Dorothy's vertical-log house


by Dorothy Ainsworth

I wanted a big log house...never mind I was a woman with no building experience, no fat bank account, and no helpmate. What I did have was a piece of land, an old pickup truck, and a high pain threshold.

The smoldering desire for a rustic home of my own flamed into passion when I turned 40. "Ripeness is all," said Shakespeare. "Send my roots rain!" (G.M.Hopkins 1875)

Waitress Dorothy 1980's

I had raised my two children and survived a lifelong career in waitressing by feigning a tough hide to protect my romantic soul. It was time to change my major from domestic engineering to wildlife management (10 acres) and forestry products (logs). Down to the lint in my pocket, and with the North Star as a windbreak, I started out on the long road to freedom.

Vertical-log construction was the practical choice for a 125-lb. woman with a strong back and a sturdy little chainsaw. Logs were available from the USFS for 3 cents a foot, and only 20 miles away. Short logs would fit in my pickup. They would require minimal notching so the walls would go up fast. Shrinkage in length is negligible so settling wouldn't be a problem. Besides, Davy Crockett was my great, great, great, great uncle and that's how he did it. Forts back then were erected in a day, stockade-style. Why not now?

Big on ideas but short on skills, I decided to practice first by starting small. With common sense as my guide and a pile of how-to-do-it books, I drew up some plans, constructed a model, secured a permit, and gathered enough logs (180) for a 1000-sq.ft. piano studio. In our family, classical music is a necessity!

For the next 3 years of weekends, I toiled alone to hone my skills in a self-imposed apprenticeship program. The brutality of fact quickly replaced the delusions of wishful thinking. Every act had a consequence. I learned that the limitations of the flesh must be exceeded by will. Daydreams are free and replenish the soul, but there's no way out of the work.

As the place took shape and tiny triumphs added up, I realized that my Outward Bound adventure was merely the tangible manifestation of my inner growth. Call it zen, call it zeal... whatever it was, it felt good! I saw myself as the sum of my strengths.

Piano studio
Eric's grand piano in studio

When the nine-foot concert grand piano was rolled into its final resting place in the octagonal sanctuary, I sighed a laudable "Ahhhh!" At last I felt ready to tackle the main house.

Brimming with enthusiasm and newfound confidence, I forged ahead with tunnel vision. Back to the drawing board, in and out of the forest, and back 'n forth to work I went. Like a squirrel, preoccupied with survival and security, I was oblivious to anything but acorns. Until I met Him, with a capital "H." Somewhere between doing sit-ups at the fitness center and serving two eggs over-greasy at the restaurant, Cupid got me. I fell in love.


He was quiet and good-natured and had the most magnificent shoulders I'd ever seen...not to mention arms like legs and legs like tree trunks. Hercules! Blonde curls, blue eyes, sparkling teeth, and a dimple in his chin (excuse me while I faint). Never mind he was half my age. We adored each other, and time stood still.

Kirt on first logging trip
Kirt & Dorothy

The year we met, 1989, was spent giggling like children at recess while stockpiling 300 logs from the forest. On our first Christmas, visions of sugar pines danced in our heads to the strains of the Nutcracker Sweat. A conventional courtship it was not. Gossipers called us Jock and Jill. I called us lucky. If this rough-hewn figure in a flannel shirt and Levis wasn't the marryin' man, he was certainly the carryin' man!

Kirt on longest logs
Dorothy & Kirt logging

Kirt was wise beyond his years, and authentic. He respected my wishes and nurtured my dreams. Equality was a given. We both knew how to make work seem like play. Our similarities far outweighed our differences. There was no gap. Contemplating that it seemed too good to be true, I asked him, "Where have you been all my life?" He answered with a wink, "Sorry, honey, for the first half I wasn't born yet." Just out of college, he was pursuing his own goals but was unobtrusively there if I needed him. We truly lived and let live.

Kirt & Dorothy

I designed the house...structure, form, and content. First of all, it wouldn't be too precious to live in and live-it-up in, with dogs and cats frolicking about. It would be spacious and well-lit and functional. Simplicity and naturalness would prevail, with plenty of room to get artsy-fartsy in the finishing touches. Commensurate with my level of craftsmanship, I needed a straight forward hilltop design, like a Panama hat, to direct the winds up and over. I opted for the unpretentious grace of a lofty gabled barn with sweeping shed wings. (When a tornado hits, this Dorothy will see you in Kansas!)

Dorothy drawing plans
Dorothy's model

From years of forethought and soul-searching, I knew exactly what I wanted, but how was a bothersome technicality. With tips from the cafe, I'd pay as I go and go 'till I dropped. Labor was time, and energy was a renewable resource. The house would cost $15 a square foot. Except for big-ticket items such as appliances, fixtures, and a wood-burning stove, I would make everything from scratch, including deep window sills and wood frames for the glass (no aluminum or vinyl allowed).

Planning ahead was essential. I constructed a scale model and played house to get the feel of it.

Inside, ambient light would stream through a bank of large south-facing windows up high. At eye level, the spectacular view of snow-capped mountains by day, and city lights at night, like jewels on black velvet, would be given its proper status. I would settle for nothing less than a round portrait window to gaze out of for visual refreshment, never to be taken for granted. French doors would open onto a huge front deck with steps leading down to a wood-fired hot tub.

On the north side of the house, I pretended to be up in the loft with its naughty pine walls, an acre of bed, and a river rock shower. My imagination slid down the fireman's pole into the den below. Every home needs a hermetically-sealed enclave where one can escape the capricious distractions of everyday life. My cave, with its porthole window and hobbit door, would be the place to run away without leaving home. I would cherish my time off to read, listen to music, and watch the Discovery Channel on TV (No hysteria, canned laughter, or police sirens for me, thank you.)

An easterly kitchen would be the bright spot in the morning where the first rays of sunrise would meet me for coffee in the breakfast nook. I would sit on my tuffet in the cushioned window seat. For me, one of life's most profoundly simple pleasures is to sip and think and contemplate the universe.

When I designed the house, I gave myself permission to satisfy, not deny, my eccentricities. So what if the building inspector raises one eyebrow when he signs off the checklist... as long as I'm legal.

I wanted low-maintenance housekeeping. Let moss grow on the river rocks in the shower; lichen and mushrooms are charming! The bathroom would have a beautician's sink, with a place for the neck, where lovers could wash each other's hair to Rossini's Barber of Seville.

I love to cook, but not within the confines of a traditional cramped kitchen. I also like to bake, but not if the pie dough drapes over the sides of a tiny cutting board. The kitchen is where my personality takes up a lot of space. Give me a massive butcher block and a cleaver, and I'll get serious about dinner. Fresh vegetables are a must, and so is a big set-tub for washing them in. I want to throw spinach in the built-in pond and let the silt fall several feet to the bottom. Floating fruit would make canning season a breeze.

When it comes time for the main course, only an industrial-strength stove will support the vat. To save on power, a good refrigerator door seal should crop the cat's tail, not just kink it! Hide and seek is not my game; open shelving all around would insure easy access and low frustration.

The dining room table is the most popular place in any home.

Everything happens at the dining room table. Mine would be colossal (4'x 8'), and built with planks thick enough to support a feeding frenzy of hungry relatives.

I love to sew. After dinner, when I clear the decks, I want to be able to roll out a bolt of 60"-wide canvas on the table and make huge awnings for the house.

Doors are symbolic. As a shelter defines our living space and controls the atmosphere, a door determines who enters that private realm of being. I wanted a front door that would break Hitler's toe if he tried to kick it in. Massive and medieval, it must creak with hand-forged hinges and black hardware, and provide a peephole to say, "Who goes there? Advance and be recognized!"

Each kind of door has its own character. The quaint Dutch door in the country kitchen will cool an apple pie on its mantle, wafting aroma out the top half. A cute little cat door in the bottom will let "Foo-foo" bring a mouse in.

Sophisticated French doors make a woman feel like a princess in gossamer, even when clad in blue jeans and a T-shirt. There's something about a large view divided up into little pieces that makes it easier to take in. Smaller French doors in the loft would open onto a cantilevered deck for sipping mint juleps in the cool north light on a hot summer day.

Mandatory for decoration, mirrors are like magic. They're a poor-man's way to double the square footage and keep an eye on things. They repeat architectural patterns for visual appeal, and keep you company when no one's home.

Dorothy 17

I won't be without my ballet barre...the last remnant of my childhood fantasy of becoming a great dancer. It will be something to hang onto when I have one too many at our housewarming party!

Dorothy's device for squaring logs

Yes, my humble abode will be my castle, and I reserve the right to keep the IRS out with a moat and drawbridge if necessary, or let the whole Mormon Tabernacle Choir in if I so desire. (I don't!)

"I was giddy; expectation whirled me round!" (Shakespeare) It was time to roll up my sleeves, flex my little biceps, and grab the drawknife. I peeled and stained 150 logs. My sister from Santa Barbara made the mistake of coming up for a week. She peeled and stained another 150 logs and escaped by plane when her vacation was over.

The next step was squaring off the 600 log ends. Kirt and I worked together using a Rube Goldberg contraption I devised to ensure a straight cut.

Cutting piers to length
Piers set in 6 ft holes
Girders across notched piers
Floor joists & blocking completed
Attaching brackets

I built the floor in 3 months in my spare time. It was supported by a pier and girder foundation, connected together by 2"x12" floor joists on 16" centers. It would support a house full of hippos.

Dorothy chiseling a mortise

Unlike the piano studio, with its eight sides and giant circular cable holding the roof intact, this 2000 sq. ft. design incorporated mortise-and-tenon joints to tie it together. The log-dominated timber frame consisted of 4 bents (each bent being 2 uprights and a horizontal) creating 3 bays (space between bents), joined together by connecting girts (also logs) and reinforced with knee braces.

Kirt chiseling a mortise
Kirt being Kirt

Yikes! Mortise-and-tenon joints! The words were scary and the concept subliminal. There lay eight 400-lb. 14-footers and four 500 lb. 20-footers on the sub-floor. And there stood I with a hammer and chisel. It was my moment of truth. Whispering my own motto for courage: "Dissect, demystify, and conquer", I started in.

Drilling a peg-hole
A tenon & its mortise

I laid out each bent as it would appear standing up, flatted the surfaces where the tenons would plug in, and cut the mortises (slots) just so, using an electric chainsaw, ship's auger, and chisel. I cut a tenon on each end of the horizontal log after taking great care to ensure a 90-degree junction when the big "H" was reassembled upright. Everything had to be kept square with the imaginary centerline of each log. Being a compulsive photographer, I recorded every step on film.

Our first log up
Pre-drilling for 12" spike

All went well. Kirt helped me erect the framing members one at a time, fastening the vertical logs to the floor with 12" pole-barn spikes. Then we raised the 20-foot horizontals in place with a manual Genie-Lift (rented), slid the tenons into their respective mortises, and drove the pegs home. Squealing with delight, we ran off for pizza and beer. It was Halloween and the skeleton of our house was standing eerily in the light of the moon.

First section (bent) up
Dorothy pre-drilling for rebar
Middle section of house framing

I rented scaffolding and donned my imaginary oxygen mask for the stratosphere. For the next few days Kirt manned the Genie-lift way down below and I hammered in rebar way up above (20 feet up). The 9"x 9" ridge-beams and top-plate beams, perched atop their upright supports, swayed in the breeze. Until each half-lap joint was secured with spikes, we didn't feel safe; when we raised a beam, it raised our hair. Tension was high. Affectionate bickering now and then revealed a little cayenne pepper in our salad of love!

Using auger for peg-holes
Come-along holds connecting girts until fastened
Dorothy pre-drills for rebar
Middle section
Yay! All rafters up
Dorothy at work

We eagerly stabilized the structure with ten pairs of 4"x10" rafters on 4-foot centers. They were joined together at a 6 in 12 pitch over the ridgepole and gusseted into place. At the overhang end, I pre-drilled and drove rebar into each rafter, down through the top plate and into a log, eliminating the need for a birdsmouth cut. We scoffed at earthquakes and ran off for pizza again.

Dorothy attaches door frame
Dragging plywood into position on roof
Dorothy & Kirt
Kirt cutting round window opening

Now I was on my own and welcomed the challenge. Kirt was busy with his career. For the next 3 months I worked on the roofs...all 4 of them. Because 1"x6" T&G pine was installed on top of the rafters to create the vaulted ceilings, I had to build a grid on top of that roof to receive insulation, plywood, tarpaper, and metal. Every day was spent aardvarking around on my hands and knees, or limping back and forth with one foot higher than the other. Like a drunken sailor, even on solid ground I favored a gimp in my hind leg on the starboard side.

Basic frame & logs up
Creating grid to hold insulation

Sometimes, to avoid the sun, I would work at night with a flashlight strapped to my forehead, like the firefly from hell. I came to the conclusion that roofers, mercilessly exposed to the elements like human weather vanes, are the unsung heroes in the construction world.

I methodically put up the walls, one log at a time, and spiked them in place. To save my wrists for waitressing, I gripped the hammer with both hands and wailed away. I swapped the log ends alternately (big end up, big end down) to even out the taper and keep the walls plumb, and set each log 2 inches over the edge of the bottom plate, for a drip edge.

Creating window spaces
Window openings with sills

Next came the 36 windows and 5 doors to button the place up. I built doors from T&G pine and window frames from Douglas fir 2"x4"s. Limited by only hand tools and a bandsaw to work with, I had to call on my 80-year old master-craftsmen friends, Merle and Ivan, to make the fancy cuts. Casement hardware opened rows of windows (awning style) on the east and west sides of the house for cross-ventilation.

Dorothy working on door framing

To save money, I picked up the huge double-paned glass order in my old Ford pickup (4 trips) and summoned Kirt to help unload and lift the heavy windows into place. While he pressed the fixed panes (some of them 6-feet by 3-feet) against my prepared stops, I secured them all around with 2"x2"s. No cracks, no shards, and no gaping wounds happened, so that was reason enough to go out for Chinese dinner!

The inner walls of the house remained rustic (visible logs), but the outer walls had to be insulated. I furred them out with 2"x4"s to receive fiberglass batts and sheetrock, then chinked between the logs on the outside.

Den archway
Kirt & Dorothy

I hired an electrician to do the extensive wiring but painstakingly did the plumbing myself and passed inspection (a miracle).

"Let there be light!"...but not just any old light. I suspended chandeliers from ceiling fans (they said it couldn't be done) and marveled at my handiwork.

Dorothy caulking from scaffolding
Interior view 1995

To help support the one 20-foot horizontal log that spanned the middle of the house, I fashioned two hanging knee braces out of black chains and turnbuckles...a trick I hadn't seen used before. I was thrilled with my handsome invention and snapped more photos.

Six years had passed since I started this project. I rented scaffolding again, but this time for the outside, to caulk every crack and apply a beautiful protective stain to the entire house. Night and day, up and down the rungs and ladders I climbed, buttering the logs with my linseed oil concoction, until they glowed like the sunset. I wiped the baseboards with a tiny cotton T-shirt and laid it out to dry.

House almost finished 1995
View going up the road
View going down the road

On June 29th, 1995, the rag spontaneously combusted and burned the house down in two hours. I put the fire out with tears.

End of story ...... back to log one.

June 29, 1995