Donald E. Walker, a 29-year-old Waterford, Va., resident, is a practitioner of the little-known speciality of log cabin restoration. He can find a cabin, photograph it, sketch it; number the logs, tear it down, transport the logs to a new site, and build it back again.
But, he said, he'd rather not work on one if the owner isn't willing to work on it, too. "Everybody has a vision of what a cabin should look like. And there is no way that I can make a cabin match that vision. Unless the owner is willing to work and supervise there is no way I can satisfy him," Walker said.
"There is growing interest in old cabins," he said, "and a fair amount of work being done all over the East Coast." The interest appears to be a long term boomlet, with restored cabins increasing in value, old cabins becoming more scarce and the whole enterprise of cabin restoration becoming highly fashionable.
"We might do one or two this year and three or four next," said Walker, who works primarily in Loudoun County. But cabins alone are not enough to support a construction business and Walker's organization takes other jobs throughout the year to keep nine people employed during all seasons.
There is no accurate count of the number of log cabins still in existence across the United States - many are gradually disintegrating in abandoned backwoods glades and many are hidden under the plaster and clapboard added by families as they prospered and expanded their homes.
Walker will not put a price tag on a finished log cabin, saying, "every one is different and you can spend anywhere from a little to a lot of money. The cost is generally comparable to new construction."
Land is expensive and cabins cry out for seclusion, which trnaslates into acres and thence into dollars. The abandoned log cabin alone might cost as much as $5,000.
From there on the cost range is infinite. A multiroom cabin of rustic luxury with central heating, extra bathrooms and double-paned windows could cost, including materials and labor, $100,000 or more.
Most cabins in the Wahsington area were built out of oak or chestnut logs and the most common size was about 16 by 18 feet with a half-story sleeping loft, Walker said.
Most were made with a "dovetail" notch that left a large space between the logs to be filled with mud, lime, stone, chunks of wood or hogs hairs. Now Walker chinks the spaces with fiber glass covered with a special mortar, which he says is a trade secret. Electrical outlets and wiring are usually built into those spaces before they are filled.
"Every old cabin needs some replacement logs," Walker said, and they are taken from other cabins beyond repair.
Walker will use a power saw to cut the replacements to the proper length, but the rest of the work - notching and trimming the log to fit - will be done with antique hand axes that require skill and caution. An axe can bounce off a 200-year-old length of virgin timber and chop the artisan's leg instead.
The logs wear out at a rate of about one-quarter every 100 years, Walker guesses, so a cabin with 8-inch timbers has a considerable lifespan if it is taken care of.
"The quality of a cabin is often determined by the quality of the logs," Walker said. "You didn't have any cabin builders. You learned from your father and passed it on to your sons."
"You could probably build one in a season with a couple of good-sized sons to help. The stone house was the high-class house of the day, built by professionals," Walker said. "If a family had any money they wouldn't have been in a log cabin."