A log cabin conjures up a whole range of images for Americans and for many has become the symbolic antithesis of modern technological life.
For some, finding buying and restoring a log cabin is much more than a real estate investment. It is an attempt at a new, more simple lifestyle.
In restoring a log house, it is very important to sort out the reality of pioneer housing from the romantic mythology that the 30th century and Hollywood have added to it.
Log houses were not romantic to the people who built them. They were the easiest to build and the cheapest housing available. They were made of materials - trees, mud, stones, animal hair - that were right outside their doors. Logs for some came from land that had just been cleared for planting.
Not everyone could make a log house. It required specific skills. Logs had to be squared with a broad axe. Notches, joints, and pegs had to be cut by hand. The logs hd to be fitted together on the ground, separated, and then lifted into position.
It generally took a team of four men several days to complete the raising of a house. It was not a simple task and there were generally building specialists within a commumity. Neighbors helped neighbors to make the job go faster.
A log houses was never really finished. As soon as the residents had enough money they added another room, put clapboard siding on the exterior and replaced the wood shingle roof with a metal roof (particularly if the house was close to a railroad). They plastered the interior walls for warmth and appearance, built a stairwell to replace the ladder that led to the loft and added a mantle to the fireplace.
As they got more money, they too carried out "home improvement" projects.
There are many "improved" log houses still in use in the small towns of rural Virginia, Western Maryland and West Virginia. If you are lucky enough to own one of these, do not strip away the siding and attempt to achieve the "log cabin" look.
The additions have a value of their own and should be retained. Do replace any wide aluminum siding with narrow wood or aluminum clapboards. Avoid any other 20th century building materials that are not in keeping with the style of the house.
For other log houses, the ones that have not been taken care of, the first task is to look for structural damage form either not or termites. Probe the wood with an ice pick or penknife. If it goes in more than an inch, there is damage.
The sills, the logs or beams that rest on the foundation and support the house, are particularly vulnerable. They are very difficult to replace. The plate logs, the ones that support the roof, are also susceptible to moisture damage but are easier to replace. Wall logs can be reinforced with metal rods and wood chips can be mixed with epoxy to fill gaps.
Since log houses were never warm in the winter, consider adding some form of insulation. The chinking, the wood or stone chips that were used to fill the gaps between the logs, and the daubing, the clay or mortar that sealed the gaps, kept out the wind and rain but not the cold.
In modernizing a log house, foam strips can be used for the chinking to help insulate the interior. For those who do not mind a modern adaptation, foam panels can be attached to the interior walls with furring strips and covered with wallboard. It is not rustic but it is warm. If you use the foam, install smoke detectors. The foam will give off highly toxic fumes in a fire. Those who have tried it say the comfort is worth the potential danger.