What We Can With What We Have

I work in a lab that has various kinds of equipment for handling things that are various sizes and weights. A good deal of the things that come here need some kind of special gear to handle or move, and in many cases that movement has to be precise.  But we get a good deal of our supplies from hardware stores.  We use makeshift methods where it isn’t a safety concern (and sometimes where it is).  The motto is, “We do what we can with what we have.”

I keep a pretty strict separation of work and home life, but this particular wisdom has become a mantra for work up at Salamander City.

When I first started brainstorming what to do up there, a rather gargantuan mental task for its complexity and the degree to which I am clueless on proper methods, I struggled a lot. I’d look at a problem, do some research, come back to the problem with ideas, get halfway settled on a solution, then realize or discover some problem with the solution, then start over.  I went through what must have been fifty iterations of potential fixes for the rotting feet of the cabin before finally settling on a course of action.  Even then, my plans change as I execute them.

One concept that eluded me largely in the beginning was the idea of matching the solution to the established level of quality in build. I had it in my head that if I used the most modern, perhaps expensive, or work-heavy method to address a needed item, I would make the whole project that much better.  Right?

Wrong. Jamon Iberico is an amazing slice of pork, but it does not belong on a sandwich of white bread, imitation cheese, and mayo.  The Holy Mountain is a mesmeric satire of modern culture, an artistic masterwork.  It does not belong in the middle of Saturday morning cartoons.

The cabin at Salamander City was slapped together by rednecks, originally. It is crudely notched and stacked on stones sitting in and on the surface soil.  The trees were felled there, and never milled, and never treated against decay save for a coating of a mix of kerosene and motor oil.  The logs were barely pinned together if at all.  The roof was never secured.  The floor was never finished.  So, is it appropriate that I considered bringing heavy equipment up there to dig deep holes to pour new concrete footings?  Or looked at spending 5K on stain and polyurethane?

The only heavy equipment I’ll allow up there is a delivery truck.  This fellow delivers my gravel, five tons at a time:

The cabin is little more than a stout shack. Overspending, overworking, and overbuilding are all likely to occur when someone who doesn’t know much about gauging workmanship takes over.  I have learned that the best course of action is to continue the work at the same level of quality as what is there.  Upgrades are fine, but be aware of what you’re putting in and what you’re getting out.  Is it appropriate to consider bringing a mason up there to construct a nice hearth?  No, this is a woodstove situation.  If I were going to build a stone hearth, or dig footings four feet into the ground, or use all-Permachink sealant and chinking material, I would be better off tearing this place down and building a much nicer one from scratch.

The footings are the hardest lesson in this. The two in the back that rotted demanded attention, yet, they are simply logs sitting on stone close to the ground.  How do you fix that stop it from happening in the future?  The answer I landed on for one is to replace the section of log, and for the other to halt the rot and seal up the damaged areas with epoxy.  For both, a heavy treatment of borax was called for as well.  These solutions will not stop the rot from happening, but they will slow it considerably.  And if I have to replace or repair them again in ten years, so be it.  That is a reasonable outlay for this problem.  Expensive, enormously-challenging concrete footings being installed under an existing building is not.

In addition to repairing those two feet, and upgrading, re-seating, or replacing the rest, another foot had to be added. The walls of the cabin are held from bowing out by six ceiling ties, which are whole logs held at the plates by spikes.  rooftiesThey are in turn supported by a single center beam.  Everything above them is gable and roof.  Everything below is log courses.  It’s a stout build for the roof footprint, but I had a plan from early on to install a loft up there for sleeping and storage.  This would require a considerable amount of wood being laid out up there for the floor, and anything that would be built or stored up there.  While I have a lot of confidence in the strength of those ceiling ties, I also know that the center beam bows a few inches in the middle of the cabin.  It’s a single, seven inch-diameter log spanning twenty feet, supporting the centers of six other logs of the same diameter, spanning about nineteen feet each.  It’s got a little sag, which is understandable.  But I don’t want to make that worse, especially when you consider that the bottom of the beam is about six feet two inches from the floor, when the floor is installed.  Low enough to knock a head or two.

So, I decided to install a post in the center of the cabin, going from the ground to the center beam. This would cut the open span of the beam in half, and provide considerable support.  Hopefully, it will save me the few more inches I’d likely lose in headspace in the finished structure’s first floor.

With the understanding of the methods used to build the feet of this place, I came around to the notion that a simple rock foundation would work beneath the center post. It would have to be completely stable and unlikely to ever compress, and it would need to stay as dry as possible.  Wet wood = rot.

Drainage is a problem I’d been wrestling with since the early days. A lot of water comes down the mountain and crosses beneath the cabin.  I’d hoped to dig a French drain around the place, but the bedrock is too close to the surface in the back, where drainage is the most needed.  Something had to be done, not only for the center post, but for the rotted/repaired rear feet as well.







With help, I dug out a trench in the back of the cabin down to the bedrock, and dropped some riprap in there. This trench goes all the way to either side of the structure and connects to existing channels going downhill and away from the building.  Heavy rain will still splatter and splash up on the logs, but mostly it will be caught in the trench.  However, the trench is higher in elevation at the corners of the cabin than it is at the center.  This caused water to pool there and make a puddle.  The #2 gravel I layered into the shallow trench could not help this.

The original floor of the cabin had 4×4 lumber lying on thin stones and concrete chunks all along the center, and it had rotted out pretty badly due to frequent/standing water. That puddle was not new, though having dug out the area meant that I could see it.  Before then it would have taken the form of mud.

To attack this problem, I started digging into the ground inside the cabin, just south and downhill of the puddle. Turns out, the bedrock drops away right away and stays deep all the way out to the driveway.  This was promising for both drainage and for the foundation of the center post.

I dug a trench all the way across the underside of the cabin, including the six foot porch which was still in place and required some spelunking to get to. From outside, I extended the drain to the driveway.  Then, I buried a forty foot length of unperforated four inch drainage tubing.  At either terminus I placed a cap, into which I drilled a bunch of holes so that water would pass through but critters would not.  The termini stick just out of the ground, and are covered with rocks.


Combined with the trench in the back, the drain ran water all the way from the back to the front, and eliminated the puddle. Check out this video of the test, just after the tube was installed:

Now, the soil under the cabin is moist but not saturated, and there is no standing water there. Finally.






Next, time to install the center post. I had this nice white cedar log I’d grabbed from a fellow clearing land for a cemetery in Saratoga.  A pretty piece, much whiter than the rest of the cabin, but that didn’t bother me.  Along with the rest of the pieces, it had to be debarked.  I grabbed a drawknife and went to work.  With help, I got it and the other logs from that purchase debarked.










The bugs were bad that time of year.  My helper is wearing a net:


For the center log I spent a considerable amount of time carving out irregularities and sanding as well.  It would probably be the most seen and touched part of the building in the end, so it needed to look and feel good.

The bottom would have to be flat, so that it could sit on its foundation. But the top would need to be coped to cup the center beam.  For this, I started with the chainsaw, cutting grooves along the scribed line taken from the beam.  Then, I knocked out the chips and hit it with the grinder and wood removal wheel attachment.  Good to go.

The foundation needed to be completely solid, though it is only stacked stones. To accomplish this, I dug a hole about three feet deep, then filled it with large and medium stones, stacking each one with care to get maximum stability.  At the top, I placed a very large stone that was excessively difficult to move.  All the stones I use up there come from nearby, in the forest.  I look for the right one, then labor to get it in place.  This one had to come about sixty feet uphill, then up and over the ramp into the cabin, and into place.  Moving that stone was just about all I could do that day.

But how to get the post to stay put in the foundation? I decided to tap a short length of galvanized threaded rod into the center of the end, but leave a short length of it proud, and insert that into a hole in the rock foundation.  Between that and the spikes I would use to pin the top of the post to the beam, it would be secured.  I learned then that drilling a hole in stone is long, boring, patient work.  I picked up a masonry bit and brought up my corded drill, used an eyelet screw hung from the beam on a length of twine to sight the spot, and drilled my hole.

This is what I was aiming for, and eventually achieved:


I’d say it was about three-eighths inch deep when I decided to be done with it. There was about twelve hours of drilling to get there.


I came up with shortcuts to address hand and arm fatigue. Here you can see that I have a cable tie wrapped around the trigger and handle of the drill, holding it at medium speed.  There’s also a stone sitting on the drill to provide downward thrust by gravity.  I just had to hold these in place while the drill did its work.

I had hoped to create a hole a few inches deep, but it just wasn’t gonna happen. And that was okay, because when I installed the pole, I did manage to the get the rod to seat into the shallow hole, and it isn’t going anywhere.  Mission accomplished.  Sometimes you change your plans as you work.











I had to use a heavy sledge and a thick slab of wood as a chock to knock the top of the pole into place, as I had cut it a tad long to be sure it would support and not drag the beam down. I hammered the pole until my shoulders didn’t want to work, but I got it into place.  A couple spikes tapped diagonally into the wings of the cope, and the pole was installed.


~~~> Next:  Wood on Rocks

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