Author Archives: Paul Cutting

Scribed Log House

Having located over two hundred Norwegian-American log houses within the northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin areas, I’ve only found two houses in which the logs are scribed.  Scribing eliminates the spaces between log courses by scooping out the inverse shape of the adjoining logs so as to create a solid log wall.

The Norwegian-Americans who built these houses almost always left spaces between the log courses and filled them with chunks of wood and lime mortar.  This construction practice is likely attributable to several factors, including the availability of (mostly) hardwood timbers, the cost and labor skills associated with scribe joinery, and the presence of Yankee and other ethic-influenced horizontal log buildings the settlers must have encountered on their travels to the upper midwest.  The spruce timbers the Norwegians shape are straight, soft and easy to work.  Conversely, the timbers of the North American upper midwest are predominately gnarly hardwoods that are difficult and time consuming to mold.  Think of the prototypical bur oak with its stubby trunk and spread canopy.  Scribing this type of wood is really difficult.  Getting the log courses to fit snuggly with one another requires lots of fiddling, patience, and time, all of which a hard-up immigrant did not have.  And finally, by the time the Norwegian-American settlers made it across the continent they were surely exposed to the building traditions of other ethnic groups (and the Americans) whose traditions employed the use of spacing between log courses.

Below are photos of a building I located last fall outside Spring Grove, Minnesota.  This thing is a rare gem.  It’s tiny and measures just 12’x15′.  The timbers are all scribed oak, and the corners are dovetailed.  The second floor joists are hewn oak 2x6s.  The building has been altered significantly from its original construction as evidenced by a new(er) roof framing system and chiseled numbers denoting a previous relocation.  The logs of the second floor were added when the building was moved.  There remain intact two six pane sashes with ogee style muntins, which likely date to the 1850s.  The building sits on an abandoned farmstead next to another Norwegian-American Akershus three room log house.  Sorry these photos are mediocre- they were taken with my cellphone.  Enjoy!

Three Room House, Fillmore County, MN

This amazing house sits east of Lanesboro, MN. The house started off as just one room sometime in the mid 1800s.  In 1897 it was disassembled and rebuilt in its present location.  At that point its owners added a three-walled log addition of two rooms separated by an interior log wall.  Notice the butt ends of the interior log wall in the gable end.  When the house was rebuilt the staircase was removed from the large room and placed into the smaller room of the three walled addition.  The room adjacent the staircase served as a bedroom.  Unfortunately the outside log wall and corner notching of the room containing the staircase were removed when the one story shed roof addition was tacked onto that corner.  The intriguing part of this house is its clear delineation in building phases:  It began as a single room building and evolved into the prototypical Norwegian-American three room plan, and finally as a modern house with a large framed addition. 

The logs of the original one room house extend to the gable peaks on both gable ends but there are no purlins or ridgepole.  All the logs are oak. The logs of the addition are (I believe) red elm and are pretty amazing!  The largest one measures about 22″ in diameter.

I have no idea why the logs of the addition extend to only the height of the first floor.  Notice the framing above, including the huge 2” thick slabbed lumber used as sheathing. 

The original entrance to the house sat on the long side of the building facing the big framed addition. The current entrance (metal door w/ glass) was originally a window.  

The chimney is mounted on a stand centered in the middle of the wall separating the main room from the two smaller rooms. There is a cellar under the large room but not the two smaller rooms.

Fillmore County, MN

Here’s a really nice three room Norwegian-American three room house I located this past summer outside Highland, in Fillmore County, MN.  Excuse the crummy photos.  They were taken at sunset and I haven’t yet been back to get more.  It measures about 16′ x 26′ and is unusually tall and gives more the appearance of a framed house than a log house.  Notice the porch brackets, the spun posts as well as the railing posts on the second level of the porch (attached to the building).  The individual porch balusters were all laying on the porch floor.  The windows are all four light and have simple hoods above.  It was clearly abandoned long ago but has been maintained to some degree over the years.

All this detail coupled with an unusually tall massing suggests a construction (or perhaps extensive remodel) date of 1870 to 1885.  It’s likely a “transitional” house:  One in which the walls of the building are log but the interior and exterior meant to be concealed from day one.  A modern house by all accounts, yet one whose skeleton happens to be log.  It’s a beautiful house and I especially like how tall it is, yet at the same time I find it too stylized.  Your thoughts?

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2014 Project

It feels good to be done for the season!  I began last March by disassembling the building and finished yesterday afternoon by wrapping the exterior in plastic.  I went into the project unsure of how everything would go— after all I have never “restored” a building as rotten as this one— but looking back everything went pretty smoothly.  The building was a complete wreck when I started.  It sits in a low area where the water has a difficult time draining out and away.  Each spring the cellar fills with about five feet of water.  And over 3/4 of the logs were rotten.

For better or worse, I made the decision to keep the original foundation.  To fix the drainage problem I hired an excavator to dig out the original walk-down storm door and trenched from that point 150’ down the slope to an area of lower elevation.  And this was after I spent about 120 hours tuck pointing the cellar walls.  We then lined the base of the trench with drain tile and filled it with rock.  We also filled the cellar with rock to grade.  The top of the rock is lined with a plastic vapor barrier.

With the foundation squared away, I then laid a foot of stone atop the original foundation walls.  The old house sat at grade, which was no doubt responsible for most of the log rot around the lower courses.  I used 4” bed platville stone from a quarry outside Spring Grove, MN.  It’s pretty nice stuff.  I was able to keep the old floor system in place.  Someone had replaced the old rotten floor beams in the 1980s with pressure treated 2”x8”s.  Looking back, I should have gotten rid of the whole thing- it was simply too weak.  So to strengthen it, I laid a log underneath midspan (atop the rock-filled cellar) and blocked up to the bottoms of the joists for support.  Notice the vents in the stonework.  These are essential in a basement-less building to keep humidity low.

I replaced over 3/4 of the logs.  Most of the long pieces came from an Amish sawmill.  The replacements closer to the ground are white and red oak, but the pieces throughout the second floor are white pine.  Oak is hard to come by this year.  The price has increased significantly; apparently it’s all being shipped to China.  The other replacements are from a building I took down back in 2007.  That building was pretty crappy and had a ton of door and window openings, so I decided to piece it out for this project.  Every log is held in place with bur oak pegs.  I make the pegs out of old oak 2”x4”s, which seems to work pretty well.  They’re dry as can be and won’t shrink.  The pegs are 1.5” in diameter and I bore the holes using a big-ass auger bit connected to a 36v cordless Dewalt drill.  And somehow I managed to not break my wrists.    

The 2nd floor beams were also deflected and needed to be replaced.  They turned out pretty great!  The second floor is now a loft that covers half of the footprint.  The original beams were 5”x6” and were totally inadequate given the span (and the resulting deflection).  I kept two of the beams the original size, and upped the middle beam to 5.5”x7.5” and tapered the joist over the end two feet so they’d fit into the original 5”x5” mortise pockets.  And the joist ends are dovetailed to keep the walls from splaying.  The Amish mill was able to make me some near flawless eastern white pine pieces.

I framed the roof with white oak 2”x6”s and the roof boards are a combination of oak and pine.  The roof is covered with metal.  It’s cheap and gets the job done.  The soffits are boxed in with 1”x6” boards.  The interlacing joints at the corners are pretty great.  The downspouts are half-round galvanized steel.  And the gables are sided with salvaged clapboard siding.

Most of the window sashes are original with their wavy glass.  I took the old sashes to a local contractor who stripped the paint and reglazed them.  Next, they went to an Amish guy (Crist, who’s made the doors and windows for all my other projects) who made new oak frames and screens. They’re beautiful.  And the front door with the two side windows turned out pretty fantastic.

Log house for sale!

Here ya go!  This dandy of a house must be removed within two weeks or else it’s firewood.  An Amish family owns it and wants to build a new house on the same piece of ground.  The house measures 16’x25′, the logs are all oak, and the corners are notched with a shallow full dovetail.  It sits near Highland, MN about forty miles north of Decorah.  Contact me if you’re interested.


A three room Akershus plan

A three room Akershus plan


Oak logs and full dovetail corner notching

Oak logs and full dovetail corner notching

Akershus, Fillmore County, MN

Here’s a very large three room akershus house I located just last night in Fillmore County, MN.  This building is totally incredible, and it isn’t too often I find something as big or substantial as this.  It measures 18’x28′ and is a story and three-quarters high.

The interior has been remodeled extensively, making it quite difficult to tell exactly what’s going on.  It’s fair to say that there once was an interior log wall that separated the large (stue) room from the two smaller (bedroom and pantry) rooms.  There’s a masonry wall in the cellar to carry the wight of this log wall and the bottom-most log located below the elevation of the first floor is still intact.  But the wall on both the first and second floors has been removed.  The staircase has been moved to a corner, and the two small rooms have been combined into one.

Unlike the large Overland house I’ve been piecing back together for the last number of years with its roof of heavy purlins and logs that extend to the gable peaks, the logs in this place extend just to the start of the gables.  The gable framing and roof rafters are peeled trees hewn flat on one side to accept roof boards.  It’s quite something!  I rarely find rafters made of hewn trees.

This house is quite special and should be saved in its place or disassembled and stored for future use.  It was occupied till just this past January, at which point its owners bought a farm across the road.  The local Amish could be hired for a cost of about $6,000 to disassemble the whole building.  Dumpster disposal fees would add an extra cost, as would asbestos testing and potential mitigation.  It’s a sweet little place, and definitely a house worthy of preservation.

Coon Valley Akershus

Here is a fantastic example of the three room Akershus plan.  This house sits just outside Coon Valley, Wisconsin.  It measures 16’x32′ and is a full two stories in height.  It was built by Ole Knutson Rundahl of Telemark, Norway in 1855.  The house remains incredibly unaltered and is in good repair.  The outbuildings include a tobacco barn and a stone milk house/tobacco bailing shed.  Southwest Wisconsin was once a primary chewing tobacco growing area, believe it or not, and the region still maintains an impressive number of tobacco drying sheds.

The people of southwest Wisconsin are incredibly gracious and kind.  The owner of this house, a man in his 70s or 80s and a many-generation descendent of tobacco farmers, let me poke around inside and out of the house and the outbuildings, and told me all about the intricacies of tobacco growing, harvesting and storing.  It was a really cool learning experience.

German House, Houston County, MN

I drove past this house last fall and decided it wasn’t log.  It’s too tall, the proportioning isn’t right, and the configuration of the door and windows is strange.  It isn’t Norwegian, that’s for sure.  And the failed gutter on the front gives the illusion the whole house is sinking into itself like framed houses so often do.  Last week I was taking the back roads up to La Crosse, WI for school and happened past the place again.  I hiked up to it and sure enough, it’s a very big two-story log house.

It measures 18’x26′.  The proportioning is a bit odd, as it’s too narrow and rectangular given its overall massing.  And given the fact the windows are inset so far in from the opposing gable ends, it’s unique to say the least.  The logs are all oak and the corners are inverted V, a characteristic of the German-American tradition.  In my humble opinion, the V kind of sucks (no offense):  It’s really difficult to minimize the log spacing if you’re working with large timbers and aren’t willing or don’t have the knowledge to reduce the notch smaller than the overall tree diameter.  The result is huge spacing between log courses.  Notice the 1′ or so gap between the first and second floors?  Yikes.

There are very few full two-story log houses that survive unoccupied in my area, so finding something like this is pretty special.  In fact, it made my whole week.  The 1878 and 1896 Houston County plats both show the house as owned by Charles Martin.  In general, the township appears to be German settled.  And surely the house is not much older than 1878 given its size and exterior ornament.

Hey Everyone,  Here are some photos of my current project.  I started the Overland house back in 2011 and have been working on it ever since as time and money allow.  Without much else to do during this cold Iowa winter, I’ve spent the past few months plugging away on the inside.  Given the success I’ve had running my other house as an overnight rental, I hope to do the same with this one beginning in 2015.