What to Know Before You Purchase A Log Home...
Understanding the Basics
As we start to research log homes, it quickly becomes apparent that there is
much more variety than one would ever think. Not only do log homes come in
all shapes and sizes, but the logs themselves come in as many variations as
you can imagine. Once you decide on the look you want, you can start
eliminating manufacturers that don't provide your system.
There are two categories of log homes: handcrafted and milled log homes.
Initially, you may not realize what you are looking at, but there are some
basic guidelines that will clarify the differences. A handcrafted log home
is just that; the logs are peeled by hand, notched by hand, and in many
cases, each log is scribed to fit exactly on top of another log.
In many handcrafted homes, the logs are stacked alternately, so the large end of a
log is stacked on top of the tapered end of the log beneath. A milled log
home will feature logs that are uniform in shape, and the logs will be cut
to fit together, such as with a tongue-and-groove or Swedish cope, so that
they stack easily and evenly. There is a big price difference between a
handcrafted and a milled log home. This is mostly because of the intense
labor required to construct a handcrafted home, and because of the larger
diameter logs that are normally used. The vast majority of homes built
today are milled log homes.
If you see a log home with round logs and chinking, that is a first
indication that this is could be a handcrafted log home. Chinking was
historically a mortar-like material that filled the gaps between the logs.
Modern science has created an acrylic compound that expands and contracts
with the wood; it is applied as a wide white stripe. If a handcrafted log
is not scribed, then chinking is a must because the logs leave gaps along
their length. Some people do use chinking as a design feature even when
it's not necessary, though for the most part milled log homes are not
The characteristic corner of your log home will speak volumes to the person
who knows how to read it. The profile and joinery system of the log will
usually be reflected on the ends. For instance, on a handcrafted log home
you'll see the different diameters of the stacked logs. To stack them,
these corners will be notched so that each log sits directly on the log
below it (like a Lincoln Logs™ toy). A milled log that is saddle-notched
will stack the same way (of course, every log will look exactly the same).
Because saddle-notched logs are staggered, course to course, the log ends
will be visible on the interior corners of the house as well as the
exterior. This gives a very rustic look. A butt-and-pass corner gives you
an end where there is a space between every other log. This is because one
log butts up against the intersecting log, which runs past it. These logs
are all laid on the same course, so that with the interior corners of your
home, the logs will come to a squared edge.
On milled logs, there are many joinery systems to choose from. Today, the
most popular joinery is called a "Swedish cope". This is where each log is
scooped out to fit snugly on the curve of the log beneath. It gives a very
smooth and natural look. Another joinery system is the tongue-and-groove,
or double tongue-and-groove depending on the manufacturer. The tongues are
cut into the top of the log and corresponding grooves at the bottom. These
create a tight fit and stack easily. A more traditional, early American
notch is called the dove-tail, which is a mortise and tenon notch usually
cut into squared timbers. There are many other corner systems available,
but these are the most commonly used.
The shape, or profile of your log is another feature which will help you
decide what kind of package to purchase.
Many people prefer a "D" log,
which is round on the outside and flat on the inside. This gives you a
horizontal wood-paneling look, and is easy to hang pictures on. Others
prefer a round log, which is a little more rustic and presents many
challenges - such as how to join the logs to the drywall. Squared
timbers, which give a more Appalachian look to the home, tend to be tall
and fairly narrow, and are often grooved for the application of chinking.
The average milled log home will use pine logs in 6" and 8" diameters. You
can also find them in 10" and 12" diameters. Anything larger than 15" will
probably roll you over to a handcrafted home. Cedar logs are an upgrade,
and can be found in 6", 8" and occasionally 10" diameters. Some
manufacturers more rarely use oak, cypress, fir, hemlock, larch, poplar,
spruce, and walnut. These rarer woods will be a price upgrade. Because of
the superior log care products on the market today that protect all the logs
effectively, the wood species largely becomes a matter of personal taste.
The best rule of thumb when choosing log species is to stay with a wood that
is native to your area. The logs will adapt to the environment more
Newcomers are continually amazed to discover that the logs are their own
To compare a stick-frame wall to a log wall by using the
"R-value" is not comparing "apples to apples". Logs have a lower "R-value"
than insulated 2x4 walls. However, they work on the principal of thermal
mass. Because of the cellular structure of logs, they tend to absorb the
heat and hold it longer than traditional walls. The logs will actually
absorb the heat from the interior of the house (or from the sun, if facing
south), and when the temperature drops at night, the walls will generate
that heat back into the house until the temperatures equalize. They take
longer to warm up, and stay warm much longer. Conversely, they stay cooler
in the summertime.
Some producers feature a half-log system, where the logs are attached
outside-and-inside to 2x4 or 2x6 stick-frame walls. This adds the extra
R-value of an insulated wall, along with the beauty of the log, and also
makes it easier to install electrical wiring. Ultimately, these systems are
a bit more expensive than full-log, because of the additional cost of the
lumber. But they do give the added ability to vary the interior of your
house, so that some interior walls could be drywall, stone, or
tongue-and-groove. In any case, many modern manufacturers use the half-log
system on their second floor, to compensate for the huge windows, which may
displace so many logs that the wall's integrity could be compromised. Also,
because the large windows settle at a different rate than logs, the
stick-framed second floor equalizes the overall settling. With the best
manufacturers, you won't be able to tell on the outside where the full logs
end and the half logs begin.
Assembly varies between different log home manufacturers
Once you've chosen what kind of log you want, you will discover that
manufacturers each specialize in their own unique fastening system. Almost
all manufacturers use double-sided foam tape between log courses. Some
companies use lag screws, threaded bolts, or spikes to add integrity to the
walls; others use fancy spring-loaded through bolts that compress the logs.
Once again, the choice becomes a personal preference.
It would save a lot of work for the buyer to get a "turnkey" price on the
logs, the lumber, the windows and doors, and the roof - what is commonly
known as a "weathered-in shell". However, this complete system only makes
sense if you are local to the manufacturer; otherwise, you'll be spending
thousands of dollars to ship ordinary lumber across the country. After all,
there is no difference between a roof used on an ordinary house and a roof
used on a log home.
You choose the kind of roof you want, but it'll come
from the same manufacturer. The same goes for the floors, the doors, the
kitchen, and the heating system. Windows can be a little tricky; you'll
have to find a manufacturer that is willing to make a extended window-sill
(or jamb) to accommodate the thickness of the logs. Most major window
companies are able to do this.
Remember... log homes are completely custom!
No log home company will offer you a choice of kitchens or bathrooms like a development builder. You
will have to shop for these yourself, and the possibilities are limitless.
Your builder may make some decisions for you, but you will be better served
to pick your own flooring, light fixtures, faucets and even door knobs.
Most manufacturers do not want to have anything to do with the foundation;
that is not their business. You can use any kind of foundation you want,
but you'll need to contact a local contractor to do that job, or have your
builder do so.
Almost all log home manufacturers have an in-house architect who will
configure your plan to fit their own particular system. Unless you have a
lot of money to burn, don't hire an outside architect to design your house,
because the manufacturer will have to rework the plans anyway. If you want
a quick start, the manufacturer will have a set of stock plans for you to
choose from, and alter to fit your needs. Or you can design your home from
scratch, and give them a rough set of drawings from which they will devise a
set of building plans. This service is usually offered at no extra charge;
there may be an up-front fee that is credited toward the final cost of the
Log homes are not maintenance-free... nor are they overwhelmingly laborious.
Although the products on today's market do a fantastic job of protecting the
logs from sun, rain and insects, they do need to be re-applied ever three to
five years depending on the wall exposure. This "maintenance coat" is much
easier to apply than the original coats of stain, and no, you don't have to
strip off the old coat first. So it's not as bad as it sounds! However,
you must inspect the logs at least once a year for excessive cracking (or
checking) - especially when the check opens upward, creating a water trap.
These need to be caulked on the exterior walls. Also, do everything in your
power to direct rainwater away from the house; if you have an overflowing
gutter, deal with it at once. A damp log attracts rot and insects.
Expect your milled log home to take anywhere from 4 to 8 months to
construct, depending on your weather, the availability of the crew (are they
sharing your job with others at the same time?) and your planning. The most
important thing you have to plan for is protecting the logs and the lumber
from the elements. Set aside a large space (preferably covered with gravel)
exclusively for the logs; you don't want them sitting in the mud. Cover
your gravel with a tarp, and bring extra tarps for the logs. The logs are
going to get scattered as the crew picks through them, and they're going to
get stepped on and tossed around. They're going to get rained on, and
you'll be amazed how quickly the logs weather. You'll have to immediately
remove the plastic wrapping when the logs are delivered, or they'll get
covered with mildew. The tarps will do the job. If your windows get
delivered with the log package, you'd be best served to rent an enclosed
trailer to store them in (FRAGILE is the operative word).
But I'm getting ahead of myself. As you may have gathered, people who build
log homes tend to be more hands-on than with other kinds of construction.
Log home customers are usually very well informed by the time they break
ground - and they need to be! Cost overruns are often caused by unforeseen
difficulties, and since your house is a one-of-a-kind, you're in for quite a
challenge. Luckily, the industry has matured quite a bit, and you are no
longer completely on your own.
About the author: Mercedes Hayes is a Hiawatha Log Home dealer and also a
Realtor in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. She designed her own log home which
was featured in the 2004 Floor Plan Guide of Log Home Living magazine. You
can learn more about log homes by visiting