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Practicing the Craft

Working With Logs

You learn some time- and labor-saving procedures after working with logs a few times. Here are some tricks that can make your work easier.


Trees needed for log construction should be felled during the growing season, mid-April to early September in most regions. The bark is easier to remove from trees cut during this season.

Ideally, fell trees uphill from the construction site, and out of sight of trail users. Select straight trees free of obvious defects. Often defects are not noticeable until the tree is down, but outward signs of rot, fungus growth, and insect attack indicate a tree to be avoided. Special training and agency certification are required for fallers, a very hazardous occupation.

Bucking and Seasoning

After felling, the tree is bucked, or cut, into log lengths. The logs can be peeled, which will reduce their weight and permit them to dry out, or season. Leaving the bark on the logs will protect the surfaces when the logs are moved, especially if the logs are dragged. Whether the logs are peeled or not, they should be stacked off the ground on two or three stringers of low-quality logs. Stickers should be used between layers of usable logs to allow uniform seasoning. Stickers can be 2 by 4s or small-diameter logs placed across a layer of logs at the ends and midpoints of a layer (figure 91).

Image of stickers for stacking logs
Figure 91-Stickers placed between layers of
logs help the logs dry faster and reduce rotting.

Moving Logs

Logs are heavy. Footing is uneven and often slippery. Accidents can happen easily, and the emergency room is far away. When logs are carried by hand, the tendency is to pick up the logs and carry them on the shoulder or at the waist. If workers holding the log slip, the log will come down on them. The result can be a serious injury to the ribs, hip, ankle, or foot.

To avoid or reduce the severity of this type of injury, use two or more log carriers. Log carriers are large steel tongs mounted in the center of a 2- to 3-inch-diameter wooden handle that is 4 feet long. Two workers can use one log carrier to drag a log. At least two carriers are needed to lift a log, one carrier at each end. Each carrier requires one worker on each side of the log.

Log carriers are awkward to pack, heavy, and serve only one purpose. The teeth of log carriers indent the wood half an inch or so on each side of the log. The indentations mar the appearance of the log and provide a place for rot to begin.

A cheaper and lighter method for moving a log is to use rope slings and the removable handles of mattocks or adzes (or small-diameter logs that are 3 to 4 feet long). The slings are made by taking 6 feet of 1,000-pound-test nylon rope and tying a fisherman's knot, double fisherman's knot, or a grapevine knot at the ends, forming a loop.

Roll the log onto the slings and slip the handles over the log and through the loops of the slings. With one worker on each end of the handles (four workers total), lift the log off the ground. The log should be about ankle high. If anyone slips and drops the log, the most serious injury will be to the ankle or foot, and the log will not have fallen far enough to develop much force (figure 92).

Image of slings to carry logs
Figure 92-Slings are a good way to move logs and timbers,
bundles of steel bars, wheelbarrows that must be carried over soft ground,
or bags of cement carried on plywood.


Peeling is a tedious process. There is little reason to peel the bark off a log if you plan to hew or plane it, unless the bark is dirty and likely to dull your cutting tools. Pine, fir, and other evergreen trees may develop pitch pockets just under the bark. On freshly cut trees, pitch may be runny rather than thick or sticky. The cutting edge of a drawknife is never more than an arm's length from a worker's face, and the drawknife is pulled toward the worker's body. Cutting into a pitch pocket splatters pitch on the worker. A drop of pitch in an eye results in the same burning effect as a drop of turpentine. Wear safety glasses or goggles when peeling logs of most evergreen species.

Squaring a Log

It is not easy to cut a uniform plane surface on a log. That difficulty plus the desirability of using treated timbers for longevity is the reason less work is being done with native logs on site. However, if you are determined to use logs because of their availability and their rustic appearance, here is how to do so. The first step is to place the log on nearly level ground and roll it over to determine which face is easiest to work with. Avoid areas with many knots or large knots. The crook of the log, if any, should be in the direction that will cause the least problem when the construction is completed. Roll the log until the best face is up and in a roughly horizontal position (figure 93).

Image depicting how to square a log.
Figure 93-Steps to square a log.

Determine the width of the plane surface that is needed. Put a carpenter's or mason's level in a horizontal position against the end of the log. Use a measuring tape or framing square to measure the distance between the solid wood and the inside of the bark at the edge of the level. By trial and error, move the level up or down until its upper edge is level and on a line that measures the dimension needed. Draw a line across the end of the log on the edge of the level. Without moving the log, use the same process to draw a line across the other end.

Drive a nail into the bark where each horizontal line meets the bark. Stretch a chalkline or stringline between the two nails on one side of the log. If the bark is thin or has been removed, a chalkline can be used and snapped, leaving a chalk mark to work to. A chalkline will not leave an accurate or discernible mark on thick, deeply furrowed bark or on a log with an inch or more of crook. In this situation, drive nails to hold the string every 2 feet or so along the line of the string. Repeat the process on the other side of the log.

After scoring parallel cuts down to the chalkline with a chain saw or ax, use an adz to remove the wood from the top of the log down to the chalklines. Use small-diameter logs, 2 by 4s, or log dogs to hold small logs in place while doing the adz work. To control how much wood is removed, cut with the grain of the wood. This technique reduces the likelihood of breaking out deep chips of wood. The direction of the grain will be obvious after the first few cuts.

A chain saw will do the work much faster. A helper is needed to make sure the sawyer doesn't cut below the chalkline on the far side of the log (which the sawyer cannot see). Otherwise, you will end up with a wavy surface. If the wavy surface is used as a tread, it will cause hikers to slip and fall when the tread is wet or frosty.

If you are not using a chain saw, the technique described above is practical only on small logs. The adz is considered a finishing tool for surfaces that have already been hewed to size. If a lot of wood must be removed and power equipment is not available, hewing with a broad ax is more common and more efficient. The process starts out much like that described for adz work, but instead of horizontal cuts, broad ax cuts are made vertically, for the length of the log along the chalkline.

Check the surface with a straightedge, a framing square, or a long level. Check across the log and also along its length. Mark any high spots and remove them. It is easier to detect high spots by kneeling on the side of the straightedge in shadow and looking between the straightedge and the wood (figure 94).

Image of smoothing a log surface.
Figure 94-Use a long level
to find high spots that need to be removed.

After the first surface is complete, a second surface can be marked and cut. If the second surface is perpendicular to the first, a framing square can be used to mark the ends of the log. Repeat the marking procedure with the chalkline or stringline and nails. The log can be rolled over so that the second surface is horizontal and can be adzed, or the log can be left in place so the second surface can be shaped with a broad ax. This method is suitable for making log puncheon that must be two logs wide (figure 95).

Image of perpendicular cuts.
Figure 95-Use a framing
square to mark a perpendicular cut.

If the second surface needs to be parallel to the first, place the log with its ends resting on two other logs with the first surface facing up and the log level (figure 96). Determine either the thickness of the log needed, or the width of the second surface needed. Using the level, mark a line along the log's edge parallel with the first surface. Roll the log until the first surface is facing down and repeat the chalkline or stringline procedure for the second surface. Use an adz or saw to level the second surface. This technique is suitable for situations where one surface must be level for a tread and the bottom at each end must rest on log or stone piers.

Image of parallel surfaces.
Figure 96-Use this procedure when a
second flat surface must be parallel to the first.

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Updated: 04/14/2014
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