When Dick Neville proposed building log homes for a living in Montana in the mid-1960s, his banker advised him against it.
"He said, 'Dick, get out of it before you hurt yourself,' " recalled Neville, the 72-year-old founder of Neville Log Homes, which produces 150 log homes a year in western Montana's Bitterroot Valley.
He did well to ignore that advice. Neville and other log home makers are filling a housing niche whose national sales volume has doubled in the past decade, making up about 7 percent of the custom-home market, according to the Log Home Living Institute.
Today's log homes bear little resemblance to the snug cabins of yesteryear. The average size is about 2,500 square feet but the nation's 640 log home producers also offer multi-level models that range upwards of 7,000 square feet and feature six or more bedrooms, vaulted ceilings and towering windows.
Montana leads the nation in log-home manufacturers, with some of its most successful log-home companies along the highway that cuts through the western part of the state.
On any given day, trucks loaded with logs barrel down U.S. 93, either delivering white pine and spruce from British Columbia's forests or transporting log-home packages to far-flung destinations.
Prices for packages -- which include everything from log walls to roof systems -- range from roughly $45,000 for a modest 1,200 square-foot model with seven-inch-diameter logs to $350,000 for a 6,500 square-foot house with 12-inch-diameter logs.
Those numbers do not take into account construction costs, which represent the bulk of the cost of a log home and can drive the overall expenditure to four times the package price.
"I've done everything from cute cabins to log mansions; whatever the size, they have an old-world, rustic feeling to them," said Don Stamp, a licensed architect who has designed log homes in the West's exclusive mountain communities of Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Ketchum, Idaho.
Jon Sellers, sales manager with Rocky Mountain Log Homes in Hamilton, said log structures embody the pioneering Western spirit, evoking a simpler time and slower pace.
"Log houses go back into everybody's culture, but they're identified with the West because we've marketed cowboys for so long," he said.
Designing a cabin has evolved and involves more than just improvising with an ax. Software allows designers to image a log home even before the logs are milled and then cut into shape with chain saws.
Chris Lane, sales executive with Neville Log Homes, said building a log house is a labor of love and patience. Projects can stretch over several years, including research by the buyer, design work by the manufacturer and construction by company-approved contractors.
Hand-crafted log homes, in which no two logs are alike, are built on site at the company. The logs are marked for reassembly, then dismantled and shipped to their final destination.
Eric Fulton, spokesman for the Log Homes Council, an arm of the National Association of Home Builders, said while the overall housing market has been subject to booms and busts over the past 25 years, the log-home market has experienced slow but steady growth.
The industry in the United States and Canada produced 26,000 houses in 2003, rising to 27,000 last year.
Industry representatives say East Coast states such as Pennsylvania and New York top the list for log home sales and construction but Neville, Rocky Mountain and other Montana companies have made sales to Europe, Japan and other countries in Asia and South America.