The Timber-Framed Cabin Project


Back to My Homepage.

My Philosophy Page.

My Woodworking Page.

Back to My Old House Page.

My Kitchen Cabinets Page.

The bathroom remodel page.

My Father's Milling Machine.

I've started on a timberframed cabin project. I'm making the parts here in Nebraska, and hauling them out to some land in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Wyoming (about a mile from the Continental Divide near Encampment) where I will assemble them into a small cabin. The site is on the edge of the Medicine Bow National Forest, and has a small stream running across it. That cabin will be where I stay and keep my tools as I build a larger cabin over the next decade or so.

The basic cabin will be 10 feet by 14 feet, dimensions which I copied from some plans for a shed I found listed in a book on shed building. The plans are copyrighted by Mercurial Editorial, and they sell them by mail for fifty dollars. Since they were really intended for a garden shed, I've made some modifications to the plans (so far just in my head) for my usage. I'm moving the door to one of the ends, and extending the roof to cover a small porch in front of the door. I'm also making the roof of larger timbers and pitching it more steeply than the one in the Mercurial Editorial plan. I'm also relying less on modern fasteners than they did, substituting locking mortise and tenon joints where the uprights meet the sills. And I'm using the tenons on the uprights to lock the corner joints together. The photos should make clear what I mean by all of this.

Cutting Tenons

These photos show me cutting a tenon on the end of a beam. The steps involve cutting the shoulder with a handsaw, chopping away most of the waste along the grain with a framing chisel, and cleaning up by paring with a slick.



These are some photos of me cutting the mortises that the tenons go into. First I lay them out, then I mark their corners with a corner chisel, then I finish cutting the shape with a wide straight chisel before using that chisel and a Japanese mortise chisel to deepen the hole. For these I work from both sides and use a 2 inch drill to take out a good bit of the waste once I have defined the mortise on each side.



The Completed Joint

This is how the corner joints look when they have been cut and also when they are assembled. As you can see first a floor joist goes through the sill, and then the corner post inserts from above pinning that joint in place.


Roof Truss Dovetails

The photo below shows a dovetail joint under construction for the trusses that will form the roof assembly. The design is a big triangle at 12/12 pitch with no parts aside from the rafters and a stretcher to hold them at the right angle. Since the stretchers are in tension, the dovetail joint ought to resist the forces pushing down on the roof and pulling the walls apart. There is a finished truss below the one I'm working on and the bolt you see will be used to attach these trusses to the top "plates" of the main building frame. I wanted some way to attach them that would resist upwards forces in case that was ever necessary. While I doubt it will be (given the scarcity of tornadoes at this elevation so far as I know), I do think it is better to be safe than sorry.

Test Fitting

These are the assemblies or "bents" as they are called that will form the front and back ends of the cabins. Right now they are only together for fitting and not pegged into place.

This is a test fitting of the posts into the sills which are joined together by the joists and the top beams onto those posts. Sadly, I miscut one mortise so one of the posts had to be left out of the test. But that is what test fits are for.


Moving It

The day that the truck was reserved for was fast arriving. With the help of Jennifer and my friend Rob we managed to take only two days getting all of the parts in the 26 foot payload Hertz/Penske truck pictured below. The van which is being towed behind was left in Cheyenne where the truck was to be returned so that I could stay up in the mountains to work on the cabin after returning the big truck.


When I got to Saratoga, Wyoming about 30 miles from the cabin site I still had no idea how I was going to unload the truck. Or rather, I had ideas, but they all involved helpers and I had no really good way to find any but to ask around. It was no longer a weekend, and the neighbors had day jobs that kept them away from the area of the cabin. As good fortune would have it, I was taking an after-dinner walk when an alert city cop noticed me and pulled over to check me out. I quickly asked if he had any idea where I could find someone to help unload a truck. As it happens, he did. He had just stopped someone else as suspicious as me who needed work. So with the help of the officer's good offices, he put us in touch and we (the other out of towner and I) made a date to meet the next morning to drive up the mountain and unload. That we did and the photo below shows the results.

The Foundation

After much head scratching, I picked a site to put the cabin. Then I dug holes for footings using a shovel and a digging bar. For those who don't know, digging bars are absolutely essential for digging in rocky soils. The soils up here are very rocky, really a mix of fractured granite and dirt in about equal proportions. The digging bar is about five feet long, has a point with various facets on one end, and is hard enough to crack rocks when one uses its weight to put some momentum behind it. It allows prying large rocks lose to be removed from the hole, and even breaking them up when needed. The experience made me feel a proper inheritor for the copper miners that once worked this property and enabled it to be claimed and enter private ownership. Lucky for me there is not much evidence they actually got very far digging on my particular parcel. My holes were not really deep or wide enough to constitute mine openings, nor did I find precious metals, but they are from two to three feet deep.

The footing forms were made using 12 inch round cardboard forms known as "Sonotubes" though these were a different brand than the one that gave these forms their colloquial name. Into these I shoveled 40 bags of concrete (3200 lbs dry weight), carried down to the site from the dirt road on a hand-truck and mixed with water from a tank I filled with mountain runnoff from a nearby ditch. All seemed to go well. Upon these footings I attached sleepers, and upon these sleepers I laid the bottom part of the cabin frame. All checked out level. The photo below shows the progress up to this stage.


Raising the Walls

These photos show the work involved in raising the walls for real in the woods with only human power and several of the simple machines (the wheel, the pulley, and the lever)which they told us about in fourth grade.

These two images are of raising the bents (or ends)and of the completed bents in place. The first I did by myself with ropes and straps and it took well over an hour. The second was done with the help of friendly neighbors in about ten minutes.

The next photos show the installation of the long upper beams which are essentially top plates on which the roof trusses will rest. They also show my helpful neighbors who helped with this stage.

Pegging the Joints

Once assembled, the joints need to be secured with wooden pegs. Since there is at least one peg for each joint, this makes for a lot of pegs. Best practice would be to use pegs of ash, oak or hickory throughout. I wanted hickory as it is toughest, but these are not readily available commercially. So I if I want them I have to make them. A compromise seemed in order. I made enough hickory pegs to do all of the critical joints, and used commercially available hardwood pegs for those that were less critical. A side benefit of those I made was a tighter fit in standard size holes.

This is an image of me making a peg by pounding a piece of split hickory through a custom made metal die. Because the pegs are split first, they follow the grain and are stronger due to less grain running out through the side of the peg. Some pegs follow the grain enough to curve a bit, but that only makes for a tighter fit, and is not bad. The following photo shows the finished peg.

And here is a detail of the finished pegged joints at one of the corners where, as you will recall from above, the post's tenon also serves to peg the joint in one direction.

Raising the Roof

The next stage was harder as I had to lift the roof trusses onto these beams and I had to do it all by myself. These photos show the work involved in raising them and how it looks when done. As before, the simple machines we all know and love played a big role. And ratcheting straps which employ these machines played a big role. The time to raise each truss and bolt it to the top plate was about 3 hours each, give or take.

These are some images of the raising techniques employed. Each truss went up in a slightly different fashion.

Here the trusses are installed and the traditional tree is fastened to the apex of the roof.

Sheeting the Roof

In August we put in two days sheeting the roof. This required first filling in between the two by six roof trusses with trusses of the same shape using two by sixes alternating between them. With the snow loads up in the mountains it just seems better to have more rather than less support. Then there was some fussy work to be done putting boards between the trusses where the walls joined the top beam so that there would not be openings between the trusses once the roof was on. (This is fussy work and takes longer than putting on the roof deck.) Only then could we proceed to raise the 3/4 inch plywood sheets and nail them down. This involved pushing them up a ladder as I climb it (with help from Jennifer for the first four or five feet and then by myself for the rest of the way up) and then sliding them into position resting on two by six planks that will form the roof deck along the eves. Luckily the previous visit had given me enough exercise at high elevations that I could actually push the sheets up the ladder and onto the roof. Nothing like that would have been possible two months back.

The photos immediately above show the process of doing all this and the one below shows the result.


Doors and Windows

Rather than buy pre-made windows and doors, I decided to make my own wooden units at home, to install when I get to the cabin. Actually, for the windows I was able to adapt some barn sash from Menards by disassembling what they sell, cutting the frame to the dimensions I want, and put it back together leaving out a couple of panes of glass. This meant that I only needed to make the casing from scratch. The windows are designed to tilt open and will eventually get screens.

Immediately below is a photo of the door as it is being glued up. I used pine car-siding for the panels and laminated one-by dimensional lumber onto that for the frames and the diagonal batten. This makes for a 2 1/4 inch thick door that should handle the weather reasonably well. (I'll soon have photos of it in place - assuming that the recent bad weather in the mountains does not stop me from getting there.)


Oh Oh!

They had over a foot of snow at the cabin site, so I put off my trip by a few days. When I arrived I found:

The road covered with snow but passable.

The tent collapsed with a shattered pole, but fixable.

And the cabin covered with snow that has been melting over the past several days.

Work continues.


Woodstove Installation

With this weather, installing the wood stove (a Jotul F602) was an obvious priority. I chose this stove both because it is about the smallest made (and this is a small cabin) and because they have sold over a million of this basic model, so that parts should not be hard to find should I need them.

Infuriatingly the installation manual for this stove is wrong about what must go underneath. And Jotul's subsequent instructions by FAX and again on the phone, that 24 gage sheet metal was all that was needed, also turns out to be wrong according to an email I have since gotten from them. They now want 3/8 inch of non-combustible material according to an email I got. Luckily, I had already decided on overkill with a full inch including 1/8 inch sheet metal under the stove. So I should be set even if they change the requirements yet again. My advice for others with this stove is to call and email the factory and be patient waiting for their response. (They took over a week to get me the final word on the new requirements.) Don't take my word for it.

Other than the installation instructions SNAFU, I like the stove. The small size makes it ideal for this application, and the window in the front of the stove is pleasant to look at in a small cabin like this one on a dark and lonely night.

Filling in the Walls

(Yes, I know I omitted a section on the flooring, but what is there really to take pictures of? The basic timberframe was supplemented with 2 by 6 dimensional lumber to support the floors, and the inside was decked with 3/4 inch plywood subfloors and the porch with redwood 2 by 6 lumber. But there isn't much to photograph in that.)

The walls on the other hand, have some visual interest. Rather than cover the timberframe on the outside (as many such structures do), I've decided to fill in the open areas in such a way that the beams will still show on the outside. This requires firring strips to be nailed or screwed to the inside of the frame and plywood to be screwed to these. Eventually the plywood will be covered on the outside with house wrap and siding will go on over the housewrap.

These are some images show the firring strips (made of 2 x 2s) and the finished result when plywood is applied (this image is from the back of the cabin).


The cabin will have a metal roof. The roofing comes in 3 foot wide by about 10 foot long sheets which are screwed to the roof deck, or in this case to sleepers of 2 x 4s which are filled in with foam insulation. The first two photos show the South or uphill side. The first of these photos shows where the inch and a half foam is installed between two by four sleepers. Not all is filled in between the sleepers because there is really no point in insulating the roof of the porch or the overhangs that are not over interior space. The third of these photos shows the North side roofed but without the drip trim and most of the cap. It also shows the two windows which are meant for installation in the side walls, but which will have to wait for next year given the approach of winter.


Run Off by Another Early Storm

These last photos shows how the cabin looks at the moment. We were able to sleep in it for the first time on October 7, 2006. The generator died and would not restart on the 8th. Luckily we have hand tools for most operations, but recharging the screw-guns needed to finish the roof now had to be done with an inverter using the car. On October 9 a cold front predicted to bring in up to a foot of snow moved in. Since we are literally at the end of a road that most people would only navigate with a four wheel drive, this meant more trouble. We raced to complete what we could and pack up before the snow hit. Our neighbor Mike helped us immensely in this process. Snow was starting to fall as we headed out, but we made it up the steep dirt road just fine.

The current plan is to go back one more time this season with a rented 4WD and finish up some details, such as boarding up the windows, and trying to finish up the roofing on the peak of the roof. The little bit of that that was done was done in the dark the night before the storm hit. There's something bracing about riding the peak of a 12/12 roof twenty or so feet up off the ground in the fading light.

Things left to do on the structure include, finishing the roof, trimming some of the wooden parts to length, siding over the plywood with cementboard (to retard likely fires from spreading to the structure), installing the side windows, putting in a stairway to the porch deck, staining and painting the exterior wood (I'm having some trouble getting the color right on the wood trim which seems to look orange for reasons I don't understand), insulating the walls and covering the insulation with boards I hope to mill from trees on the site. I also hope to put in a small solar electric system to brighten our nights. Sadly, most of this will have to wait until next summer.



This page hosted by GeoCities