Logs to love

🕔Dec 04, 2006

Building a house from scratch has been a lifelong dream for my partner Robert and me: not just any old house, but a log house. After fifteen years in our previous log house—which we had gutted, renovated and added a log addition to, we knew we were up to the work.

But, unlike our previous property—a quarter section in the BC Peace—our new property is only five acres and did not have enough trees of the right size and shape for the house. Lack of time also influenced our decision to approach a log home company.

Last winter we drove up to the company’s work site to discuss the plans. The first thing I saw was a log structure, somewhat like the one that would be delivered to us. It was made of pine. I was immediately drawn to the rich honey colour of the wood.

The company only builds the shell—the outside walls and roof purlins—and cuts holes for windows, doors and electrical cable. A log staircase is also part of the package.

When they asked us what kind of wood we wanted. Robert was adamant that spruce was too boring. We decided fir, with its lovely reddish highlights, was a little pricey. The remaining choice was pine.

Having already fallen in love with the log structure in their yard, it seemed to be a logical choice. Besides, the many knots in pine trees would give our house character and a sort of homemade feel which we like.

It wasn’t until the logs arrived in the company’s yard that we realized most of them were infected with beetles.

We were able to lift the bark and see the dead beetles. The surface of the logs was indented with their tracks, looking like trails through a disorganized maze. White larvae were scattered all over. It was interesting but also horrifying to realize that these were the creatures responsible for the destruction of so many of the pines in BC.

The mountain Pine Beetle lives under the bark of the tree. As the weather warms in early June, the female bores through the bark, emitting pheromones to attract a male to fertilize her eggs.

Pine Beetles carry a fungus which is deposited into the sapwood of the tree. The fungus inhibits the tree’s natural defenses, causing it to dehydrate. The fungus is also responsible for the characteristic blue stain in beetle-killed wood. On our house, the blue colour is most noticeable on the outer third of the logs, especially on the ends and around the windows and doors where the edges have been beveled. Staining is spotty so only part of a log may be blue.

The fungus doesn’t affect the strength of the wood: beetle-killed pine is structurally sound and safe for building. And dehydration of the tree caused by the fungus may even be a plus in log house building.

Log houses shrink. As the logs dry they decrease in size, about three quarters of an inch for every foot of wall height. Thus the tops of windows and doors must all have a gap to accommodate the shrinkage of the logs. If these gaps aren’t included in the building, the window and door openings will soon become too small.

Not knowing how much the logs had dehydrated we decided to build the house as if they hadn’t. We filled the gap above the windows, doors and interior walls with dimensional lumber, which looks like decorative trim and moves down over the log walls as they shrink. In about four years, when the logs have fully shrunk, we can remove the lumber.

I spent two weeks painting the outside of the logs with a stain and a sealer to protect them from UV light, wind and water damage. Unfortunately the finish has covered up most of the characteristics of the wood, although the knots are still evident.

Inside the house we will use a clear finish so the beetles’ work will be noticeable. The blue stain and the tiny holes bored into the wood by the beetles will really stand out. We chose the clear stain mainly to preserve the natural colour of the pine logs, but the beetle damage is an additional feature adding to our home’s rustic style.

A newly beetle-inhabited pine tree will still look green and healthy. By the time it turns red, during the second year, the beetle has already left it looking for live trees. They typically attack Lodgepole and Ponderosa pines. During the third year after attack the needles will fall off, and from the air a stand of pine will look grey.

Mild winters and drought have made beetle infestations worse. In the past, winters were usually cold enough that many beetle were killed off, making extensive infestations unlikely.
As our summers have become longer and hotter the speed at which the eggs hatch and the young beetles develop into adulthood has increased. Thus there are more adult beetles colonizing more trees.

One of the challenges for industry is to harvest the pine before it becomes unusable.

I like my beetle-killed wood log home and I like knowing I own a piece of BC history. It is a piece of history unique to this part of the world. However, marketing products such as log homes and furniture as being made of “beetle-killed” pine is not a great selling feature, according to some. The term “Denim Pine” has been put forward by entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on BC’s newest “asset.”

No matter what term is used to describe the logs in our new house, we think having beetle-killed wood has become a bonus. It certainly adds to the character of our house, which is why we chose pine in the first place.