If you see a log home with round logs and chinking, that is a first indication that this could be a handcrafted home. Chinking was historically a mortar-like material that filled the gaps between the logs. Modern science has created an acrylic compound that expands and contracts with the wood; it is applied as a wide white stripe. If a handcrafted log is not scribed, then chinking is a must because the logs leave gaps along their length. Some people do use chinking as a design feature even when it's not necessary, though for the most part milled log homes are not chinked.
The Corner Will Speak Volumes
The characteristic corner of your log home will speak volumes to the person who knows how to read it. The profile and joinery system of the log will usually be reflected on the ends. For instance, on a handcrafted log home you'll see the different diameters of the stacked logs. To stack them, these corners will be notched so that each log sits directly on the log below it (like Lincoln Logs). A milled log that is saddle-notched will stack the same way (of course, every log will look exactly the same).
Because saddle-notched logs are staggered, course to course, the log ends will be visible on the interior corners of the house as well as the exterior. This provides a very rustic look. A butt-and-pass corner gives you an end where there is a space between every other log. This is because one log butts up against the intersecting log, which runs past it. These logs are all laid on the same course, so that with the interior corners of your home, the logs will come to a squared edge.
On milled logs, there are many joinery systems to choose from. In the “Swedish cope,” today’s most popular joinery, each log is scooped out to fit snugly on the curve of the log beneath, providing a smooth and natural look.
In the tongue-and-groove, or double tongue-and-groove, depending on the manufacturer,the tongues are cut into the top of the log and corresponding grooves at the bottom, creating a tight fit and easy stacking
The more traditional, early American dove-tail, is a mortise and tenon notch usually cut into squared timbers.
There are many other corner systems available, but these are the most commonly used.
Profiling Your Log
The shape, or profile, of your log is another feature that will help you decide what kind of package to purchase. Many people prefer a "D" log, which is round on the outside and flat on the inside, providing a horizontal wood-paneling look that is easy to hang pictures on. Others prefer a round log, which is a little more rustic and presents many challenges — such as how to join the logs to the sheetrock. Squared timbers, which give a more Appalachian look to the home, tend to be tall and fairly narrow, and are often grooved for the application of chinking.
The average milled log home will use pine logs in six-inch and eight-inch diameters. You can also find them in 10-inch and 12-inch diameters. Anything larger than 15 inches will probably roll you into a handcrafted home.
Cedar logs are an upgrade, and can be found in six-inch, eight-inch and occasionally 10-inch diameters.
Some manufacturers use oak, cypress, fir, hemlock, larch, poplar, spruce and walnut. These rarer woods will be available at a price upgrade.
Because of the superior products on the market today that protect all logs effectively, wood species is largely a matter of personal taste. The best rule of thumb when choosing a log species is to stay with a wood that is native to your area. The logs will adapt to the environment more comfortably.
Logs Are Insulating
Newcomers are continually amazed to discover that logs provide their own insulation. Stick-frame walls are not comparable to log walls in terms of "R-values." Logs have a lower "R-value" than insulated 2x4 walls. However, they work on the principal of thermal mass. Because of their cellular structure, logs tend to absorb the heat and hold it longer than traditional walls.
Logs will actually absorb the heat from the interior of the house (or from the sun, if facing south), and when the temperature drops at night, the walls will generate that heat back into the house until the temperatures equalize. Logs take longer to warm up, but stay warm much longer. Conversely, they stay cooler in the summer.
Some producers feature a half-log system, where the logs are attached outside and inside to 2x4 or 2x6 stick-frame walls. This adds the extra R-value of an insulated wall, along with the beauty of the log, and also makes it easier to install electrical wiring.
Ultimately, these systems are a bit more expensive than full-log, because of the additional cost of the lumber. But they do give you flexibility on the interior of your house to make some walls sheetrock, stone or tongue-and-groove.
In any case, many modern manufacturers use a half-log system on the second floor, to compensate for huge windows, which can displace so many logs that they compromise the integrity of the wall. Also, because large windows settle at a different rate than logs, the stick-framed second floor equalizes the overall settling. With the best manufacturers, you won't be able to tell on the outside where the full logs end and the half logs begin.
Once you've chosen the kind of log you want, you will discover that manufacturers each specialize in their own unique fastening system. Almost all manufacturers use double-sided foam tape between log courses. Some companies use lag screws, threaded bolts or spikes to add integrity to the walls; others use fancy spring-loaded through bolts that compress the logs. Once again, the choice becomes a personal preference.
When a Complete System Makes Sense
It would save a lot of work for the buyer to get a "turnkey" price on the logs, the lumber, the windows and doors, and the roof — what is commonly known as a "weathered-in shell." However, this complete system only makes sense if the manufacturer is local; otherwise, you'll be spending thousands of dollars to ship ordinary lumber across the country.
After all, there is no difference between a roof used on an ordinary house and a roof used on a log home. You choose the kind of roof you want, but it'll come from the same manufacturer. The same goes for the floors, the doors, the kitchen and the heating system. Windows can be a little tricky; you'll have to find a manufacturer who is willing to make an extended window-sill (or jamb) to accommodate the thickness of the logs. Most major window companies are able to do this.
Remember that log homes are completely custom. No log home company will offer you a choice of kitchens or bathrooms like a development builder. You will have to shop for these yourself, and the possibilities are limitless.
Your builder may make some decisions for you, but you will be better served by picking your own flooring, light fixtures, faucets and even door knobs.
Most manufacturers don’t want to have anything to do with the foundation; that is not their business. You can use any kind of foundation you want, but you or your builder will need to contact a local contractor to do that job.
Designing Your House
Almost every log home manufacturer has an in-house architect who will configure your plan to fit their own particular system. Unless you have a lot of money to burn, don't hire an outside architect to design your house, because the manufacturer will have to rework the plans anyway.
If you want a quick start, the manufacturer will have a set of stock plans for you to choose from and alter to fit your needs. Or you can design your home from scratch, and give them a rough set of drawings from which they will devise a set of building plans. This service is usually offered at no extra charge; there may be an up-front fee that is credited toward the final cost of the package.
Maintaining Your Home
Log homes are not maintenance-free — nor do they require an overwhelming amount of labor. Although products on today's market do a fantastic job of protecting logs from sun, rain and insects, they do need to be re-applied every three to five years, depending on the wall exposure.
This "maintenance coat" is much easier to apply than the original coats of stain, and no, you don't have to strip off the old coat first. So it's not as bad as it sounds!
However, you must inspect the logs at least once a year for excessive cracking (or checking) — especially when the check opens upward, creating a water trap. These need to be caulked on the exterior walls. Also, do everything in your power to direct rainwater away from the house; if you have an overflowing gutter, deal with it at once. A damp log attracts rot and insects.
Expect your milled log home to take anywhere from four to eight months to construct, depending on the weather, the availability of the crew (which may be working on another job at the same time) and your planning.
Protecting Your Logs From the Elements
The most important thing you need to plan for is protecting the logs and the lumber from the elements. Set aside a large space (preferably covered with gravel) exclusively for the logs; you don't want them sitting in the mud. Cover your gravel with a tarp, and bring extra tarps for the logs.
The logs are going to get scattered as the crew picks through them, and they're going to get stepped on and tossed around. They're going to get rained on, and you'll be amazed how quickly they weather.
You'll have to immediately remove the plastic wrapping when the logs are delivered, or they'll get covered with mildew. The tarps will do the job. If your windows get delivered with the log package, you should consider renting an enclosed trailer for storing them. Fragile is the operative word.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. As you may have gathered, people who build log homes tend to be more hands-on than with other kinds of construction. Log home customers are usually very well informed by the time they break ground — and they need to be! Cost overruns are often caused by unforeseen difficulties, and since your house is a one-of-a-kind, you're in for quite a challenge. Luckily, the industry has matured quite a bit, and you are no longer completely on your own.
Mercedes Hayes is a Hiawatha Log Home dealer and also a Realtor® in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. She designed her own log home, which was featured in the 2004 Floor Plan Guide of Log Home Living magazine. You can learn more about log homes from Jersey Log Homes.
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