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Maintaining your log home
Wood preservation is key to ensure longevity

By Cheryl Sobun

 

There are still places in Wisconsin where you can live in the big woods, just as famed author Laura Ingalls and other pioneer families did 150 years ago. A log cabin home can really make the wilderness experience complete, or at least make you feel like you’re living in the deep woods, even if you’re not. As it is with anything that’s worth having, however, log homes must be properly cared for; there are measures homeowners must take to preserve them.

Denny Diermeier of Kettle Moraine Homes in Genesee Depot points out the caulk job between the logs at Barb and Kelley Gaffney’s home in Oconomowoc. He said the caulk needs to be monitored closely and repaired when necessary. Shrinkage and expansion from the elements can crack and loosen the caulk, compromising the wall’s energy efficiency.

Log homes are very popular in Wisconsin, said Bruce Abshire, Sussex representative for the Wilderness Company based out of Plymouth. The company sells log homes and is the parent company of Greatwood Log Homes, Geneva Log Homes and Wilderness Log Homes. He also owns a construction business, Log Home Construction Management. Abshire says he sells between 12 to 15 log homes every year in the areas of Kettle Moraine, Washington, Waukesha and Jefferson counties.

“It’s back to the rustic days of old,” Abshire said of the log home appeal. “They’re cozy and warm and get away from the fast-paced lifestyle of modern homes.” Log homes also require less maintenance and care than a modern home, he said. But, they must be preserved properly if they are to weather time and the elements.

Denny Diermeier, president of Kettle Moraine Homes Inc. in Genesee Depot, agreed that log homes are popular in Wisconsin. Sometimes he has customers close to or in towns, but most people who want a log home built have a wooded lot. “It’s a nicer, rustic appearance out in the country, in wooded areas,” said Diermeier. “We get requests for them (log homes) all over the place.” Diermeier, who has been in business since 1986, said he can also convert a conventional home into a log home. The advantages of a log home, he said, is that they’re quiet, cozy, aesthetically appealing and energy efficient — they stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Diermeier said a good-quality caulk must be used when the log home is built. The house should then be stained with a protective sealant, and then again the following year. The wood used for building the log home, whether pine or cedar, should also go through a drying process called kiln. The kiln process, together with staining, preserves and protects the home from water, sun and insects.

Also, wood is made up of millions of tiny air holes, Diermeier noted. The wood cracks, and brushing on protective stain fills in these cracks. “The first year you build it, give it a good coat of oil stain; you have to brush it in. You can spray it, but you also have to brush it. The next year, apply another coat, then you’re good to go for the next seven to eight years as long as you used a good, quality stain,” said Diermeier.

His advice is to use a stain “with pigmentation of color rather than clear, so the stain will last a lot longer. If it’s clear, the sun breaks it down quicker.”

Abshire recommended applying the protective sealant to the home every three years, five years or seven years, depending on the darkness of the stain and how sheltered the home is by trees. The darker the stain, and the deeper in the woods, the more protected the home, and the sealant need only be applied about every seven years, Abshire said. If the stain is light, and the home is in a clearing with sun and rain heavily beating down on it, it is less protected and probably needs sealant reapplied every three years.

“They don’t need to paint them (the log homes), but the sealant should have some pigmented stain in it,” Abshire said. Usually, the sealant will have a water repellant preservative built into it to prevent water damage, and a borate product to protect the wood from bug infestation. If the sealant does not have these ingredients, they can be bought and applied separately, he said.

Thankfully, Wisconsin log homes don’t suffer as much as those in areas of the country that get heavy rain, such as the South. “With high humidity and a lot of rain, you could have more maintenance sooner then up here where we have moderate rain,” said Abshire.

The sealant can be applied in a number of different ways. Abshire prefers the method of spraying it on with a garden pump sprayer, then brushing it in. “I control the product going on (with the sprayer), then follow up by brushing it into the wood,” he said. This is an easy process and one the homeowner should do himself or herself to save money. “Homeowners can do it quite easily; a lot of homeowners do it themselves. That’s the most money they can save by doing their own painting and staining versus hiring a professional crew,” said Abshire.

Diermeier recalled one couple he knew that built their own log home and neglected to use caulk or a protective sealant. The wood didn’t rot, but it eventually turned black. “We did a lot of work on it to bleach out the logs,” said Diermeier. This can be done by sand blasting or pressure washing to brighten it up and make it look like new again. Also, deck brightener can be applied to the wood, allowed to sit for five to eight minutes, then washed off. “It brings the wood back nicely,” he said. “If you take care of it, it will last a long, long time, just like any conventional home.”

Hopefully, with proper maintenance, log homes won’t become damaged. But if the home is not properly cared for and one or several logs do become damaged, rotted for example, they must be replaced. How to go about this will differ depending on whether it is a half-log or full-log home.

If a home is made of logs split in half, (one side built up to make the outside wall and the other built up to make the inside wall), replacing a damaged log is easy. Simply unscrew it and replace it. When a home is built of full logs, however, they create both the interior and the exterior walls.

A full log that is damaged must be replaced, but this will literally require taking out and replacing part of the wall. Great effort, time and cost must go into shoring up the inside and outside of the home so the structure won’t shift or collapse. Half-log replacement takes just a couple of hours and is something a homeowner could easily do. Whole-log replacement, on the other hand, takes a couple of days, and professionals should definitely be called in to do the job, said Abshire.

“With a half log, the home is built with conventional framing. The log is split in half — half on the outside and half on the inside. It’s easy to replace if there’s damage because it’s not part of the structure. When a full log gets rotted, you would have the problem of how to hold the house up while you remove the log and replace it. It’s costly and hard to do, but it is doable. That’s why it’s critical to preserve the home (in the first place) so they don’t have this problem,” said Abshire. One more reason a half-log home is the better bet, he added, is because “aesthetically, you can make them look identical so people can’t even distinguish whether it’s a full-log house or a half-log house.”

Most people do opt for the half-log home, he said, because it’s easier to care for and fix, should it become damaged. He said he has only sold two full-log homes in his 12 years with the Wilderness Company.

Diermeier agreed half-logs are more popular with homeowners because it is easier to maintain and repair. But they have an added benefit, the inside walls can be made to look more conventional if you don’t want your house to look too rustic. He once built a house for a couple where the husband wanted a log home and the wife did not. The house was built of half-logs. The outside looked like a log cabin, which made the husband happy, and the inside looked contemporary, which made the wife happy.

Full-log homes do have their advantages, however. Diermeier said they’re less expensive and quicker to build; the inside and outside walls are built simultaneously; and it has more of the authentic, rustic look. Finally, the advantage to a full-log house is that some people just won’t settle for anything less. They insist on authenticity.

Abshire said, “The full log is for the die-hard person out there who wants the true log home and feels that’s the only way.”