Before we begin, there needs to be several important distinctions made when discussing the concept of a log cabin. A log cabin, a log cabin home, and a log home can all be used interchangeably when discussing the architecture and style. However, a timber-style home does not always fit within the concept of the log cabin architecture, though it may have some elements which it has adopted. When putting the original log cabin home within its historical context, keep in mind that like the New England Colonial designs, its primary purpose was functional rather than aesthetic. If there is a word that goes hand-in-glove with log cabin architecture it is “traditional.” It brings to mind images of the Old West, protection from harsh winters, and a centerpiece for the Early American farmer’s parcel of land. Many of the log cabin homes today can be found in sparsely populated areas of the Western and Midwestern parts of the country, echoing its heritage and expansion as the settlers moved westward.
One of the most obvious and simplest architectural features of a log home is that it is made out of logs. But the type of logs that are used is more a matter of personal taste than a rigid requirement for a specific type of wood. In fact, many designers will decide on a specific type of wood to match the owner’s and builder’s personal taste as it connects with the overall design of the home. For example, if an owner wanted their log cabin to blend in with the surrounding environment, it would use wood from the surrounding natural area. Another obvious feature that can be seen from the inside is the natural coziness that a log home offers. From the logs on the fireplace heating the home to the polished natural wood floors, there is an expectation of a warm, personal atmosphere that defines the log home. Instead of plastered or prefab walls, there is only the surrounding wood emanating a natural warmth in both color and composition.
Remaining indoors for the moment, another unnoticed advantage of the log cabin home are the acoustics. In many log cabin homes there is plenty of empty space despite its smallish size. Compared to many other types of homes, instead of sound being echoed around a room it is quietly absorbed by the natural wood surroundings. It’s one of those features you really need to reflect on to appreciate, and is most often noticed in a different way – how the log home offers a calming, less stressful living environment.
One of the words often used to describe the interior feel of a log home is “cozy.” This perception leads to the question of whether a large log cabin home, measured in terms of the total number of square feet of living space, has the same cozy feeling as that of a log home half its size. A general rule often applied is not to be concerned with the total square footage of the home but of how the interior space has been divided to create individual rooms. Logs that are used to support the structure are often markers that define the beginning and ending of living spaces.
A distinctive characteristic of the log cabin is it is never more than one story high. Modern designs will try to violate this rule, but a purist knows that in the spirit of the original log cabin homes one story is all that is allowed. This is one feature that adds to the aforementioned coziness of the home, while also defining its functionality as a single family structure. If you find a staircase in a log home it will lead to a short trip to an attic, bedroom, or storage space – the area generally referred to as a loft.
Not only is a fireplace an essential characteristic of a log home, it also serves as a family gathering place, a guest area, and the primary source of heat for the home. The material may either be stone or heavy brick, but its location inside the home will be at the center to maximize air flow and heat throughout the home. Many modern log homes will have a glass door near the fireplace that leads to a storage area for firewood to prevent running out during winter storms.
While the early log cabin homes became a part of the natural surroundings as a practical necessity because the wood for the home was cut from the surrounding area, the modern log home continues in this tradition but from a more aesthetic perspective. Blending in with the natural environment gives the home a sense of connecting with nature, an important element for log cabin owners. Locating the cabin near a stream or other source of fresh water is both practical and adds to the exterior beauty of the home.
One type of home that many people are familiar with is the Appalachian type of log home. To be drawn back to the days of yesteryear, one would have mental images of rows of logs notched at the ends, small windows, and a solitary entrance. Because of the simple tools available during the time the logs would be cut in a straightforward square or rectangular shape, and its overall design reflects the same simplicity. The chimney for the fireplace would be made of stone. If the original log cabin exists today it is likely to show clear indications the base home has been expanded upon. The roof will be slanted and the eaves will be a prominent part of the exterior structure. Though porches would later become an obvious part of the modern Appalachian, the earliest log cabin homes will not have this structure. It demonstrates the need for functionality and practicality over aesthetics.
Windows on many Appalachian style log cabin homes will be small, reinforcing the need for retaining heat in the winter months and relying on the fireplace as a light source during the shortened number of hours of daylight. The modern version will have larger sections of glass windows and doors to accentuate the need for light, while using modern interior insulation techniques to keep the home warm throughout the year.
Moving on to another style of log home, the Cabin Refined design, this is more of what many people envision the early architecture of the log cabin to be. Appalachian styled designs can be expansive when compared to the earliest log home structures, but the Cabin Refined will be found to have an overall small floorplan that matches its exterior. While larger and more modern versions of the log home will have what may seem an overabundance of glass, it is difficult to do the same with this design that doesn’t allow much exterior space for anything but the basics.
One interior feature that makes the Cabin Refined design unique is while the actual size of the home measured in square feet is smallish, the cabin itself does not seem cramped or unlivable. It is likely that this design was the forerunner of the idea that all log cabin homes are cozy. Remember that it was mentioned earlier that the amount of living space does not define the interior of a log cabin style home, but how that space has been divided up to compartmentalize each living area. When thinking about the Cabin Refined design it is hard to think of anything but a single story structure.
A peculiarity that is often overlooked when looking at a log cabin style home is the fact that it used no nails to secure the structure. The log home as we know it today was actually created in the 1600’s by early Swedish settlers, who lived in similar cold climates back in their homeland. These earliest of the Cabin Refined concepts had only a single room to live in – again for practicality. That room would measure either 10 x 12 or 10 x 20 feet in size, basically the area of an early 1920’s American type living room. It was used as the primary living space. What may surprise some people is that some of these early log cabin homes had glass windows and the loft functioned as the primary place for sleeping.
In discussing the basic construction of the log cabin home, the issue of what to do with the space between the individual logs needs to be addressed. The same technique used more than 400 years ago can be applied today – filling in the spaces with wood chips. This is both a frugal and practical answer to the problem. Frugal because there are likely to be plenty of wood chips laying around from the cutting and hewing of the logs; practical because jamming in those chips will prevent the cold winter winds from penetrating the walls and act as a loose type of insulation. The modern versions will use a different filler material, but a true log style home will not have the logs perfectly fitted together. Those types of homes fall closer into the Timber style of home design.
While the early log cabins were chosen because of the speed and simplicity they could be constructed, the same principles can be applied today to build your own log cabin. There are log cabins to be found in the interior of Alaska, illustrating that the sturdiness and practicality of the design can stand up to some of the most extreme climates using all-natural materials. That included the roof, which is rainproof and serves as insulation.
Ending with more of an emphasis on the technical side of things, there are three basic types of construction you will see when looking at a log home. Some websites will argue for 4 types but the focus here is on the basics.
The first of the three types is the Full Scribe home. It is constructed to be very weather resistant even in the harshest climates. Part of that construction also contributes to its interior room energy efficiency, making it a long term investment as well. The house is made entirely of logs, bringing you back to the earliest days of architecture and design. Despite the basic materials and methods used in its construction, there is no practical limit to the size of the home you want to build. However, you will have to practically budget as these are the most expensive of the three types to construct.
The second type is the Post and Beam. This type is the most popular of the three because its horizontal and vertical structures are made of logs, but other materials such as cinderblocks and the common 2 x 6 beams. These options give the Post and Beam type considerable flexibility in design. It is difficult to find any major drawback by choosing this type, but it does require you to carefully examine the land area you will be building it on.
This third type, the Timber Frame, is included here as a matter of completeness but purists may consider this not to be an actual log home. The major difference between the Timber Frame and Post and Beam is the clearly square-ish features of the Timber Frame. That is because the posts are cut as squares and rectangles, and you lose the round features of the natural log. One of the listed advantages of the Timber Frame style is you minimize the exterior visual characteristics of the home being a “log” home while being able to get the same traditional cozy feeling from the inside. But this raises the purist question of whether it can truly be considered to be a log home.
Log homes are most often found in rural areas because they do require a fair amount of space in and around the home. When you think of the stereotypical “Abe Lincoln” log cabin of the 1800’s you are actually not far away from the architecture of the modern log cabin. Modern versions are likely to be larger in size, but the simplicity of design and construction are the hallmarks of the design.