Historic PlasterHistoric PreservationHistoryLog cabins and structuresMiscellaneous

A Close Look at a Log Home

A few weeks ago I spotted a log cabin in Watertown, MN that had recently had its old clapboard siding and a kitchen addition removed.  Since I wasn’t able to stop and take a closer look I kept driving and hoped that I might make it back before the building had disappeared.  A couple of weeks later I was able to return to Watertown and was very relieved to see that the log home was still standing. Since I had some a few moments I stopped and asked two men working on the site about the home’s fate and if I could take a few photographs.

The pair of brothers, who were working for the property’s new owner, told me the owner hadn’t known the old house was actually a log home when he purchased it (since it was covered in clapboard siding) but now had plans to save it. He was going to use the building as the centerpiece for a music venue which would feature bluegrass music.  The brothers were very accommodating and allowed me take a closer look and snap a few pictures.  Since the log home had been covered in siding for many decades it was in remarkable condition. Despite the rain and drizzle I was able to take a few pictures that show a few interesting details and give some insight into how log homes were built.

Log cabin or log home in Waterville, MN.
The recently uncovered log home in Watertown, MN. Please try and ignore the new vinyl windows!

The home was built mostly from hand-hewn white oak or burr oak logs.  The corners are notched using full dovetails rather than half dovetails or V-notching.  Although more difficult to build because the extra angle made layout and cutting more complicated, full dovetail notching makes the building’s corners more stable.  The tight fit of these corners joints are a testament to the skill of this home’s builder.

Also interesting are the remnants of original daubing.  In order to keep a log building air- and watertight, the spaces between the logs were filled with rocks, twigs or pieces of wood (called chinking) and plastered over with a mixture of mud, clay, straw and animal hair called daubing.  Since wind and rain quickly eroded daubing, keeping a log home watertight required constant maintenance.  This is why original daubing is not often seen today.

 

Original log cabin chinking and daubing
The west side showing some of the original daubing, hand-hewn logs and more dovetail notching.
Full dovetail notching on Waterville log cabin or log home.
The southeastern corner showing the full dovetail notching.

 

Another detail is a wood peg that was used to keep the logs aligned when cutting the opening for the door. When log buildings were initially constructed, all of the logs were full length. That is, there were no short logs used to make window or door openings.  Instead, the sides were built with stacked, full-length logs and openings were then sawed out for the doors and windows.  To keep the heavy logs aligned for door openings, a hole could be bored between the logs and a large, wooden pin inserted. Much like the dovetails on the corners, this would keep the logs stable and in place until the door jambs were installed.  The pegs also gave the wall some additional strength.

 

Hand hewn logs on Waterville log cabin
The wooden pin at the left of the door opening. The facets on the pin show it was made by hand using an ax or a draw knife.

The interior also had a few surprises.  The first thing that caught my attention were the surfaces of the logs which were covered with marks from a gouge that resembled fish scales. These “fish scales” were used to hold lime plaster. Although we imagine pioneer life to have been primitive and isolated (which, in many respects, it was), people still did their best to follow the latest fashions and dress up their homes to the extent that they could.  One way to dress up a log home was to plaster the interior walls and cover them with wallpaper or paint.  Indeed, many log homes survive today only because the old, rustic logs were covered on the exterior by clapboard siding and the interiors by plaster and paint. The only clue that there are logs hidden beneath the plaster and siding are the thick walls.

 

Remnants of historic calcimine paint in Waterville log home
Remnants of a bright blue paint.
Fish scales on logs on a log cabin interior used to hold lime plaster
The “fish scales” used to hold lime plaster.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

19th century lime plaster took weeks to cure and harden, meaning it was quite plastic in the interim. Traditional wooden lathe or “fish scales” gave the plaster something to adhere to and held it in place while the plaster hardened (For another look at plaster and lathe on an 1850’s log home in Minnesota, take a look at this blog post on the Ney home near Henderson, MN.).   This building had both “fish scales” and some regular wooden lathe.

Also interesting are a few remnants of paint.  I found a bit of a bright blue or periwinkle by the stair.  The workers also told me they had found remnants of pastel colors throughout the house.  This was most certainly calcimine paint. Pastels were common calcimine colors from the 19th century clear through the middle of the 20th century. I also found remnants of older, jute-backed wallpaper and vinyl-backed wallpaper from the 1950s.

The eastern wall show both traditional furring strips for wooden lathe below some “fish scales.”
Very often log homes were divided with walls during their early history. The north end of the home was separated during the 1870s or 1880s using full-dimension lumber and cut nails. The horizontal marks on the 2 x 4s are from sawn lathe and lime plaster.

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