In every TEOTWAWKI circumstance shelter is of paramount concern. It’s actually a concern every day of our lives, but we seldom think about it – we take the roof over our head almost as a given right in country. Our houses or “castles” as some states call them are so sacred many states allow us to use deadly force – no questions asked – if someone illegally violates our home’s hallowed ground.
For a survivalist, “prepper” or even casually concerned citizen preparing for some sort of unknown future disaster, water, food, guns/ammo, fuel, backpacks, etc. are all high on the packing list. Depending on the geographic part of the US, some citizens may have chains saws and their associated spare parts. Some really prepared folks may have some hand tools, nails, and hand saws stored away. But how many people have stored away any building materials? If a can of beans is going to be hard to find after a natural disaster, how hard is it going to be to find a 2x4, or piece of plywood?
Obviously we can not predict the future or what disasters lay before us. History tells us weather and nature can do damage at any time whether it be a volcano eruption in Yellowstone, a snow-storm in the Rockies, hurricane on the coast, or a Midwest drought. We also know there are a lot of people in the world that wish severe harm on the United States. We don’t know when a terrorist will strike and to what degree – damage could be an internet attack, a dirty bomb, an device, a nuclear bomb, etc. Perhaps the disaster is economic and the financial sector of our country crumbles. In any case…and probably even more so during a disaster…a roof over our head is one of the basic necessities of life: water, food, and shelter.
Not everyone in this country is a carpenter and or experienced in home design, but most of us know what are homes are made of by seeing homes under construction, looking in the attic, or doing small remodel projects on your house. How many trips does it take to the hardware store to fix a leaky faucet? One, two, three? And that’s just a faucet. What happens if a tree falls on your roof, or the wind blows out a window, or the snow from a large storm causes a portion of your roof to collapse?
Preparing the Shelter
Starting from the earliest notions of preparation, prevention is clearly the best remedy to a structural failure during a disaster. If possible work with a reputable engineer to design a structure that meets and exceeds all of your possible worst case hazards – be it tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, snow, extreme temperatures, gun fire, intruders, etc. Just about anything short of a direct nuclear blast can be part of the engineering equations used to design your house/retreat. (It’s not standard procedure but it can be done.) Even some seemingly severe hazards such as gun fire can easily and cheaply be negated with the use of proper materials.
For those of us that missed the boat on getting it right before it was built and have to deal with a house or retreat that is already built to some pre-existing building code or perhaps no building code, what can be done? Contact an expert engineer, builder, survivalist, home protection company and have them offer professional advice on ways to mitigate and or strengthen the structure for atypical situations such as gun fire. Some examples of “home improvements” include steel doors/bullet resistant doors, unconventional door locks such as hidden dead bolts/hinges and heavy timber braces, bullet proof window replacements, walk in safe roofs (easily done in a basement with CMU blocks), adding a standing-seam metal roof (snow slides off the roof and does not accumulate), underground escape routes, interior or exterior cisterns, additional bracing of existing walls and roof, and even steel window shutters (a mere 1/4” plate steel will stop many typical small-arms, handgun calibers).
Assuming your residence was either pre-built as a fortress or underwent some “upgrades” towards the fortress classification, what’s next? Supplies. Have spare materials on hand to fix potential problems. Besides the basic plumbing, heating, electrical spare parts, have some building materials stored. Have several 2x6’s, 2x8’s, 2x10’s, 2x12’s, and plywood or oriented strand board (OSB) pieces at least ½” or thicker kept covered and out of the weather. Generally the longer the piece the better; a 24 foot 2x12 can be cut into two 12 foot pieces, but it doesn’t work the other way around. If a window breaks, the plywood would be invaluable to seal the opening - same with the 2x material for a portion of a failing roof, wall, or door jamb. What if you had to replace a door jamb due to an attempted forced entry, or the loft post in the barn because you backed the tractor into it, or the toilet overflowed and caused the sub-floor underneath it to delaminate? Are you prepared – remember the hardware store is probably out of supplies, looted, and or closed. Several large heavy tarps and 10-to-20 bags or concrete and mortar are also highly advised.
Without tools the spare wood is close to worthless. The basic hand tools should be a given: hammer, nails, screw drivers, hand saws, pry-bars, etc., but it is also worth adding a few more such as large bow saws, two man cross-cut saws, large braces (hand drills) with self-drilling-threaded-tip bits, axes (large and small) adzes, chisels (wood and cold), draw knifes, block and tackles sets/come-along, sledge hammers, large sharpening stones, and or manually powered grinding wheel. Having an assortment of timber pegs ranging from ½” to 1 ½” in diameter would be helpful.
Common in the log home industry are a group of fasteners call “log home screws” sold under the brand names of Olylog, TimberLok, Log Home Screw, and GRK. These screws come in boxes and buckets of 50-500. They typically have a hex or torx head and are self drilling – commonly accomplished with a strong ½” drive power drill. They can also be installed by hand with a socket and ratchet wrench. These screws are the duct tape of the heavy timber framing industry and most are ¼ inch in diameter but scientifically perform like a 3/8” or ½” lag screw. They are very strong, versatile and can literally be used to bend wood beams. Have several hundred in various sizes on hand.
Fixing the Shelter
Up to this point it’s been all about preparation, be it home design, home modifications, tools or materials. What happens if something goes wrong after TSHTF and the lumber pile in the back yard isn’t enough? Trees! Assuming the plot of land on which the fortress resides has some trees, there is wood for the taking. In general standing dead trees are the most preferred wood source in the drier climate western states; in more humid regions healthy coniferous trees would be preferred. The subject of timber selection is a book in itself, but here are a few brief reasons for the aforementioned tree type selection. Wood, in general becomes stiffer as it dries. (Think of how flexible a living sapling is compared to a similar sized dead sapling.) Wet wood can also “creep” over time. This is a sagging of the wood under its own weight and once dry the wood will remain in the bent or sagged formation. Insects generally like to call living trees home – they may kill the tree in doing so, but most insect and fungal relationships with trees are parasitic in nature as they “suck” the nutrients away from the living tree. Once the tree is dead, this relationship ceases to exist. With standing dead trees in dry climates, the wind and sun keep the wood dry and as such eliminate future fungal attacks. Another issue with live trees is that once the tree is cut down and the wood begins to dry out, it shrinks - often significantly (species and climate dependant). This shrinking could be ½” in diameter for a 12” diameter log. Building or repairing a structure with wet wood could cause gaps, bad joints, and even structural failure if not properly addressed in the building design. In more humid parts of the country (coasts and east of the Mississippi), standing dead timber may be not be a sound choice. If decay is noted, move on. Decay or fungus is like an iceberg – only 10% of the potential threat is visible. In other words, if fungus is noted on the outside of the tree, the inside of the tree is probably 10 times as bad – at least on a microscopic level and structural strength level.
What about hardwoods or deciduous trees? Hardwoods are strong indeed, but often heavier, harder to work with, and seldom grow as tall and straight as softwoods (conifers, evergreens, etc.).
So the damage is done, for whatever reason a structural member in the house, barn, or garage needs to be replaced and a direct replacement isn’t available. How big of a tree should be cut? If the tree is standing dead without any cones, leaves or even branches, look at the surround living forest. Chances are the species is the same as one of the living trees. In most cases, species won’t be a determining characteristic as most people won’t be able to discern the exact species anyway. But stay away from aspen, birch, and alder. These species are of the “hardwood” variety (deciduous trees) but generally very weak and decay rapidly when exposed to water. Douglas Fir and Southern Yellow Pine trees produce some of the strongest wood available in the United States and both are conifers.
If insulating characteristics are the most important, go with a lightweight, non-dense wood such as spruce or cedar. If it’s bullets that need to be stopped, the heaviest and densest woods such as southern pine, oak, hickory, would be the best option.
The size of the tree should be close or bigger than the size of the wood member it is replacing. Unless there is a bio-diesel sawmill on the ranch, the tree probably isn’t going to be cut down to size in terms of width and thickness – only length. Look for straight, tall, trees with small branches (knots), no visible decay, and no visible gouges, holes, or sap pockets – all which decrease the strength of the wood. Spiral grain, often seen on standing dead trees with no bark, significantly weakens the structural strength of the wood. Straightness of the grain and knot size are typically the two most detrimental characteristics to a piece of wood’s strength. Strong wood has straight grain and few or only small knots.
The diameter of the tree should be big enough that the piece it is replacing could theoretically be sawn out of the tree. For example if the piece that is being replaced is a 2x12 (actual dimensions of 1 ½” x 11 ¼” ) the tree should have an average diameter of at least 11 ¼” for the entire length of the 2x12 it is replacing. The base of the tree will be slightly larger than 11 ¼ but the top of the tree could be 10 inches in diameter. With these guidelines the tree will likely be stronger than the 2x12 it is replacing. Many factors determine the strength of the wood and personal experience/expertise may dictate the use of a smaller diameter tree for a replacement beam (beams are horizontal members carrying load their entire length). For beams the critical dimension is typically the depth of the beam – in this case the 11 ¼” dimension. In general the deeper the beam, the stronger the beam.
Columns, posts, or vertical members carry a vertical load and do not act the same way as beams. A post should be replaced with a tree of equal or larger diameter – a smaller diameter post should not be used. The explanation for this is complicated, but if the post/column is too thin it will buckle. Think if a wooden yard stick and how easy it is to compress the ends and get the stick to bend out of plane (buckling), if that same stick was a 1”x1” square, it would be very difficult to get it to bend out of plane by compressing the ends.
After the tree is cut to the desired length the bark should be removed. Most insects and fungi attack the tree on its cambium layer (the living cell layer directly under the bark). Removing the bark allows the tree to dry faster and without moisture most fungi will die. Insects burrowed in the bark are also removed. As the tree dries it will shrink in terms of diameter and doing so will create cracks or checks in the surface of the wood. The cracks may be over ½” wide but are not a structural concern so long as the cracks are parallel to the grain and do not go all the way through the tree.
Building a New Shelter
If everything else fails, the preparation, and the repair, all is not lost. It is possible to build a strong, almost bullet, wind, storm proof shelter from the forest. This assumes access to some six-inch-plus diameter trees. Suffice to say, this short article isn’t the end all instruction manual for building a log home from scratch. Several books on the topic do exist, some more useful than others. Should this plan C option be of interest, it might be worth working with an engineer to design and engineer a structure you might build should the need arise. The blueprints could be kept on file at the retreat.
In any case a new structure needs to built – and in this case the only tool really necessary is a good axe and sharpening stone – every other tool just makes it easier and faster. It’s the quintessential log cabin; they’ve been built all over the county and even housed former presidents.
Start with the foundation. Wood decays when it gets wet and the ground is typically wet at least most of the year in most parts of the country. If the log cabin is known to be a very short term (6 years or less in drier climates and 2 years or less in wetter climates) structure, it could be built directly on level, drained and compacted soil. If some sort of longevity is desired a stone foundation would be a good start. Even if no mortar is used stones, rocks, and boulders can be stacked on top of one another forming a small wall 1-2 feet high. This would keep the rain, snow, and soil moisture away from the wood. The first course of logs is then stacked on top of the stone wall. Obviously if mortar is available, it may be used to strengthen the stone wall – even sand or mud could be used to block air flow through the rocks.
Trees are cut, using the aforementioned selection criteria in terms of species, dead or alive, etc. to the length of the structure. Larger diameter trees provide better insulation, bullet resistance, and require less trees to be cut, but are heavier and harder to work with. Smaller diameter trees are easier to maneuver, but don’t match up to the larger diameter trees’ other virtues. Size may be dictated by what’s in the local forest.
The trees need to be full length extending from corner to corner of the cabin, and a four corner cabin is highly recommended. (Corners are labor intensive and time consuming to construct.) For log stacking purposes make sure you have an even number of corners, e.g. even though a three corner structure can be constructed, the log courses don’t work.
The logs are stacked just like “Lincoln Logs” – yes, the kids’ toy. Lay the east and west logs down parallel to one another and then lay the north and south logs on top of the east and west logs. The strength and warmth of the structure are determined by the corners. At a minimum the log should extend approximately two times the log diameter past the corner notch – this extension is called a “tail” or “log tail.” The notch should be about ½ the diameter of the log and the deeper the notch the tighter the logs will fit to one another. Notches should be cut so they are facing down – if they are facing up, the notch will hold rain water and allow for decay. If no notch is used the logs will roll off of each other and there will be larger gaps between the logs. If an extremely tight fit is desired and time is on available, the logs can be “scribed” or custom cut to fit the log below it. This lessens and may alleviate the need for any chinking or insulating material between log courses.
The process is repeated until the desired height is achieved. Door and window openings are cut in with a chain saw or two-man saw after the entire square or rectangle structure is completed. Once the openings are cut, smaller logs are vertically positioned and fastened to the horizontal log courses around the opening to keep the wall logs from shifting or moving out of plane.
Some may wonder how to get 1,000 pound logs up to the top course, which may be eight feet high. It can be done with hand tools, rope, and a few strong men/horse. Logs are angled from the ground to the top of the wall (i.e. log ramps) and the new log is rolled into position up the angled logs. Ropes may be used to pull the log into place while some men push it up the log ramps.
As for the roof, the simplest design is that of a shed roof and single pitch. For example the south wall is made two feet taller than the north wall and log rafters are laid at an angle from the north wall to the south wall. The east and west ends are in-filled with smaller logs or plywood, or even pine branches. The steeper the pitch the better the weather protection as rain and snow will run or slide off a steep pitch roof. A tarp, pine bow, boards, etc. may be used to seal of the roof between the rafters.
Obviously the construction details previously listed for a log cabin are incomplete and overly simplified, but the point is that a new structure – should the need arise – can be built from materials (trees) that may be available on the land. With a good team of people, a simple rectangular structure could be completed in a few days. For more information check out the various log cabin construction books or speak with a knowledgeable professional.
All being said and done, clearly the Boy Scout motto of “be prepared” takes the center podium when it comes to shelter. If at all possible have the shelter pre-engineered to address the worst case loads it may face. If the structure already exists, then fortify it with the help of a professional. We talk about storing food, guns/ammo, first aid supplies, and even ourselves in our retreat or house, but what good does a two years supply of food do if the first storm blows off the roof and rain soaks the food supply?