Exploring the Tucker Mountain difference

By Captain D

, Judy and Cliff Albee started Tucker Mountain Log Homes in Sullivan, Maine. They were determined to build handcrafted log homes in the traditional manner, using hand tools to scribe the logs, ensuring CD: Tell me a bit about you and Cliff…

CD: Tell me a bit about you and Cliff.
JA: I am originally from Sullivan. Cliff’s side of the family is from Sullivan, also. We both have lived here since the early 80’s.

CD: Has he always been a builder?
JA:When he started he was a mason’s tender working on Admiral Perry’s Island down in Southern Maine. He started building after that and gravitated towards it.

CD: When did he get interested in log home construction?
JA: Fifteen years ago we worked with a log home franchise. We built homes for Timberline Log Homes. Eventually, we became interested in the handcrafted logs which we’ve been doing now for years.

CD: So you’re no longer associated with Timberline?
JA: That’s right. Now we have our own company, Tucker Mountain Log Homes (the company is named for a mountain that can be seen from the office), which specializes in handcrafted log home construction.

CD: Are all your designs original?
JA: They come from a customer’s ideas. They might see a plan in Log Home Living or might come to us with a hand drawn plan. Mac (Office Manager, Richard McDaniel) will give them a preliminary estimate based on their conceptual drawings. If they approve of the estimate, we move forward and proceed to have architectural plans drawn up. We work with the architect and the customer until the design is refined into a final set of drawings.

CD: So 15 years ago you built your first home?
JA: Our model was started in 1988. That was the first one, the office we are in now.

CD: Was it designed as an office?
JA: Yes, it was. Our idea has always been to have the office upstairs and a model home downstairs. It makes it easy for people to see what it’s like being in a log home.

CD: What would you do different if you were doing this again?
JA: Not work so hard! Seriously, I don’t think we’d do anything all that much different. The main thing is we love log homes. I think they’re beautiful and they’re comfortable. They’ve become very popular! Now, instead of traveling, many people opt to build a home they can go to on their vacation and build memories there.

CD: What do people find so appealing about log homes?
JA: There is plenty to like about these homes. A big thing is that a lot of people want a house that looks like it fits into the natural surroundings. Nothing looks more in place in the Maine woods than logs and stone!

CD: As I understand it, you also have a Canadian company?
JA: Yes, we do. We buy logs from Northern Maine and Canada. The reason we have our company in Canada is that’s where the handcrafters are located. In the United States, they don’t seem to be as prevalent on the East Coast as they are on the West Coast.

CD: Help is much easier to find in Canada?
JA: Our handcrafters all live in Canada. That’s really our reason for being in Canada--all the log smiths live across the border in New Brunswick.

CD: What does it take to be a log smith?
RM (executive manager Richard McDaniel): A lot. Knowing how to use a hammer and chisel is just the beginning. A log smith made this table, for example. A log smith is very versatile. He’ll make many things, including log trusses, log stairways, and log railings.

CD: What are the particular skills a log smith brings to the table?
RM: First off, a log smith knows how to scribe logs. That’s a skill that could take you years to learn to do right.

CD: What’s that mean, to scribe a log?
RM: Logs, of course, are irregular in shape. When building a handcrafted wall, upper logs are shaped to fit the logs they sit upon.

CD: It’s kind of like whittling?
RM: Whittling on a grand scale! Once a log is shaped, a log smith will then cut out a notch, a saddle notch, and grind the log to ensure a perfect fit.

CD: That’s it?
RM: There is a bit more to it than that. On the lower part of a log wall, you start by doing a process they call “over scribing” and you gradually decrease that over scribe as your coming up the wall.

CD: Why?
RM: You have to do this to compensate for the weight of the logs.

CA: Sounds like more of an art than a science…
JA: These are techniques that only people who have built handcrafted log homes for a long time have perfected. Even if you go to logsmithing school, it will take you many years to develop all the skills you need to be considered a Master Logsmith.

CD: What does a Master Logsmith use for tools?
JA: Everything is done with chisels, chainsaws, drawknives, and grinders; it’s all hand done.

CD: What do you do that’s different?
JA: We treat each log individually. Let’s say that we’re starting your log home. We’ve bought the logs and they’ve been delivered. At this point, they still have the bark on them. Our peelers have this drawknife, which is a big long knife with two handles. They drawknife the entire length of the log from top to bottom, often for at least 50 feet, until all of the bark has been removed.

CD: Then what happens?
RM: The log smith is ready to begin the first floor, the first course. The initial log is going to be what they call the slab or plate log. It is flat on the bottom and round on the top and is the first course. Then the log smith proceeds with the 2nd course, starting the actual wall. That’s when the scribing begins.

CD: How exactly do they do this?
RM: The log smith uses what looks to us like an instrument we used to use in our math classes to draw circles--a compass, but one that’s a bit different from what we used.

CD: How so?
RM: This compass has two bubble gauges on it. A log is set upon another log. You take the log scribe and place it so it touches the bottom log, following it while keeping the bubbles level. In this way, you draw a line that will indicate a contour line matching the bottom log. This gives you a line to follow with a chainsaw, producing a log that will fit exactly on the other log.

CD: Then what?
RM: On the bottom of this log, you form a Swedish style cope cut that allows the upper log to fit the contours of the lower log, exactly. Then, if the log is a full-length log with no window or door cutouts, you cut what they call a saddle notch. We use a modified Norwegian style saddle notch that has a wedge shape, enabling the corners to lock into place. These corners provide great stability in our log walls.

CD: And then?
RM: Once the logs for the outside walls are in place, the windows and doors are all cut according to the window & door schedule provided.

CD: Sounds like a lot of work…
JA: It’s all labor, labor, and more labor. Our homes are highly labor intensive. It’s all physical work. Our homes are considered by many to be structural masterpieces of art. It takes someone who is an artist, working the wood with drawknives, going to allow nine times three-quarters of an inch, or 6 3&Mac218;4” This allowance prevents the settling log walls from crushing the doors and

CD: This must be a more traditional, old style way of doing things…
JA: Yes, this is the traditional, old style way. B. Allan Mackie of Canada designed our technique. He’s known as the grandfather of log homes and log home building. He’s still alive. Cliff and I went to a log home conference in Canada last year and met him. He’s quite amazing because the enthusiasm he had 35 or 40 years ago hasn’t waned at all!

CD: Your homes must be expensive…
RM: You have to ask yourself, why would anybody want to spend hard earned money for such labor-intensive procedures.

CD: And why would they?
RM: I can think of a number of reasons. First of all, if you have a conventional home you’re going to frame it, insulate it, and sheath it. You’re going to put vapor barriers on it, and you’re going to put some kind of a finished product on the outside of it, you know, shingles, or clapboard, for example. Then, you have to do the same on the inside--you’ve got to put sheetrock or paneling.

CD: So you’re in for a lot of work no matter which way you go…
RM: Well, with a log home we’re going to build this structure up at our log yard in Canada, disassemble it, bring it down to your foundation and reassemble it.

CD: So with your homes, you save a lot of on-site work?
JA: Right! If you’re buying a package from us, you don’t have to build the walls. You eliminate those other steps.

CD: What about insulation?
RM: A log home represents considerable thermal mass. Log homes are almost fifty percent more efficient to heat and cool.

CD: Logs have a high R-factor?
RM: No, it isn’t that. Logs behave more like a masonry mass in the way they store and release heat. Both logs and masonry have a delayed reaction when it comes to heat release.

CD: This place is very comfortable…
RM: It’s in the 80’s outside and although we have windows opened, it’s very comfortable in here. Once the logs give off their heat, it’s going to take four or five hours in the heat of the day, for them to heat back up. Conversely, at night when the sun goes down the logs are continuing to give off heat which you can feel radiating into the room.

CD: So they must be easy to heat and cool.
RM: Definitely. This also means they are less expensive to heat and cool.

CD: Log homes seem to offer real advantages over conventional, stick-built construction. But what are the advantages of a Tucker Mountain Log Home over other log homes?
JA: Customers would have to answer that question. They seem to love the old-style handcrafted log homes. Many people have told us it was their dream to own such a home. Sometimes they’ve seen an old log home in the woods, and houses like this are always hand-hewn, built from scratch. They want to build a home that will keep this dream alive.

CD: To them, your homes are more authentic?
JA: People often tell us that while those other log homes are nice, they have much smaller logs--it’s a subjective thing, of course. They like the bigger logs and tell us the handcrafting gives the place a unique look.

CD: When it comes to logs, bigger is better?
JA: Many people seem to think so. They come in here and see these MUCH BIGGER logs, maybe 24-26 inches at the butt and 10-12 inches at the tops. They see these bigger log walls and decide this is the look they’ve been after. They also like the fact that these logs are not uniform in character, something they’re trying to achieve with their home.

CD: Is it a problem getting the moisture out of the logs?
RM: Actually, the logs we put up aren’t totally dry. The wood’s a lot harder to work with dried, It’s impossible to completely dry logs, even with a kiln-drying process. Logs lose most of the water out of their ends. Kiln drying a 16-20 inch diameter log would take months in a kiln to get the log dried to 10-12% moisture content.

CD: Isn’t shrinkage a major problem?
RM: Once our logs are peeled, they may sit there for six or seven months before any cutting take place. The cutting process takes six to ten weeks; during this time, the logs are constantly drying. The log structure is disassembled, transported to an owner’s building site, and re-assembled on their foundation. The builders have to put the roof system on, install the windows & doors and finish out the construction of the log home. So you see, a considerable amount of time has passed between the time the logs were peeled and the time they get sealed with finish stains. The logs have lost a lot of their moisture content during this time.

CD: But not entirely?
RM: No, not entirely. Having said that let me tell you how we provide for the shrinking and settling of these log walls. That notch we were talking about a while ago is designed for the corners as the weight of the logs settles them. As they shrink, those corner junction’s get tighter and tighter. They get so tight, you can’t put a piece of paper between the seams where the notches are.

CD: How much shrinkage do you allow for?
RM: We allow three-quarters of an inch for every foot of log wall space we have to work with. For example, if we have a nine-foot high wall space, we’re going to allow nine times three-quarters of an inch, or 6 3&Mac218;4” This allowance prevents the settling log walls from crushing the doors and windows in the walls.

CD: Are other family members involved with the company?
JA: Our son, John, is vice-president. He gets involved with the actual construction process, too. He’s going to college at the University of Maine right now, taking business and engineering courses.

CD: So, when somebody buys a house from you, it’s initially constructed in Canada?
JA:Yes. Then it’s disassembled, put on trucks and delivered to their site, wherever that might be. It could be Europe, Canada, and the U.S.--anywhere.

CD: Is there any way to economize?
JA: It all depends on how much work you’re willing to do, what finishes you might want, etc. Some people just want the log shell and plan on finishing it themselves.

CD: How much does this bring down the price?
JA: A lot. We can deliver a shell for forty to sixty-five dollars a square foot. For this, we do all the plans, completely build it, disassemble it, transport it to your site, and reassemble it. The price varies depending on the complexity of the design and transportation costs. That doesn’t include doors, windows and other materials, although we sell those products, too.

CD: Are there any recent developments with your company?
JA: Yes. We have a few new additions. We’re going into conventional homes and adding log features such as log trusses, log posts & log joists, log stairs, log railings, log furniture, custom doors, rustic cabinetry, and log mantle pieces. These are “hybrid” homes, where we mix conventional and log building together. We’ve also begun building beautiful log beds.

CD: And you’ll work on houses you didn’t build?
JA: Yes, even if you had a conventional home and wanted to remodel it to look more rustic, or, say you bought an old log camp and needed to have it restored or remodeled. We have the experience and specialized equipment required to do these restorations. We don’t just build new log homes. We can add to an existing home and give it that fine, rustic touch!

CD: So when somebody buys a house CD:What does this entail?
RM: There is a process we use called corn blasting. We also do staining and coloring. We can add log décor such as rustic furnishings or log stairs or log railings for your deck. We also use a live edge trim which really looks great as window and door trim. Cliff decided that since we build these log homes every day and routinely put all of this log décor in those homes, there wasn’t any reason we couldn’t do it for people who own conventional homes, either.

CD:So now you’re cabinetmakers?
JA: Yes, that and more. We do live-edge cabinets where the wood has old insect holes in it. This wood is planed and joined and made into beautiful, rustic style cabinets that are very much in demand by our customers. We can also help you put a lot of that rustic charm into your existing home.

CD: You mentioned something called corn blasting?
RM: Yes, we’ve invested in some very expensive equipment for this. We have a special machine that is similar to a sandblasting machine, but it uses ground up cornhusks reduced to a 40-60 grit. We can remove old stains, paints and oxidation down to new wood, without damaging the wood. The whole process is environmentally friendly and it prepares the wood to accept new finishes. When we do this to the outside of a house, we can blast away layers and layers of paint and make it look like new wood. Then we put a beautiful new finish on it, and it’s like new construction. We can do this to both log and clapboard houses. We get lots of business with people who have cabins that haven’t been well maintained. We go in, refinish, reseal and caulk them. Restoration has become a big part of our business.

CD: So your business really is unique?
JA: Last year, Cliff and I went to the International Log Builder’s Association convention in Canada and met many other handcrafted log home producers. They were amazed to learn that we were one of a few companies doing the log homes from start to finish. We may not be quite unique in the world, but we’re in the top one percent who build the shell and can finish the log home.

CD: There must be a big demand for your services…
JA: Part of what we provide is service after the fact. A lot of carpenters are just lost when it comes to working on a handcrafted log home. Although we provide homeowners with detailed drawings, Cliff is available to help them through their project if they get stuck on some construction detail. Often, he’ll travel to a site for a hands-on demonstration of a particular building technique.

CD: So, besides being a builder, he’s a consultant?
JA:Exactly. For example, he’s heading up to Lee soon to work with a builder who isn’t comfortable installing a log staircase. The builder also had questions about applying the live edge siding on the outside of a dormer, so Cliff will walk him through the process.

CD: So, your responsibility doesn’t end when you hand over the keys to a Tucker Mountain Log Home?
JA: That’s for sure. We want to be sure that people have a successful building project. We value how our homes look and never forget that our name’s on it. We want the owners to love them as much as we do.

CD: Does the weight of the really big logs create structural problems?
JA: No. It’s simply a matter of personal preference. If you want big logs, we’ll get you big logs.

CD: Do you have to go to Canada to get the big ones?
RM: No, we can get them in Northern Maine, although we also get them in New Brunswick.

CD: How hard is it to get choice logs?
RM: We’re fortunate to be well known and respected by the log yards. They single out premium logs, set them aside especially for us. The yards we deal with also subscribe to what they call the FSC standard. They are members of the Forestry Stewardship Council. Essentially, this means that whenever they harvest one of those big, old growth trees, they plant new trees. They don’t use pesticides and they take care to protect the wildlife.

CD: So, you would say your homes are a team effort?
JA: Yes, most definitely. Throughout the years, we have developed the skills required to build these log homes, but the real credit should also go to all of those that, like ourselves, take great pride in what they do. Their part is just as important as ours. It starts with our log smiths, the foundation, our carpenters, masons, electricians, plumbers and suppliers. They work with us to continue perfecting the building of these beautiful handcrafted log homes. Our special thanks goes out to all of them.