Building with Cordwood
Story and Photos by Brett R. McLeod
TRICKS of the trade
The first time I saw cordwood construction was in high school
when I shadowed a consulting forester for career day. His home
office was made of cordwood and provided me with my first
forestry lesson. He explained that the entire house was made
from butt trimmings left behind on log landings. The notion
that you could build a solid and beautiful structure using the
byproducts of forestry intrigued me and contributed to my
view of forests as ecosystems of opportunity.
The Adirondack Rural Skills and Homesteading Festival at
Paul Smith’s College includes student-run workshops on cordwood construction. The cordwood project illustrated here was
part of an addition to an existing sugarhouse at the Paul Smith’s
Visitor Interpretive Center.
Well-seasoned cedar is the preferred wood for cordwood
construction; it is naturally rot-resistant and expands and
contracts less than wood from some other species. Cordwood
walls are generally between 8 and 16 inches thick, depending
on insulation needs. You can use split pieces or rounds, just be
aware that unsplit wood takes longer to dry 1.
Once your wood has seasoned for at least a year and you’ve
laid a solid foundation above grade, it’s time to mix up the
mortar. Most cordwood builders have their own recipe, but
this one is most common: nine parts sand, three parts sawdust,
three parts builder’s lime, two parts Portland cement. Mix to
the consistency of thick mud 2 .
Begin with a layer of mortar about two inches thick for the
foundation. Bed the logs with a mallet, making sure that the
wall doesn’t bow in or out, and make sure none of the logs
are touching. Use a trowel to pack the mortar on each side,
leaving a gap in the center that’s equal to one-third of the
wall’s thickness. This space is loosely packed with an insulating
sawdust-and-lime mixture (the lime deters insects) 3.
Before the mortar dries, you’ll want to smooth or “point”
both sides of the wall. The goal of pointing is to compress and
flatten out the surface of the mortar. An old butter knife (bent
slightly) works well. Be sure that the areas around doors and
frames are tightly chinked with mortar 4.
Some cordwood builders also like to include glass bottles in
the wall for decoration. Use a tile saw to cut the bases off two
bottles and tape them together. They are laid in the wall just
like cordwood 5.
It can take up to three weeks for the mortar to completely
dry. It’s best if it dries slowly; you can control the rate by misting
the wall daily with water.
Brett R. McLeod is an associate professor of forestry and natural resources at Paul Smith’s College and the author of The Woodland Homestead: How to Make Your Land More
Productive and Live More Self-Sufficiently in the Woods (Storey Publishing, 2015).