Rob Roy is Director of the Earthwood Building School, which has specialized in cordwood masonry instruction since 1980. Rob and his wife, Jaki, have built four innovative cordwood homes for themselves since 1975, including the Earthwood home where they have lived for over three decades. Earthwood is a 2400 SF two-story round, load-bearing cordwood home, earth-bermed and earth-roofed. Details of construction are in Rob's Earth-Sheltered Houses (New Society, 2006) and Cordwood Building: The State of the Art (New Society, 2003) two of fourteen books he is written in the alternative building field. Rob and Jaki have taught cordwood masonry in Earthwood Building School all over North America, as well as in Chile, New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii. They have helped scores of owner-builders with their cordwood projects, including homes, saunas and outbuildings. Earthwood has produced a 3.25-hour DVD on cordwood construction, which, with his books, can be accessed through the Earthwood website, or on the Cordwood page here. Rob is considered to be one of the leaders in the field of cordwood construction and earth sheltering. He does individual consultations at a flat rate of $75/hour, but answers questions here without charge. See also Earthwood Facebook.
Q: Where I can buy white cedar cordwood for building a cordwood home? I am trying to build a home in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. I would like to use this method for building but am unsure as to the best way to go about getting the wood for the project. I have the land, foundation, septic, well, & power installed. Please advise as to the best way in your opinion.
A: White cedar is an excellent choice for cordwood masonry, but not the only one. Almost as good is white pine. And spruce is not far behind. For any of these woods, I have the following suggestions: First, find out if there are any furniture or log home building companies within - say - 80 miles of where you live. Search the internet. For example, I Googled "Log Home Manufacturers" + "New Hampshire" and came up with lots of leads, including: Merrimac Log Homes, 32 Old Concord Road, Henniker, NH 03242. Tel: 1-866-637-7462. Manufacturers of furniture and log homes have a lot of waste. We have two sources near us where I can get free ends and pieces of white cedar, just for the taking. Sometimes, this stuff just gets tipped, even taken to the landfill. We can get a lot of 8" to 16" log-ends out of some of the dry barked pieces they throw away. "Ask and ye shall receive," it is said. Well, maybe it doesn't always happen, but what is certain is that if you don't ask, you won't receive.
If this fails, ask them where they get their logs. It will no doubt be from a woodcutter who delivers the logs to the manufacturers. This woodcutter may know of pieces which are too large, too small, too curvy, hollow (still good for you), whatever. Get on the trail and you will be amazed at what is out there ... but you have to extend yourself.
Another good place to ask is local sawmills. They often have lots of good scrap useful for cordwood masonry, and for many of the same reasons already cited. Slabs (first piece taken off the log) can be useful, too. I get some great stuff from my local sawyer as a by-product of doing business with him. I hope something in this reply leads you to your cordwood.
Q: Between spruce and poplar, which would you prefer and why? We have lots of close spruce and balsam fir that need thinning so we could help the forest at the same, but also lots of quaking aspen and saw tooth aspen (popple), which sounded like you liked it a lot too...either one easier to peel?
A: The three woods you have are spruce, balsam fir and aspen ("popple"). Quaking aspen and sawtooth aspen, I believe, have similar characteristics as cordwood. I like the spruce the best of these. Our garage is made of spruce and it is great. It was very dry, mind you, having been left over from a friend's cordwood home nearby and drying an extra couple of years. I have used aspen, but less so. It splits raggedly compared to the spruce, so you might want to use as many rounds as possible. (You can mix rounds and splits, you know.) I have not used the balsam fir, although I cut a lot of it, as these trees are always snapping off and falling down in our area. I find the wood very pitchy, very light-weight, and the logs split poorly. It doesn't peel all that easily. I am not inclined to use it, but I could be proved wrong. Might be worth a test. My order of preference of your woods wood be: spruce first, aspen (popple) second, balsam fir third. Woods can be mixed, but try to keep a consistent texture, a good balance between splits and rounds, and different species.
Q: I live in Southern Wisconsin and have a lot of box elder (ash leaf maple) clogging fence lines. It is considered trash around here, but is a light hardwood. Would this wood be suitable for cordwood built machine shed? I want to get rid of it in a useful way.
A: I think the box elder would be okay for the purpose you describe. I am a little concerned that these trees "clogging fence lines" might have a lot of twists, turns, and branches. Cordwood masonry is so much easier when working with relatively straight wood with a consistent sectional shape from one end of the log-end to the other.
Q: I'd like to know what type of wood to use for a cordwood house in Belize. Are Belize's hardwoods appropriate to use?
A: The hardwoods might be okay in that climate. They have been used successfully in Hawaii. Be sure to keep the first course well off the ground, at least 8 inches, and use a good overhang. Finally, before taking on too big a project, try a small panel, say four feet long and three feet high, protected from the rain. Observe it for two or three weeks to see that the log-ends have not swollen, causing cracking. If all is well, proceed. The wood might shrink a lot, or, because of the climate, a little. But wood shrinkage can be taken care of a year or two down the road. Wood expansion is a structural problem. I would definitely get the roof on first, such as on a post-and-beam frame, and build under cover.
Q: I live in the north Okanagan in BC and we have a tremendous amount of "bug kill" pine available. It doesn't make good fire wood, so wonder if it could be used in cord wood building.
A: Yes, providing the bugs have gone, and the wood is not punky. (Punky is a term for wood which is beginning to deteriorate or go soft.)