Diehard woodworkers like me can easily see the potential in just about any old, derelict log building. But such vision is hard to sustain when the same logs lie in a snowy, jumbled pile, reminiscent of dried bonfire fodder. As winter lingered on, I willed spring to come, as I was eager to begin the process of transforming this inauspicious mound of logs into my long-anticipated workshop.
Originally, my seemingly aimless pile of logs had been a sturdy homestead – the hard work of a Scottish stonemason by the name of McKinnon. Starting anew in Canada, he built the log house in 1812. It was home to generations of McKinnons until one winter’s day when the last lone occupant, John Dan McKinnon, passed away in the early 1970s. John Dan was set in his ways, so the house never had hot running water, electricity or direct access to the road. However, that was about to change.
The first step in raising the old McKinnon house was to pour the slab-on-grade foundation. Embedded with cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) tubing and surrounded by perimeter insulation, it would serve as a radiant heat source for the building. As fate would have it, I farmed this job out to a local contractor, Jim Bourne, who befriended both the project and me. A jack-of-all-trades and a character to boot, Jim freely lent his advice and his tools.
Once the foundation had cured, my work began in earnest. The first course of rotten timber had to be replaced to maintain the 9’ height of the original first-floor ceiling. During the idle winter months, I was lucky to find a spare log supply – a log barn, which was free for the taking. For a matching authentic look, I used a broad axe to hew the round spare logs into square replacement logs.
The author built the workshop floor to serve as a source of radiant heat by using PEX tubing surrounded by perimeter insulation.
Although hewing was slow, hard work, the most difficult job was cutting the replacement dovetails. Each dovetailed corner needed to mate perfectly, in order to result in a rot-resistant joint that would last another 200 years. The old dovetail joints were cut so perfectly that the two pairing faces of the dovetails were still creamy white in color after almost two centuries of service. To create new dovetails, I set the old and new logs on a level surface and used a bevel gauge taped to a spirit level to transfer the existing angles from the mating dovetail to the new log. The spirit level was horizontal for all measurements. After scribing the cut lines on each replacement log, I made many vertical cross-grain cuts with a handsaw down to my scribe lines and popped the waste wood free with a small crowbar. I used a slick to clean up the face of the dovetail joints and achieved the final fit by a trial-and-error paring process. Once all the replacement dovetails were cut, I was able to lay the foundation logs in place.
Hewing the logs and creating new dovetails in the image of the original perfectly pristine ones proved hard work.
My dad was my right-hand man all summer long. We made quick work of stacking the small logs in the four corners of the building, which served to define the window openings on the first floor. The locking properties of the dovetails defied all logic – logs were piled eight high in the corners with their ends hanging in mid-air. Later, to enclose the window and door openings, the free ends of these logs were nailed in place with vertical 2” x 6” boards called buck plates.
One day, Jim, the contractor, dropped by to see how things were progressing, so I asked him how my dad and I could lift the top logs onto the building without the use of a tractor. With a grunt, he asked, “Are you any good with hydraulics?” Not knowing what he meant, and being a woman of a few words when I am confused, I grunted back something that he took as a, “Yes.” The next morning, I had an ancient, rusty, red boom truck delivered before the crack of dawn (attributable to the fact that it did not have a valid licence plate). Its hidden limitations did not end there: it didn’t always start, it had no brakes and its only working door was on the passenger side of the cab. Nonetheless, Dad and I were tickled pink.
The author wills this old boom truck – a loner from a contractor friend who helped with the project – to fire up one more time.
Using the boom truck, we took our time balancing each log on a chain and hoisting it into place. I ran the controls, while Dad pulled the logs into position. All the while, the boom truck sprayed hot hydraulic fluid out of cracked hoses and leaky joints. Each time we moved the boom truck around the building, I strategically placed old cake tins underneath to catch the fluid for reuse. When the truck wouldn’t start, I disappeared into the engine, cleaned the points and begged for its cooperation. Time and again, the truck roared back to life and obliged, lifting even the heaviest hardwood logs to the top.
The project starts to come together as the logs are hoisted into place.
Although it’s not common practice to lay the flooring before installing the roof, we did so because it made the job of raising the trusses easier. That way, we could work safely from the second floor. In our ignorance, we pried and prodded 12’-long 2”x6” tongue-and-groove boards into place by hand over the 4’ joist spans. As you can imagine, this was an onerous task. As you can imagine, this was an onerous task. At the time, I didn’t own an air compressor, so we nailed and countersunk each nail by hand. What we were thinking, I am not sure. After the first eight hours of work, we had only laid three rows of floor. At the end of the weeklong chore, neither Dad nor I would have crouched down to pick up a $100 bill, but we did stand to admire the view from the temporary 500’ square log balcony.
Finally, it was time to raise the roof. Once again, I summoned the group of friends who had helped me dismantle the building originally. The roof structure consisted of a main girder with half trusses, which formed the roofline on either side. The day before my crew arrived, I erected two columns at the centers of the ends of the building. As a group, our first undertaking of the morning was to lift and sandwich the main girder between the end columns. Once this was accomplished, the remaining roof was assembled in half trusses with one end of the truss hanging from the girder and the other end resting on the sill plate. By the end of the day, we had the roof sheathed with only the dormers left to install.
As the summer drew to a close, paid employment beckoned and the glorious time with my logs, my father and my cherished boom truck ended. I was proud to have a shell of a workshop in place, but even more satisfied with the memories that my father and I had built together. I was still a long way from being finished, so the story isn’t over yet…