Appalachian Log Cabins - Then and Now

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Appalachian log cabins came from the influence of German and Scandinavian traditions brought by settlers to the area in the 18th century. The masonry can mostly be traced to Scotch-Irish influence, and the design has a resemblance to that of English. Most logs used during that time used would have been chestnut, oak, spruce, and poplar.

Log cabins have been around for centuries, with the first recorded cabin being built in 1639. The Appalachian-style dovetail cabin construction is traditional craftsmanship that has been used for many years. Log cabins are still popular today and can be found all over the country. There are many different types of log cabins, but the Appalachian-style dovetail cabin construction is one of the most popular and well-known styles. There is a certain rustic charm that comes with a log cabin, and it's hard to replicate that with any other type of construction.


While the dovetail cabin style originated in the Appalachians, it can be found throughout North America. The Wendigo Trail Lodge in Ontario, Canada is a good example of a dovetail cabin that has been adapted to modern amenities. This lodge features a beautiful hand-crafted timber frame and a stone fireplace.


The Appalachian style of dovetail cabin construction is a unique and time-honored tradition that began in the early days of America. The use of this type of construction allowed for the widespread adoption of log cabins by early settlers in the region. This type of construction was time-consuming, but it resulted in a beautiful and sturdy cabin that lasted for many years. Hewn logs were cut to fit together perfectly at the corners, forming a tight and sturdy cabin. The logs then were chinked with moss, stones, mud, or later, mortar to keep out the weather and pests. Unfortunately, this type of chinking is not flexible and could crumble when logs flex with drying and temperature changes, so the cracks formed and required periodic maintenance re-chinking.


What is really different about the Appalachian log cabin from log cabins across America is the system of notching, which holds the logs in position. Oftentimes Appalachian-style cabins use V- notch, dovetail, or half dovetail notch.  


The Appalachian-style dovetail cabin construction begins with the layout of the logs. The logs are then cut to size and notched together to form the walls of the cabin. The dovetail notch is a key feature of this type of construction, as it helps to keep the logs in place and provides extra stability to the structure. One of the advantages of using dovetail corners is that there is no need for nails or screws. The logs fit together so snugly that they form a weather-tight seal, keeping out wind and rain. In addition, the dovetail joint is very strong and can withstand heavy loads. Today, this type of construction is still used in some parts of the United States, and it has been adapted to include modern materials such as polymer-based elastic chinking, which helps to seal the logs and protect them from weathering. Once the walls are assembled, the roof can be added. 


To prevent weather and insects from entering, there was a practice of filling the gaps between logs that was known as “chinking”. In the early times, it was done using a mixture of clay and mud. Large spaces were covered by rocks or extra wood, and then holes and spaces were filled with the mixture. This process is unique to old cabins – and you can see several historic structures in the Great Smoky National Park built that way. Newer cabins often used concrete mortar as chinking, but it is inflexible and often cracks as logs dry and settle. The newest take on the old tradition is filling the gaps between logs with strips of Styrofoam from inside and outside, and then covering them with a modern version of chinking - a flexible, textured modern acrylic material that comes in a variety of colors. Even though it looks and feels like traditional mortar, it's not – unlike mortar or clay, it adheres to logs and stretches to maintain a tight seal by following log movement.


Due to the expense and manual labor involved in the construction of Appalachian-style cabins, the popularity of this style of cabin has somewhat declined over the years, but there is a renewed interest in it today as people seek to build more sustainable and environmentally friendly homes. You can experience a true Appalachian-style log cabin when staying in  Appalachian Escape cabin that was built from hemlock flat hewn 6” by 12” logs with half dovetail corners.