The Preservation and Repair of Historic Log Buildings


The Preservation and Repair of Historic Log Buildings

Bruce D. Bomberger

U.S. Department of the Interior
National Park Service
National Center for Cultural Stewardship & Partnerships
Heritage Preservation Services
Technical Preservation Services

Table of Contents

The intent of this Brief is to present a concise history and description of the diversity of American log buildings and to provide basic guidance regarding their preservation and maintenance. A log building is defined as a building whose structural walls are composed of horizontally laid or vertically positioned logs. While this Brief will focus upon horizontallylaid, cornernotched log construction, and, in particular, houses as a building type, the basic approach to preservation presented here, as well as many of the physical treatments, can be applied to virtually any kind of log structure.

Log buildings, because of their distinct material, physical structure, and sometimes their architectural design, can develop their own unique deterioration problems. The information presented here is intended to convey the range of appropriate preservation techniques available. It does not, however, detail how to perform these treatments; this work should be left to professionals experienced in the preservation of historic log buildings.

Despite the publication since the 1930s of a number of books and articles on the history of log construction in America, some misconceptions persist about log buildings. Log cabins were not the first type of shelter built by all American colonists. The term "log cabin" today is often loosely applied to any type of log house, regardless of its form and the historic context of its setting. "Log cabin" or "log house" often conjures up associations with colonial American history and rough frontier life (Fig. 1). While unaltered colonial era buildings in general are rare, historic log buildings as a group are neither as old nor as rare as generally believed. One and twostory log houses were built in towns and settlements across the country until about the middle of the 19th century, and in many areas, particularly in the West, as well as the Midwest and southern mountain regions, log continued to be a basic building material despite the introduction of wooden balloon frame construction (Fig. 2). By the early 20th century, the popularity of "rustic" architecture had revived log construction throughout the country, and in many areas where it had not been used for decades.

A distinction should be drawn between the traditional meanings of "log cabin" and "log house." "Log cabin" generally denotes a simple one, or oneandonehalf story structure, somewhat impermanent, and less finished or less architecturally sophisticated. A "log cabin" was usually constructed with round rather than hewn, or handworked, logs, and it was the first generation homestead erected quickly for frontier shelter. "Log house" historically denotes a more permanent, hewnlog dwelling, either one or two stories, of more complex design, often built as a second generation replacement. Many of the earliest 18th and early 19th century log houses were traditionally clad, sooner or later, with wood siding or stucco.

Historical Background

No other architectural form has so captured the imagination of the American people than the log cabin. Political supporters of 1840 presidential candidate William Henry Harrison appropriated the log cabin as a campaign symbol. The log cabin was birthplace and home for young Abe Lincoln, as well as other national figures, and assumed by many 19th century historians to be the very first type of house constructed by English colonists. In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner in his influential paper, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" suggested that European colonists had adopted this means of shelter from the Indians.

More recent 20th century scholarship has demonstrated that horizontal log buildings were not the first form of shelter erected by all colonists in America. Nor was log construction technology invented here, but brought by Northern and Central European colonists. Finnish and Swedish settlers are credited with first introducing horizontal log building in the colony of New Sweden (now Pennsylvania) on the upper shores of Delaware Bay in 1638, who later passed on their tradition of log construction to the Welsh settlers in Pennsylvania.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, new waves of Eastern and Central Europeans, including Swiss and Germans, came to America bringing their knowledge of log construction. Even the ScotchIrish, who did not possess a log building tradition of their own, adapted the form of the stone houses of their native country to log construction, and contributed to spreading it across the frontier. In the Mississippi Valley, Colonial French fur traders and settlers had introduced vertical log construction in the 17th century.

Through the late 18th and early 19th centuries, frontier settlers erected log cabins as they cleared land, winding their way south in and along the Appalachian valleys through the back country areas of Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. They moved westward across the Appalachian Mountain barrier into the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys transporting their indispensable logcraft with them, into Kentucky and Tennessee, and as far to the southwest as eastern Texas. Log buildings are known to have been constructed as temporary shelters by soldiers during the Revolutionary War, and across the country, Americans used logs not only to build houses, but also commercial structures, schools, churches, gristmills, barns, corncribs and a variety of outbuildings (Fig. 3).

Around the mid19th century, successive generations of fur traders, metal prospectors, and settlers that included farmers and ranchers began to construct log buildings in the Rocky Mountains, the Northwest, California, and Alaska (Fig. 4). In California and Alaska, Americans encountered log buildings that had been erected by Russian traders and colonists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Scandinavian and Finnish immigrants who settled in the Upper Midwest later in the 19th century also brought their own log building techniques with them. And, many log structures in the Southwest, particularly in New Mexico, show Hispanic influences of its early settlers.

While many parts of the country never stopped building with logs, wooden balloon frame construction had made it obsolete in some of the more populous parts of the country by about the mid19th century. However, later in the century, log construction was employed in new ways. In the 1870s, wealthy Americans initiated the Great Camp Movement for rustic vacation retreats in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Developers such as William Durant, who used natural materials, including wood shingles, stone, and log -- often with its bark retained to emphasize the Rustic style -- designed comfortable summer houses and lodges that blended with the natural setting (Fig. 5). Durant and other creators of the Rustic style drew upon Swiss chalets, traditional Japanese design, and other sources for simple compositions harmonious with nature.

The Adirondack or Rustic style was balanced in the West with construction of the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, designed by Robert C. Reamer, and begun in 1903 (Fig. 6). This popular resort was tremendously influential in its use of locallyavailable natural materials, especially log, and gave impetus to Rustic as a true national style. From the turn of the century through the 1920s, Gustav Stickley and other leaders of the Craftsman Movement promoted exposed log construction. During the 1930s and 40s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) used log construction extensively in many of the country's Federal and State parks to build cabins, leantos, visitor centers, and maintenance and support buildings that are still in service (Fig. 7).

Traditional Log Construction

Plan and Form

When settlers took the craft of log construction with them onto the frontier, they successfully adapted it to regional materials, climates and terrains. One of the most notable characteristics of the earliest 18th and 19th century log houses is the plan and form. The plan can sometimes provide clues to the ethnic origin or route of migration of the original inhabitant or builder. But in the absence of corroborating documentary evidence, it is important not to infer too much about the ethnic craft traditions of a particular log house.

Historians have identified a number of traditional house plans and forms as prototypes (Fig. 8). They were often repeated with simple variations. The basic unit of each of these types is the one room enclosure formed by four log walls joined at their corners, called a single "pen" or "crib." The single pen was improved upon by installing interior partitions or by adding another log pen. Some variations of historic log house plans include: the typically midAtlantic "continental" plan, consisting of a singlepen of three rooms organized around a central hearth; the "saddlebag" or doublepen plan, composed of two contiguous log pens; and the "dogtrot" plan, formed by two pens separated by an open passage space (sometimes enclosed later), all covered by a continuous roof. The continental plan originated in central and eastern Europe and is attributed to 18th century German immigrants to Pennsylvania. Nonlog interior partition walls form the multiroom plan within the exterior log walls. The saddlebag plan consists of two adjoining log pens that share a central chimney. A saddlebag is often the evolution of a single pen with an end chimney, expanded by adding a second pen onto the chimney endwall. The saddlebag was built in a number of different regions across the country. The dogtrot plan may be seen with variation in many parts of the country, although it is sometimes, perhaps erroneously, considered the most typically southern, because its covered passageway provided both air circulation and shelter from the heat. All these plan types were typically built in the form of one or oneandonehalf story settlement cabins.

A somewhat different form evolved in the West around the middle of the 19th century which became especially distinctive of the Rocky Mountain cabin. While the entrance doorway to most earlier log houses was generally placed beneath the eaves, as a means of adapting to the greater snowfall in the Rockies, here the entrance was placed in the gable end, and sometimes protected from roof slides by a porch supported by two corner posts created by an extension of the roof beyond the gable wall (Fig. 9).

From the late 18th through the mid19th centuries, Americans also built many substantial twostory log houses in towns throughout the eastern half of the country. In rural areas twostory log houses were sometimes built to replace earlier, firstgeneration settlement cabins, but just as often the early hewnlog house was retained and enlarged. A second story was added by removing the roof and gables, constructing a second floor, laying additional courses of logs, and building a new roof, or reassembling the old one. Each generation of owners might expand an early log core building by adding on new log pens, or masonry or wood frame extensions. The addition of a rear ell, or infill construction to link a formerly freestanding outbuilding, such as a kitchen to the log main house was particularly common. Such a layering of alterations is part of the evolution of many log buildings.

Corner Notching and Other Fastening Techniques

Corner notching is another of the characteristic features of log construction. Most notching methods provide structural integrity, by locking the log ends in place, and give the pen rigidity and stability. Like the floor plan, the type of corner notching can sometimes be a clue to the ethnic craft origin of a log building, but it is important not to draw conclusions based only on notching details. Numerous corner notching techniques have been identified throughout the country (Fig. 10). They range from the simple "saddle" notching, which demands minimal time and hewing skill, to the very common "V" notching or "steeple" notching, to "full dovetail" notching, one of the tightest but most timeconsuming to accomplish, "halfdovetail" notching which is probably one of the most common, and "square" notching secured with pegs or spikes.

The notching method on some of the earliest eastern cabins and most 19th century western cabins, particularly saddle notching, left an extended log end or "crown." Crowns are especially pronounced or exaggerated in Rustic style structures, and sometimes they are cut shorter as the wall rises, creating a buttress effect at the corners of the building.

Another method of securing log ends consists of fastening logs that are laid without notching ("false notching") with tenons into vertical corner posts, or using spikes or pegs to attach them to vertical corner planks. Vertically positioned logs were secured at their top and bottom ends, usually into roof and sill plate timbers.

Selecting Logs and Assembling the Building

Although wood selection was most likely to be determined by availability, chestnut, white oak, cedar, and fir were preferred because these trees could provide long, straight, rotresistant logs. Pine, which also provided long straight logs, was also used in areas where it was plentiful. Woods were often mixed, utilizing harder, heavier rotresistant wood such as white oak for the foundation,"sill log", and lighter, moreeasily hewn wood such as yellow poplar for the upper log courses.

One of the principal advantages of log construction was the economy of tools required to complete a structure (Fig. 11). A felling axe was the traditional tool for bringing down the tree and cutting the logs to length. For many frontier and western structures the round logs were debarked or used in their original form with the bark left on, or one or more sides of the logs were hewn flat with a broadaxe, or more finely finished with an adze as smooth thick planks. Notching was done with an axe, hatchet or saw; openings for doors and windows were usually cut after the logs were set into place, and door and window frames, particularly jambs, were put in place during construction to help hold the logs in place. Roof framing members and floor joists were either hewn from logs or of milled lumber. A log cabin could be raised and largely completed with as few as two to four different tools, including a felling axe, a broad axe, and a hand saw or crosscut saw.

The upper gable walls were completed with logs if the roof was constructed with purlins, which is more typical of Scandinavian or Finnish construction, and western and 20th century Rustic styles. However, vertical or horizontal weatherboard sheathing was commonly used throughout the country to cover woodframed gables.

Chinking and Daubing

The horizontal spaces or joints between logs are usually filled with a combination of materials that together is known as "chinking" and "daubing." Chinking and daubing completed the exterior walls of the log pen by sealing them against driving wind and snow, helping them to shed rain, and blocking the entry of vermin. In addition, chinking and daubing could compensate for a minimal amount of hewing and save time if immediate shelter was needed. Not all types of log buildings were chinked. Corncribs, and sometimes portions of barns where ventilation was needed were not chinked. While more typical of Swedish or Finnish techniques, and not as common in American log construction, tightfitting plankhewn or scribedfit round logs have little or no need for chinking and daubing.

A variety of materials were used for chinking and daubing, including whatever was most conveniently at hand. Generally though, it is a threepart system applied in several steps. The chinking consists of two parts: first, a dry, bulky, rigid blocking, such as wood slabs or stones is inserted into the joint, followed by a soft packing filler such as oakum, moss, clay, or dried animal dung (Fig. 12). Daubing, which completes the system, is the outer wettroweled finish layer of varying composition, but often consisting of a mixture of clay and lime or other locally available materials. Instead of daubing, carefully fitted quarter poles or narrow wood strips were sometimes nailed lengthwise across the log joints.

Chinking, especially the daubing, is the least durable part of a log building. It is susceptible to cracking as a result of freezethaw action, structural settlement, drying of the logs, and a thermal expansioncontraction rate that differs from that of the logs. Seasonal deterioration of chinking necessitates continual inspection and regular patching or replacement.

Exterior Wall Treatments

Although the exterior logs of cabins in the West, and 20th century Rustic buildings are generally not covered, many 18th and 19th century log houses east of the Mississippi, with the exception of some of the simpler cabins and houses in remote or poorer areas, were covered with exterior cladding. The exterior of the log walls was covered for both aesthetic and practical reasons either as soon as the building was completed or sometime later.

In some instances, the exterior (and interior) of the logs was whitewashed. This served to discourage insects, and sealed hairline cracks in the daubing and fissures between the daubing and logs. Although the solubility of whitewash allows it to heal some of its own hairline cracks with the wash of rain, like daubing it has to be periodically reapplied. Usually, a more permanent covering such as wood siding or stucco was applied to the walls, which provided better insulation and protection, and reduced the maintenance of the log walls.

Sometimes log houses were sided or stuccoed later in an attempt to express a newlyachieved financial or social status. Many log houses were immediately sided and trimmed upon completion to disguise their simple construction beneath Georgian, Federal and later architectural styles. Frequently a log house was covered, or recovered, when a new addition was erected in order to harmonize the whole, especially if the original core and its addition were constructed of different materials such as log and wood frame (Fig. 13).

Vertical wood furring strips were generally nailed to the logs prior to applying weatherboarding or stucco (Fig. 14). This ensured that the walls would be plumb, and provided a base on which to attach the clapboards, or on which to nail the wood lath for stucco.


Log building foundations varied considerably in quality, material, and configuration. In many cases, the foundation consisted of a continuous course of flat stones (with or without mortar),

several piers consisting of rubblestone, single stones, brick, short vertical log pilings, or horizontal log "sleepers" set on grade. The two "sill logs," were laid directly upon one of these types of foundations.

Climate and intended permanence of the structure were the primary factors affecting foundation construction. The earliest log cabins, and temporary log dwellings in general, were the most likely to be constructed on log pilings or log sleepers set directly on grade. Where a more permanent log dwelling was intended, or where a warm, humid climate accelerated wood decay, such as in the South, it was sometimes more common to use stone piers which allowed air to circulate beneath the sill logs. Full cellars were not generally included in the original construction of most of the earliest log houses, but root cellars were often dug later.


Log buildings were roofed with a variety of different framing systems and covering materials. Like log house plans and corner notching styles, the types of roof framing systems used were often variations on particular ethnic and regional carpentry traditions. In most cases wood shingles were the first roof covering used on the earliest 18th and 19th century log houses. As wood shingle roofs deteriorated, many were replaced with standing seam metal roofs, many of which continue to provide good service today. Later pioneer log buildings west of the Mississippi were likely to be roofed with metal or roll roofing, or even with sod. Other log buildings have been reroofed in the 20th century with asphalt shingles. For some rustic log buildings in the West and Great Camps in the Adirondacks, asphalt shingles are the original historic roofing material.


Ethnic tradition and regional adaptation also influenced chimney construction and placement. Chimneys in log houses were usually built of stone or brick, a combination of the two, or even claylined, notched logs or smaller sticks (Fig. 15). Later log buildings were frequently constructed with only metal stacks to accommodate wood stoves. The chimneys of log buildings erected in cold climates tended to be located entirely inside the house to maximize heat retention. In the South, where winters were less severe the chimney stack was more typically constructed outside the log walls. With the advent of more efficient heating systems, interior chimneys were frequently demolished or relocated and rebuilt to maximize interior space.

Interior Finishes

Logs on the interiors of many of the simpler cabins and Rustic style structures were often given a flattened surface or left exposed. But, in the more finished log houses of the 18th and 19th century, they were more commonly covered for most of the same reasons that the exterior of the logs was covered--improved insulation, ease of maintenance, aesthetics, and keeping out vermin. Covering the interior log walls with planks, lath and plaster, boards pasted with newspaper, fabric such as muslin, or wallpaper increased their resistance to air infiltration and their insulation value. Finished walls could be cleaned and painted more easily, and plastered walls and ceilings obscured the rough log construction and prepared interior surfaces for decorative wood trim in the current styles (Fig. 16).

Historical Evaluation and Damage Assessment

Before undertaking preservation work on a historic log building, its history and design should be investigated, and physical condition evaluated. It is always advisable to hire a historical architect or qualified professional experienced in preservation work to supervise the project. In addition, State Historic Preservation Offices, regional offices of the National Park Service, and local historical commissions may also provide technical and procedural advice.

The historical investigation should be carried out in conjunction with a visual inspection of the log building. Physical assessment needs to be systematic and thorough. It should include taking notes, photographs or video recording, and making drawings of existing conditions, including overall and detail views. This will serve as a record of the appearance and condition which can be referred to once work is under way. A physical assessment should also identify causes of deterioration, not just symptoms or manifestations and, in some instances, may need to include a structural investigation.

Foundation Inspection

The foundation of a log building should always be inspected before beginning work because, as in any building, foundationrelated problems can transfer structural defects to other components of the building. Settling of the foundation is a typical condition of log buildings. If settlement is not severe and is no longer active, it is not necessarily a problem. If, however, settlement is active or uneven, if it is shifting structural weight to unintended bearing points away from the intended main bearing points of the corner notches and sill log, serious wall deflections may have resulted. Causes of settlement may include foundation or chimney stones or sill logs that have sunk into the ground, decay of log pilings, log sleepers, or of the sill logs themselves.

Log Inspection

Foundation problems usually result in damage to the sill logs and spandrels, which are often the most susceptible to deterioration. Sill logs, along with the corner notching, tend to bear most of the weight of the building, and are closest to vegetation and the ground, which harbors wooddestroying moisture and insects. If the sill log has come into contact with the ground, deterioration is probably underway or likely to begin (Fig. 17). It is also important to check the drainage around the building. The building assessment should note the condition of each log and attempt to identify the sources of problems that appear to exist.

Sill log inspection should not necessitate destruction of historic exterior cladding if it exists. Inspection can usually be made in areas where cladding is missing, loose, or deteriorated. Sill log, as well as upper log, deterioration may also be revealed by loose or peeling areas of the cladding. If pieces of cladding must be removed for log inspection, they should be labeled and saved for reinstallation, or as samples for replacement work. Historic cladding generally need not be disturbed unless there are obvious signs of settling or other indications of deterioration.

Other areas of the log walls which are particularly susceptible to deterioration include window and door sills, corner notches, and crowns, and any other areas regularly saturated by rain runoff or backsplash. The characteristic design feature of Adirondack or Rustic style log buildings of leaving log ends or crowns to extend beyond the notched corners of the building positions the crowns beyond the dripline of the roof edge. This makes them vulnerable to saturation from roof runoff, and a likely spot for deterioration. Saddle notching in which the cut was made out of the top surface of the log and which cups upward, and flat notching, may also be especially susceptible to collecting runoff moisture.

Detection of decay requires thorough inspection. Probing for rot should be done carefully since repair techniques can sometimes save even badly deteriorated logs. Soft areas should be probed with a small knife blade or icepick to determine the depth of decay. Logs should be gently tapped at regular intervals up and down their lengths with the tool handle to detect hollowsounding areas of possible interior decay. Long cracks which run with the wood grain, called "checks," are not signs of rot, but are characteristic features of the seasoning of the logs. However, a check can admit moisture and fungal decay into a log, especially if it is located on the log's upper surface. Checks should also be probed with a tool blade to determine whether decay is underway inside the log.

Sill log ground contact and relative moisture content also provide ideal conditions for certain types of insect infestation. Wood building members, such as sill logs or weatherboarding, less than eight inches from th~ ground, should be noted as a potential problem for monitoring or correction. Sighting of insects, or their damage, or telltale signs of their activity, such as mud tunnels, exit holes, or "frass," a sawdustlike powder, should be recorded. Insect infestation is best treated by a professionally licensed exterminator, as the chemicals used to kill wooddestroying insects and deter reinfestation are generally toxic.

Roof Inspection

Along with the foundation, the roof is the other most vital component of any building. The roof system consists of, from top to bottom, the covering, usually some form of shingles or metal sheeting and flashing; board sheathing or roof lath strips; the framing structure, such as rafters or purlins; the top log, sometimes referred to as the "roof plate" or "rafter plate;" and, sometimes, but not always, gutters and downspouts.

The roof and gutters should be inspected and checked for leaks both from the exterior, as well as inside if possible. Inspection may reveal evidence of an earlier roof type, or covering, and sometimes remnants of more than one historic covering material. The roof may be the result of a later alteration, or raised when a second story was added, or repaired as the result of storm or fire damage. Often, roof framing may be composed of reused material recycled from earlier buildings. Inspection of the roof framing should note its configuration and condition. Typical problems to look for are framing members that have been dislodged from their sockets in the roof plate, or that are cracked, ridge damage, sagging rafters, broken ties and braces, and decay of exterior exposed rafter or purlin ends, especially common on Rustic style buildings (Fig. 18).

Other Features

The rest of the building should also be inspected as part of the overall assessment, including siding, window sash and frames, door frames and leafs, chimneys, porches, and interior walls, trim, and finishes. Any of these features may exhibit deterioration problems, inherent to the material or to a construction detail, or may show the effects of problems transmitted from elsewhere, such as a deformed or misshapen window frame resulting from a failed sill log. The inspection should note alterations and repairs made over time, and identify those modifications which have acquired significance and should be preserved. Nothing should be removed or altered before it has been examined and its historical significance noted.

Preservation Treatments

Since excessive moisture promotes and hastens both fungal and insect attack, it should be dealt with immediately. Not only must the roof and gutters be repaired --if none exist, gutters should probably be added--but the foundation grade should be sloped to ensure drainage away from the building. If the distance from

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