I don’t know a person who wouldn’t like a rustic nature retreat that he or she could escape to, one that’s off the beaten path, next to a creek or lake. Most of us think this type of place is only a dream because every time we pick up a log home magazine or see mountain getaways on social media, we realize that typical log homes or rustic cabins can cost a small fortune.
How to Build Your Own Log Home
Most log cabin companies charge several hundred thousand dollars to build a log home. A small log cabin with one bedroom and a fireplace is often over $100,000, while a high-end log cabin can cost over $500,000. Even small, stick-built cabins can cost more than most average folks want to pay.
However, there is hope. If you aren’t afraid to get a little dirt under your fingernails and a little sweat on your brow, you may be able to build the cabin in the woods you’ve always wanted without having to give up your spouse, your favorite dog, or the Harley in your garage.
The easiest cabin to build is a simple stick-framed cabin with T1-11 siding. It goes up quickly, is inexpensive, and beats camping in a pup tent. This was the route I took. A few years ago, I purchased a lot on a small river a few hours north of my home. I built a 14-by-14-foot, one-room stick-built cabin with a loft and a small wood-burning stove for heat. The cabin isn’t finished on the inside—it is a work in progress. I have more time than money, so I work on the cabin every fall.
Three friends and I built the cabin in less than two days. I thought about building something larger, but it would have cost more money and required more trips north. Given the fact that my family only visits the shack in the woods a few times a year, the 200-square footer is just big enough to be comfortable for a long weekend. To see at night, we depend on the soft glow of a Coleman lantern.
We also have a dandy portable toilet, which my wife appreciates. For some, this type of retreat doesn’t sound like fun. For us, it provides shelter from the weather, and that’s all we need. Eventually, I plan to use an inexpensive chainsaw mill to cut slab siding to cover the outside of my small cabin. Rustic slab siding doesn’t cost very much and will protect the integrity of the building.
Attend a “Log Cabin-Building” School
If a small shack isn’t your kind of place and you’ve had your heart set on a log home, there are many options that won’t break the bank. I plan to live in a log home someday and have done lots of research on the subject. The best way to build a log home on a shoestring budget is to do the work yourself.
If you don’t know the finer points of log construction, including saddle notches, scribing, and chainsaw work, you can attend a log builders class. Al Anderson from Three Forks, Montana, operates the Montana School of Log Building, where he offers a five-day class that teaches the ins and outs of full-scribe log construction—when logs are scribed together, the need for chinking is eliminated.
Anderson believes anyone interested in building a log cabin or home can do so affordably through the use of good old-fashioned sweat equity. “I offer a variety of options. Students can take our class and go home to build a cabin. They can also buy a log shell from us, and we will ship it to them. They reconstruct it themselves and finish it. Either method is far less expensive than having someone else build the cabin. Learning how to build a log cabin isn’t as difficult as people think,” Anderson said.
There are many kinds of log-building courses across the country. The Log Home Builders Association in Washington has a self-paced online course that teaches people how to build a butt-and-pass log cabin that doesn’t require fancy corner notches. They chink the cabin, so, again, scribing isn’t required. Many of its students have built log cabins for $40,000 or less! The Association preaches using second-hand windows, building doors from scratch, and designing a cabin that is energy efficient.
Building Log Cabins from Scratch
Alternatively, many choose to build their cabins from scratch. These folks are armed with the knowledge they gained from books and a healthy dose of elbow grease. Gary Cihak from Michigan built a 1,800-square- foot retirement home for himself and his wife, Karen.
Gary and Karen wanted a beautiful log home but without a large mortgage. So to cut costs, they found a piece of property that had enough pine timber on it so they didn’t need to purchase or transport logs. By eliminating the need to purchase logs and transport them, they saved over $10,000. (In some parts of the country, log and transportation fees can run from $20,000 to $30,000.)
Cihak cut and peeled his own logs and built their home for around $100,000. He admits it could have been done for less. “We built a fancy kitchen, a large bathroom, and lots of extras that we could have done without if we were on a tight budget. Log homes can be built without a large mortgage if you build it yourself,” he explained. Cihak studied books and did the entire house himself, all the way down to the log railing, which alone can cost thousands of dollars.
For a few hundred dollars, you can purchase tools to build log beds and railings. With a little practice, almost anyone can build beautiful log railings and steps. The Cihak log home utilizes chinking between the logs and saddle-notched corners. This style of log home can be tough to build, but with a little practice, doing it yourself isn’t out of the question. When the Cihaks finished their cabin, its value was close to $300,000.
For some, a rustic getaway is not complete unless it has some stone incorporated into the design. Stonework can involve a lot of labor, especially if you haven’t done it before, but according to Michael J. Elpel of Montana, who has a book titled Living Homes, building with stone can be fun and inexpensive.
In his book, he highlights how to do slip-form masonry, which doesn’t require much skill: You fill plywood forms with concrete, rebar, and stone, and when the concrete dries, you remove the forms and place them on top of the first layer of stone and repeat the process. In his book, Elpel builds a stone workshop for pennies on the dollar.
Going Vertical on Log Homes
One large expense comes from putting the logs in place. In most cases, you’ll need a large crane in order to place 50-foot logs. To avoid hanging long logs, you can build a vertical log structure, which in most cases consists of logs that are 8 feet long and run vertically.
Log Homes International in South Africa teaches this technique and offers a book on the subject. According to Bruce Wilde, founder of the school, a vertical log cabin is the easiest and one of the least expensive to build.
“Vertical log cabins can be built by almost anyone, even if they don’t have any building experience I have even had handicapped students build a vertical log cabin. Heavy equipment isn’t needed, and they are very inexpensive to build. An American could easily build one big enough to live in for under $50,000. If they wanted to build a small cottage, one could be built for less than that.”
Full-Scribe Log Cabin
My favorite style of log structure is a full-scribe log cabin similar to what Al Anderson from the Montana School of Log Building builds at his school, where students scribe logs together with a chainsaw and a chisel.
A few years ago I hunted moose in Alaska. The cabin I stayed in was a full-scribe guest cabin built that was about 12 by 16 feet on the inside. The cabin had enough room for two hunters to live comfortably, a wood stove, a small kitchen, and a sweet loft for storage or sleeping. This cabin was built for less than $1,000—the logs were free, and the second-hand door and windows were purchased from an individual.
Rustic buildings are something I’ve been in love with for a long time. From log cabins to timber-frame homes, they don’t have to cost millions to build. With the right mindset and a bit of muscle, building the cabin of your dreams is completely possible.
Budget Cuts: The Chainsaw Mill Way
One way to save money on construction materials is to buy a mill of your own. When most people think of a mill, they think of a bandsaw mill, which can cost $10,000 or more. But a friend of mine purchased a high-quality chainsaw mill for only a few thousand dollars. Many imagine that chainsaw mills are cheap things that don’t work well. That’s not true. A Sweden-based company by the name of Logosol makes the best one I have seen.
My friend who owns this mill has made everything from fine furniture to rough-sawn boards with it. Some people even use them to build their entire home. A chainsaw mill is a little more labor-intensive than some others, but the savings are definitely worth it.
Consider a Composting Toilet
If you want to have the convenience of a modern-day toilet in your cabin but don’t want the added expense of plumbing (especially if you only plan on using the cabin occasionally), consider purchasing a composting toilet. They are very different from the plywood box used by folks many years ago. Nature’s Head also offers a great one for a reasonable price.