by Robert Maxwell
This is the third part of "The Cabin Chronicles", the story of how I built my own home in the woods. For part 2, click here.
It started with a model. I had no idea how to frame a wall, let alone four of them, so my ever-helpful dad suggested I build a super-detailed miniature replica of the cabin before attempting anything in full scale. It was a good idea, and I started right away. I used a table saw to cut thin strips of scrap wood into miniature studs, rafters and beams. I decided to give the model an inch of size for every foot of the real thing. That would make it 25 inches long and 16 wide, according to my plan. With a piece of foam board as my foundation, I began to meticulously assemble my model. I cut tiny wall studs to 8 inches, then positioned them vertically a little more than an inch apart, sandwiched between long strips on the top and bottom to form tiny walls. Wood glue and a small, air-powered nail gun called a pin nailer were my tools of choice for fastening the model together. The pin nailer worked great, shooting inch-long, headless needles of metal straight into wood with hardly a touch of the tiny trigger. It was fun to use. I was making good progress on my model and enjoying the work, so I stopped being careful. I shot the pin nailer with the speed of a gunslinger. That’s when one of the pins, poorly aimed, came through a stud and into my thumb. White hot pain shot through my hand as I looked down in shock. The pin had lodged under my left thumbnail, penetrating about a quarter inch into soft flesh. I could see the thin, dark line of the pin through my nail. Instinctively I ripped in out. It hurt like the devil, and I yelled. A fat drop of blood formed on the end of my thumb. Gritting my teeth against the pain, I wiped the blood on my pants and picked up the pin nailer. I knew if I thought too much about what had just happened, I might not want to continue. I didn’t want to give doubt or fear the opportunity to slow me down. I worked quickly, but more carefully, always double checking my aim with the pinner before pulling the trigger. My thumb throbbed, but I did my best to ignore it, pausing to wipe the blood when necessary. Before long the model was complete, and with it my understanding of framing. At least that’s what I thought.
I eagerly picked up the phone to call the local building supply yard. “Yes, this is Robert Maxwell. I need 150 wall studs delivered. Just drop them off on the flat rock. Same place you brought the beams and floor joists.” I still didn’t have a driveway, and wasn’t looking forward to carrying 150 studs through the bush, but the excitement of progress overshadowed this minor challenge. The studs arrived that afternoon, and I enlisted my brother Joseph to help me carry them to the cabin site. Today he’s a champion shot-putter, capable of squatting almost 600 pounds. Back them he was a skinny 12-year-old kid, but already pretty strong for his age and size. I figured together we could easily manage 4 studs at a time. I could have lifted 4 alone, but navigating around trees and rocks while balancing them was nearly impossible. With me carrying one end of the 4 and Joseph the other, it should be a cinch. Wanting to give my brother the easier job, I let him carry the back end of the stack and walk forwards. I was in the front, walking backwards, doing my best not to trip. I wished I had a set a of rearview mirrors on my shoulders. We got the first 4 studs in no problem. I thought we could handle 5 on the next run. They were kiln-dried, and not too heavy. Trip 2 went off without a hitch. I suggested we carry 6. We made it about halfway up the trail, then my foot hit a wet, moss covered rock. I lost my footing and fell backwards, the 6 studs coming with me. They landed hard on my hip bone, pinching my leg between wood and rock. Joseph immediately dropped his end of the studs and asked if I was alright. Being the tough older brother, I certainly wasn’t going to let on how much it hurt. I shifted the wood off my leg, got up and brushed myself off. “No problem,” I said. “Let’s keep going.” An hour later, we placed the last bunch of studs on a pair of sawhorses beside the cabin’s floor frame. Apparently those 6 final studs were the straw that broke the camel’s back, because as soon as we let them go, there was a loud cracking sound. The sawhorse’s cross brace had snapped under the weight of 150 studs. I felt foolish. Of course so much lumber was too heavy for two skimpy sawhorses. Why hadn’t I thought of that earlier? Luckily the sawhorse hadn’t completely collapsed, and was still supporting the studs, just barely. I grabbed my impact driver and quickly fastened a piece of scrap wood onto the damaged area, giving the sawhorse a new lease on life. Then I shoved another two sawhorses under the stack, just in case. I looked at my empty floor frame. It was time to translate what I’d learned on the miniature replica into real life.
Joseph stuck around and helped me move studs into position. The first step in framing a wall is to rough out the openings for doors and windows, and that’s what I did. I hadn’t brought my model to the build site with me, but I was sure I could remember all the dimensions. I fired up a generator borrowed from Dad, plugged in a portable chop saw, and started cutting the studs we’d just carried in. First I made lintels - thick framing members designed to form the top of window and door openings. Then I framed these with full length vertical studs, one on each side. The width of the lintels determined the width of each opening. Finally, I cut short lengths of stud to form the bottom of each window, and nailed all the parts together. With Joseph’s help the work went faster than expected, but still took most of the day. When I was done the sun had set, and I had 7 rough window openings framed and ready to build into walls. I went home happy and proud of my progress. I was so eager to continue that morning couldn’t come fast enough. By 7:30 I was back at the build site, this time with my scale model. I grabbed a stud, ready to pick up where I left off, when I noticed something that made my heart sink. The window openings in my model looked bigger than the real window openings. I knew the model was accurate – I’d spent hours carefully measuring each part in the shop. I hadn’t been as careful on the real thing. I’d let my enthusiasm get the better of me. I grabbed a tape measure. Sure enough, the real window openings I’d spent the previous day framing were only 30 inches wide. They should have been 36. One wouldn’t think that 6 inches matters much, but it made a huge visual difference. I had chosen window sizes on my replica very carefully, aiming to give them the perfect shape and proportions. I felt cold all over. I could now clearly see that the full-size window frames I’d worked so hard on and felt so proud of hours before were way too small. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before. I called my dad for help. “Nothing you can do, Robert,” he said grimly. “If you hadn’t already nailed everything together, maybe we could salvage the wood, but you have, so we can’t. Only thing to do is cart these frames to the burning pile.” Looking back, it was really only a minor setback, but at the time it felt disastrous. I had always been a perfectionist, and took situations like this particularly hard. I felt all my enthusiasm and motivation for the cabin drain out of me, leaving only frustration and despair. What was I thinking, trying to build a cabin? What a stupid waste of time.