The cabin in the woods

Posted by | March 23, 2014 | Blog | No Comments

In the winter of 2008/2009 I had a lull in work and decided that now was the time to build a cabin in a bit of woodland we manage up on Exmoor. The idea was that we would have a place to store tools and somewhere to shelter when I was up there working on the wood for a few days. Feeling in a romantic state of mind I decided I was going to hew the timber and, as much as possible build the thing entirely with hand tools. So at the start of January I gathered four handy pals together and we set off to the woods. Possibly not the best month to start a project that was going to involve two months of camping in the woods, but filled with youthful enthusiasm we set up camp in the main loading bay. We first chopped back the overgrown vegetation and then built a makeshift workshop and kitchen with a few cheap plastic tarps and some poles cut from the forest. We then started selecting appropriate sized windblown Douglas Fir, either hewing them in the yard or where they had fallen depending on how easy they were to move with our trusty Landrover. The weather was brutal. We were only given a break from the incessant rain and mud, when it snowed and everything froze. Morale slumped, peaked, and then slumped again and the diet of coffee and sausages quickly started to take its toll. People who visited often commented on the beards, the loose teeth and the sunken eyes. But slowly but surely, despite the damp, the rusty tools and the constant lack of light we chipped through it. The timbers were squared up with an axe and where necessary ripped down with a chain saw. They were then laid out on logs just out of the mud to be scribed and marked. The mortises were first bored out with a Victorian Millers Falls machine then cut out by chisel, whilst the tenons were cut by handsaw and axe. Then as the frame was being finished we dug stone for the foundations from an outcrop in the hill and constructed six simple drystone piers for the building to sit on. Finally when all was done, we enlisted the help of our neighbour to bring the cut frame on his trailer to the top of the hill where the cabin was to be sited and put it up.

The next stage was to get in local sawyer Mike Moser to cut the cladding, the floorboards and sarking. We managed to get all the floorboards and sarking from the Spruce trees felled to create the clearing for the cabin and felled extra cedar to get the roofing boards and cladding. Then resawing various ‘falling boards’ from milling we managed to get any battening that was needed. At which point the main work was done and the band of happy carpenters dispersed.

After having to earn some cash, a month later I then set about finishing the building. The rafters were Douglas Fir poles, thinned from the wood. After being hewn on the back face for the sarking boards, a scalloped housing was then adzed into the underside, essentially thicknessing the rafter where it sits on the purlin. Once all the rafters were hewn, thicknessed and had their tails adzed to a shapely curve they were fitted and the roof was put on. The roof build-up was 25mm thick sarking boards, backed with 25mm of cellotex. Over that was batten, breather membrane, counter batten and then our cedar roofing boards. Finally the barge boards were carved, the facias fitted and the roof was finished. I then had to get started on the walls. I made the windows from off cuts and spares from green oak jobs that I had hoarded and seasoned for such an occasion. Once the windows were in the walls were cladded with 8” cedar boards. I had originally decided to have a straw/clay panel infill to the timber frame, but after realising there was little clay in the wood I thought we could try a straw/lime mix which seemed easier. Making it in a similar way to straw/clay we first made up a lime slip. The same consistency as paint or a pancake mix, this is poured on to loose straw, which is in turn mixed up until all the straw has a thick coating. We then shuttered up the walls and shoved it in; hard enough to get a tight flat face once the shuttering is removed but not so tight as to push out all the air which creates its insulative properties. The shuttering is removed immediately and after a few weeks to let the lime go off and some of the water evaporate off it was lime rendered. Once the front door was on and my ancient Jotul wood burner was installed our little foresters refuge was finished.