As we start to research log homes, it quickly becomes apparent that there is much more variety than one would ever think. Not only do log homes come in all shapes and sizes, but the logs themselves come in as many variations as you can imagine. Once you decide on the look you want, you can start eliminating manufacturers that don't provide your system.
There are two categories of log homes: handcrafted and milled log homes. Initially, you may not realize what you are looking at, but there are some basic guidelines that will clarify the differences. A handcrafted log home is just that; the logs are peeled by hand, notched by hand, and in many cases, each log is scribed to fit exactly on top of another log. In many handcrafted homes, the logs are stacked alternately, so the large end of a log is stacked on top of the tapered end of the log beneath. A milled log home will feature logs that are uniform in shape, and the logs will be cut to fit together, such as with a tongue-and-groove or Swedish cope, so that they stack easily and evenly. There is a big price difference between a handcrafted and a milled log home. This is mostly because of the intense labor required to construct a handcrafted home, and because of the larger diameter logs that are normally used. The vast majority of homes built today are milled log homes.
If you see a log home with round logs and chinking, that is a first indication that this is could be a handcrafted log home. Chinking was historically a mortar-like material that filled the gaps between the logs. Modern science has created an acrylic compound that expands and contracts with the wood; it is applied as a wide white stripe. If a handcrafted log is not scribed, then chinking is a must because the logs leave gaps along their length. Some people do use chinking as a design feature even when it's not necessary, though for the most part milled log homes are not chinked.
The characteristic corner of your log home will speak volumes to the person who knows how to read it. The profile and joinery system of the log will usually be reflected on the ends. For instance, on a handcrafted log home you'll see the different diameters of the stacked logs. To stack them, these corners will be notched so that each log sits directly on the log below it (like a Lincoln Logs(TM) toy). A milled log that is saddle-notched will stack the same way (of course, every log will look exactly the same). Because saddle-notched logs are staggered, course to course, the log ends will be visible on the interior corners of the house as well as the exterior. This gives a very rustic look. A butt-and-pass corner gives you an end where there is a space between every other log. This is because one log butts up against the intersecting log, which runs past it. These logs are all laid on the same course, so that with the interior corners of your home, the logs will come to a squared edge.
On milled logs, there are many joinery systems to choose from. Today, the most popular joinery is called a "Swedish cope". This is where each log is scooped out to fit snugly on the curve of the log beneath. It gives a very smooth and natural look. Another joinery system is the tongue-and-groove, or double tongue-and-groove depending on the manufacturer. The tongues are cut into the top of the log and corresponding grooves at the bottom. These create a tight fit and stack easily. A more traditional, early American notch is called the dove-tail, which is a mortise and tenon notch usually cut into squared timbers. There are many other corner systems available, but these are the most commonly used.
The shape, or profile of your log is another feature which will help you decide what kind of package to purchase. Many people prefer a "D" log, which is round on the outside and flat on the inside. This gives you a horizontal wood-paneling look, and is easy to hang pictures on. Others prefer a round log, which is a little more rustic and presents many challenges - such as how to join the logs to the sheetrock. Squared timbers, which give a more Appalachian look to the home, tend to be tall and fairly narrow, and are often grooved for the application of chinking.
The average milled log home will use pine logs in 6" and 8" diameters. You can also find them in 10" and 12" diameters. Anything larger than 15" will probably roll you over to a handcrafted home. Cedar logs are an upgrade, and can be found in 6", 8" and occasionally 10" diameters. Some manufacturers more rarely use oak, cypress, fir, hemlock, larch, poplar, spruce, and walnut. These rarer woods will be a price upgrade. Because of the superior log care products on the market today that protect all the logs effectively, the wood species largely becomes a matter of personal taste. The best rule of thumb when choosing log species is to stay with a wood that is native to your area. The logs will adapt to the environment more comfortably.
Newcomers are continually amazed to discover that the logs are their own insulation. To compare a stick-frame wall to a log wall by using the "R-value" is not comparing "apples to apples". Logs have a lower "R-value" than insulated 2x4 walls. However, they work on the principal of thermal mass. Because of the cellular structure of logs, they tend to absorb the heat and hold it longer than traditional walls. The logs will actually absorb the heat from the interior of the house (or from the sun, if facing south), and when the temperature drops at night, the walls will generate that heat back into the house until the temperatures equalize. They take longer to warm up, and stay warm much longer. Conversely, they stay cooler in the summertime.
Some producers feature a half-log system, where the logs are attached outside-and-inside to 2x4 or 2x6 stick-frame walls. This adds the extra R-value of an insulated wall, along with the beauty of the log, and also makes it easier to install electrical wiring. Ultimately, these systems are a bit more expensive than full-log, because of the additional cost of the lumber. But they do give the added ability to vary the interior of your house, so that some interior walls could be sheetrock, stone, or tongue-and-groove. In any case, many modern manufacturers use the half-log system on their second floor, to compensate for the huge windows, which may displace so many logs that the wall's integrity could be compromised. Also, because the large windows settle at a different rate than logs, the stick-framed second floor equalizes the overall settling. With the best manufacturers, you won't be able to tell on the outside where the full logs end and the half logs begin.
Once you've chosen what kind of log you want, you will discover that manufacturers each specialize in their own unique fastening system. Almost all manufacturers use double-sided foam tape between log courses. Some companies use lag screws, threaded bolts, or spikes to add integrity to the walls; others use fancy spring-loaded through bolts that compress the logs. Once again, the choice becomes a personal preference.
It would save a lot of work for the buyer to get a "turnkey" price on the logs, the lumber, the windows and doors, and the roof - what is commonly known as a "weathered-in shell". However, this complete system only makes sense if you are local to the manufacturer; otherwise, you'll be spending thousands of dollars to ship ordinary lumber across the country. After all, there is no difference between a roof used on an ordinary house and a roof used on a log home. You choose the kind of roof you want, but it'll come from the same manufacturer. The same goes for the floors, the doors, the kitchen, and the heating system. Windows can be a little tricky; you'll have to find a manufacturer that is willing to make a extended window-sill (or jamb) to accommodate the thickness of the logs. Most major window companies are able to do this.
Remember that log homes are completely custom. No log home company will offer you a choice of kitchens or bathrooms like a development builder. You will have to shop for these yourself, and the possibilities are limitless. Your builder may make some decisions for you, but you will be better served to pick your own flooring, light fixtures, faucets and even door knobs. Most manufacturers do not want to have anything to do with the foundation; that is not their business. You can use any kind of foundation you want, but you'll need to contact a local contractor to do that job, or have your builder do so.
Almost all log home manufacturers have an in-house architect who will configure your plan to fit their own particular system. Unless you have a lot of money to burn, don't hire an outside architect to design your house, because the manufacturer will have to rework the plans anyway. If you want a quick start, the manufacturer will have a set of stock plans for you to choose from, and alter to fit your needs. Or you can design your home from scratch, and give them a rough set of drawings from which they will devise a set of building plans. This service is usually offered at no extra charge; there may be an up-front fee that is credited toward the final cost of the package.
Log homes are not maintenance-free - nor are they overwhelmingly laborious. Although the products on today's market do a fantastic job of protecting the logs from sun, rain and insects, they do need to be re-applied ever three to five years depending on the wall exposure. This "maintenance coat" is much easier to apply than the original coats of stain, and no, you don't have to strip off the old coat first. So it's not as bad as it sounds! However, you must inspect the logs at least once a year for excessive cracking (or checking) - especially when the check opens upward, creating a water trap. These need to be caulked on the exterior walls. Also, do everything in your power to direct rainwater away from the house; if you have an overflowing gutter, deal with it at once. A damp log attracts rot and insects.
Expect your milled log home to take anywhere from 4 to 8 months to construct, depending on your weather, the availability of the crew (are they sharing your job with others at the same time?) and your planning. The most important thing you have to plan for is protecting the logs and the lumber from the elements. Set aside a large space (preferably covered with gravel) exclusively for the logs; you don't want them sitting in the mud. Cover your gravel with a tarp, and bring extra tarps for the logs. The logs are going to get scattered as the crew picks through them, and they're going to get stepped on and tossed around. They're going to get rained on, and you'll be amazed how quickly the logs weather. You'll have to immediately remove the plastic wrapping when the logs are delivered, or they'll get covered with mildew. The tarps will do the job. If your windows get delivered with the log package, you'd be best served to rent an enclosed trailer to store them in (FRAGILE is the operative word).
But I'm getting ahead of myself. As you may have gathered, people who build log homes tend to be more hands-on than with other kinds of construction. Log home customers are usually very well informed by the time they break ground - and they need to be! Cost overruns are often caused by unforeseen difficulties, and since your house is a one-of-a-kind, you're in for quite a challenge. Luckily, the industry has matured quite a bit, and you are no longer completely on your own.