Butt-and-Pass Log Home Construction
The Skip Ellsworth Method: A Brief Overview
by Thomas J. Elpel, author of
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction
Do you dream of building or owning your own log home? It is easier than you might expect, and you are fully capable of building your own log home or cabin. The butt-and-pass method, developed by fifth generation log homebuilder Skip Ellsworth (1939-2008), makes it fast and feasible to build a log home, even for beginning builders. It can also be a very economical way to build, saving tens of thousands of dollars compared to buying and erecting a "kit" log home. In fact, many people have completed log homes with the butt-and-pass method for less than it would cost to rent a house for a single year.
Don't Waste Money on a Log Home Kit!
Have you ever picked up one of those glossy log home magazines full of stunning log homes? One thing you are highly unlikely to see in those magazines is a butt-and-pass log home. Why? Because the magazines are entirely supported by advertising revenue from companies that manufacture log home kits. These companies make money by turning raw logs into long skinny dowels with notches that can be stacked up like toy Lincoln Logs.
Most kit log homes are very expensive, often more expensive than regular stick-built homes. Manufacturing companies typically have a lot of overhead. In most cases, they have to make a mortgage payment on their factory, along with ongoing operating expenses for employee wages, benefits, social security, worker's compensation, insurance, legal advice, advertising, inventory, and never-ending equipment maintenance and upgrades. All these expenses are passed along to the customer in every log home kit that is manufactured and sold. Many states impose a sales tax on top of that, which may add thousands of dollars to the cost.
As you will see, with the butt-and-pass method, there is no need to turn house logs on a lathe, no need for notches, and no practical way to sell butt-and-pass log homes as a kit. With the butt-and-pass method, you can eliminate the superfluous labor and expense and build a house so inexpensively that you can likely afford it without incurring a mortgage. The problem is that nobody can make any money off of that - not the log home industry, nor the lending companies, nor the publishers of those glossy log home magazines.
The Problem with Notches
Traditional methods of log building have been passed down from a time when people went out into the woods and built cabins with little more than an ax, a saw, and an adz. Those techniques required time and skill to carefully scribe and notch the ends to fit together. The logs had to be notched because it was the only way to tie the pieces together as a stable structure.
Notching is a slow, methodical process that requires skill and precision to make the logs fit together properly. With a saddle notch, for example, each log must be carefully notched to match the diameter of the log below. The house is held together by the weight of the logs sitting down into the notches. Some builders drive spikes through from one log to the next for additional stability. Some builders scribe and shape the entire length of every log, called coping, to make them fit the logs below.
Traditional notching immediately weakens the logs at the joints and creates vulnerable places for moisture and rot to set in. Also, the logs tend to settle over time, potentially wreaking havoc with doors and windows. These log homes have to be carefully engineered with hidden spaces above doors and windows, so that the logs can settle without destroying the openings.
Most log home kits are modified versions of the traditional notched log home. With the aid of big machinery and mass production, the log building industry can turn the logs on oversized lathes into big, uniform dowels, so that the logs and notches are all the same. However, trimming the logs this way immediately reduces the total thermal mass and insulation-value of the wood, and cutting into the layers exposes the wood to the ravages of the weather. Just like a house with wood siding, kit log homes must be carefully maintained and treated to protect the wood from weathering and rot.
Yes, you can build a log house with traditional notching - if you have the patience for craftsmanship - or you can pay through the nose to buy a kit home. But the bottom line is that notched and coped log homes are more labor intensive, more costly, and require more maintenance than a properly built butt-and-pass log home.
The Butt-and-Pass Method
Few people in today's world have the necessary craftsmanship background nor the requisite amount of time it takes to master traditional notching and scribing and notching. Fortunately you do not have to become a master craftsman to be able to build a high-quality log structure in relatively little time.
Today there are inexpensive materials available that greatly simplify the process of log building so you can put up a house with very little in the way of skill, time, or money. Logs are peeled, dried, cut to length, hauled into place, then drilled and pinned. With the butt-and-pass method developed by Skip Ellsworth, you use a big electric drill, lots of cheap reinforcing bar (otherwise known as "rebar"), and a sledge hammer to pin the logs together with essentially no scribing, no notching, and no close fitting. The final product is stronger and more stable than a scribed and notched log home.
A log on one wall butts up against a log on the other wall, overlapping like brickwork up the corners. The logs are held together with rebar pins, drilled and nailed through from one log to the next, at the corners and every four feet along each log. The butt-and-pass method has no vulnerable notches for rot to start in, and all the pieces are so shish kebabed together with rebar that there is no settling. The window and doorframes can be nailed directly to the logs without worry. The space between the logs is insulated with strips of fiberglass insulation, then covered with sand and cement chinking mortar.
Besides being fast, durable, and economical, the butt-and-pass method of log building requires relatively few tools. In fact, most of the necessary tools would fit in the trunk of a car! And although big house logs may be heavy, you can easily lift them into place without a crane. With a block and tackle pulley system mounted on a lifting pole at each corner of the house, it is easy to wrap a strap around a log and hoist it into the air, either by hand, or by attaching the haul rope to a truck. Drive backwards slowly and the log floats into place.
When built correctly, a butt-and-pass log home can outlive any other type of log house, and it doesn't require endless coats of stain or other sealants to protect the logs from decay.
My in-laws learned about the butt-and-pass method through a class with Skip Ellsworth near Seattle. They practiced on our house, and then we helped them build their house, as shown here. Complete instructions on the butt-joint method of log building are included in my book, Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction
Check out Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction.