The Cabin Chronicles Pt. 2: Beams

by Robert Maxwell

This is the second part of "The Cabin Chronicles", the story of how I built my own home in the woods. For part 1, click here.


Fall turned to winter, and I paused cabin work to focus on building my digital media production business. I was extremely eager to get back to construction in Spring. Finally the weather turned, and I was ready to attack the next phase of the project – framing, starting with the floor. Being a single guy with some income and very few expenses (I was still living with my parents), I didn’t have any trouble affording the heavy timber beams for the cabin’s floor frame. I decided to custom order pressure-treated 12x8’s for the job from a local sawmill. I could have bolted together a bunch of 2x12’s for the same result, but something in me demanded solid wood beams from a single tree. It seemed more authentic that way. When the beams arrived I was surprised how massive and heavy they were. Eight huge sawn timbers, each 16 feet long. They were still wet inside since they’d been cut recently, so moving them alone was nearly impossible. Trouble was, I needed to carry them quite a distance, since the delivery truck had dropped them off at least 150 metres from the build site. There was no drivable path to the cabin yet, but I had cut a narrow walking trail through the bush. It was twisted and bumpy with plenty of rocks, but it was the only place I had any hope of getting those monstrous beams to my foundation. My dad became my lifting partner. We picked up the first beam, and I thought my arms would rip out. The wood was rough sawn, and sharp splinters quickly bit into my fingers. We struggled through the first 60 metres, taking small steps so we wouldn’t lose our footing. Then we had to put the beam down and take a rest. I could handle the load better now, but at the time I had no earthly idea how we could possibly move eight of these behemoths such a distance. Eventually we got that first beam to the cabin clearing, laid it on my stone foundation pillars, and stopped to catch our breath. After what seemed like far too short a rest, we hoisted the second beam off the ground. Amazingly, we got through the rest of the beams before dark. I figured this was terrific progress, since we’d only started in the afternoon. Now all I had to do was cut them to length and bolt them in place.


Lifting the heavy beams was just the beginning of the epic workout that was cabin building. Without a road, every piece of material had to be carried along my foot path by hand. Every stud, every sheet of plywood, and every nail. My plan was to be totally cut off from drivable roads, safe and sequestered in the woods, but I started to see the benefits a simple driveway could deliver. With a special beam cutting saw that looked like a miniature chainsaw borrowed from my dad, I carefully cut the mammoth timbers to length. At Dad’s advice, I joined them in the corners with lap joints, a simple but effective timber framing technique. Then I drilled holes through them – one for every stone pillar. I needed some method of bolting wood to stone – I couldn’t just let the beams sit loose. Once again, Dad’s massive collection of tools came to the rescue. He had a rock drill. I realized I needed to bore a corresponding hole in each stone foundation pillar to match the holes I’d drilled in the beams. I’d pour some flo-stone cement into each hole, then slide a length of threaded rod through each beam and down into the masonry while the flo-stone was still wet. It was a good plan, but drilling holes in stone proved way harder than I expected. Even with a rock drill, it took forever. It was also so dusty that even with safety goggles and a mask, my eyes, nose and mouth were soon filled with chalk-like particles of limestone. I didn’t mind. I was fired up by my progress. 


The next thing to carry in was a large collection of 2x12 pressure treated floor joists. Over the next couple days, I hung them every 12 inches between the beams to form the skeleton of the floor. Then came the subfloor – fifteen sheets of 3/4 inch thick, pressure treated plywood, each 4 by 8 feet. These too had to be carried to the site along my increasingly well-worn footpath. I could only comfortably handle one at a time, so it took a while. Then, just as I was heaving the last sheet onto a pair of sawhorses, I heard a female voice behind me. “Hey Robert, what are you doing?” I turned. Two girls I’d graduated high school with were standing in my cabin clearing, watching me with puzzled expressions. I became instantly aware of my sweaty face and dirty, dust covered work clothes. I brushed myself off. “I’m building a cabin”. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I’d been casual friends with both girls through my school years, but we hadn’t kept in touch after graduation. “Cool!” one said. “You’re like Grizzly Adams!” I chuckled. “I guess I am.” I wondered how they’d found me here in the woods. I suspected they’d driven to my parents’ house looking for me, and my dad had given them directions to the cabin site. It was strange, seeing them there, in the woods. I’d become accustomed to long hours of working alone, without hearing another voice. I didn’t want to seem antisocial, so I asked the girls what they’d been up to in the last year, and if they had any future plans. They were both attending university, but were off for the summer. They each had summer jobs. I’m not a particularly awkward person, but I didn’t have much interest in continuing the conversation. I felt I had so little in common with them. They were normal young people with normal jobs and normal plans. I saw myself as far from normal. I felt I was a radical, starting a business and building a cabin while others my age followed predetermined paths to predetermined lives. Looking back, this thinking was pretty egotistical. The girls suggested we get together sometime, and I smiled and nodded. Then they left. I got back to work, determined to finish fastening my subfloor before sunset. I had no intention of getting in touch with either girl. At the time, I felt achieving my goals was all that mattered. I would not allow anything or anyone to disrupt my focus. A couple weeks later, I was seriously considering setting the cabin on fire.


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