Sledge Hammer Blues…

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…

With Patric cheering him on from the side, Hoot sits proudly atop our first beam!

Hoot sits victoriously atop our first beam!

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.

The "Butt-and-Pass" method. Courtesy of

The “Butt-and-Pass” method requires re-bar pins to be driven through one course and half-way into the course below. Courtesy of

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.

Hoot swings the the big boy - the 10 lb. sledge hammer.

Hoot drives a pin on through with the 10 lb. sledge hammer. (Photo by Lori B.)

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!

Our first row, or "course", of beams complete!

Our first row, or “course”, of beams complete!

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.

A strip of fiberglass insulation serves to fill the gaps between beams.

A strip of fiberglass insulation serves to fill the gaps between beams. (Photo by Lori B.)

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.

Hoot drives a pin on through with the 10-lb sledge hammer.

Hoot starts a pin with the 5-lb sledge hammer. (Photo by Lori B.)

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!

Hoot drives a pin on through with the 10-lb sledge hammer.

Hoot catches his breath before driving yet another pin. (Photo by Lori B.)

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 take my turn with the big sledge hammer... (Photo by Lori B.)

I take my turn with the big sledge hammer… (Photo by Lori B.)

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.

That "one more beam" is finally laid.

That “one more beam” is finally laid.

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…IMG_3800 (136)

© From Creek to Cabin in 287 Days

The Transformation Begins…

Hoot and I could hardly wait for the next weekend to arrive. Having completed the layout and installation of the cabin’s foundation piers the previous weekend, we had finally begun the actual construction of our cabin. Though we certainly considered this a significant achievement, the coming weekend’s activities would mark the beginning of an even greater milestone. If all went as planned with the setup of the beam lifting rig, we would have our first course of “logs” in place and be well on our way to bringing the cabin structure to life!

Much like the previous weekend (unfortunately for Hoot), this weekend’s work also began with the task of digging three-foot deep holes with a hand-operated post hole digger. In order to construct the beam lifting rig, it would be necessary to set a 20-foot cedar pole just inside each foundation pier at the four corners of the cabin. These four cedars would form the “frame” of our beam lifting rig and, along with some rope x-bracing, provide a solid structure from which to hang the block and tackle sets that would make it possible for Hoot and I to lift the large, heavy beams in place by hand.

Hoot takes a rest after a long day of digging holes and setting posts.

Hoot takes a rest after a long day of digging holes and setting posts.

When the first hole was finished and it was time to sink a cedar post into it, we quickly realized how fortunate we were that my sister Jo and brother-in-law “Mr. P” had come to visit us this weekend – and that Mr. P was more than willing to give Hoot and I a hand with the cabin construction. Still very green, the cedars were quite heavy, so standing them upright and sliding them in the hole required the backs, legs, and arms of three old geezers, not just two. Without Mr. P’s help, I am fairly certain there would not have been enough of Granny’s Rheumatiz Medicine to help Hoot and I recover from this task! As it was, getting that fourth post tamped securely in the ground called for a short, celebratory break with our very cool friend Adolph Coors!

Taking a well deserved lunch break with our friend Adolph.

Taking a well deserved lunch break with our friend Adolph. (Photo by Lori B.)

After the break and some quick calculations, we began the final steps necessary to complete our lifting rig. First, we drilled holes and installed 12-inch long, half-inch diameter eye bolts through each cedar post at a height of 12 feet above finished pier grade. With eight-foot walls, the extra four feet of height would allow room for the length of the block and tackle and nylon straps when lifting the top row of beams. Finally, we braced the whole structure by tying half-inch diameter rope from just above each eye bolt down to the bottom of the cedar posts at each adjacent corner. This rigging of ropes formed a solid system of x-bracing that would keep the posts from bending or collapsing under the weight of the beams. Our lifting rig now complete, the moment of truth had arrived – and the time had come (finally!) to place our first beam!

Our beam lifting rig stands ready to go to work...

Our beam lifting rig stands ready to go to work…

First, Hoot and I picked out a good, straight beam for this important, base course of “logs”, as they would virtually complete the foundation of the walls. Then, using the eight-foot pry bar and a cut-off piece from one of the pier posts to set up a small lever and fulcrum, Hoot raised one end of the ~800-pound beam while I looped a heavy, tow-rope around the end. With the tow-rope hooked to the trailer ball of my pickup, I drug the beam to the north wall of the cabin while Hoot guided its placement.

Hoot spots as I pull a beam in place with the tow-rope.

Hoot spots as I pull a beam in place with my pickup and tow-rope. (Photo by Lori B.)

Hoot grinds off the stubborn ring-shanked nails.

Hoot grinds off the stubborn ring-shanked nails. (Photo by Lori B.)

With the tow-rope removed and the beam lying near the three foundation piers it would soon rest on, the next step was to prepare the beam for lifting in place. First, we had to remove all the old nails and spikes that had once helped it to form the old bridge. This was not an easy task, as each beam contained as many as 20, stubborn, six-inch long, heavy-duty ring-shanked nails that had not wanted to come out when we dismantled the bridge. Most beams also contained up to four, 12-inch long spikes that had been used to toe-nail the stringer beams to the main support beams. After breaking the claw on a three-foot crowbar while trying to remove one of the more stubborn ring-shanked nails, we finally decided to simply cut all these nails off with the grinder, and try not to get into them with the drill bit or chainsaw later on. Fortunately, though it was sometimes a struggle that required teamwork, we were able to remove all of the 12-inch spikes.

Removing the 12-inch spikes took some teamwork!

Removing the 12-inch spikes took some teamwork! (Photo by Lori B.)

After grinding and removing all the nails and spikes, the beam was finally ready for lifting into place. To accomplish this, Hoot and I once again utilized the lever and fulcrum principle with the pry-bar and post stump to lift each end of the beam and slip heavy, nylon slings around them. We then looped each end of the slings over the hooks of the block and tackle sets that were attached to the eye bolts of the lifting rig and prepared to lift the first beam. Would we have the strength to do this… just the two of us… by hand? Well, we would soon see!

Hoot uses the lever and fulcrum method to lift one end of a beam, while I slip a sling around it.

Hoot uses the lever and fulcrum method to lift one end of a beam, while I slip a sling around it. (This photo by Lori. B gives a sneak peek at some later progress)

With our first beam cleaned of nails and spikes, securely cradled in the heavy, nylon slings, and attached to the block and tackle sets, the time had finally come to test our lifting rig – and our own strength! This next step in the process would be one of the most critical of all. If we were unsuccessful, the whole project would be in limbo until we could find another solution. And, with the exception of the front wall, there was not room in the meadow between the cabin and trees to let our pickups do our pulling for us – we would just HAVE to do this ourselves!

But the angst around these thoughts would not dampen our determination to succeed. We had anticipated this moment for nearly two months, and our spirits were high! With confidence, Hoot grabbed the rope of the block and tackle on one end of the beam and I took hold of the other. As Mr. P photographed this momentous event from the side (we would have welcomed his help but, for a true test, we had to do this alone), we looked at each other, nodded our heads and, on the count of three, reached high on the hauling lines and pulled with all our might.

Raising our first beam! (Photo by Patric A.)

Raising our first beam! (Photo by Mr. P)

At first, it seemed as if we were not gaining any ground, as our first tug seemed only to stretch the ropes taught. But, grabbing another hold on the hauling lines of the block and tackle sets and, once again rearing back with all our might, the beam began to slide across the red, Oklahoma dirt, finally slapping into the foundation piers as it cleared ground level. Just one more dose of blood, sweat, and tears, along with a little lead from a couple old country boy’s asses, and the first beam of our cabin-to-be sat firmly on its foundation! We had done it! But then, somehow, I just knew we would… and the transformation had begun…

With Patric cheering him on from the side, Hoot sits proudly atop our first beam!

With Mr. P cheering him on from the side, Hoot sits proudly atop our first beam!

© From Creek to Cabin in 287 Days

Pythaga Who?!

It had been nearly a month since Hoot and I cut and hauled our cedar porch posts to the cabin site. This was mostly because the weather had not been very cooperative since then. The good thing about this short lull, is that it had given me time to draw out our design and research log cabin construction – particularly the poor-boy kind of construction, using lots of manual labor and hand tools. I knew there was no way we could manage the use of the kind of motorized equipment, such as a fork lift or small crane, it would take to raise and set the heavy beams. Neither of us owned or had access to such a rig, nor could we afford to rent the proper equipment for the length of time it would take to complete the walls of the cabin. No, we would have to build this cabin the pioneer way, or via some slightly more modern version of it at the very least.

The Internet can be a wonderful thing. Along with all the BS one is sure to encounter, it also provides a wealth of great information. In my research, I discovered the answer to all the lingering questions I had regarding design and construction of our log-cabin-to-be. In fact, most of my answers came from a site called ““. It was on this site that I discovered the building technique best suited for the eight-inch by 16-inch by 20 foot beams – and for maximizing the use of every inch of those beams. Named the “butt-and-pass” method, it provides a way to construct a log cabin without the need for notching the ends of each log. Employing this method, logs are placed on the same level with one log “butting” the side of another at each corner. The log being butted, “passes” the butting log on its way to the far corner. For strength, each row of logs, or “course” is pinned to the course below with 1/2-inch steel re-bar, placed every two to four feet.

The "Butt-and-Pass" method. Courtesy of

The “Butt-and-Pass” method. Photo courtesy of

I also discovered on this site, the answer to the beam lifting problem. On the Building Techniques page, the words “There is a process that we will use that can be done by one person…” really caught my attention! This was exactly the kind of information I was looking for! One click took me to the Lifting The Logs page of, and here I became joyously enlightened. The method described on this page entailed the use of a device called the “Block and Tackle” to raise the logs without the aid of machinery.

A diagram of the block and tackle. Courtesy

A diagram of the block and tackle. Courtesy

Greek mathematician and engineer Hero of Alexandria (Roman Egypt) first described and illustrated early block and tackle systems in his “book on raising heavy weights”. This device would be our savior, that I was sure of!

To utilize the block and tackle, Hoot and I would need to figure out some sort of method for attaching it at each end of a beam in order to lift the beam in place. Again, the answer to this dilemma came from the Lifting The Logs section of the website The method described and depicted here was advocated by the Log House Builders Association and put to use by Paul Kahle, whose photos of his lifting rig, to my fortune, were shared by the OurLogHouse website. Somebody once said, “A picture is worth a thousand words” and that was certainly the case here. Going with the design shown in the photo below, we would soon be setting the beams of our own cabin! All we needed now, was to get our hands on a couple sets of block and tackle.

Paul Kahle's block and tackle lifting rig. Photo courtesy of

Paul Kahle’s block and tackle lifting rig. Photo courtesy of So that’s how you do it! Also shown is the “Pillar and Post” technique for forming the cabin’s foundation.

With questions answered concerning building and lifting techniques, I only had left to decide on a proper design for our cabin’s foundation. Those shown on the website were of the “pillar and post” style. With this technique, concrete “pillars” are dug and poured at each corner of the cabin and every eight to ten feet in between. The tops of all the pillars are level with each other and the first course of logs is placed upon them and fastened with re-bar. Neither Hoot nor I were too keen on the idea of mixing enough concrete in a wheelbarrow, and hauling water to do so, to employ this method for our foundation. We would have to find a way that produced a similar, sturdy result, but with less work and expense.

The answer came in the form of a Time Life book I acquired from my sister Jo called “Cabins and Cottages”. In this book, the “poles and piers” method was described for foundation construction. Given the soil type and fairly shallow frost line at the cabin’s location, we decided on a variation of this method that eliminated the need to pour concrete. We would simply bury cut sections of power line poles three feet in the ground and level all the tops. These wooden pier posts would serve the same purpose as the concrete piers used by Paul Kahle and the good folks at

Hoot digs the first hole - right where Pythagoras and I have set our string line.

Hoot digs the first pier hole – right where Pythagoras and I have set our string line.

Before we could begin setting the piers, however, we first had to lay out the cabin’s perimeter. We accomplished this task using batten boards, string lines, and the Pythagorean Theorem to square the corners. Hoot’s first response to my description of this process was, “Pythaga who?!” To which I explained that the Pythagorean Theorem (a2 + b2 = c2) was a geometrical equation, developed by ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, for determining the hypotenuse of a right triangle. Using this calculation in laying out the corners of the cabin, we could ensure the cabin’s foundation was square with the world. After this simple and clear explanation, Hoot suggested that “Pythaga Whatever-His-Name-Was” and I, should take care of laying out the foundation ourselves, and he would drive the stakes and dig the holes. This sounded like a good deal to me!

And so that is how we proceeded and, by the end of that first day of the weekend, we had the three pier posts of the cabin’s north wall set and cut to finish grade. We started this process by setting the pier post at the corner with the highest ground elevation first (the northeast corner of the cabin) and working our way westward down the north wall to the next corner pier. We cut the top of the first pier on a level line about 8 inches above the ground and then used a laser level set on top of this pier as a reference point from which to shoot the proper elevation for the other piers. Once marked for height with the laser, I penciled a level line around the circumference of each pier, and finished the process by cutting along this line with the chainsaw. As the sun began to creep below the trees on the west side of the meadow, I cannot describe the feeling of pride that came over us as we looked back at our accomplishment of that first, official day of cabin construction!

Our first three piers, cut to finish grade!

Our first three piers, cut to finish grade!

The next day, Hoot and I had only to repeat this process for the other three walls and center pier of the cabin. Pythagoras and I would lay out each pier location, and Sir Hoot would dig the holes. I did help with the back-filling and tamping of the pier holes – while Pythagoras looked on, waiting for the next corner. As each new pier was tamped in, Hoot would move to dig the next one while I shot a reference mark with the laser level, drew a level pencil line around the circumference, and cut the pier we had just buried to finish grade. Then I moved up to help Hoot tamp in the next pier, and the process began again.


All the piers of the main cabin complete! Well, almost…

I must give Hoot credit for our efficiency throughout this entire project, beginning with this first process of establishing the cabin’s foundation. Efficiency of tasks and processes is Hoot’s livelihood, and he is damn good at it. Considering we were only a crew of two, efficiency had to be the name of the game if we were going to get this cabin livable in time for primitive fire arms season in late October. With the aid of Hoot’s expertise in this area, we had completed the layout and installation of all the foundation piers necessary for the main cabin structure by the end of our first weekend of actual cabin construction!

Pythagoras of Samos (Πυθαγόρας ὁ Σάμιος)Ancient Greek Philosopher and Mathematician. (Photo Credit:

Pythagoras of Samos (Πυθαγόρας ὁ Σάμιος)
Ancient Greek Philosopher and Mathematician.
(Photo Credit:

The only thing left undone at this point, was cutting the center pier to the proper elevation. But alas, Hoot’s chain saw decided to quit on us. Perhaps it had tired of hearing us boast about our efficiencies while it received no credit for its part. Whatever the reason, we were due for a couple shots of granny’s Rheumatiz Medicine by this time anyway. So, to hell with that miserable chain saw! Besides, Hoot and I had some celebrating to do while we admired our work and began to plan the next weekend’s task of constructing the beam lifting rig. Old Pythaga-What’s-His-Name would be proud, I thought – I know we were.

© From Creek to Cabin in 287 Days