Message from Alaska

Saturday 15 November 2003

For recreation I read a mailing list devoted to old woodworking tools. There is constant banter about hand-forged chisels, the shapes of saw handles, infill planes, tool patents, and many other subjects. The members are almost all men, and mostly in the older age bracket. The discourse is helpful, erudite, relaxed and polite. Nobody swears or insults anyone.

This is a quirky crowd, and I enjoy visiting workbenches and toolchests all over the world. Some messages take me right away from the places I know. Like this one from Phil Koontz in outback Alaska, headed ‘That ol’ commute’:

Hi Galoots —

Well, we finished the walls of our log cabin over a month ago. It turned out to be 10½ courses high — 10 logs for the side walls and 11 logs on the front and back. That’s a bit taller than I planned, but it was more or less required to get the front wall header high enough for the door frame.

Since then, we haven’t even visited the place out of deference to ice chunks floating down the river. The freezeup this year has been kind of a slow process on the Yukon. I pulled our boat out of the water in early October, and the ice has been running for more than four weeks. It still hasn’t stopped, and there isn’t really any snow to open up the snowgo trails yet, but another transportation route opened up this week.

The overland trail is 12 miles or so. About half of that is a more-or-less public road. The next three or four miles is a Cat trail that our neighbor opens to his cabin when the wetlands freeze over, and that finally happened. The rest of the way is a trail along the river bed through Bessy Slough and Louden Slough. That trail usually isn’t there, but it was revealed this year when the river went way down. So I guess the construction season is open again.

Yesterday Karin and I drove out there with a picnic and four dogs, and we hope to get back today. If the weather don’t turn cold (it’s been around 0 F lately, but the prediction is maybe -50 for the weekend), the whole crowd SWMBO Debbie, our friend Karin and me) hope to camp out for the weekend and maybe finish up the gable ends and purlins. It’s kind of an erie trip now, because we got accustomed to travelling by boat last summer, and now we are driving part of the same route in my old pickup. As we worked yesterday, Karin and I occasionally glanced down the hill to snicker about the truck parked at the boat landing.

The roof design has been a long series of quandaries and plan changes. We would really like to have a cold roof, which means that air circulates between the insulation and the roofing. And I would like to have about a 4:12 or 5:12 roof pitch to help shed snow. So we keep tossing back and forth between roof trusses, purlins and ridgepole, and log or framed gable ends. There are several problems with any of the approaches, including logistics. One of them is simply an issue of getting hold of lumber for the rafters and roof stringers in a small town—the sawmill owner is having problems getting a baby sitter.

Another issue is that I hurt my back rassling one of those last big wall logs, so I’ve been extra careful messing around on top of icy walls with ladders and sharp tools.

OT content — pretty skimpy I’m afraid. I’ve already told you about scribing logs, although it was a bit different yesterday because all summer I was using squirt bottles to wet the logs so my pencil lines will show up. Turns out that doesn’t work too good any more. There is some stuff I could go into about log psychology — Karin calls it everyday physics. For each stage of the project, we have developed tricks and techniques for handling the big sticks, and as the work gets closer to the limits of the hand crane, our techniques have been changing a little. The crane won’t quite let us set the logs where we want them for the end walls, so we have always had to park them diagonally across a corner of the wall, then skid/roll/levitate them across to the far side wall. As the gable ends are building up now, that distance is getting less, and the logs are getting shorter and easier to handle. But now the height of the crane is becoming a factor. Limits. Production planning. Operations management. What to take for lunch. Those executive decisions we all know and love.

Galena Alaska

As well as a log cabin builder, Phil Koontz is a blacksmith. His website displays some of the stuff he makes — if you need some brackets to hold a pair of pre-historic mammoth tusks, he’s the bloke for the job.

Scribed log joints on Jake's cabin

Phil does not have a picture of his own log cabin on his website, but here is another one in the district, being built by his mate Jake. Those scribed joints are clean and tight — I’m impressed.

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