It’s time to build a tiny cabin! The plans were drawn up, the materials calculated, and the budget finalized. My brother Alex was excited to join us on the adventure and lend his building expertise to the project. We bought a small pickup truck to help with the hauling, checked and double-checked the numbers, and watched lots of YouTube videos as research. I’d never built anything like this before—heck, I’ve never built any kind of structure. (For some reason I don’t think couch cushion forts when I was a kid count as structures). I definitely understood the concepts behind framing and construction, but I had zero practical experience. This was truly going to be an adventure, and one with a building site completely devoid of power, water, and sewer.
The more we prepared to take the trip, the more anxious we were to just make it happen, and we ended up bumping our initial plans for a May weekend up to early April. One of the biggest factors we had to worry about was weather. How warm would it be during the day? How cold would it still get at night? Are the mountain passes on the way up there clear of snow and ice? We started checking the nearby weather reports religiously, and once the nightly lows were convincingly stuck in the low 40s, it all seemed manageable. Highs were in the 50s to 70s with sunny skies, so that seemed reasonable enough.
Another important facet of this adventure was ensuring we took all of the necessary tools and equipment with us. We couldn’t afford to take multiple trips into town for extra nails or a speed square. I’ll admit, this made me a little nervous—my own tool collection was still growing, and I could only imagine what would be required for a build like this. I needed to rely on Alex’s experience to dictate our requirements.
We knew we needed to rent a generator to power various tools, but Alex had a compressor of his own and the pneumatic nailers to go with (along with a box of leftover framing nails that had been sitting in his garage for several years). He even had a battery-powered circular saw that he thought might come in handy (little did we know it would become our single favorite power tool). We also knew that hauling all the equipment up from the Portland area (while it would save us on sales tax) would make for a slower drive. So I divided up our materials list accordingly, keeping the big-ticket items to be purchased in Portland, and queued up some online orders with the big-box stores for the bulk of the lumber so that they’d be ready for pickup the day we arrived.*
The other major preparation we did was cutting and building all the trusses in advance. It was much easier to lay lumber out in our garage, use my mitre saw for the strange angle cuts, cut up all the gussets, and fashion a jig to piece them all together consistently than to do that all on site. We knew this would take some time—precious time that would eat into our itinerary once we arrived. But since the completed gambrel trusses would span ten feet and rise five feet, transporting them whole presented a challenge of its own. The truck beds were a maximum of six feet long. Our solution was to cut and assemble 14 half-trusses and cut the remaining gussets in advance. Once we were on site, it would just be a matter of nailing two halves together, with no more cutting necessary.
In an ideal world, we wanted to drive up to Wenatchee on day one, pick up all our lumber and materials, then stay in a budget motel that night and drive up to the property first thing in the morning to get started. That would give us a good night’s rest and a full first day to do as much work as possible, with the admittedly ambitious goal of completing the basic structure (framing and sheathing) so that we could sleep in it that night. The second day, we would focus on roofing, trim, and some of the exterior finishing. The third day was left open as a contingency, but we had planned to head back home that afternoon and evening.
What we didn’t realize until we’d already anchored in the weekend of April 11–14 is that all of the motel rooms in Wenatchee were booked up due to a big event of some kind. The cheapest place we could find that would allow dogs was $300 a night when we were budgeting less than $100—no go. Justin and I picked up a larger camping tent on super-sale at the sporting goods store, and we started convincing ourselves that camping was actually our best option. Besides, that would save us an hour’s drive in the morning, right? We knew it probably meant less restful sleep, but as long as we knew that going into things, it seemed like it would be manageable.
* Some of you may be wondering why we didn’t order all the materials through a lumber yard. I did get a handful of estimates in my research, but it would seem that without a contractor’s account/discount, the retail prices at Lowe’s or Home Depot were at least 15% lower.
Day 1: Getting There
Despite my prodding to have Alex stay the night at our house before the trip (he lives in a South suburb of Portland, and we on the North end of the metro area), he insisted that he could drive up and be at our place by 6:30am so that we could finish loading up and head out by 7:30am. Justin’s always been the punctual one in our relationship, but I have to say I've come a long way from “Watson Standard Time”—an unwritten rule that no matter what time our family aimed to leave for a trip, our actual departure was always two hours late (almost to the minute). In the ways that I’m a total morning person, Alex is more of a night owl, so even though he was running behind, I was impressed that he arrived by 7:15am. We tied down our loads from there and set out on the road at 8:30am, an hour behind schedule.
There are several different routes you can take to get there, and we drove what has become our favorite and most scenic route so far, which also allows us to avoid the Seattle/Tacoma metro area entirely. The roads were free and clear of any wintry weather, and despite some harrowing wind gusts descending the mountain grade into the Ellensburg valley, we arrived in Wenatchee at about 1:30pm.
It wasn’t until we saw the stack of lumber and cinder blocks waiting for us at Lowe’s that we realized what a monumental haul this was going to be. We spent a good 30 minutes in the parking lot reloading some of our gear into our truck before we could load all the lumber into Alex’s. The good news is that we were already planning on coming back into town later in the afternoon to pick up the rented generator. That allowed us to leave the cinder blocks and a few other things that just didn’t fit to be picked up on the second trip. Aside from stacking and securing a load that included a lot of 10' and 12' lumber (thank goodness for headache racks and come-along straps), the trickiest part was our timing. Our delay in leaving that morning had us racing against the clock. It was about 2pm on Friday, the tool rental office closed promptly at 5pm (and wasn’t open on the weekends). We needed to get up to the property, unload everything, then drive back into town, about an hour each way. If we didn’t make it, we’d have no power for our build.
Our timing getting up there wasn’t bad. The last 2.5 miles of gravel road were slow going, but the added weight in our vehicles gave us lots of traction and stability on the steep grade up and over the mountain-top. Once we arrived, throwing everything off the trucks was relatively easy, and three sets of hands made for fast work. But it was there that we realized we were up against another challenge—dwindling daylight.
I don’t know about you, but I cannot stand setting up a campsite in the dark. In my experience, you’re cold and/or hungry and messing around with tent poles and blowing up air mattresses is no fun by the light of a headlamp. And while we still had another couple of hours of daylight, shadows on the East sides of the hills were elongating. We knew from our first camping experience six months prior that the highest point of the property was too exposed, so we designated a more protected area on the back side of that hill that had at one time been roughly leveled, but was a little overgrown with sagebrush.
Justin offered to stay there with Zeus (who had already been a trooper on the six-hour drive), clear out the sage, and set up the tent while Alex and I drove back into town to complete our errands. We hit some Friday afternoon Wenatchee Valley traffic (who knew?) on the way back down, but managed to pull into the tool rental office with two minutes to spare. Even though I had called ahead and said we were on our way as fast as we could, I was grateful that the staff begrudgingly stayed a few minutes late to load up the generator and finalize the paperwork. From there it was a matter of picking up the rest of the order at Lowe’s, a quick trip to Home Depot for the right shingles and Walmart for some additional supplies, then we were headed back North.
Justin called just as we hit the highway, and I could hear in his voice that he was very anxious for us to return. Shortly after we left, the shadows stretched fully across the campsite, and mounting winds were causing the temperature to drop quickly. Even though he was hard at work clearing out sagebrush by hand, he was starting to freeze in the wind. He’d accidentally left his one coat in the cab of the truck and his layers of shirts and sweaters weren’t cutting it. We arrived back at the camp right at dusk, impressed that Justin had managed to clear out a 30-foot radius for our campsite, set up the tent all by himself, and unpacked some of the gear. The second I pulled up he jumped into the cab of the truck, pulled on his coat, and waited with the heater on while Alex and I dug a fire pit, gathered firewood, and cooked up stew for dinner. We had finally arrived.
Day 2: Houston… We Have a Problem
It was cold that night—colder than expected. Despite having three adult bodies, extra blankets, and a dog in a single tent, it was a rough sleep. A constant breeze rustled the rainfly throughout the night, the moon was bright, and it got a little colder than we had hoped.* Even though we’d wrapped Zeus in a wool blanket, he desperately wanted to cuddle between us as the sun was coming up. Alex probably had the worst experience, though, and once the sun peeked over the mountain and began warming the tent, he quickly fell back asleep and didn’t want to budge. All the poking and promises of eggs and sausage in the world couldn’t get that guy out of bed for another hour, which meant for a late start for our groggy crew.
It was 10am before we were finally up and ready to tackle the day, and we set out to arranging our lumber and breaking out the tools. The first step was leveling the nine cinder blocks for the foundation—a seemingly simple process. As Justin and I set to work on that, Alex fired up the generator and compressor to make sure everything was working properly, and that’s where we hit our first major snag. The compressor started up just fine, but as the generator kicked up out of an idle and the compressor motor started pumping, something blew on the side of the unit and it died. From what we could tell it was some kind of gasket. Alex began frantically texting a friend to troubleshoot the issue and googling for answers, and we eventually learned that it would something that wasn’t user-serviceable—an experienced motor mechanic would need to repair it. Finding one open on a Saturday morning in rural area was an impossible feat, so we sent Alex back into Wenatchee to find another solution.
While Alex was out, Justin and I finished leveling the blocks, set the 4" x 4" pressure-treated skids along them, assembled the half-trusses into full spans, and pre-cut some of the lumber to the right size. Between our delay in getting moving that morning and an unexpected trip into town, we had a major setback in our already optimistic build schedule. We didn’t want to have to spend another night in the tent, but as the morning wore on, it was becoming apparent that there was no way to avoid it.
Alex’s trip ended taking longer than expected and he didn’t get back to the site until close to 3:00 that afternoon. But with a brand new pancake compressor in hand, we set straight to work on the platform with a framing nailer finally in service. In two hours we had 2" x 4" joists framed together and tied them into the skids below so they wouldn’t go anywhere. The 3/4" plywood subfloor was nailed down by 5:30pm, and we finally accepted that this was a much longer job than we estimated.
Justin went back down to camp to make dinner while Alex and I started framing up the walls. The sun was getting lower and lower on the horizon and the wind was picking up again, but by the time the workday was through, we had four walls roughed into place. As much as we wanted to curse the setbacks and delays, we were happy to get as far as we did and settled down around the campfire drinking beer, discussing the next day’s tasks, and preparing for bed.
*We learned the hard way that our weather reports from Orondo, WA, right down along the river, weren’t quite the same as being 1,700 feet further up the mountain. Zeus’ water bowl froze over from the wind chill.
Day 3: The Progress! The Sun! The Wind!
The second morning was pretty much a rinse and repeat of the first, but we managed to get our butts in gear and working by 9:30am. We were sore and tired, but the crisp spring air helped keep our energy and motivation going. Alex and I set to work finishing the rough framing: a second overlapping top plate locked the walls into place, we framed in the three windows and door, screwed the windows into place, and started putting up the siding to square the walls and sheathe the exterior. Then Justin stepped in, helping Alex with more siding while I made lunch.
At that point we realized that the cool temperatures belied the sun’s rays. We were keeping pleasantly warm enough in long-sleeve shirts, but frying our exposed skin in the process. To be honest I hadn’t even considered bringing sunscreen on the trip, so I had to protect my poor neck desert-style by wrapping a t-shirt around the back of my head and securing it with my cap. They weren’t kidding when they claimed there were 300 days of sun in this area!
At 3pm, with most of the siding in place and batteries for the circular saw recharging, we turned our attention to hanging joists for the loft that would span nearly half the length of the cabin, adding 50 square feet of sleeping space to the 120 square foot footprint. A few pieces of subfloor went on top of that, and we finally had a platform above to help with adding the roof trusses. It was 4pm, so we took a moment to appreciate the fact that we had mostly finished the base level, but we knew that daylight would fade quickly and the evening wind would be picking up soon. Given everything that we still had left to do, we decided to power through and get as much of the roof done as possible.
The trusses went up relatively easily, but keeping them appropriately spaced apart when they were just toenailed in on either end was a challenge. The weight of the trusses alone was enough to cause concern, so once the first few were in place, we used furring strips as spacers and anchors until we could get the sheathing in place.
Saturday evening’s wind was no joke and had us really worried. I estimate that it was gusting in the 20mph range, which seems small potatoes for trees and cars, but makes all the difference when you’re lifting 4' x 8' sheets of plywood into the air. Talk about impromptu sails! I will be the first to admit that it was a frightening experience. I don’t typically have issues with heights, but being ten feet in the air with no railing and monkeying around weird angles to nail in sheathing is not my idea of a fun time. Alex needed a mental break from the work, so Justin and I powered through to get as much done as we could.
Even though we were ready to call it a day, we realized that we needed to finish all of the sheathing on the roof that evening, lest the wind overnight was strong enough to rip off some of the trusses. We had to have a more stable structure in place that could withstand it. Daylight was fading too quickly, and we had find a creative solution to only having one ladder available. After eating a quick reheated dinner and developing a plan of attack, we cranked on the generator and turned on a floodlight to improve visibility, donned our headlamps, and backed Alex’s truck up as close to the side of the structure as possible to serve as a work platform. With me standing gingerly on the roof of his cab and Alex standing on the ladder set up in the truck bed, we managed to slide all the sheathing up and nail it into place. Frustrations were peaking and our hands were freezing, but we managed to finish this crucial step at about 10pm, then promptly cocooned into our sleeping bags for another night in the tent.
Day 4: A Snail’s Pace
We were tired. We were beat. We were sore. Three nights of rough sleep, ten- to twelve-hour workdays, and sandwiches and stew can only sustain you for so long, so it’s no wonder that our fourth day of the trip moved along lethargically. You may recall that our initial plan was to have everything finished on day three, leaving day four as flex time. We had even talked about exploring the area around us a little or heading into the nearby lake town of Chelan. But there was still work to be done and that just wasn’t going to happen.
Justin and I were up and about by 8:30am but decided to let Alex sleep for a little while longer. He had been a trooper the night before and deserved that special time he’d grown to love so much when the morning sun warmed up the tent. We started by surveying our to-do list: add the siding to the upper end walls (which would require some very creative angle cuts), install the door, and add the roof shingles. Could we really do all that and head home by early afternoon? Optimism had long since faded. Not likely.
We were ready to take our chances with the roofing and trust that the area’s mantra of 300 days of sun wasn’t just a tourism slogan. Justin and I could return a few weeks later to take on the shingles, and we hoped that any spring rains would be light enough to not cause issues (we had yet to actually witness any rain in our two trips there, so we really had no idea what to expect).
Once Alex rose from the dead, we set to work on the siding, enclosed the full structure, hung the entryway door, and installed the lockset. Those seemingly simple tasks took us about four hours, while Justin broke down camp and started cleaning up the work site. From there we slowly packed up the trucks, stowed anything of value in the cabin, and locked the door. Without so much as a snack break, we drove back down the gravel road at 3:30pm and got our first glimpse of our handiwork from afar—a tiny cabin in the distance, perched along the ridge. Boyish grins spread across all three of our faces.
We did it.
The drive back to Portland was uneventful, and that first night back in our bed was glorious. The process of building this little structure was as rewarding as it was exhausting, and my cracked and bleeding hands were evidence of how hard we worked in two-and-a-half days on site. I also recognized several flaws in the design that were the result of cost-saving techniques and first-time experiences. But that didn’t matter. The sense of adventure and achievement we felt fueled our recovery and made for a hell of a good story. We surmounted failed equipment, trucked in our own water supply, braved the evening winds, and pushed our bodies to their limits in pursuit of our goal. I also grew closer to my brother than I had been in some time—something I didn’t realize I was missing.
It felt really, really good.