The Cabin Chronicles Pt. 4: Walls

by Robert Maxwell

This is the fourth part of "The Cabin Chronicles", the story of how I built my own home in the woods. For part 3, click here.


After throwing my lovingly assembled window frames on the burning pile, I had to force myself to return to the cabin the next day. I felt zero motivation. The following day was the same. I went through the motions, cutting and assembling new frames along with a wall to place them in, but I wasn’t enjoying the work like before. It took a few days of half-hearted building to reignite the fire in my belly. Raising my first wall frame is what turned the tide. Something about seeing it standing straight and tall on the foundation and floor frame I’d built brought my enthusiasm rushing back. I quickly tacked a couple boards to the end of the wall to brace it more securely to the floor, since it had no other walls to support it yet, then I went to work assembling the next wall frame. I had built all the window frames ahead of time (this time being sure to refer to my scale model for the correct size), so all I had to do was position and fasten 8 foot studs between a top and bottom plate. My speed would have made a professional builder laugh, but I felt I was flying through the work. In what seemed like a very short time, my second wall frame was up. It mirrored the first wall exactly, except that it had two openings for tall windows while the first wall had only one. I kept going, swinging my hammer like a madman. When I needed to cut lumber to length, I fired up a Honda generator borrowed from my dad, using it to power a portable mitre saw I had set up nearby. With the two long walls framed, I followed up with two short walls. When it was time to set them up, Dad came down to see how I was doing. With his help, I raised the last two walls, and used a level to fine-tune the position of all four. I was surprised how limp and flexible the heavy wooden frames could be. When every wall was straight and plumb, I fastened them together, solidly locking them in place and removing all wiggle. The sun was setting, but I didn’t want to leave. I stepped through the opening that would one day contain a door, and looked around. There was no roof and the walls were still just open frames, but I already felt like I was indoors. It was a great feeling. I was not yet 20 years old, but I had something no one else my age had that I knew of – my own home. At least, that’s what I believed at the time. In reality I was still very far from having a functional house, with many more struggles ahead. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t realize this at the time. One of the beautiful things about taking on a new, serious challenge is that you can’t see everything coming. If you could, it would be much easier to feel overwhelmed. With my four wall frames around me, I was on top of the world. I’m glad I couldn’t see everything that still lay before me.


With the wall frames up, the next step was sheathing. I phoned the building supply store and ordered 25 sheets of 5/8-inch thick plywood. Looking around at other building projects, I had noticed professional builders almost never used something this thick and expensive to sheath walls. The typical choice was 1/2-inch oriented strand board, or OSB – a bunch of wood fibres glued together and compressed into sheets. I didn’t know enough about building at the time to challenge the status quo, but my dad did. He suggested I go beefier, and sheath with plywood. He figured since I wasn’t progressing as fast as a pro, my cabin would spend more time in the weather before I dried it in with a roof and siding. For that reason, plywood was a better choice since it can take a lot more rain than OSB without deteriorating. A little water on OSB and it’ll puff up and delaminate, turning into breakfast cereal before you know it. I couldn’t afford that kind of setback, so I took Dad’s advice and used plywood. Once again I carried the sheets in on my back, one or two at a time. They were 4 by 8 feet (the standard size for sheet material), so I decided to install them lengthways on the wall frames. The first one was tricky, since I was working alone. I had to make sure it went up perfectly level. It was tough to do on my own, since I had to balance the sheet against the wall in one hand, drive a screw to hold it there with the other, all while looking at the level precariously balanced on the sheet’s top edge and tweaking the position until the bubble showed level. After a couple frustrating attempts I got the sheet secured, and drove a bunch of nails through it and into the studs behind. The studs were spaced every 16 inches, so I drew vertical lines on the plywood where each one was to help me drive nails in the right places. The rest of the sheets went up pretty easily, since I could use the first sheet to ensure they were level. I opted to sheath right over the window openings, figuring I could cut out the extra plywood later. Sheathing was slow work, mostly because of all the nails I had to drive. I wanted to be sure the sheets were fastened properly to the underlying studs, so I drove a nail every 8 inches or so into every sheet. Sometimes I had to cut a sheet shorter so its edge would land on a stud. Eventually I reached the top of the frame, and had to work from a ladder. The final layer of plywood was a bunch of thin strips, cut to width to match the top of the wall frames. Finally I drove the last nail, and stepped back to inspect my handiwork.


My first impression was that it was ugly. A giant wooden box with no windows. I reassured myself that once I cut the plywood out where the windows and door were, it would start to look like a building again. When I returned the next day, I decided the best tool for the job was a chainsaw. My plan was to stand inside the building and plunge the chainsaw through the plywood covering each window opening, then cut out the top, bottom and sides using the stud frame as a guide for the chainsaw’s bar. It was a decent plan, but it didn’t go 100 percent right, and that’s when my perfectionism had a flareup. I cut the plywood from the first window without a hitch, but halfway through the second the chainsaw slipped a little. The sharp chain chewed one of my studs, shaving part of it down in thickness by about half an inch. I quickly finished the cut, shut off the saw and looked at the damaged stud in dismay. With more building experience I would have realized it wasn’t a big deal. Frames are the roughest part of a building, and the studs would all be completely covered. At the time I wasn’t so positive. I felt a deep need to fix the damage, and the only way I could think of to do so was by spreading PL Premium construction adhesive over the chewed stud, and sculpting it into the shape of an undamaged board. This of course was a complete waste of time, but I tried it anyway. It didn’t go well. The PL Premium was too thick to sculpt, an my attempts to shape it quickly turned the entire stud into a sticky mess. The stuff got on my hand too, turning everything I touched sticky. I left for supper in disgust, hoping somehow things would look better the next morning. They didn’t. The PL had dried overnight, but instead of retaining the shape I had tried to sculpt, it had bubbled and cracked grotesquely. The stud now looked like it had a a serious case of puss-filled boils. My Dad came for a visit, saw the mess, and laughed. “Feeling artistic were you?” he asked with a smile. I just grunted. I wasn’t down in the dumps like I had been over the trashed window frames, but I felt a little foolish. This time I decided I wouldn’t let the mistake slow me down. I began preparations for my biggest challenge yet – framing the roof.