Looking at all the beautiful full-color glossy photos of log homes in magazines gives us an idealized vision of the perfect wooden house. Like a supermodel, we can’t imagine wrinkles and imperfections, but like any natural product, log walls are full of traits that are an integral part of their character.
CHECKING: The new visitor to any log home is invariably struck by the cracks in the logs, sometimes stretching for several feet. Initially they might look alarming, but these cracks, or checks, are a natural process that occurs over the first few years when logs are still drying and reaching equilibrium with the environment. In no way do they weaken the integrity of your log wall.
When trees are cut down, there is naturally still some moisture left in the cells, especially when the tree is cut down live. These logs are called “green” and will settle many inches if used right away to build a house. Some manufacturers let their logs dry naturally – air dried – while others put the logs in a kiln and bake them for 30-45 days, which removes 80-85% of the moisture. However, they can’t go any farther without doing damage to the wood, so the logs dry naturally for the next few years, and this process can create checks in the wood to relieve the pressure. However, the heartwood closest to the center of the tree is so hard that the checks will not go beyond the center of the log. As a result, you will not see the checks go all the way through.
SETTLING: As you may already suspect, there is a relationship between moisture content and settling of your log walls. No, settling does not have to be a “dirty word”. As long as your builder knows how to deal with the settling and make provisions for the windows, doors, plumbing, and interior walls, your house can settle many inches and still age comfortably. Any log home will come with about a 2″ gap above all the doors and windows, which will need to be filled with insulation. The builder will cut a vertical groove in the frame and affix nails to the windows and doors that will slide down the groove as the building settles, so nothing gets crushed. Most kiln-dried homes will only settle a couple of inches overall, and much of that will occur during the construction phase.
KNOTS: Depending on the species of wood used in your log home, some logs have more knots than others, just as some trees have more limbs than others. The more interesting the knot, the more likely your builder will place it at eye level, since each knot is truly unique. However, don’t be surprised if the knots ooze sap on the sunny exterior walls of your house. Even the sealant won’t stop the sap from working its way out. This will not happen on the inside of the house, or on the shady side. It only happens when the sun is beating down on the logs and heating them up in the summer time.
HAND-PEELED or MILLED: (or anything in between). Hand-crafted log homes are just that: the logs are cut and peeled by hand with a draw-knife, which creates a uneven surface along the log. For an even more rustic look, some of the bark is left intact. If the log is milled, the machine takes off the layer of bark, leaving a fairly smooth surface to the log. This can be sanded to a fine finish, if you have enough time or money. Sometimes, the manufacturer might take that milled log and run a draw-knife across it to make it look peeled. The type of finish is totally up to the buyer.
CHINKING vs. CAULKING: Chinking is historically done to a hand-crafted log home in order to keep the wind from howling in between the logs. It looks like a broad white band between log courses. When cut by hand, logs can be scribed so that an upper log is shaped to match the contours of the log beneath it. However, not all logs are scribed; some just rest atop the log below, creating large gaps in the uneven surface. Either way, handcrafted log homes tend to be chinked, which was historically a mix of clay, sand, lime, mud, thatch, you name it, but is now an acrylic compound which expands and contracts with the wood. Some homes still require chinking, and others use chinking for aesthetic purposes.
Many milled log homes are actually caulked with an acrylic product designed for log homes. This comes out of a caulking gun, and creates a neat, finished look as well as protecting the seams from infiltration. We tend to caulk milled homes or do nothing at all between log courses, because the joinery system is so tight that this step is not mandatory.
Every log home is unique, and each has its own personality. It’s amazing how many different construction systems are available to create homes out of logs, and every style has its own characteristics. But overall, no matter what your log home looks like, the cozy warmth of logs cannot be duplicated in any other kind of house.