If You Build it… A Basic Builders Guide to Beginning Construction on Your Land

By into the rustic - 11:03 AM

After you have bought your parcel of land to build on, you will have to determine where on the property you will build your structure. Factors that can affect this decision are the level of the ground, how far the driveway will have to reach, the amount of sunlight it will receive, where the water systems are located, etc. After you have selected your building site, the next step is clearing and developing.

Clearing the Land

If you need to clear trees off the property, do so in the winter season. It is easiest at this time of year because the wood is at its driest, and the snow on the ground makes it a lot simpler to drag away the logs.

Leave the stumps for now where they are, at about 3 feet in height. Once spring has arrived, you will need to remove those stumps. Don’t use your car or truck to drag the trees out, they don’t have the horsepower or the traction to pull it off successfully. 

Use either a bulldozer, tractor, winch, or animal for the job. Then when the area has been adequately cleared, bring in the bulldozer to smoothen out the terrain, making it level enough to start construction on.

Planning Location of Development

1. Using the Pythagorean theorem, you can make the right angles of your building site, with relative ease. First, make your first stake A at the first corner. Then determining the length of your first side (X) you measure and then put in stake B. 

Using your established plans for your construction will depend on the length of side Y. Now plugging in the known numbers for sides X and Y you can find out the length of side Z. Square the length of side X and add it to the square of side Y. 

When you have that number, you find the square root of that sum to get the length of side Z. Now cut out the tape in lengths equal for sides Z and Y and attach Z’s tape to stake A and Y’s tape to stake B. When you stretch out both tapes so that both are perfectly tight with no slack- that is where you put in stake C.

2. Repeat this process to find the last stake corner. Double check your measurements by taking a tape measurer, and measure the length of both diagonals of the rectangle you just constructed-they should be equal in length. 

Now extend the diagonals of your rectangle out approximately 6 ft on all corners. This is where you will construct your batter boards. Make sure your batter boards are running parallel to the outline of your construction site.

3. Now to finish the construction of your batter boards, you will need to attach a horizontal piece of wood in dimensions measuring 1"x 6". Next, using a builder's level and a helper, hold a measuring rod at the highest corner stake. 

Sight to the rod, recording the difference (shown as D) between the rod reading, and the minimum height of the foundation above grade. Have your helper move and hold the measuring rod along each batter board stake. At each instance, sight to the measuring rod and then subtract the distance (D), and then mark a stake at that point.

4. To have a better view of the workspace, stretch twine between the batter boards, so that the intersections of the twine cross precisely over the tops of the stakes you put in. To get an even more accurate reading, hang plumb bobs from the twine as shown in the drawing to the left. 

If it helps to prevent the twine from moving, make cuts in the tops of the batter boards so that the twine remains in place. Place a tack to show the center of the stake where the twine intersects.

Excavating for the Foundation

Now before you get excited and just start digging a giant hole and filling it in with concrete, you have to take some steps first to ensure that you won’t be repairing it later on and that all possible problems were analyzed and accounted for ahead of time.

1.) Get a soil engineer to take a look at your soil and determine how much weight it can support, what kind of drainage characteristics it has, etc.

2.) Contact your local building authorities to find out what the frost level is for your area so you know how far you need to dig your foundation footing. (The footing “base” must be dug below frost levels.)

3.) Hire a backhoe and an operator to save your back and your friends from disliking the sight of both you and a shovel. Make sure that the operator knows exactly what your plans are ahead of time.

4.) As the topsoil is being dug up, move it to a separate spot several feet away from the excavation sight. You do not want to mix the topsoil with the subsoil, as this will affect the weight and other characteristics of the support your foundation requires. (Keep the topsoil for later use for possible landscaping around the structure after work is complete.)

5.) Extend the excavation 3 feet beyond your building lines to have room to maneuver around and lay down foundation blocks, etc.

6.) Any trenches that are more than 4 feet deep should be supported with boards to prevent cave-ins. For added strength, crosspieces are put in and held in place by pressure between the two vertical boards held against opposing sides of the trench.

What is the Right Foundation for You

There are different types of foundations suited for different types of structures and environments.

A.) Perimeter Foundation: This is made of either stone, masonry blocks, or poured concrete. This type of foundation allows the construction of a basement or a crawl space. However, the downside to this method is that it requires heavy excavation and formwork, which makes it necessary to have a skilled worker and heavy equipment on hand.

B.) Wooden Pole Foundation: This type of foundation is made with logs and leaves the under part of your building exposed to the elements. This method is excellent for steep inclines in hard-to-reach places. But it needs very firm soil for it to work properly.

C.) Concrete Slab Foundation: This is a thick reinforced slab of concrete, used as either the main ground floor of your structure or as a basement floor. Do not use this method if you have a high water table or are on a steep incline.

D.) Concrete Pier Foundation: This method is good for also steep inclines where building. Piers are either pre-cast or poured. Its pluses are that it is cheap to construct but the downside is that it is less strong than the perimeter or slab foundations.


Now if you have the funds to just go out and buy your lumber from your local distributor, do so. But if you’ve bought a parcel of land that has a lot of extra timber, or maybe when clearing a spot for your building site, you had to clear out some trees-you can turn those trees into savings on your build. The benefit of making your own lumber is that you can cut exactly what you need to the specifications that you need them.

Tools to Lumber With:

-Chain Saw (note: a chainsaw can cut a tree in diameter twice the length of its blade)
-Crosscut Saw
-Slip Hook
-Broad Ax
-Utility Ax
-Log Dogs
-Wedges (hardwood and steel)

Best Trees for Lumber

Beech: Good for furniture, floors, and other woodenwares. It is strong, heavy, and hard.

Black Cherry: Excellent for furniture or cabinetry-Strong, medium weight, and hard.

Black Walnut: Really pretty grain, used for paneling and furniture- strong and medium weight.

Eastern Red Cedar: Used for closets to make use of its natural aroma to ward off moths. Also used in fence posts. Its attributes are it is decay-resistant, light, and easy to work with, but this wood is brittle.

Eastern White Pine: Used for furniture and also in making clapboards. Very commonly used back in the colonial days. Light, semi-soft, strong, and easy to work with.

Northern Red Oak: Good for flooring. This wood is heavy and strong and difficult to work with.

Shortleaf or Yellow Pine: Good for clapboards, was once used for the masts of sailing ships. Softwood, but also strong and has good grain.

Sugar Maple: Very good for furniture, floors, and other woodenware -Easy to work with, strong and hard. Very shock resistant.

Western White Pine: Good for building frames and paneling. Is similar to the eastern white pine in qualities.

White Spruce: Used for house framing and paneling- Strong, light, and easy to work with, but not decay-resistant.

Yellow Birch: Great for doors, furniture, and other interior work - It is heavy, hard, and strong.

Logging Your Lumber

1.) First, select straight trees that have branches only at the top, this guarantees you the most lumber per tree. Each branch will become a knot when cut into lumber, which weakens your boards.

2.) Do not cut any hollow trees in any section. This could mean the interior or Heartwood of the tree has rotted. But this type of tree would make for excellent firewood.

3.) After cutting down the tree, cut it into smaller sections to permit transportation to where you will make your lumber. Make sure you are cutting the log at areas where there are defects to preserve the best wood that can be processed into boards. The log section lengths vary, depending on your use.

4.) After your sections of the log have been cut and moved, you can use a log rule to estimate board feet on your log. Doyle Rule is the most common log rule used. How to use a log rule? Measure the length of the log. Then measure the diameter of the smallest end of the log. Then read the table on the log rule that matches up with these measurements.

5.) The best lumber comes from the outer layer of heartwood and the first layer of sapwood. Too much heartwood means a weaker timber. Cut wood so that the rings are perpendicular to the sawn side of the board when looked at from the ends. If the rings curve parallel with the long edge of your board's end, this will cause the board to warp.

Two Ways to Cut Your Boards

1.) Plain Sawing-
Where you cut through the full diameter of the log.(This makes the widest boards and most lumber per log.)

2.) Quarter Sawing-
Cut the log into 4 long and equal segments and then cut these parts into boards. This means less lumber but a better quality board.

How to Use a Chainsaw to Make Lumber

This takes a lot of practice and also a lot of expertise. First, you lift the log you want to cut onto wooden planks. This prevents the chainsaw blade from bumping into the ground. The first cut is made and then a wedge is put into place in that cut to keep the wood from closing again and pinching the blade of the saw.

You can attach an adapter to your chainsaw to help you make straighter cuts. Nail a 2x4 along the length of the log, and the adapter will fit on it like a slide ruler, giving you a nice straight guide to cut with. Reattach the board after each length is cut.

Another, yet more expensive method of chainsawing, is the portable chainsaw mill. This mill adapts to fit any model of chainsaw on the market. This mill cuts horizontally, so your log can be placed directly on the ground it is best if this mill is operated by at least two people. The rollers keep the saw blade level and you can adjust the thickness of your boards.

Making Beams

It’s best to square off a log into a beam that has been freshly cut, so it’s still “green”. Judge the size of your log by making sure the log is slightly larger in diameter than what you need.

Step 1: On each end of the newly cut log, scribe the beam dimensions (square shape) you desire. Cut notches into both the log ends at the corners of these dimensions and hook the ends of chalk lines (string coated in powdered chalk) through the notches. Snap the chalk line against the length of the log to make the marks of where your cuts will begin, to shape out the beam.

Step 2: Using your utility ax, carefully make vertical cuts every 4” or so. You want each cut to be to the depth of the chalk line markings.

Step 3: Now using a broad ax, slice parallel from the chalk line down into the notches you just made to remove the waste wood.

Step 4: Smooth off each hewn side of your beam with an adz.

Other Lumber

Shingles, Shakes and Billets-

Billets: Log sections which are then further cut down to make shingles or shakes.

Shakes: Oversized shingles

Using only straight-grained, blemish-free wood; cut the log into sections 2 feet or greater in diameter. If you are looking to make shingles, the log needs to be cut into 1 ½ - 2 feet lengths, and for shakes about 2 ½ - 4 feet lengths.

To make Billets, Shakes, and Shingles out of Cedar, you cut off the exterior sides of the log to make a square block (like to make a beam). Split this block in half, and then in half again. Do this until you achieve the thickness you want. 

For oak, you cut the log into quarters and then cut each section like pie slices. For Cypress and Pine, the log is cut in quarters also, but then the quarters are sliced into smaller pieces by cutting along the grain at a tangent to the growth rings.

How to Season Lumber

The length of time to season lumber depends on the use it’s intended for. If it’s going to be used to build with, at least 6 months is required. If the lumber is being used to make cabinets or furniture, you need to let it dry out for a year at least.

How do you gauge the appropriate dryness needed for your size lumber? For every inch of thickness of your board estimate at least one year

Make sure that when you are drying out your lumber that it is placed up off the ground, the boards are leaning on each other to allow enough air to pass between, and that they are covered on top with a tarp to prevent rain or morning dew from making them to wet.

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