Building your own log furniture can give a great deal of pleasure and a sense of pride. In the past we have answered many questions on this topic via e-mail, the response has been overwhelming and the time has come to make this information available to enthusiasts. The information contained in these articles is the result of my experiences with building log furniture and I make no claim to know all there is to know. I have found information of this kind is very hard to come by on the internet and we all hope you find it useful
Introduction to Building Log Furniture
The Pioneers built log furniture both out of necessity and for its rich beauty. Today we like the way log furniture allows us to feel at one with nature. There is no right or wrong way to build log furniture, as some people prefer the look as rustic as possible while others prefer a sleeker more finished look. This being said it is important that your furniture stay tight over time. We will discuss this further in the future.
Personally, I like my furniture “rustic” and we build what I call “Rustic Elegance”. To achieve this style, special tools are required and each piece of furniture is individually built. The wood is hand peeled and sanded, the machining gives a medium uniformity on the tenons while allowing precise fit.
More rustic furniture can be built with simpler tools. For example, using a hatchet to form the tenons can produce an excellent effect. A drawknife can be used to peel the wood and the marks left behind exemplify log homes and furniture from days gone by. The one major difference between sanding and using a drawknife is that the drawknife can cut away many of the neat features that nature has put in the wood.
There are ways to get even more rustic, by leaving the inner layer of bark on or by leaving some of the limbs intact, both present special challenges. If you are lucky enough to find one or two posts for your log bed with a distinctive limb sticking out just right, then you’ve got an excellent place to hang your cowboy hat or tie.
If you are the type who likes your log furniture less rustic, there are companies that build machined furniture. Building your own furniture of this style may be out of reach. The tools used to create these pieces are not available at the local hardware store. The advantage to this type of furniture is that the people making it can produce it at a lower cost and the consumer is still getting a quality piece of furniture made of real wood. This is something that is becoming rarer all the time, which a trip to most any furniture store will confirm. So whether you live in a log home or not and you want a special attachment with nature, building your own log furniture can offer a real sense of pride and achievement which is hard to find anywhere else.
For the most part, log furniture is made with dry wood and standing dead is the most accessible. The drawknife is the tool of choice for removing bark and it leaves behind a distinctive mark. Using long strokes is preferable but if you have a piece of wood with lots of knots this can be quite taxing on the arms. If you choose to use green wood and let it dry before you build, then the bark can sometimes be simply peeled off while still green. This is called “sap peeling” and generally works better in the springtime. This is an excellent method and if you have access to a kiln the results are very desirable.
The cracks that appear in dry wood are natural and not really a problem if you position them correctly when building. Kiln drying produces far less cracking than air drying but may be restrictive in price and availability. Wood will generally take about a year to air dry and moisture content must be down to 16% or less before it becomes workable. When using standing dead the main problem encountered is the fact that you don’t know how long the tree has been dead, therefore you may encounter rot. This is really discouraging if you don’t discover it until after the holes are drilled and you are sanding, thus putting time and effort into firewood. Sawmills are another source of wood but I’ve had the same problem with rot when getting wood from them.
Fire killed is a good alternative to all of the above for several reasons. First of all, you are not killing a live tree to make your favorite piece of furniture. Secondly, when the fire goes through the forest it will generally burn the rotten trees to the ground but healthy trees will remain standing and dry nicely. The bark will eventually loosen and most will fall off, the remaining bark can be removed with tools like putty knives. Another advantage is that with the branches burnt off it is much easier to select the pieces that you like and there are many more trees in a close area to select from.
Whichever method you decide on will be greatly influenced by your geography, you may not have access to fire-killed or you may not be allowed to cut green trees by law. Species selection will also be influenced by geography and it would be difficult to cover them all here. We are fortunate here in my area, in that the pine grows tall and straight with little taper and there are just enough deformed trees to get those special pieces. However you get your logs, the best part of building your furniture will most likely be in the logging process. It’s great to get out of doors and hunt for that special piece of wood.
The drawknife is the granddaddy of all log furniture building tools. A drawknife can be used to peel the logs and make the tenons. This does require some effort however and there are easier ways. There is also one drawback to using a drawknife and that is “planer glaze”. This is the closing of the pores of the wood as a result of the cutting action. This is less of a problem on inside furniture but is not good for outside where stain will be used, as the stain isn’t able to properly penetrate the wood.
The biggest challenge is the mortise and tenon joint, this is the joint that makes log furniture so appealing. There are other joints that can be done such as dovetails but we will discuss the round mortise and tenon. The best way that I’ve found is the centerline method. This is where you drill a pilot hole at either end of the workpiece and rotate it over a saw blade. Another popular method is with a chucking machine, this is like a pencil sharpener and the workpiece is pushed into it. This system is very restrictive when you are dealing with very crooked pieces and really only works on uniform logs. One main advantage to the chucking machine is production. This method is far faster than standing over a table saw turning the piece by hand. It is also possible to get different cutting heads for your chucking machine but these tend to be rather expensive.
So back to the centerline method, when drilling the pilot hole it is imperative that you drill in a line aimed at the other end of the workpiece. This can be accomplished with a jig and some ingenuity or there are systems on the market. The system that we use was built by ourselves and has no restrictions on the length of the piece to be used. The same is true for the saw which we use, we have made 14-foot rails and have done 6-inch diameter logs. The saw utilizes a 10 inch round blade with a chain saw chain for cutting teeth, these can be obtained for weed whackers and are used for thinning trees. You will need a minimum of a 1 hp saw motor and a 2 hp works better. Our saw blade turns at 1375 rpm, attached above the saw blade is an adjustable pin on which to rotate the log ( pin size 5/8″ ). Different styles of tenons can be made by changing the size of the blade and by changing the angle of the pin to the blade.
After mastering the tenon the next step is to drill the mortises. A radial drill press will allow you to drill holes on an angle, this is desirable when building beds and stair rails. The drill press that you use must be secure and a 3/4 hp motor works fine ( any more power and you’re liable to get hurt ). The drilling bits to use are “wood boring bits”, these are similar to a Forstner bit but much beefier. You should be able to accomplish most tasks with just two bits, a 2″ for spindles and a 2 1/4″ for the rails.
If you decide to sand the logs instead of using a drawknife you will want a sander that will be capable of doing the job ( no cheapies here )These are the main tools needed to build with but after years of messing around you will have some special tools and probably some that you have built on your own.
Building rails is the best place to start when learning to work with logs, the work is repetitive and you will soon master the art of making spindles and rails. The most common size for deck rail is 6″ posts, 4″ rail & 3 1/2″ spindles, rails have 2 1/4″ tenons and spindles 2″. This is the most common but some people like 12″ rails while others like 2″ spindles, so it’s good to be able to do everything in between.
When building deck rail the most important thing to keep in mind is the deck that you will be attaching to, if the deck won’t support the rail it won’t matter how well the rail is made it will not be stable. The deck should have a minimum of two joists all the way around and be built securely. Take care when collecting your measurements as there is very little room for adjustment, if your measurements are precise then the rail has a better chance of being tight. The tenons on the rail should enter the post 2 1/2″ and when measuring the top rail it is good to take into account the taper of the post.
The easiest method of securing the posts to the deck is to notch the post so that half of the log sets against the joist and the half that was notched out sits on top of the deck. By doing this the center of the rail will be right at the edge of the deck. The one thing to look out for here is that the deck floor material doesn’t overhang the joist, if it does then it must be trimmed back or notched out. The post is secured to the deck by two 1/2″ bolts, lag bolts can be used but are not recommended. It is better to have a nut and bolt in case the rail loosens up over time, it can be easily tightened whereas with a lag bolt it is too easy to strip out and then you have a problem.
Spacing is the most difficult part to master, when using a 3 1/2″ spindle and you want a 4″ spacing you want to drill the holes at 7 1/2″ apart. Sounds easy, but it seldom works out, so the first thing you do is take the measurement between the posts and subtract the first spacing on either side. This would be 4″ + 1 3/4″ ( half a spindle ) X 2 Then determine the number of spindles required by dividing the distance by 7.5 Next divide the number of spindles into the distance to give the exact spacing. For example, the spacing on a 70″ rail would be 70 – ( 4 + 1 3/4 ) X 2 = 58.5, then 58.5 / 7.5 = 7.8, round off to 8 spindles and divide into 58.5, 58.5 / 8 = 7.32″ This is roughly 7 3/8″ and the first spacing can be narrowed up to 5 1/2 this will now work out to equal spacings of 7 1/4″. If this looks complicated it’s because it is complicated but it is worth the bit of effort to figure it out. Spacing is the first thing that most people will notice if you do it wrong, the good thing is that it is very hard to tell the difference between and a 7 1/4″ spacing a 7 5/8″ spacing while looking right at the two side by side.
Stair rails present even greater difficulties and I will add a page devoted to that at a later date.
Building a bed
If you have tried the rail from the previous page you are now ready to start building a bed. Beds are actually quite simple to build compared to some deck rails. You want to start by selecting the pieces, match up two 48″ posts & two 36″ posts, the head & footboard, and select four rails. The beds that we build are not just bed frames but actual beds, the box spring sits on the top rail which has been notched out to accept it.
Start by building the headboard posts, set them side by side, and turn them so that the crack is facing away to the back of the bed also keep in mind any feature that the post may have and position it in a suitable manner. You don’t want the crack in line with the headboard or the lower rails ( you don’t want to drill through a crack as it will make a weak joint). Next, mark the top of the post showing the position of the headboard and the rails. If you are using a 6″ post you will need a square piece of 2X8 block to screw to the bottom of the post. The block should be marked off into quarters to find the center of each side, then cut a thin groove on all 4 sides of the block in about an inch. Now attach the post in the center of the block with the headboard side up and with a chalk line mark the center of the post from end to end. With a 2 1/4″ wood boring bit drill holes at 9″ & 44″, 2 1/2″ to 3″ deep. Next turn the post so that the rail side is up and drill holes at 5″ and 13″, repeat for other post. The footboard is done the same way except that the footboard holes are at 9″ and 32″.
The next step is the headboard and footboard, these pieces are cut to 61″ for a queen size bed if you have 5 1/2″ posts. This will give you 60 1/2″ for a 60″ box spring. Put a 2 1/4″ tenon 2 1/2″ long on these pieces and build a set of blocks with a 2 1/4″ hole to accept the tenons. You require a radial drill press if you wish to have your spindles on an angle, if you are going to have your spindles straight up and down follow the procedure for spacing deck rail spindles and drill 2″ holes. Five spindles look good on a queen size bed. If you are putting the spindles in on an angle use 9″ spacing from the center on the to rail and 7″ spacing on the bottom, this will give the proper fan pattern. Once you have the top and bottom headboard rails done put them together with the posts and measure for the spindles. The spindles should have 2″ X 2″ long tenons, if you make the center spindle a bit longer, force will be needed to squeeze the rail together to get it to fit the post. This will help keep the headboard tight. Repeat for the footboard.
The rails are cut to 85″ and get a 2 1/4″ X 2 1/2″ long tenon. The hardest part of building this bed comes in notching the top rail for the boxspring to sit in. It can be done on a table saw, with a circular saw or with a chain saw. We use a 10′ long radial arm saw but have tried all of the others in the past. The notch should be cut at the center from the top down to the top of the tenon and the horizontal cut should be from the top of the tenon to center cut.
If you have made it this far it’s time to finish and put the bed together. We use cables to hold the bed sturdy, secure 5/16 X 4″ eye hooks to each post. These should be at 45 deg to the holes that you drilled for the headboard and the side rails and at the center of the top side rail. This will be 1″ below the boxspring, next attach 1/8″ cable to one eyehook and the other to a turnbuckle. When attached diagonally from post to post and tightened this makes for an extremely secure bed. When the measurement of both cables is equal your bed is square