Lincoln Logs Have Instructions, Don’t They?

Now that we had a start on our second row of beams, it was time to step back a bit and think about some minor details. As you might recall from an earlier post, the design of this cabin was something we struggled with a bit in the beginning. But, once the timbers had spoken, I put pencil to paper and created a conceptual design of the cabin’s exterior and floor plan. This allowed Hoot to get an idea of what I had in mind, as well as providing a plan and dimensions for the layout of the cabin’s foundation. It also led to further detail drawings that would serve as instructions for putting this cabin together. Without a well-thought-out plan for the walls of the cabin, we would surely find ourselves experiencing at least one, or many, “Oh Shit!” moments. And the simple fact was, we had just 23 beams to work with – each approximately 20 feet long – and that was it. We would need every inch of each and, if we made just one wrong cut, we were screwed.

And so, while on a week-long business trip with only my laptop to serve me, I turned to my old friend Excel to “draw” the necessary detailed elevations for each of the four cabin walls. As I developed each drawing, it would be extremely important to design window and door dimensions such that they served the purpose of both providing adequate entry and lighting effect, while also achieving the most efficient use of every inch of the limited number of beams at our disposal. In doing so, I referred to my conceptual drawing to keep in mind the cabin’s south (front) and east elevations and it’s floor-plan, and to the “drawing” in my head for the north and west elevations. My idea was that we would build the north wall solid to help keep the chill out in winter, and build two windows into each of the other three walls, for a total of six windows. That would provide a window in each bedroom and two each in the kitchen and living/dining areas where we would need the most light. I hoped this design would provide the “leftover” pieces of beam needed for us to build the cabin eight feet high from floor to ceiling.

Original Concept Drawing of "The Cabin"

Original Concept Drawing of “The Cabin”

Before putting pencil to paper, so to speak, I tossed over the cabin’s design and dimension in my head to try and get an idea of the size the windows would need to be in order to provide just the right amount of lumber to construct four walls to our desired height. Ideally, the interior floor-to-ceiling height in the bedrooms would be eight feet, but with the floor framing and flooring taking up about seven inches of the bottom beam, we would have to stack the walls seven beams high to have that kind of clearance. I was not sure six windows and a door would provide the amount of surplus pieces of beam we would need to get there. So, I would just have to go through some quick Jethro Bodine cypherin’ to see if I needed to plan for six or seven beams high.

I knew from years of framing houses in my youth, exterior doors are typically three feet wide by six feet, eight inches high. This equates to 80 inches, or the height of five beams, but the bottom of the door had to be at floor level, which meant notching half-way down into the bottom beam (eight inches), figuratively cutting up through four full beams (64 inches), and reaching the door’s top by notching halfway up through the beam that would go over the door (eight more inches, for a total of 80 inches). So, the door opening would yield, roughly, four, three-foot pieces (or 12 linear feet) of unused beam.

Let's see now... 2 winders gozinta 2 walls 2 times. 1 door and 2 winders gozinta 1 wall, 1 times. A naught winder gozinta 1 wall 1 times. So now, we can cypher that 2 plus 2 is 4, plus 2 is 6, plus 1 is 7, minus 1 naught is 6 again, ain't it? Yep, believe we gonna have ta build that cabin 6 beams high fer sure. Now where'd Granny hide that Reumatiz medicine...

Let’s see now… 2 winders gozinta 2 walls 2 times. 1 door and 2 winders gozinta 1 wall, 1 times. A naught winder gozinta 1 wall 1 times. So now, we can cypher that 2 plus 2 is 4, plus 2 is 6, plus 1 is 7, minus 1 naught is 6 again, ain’t it? Yep, believe we gonna have ta build that cabin 6 beams high fer sure. Now where’d Granny hide that Rheumatiz medicine…

Considering the planned layout of the kitchen, with the stove and kitchen sink each positioned under a window, the sills would need to be just above the counter-top’s back-splash, or about 40 inches above the floor. This measurement would put the window bottom at the top of the third row of beams, which was great, because I did not want to do a bunch of notching in the thick beams – notching the beams above and below the door would be enough work, and enough waste! And, so one would have enough window area to provide both adequate lighting and a comfortable view while standing at the stove or kitchen sink, I figured the kitchen windows would need to be two beams (32 inches) high and three to four feet wide. Considering my goal was to gain as much extra beam as I could, I decided on a width of four feet, which would yield eight linear feet of “spare” beam per window opening. Counting the two bedroom windows, which I planned to be the same dimension as the kitchen windows, all four window openings would provide a total of 32 linear feet of “leftover” beam.

Including the door, we were now at 44 linear feet of beam gained – basically, just over two full beams – but we needed five beams gained to build the cabin seven beams high. There were only two windows left to design, so it was rapidly becoming obvious that we would have to settle for bedroom ceilings that were only about seven feet, five inches above the floor. Oh well, as Hoot would remind me later, we were not planning to invite any NBA basketball players out for a weekend at the cabin anytime soon, at least not that he knew of. Resolving myself to the fact that we were just building to six beams high, I decided on a width of three feet and three beams (or four feet) high for the dining/sitting area windows. This dimension would provide adequate lighting for the area and a great view of the meadow and reservoir while seated at the table having a meal or reading a book. Each window would yield nine linear feet of “extra” beam, or 18 feet total. The final tally of lumber provided by the door and window openings was 62 linear feet, or roughly three full-length beams.

Though still two beams shy of what it would take to build the cabin seven beams high like I had originally hoped, we would have two, full beams left over with walls built only six beams high. So, instead of using precious lumber from the bridge planks to form the perimeter of the ten-foot by 20-foot front porch as I thought we would have to, we could use these beams instead. One beam would be cut in half for each side, and the other would be full length for the front. With this design, we would only have to use the plank lumber for the porch’s floor joists and, if we were lucky to have enough, its deck boards.

Basic South Elevation - Time to add dimensions to each piece of this "kit-cabin".

Basic South Elevation – Time to add dimensions and numbering to each piece of this wall.

After much consultation with Jethro, I finally began my drawing process by equally sizing the rows and columns of the first Excel sheet I had opened in order to create a sort of electronic graph paper on which to “draw”. Once I had my graph paper ready, I formatted the borders of the top row and left column such that they created “rulers” I could use to ensure my elevations were drawn to scale, where one cell equaled four inches in length and height. Now, I was ready to create the instructions by which we would put the cabin’s walls together. I started with the south elevation, which I had previously diagrammed in my conceptual drawing. This wall would have our front door and two windows – one dining/sitting area window, and one kitchen window – so I figured it was a good wall with which to start the process.

First, using my “rulers” as a guide, I established the south wall’s perimeter by adding borders to the outsides of the cells within a rectangle of the proper length and height. Next, I added borders to the tops of cells in the rows that were 16 inches apart. This created horizontal lines that represented each beam in the wall. I then added solid-line, vertical borders to represent the ends of the beams of the east and west walls that would pass the south wall’s beams, while adding dotted-line borders for those that would butt the south wall. To establish the floor line, which would also set the level for the bottom of the front door, I used another variation of the dotted-line border. Now with the beams and floor-line fully represented, I had only to draw in appropriately placed and sized windows and front door – and the “drawing” part of this elevation was complete. After finishing this “prototype” drawing, the remaining three elevations were a snap.

South Elevation Detail with dimensions and numbering.

South Elevation Detail with dimensions and numbering.

Now it was time to give all these chunks of beam in my elevations a dimension and “ID number”. This would ensure each beam was cut so it could be utilized to its fullest – leaving little or no scrap. The first step was to add dimensions to each piece of the puzzle so I would know what lengths I had to work with. Then, beginning with the bottom beam of the south wall, which would be the full, 20 feet in length, I began the “ID” process by labeling this beam “1s” (beam #1, south wall). Working my way up to beam “2s”, I could see that I needed 17 feet of it for the two pieces on each side of the door, leaving a three-foot piece that would fit perfectly at the left of the living/dining area window. Moving on to beam “3s”, I labeled the pieces to the left and right of the door, noting they would require exactly 11 feet of beam, leaving nine more feet to work with. I found efficient usage for this in various places on the next two rows with only about one foot of beam “3s” leftover – actually less than that when accounting for the kerf (width) of the chain saw blade. Progressing to beam “4s”, I marked 11 feet, eight inches of it to finish out the remaining cuts for the south wall, leaving eight feet, four inches of “carry over” for the east wall. Full-length beam “5s” finished out the south wall and it was time to move around the corner to the east wall and continue the process until I had completed all four walls.

East Elevation Detail - Approximately 5' carry-over for west, and final wall.

East Elevation Detail – Approximately 5′ carry-over for west, and final wall.

After working through this elevation, I had marked the usage of another five beams (ten total so far) with two walls yet to go.

North Elevation Detail - Six, full-length beams.

North Elevation Detail – Six, full-length beams.

With six, full-length beams, the north wall was an easy one, so I let Jethro do the cypherin’ for me while I checked out Granny’s latest batch of Rheumatiz medicine. According to Jethro, we were now at 16 beams used. Taking another swig from Granny’s jug, I reckoned I had no reason to doubt him…

West Elevation Detail - Twenty one beams used, leaving roughly eighteen inches of "scrap".

West Elevation Detail – 21 beams used, leaving two for the porch foundation.

Completion of the west elevation brought me to the end of the process – and left us approximately 18 inches of “scrap” and two full beams. We would use these last beams to make a nice, solid perimeter foundation for our cedar posts that would hold up a ten-foot by 20-foot covered front porch!

Many times, Hoot and I would enjoy the shade and scenery of the front porch for lunch breaks and a celebratory beer (or two) after a hard day’s work at our goal to “dry-in” and complete the cabin before the start of the Primitive Firearms deer season in late October. But that’s another story…

© From Creek to Cabin in 287 Days

If I Were a Cabin… The Timbers Speak

Most of the old bridge still lay in stacks at the edge of the sandy, windblown cotton field beside Stinking Creek, a spot that had been its home for the last seven and a half years. But the runner planks, the bridge pieces with perhaps the most character and stories to tell, now sat tucked against the cedar, Blackjack, and walnut trees that line the north end of a quiet meadow, slightly uphill from a glistening, 20-acre flood-control reservoir. This was a favorite place of Hoot’s late father-in-law, Albert, and now the peaceful meadow would be the new home of the lumber from Stinking Creek bridge and, someday, the cabin we would build from it.

This photo by my wife captures the character of the "runner planks". If these planks could talk...

This photo, taken by my wife, captures the character of the “runner planks”. If these planks could just talk… I imagine the stories they could tell!

Having had the luxury of some much appreciated help from Ronnie and his tractor the day before, Hoot and I returned to the cotton field to cut the bridge beams in half – a length that would, hopefully, allow them to be loaded on the 16-foot trailer and hauled to the meadow. With the beams laid flat and about three feet apart in the sand of the field, we simply had to measure the center of each, mark a line along the edge of a framing square, dig a trench in the sand under this center line for saw clearance, and cut each beam in two with my 20-inch chainsaw. In little time at all, we were looking at 23, 20-foot beams ready to be loaded and hauled away.

The odd beam – the 23rd beam – was the center support beam which, before the flood, had been attached with huge spikes to large, wooden pylons, or piers, that were driven vertically into the creek bed. Originally, there were two other support beams – one at each end – upon which the 11, 40-foot long “stringer beams” sat, but both were torn from their piers and ripped out from underneath the bridge during its trip down the flooded creek. The stringer beams, spaced approximately two-feet on center, were toe-nailed to these support beams with large spikes, and the deck boards – the “bridge planks” – were attached cross-ways on top of the stringers. The runner planks were then nailed side by side across the bridge planks, in one row three planks wide and one row four planks wide, providing a “roadway” for the vehicle tires.

Wooden Stringer Bridge over Spring Creek, just a few miles west of where the bridge over Stinking Creek washed out.

Wooden Stringer Bridge over Spring Creek, just a few miles west of where the bridge over Stinking Creek washed out.

In Oklahoma, most “wood stringer” bridges of this style, including Stinking Creek bridge, were built in 1940 and reconstructed in the 1960’s. According to the National Bridge Inventory, Stinking Creek bridge was reconstructed in 1965, and ultimately replaced (after the flood) with a modern, concrete bridge in 2009. And now, 47 years later, the old bridge was about to undergo a major renovation – like no other of its kind. I wondered if its now scattered pieces and parts lay anxiously anticipating the transformation ahead? Did they think about what we had in store for them? Did they wonder where they were going and what they would be? If so, they were not sharing their thoughts with us, and Hoot and I were going to have to come up with the cabin’s design on our own.

The draw that always served as "Camp"

The draw that always served as “Camp”.

For the location, choosing the quiet meadow as our cabin site was a fairly easy choice. “Camp” had always been much closer to the water, tucked in a narrow, wooded draw between two north/south geographic features – a ridge on the west and a ditch on the east – but this traditional location just would not do for our cabin site. Though not a thickly wooded draw, the walnuts, oaks, and cedars (without a good deal of thinning) were too close to allow safe room for the cabin we had in mind. One good wind or ice storm, and we could be looking at major damage to the roof structure. Besides, attempting to dig foundation pier holes amongst all those tree roots would have had Hoot telling me to jump in that lake for sure! No, Albert’s meadow, with its sandy soil, good drainage, and spectacular view of the reservoir, was most definitely the spot for our cabin!

Looking towards the reservoir from Albert's meadow. This would be our view from the cabin's front porch.

Looking towards the reservoir from Albert’s meadow. This would be our view from the cabin’s front porch.

The two rows in front are the runner-planks. The other four rows are the cross-planks.

The two rows in front are the runner-planks. The other four rows are the cross-planks.

With our location set, we had, at least, a place to stack and store the planks – and eventually the beams – from Stinking Creek bridge. But, after the beams were cut in half and we discovered they were still MUCH too heavy for two old country boys to lift onto a trailer by hand, Hoot and I spent that fifth day of our adventure hauling all the cross-planks (the deck boards) to the meadow’s edge. And, as we made each trip back and forth from cotton field to meadow, we continued to discuss the cabin’s design. This was the next, and perhaps the biggest, decision we still had to make.

Keeping economy in mind, Hoot had always talked about, and envisioned, a simple “lean-to” structure for a cook/sleeping “hut”. This could be built, he mused, fairly inexpensively using a “pole barn” design with corrugated metal siding and a simple, dirt floor. Being quite an astute camper, Hoot would have been completely satisfied with such quarters, but I had much more in mind for the glorious amount and type of wood provided by Stinking Creek bridge. With this pile of lumber, I thought, we could likely frame a structure of the same dimension as the bridge – 20 feet by 40 feet or, since all good cabins should have a front porch, maybe 20 feet by 30 feet with a ten-foot, covered front porch. Hmm… This was going to require a good deal of thought.

Hoot spots for Ronnie as he loads the beams on his trailer

Hoot spots for Ronnie as he loads the beams on his trailer

The next weekend, Ronnie brought his tractor, four-wheel-drive pickup, and 24-foot goose-neck trailer down to the cotton field to load and haul the heavy beams to the cabin site for us. With hay forks attached, this was a fairly easy task for old John Deere. Hoot worked as Ronnie’s spotter as each of the heavy beams (estimated at 800 pounds each) were placed on the trailer. With Hoot providing plenty of help, I took advantage of the opportunity to snap some photos of the process. I do not know why we failed to think about taking pictures as we worked those first two weekends, but finally my wife suggested I bring a camera along to start documenting our progress. After several photos and a count of 11 beams, the trailer was squatted on its suspension springs as far as we dared, and so we departed the cotton field with the first load.


Hoot goes after another short plank to fashion a ramp for rolling the beams to the ground.

Without having the luxury of Ronnie’s tractor at the cabin site, we would have to unload the beams by hand. After discussing the possibility of using my pickup and a chain to drag them off the back of Ronnie’s trailer one by one, we hit on another method – we would simply roll them off the side. Right. Sure. Maybe “simply” should not have been included in the description of this method. But I digress. So, we leaned a couple four-foot pieces of runner plank against the side of the trailer and, using the eight-foot pry bar, crow bars, and a lot of just plain country boy grit, we rolled each beam to the ground and stacked them two and three high. This was Ronnie’s turn to “bout have a goddamned heart attack”. But, he (thankfully) did not and, with one more trip, all the beams (and planks) from Stinking Creek bridge were stacked at the meadow’s edge.

Hoot and the Bad Boy Buggy prepare for gathering porch posts.

Hoot and the Bad Boy Buggy prepare for gathering porch posts.

The next day, still lacking a definite plan for the cabin structure, Hoot and I decided to take our chainsaws to the other side of the reservoir to gather cedars for our front porch posts. Whatever its design, we had decided the cabin would have a front porch and the posts would be cut from local cedar trees – this much was certain. We were aware of a spot where several appropriately sized cedars had been cut some years before and, having dried over that time, these would make perfect porch posts. All we had to do was trim them up a bit, cut them to length, and then drag them out of the woods and over a ridge with my electric, four-wheel drive Bad Boy Buggy. Once we had them on the other side of the ridge, we could load them on the 16-foot trailer and haul them with my pickup truck back across the reservoir dam to the cabin site.

This stout cedar tree was released from the bondage of this brush pile and given a new home on the front porch of our cabin

This stout cedar tree was released from the bondage of the brush pile, so it could have a new home on the front porch of our cabin.

While trimming limbs from one of the larger cedars, I began to envision what a nice corner post it was going to make for our front porch. I thought about how all the beautiful, wood posts, fashioned from cedars harvested on this land, would look quite natural and at home in the meadow on the other side of the reservoir. And, as I cut the main trunk about ten feet up from the base, and freed the tree from the tangle of the brush pile in which it had been trapped, it felt as if the cedar was somehow thankful, appreciative of the opportunity for a new life. I wondered if the massive bridge timbers felt the same about being freed from the creek bank. I thought about how we could best honor them, as we would the cedars, with a place on the cabin that would show off their natural beauty and rugged strength. And then, at that moment, it came to me. We would stack the timbers one on top of the other, log cabin style. “That’s it!”, I told Hoot, “We were going to build a log cabin!”

Our cedar porch posts sit atop the massive beams of Stinking Creek bridge

Our cedar porch posts sit atop the massive beams of Stinking Creek bridge

I had always dreamed of building a log cabin, and now, with the gift of Hurricane Erin, we had the materials to do just that. At eight inches thick and 16 inches high, the massive, rugged wood beams would make excellent “logs” for cabin walls. I did some quick calculations in my head. It would take six beams to make a wall eight feet high, and 24 beams would make four solid walls. We had only 23 beams, but the cabin would need a door and some windows to provide light and ventilation in warmer weather. What would be cut out for the door and windows would surely make up for the lack of a 24th beam. The cabin would have to be smaller than Hoot and I had first talked about, but I was sure we could make do. I was not yet certain, however, how we would manage without having the luxury of modern equipment to handle the heavy beams but, if the pioneers could do it, I knew, somehow, we could do it too. After all, we just had to do it! The timbers had finally spoken…

My wife captures the character of the beams in this photo.

This photo, taken by my wife, shows a row of stubborn ring-shanked nails that once held the cross planks in place.

© From Creek to Cabin in 287 Days