A Tale of a Log Cabin

Because of COVID restrictions, travelling to the house to check on various issues prior to moving in was not really possible. We were later to regret this for other reasons, but pertinent to the matter of railway modelling space, this was not a good thing. It turns out that the garage was not connected to the house electrical supply: if it had been, it would have been unsafe due to how poorly it had been done and the fact that the garage was prone to leakage and flooding. A leaky roof can be replaced/repaired, but it was asbestos cement (so a full replacement required!) but the flooding from the garden was a bigger concern, although the removal of heavy clay that had been put onto the “french drain” did help with that!

This led, eventually, to the decision to purchase a “log cabin”, the building of which can be done in a week or so by a determined individual taking time off work, but which was basically my hobby for a year, with several long pauses during a very wet winter. There are occasions when two people are essential – installing the roof purlins being the most demanding on solo work, but most of the time, I did it on my own. I learned an awful lot in building this one, so thought it might be worth sharing some of the experiences, plus some photos of the stages of construction.

What is a log cabin?

A shed is usually built from a framing with planked or sheet material covering to keep out the weather. It may even be assembled from pre-fabricated panels, screwed or nailed to a floor and to each other. This wood is typically rough cut and thin, and to be frank, easily broken into. Insulation is a must! A log cabin is built differently. There will still be bearers underneath it, and it requires the same solid base, but it is altogether a more substantial structure built from thick planks. These are the “logs”. There are grooved at the base, and have tongues at the top, and most importantly, interlock at the corners to created a very sturdy structure. Typically the logs are available in 28mm or 44mm thickness, and can also be ordered to have an additional insulating layer added to the interior, which takes the form of Kingspan or similar plus an internal layer of tongue and groove planks. The floor is installed onto the floor bearers, and is an independent part of the structure using more (but thinner) T&G planks, with optional underfloor insulation (which I went for). The roof is substantial enough to be able to walk on whilst building the cabin, once it has been assembled, and again insulation is an optional extra which I went for, and I covered the roof with shingles – a rather satisfying process which I enjoyed thoroughly. The doors and windows may come unassembled, but thankfully mine were already made up – but they are heavy, and you will need two people for getting them in place. My windows have lockable handles, and proper doors. Because I opted for 44mm thick logs, my windows and doors are also double glazed. All the wood is pre-machined (but not planed), apart from the roofing insulation panels which need cutting to fit, and necessary screws and clout nails are provided. You don’t need many tools, but other than the floor bearers, the wood will need treating/painting.

Size wise, you makes your choice and pays your money, but I noticed that anything longer than 5.5M (outside dimensions) involves effectively joining two shorter cabins, which results in a short intrusion into the room of an additional 0.2M (8”) on each side, so do be careful about the impact of this on the minimum internal width. My 5.5M x 3.5M cabin had provided me with a room about 5.3M x. 3.3M, or 17’3” x 10’8”.

So, to construction…

You obviously need a flat, level, surface with good drainage, but that’s a bit like saying, “first catch your hare”…

First extra consideration: power supply. If you wish to connect to the house mains supply, you will need to install cabling and conduit in advance if you wish to provide the supply underground. Cables should (a recommendation, not a legal requirement in England and Wales) be at least 18” below the surface, in a trench, with suitable protection, and wired into your mains, with a distribution box in the shed. This has to be checked by a qualified electrician, and the connection to the main distribution box should also be done by the same or similarly qualified person. This will cost you. In fact, it will cost you about the same as installing solar polars and a portable battery supply which can be recharged from the mains in the house if there isn’t enough daylight. The latter option is more useful, and also costs less to run. I installed a conduit and cable to come up through the floor before laying the hardcore.

Second extra consideration: the base. There are plastic base grids available, from interlocking 0.5M panels, which are great for spreading the load onto a compacted, firm surface. I went down this route, but if doing it again, would go for a solid concrete base. I would still use the grid, to provide an insulation barrier between the cold and sometimes wet concrete and the shed supports. But either way, more expense. I had to dig out a bit of the garden to extend the space, and then have a few cubic metres of “MoT 1” hardcore delivered for spreading and compacting.

Third consideration: the work! When your shed “kit” is delivered, it needs to be stored somewhere safe and dry, and then you can start work. It is possible, if you so wish, to treat and prepare the timber before installing it. I wish I had done this as the finished result would be neater. However, you would need to set aside a day or two of dry weather in advance, and remember to paint the inside a different colour but to stop at the corner notches, if you are having two colours. 

Read The Manual

From then on, it’s really a case of following the instructions. And you really should follow them. Do not try to outsmart or rethink them, as you will come a-cropper and have to undo something. Ask me how I know! The one thing I strongly recommend is to get the flooring installed as soon as you have two or three layers of the wall logs installed. It will be easier to move around , and also once done, you will have a nice level surface on which to place your step ladder when working at higher levels. Also, realise that until you start nailing the shingles or felt onto the roof, the cabin can be fairly easily taken apart if necessary (not that removing them would be difficult, but you would probably need new material on reassembly). You can always go back and redo things, so don’t panic.The interlocking arrangement at the corners does not require screws: the incremental weight of the logs and the roof is used to keep things together, along with a storm brace at each corner, which ties the apex ends to a log close to the floor.

Two experienced people can assemble the basic shed in two days – this can be done for you you, if you want to pay for it – but if you don’t rush, then a week off work with a helping pair of hands at a few junctures will suffice. That doesn’t include the final roof covering nor the treatment of the wood. I am not sure if the two people employed by the supplier would install the flooring, either.

The photos show the basic progress made. The worst part was digging out the extra ground – the soil here is very heavy clay – and the second worst was when the weather took a turn for the wetter and windier, and I had to get some canvas covering on, which made me wonder if there is a deity with a sense of humour devoted to weather, as the canvas came off twice in stormy weather, and when I tried to put it back on, I had an interesting lesson in how sails work…

I haven’t mentioned suppliers or costs in detail. The reason being, there are several options. But realistically, even if you are prepared to do a lot of the work yourself, you need to budget for an outlay of several thousand pounds. There are usually “special offers” advertised, so the full price is a misnomer, but the advertised price will be for a basic cabin with the thinnest of materials and the simplest of options. For a shed the size of a garage, or similar, I would say that you need to allow between £8,000 and £10,000. I think I have spent very near the latter of that. This is about half the new price of a family car, but should last a lot longer. It also keeps all your railway stuff in a single place. On the downside, even if it is close to the house, it is not part of the house, and you may feel slightly cutoff because of that. I think that if something is important to your enjoyment of life, then it is worth creating time and space for it, and trying to budget for it by saving up and making other sacrifices. And is it worth it?

Yes. If constructed well, and well presented, you can expect to increase the value of your property by more than you spend on it. I recently found out that my £10,000 or so of hard expenditure added £20,000 to the price of the house, and made it a more attractive purchase, too. How do I know that? Well, just after completing all but the very final details and some work in and on the house completed as well, a decision was made to move house… …at least, if a new one is necessary, I can afford to build another!

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