Updated: Jan 31, 2022
Log cabins have been a way of life for millenia, favoured for their longevity, availability of raw building material and natural thermal performance, particularly in colder, harsher climates. Over time, distinct regional variations evolved that reflect the idiosyncrasies of the landscape, weather and cultures they were exposed to. This has led to some wonderful creations that both reflect and even define the local vernacular in many places around the world where they are so ingrained into the way of life that it would be hard to imagine a time before log cabins arrived. Here we look at log cabins from four very different parts of the world.
Scandinavian log cabins
It is widely believed that the first log cabins were probably built in northern Europe, most likely Scandinavia or northern Russia, and possibly as long ago as 3,500BC. In addition to the natural resilience of log cabins to the harsh climates in this part of the world, Scandinavia itself is blessed with abundant spruce and pine trees that grow tall and straight and lend themselves perfectly to log cabin building.
Scandinavian log cabins are typically smaller dwellings, traditionally often with a single living room and perhaps a sleeping loft should the height of the cabin permit. It is thought that these cabins were first built only as semi-permanent dwellings that could be moved or transported relatively easily, perhaps in response to hunting or grazing patterns. However many cabins did become permanent, standing the test of time in the same location for centuries and indeed entire villages of permanent log cabins sprung up and have persisted to this day.
Scandinavian log cabins are often characterised by large, strong roofs, designed to withstand the weight of the Scandinavian winter snowfall. They are often topped with turf - a readily available and highly effective insulator, and chinked internally with clay or cloth. In a further nod to keeping warm, many traditional cabins were built without windows with both light and heat coming from a hearth or fireplace in the main room.
But perhaps the most defining feature of Scandinavian log cabins is the red paint in which many were finished. This red colour, known as ‘falu röda’ is a by-product of the many copper mines found across Scandinavia and is a natural wood preservative that allows timber to breathe and release moisture. Not only does the paint prolong the life of the wood but it is not affected by sunlight meaning it never needs to be repainted. In many cases, falu red was also used to mimic the red-brick buildings of the upper classes and city dwellings.
Most commonly associated with Switzerland, Tirol and the Bavarian and French Alps, chalets were originally built as simple accommodation for animal herders practicing transhumance between summer mountain pastures and low-lying small holdings. These cabins are characterised by large sloping roofs that project significantly at both the eaves and gable ends. As with so many traditional cabins around the world, the roof structure was designed to withstand often extreme winter weather and high snowfall and this is certainly true of European alpine chalets.
Typically square, alpine chalets were often built above a ground floor storage level, often made of stone, that could be used to store animal feed, tools, firewood and other provisions during the herder’s stay. Other chalets were built into the ground itself, giving further protection from the elements as well as helping keep the cabin warm.
Although not actually built of logs, these cabins share many similarities to log building styles, and are constructed with planks that may be up to six inches thick - needed to resist the frequent winter gales. Side walls are typically low, ensuring the cabins maintain a low profile in the face of mountain weather, and are dominated by their oversized, often thatched, roofs. Another characteristic of alpine chalets is that the upper floors almost always protrude over the lower floors, and often feature ornate balconies.
As travel became increasingly popular with the elite European classes in the second half of the eighteen century, the Swiss chalet style was copied around the world and examples could be found as far afield as North America and British India.
North American log cabins
In the 17th century, European migrants from Sweden and Finland began to settle in the US eastern seaboard, bringing their log building skills with them. The Delaware River, which runs from southern New York state, through Pennsylvania and into Delaware, became the home of log building in nascent North America. Although settlers from the UK had no traditional history of log building, they soon learned the construction techniques from their northern European neighbours, making use of the abundant natural resources found in the area.
By this stage log cabin building techniques had evolved to include a range of intricately notched corners, yet retained many of the characteristics of traditional Scandinavian log cabins - a single storey, one room with a fireplace and a sleeping loft. However, early North American cabins often included one or two windows - a departure from traditional cabins built at home in Scandinavia.
Modern log buildings in North America have come a long way since then and have evolved from the simpler log cabins of their forefathers to often extravagant three storey full log homes with high vaulted ceilings, double-height glazing, vast stone chimney breasts and all the mod-cons and comfort of a conventional house. As with so many other things, North America boasts some of the largest log homes in the world, thanks in part to the relative abundance and low cost of land, and plentiful locally grown timber.
Today, multiple styles and construction methods exist although 90% of log homes in the US are built with milled timber and just 10% are hand-crafted. Much of the timber comes from Canada, where Western Red Cedar and Douglas Fir grow in vast volumes and often to huge sizes making them perfect for log building.
Japanese log cabins
Although perhaps not log cabins in the European sense of the term, the abundance of trees in Japan means that for centuries timber was the principle construction material of choice and some fascinating architectural styles have been born as a result.
Perhaps one of the most famous is the gassho-zukuri style with steeply thatched roofs designed to distribute and shed the weight of the considerable snowfall seen in the Japanese Alps. Translated as ‘constructed like hands in prayer’ (look at the ‘prayer’ emoji on your phone, for example), these wooden buildings, usually of three or four storeys in height, are made in a post and beam style without nails and frequently housed multiple generations of the same family. However, rather than sleeping lofts, the high roof space was often used to cultivate silkworms to provide an additional source of income for the rice farmers who traditionally lived here. These wooden farmhouses are typically aligned in a north-south direction to reduce exposure to the often strong mountain winds. This also means the large roofs face east and west to maximimise warmth from the sun year round.
One of the most beautiful collections of timber gassho-zukuri buildings can be found in the Shirakawago valley in central Japan - a Unesco world heritage site since 1995 (see below). It is possible to stay overnight in one of these very traditional buildings, although it should be noted that the accommodation is as simple and rustic as it looks!
Wherever you are in the world and whatever style of cabin prevails, a log home makes a beautiful place to live for a lifetime, or a great retreat for a short stay. If you are looking to stay in a log cabin, you can find a list of some of those we have built across the UK on our website at https://www.britishlogcabins.com/where-to-see-our-cabins, or for further inspiration, see our gallery page.