The Book: Your Log House
9. Timber Layout
From the earliest beginnings of log
building, there was a need for near-dimensional timber,
that is, timber with definite size and shape. Everything
cannot be done in the round with a set of scribers.
Carpentry measurements of a conventional sort can be
used in the assembly of floor and ceiling joists, carrying
beams, rafters, trusses, housed stair runners, half
logs, and even kitchen counter tops. The raw log can
be used for all of these. The forest or log pile is
the only lumberyard needed.
The best way to approach creating the
materials mentioned, is to visualize squared timber
hiding within the confines of the log. It will be necessary
to expose the entire squared timber from time-to-time.
But as often as not, only certain portions of the timber
are required; for example, Figure 23 shows a floor joist
with an entirely flattened top for the purpose of nailing
The rest of the hidden beam might as
well hang onto the rounded slabs of wood with which
it was born. They add strength and save the labor of
removing them. At either end of the joist, however,
some sort of connection to the wall will be required.
Therefore, we simply expose enough of the hidden tenon,
the dimensions of which are arrived at in precisely
the same way we would layout an entire beam.
There are some rules to follow in these layout procedures
in order to produce an entire beam (as shown in Figure
26), or necessary portions of that beam. First, the
log should be firmly anchored a few inches above the
ground. This will save the cutting edge of the broadaxe
and will also get the log to a comfortable hewing position.
An easy way to keep the log from moving about, is to
wedge it into a notched skid log as shown in Figure
Once the log is anchored and cleanly
cut to length, all the reference points of the entire
set of timbers should be laid out before any line snapping
or cutting begins. This will allow for a better chance
of consistent measurement throughout the members. It
also saves the time of switching from measuring instruments
to tools and back again. Measuring and finishing one
member at a time (such as a joist) and then starting
and finishing another destroys the rhythm of the job.
This tends to create slight differences in the pieces
of wood in a situation where being identical is a convenient
virtue. What frame house builder would cut one wall
stud, measure another and cut it, then put down his
saw and measure another, and so forth? There is room
for routines and efficient organization of time in every
job. Log building is no exception.
To lay out the log shown in Figure
26, for the purposes of making an 8x10 timber, follow
the numbered sequence illustrated. Using a level horizontally
and perpendicularly, draw the center lines (1 &
2) with a lead pencil (not a lumber crayon). The center
will generally be the tape-measured center of the log
rather than the pith of the log, which will often have
grown in an inconvenient offset position. Next, measure
up from center and draw line 3 horizontally. The next
step is where builders often take a chance on error.
DO NOT ARRIVE AT LINE 4 by measuring down from line
2 to line 4. Rather, measure 10 in. down from line 3
to line 4. This may seem like a small thing, but it
is one more way of ensuring maximum accuracy of measurement.
I like the expression, “Measure twice, cut once.”
This is a good rule — especially for beginners.
The same procedure is followed for vertical lines 5
and 6. Before going for coffee, follow the same procedure
on the other end of the log or on all of the log ends
to be laid out.
If all of this seems confusing at a first reading, do
not despair. The following pages include the same procedure
in photographically illustrated, step-by step order.
Figure 27 shows the other end of the
log laid out at Figure 26, that is, the top end or small
end. Indeed, it is the small end that largely controls
the dimensions of timber that can be taken out of the
At this point, I would like to mention an important
fact about using chalk lines. In both of these drawings
the arrows drawn indicate the direction to snap the
chalk line. Always snap the chalk line IN THE DIRECTION
OF THE CUT. In other words, the direction of the intended
fall of the hewing axe will determine the direction
of the snap of the line. Many good timbers have been
destroyed by imprecision or ignorance in this matter.
This rule is always true.
To anchor the chalk line at its beginning
end, simply loop it onto a nail hammered approximately
in the center of the log end. Run it through a couple
of knife cuts as shown in exaggerated fashion in Figure
27. Anchor the line in similar fashion at the other
end and grip the line near the center of its span. Pull
the line back to near breaking point. When you have
sighted it perfectly vertical or horizontal (depending
on which line you are working on), let it snap. Rarely
can the same line be used to indicate adjacent faces
of the timber.
With all this layout work done and
with the log still in its first position, the top face
(represented by line 3) can be scored with the chainsaw.
With a quarter turn of the log, face 3 can now have
the bulk of the wood chopped off.
After the slabs have been chopped off,
face 3 can be hewn off with the broadaxe. Now, one of
the formerly vertical faces will be in a horizontal
position and ready for line snapping and scoring. The
procedure of rotating and hewing is repeated. For greatest
accuracy in hewing, HEW ONLY HALF-WAY DOWN, but of course,
all the way to the other end. The bottom of face 3 will
eventually come up again. The other half can be hewn
off. Unless the wood is of particularly good grain,
hewing right through from top to bottom will result
in breakage at the unseen line. Railroad tie-hackers
always hewed the entire face in one operation. Carpenters
Generally hew with one knee on the
log and the other foot on the ground. Some builders
are more comfortable walking beside the log. Tie-hackers
usually walked along the top of the log and performed
the job with a full swing of the mighty axe. For many,
this technique took years to perfect. The carpenter-hewer
can perfect the less dramatic technique with a week
or two of constant hewing.
A brief word about scoring is in order here. If, by
using the chainsaw to score, slight chainsaw marks are
left, simply plane them across the grain with a slick
or hand plane. If a heavy axe is used, the overscore
marks are pleasing to the eye. With an axe, always score
in the same travelling direction that you intend to
subsequently hew. This will help to keep your broadaxe
from glancing off the log and possibly slicing some
part of your leg. Hewing is pleasurable and satisfying
Reference to this chapter will be made
throughout subsequent processes in this book.