Cabin building

Modified version of chapters from "Woodcraft" by:
Kreps, E. H. (Elmer Harry) (1919-01-01). (The Project Gutenberg EBook)

at: (accessed on 21 Jun, 2012)
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The entire ebook can be downloaded with this link., but you may not be able to find an epub reader for every system, so I've included the chapters on cabin building along with my comments [in square brackets] here-below, so that you can view it with just your web browser.

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Beginning of Kreps' text >>>>>
The first camp I remember making, or remodeling, was an old lumber camp, one side of which I partitioned off and floored. It was clean and neat appearing, being made of boards, and was pleasant in warm weather, but it was cold in winter, so I put up an extra inside wall which I covered with building paper. Then I learned the value of a double wall, with an air space between, a sort of neutral ground where the warmth from the inside could meet the cold from without, and the two fight out their differences. In this camp I had a brick stove with a sheet iron top, and it worked like a charm.
[The second wall can also be made on the OUTSIDE of the original, although it will have to be lower and the roof may need extending. And the space between can be even more effective if filled with insulation, such as cattail fluff, etc.]

But that was not really a wilderness camp, and while I realize that in many of the trapping districts where it is necessary to camp, there are often these deserted buildings to be found, those who trap or hunt in such places are not the ones who must solve the real problems of camp building. It is something altogether different when we get far into the deep, silent forest, where the sound of the axe has never yet been heard, and sawed lumber is as foreign as a linen napkin in a trapper's shack. But the timber is there, and the trapper has an ax and the skill and strength to use it, so nothing more is really needed. Let us suppose we are going to build a log cabin for a winter's trapping campaign. While an axe is the only tool necessary, when two persons work together, a narrow crosscut saw is a great labor-saver, and if it can be taken conveniently the trappers or camp builders will find that it will more than pay for the trouble.
[Actually, I think a saw is essential, if not a 2-man crosscut, then a 1-2 man bow saw, or, at the very least, a saw-back machete.]

Other things very useful in this work are a hammer, an auger, a pocket measuring tape, and a few nails, large, medium and small sizes. Then to make a really pleasant camp a window of some kind must be provided, and for this purpose there is nothing equal to glass.

[Awkward tools and materials:]
Right here a question pops up before us. We are going on this trip far back into the virgin forest, and the trail is long and rough; how then can we transport an unwieldy crosscut saw and such fragile stuff as glass? We will remove the handles from the saw and bind over the tooth edge a grooved strip of wood. This makes it safe to carry, and while still somewhat unhandy it is the best we can do, for we cannot shorten its length. For the window, we will take only the glass six sheets of eight by ten or ten by fourteen size. Between each sheet we place a piece of corrugated packing board, and the whole is packed in a case, with more of the same material in top and bottom. This makes a package which may be handled almost the same as any other merchandise, and we can scarcely take into the woods anything that will give greater return in comfort and satisfaction. If we are going to have a stove in this cabin we will also require a piece of tin or sheet iron about 18 inches square, to make a safe stovepipe hole, but are we going to have a stove or a fireplace? Let us consider this question now.

[Why not a fireplace?]
On first thought the fireplace seems the proper thing, for it can be constructed in the woods where the camp is made, but a fireplace so made may or may not be satisfactory. If we know the principles of proper fireplace construction we can make one that will not smoke the camp, will shed the proper amount of heat, and will not consume more fuel than a well-behaved fireplace should, but if one of these principles be violated, trouble is sure to result [fireplace design is critical and more complex than is obvious].
Moreover, it is difficult to make a neat and satisfactory fireplace without a hammer for dressing the stones, and a tool of this kind will weigh as much as a sheet iron stove, therefore it is almost as difficult to take into the woods. Then there is one or two days' work, perhaps more, in making the fireplace and chimney, with the added uncertainty of its durability, for there are only a few kinds of stones that will stand heat indefinitely without cracking. On the other hand the fireplace renders the use of a lamp unnecessary for it will throw out enough light for all ordinary needs.
[I disagree. Such light is flickering, from a low angle, and cannot be easily moved around; A high output (mantle) lamp can be used in warm weather without heating the camp noticeably, is brighter and steady, and can be placed for best advantage]

The good points of the stove are that it can be made by anybody in a half day's time; it does not smoke the camp, does not black the cooking utensils, gives the maximum amount of heat from the minimum quantity of fuel, and will not give out or go bad unexpectedly in the middle of the winter. If you leave it to me our camp will be equipped with a sheet iron stove. While the stove itself is not now to be considered, we must know before we commence to build what form of heating and cooking apparatus will be installed. Having decided on which part of the country is to be the centre of operations, we look for a suitable site for our cabin.

We find it near a stream of clear water. Nearby is a stretch of burned land covered thinly with second growth saplings, and near the edge of the evergreen forest in which we will build our camp stands plenty of dead timber, tamarack, white spruce, and a few pine stubs, all of which will make excellent firewood. In the forest itself we find straight spruce trees, both large and small, balsam, and a few white birches, the loose bark of which will make the best kindling known. Within three rods of the stream and 50 yards from the burn is a rise of ground, high enough to be safe from the spring freshets, and of a gravelly ground which is firm and dry. This is the spot on which we will construct our cabin, for here we have good drainage, shelter from the storms, water and wood near at hand, and material for the construction of the camp right on the spot.


The first thing to settle is the size of the proposed building. Ten by fourteen feet, inside measurement, is a comfortable size for a home cabin for two men. If it were to be used merely as a stopping camp now and then it should be much smaller, for the small shack is easier warmed and easier to build. I have used camps for this purpose measuring only six and a half by eight feet, and found them plenty large for occasional use only. But this cabin is to be our headquarters, where we will store our supplies and spend the stormy days, so we will make it ten by fourteen feet. There is just one spot clear of trees where we can place a camp of this size, and we commence here felling trees from which to make logs for the walls. With the crosscut saw we can throw the straight spruce trees almost anywhere we want them, and we drop them in places which will be convenient and save much handling. As soon as a tree is cut we measure it off and saw it into logs. These must be cut thirteen and seventeen feet long, and as they will average a foot in diameter at the stump there will be an allowance of three feet for walls and overlap, or 18 inches at each end. We cut the trees as near the ground as we can conveniently, and each tree makes two or three logs. All tall trees standing near the camp site must be cut, and used if possible, for there is always danger that a tree will blow over on the camp some time, if within reach. On the spot chosen for the camp we now place two of the long logs, parallel with each other and exactly ten feet apart. We block them on the outside so they cannot be moved easily out of position. Then we place two of the short logs across the ends and in these we cut half-round notches directly over the places where they rest on the long logs, and almost half [I would rather say no less than half. I would want to be sure of not leaving unnecessary cracks] through each piece. After cutting these notches we turn the logs notched side down, and these cuts, if they have been properly done, fit snugly over the long logs, thus binding the four pieces together and forming the first round of the walls.

Corner construction

[Door placement:]
Before going farther now we must decide just where we are going to have the doorway of our cabin. We will place it on the south side, for we like to have the warm sun rays come in when the door is open, and if placed on the north or west sides it admits too much cold. We will place it near one end and then we can also put our window in the same side. About two or three feet from the corner we will cut out a section from the top of the log, making the cut four inches deep and two and a half feet wide, the bottom being hewn smooth and the ends sawed down square. Then we cut one of the balsam trees and saw a section from the butt the length of the proposed doorway. This should be not less than five feet, so we make it this length. Then we split through the centre with the axe and a pair of wooden wedges, and hew the two halves into two smooth planks. We also make a plank two and a half feet long. When these planks are finished we stand the two long ones upright in the place cut in the log and nail them firmly. We see that they stand perfectly plumb and in line with one another,
[For this purpose, an improvised plumb-bob can be made from thin cord and a rock, and a chalk-line can be made with any white powder and a cord. A level is not too much harder to improvise, but a small line level is easy to bring.]
then we nail the short plank across the top, thus completing our doorway. On this side, as the walls are laid up, we saw each log off squarely at the proper place and push it up against the door frame, fastening it there by nailing through the plank. The notches are cut to such a depth at the corners that the logs fit one against the other and this leaves no cracks to close.

To make our cabin comfortable it must have a floor and we have this in mind as we work. Before building the wall higher we will lay our sills for the floor, for it is difficult to get these cut to the proper length and fitted in place after the walls are completed and the timber must be brought in through the doorway. We cut three straight logs about eight inches thick in the middle and 14 feet long. These are bedded into the ground in the cabin, one along each side wall and the other in the centre. They must be placed at an even height and this is determined by means of a straight ten-foot pole, which when placed across these logs should rest on each. If one of them is too high in spots we dress these places down with the axe. We will now leave the floors and proceed with building the walls.
[If flattened styrofoam cups are to be used for chinking, they should be laid before the second course and each additional course of logs. You can read more about this at Cabin Fortress (E.3.)]

Round by round the logs are notched and fitted into place, until the walls have reached a height of about four feet. Then we make a window boxing of planks and fasten it in the wall in the same way we did the door frame. The ends of the logs are butted against the window frame and fastened with large nails, driven through the planks into the logs. But before making the window frame the size of the proposed window must be determined, and this is done by measuring the width of the glass and making the proper allowance for the sash. When the logs are placed in the walls we try to select timbers of such a size that one round of logs will come within about three inches of the top of the window boxing, and the next log is cut out to fit down over this window and the frame is nailed fast to this log. The same thing is done when the top of the door frame is reached, and this gives a greater degree of rigidity to the walls.


When the walls have been raised to a height of about six and a half feet above the floor sills we commence work on the gables. These are constructed by placing a full length log across the end, a shorter one on top of this, continuing thus until high enough. This is best done by setting a pole up in the end of the camp exactly in the middle of the end wall, the top being just the height of the proposed gable. From the top of this straight pole, poles are run down to each corner and these give the slope of the gables, also of the roof. The logs are then cut off on an incline at the ends to conform with the line of this pole, and are fastened one on top of another by boring holes and driving wooden pins into them. When both gables have been raised to half their height we cut two 17-foot binding poles, each six inches thick in the middle, and notch them into the logs of the gables. These logs or poles not only give more stability to the gables, but they also make a support for the roof, and are a nice foundation for a loft on which to store articles after the camp is finished. When the ends are brought up to within about eight inches of the required height a stout, straight ridge pole of the same length as the binding poles is placed on top, and notched lightly into the top log. Our camp is now ready for the roof, and what are we to use for this most important part. I have no doubt that camp roofs have caused more gray hairs for woodsmen than any of the other problems they have to solve. If it were early summer when the bark could be peeled from cedar and spruce trees we would have no trouble, but bark is not available now. About the only style of roof that we can make now is what is called a scoop roof, made from split logs. We must find a straight-grained, free-splitting wood for this, and of the woods at hand we find balsam the best, so we cut balsam trees about eight or ten inches in diameter, and make logs from the butt of each, about seven feet long, so that they will reach from the top of the ridge-pole to the walls and extend a foot beyond. These we split through the centre and hollow out each in a trough form, by cutting notches in the flat side, without cutting the edges, and splitting out the sections between. We place a layer of these the entire length of the roof, hollow side up, and notch each in place so that it cannot slip or rock. Between each set of these troughs we will place a three-inch pole, and on top of the pole we place marsh moss. Then we place over these poles a second layer of the troughs[Though made the same, I would call these pieces "caps". This will make later explanations easier.], hollow side down, and over the ridge pole we place a large, full-length trough [cap]. This latter we must make by hewing a log flat on one side and then hollowing it out, for we cannot find a tree with such a straight grain that we can split a 17-foot length without more or less of a twist.


Before completing our roof, in fact when the first layer of scoops are placed on, we must make provision for our stove pipe, for it must have an outlet through the roof, and the location the stove is to have in the cabin must be determined. A hole 12 or 14 inches square is left in the roof
[I would feel safer from the effects of flue fires if the opening (and the sheet iron) were somewhat larger. At least a 16 inch hole and 20 inch sheet. Perhaps with a sheet iron frustum to dissipate the heat]
by using a few short scoops, and this hole is covered with the sheet of tin we brought for the purpose, and a slightly oblong hole is cut in this for the stove pipe. The edge of this hole we turn up with the hammer, which makes it waterproof, and when finished it is such a size that the pipe makes a snug fit. The whole thing is so arranged that water cannot run under from the top, but this is difficult to explain.
[But, the basic idea is likely to have the sheet going UNDER the roofing above it, and OVER the roofing below it, and both side edges turned up. These edges must be under caps, not troughs, to prevent much water from spilling in.]

A roof like this causes a lot of work, in fact as much as the remainder of the camp in some cases, but if carefully made it is a good roof, warm and waterproof. It must be well mossed or snow will sift in, and the lower ends of the troughs, from where they cross the walls, should be cut deeper than the portion above. If this is not done the ice which forms in the ends of these troughs will back the water up until it runs over the edges and down the walls of the cabin. It may even be necessary occasionally during the winter to clean the snow off the lower edge of the roof and clip the ice from the troughs with a hatchet. The steeper the roof the less trouble there will be from this source.

With the roof completed our cabin becomes a real shelter and we can camp inside at night. If necessary the flooring may be postponed for a few days, but we may as well finish it at once, so we clean out the chips and commence laying the floor. This we make of straight spruce poles about four or five inches thick. In the end of the camp where our beds are to be we leave them in their natural round state, merely flattening them on the underside where they rest on the sills, to make them fit and lie firmly in their places. But when the floor has grown at this end to a width of about four feet we adopt a different plan. We now hew the poles straight and smooth on one side their entire length, and flatten the underside where they rest on the sills, also straighten the sides so they fit up snugly against one another. At the place where the stove is to be placed we leave an opening of two and a half by four feet, and around this place we fasten smooth pieces of wood about four inches thick, so that it makes of the opening a sort of box. When our floor is completed we nail down along each wall, a pole, which covers the ends of the floor poles and holds them all firmly in place.


To complete our cabin now we need only a door, a window, and something to close the cracks. For a door we split cedar or balsam wood into planks, which we place on edge in notches cut in a log, and hew down smoothly on both sides with the axe. Then we straighten the edges and measuring our door frame carefully we fit the boards into the opening, binding them all together by nailing across near each end a narrow board. We also place a strip diagonally across the door from near one corner to the opposite, to stiffen the door and prevent warping. Hinges we make of wood, fasten them together with a single large nail through each, and fasten the door to the wall. Then on the outside we hew the ends of the logs until they are flush with the edges of the door frame, and nail a flattened strip along both sides of the doorway. This is not absolutely necessary, but it gives the doorway a more finished appearance, and increases the rigidity of the wall. Our window sash also makes considerable work. For this we split soft, dead cedar and hew it into three-inch strips. From these we make a frame that will fit inside the window boxing, and make the strips of this frame flush at the corners by cutting away half of each. Then at the proper places we fit our lighter cross strips, sinking them into the wood at the ends, and fastening with small nails. Grooves are then cut in the strips and the frame itself to receive the sheets of glass, which are put in place and fastened with tacks. The window is then placed in the wall and secured by nailing narrow strips of wood against it. As a window at its best is apt to admit a lot of cold air it will pay well to spend some time at this work and make the window fit snugly.

All that now remains to be done is to close the cracks between the logs. Since our logs were of a uniform size and have been well notched down there are no large cracks, and no blocking is needed. The warmest chinking, outside of rags, which we do not have, is woods moss.
[I don't think styrofoam cup chinking permanently shrinks at all, and is certainly a very good insulator. You can see how to use it here Cabin Fortress E.3.]

That found growing on rocks and logs is best, for it does not dry out and shrink as much as marsh moss, and there is an abundance of this near at hand. We gather a few bags of this moss and with a piece of wood we drive it into the cracks all around the walls. We also keep a small quantity of this moss in the cabin, for no matter how firmly it is driven into the cracks it will shrink and become loose after awhile, and this must be tightened and more moss driven in. Our little cabin is now complete. It has taken much hard work to build it, but it is worth the effort for it is a comfortable, home-like camp. The cold winter winds may howl through the forest and the snow may fall to a depth of several feet, but here we can live as comfortably as woodsmen can expect to live in the wilds.

Stove, Bed, Wide Seats, Table, Food case, Shelves, Drying Rod (near stove)]
A single day's work will do wonders towards making a cabin comfortable. Sometimes through press of more important work, such as getting out a line of traps while the season is yet young, the trapper may well neglect these touches of comfort, and the simplest of camp furnishings will answer until a stormy day keeps him indoors, when he can make good use of his time in making camp furniture. A bed and a stove or fireplace are the only absolutely necessary furnishings to start with, if other work demands immediate attention. But in our own case such neglect is not at all necessary. The preceding chapter saw our cabin completed, that is the walls, roof and floor, all that can really be called cabin, but much more work will be required before it is really comfortable and ready for occupancy. Providing the camp with suitable furniture and adding conveniences and comfort is the next step, so while we have time and there is nothing to hinder the work we will push it along. Most important of all camp furnishings is the stove. Nothing else adds so much to the cheerfulness and home-like aspect of a camp as a properly enclosed, well behaved fire, which warms up the room, enables us to cook our food indoors, and dispenses the gloom of night by driving the darkness into the farthest corners. If the weather is cold nothing in the camp is so indispensable.

For the lodge which we built in the preceding chapter we will make a stove of sheet iron.
[If available, titanium will not rust, as iron pretty quickly will.]

I have made a number of camp stoves by riveting together four sections of new, unbent stovepipe into a square sheet, bending this into proper shape, fitting ends, and cutting holes for cooking utensils and for the pipe. But for this camp we have secured from a hardware store a pipe of sheet iron three feet wide by four feet long. We now place this on the floor of the cabin and measure off from each end 17 inches, then on each edge at the 17-inch mark we make a three-inch cut. This we do by holding the sheet metal on a block or flat topped stump, placing the corner of the axe on the metal at the proper place, and striking on the head with a billet of wood. Then we place a straight edged strip of wood across the end on the 17-inch mark, and standing on this wood we pull the end of the metal upward, bending it to a right angle. The other end is treated the same way and this leaves the metal in the form of a box, three feet long, 17 inches high, and 14 inches wide, open on top and at both ends. Now we turn this upside down and in the top we cut two seven-inch holes, as round as we can make them. These are to hold the cooking utensils. Near one end we cut a small hole, not more than three and a half inches in diameter. The edge of this hole we cut at intervals all the way around, making straight, one-half inch cuts. Then we turn these edges up, and we have a stovepipe hole, with a collar to hold the pipe in place. We now close the rear end of the stove by bending three inches of the sides into a right angle, the same amount of the top being bent down. This is the purpose of the three-inch cuts we made when we first commenced the work. Now we rivet a piece of sheet-iron into this end, using for rivets the head ends of wire nails. They must be cut short and riveted on the head of an axe. Beneath the top of the stove, between the cooking holes we rivet a folded strip of metal; this is to stiffen the top. Then we turn in three inches of the front of the stove and rivet the corners where they lap. This leaves an eight-inch opening in front over which we will hinge a door. This door must have some kind of fastening, and a simple little twist of wire working in a punch hole is easily arranged and convenient. We can make a very crude stove of this if we like, but we do not want that kind, so we take plenty of time and turn out a satisfactory article. Our stove is now completed except for the covers which are easily made. We set it up in the box-shaped opening left in the floor and fill around it with sand to a height of six inches, also fill the inside to that height. While doing this we must see that the stove stands perfectly level, and that the pipe hole is directly beneath the hole in the roof. This makes a fireproof stove and the bed of sand holds it rigidly in place. A draft is made beneath the door by scraping away a little sand. The pipe is five-inch size and we fit it with a damper for that is the way to regulate the draft and keep the heat from going up the pipe.


[The bed of Kreps' design sounded pretty uncomfortable to me, so I have described what I believe to be a much more comfortable design in Cabin Fortress J.]
<<<<< End of Kreps' text.

3rd Edition
CS102 2012