Building a Cabin was done to provide the emmigrant farmer with temporary shelter from the weather and protection from wild animals while the barn was built. As John Rempel points out in Building with Wood (1967), there was a difference between a log house and a log cabin. A cabin had no foundation, no windows, only a hole in the roof for smoke to escape, and was considered a temporary structure. A log house had hewn logs, shingled roof, glass windows, chimney, and was built on a foundation. A cabin was quickly built to last a year or two while the barn, and after that, the log house, were constructed. The English were the last to adopt the log cabin and held strong to their tradition of timber framing. But as settlers arrived in Upper Canada building with logs became universally accepted for those pioneering the backwoods.
The log cabin thrived for over 60 years until the mid 19th-century. By this time the infrastructure and availability of materials in Toronto made building a permanent homestead much easier than it was at the turn of the century. By 1850, the pioneering days were ending for Toronto. Families were now subdividing the land amongst their kin, who would forego the log cabin for a better home on their newly inherited farm. According to census reports from Canada West (formerly Upper Canada and now Ontario), from 1851 to 1861 the number of log buildings dropped an average of 10% across the province. In Toronto, the percentage of buildings made from log declined from 31% to 24%.
It was common for settlers to bring tools and building materials. Officers in the military or members of the elite would bring pre-cut timbers either dismantled from another home or bought from the mill in the home land. This required much money and manpower and was not an option for the average settler - a hut of boughs and branches would have to do until a shanty or log cabin could be built.
A typical shanty was one to three rooms, approximately 300 square feet with a wall height of about 8 logs (8 feet). A simple structure could be assembled by two experienced men in a few days. This did not allow ample time for the logs to dry out, but the farmer hoped to build a more permanent home within two or three years after settlement.
The log home was much more substantial. Typical log homes followed a three- room plan, one or two fireplaces with chimneys, and a second floor. Later in its life, the farmer would cover the logs with clapboard for protection. Clapboard also hid the building's log walls, thus disguising the structure's pioneer roots and its association with the poverty of the early years.
Wood is very sensitive to moisture. It increases in volume as moisture is absorbed and decreases in volume when moisture evaporates. Wood is constantly striving to maintain a moisture content equal to that of air - approximately 14-15%. Compare that to a newly felled tree and its moisture content of 45% and you can see the need for seasoning/drying logs.
Over time, logs and boards in a wood structure will continue to expand and contract, but if treated properly this will have little effect on the building. When logs do alter their size and shape, it is not the length that is affected but the width. One way to prevent boards from warping was to quarter saw the log so the grain ran perpendicular to the sawn boards.
The first step from round log to square timber was hewing. This process shaved away the rough exterior of the log, making it more square. This process was carried out with an axe or broad axe. The surface of the log had to be smooth in order to shed water from the building and reduce the exposure to moisture. Sometimes a plane was used for finishing the log so no roughness was present to trap the water.
Log Wall Construction
Log walls are made by laying the logs one on top of the other. The heaviest wood is preferably used for the sill course - the first row of logs resting on the foundation. The logs are arranged on the ground beforehand to find the best match for its neighbour above and below. They were all sawn at the mill to the same approximate size, but never exactly - each log has its own characteristic bend and shape. Doing this on the ground also made notching the logs for the corner joints much easier. Log walls derive their structural strength from their interlocking corners, so this was a crucial part of the process.
Corner techniques may include notching, lapped or locked styles, simple or compound dovetailing, and many lock-and-step variations. The most primitive technique was round notching - where notches were cut into the upper surfaces of the logs at the corners, with the log-ends extending beyond the joint. This method evolved into V-notching and then into the superior dovetail and its variations.
As mentioned earlier, the sill logs were also key to strength and stability. Since the entire building rested on these logs it was imperative that they be strong. Craftsmen used thicker logs for the sill course, and also took special care in the selection of these logs - choosing the hardest, straightest woods: oak, elm, larch, or beech.
If the sill log was thicker than the rest of the log work, the extra few inches of log would preferably lie on the inside of the building to prevent moisture from collecting in the plateau created by a wider sill log. In an effort to prevent moisture from seeping into the sill logs, early builders began placing a stone foundation under the corners. Over time, this form of underpinning led to a laid stone foundation.
It was preferable to have the gaps between the horizontally stacked logs as small as possible. In a barn, these gaps provided ventilation for the mows, preventing mould from collecting on the wheat, grain, or hay. If the walls of the mows were brick, the builder would leave several bricks out of the course to create gaps for ventilation. Often these "missing bricks" would form intricate patterns.
In a log house, or for certain sections of the barn, the farmer wanted to close these gaps, to keep heat in, and to keep moisture, bugs, and pests out. The gaps between the logs were filled with oakum, moss, or chinking. Oakum consisted of hemp fibres twisted into rope and laid between the flat, level surfaces of the logs. Chinking was a primitive mixture of mud, clay, grass, and moss smeared between the logs for insulation. The more ambitious farmers employed a tongue-and-groove system, or inset splines between the logs to fill in the gaps.
At Daniel Stong's First House we can see here a rare form of chinking which uses wooden wedges seated firmly between the logs. This provides a foundation for the moss and clay chinking to sit.
Round notching led to locked and dovetail notching as the farmer sought a tighter fit at the corners. It's amazing to see the variations in joinery from the different parts of Europe. Phleps' Log Building portrays the intricacies of the dovetailing and lock-and-step methods found throughout Europe. An excellent study on Canadian joinery techniques is John I. Rempel's Building with Wood (1967). The methods most commonly used in Ontario were lap keying, round notching, V-notching, and dovetailing.
Lap Keying was the easiest but also the weakest - allowing for free movement of the logs and for water to enter the joint. When using this type of joint (and the round notch joint) a tie-log was placed high up on the wall to prevent the structure from pulling apart as the soil shifted during freezing and thawing. This tie-log was usually placed along the front and back walls. Lap joints were the most unsatisfactory and made treenails or tenons necessary for extra support. One asset to lap keying was the resultant tiny gaps in between the logs. Lap keying with a half-dovetail was common among military buildings, where it was necessary to make these structures resistant to musket balls. The half-dove tailed key joint allowed for squared logs to rest right up against each other - therefore no chinking was needed and no gaps existed for balls or bullets to enter.
Round/Saddle notching was the oldest method and provided little drainage for rain and snow. The round notches worked better than laying the logs flat on top of one another, but it was difficult to get the notches to fit perfectly, given their concave nature. These loose joints were like a saucepan for collecting water. In a few years, they quickly rotted. Another problem was the log-ends were prone to twisting as the wood shrunk with the changing seasons. This twisting further increased the gaps in the joints, where even more water could collect, thus further weakening the structure.
V-Notching was sturdy but allowed water to drain into the building. It was also considered decorative in some areas and is the joint with the most variations, but they all basically perform the same way.
Dovetailing ( also called military keying) had a few variations. There were half-dovetail and full or compound dovetail joints. Its described as "self-draining" because all surfaces of the dovetail slope downwards and out, preventing any moisture from collecting and freezing in the joint. The inter-locking of each log in the wall prevented the two walls from pulling apart, shifting sideways, or twisting away from the building. Here's a shot of Daniel Stong's Smoke House (1820), a textbook example of flawless compound dovetail joints. Look how tight the edges are against one another. A modern craftsman would be hard-pressed to get the same results using tools from the early 1800s.
To enhance further the strength of the joinery, builders often employed wooden dowels or pegs (also called pins or trenails). Oak was the first choice when making these nails. Dowel holes were bored into the logs and the pins were hammered through. In extreme cases, a length of plank was mortised right into the wall, holding three or more courses of logs together.
There was always settling of the log work after construction - more so within the walls than at the notched joints. Room for settling had to be considered during construction so that a loose-fitting joint would become secure and tight.
Once the walls reached the desired height (usually determined according to by-law) a roof was built. Most ceiling joists were secured into the lengthwise-walls with a square or v-shaped notch resting on the second top-most log. Joists were done in two styles - English or Dutch/Continental. The English method had joists closely spaced, with thick planks above, and the Continental style had beams spaced wider apart with a summer beam crossing the joists at right angles for extra support.
The chimney and hearth were usually made of stone or brick. Fireplaces were between 4 to 6 feet wide. The chimney was inside the wall, with the rear of the chimney flush with the exterior wall. This required an opening in the end wall. In later log houses there was often no fireplace. A wood stove was much more efficient than an open hearth fireplace.
Windows & Doors
Windows and doors were cut in afterwards from outside with axe, auger, and cross-cut saw. If the building was being constructed on a contract basis, the builder would usually charge for each opening cut. If doors weren't made on the spot, they had to be brought in from a mill as quicly as possible. A couple days wait was far too long with all the wild animals roaming about.
The most common window used was the double hung sash, which was considered more weatherproof than the casement window. The window frame was about an inch thick, and secured into the building with squared treenails driven into round drill-holes in the log. Casement windows were found in more mid- to upper-class homes.
* Did you know that Toronto's first jail was a log building? It was located on the south side of King Street opposite Toronto Street (the first execution there was one John Sullivan - hanged in 1798 for forging a note worth one dollar (Ensminger p. 66)).