Sunday morning of March 4th, 2012 brought with it both the quiet stillness of a beautiful, clear Oklahoma spring day, and the booming excitement of seeing our cabin walls begin to take shape. Having reached an important milestone the day before – and proving, with the placement of our first beam, that we could do this thing the old-fashioned way – Hoot and I hoped to make some real progress setting more beams today. After spending most of our Saturday constructing the lifting rig, we only had time, by the end of the day, to set one beam. But there were 22 more still stacked at the side of the meadow…
Prior to setting the beams upon the foundation piers, each pier had to be marked to indicate where the butt end and sides of the four, first-row beams should be placed. To accomplish this, we called on our old friend Pythagoras for help in squarely marking out the cabin’s perimeter on the top of each pier. We marked the corner piers to align the “butt” end of a beam so it sat upon roughly one-half of the pier’s diameter, with the “pass” end of the adjacent beam resting on the remaining half. We also marked where the inside of the beams should align such that each beam’s outside face would be flush with, or slightly overhanging, the outer edge of the foundation piers. This would protect the piers from water pooling on top and causing decay.
After completing the layout and setting a beam, the next step in the process required recalling (from an earlier post – Pythaga Who?!) a discussion of the butt and pass method of log cabin construction. Employing this method, each log, or beam in our case, must be pinned to the one below it using lengths of 1/2-inch steel re-bar placed every two to four feet. For the first row of beams, we only had three re-bar pins to install – a pin driven through the beam and into each of the three foundation piers it sat on. To accomplish this task, we began with an old, Craftsman 1/2-drive, T-handle electric drill that had been my dad’s – powered by my gasoline-fueled generator. We fit the drill with a 1/2-inch diameter, 16-inch long auger bit, which would just make a hole through the depth of the beams. Once drilled, we (or, more properly in most cases, I should credit Hoot) then used a five-pound hand sledge to start the pins, and followed up with a ten-pound sledge hammer to drive them through the beam and beyond – approximately eight inches into the foundation pier below.
Three beams and nine re-bar pins later, our first row, or “course”, of logs was in place! Hoot and I looked at our finished cabin “foundation”, and then at each other, with a knowing that we were now on our way to having the walls of the hunting cabin of our dreams finished – and that we could do this ourselves, with only a limited set of modern tools and equipment. We also knew that it was not, by any stretch of the imagination, going to be easy. But with daylight still left to burn, we were not ready to call it a weekend just yet. We had time left to set at least one more beam, and the excitement of finishing the first course was still fresh in our minds!
Before placing that “one more beam” on the second course, Hoot and I had to lay a strip of fiberglass insulation on top of the first-row beam below. At first, we tried tacking the insulation down with a bead of caulking, but the Oklahoma wind would have none of this idea. Finally, having no staple gun with us this day (which would have been a more appropriate tool for the job), we drove sixteen-penny nails through it every four feet or so and bent them over to form poor-man staples. Installing this strip of insulation would fill the gap between the beams created by irregularities in the surface and squareness of each beam. When our beam stacking was complete, we would fill the remaining gap at the inside and outside faces of the beams with “chinking”, but that is a topic for a future post.
With the insulation now securely in place, we had only to rig the beam for lifting with the block and tackle, place it properly, drill our holes, and drive the re-bar pins. Perhaps that last phrase, “and drive the re-bar pins”, with its simple structure and sound, falsely indicates simplicity of the task itself. So let me just clear that up. Until this “one more beam”, driving of the re-bar pins had been a breeze – for we were driving them 16-inches through a pre-drilled hole and then another eight-inches into a vertically-buried pier post, with the grain of the wood. Now, moving beyond this base row of beams, it would be necessary to expand the number of pins from three to five, (providing one pin every four feet), and pound, not drive, them into the solid beam below, perpendicular to the grain of the wood.
Because we are both good students, Hoot and I began the process of pinning the beams in strict accordance to the “rules” associated with the butt and pass method of log cabin construction. These rules allow pre-drilling of the top log, but not of the log below, making it fairly easy to drive the pin through the 16-inches of pre-drilled beam with a five-pound hand-sledge. However, the rules of the method also dictate one not drill the log below or sharpen the end of the re-bar pins (effectively creating nails), in order to avoid splitting the lower log – especially when driven at the end of the logs where the corners are formed. This portion of the pin-driving process, therefore, requires a bigger tool – a long-handled, ten-pound, full-blown sledge hammer – like those that the convicts can be seen swinging as they bust rocks at the beginning of the George Clooney movie, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”.
Red-faced and panting after driving the first one or two pins, Hoot looked at me and said, simply, “That’s damn hard“! “Sure seems like they would drive easier if we just grind a little point on the end.” So, I explained to Hoot that, no, we could not sharpen the pins, as it would potentially create a split in the beam below. This is because a blunt end crushes the grain as it is driven through the wood, where as a sharp point tends to separate the grain as the pin is driven, and this is what causes a split. Though I believe Hoot understood the science behind this, I am pretty sure he was not convinced it should apply to these dense beams, in this heat, and with him on the end of the ten-pound sledge hammer!
So, being the team player and good friend that I am, I gladly relieved Hoot of the sledge hammer to take my own turn at pounding in the re-bar pins. Like Hoot, I found that, after driving the pin through the pre-drilled hole of the top beam, pounding it the last eight inches into the solid beam below got “damn hard”. However, I was still not tempted to break with the rules and agree to do what Hoot had suggested. No, this was not something to find a way around, it was just another challenge and bit of hard work I was sure we could endure. We would just take turns to give the other guy a chance to rest and we would be just fine.
I cannot tell you (because I do not remember exactly) at what point It was when, after pounding in yet another blunt pin with the ten-pound sledge hammer, Hoot’s rebellious, redneck, country-boy side finally said, “Screw this!” I can, however, tell you that by the time this happened, there was no argument coming from me. For, by this time, we had burned up my dad’s old Craftsman drill and one 16-inch drill bit, and we had bent over, straightened, and bent over again, countless re-bar pins while attempting to drive them fully into the beams. Yes, Hoot and I both had succumbed to the Sledge Hammer Blues, and Granny Moses did not have enough Rhuematiz Medicine in the cupboard or root cellar to bring us out of our misery. So, we cheated and ground our re-bar pins to a point. Sorry – let the purists sue us.
But now, armed with a powerful, new, one-half-inch-drive Dewalt “D-handle” drill, a new 18-inch-long, one-half-inch diameter auger bit, and sharpened re-bar pins (well, not sharpened to a spear point, but at least tapered) Hoot and I were, once again, geared up to make some real progress! And so it was, that with an invigorated spirit, a swig or two of Rhuematiz Medicine, and a swift kick in the ass to the Sledge Hammer Blues, we continued this journey…
© From Creek to Cabin in 287 Days
It’s too late now but there’s an easier way. You can drive the pins in with a hammer drill. They make an attachment for electricians to drive those 10′ steel ground rods in the ground. Usually it’s it’s a STS type shank with a cup on top that you place over the ground rod.
Thanks for your comment Sam. Too bad I wasn’t writing this blog as we were going through the construction of the cabin, instead of a year later! Might have saved myself some tendonitis. But the hard, manual labor of the project still had its place in the pride and fulfillment aspect, not to mention helping two old codgers get back in some decent physical shape – at least for a little while.