on the ground.

Clare (and her hat) moving logs

We move the logs to the pile – first, we filled up the kiln, then the back of the shed, now we’re working on a pile near the sawbuck.

The shed in all its plywood-clad glory

We hope to cordwood the shed walls this summer as we’re putting up the house frame and roof. This way we can experiment with various mortar mixes and techniques. Plus, cordwood shed!

Did I mention logs?

It's better than bad, it's good

Okay, you can’t have a blog without “log.” One of the many useful features of our shed is the greenhouse/wood drying kiln in the front. As I mentioned previously, we have about 25 full cords of 8-foot long cedar logs that were soon to be pulped. In order to use them to build a cordwood home, they need to be de-barked, cut, split (some of them) and stacked for drying. This is our current task, one we will continue until there’s too much snow to get at the logs. De-barking is easy, since the logs are three years old – the bark is already falling off. Since we don’t have a splitter yet, we’re cutting and stacking them in the kiln, as well as under the shed’s overhanging roof.

The Logs of Tomorrow

We’re not exactly lumberjacks, so after three or four hours of log wrangling, chainsawing and stacking, we’re done for the day, and beat, too. If we can cut 4-5 cords this season, we’ll be happy. Some of the logs have a bit of dry rot, especially in the center (very common in northern white cedar), which will have to be removed before we lay the logs up in the walls. Fortunately, quite a few of them are, as we say in the 12-sided solar cordwood house building scene, real choice ones.