The History and Architecture of Cabins

A cabin is a small structure made from logs, often located in wooded or rural areas.

While today’s cabins feature elaborate designs, popular for mountain and vacation homes, traditional versions are unsophisticated and built by their inhabitants.

The History of Cabins

Log cabin architecture

Historians believe the first cabins debuted in Northern Europe around 3500 B.C. But, the origins may have come before then.

Famous Roman architect Vivitrius wrote about building with logs in 100 B.C. His writings in De Architectura described stacking logs horizontally and filling the gaps with mud and chips.

Finland and Scandinavia are home to some early examples of log cabins. Because of the Scandinavian peoples’ abundant access to trees like pine and spruce, families could construct cabins within a few days.

Due to European settlers, log cabins became prevalent in the United States in the mid-1600s. In 1638 Finish migrants built the first U.S. log cabin in Gibbstown, New Jersey. Now referred to as Nothnagle Cabin, the structure is 1800 square feet and mimics Scandinavian features of the time, like asymmetrical fireplaces.

Ukrainian and German immigrants also adopted the cabin construction style, and these rustic homes took over the United States frontier.

While some settlers chose to live in cabins, others used them as temporary shelters, disassembling them after they built permanent homes.

Traditional Log Cabin Materials

Settlers built the first cabins by stacking logs on top of each other in a horizontal manner. They notched the ends so the logs would fit together. Doing so reinforced the structural soundness of the building.

They filled the gaps between the logs with “chinking.” In the United States, builders used small stones, corn cobs, or pieces of wood. In Northern Europe, they used moss to act as an insulator.

Most traditional log cabin roofs were gable style, which is still prevalent today. Popular roofing materials included bark, cedar shingles, and milled lumber.

There was no specific shape, size, or finish of these dwellings – features varied depending on the region. Some were rustic and simple, featuring one room, while others were two stories tall with multiple rooms.

The most common wood species used to construct traditional cabins included pine, spruce, cedar, fir, and hemlock.

Traditional Cabin Interiors

The interior and exterior of early log cabins featured log walls. Some people used cloth or clay as chinking on the interior.

Primitive cabins boasted dirt floors or wood floors made of split logs.

Modern Cabins

Modern cabins feature more complex designs and sometimes multiple stories. They can have interior log walls, drywall, or plaster. Many of these cabins feature mass-produced milled lumber.

While gable-style roofs are still popular for cabins, so are dormers. Roofing materials include asphalt shingles, metal, and cedar shake.

One thing that hasn’t changed much is the wood species—today’s cabins include pine, fir, oak, cedar, cypress, spruce, or redwood.

Log Cabin Kits

While it’s no longer common practice to build your home, the creation and sale of log cabin kits make building small cabins possible for DIYers. Log cabin kits come in various shapes and styles, ranging from as little as $20,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The kits contain logs, roofing, windows, and doors. Some may also contain interior finishes.

Types of Log Cabins

Cabin architecture encompasses many shapes and styles. Here’s a look at some of the most common designs.

Handcrafted Historic Cabin

Handcrafted Cabin Architecture

Traditional cabins are small and simple, often featuring rustic-looking wood and one or two stories. Since builders would use surrounding materials for construction, there’s a lot of variation in the look of historical cabins.

Vertical Log Cabin

Vertical Log Cabin

In the 18th century, French settlers built the first vertical log cabins in the United States. The design was distinct from other European settlers. Today some modern cabins feature vertical logs or wood siding, although it’s less common than horizontal designs.

Cabin with Chinking

Cabin with Chinking
Photo: Audrey Hall

Chinking is the filling between logs. The material used for chinking has changed throughout history. Early builders used moss, stone, wood, and corncobs. In later decades a mixture of lime, clay, and sand filled the gaps. Today, most cabins feature an acrylic elastic compound that acts as chinking.

Milled Cabin

Milled Cabin
Structerra, Inc.

Milled lumber refers to logs cut to the same height, width, and length. The milling process allows logs to stack together without gaps.

Most modern cabins feature milled lumber.

Full Scribe Cabins

Full Scribe Cabins

Full scribe cabins feature milled lumber with grooves. The grooves connect, like a puzzle piece, creating a solid and energy-efficient home.

A-Frame Cabin

A frame cabin

A-Frame cabins made their United States debut in 1934, thanks to architect Rudolph Schindler. Not long after, this cabin design soared in popularity because of how simple and inexpensive it was to build.

Modern Cabin

Town + Country Cedar Homes, Inc.

Today’s modern cabins look nothing like the primitive homes of the early settlers. Instead, they use a mix of materials and often feature a skillion or shed roof.