Living the Cabin Life

Rays of early morning sunlight peek gently through double-hung windows, easing you into wakefulness. Getting up from your bed in the loft, you look over the railing and see everything you need for a simple, happy life: a pine table for meals; a writing desk; a collection of favorite books on wall shelves just below the ceiling. There’s a wood box filled with logs, split and ready for the woodstove. Built-in shelves are stocked with the kind of comfortable clothes that most people only get to wear on weekends. And as you gather your thoughts for the day, you find something else here, too. It’s the ease of knowing that your life isn’t caught up in the treadmill of vacuuming acres of broadloom while serving a monster mortgage. Your life is simple, it’s good, it’s yours and it’s paid for. This is the essence of the cabin dream.

A shot taken in the 1940s, Steve’s cabin ancestor Uncle Ken Evans (right) standing in front of the log cabin he built in 1923 and lived in for 35 years.

My cabin experiences spring from the good fortune of being born into a family that owned a genuine log cabin. It was built by an eccentric bachelor ancestor of mine in 1923. Kenneth Malcolm Evans – Uncle Ken as he’s still called today – lived most of his adult life on the shores of a great freshwater sea, in a place that still holds my heart.

Although he died a few years before I was born, my experiences in his old cabin home began in May 1970, and they’ve left me with a lifelong attraction for country life that has always been more than just theoretical. Sixteen years later, also in the month of May, I began building my own first cabin.

Steve and Mary’s first cabin when it was new in 1986. Not very cozy and full of mistakes, it was their first home for five years and offered lots of lessons.

This was the place I’d live in for the next five years until the stone and timber home I built for my family was ready to move into with my wife and newborn son. Life in that first cabin taught me the practical realities of successful, beautiful and durable cabin design and construction, but like most of life’s important lessons they weren’t easy at the time. Mistakes and inadequacies were many on that first place, but as painful as they were, I count them all as blessings today. That’s because those early errors continue to serve me well. They’ll serve you well, too, because they’re part of what lets me deliver the insights you need to steer you clear of problems while building your own cabin exceptionally well the first time.

What you’ve got here is a detailed, digital construction guide for building a specific cabin in a high quality way. Interior finishing will be up to you and your tastes, but this video-enhanced ebook will help you create a strong, warm, beautiful and weatherproof shell. The techniques and building strategies come from my 25+ years of professional design and building experience, and the words, images and videos I use to guide you come from the experiences I’ve gained since 1988 creating more than 5000 published articles on construction, renovation and power tools. Watch the video up next for an overview of the design of the cabin and a plan tour.

VIDEO: Tour the Construction Plans

The first thing to understand is that this is a detailed guide for people who actually want to build a cabin. Nothing you’ll find here is superficial and this content is not for people satisfied with armchair dreaming. You can use these directions to build the cabin exactly as it is here, or pick and choose the design features you like, incorporating them into a variation of your own. Either way, I’ll help you visualize and understand how to make key construction details happen properly for you, even if you’re not a professional builder. It’s the next best thing to having me work alongside you. That said, your local building inspector has the final say in details, so get to know this person as you build. Every inspector I’ve ever dealt with has been happier to answer questions early on rather than tell you to rip something out and start again later. And while this guide will take you through every technical facet of creating a traditional, 16-foot x 25-foot cabin shell, there’s more you need to understand, and it has to do with you.

If you’ve never built anything big before, you might be feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of tackling a cabin. Relax. What seems like a process full of mysterious skills and secret knowledge is actually nothing but a bunch of simple jobs done well that build one on top of the other. Countless generations of people before us built simple, durable, beautiful shelters for themselves, and it’s only in our age of over-specialization that too many people believe the task of basic building is beyond them. And while I’m not saying that building a good cabin will be easy for you, I am saying that most people are far more capable than they believe themselves to be.

Appearance is another thing I need to mention right up front. I believe that any good cabin should look and feel like that kind of a traditional cabin that might show up in a children’s story or a Thomas Kincade painting. That’s why I’ve done everything I can to eliminate or conceal modern details that make so many 21st century buildings look out of place in forest or lakeside settings. Suburban architecture is fine as far, as it goes, but I figure it shouldn’t creep much beyond suburbia. Not everyone will agree with me on this, but my belief does explain why you won’t find anything overtly modern in this cabin design – at least not visibly modern.  While my approach offers all the rustic beauty of a traditional cabin of the best sort, the design you’ll find here is also longer lasting, more comfortable and physically stronger than traditional cabins ever were.  You’ll be cozy in this cabin in any climate – no matter how cold – even if you only plan to heat with a wood stove. That’s because I haven’t simply built like they did 100 years ago. Far from it. Where modern materials make sense, I’ve combined them with traditional design features that deliver durability while working invisibly behind the scenes.

By the time you finish this book, you’ll know exactly how to:

*Create an attractive, traditional and permanent foundation for your cabin.

*Build a floor structure that’s simple, fully insulated and solid.

*Frame and raise walls with just two people.

*Incorporate exposed beams with stud frame construction for an authentic interior cabin look.

*Raise a traditional rafter roof with visible wood on the inside as well as hidden, all-season insulation.

*Install concealed, breathable drainage channels behind cedar shingle siding as a secondary line of defense against water infiltration in walls.

*Install a maintenance-free, all-natural wood exterior siding that’ll last at least 50 years without lifting a finger to keep it finished.

*Create a bright, airy, well-ventilated loft space that’s comfortable in hot weather.

Cabin Features At a Glance:

Total interior first floor area: 285 sq. ft.

Total loft area: 180 sq. ft.

Covered porch area: 90 sq. ft.

Foundation: raised stone piers

Wall frame specs: stud frame 2×6 wood frame

Insulation: polyurethane spray foam and rigid extruded polystyrene

Cabin baby Robert, now grown up and with a cabin of his own. Here Robert is standing in an open skylight hole of his place, showing top-of-roof insulation, roof underlay and top-down shingling in progress.

And while we’re talking about design, there’s some background I’d like to share.  My eldest son, Robert, was the baby that my wife and I had when we were living in the cabin that I built as our first married home, and the hereditary Maxwell cabin propensities seem to have rubbed off on him.  Robert’s grown up now, and the cabin design you’ll find here is what we both created and built together.

This place now serves as Robert’s first home – mortgage-free and especially precious because it was designed and built by both of us. There are certainly easier and flimsier ways to build a cabin than what you’ll find here, but none better that I know of. One more thing. Some may question the robust design details we used, but each is included for a reason. I can hear some wiseacres scoffing at the 8×12 floor beams, the 2×8 roof boards or the 12” spacing of the 2×12 floor joists. Yes, it’s possible to build a cabin light and flimsy, but doesn’t the countryside already have enough saggy, drooping, short-lived shacks? I figure that the natural beauty of the earth deserves more honor than this.

Getting down to practical matters, you’ll need to start by assessing your skills. Although this cabin is simple as these things go, you’ll still need to be fairly handy to succeed with construction. Either that or you’ll need to grow into the role. And whatever you do, don’t underestimate your ability to grow your own skills. That’s the way I learned how to build, so I know it works. If you’re not already familiar with construction, you’ll need to prepare yourself on the basics of framing and shingling before you begin. After the shell is up, you’ll also need to figure out wiring, plumbing and interior finishing, or contract that work out. Watch for the Learning More boxes throughout the text for recommendations on the best supplemental books and videos for mastering those basic building skills I don’t have room to cover here.

Cabin model sitting on the subfloor of the real thing. Building a model and having it on hand during construction is a big help for new cabin builders.

One excellent way to develop framing skills and confidence is by building a scale model of your cabin. This might not sound important, but it’s quite helpful precisely because of the struggles it puts you through. The model here is made with “lumber” that’s cut to scale for width, but bigger than scale for thickness. This makes it less split-prone when it comes to nailing the parts together, with no affect on the value of the model. If you’ve never built anything big before, I strongly recommend you start with a model to gain a feel for how this cabin goes together. You’ll also want to be sure to watch the video up next. It shows one approach to laying out the floor plan.

VIDEO: Floor Plan Tour

Before you go any farther, figure out if this cabin will meet your needs for space. It’s not large, and if floor area is too small you need to decide that now. The details of the floor plan we followed will give you a good idea of what you can put where and how this suits you.

Discipline is another thing you’ll need. You must know how to put in a full and efficient day’s work if you want to get your cabin built in a reasonable amount of time. How long will construction take? That depends. An experienced pair of carpenters could finish the shell in two or three weeks, but an inexperienced builder might take several years. If you’ve never built anything big before, the work will probably take more time and end up demanding more effort than you expect. Will it be intimidating? Yes, almost certainly. But what worthwhile goal doesn’t involve working past intimidation sometimes?

If you’ve never built anything before, tackling a cabin may be scary. It will also involve risks, both emotional and physical. If you rise to the challenges and prevail, you’ll gain both a cabin and a bigger self.