Home made

Craftsman builds log homes the old-fashioned way: by hand

It’s not Brian Kihnke’s building motto, but it could be.

Kihnke, 38, of Harbor Springs, is an old-school craftsman. He builds custom log homes by hand, scouring the state to find hearty timber and employing the brute force of his own strength to peel away bark and knots with a drawknife.

And the only corners he cuts are for a saddle-notch.

The smooth, polished result is a log home displaying a level of craftsmanship that seems lost in many stick-built traditional homes today. Inside one of his showpieces, the home of Dave and Sue Watson of Petoskey, the attention to detail and drive to craft elegance from evergreens is evident around every corner.

Dave Watson met Kihnke when he went to the builder’s sawmill in Cross Village for business; a Realtor, Watson was helping Kihnke, owner of Timber Wolf Log Homes, find a building site. When he saw the robust logs and the talents of the young builder, it became clear just what he was going to construct on his own 160 acres east of Petoskey.

“I said ‘Wow,’” Watson said. “I knew I wanted one of his homes on our property.”

Construction started in April 2001, under general contractor Bruce Platte, of Platte Construction in Petoskey. (Kihnke also offers general contracting services.) The 3,000-square-foot home was completed in December 2002, and during those months in between an amazing amount of work took place.

Because we’re not talking about Lincoln Logs here.

Inside and out, it’s hard to know where to look first, with innumerable eye-catching details vying for attention. One question that arises quickly: Without the thick chinking common in full-log homes, how are these tree trunks staying together? Kihnke explains that he uses a rubber foam gasket between logs that are individually scribed to fit snugly atop each other, creating both stability and a weather seal.

This is not a simple feat, considering many of the trees that form the home are up to 22 inches in diameter. The longest is 56 feet in length crossing the width of the house — from the front porch, through the master bedroom, dining room and out the back deck — as a main support beam.

The home is truly an engineering marvel, considering the white pine logs weigh about 35 pounds per foot. With that amount of weight, things are going to move, and settling is a natural part of living in a log home. In this particular house, and as is common in most full-log homes, jacks are located inside certain vertical posts and they can be adjusted lower or higher based on the amount of settling.

“It takes probably five years for the house to fully settle,” said Kihnke.

It’s those tricks of the trade that make Kihnke’s work so impressive in both intricacies and image.

Kihnke said the most important first step in building a custom log home is formulating a specific plan. After the home design is determined, he and his crew get to work harvesting the necessary wood from around Michigan, cutting it and assembling the structure loosely up to the wall-height at the sawmill property in Cross Village.

There, the timber skeleton of the home is numbered, disassembled and trucked to the work site, where it’s reassembled, this time with all the necessary steps.

And there are many.

Not only does the home have to be weather-tight and exact, the builders also need to work closely with electricians for wiring a home that doesn’t have space behind drywall like standard construction.
For the Watson home, which is entirely full-log with only a few spots of drywall in the master bedroom and bath, holes were drilled specifically inside certain logs and wires strung through for placement of outlets and TV and phone jacks. Wires are run up through the subfloor and the outlet boxes were cut out of the logs at the proper locations.

The foam rubber gaskets that hold the logs in place and prevent drafts are reinforced with a row of wool insulation in this cold Northern climate as well. During construction, the push is to get the project roofed in so as to not expose the logs to any unnecessary weather conditions, if possible.

The sealing of the logs, or staining if a homeowner prefers, takes place once every log is set. In the case of the Watsons’ home, that’s about 80 logs in total.

If that sounds like a lot of work up until now, just getting the logs in their pristine condition is a huge undertaking. The trunks get pretty banged up on their transport from forest to construction site, and Kihnke uses a drawknife to remove the bark and knots while smoothing out the finish for an unbeatable look.

“Sometimes, some of the knots are hard to slice through, but I think the nicest way to do it is the hand-peel,” Kihnke said.

Each day on the construction site, especially at homes like the Watsons’ with its chinkless look and elegance of design, is labor-intensive and demands precision.

“When you have one or two logs done at the end of the day,” said Kihnke, who taught himself how to build the exquisite homes he’s perfected, “you feel you did a lot.” HL


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The Watson home

Watson HomeThe homeowners: Dave and Sue Watson, east of Petoskey
Style: Full log
Square footage: 3,000
Bedrooms: Master on main floor, plus two upstairs
Bathrooms: Four full
Great room ceiling height: 30 feet
Lower level: 1,500 square feet includes game room
Wood varieties: White pine log structure; maple floor; cherry cabinets; cedar interior walls, ceiling; western red cedar window trim
Log maintenance: Since the home was finished in 2002, it has been resealed just once, with clear satin finish, about three years after it was completed. The logs have not been stained and exude their warm honey finish in their natural state.
Log design and construction: Brian Kihnke, Timber Wolf Log Homes, Harbor Springs/Cross Village, www.timberwolfhandcrafted.com
General contractor: Bruce Platte, Platte Construction, Petoskey
Mason: Phil Troup
Animal mounts: Ernie Brosseau, Petoskey

A look inside ... The Kihnke home

Sharon and Brian Kihnke• 4,400 square feet, including a finished lower level
• Five bedrooms, four and 1/2 baths
• Above-garage carriage house

Brian Kihnke and his wife, Sharon, didn’t save their beautiful building abilities solely for others. Their house in Harbor Springs is a stunner, too, and with four children it is a warm, welcoming family home finished in a hybrid-log design, utilizing both log and drywall and a variety of materials.

A log hybrid home is built using conventional techniques along with both structural and non-structural log elements. Design and style are limitless and the degree of log is left to the individual tastes of the homeowner.

Examples of the log components possible in a conventionally built home include structural and decorative trusses, roof structures, handcrafted siding, porches, stairs and railings, mantels and custom-milled beams 45-feet plus in length.

The Kihnkes’ home includes a number of such features, and they say there’s more to come. But to a guest, the house looks pretty darned finished already, especially outfitted as it is inside with Sharon’s eye for décor and warm color palette to match.

While Brian provides the brawn, Sharon offers the beauty; her decorative talents are evident in practical-and-pretty ideas such as individual baskets for each child’s shoes in the extra-wide mudroom; textured drywall that doesn’t show the inevitable dings and dents of childhood; and how furniture is arranged in the kids’ rooms to capitalize on the angled ceilings.

“It creates nice little coves for the kids to play in, and it’s cozy,” added Sharon.

Log lingo

Chink style construction is produced by notching only the corner intersections of each log. The horizontal joints of the logs are sealed with a synthetic “chinking” material to create a weatherproof structure.

Kiln-drying logs for chink style homes can reduce the amount of log shrinkage as well as the possibility of chinking failure that can be associated with using fresh logs.

This type of log construction requires the most skill and is also the most labor-intensive method of log building. To produce a full scribed home, each log is hand cut to match the contours of the log below. A double row of rubber gasket, along with a strip of wool insulation is hidden inside the log joinery to create a seamless, weather tight fit in the chinkless style.

Fresh, unseasoned logs are scribed and notched to produce the highest level of log joinery possible.

Source: Timber Wolf Log Homes

Issues » November and December 2009 » Home Made