Woodcraft Stone Cabin
by Ernest Thompson Seton
The very spirit of Woodcraft is to use what you have where you are and right now; so that a rock cabin is the best thing to make when you are in a rock country where timber is scarce. It has many advantages over a wooden cabin --thus it cannot burn down, and it will last forever; but it has the disadvantage of being far more work, and in any case, you need some timbers for the roof.
The necessary tools are: for digging foundation, spade and pick; for the stone work, buckets, a shovel and hoe to mix the mortar, mason's hammer, trowel, level, plumb-line and square, as well as 2 crow-bars, spade, and sledge for to heavier stone; for the carpenter work, hatchet, hammer, crosscut handsaw, two-handed timber saw, 1-inch auger, 10 pounds of 3-inch nails, 10 pounds of 4-inch and 5 pounds of finch spikes.
The principal work is the hauling of the material. If you have a team and wagon or stone boat to help, it greatly simplifies the matter. And further, if the stone for use is naturally of flat shapes it turns the labor into fun but, oh, beware of the stone cabin in regions where you have only band boulders for material; then a complete outfit of mason's tools and real cement as well as much skill and such labor are needed to produce a good building.
Let us assume, however, that you are in a slate or limestone country, with plenty of good flat stones at hand, and that you have abundance of clay; then it is easy to build a stone cabin, using no bought material. Clay will hold the
stone if the rain is kept off; and if, further, you can get enough fresh cow dung to mix one part with 3 parts of clay, you have cement that will mock at the weather for a hundred years.
In addition to the stone and mortar, you need log lintels for windows and door, and a heavy beam or rooftree to carry the roof. The lintels should be about 8 inches thick and 12 inches longer than the space they are to bridge, and flattened on top and bottom. Railway ties are just the thing. The rooftree should be about a foot thick and 20 feet long, so that it will project a foot at each gable. An old telephone pole is fine for this; it is so important that I often change the plan to fit in with whatever good rooftree I can get. Plates also are necessary to carry the gable projection and to nail all rafters to; for this you need 4 or more heavy poles each about 10 feet long. It will be seen that shorter poles may be used as long as there is a foot projection over each gable and nailing place for the rafters.
The first thing, after drawing the plan, is to decide on the site, and often this calls for a new change in the plan. A big rock all ready for chimney foundation is a great help, and a noble view is worth moving a window to secure.
Morning sun and afternoon shade are desirable, while good ventilation and good drainage are essential.
Some builders are particular about having the house square with the compass points; if you wish it so, your simplest plan is to go to the place at night, and get the north from the North Star. Then line up one side of your cabin with that.
The plan herewith is 12 x 18 1/2 feet outside; that is, 10 x 16 feet inside, allowing for 14-inch walls (A). This cabin will, however, accommodate 4 fellows m double-decked bunks, or even more if cots or bunk seats be added.
When you have selected your site and staked out your ground plan, the first thing is to dig for the foundation (A).
In the Northern states you must go down 3 feet below the surface to be safe from frost, unless by good luck you strike bedrock or a big boulder.
Having dug a trench about 3 feet wide-that is, wide enough to work in--and 3 feet deep, unless you strike bed rock sooner, all around as in the plan, then begin the foundation by laying in it a row of the biggest stones you can
handle. Work each stone into place with crowbars and block up with smaller stones pushed under, until they sit solid and do not tip up in the least when heavy weight is set on one or the other side. Level up with smaller stones;
then add a new layer until 6 inches above the ground-that is, at the intended floor level. The foundation is 3 feet wide at the fireplace.
Now leave a 3-foot opening at the place for the door, that is, 6 inches wider than the intended door; then build up the walls all around 14 inches thick, according to the plan, breaking every joint with a bigger stone right over it, setting every stone firmly on at least 3 points before bedding it in the cement. A properly built stone wall would stand just the same if all the cement were dissolved away. Use the plumb line and work all along the wall until it is 3 feet high. Now leave openings for each of the windows. When the walls are carried up to a height of 6 feet above the floor level, it is time to set the timbers--that is, the wooden lintels over doorway and over each window and over the fireplace-as well as the plates that carry the gable-overhang. When these are placed, as in the sketch, build up the front and back walls level with the top of the lintels; but the two end walls should be gable shape, a foot higher in the middle.
Now roll your big rooftree or ridge log up on to this by means of two skids or long logs leaned against the cabin front, using all the help you can get. This is the grand religious ceremony of the undertaking. It is far more important than laying the cornerstone. And as soon as it is up and solidly placed, it should, according to ancient custom, have a green bough stuck upright on each end to remain there and bring good luck till the family moves in and lights the first fire, into which these green boughs are cast.
Now for the roof. This calls for about 80 straight poles or rafters, each about 4 inches thick and 7 1/2 feet long. Lay them close together--that is, touching--from the rooftree to the walls, using the hatchet whenever necessary to make them set well. Put a big nail into each at the top end that is, nail it to the rooftree--and one at the bottom, nailing it to the plate. Let the lower end project over the wall for eaves (C and D). Be sure that the outside rafter at each end is twice as thick as the others. Four of these thick ones or end rafters are needed.
Now nail a gutter pole across all these rafters, but 6 inches beyond the walls on the over-hang. This may not touch all the rafters, but one good spike every 2 feet will hold it. It should be well fitted and nailed to the two big outside rafters.
Now cover the whole roof with hay or marsh grass evenly to a depth of a foot. Then cover this hay or grass with good stiff clay to a depth of 3 inches all over, well tramped down and sprinkled with a little water if it is too dry to work well; under this the hay goes down to about one inch thick. The big poles at each side, with the gutter poles, act as a frame to hold the clay in its place.
It is well here to sound a note of warning-do not put too much clay on the roof. It is quite possible to crush the timbers with the weight. Enough clay to run off the rain is all that is needed. If the rooftree seems to give, it may call for a post under it inside.
Build up the chimney, keeping the flue undiminished, and carry the chimney up to a foot or more above the highest part of the roof.
The window frames and door frames may be of 1-inch stuff, but are better of 2-inch. They are now fitted into their openings, held there by one or two spikes and plenty of mortar. But it is easier to manage them by making them in advance and building them in where they belong as the wall goes up.
The floor is simply clay, leveled off and hammered smooth.
The finishing of doors, windows, and beds is as in the Woodcraft cabin already described.
A certain amount of plastering will be necessary to cover holes after the roof is on, especially at the gables.
If the fireplace does not draw the smoke, lower the front by building in a thin wall carried on a stone or a green oak timber; or even follow exactly the lines of the fireplace in the Woodcraft cabin. By omitting the fireplace, the labor is of course, greatly reduced.
So far these instructions are for the rock or stone cabin, but many parts of the country have no good building material except stiff clay. By mixing straw or hay or wiry grass in this clay after it is worked up into a paste with water one can make bricks. They should be about 8 x 12 inches x 5 inches thick. They are thoroughly dried or baked on boards in the sun, and used instead of the stone for the bin. Enough grass is worked with the clay to hold it together when soft. 600 or 700 dobies will be needed for the cabin. It is a lot of work making them but they are easily and quickly laid. There are dobie houses in the West over 400 years old, and Babylon was built chiefly of these, so do not fear that they will soon crumble.
The rest of the building methods are the same as for the Woodcraft Cabin.
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Last modified: October 15, 2016.