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Old-Style Building Technique Makes a Comeback
The Lake Superior region grows a wealth of trees – pine, cedar, maple, birch. With such an abundant natural resource, it’s no wonder that for centuries the people who have taken up residence here have turned to wood as their major home-building material.
Recently a traditional wood construction method has been enjoying a comeback. Called cordwood masonry in the United States, or stackwall masonry in Canada, the same technique goes by the monikers of stovewood, stackwood and log-end construction.
Like the iconic log cabin, cordwood masonry construction uses cut logs. But cordwood masonry produces a very different look.
Log construction works with long cuts, using logs perhaps 20 feet long. The large logs require lots of labor and heavy equipment. Logs are stacked lengthwise so when you look at a log cabin wall, inside or out, you see the entire run of the log and get that Lincoln-log look. The walls of a typical log-constructed building are as thick as the diameter of the logs used, often around 10 inches.
A cordwood masonry wall uses shorter cuts and not always a full rounded log. The smaller, shorter logs are stacked and mortared together, similar to a stone wall. In fact, at first glance to those unfamiliar with the technique, a cordwood home might appear as a stone masonry wall. Or like a stack of cordwood.
You don’t see the full length of log; you see only the cut end.
Construction of cordwood masonry homes peaked in the 1930s during the Great Depression. It was a cheap, easy method to create housing. By the 1950s, its popularity declined but it has had a resurgence, thanks in part to its ease of construction, its economical aspects and unique beauty.
If you want to see an example of cordwood construction near Lake Superior, you might consider driving to the end of U.S. Highway 41. Really, I do mean the end.
U.S. 41 starts in Miami and, like a summer snowbird, travels 2,000 miles north to Copper Harbor, Michigan, where Lake Superior’s shore dictates the end of the road.
In the small town at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, you’ll find Spirit of the North, the cordwood masonry home, sitting on a grassy knoll. You’ll also find Johanna Marie Davis, a certified massage therapist and traditional Reiki master, who built the home where she now lives and works.
“This form of construction really appealed to me,” she says. “It’s been around a long time, it’s economical … and I liked the idea of being able to use natural materials from this area. Plus it’s like living inside a giant tree house. Some cordwood homeowners seal the wood, but I didn’t, so the wood continues to breathe and the house always smells wonderful.”
All of the walls are from locally cut cedar, mainly from trees removed during a road-building project at nearby Hunter’s Point.
Johanna and her former husband did much of the work themselves after the cut trees were hauled to the site.
“We shaved the bark off in the spring and cut to length and let it dry over the summer,” she says.
The worst problem came that fall. “We started construction September 1, 2004, and had the building enclosed by Thanksgiving. But it was a miserable fall, lots of rain and cold temperatures. Because masonry work emits water as it dries, we had condensation inside the building. We had to bring in dehumidifiers to keep going.”
The 2,000-square-foot, two-story home was completed by 2006.
The downstairs features an open kitchen-living great room, a bathroom and two bedrooms, one of which Johanna converted to her massage room. She also uses the living room as the waiting area for clients. Upstairs is a huge master suite with a bath, sitting space and a meditation room.
In addition to the basic cedar logs in the exterior walls, the home incorporated materials from local sources. “The lintils, doorframes and cupboards in the kitchen and laundry are cedar,” Johanna lists. “The stairway was all handscribed cedar. The inside doors throughout the downstairs are all handcrafted-cedar barnstyle. We recycled bricks from the old Fifth Street in Calumet to frame the outside windows. The flooring is red maple from Sicklers Mill in Mohawk. All the large beams throughout the downstairs are spruce, which was local deadstand that people donated from their properties here in town. The upstairs bath is all done in maple, and the beams and stair railing are pine upstairs.”
Aside from that first fall, the house has been almost maintenance free. “We did a little bit of caulking the second year, and I’ll do a little more this year. But that’s only twice in eight years. I vacuum the walls at least once a year, and that’s really all I do.”
Johanna says interior temperatures are easily controlled. “During the summer, when temperatures are in the 80s, we can go about four days before I notice the temperature increasing inside the house. And in the winter, I light the wood-burning stove. Once the walls heat up the interior of the house stays constant.”
For those considering cordwood construction, Johanna has just a few pieces of advice: “Use cedar logs. They don’t decay as quickly, and they deter insects. And make sure your logs are really dry. Some others who built after us didn’t, and when there was shrinkage, there was a lot of shrinkage. With wood, you’ll always have shrinkage and expansion, you can actually hear that happening in any log building, so really dry your logs to keep that to a minimum.”
The home style suits Johanna and her business.
“The cedar always smells so lovely, and cordwood has such a warm homey ambiance,” Johanna says. “It always feels like you’re bringing the outside in.”
Cordwood – 1, 2, 3, 4
No one knows who first decided to use the woodpile as a blueprint for home construction. In Canada and the northern United States, there are 100-year-old examples, while cordwood masonry homes in northern Greece, northwestern Finland and Siberia are thought to be more than 1,000 years old.
But just why would you want to live in a woodpile? I’ll give you four good reasons
ONE: It’s ecologically efficient, and cheaper than most methods.
Because you’re using cut logs, usually 16 to 24 inches long, you can use leftover slash from commercial logging operations or even your own woodpile. You can harvest your building materials with just a saw and a pickup truck. Just make sure the wood is debarked (bark attracts moisture, and moisture will destroy the wood) and has been dried for at least a year.
When it comes to wood, cedar is often a first choice, but other woods also work. Softwoods are better than hardwoods (because of the expansion factor as the wood dries over time), but most builders use what’s locally available. You can mix woods, though most people don’t. It all should be adequately wdry to avoid shrinkage.
TWO: Anyone can do cordwood masonry. Since the individual logs are short, they are easy to pick up and move into place. (Cleaning your garage is probably harder work.) Your logs don’t even have to be whole, they can be split in half or quartered. The mortar – usually a mixture of cement, sand, sawdust, and builder’s lime – can be mixed in a wheelbarrow and applied with a hand trowel. The process is labor and time intensive, but you don’t need heavy equipment and most anyone can do it.
THREE: You can dramatically increase your insulation factor without dramatically increasing your budget. Longer lengths of log mean more insulation. With a regular log home – unless you have a permit to harvest redwoods and the equipment to move them – your walls will usually be no thicker than 10 inches (the diameter of the tree). But with cordwood masonry, if you use 16-inch logs, your wall will be 16 inches thick. Or 20 inches thick, or 24 – you decide. In a frigid northern climate, the ability to increase your insulation with almost no additional expense is a real advantage.
FOUR: Cordwood masonry is visually beautiful. The method is also flexible with lots of room for creativity. Cordwood masonry homes can be round, square or almost any shape you want. You can embed additional visual interest (rocks, crystals, glass bottles) into the mortar with no loss of structural integrity.
Lesley DuTemple is an award-winning children’s author of more than two dozen published books.