MARCH 2018



There is something quintessentially Canadian about Roger Ellis and the story of Heartwood Log Homes. From his office at Heartwood’s Margaretsville, Nova Scotia worksite, Roger told Spotlight on Business how a cabinetry-carpentry course, a hitchhiking trip from coast-to- coast, and a book called Building with Logs changed his life forever. “I started off after high school,” he said with a halting matter-of- factness. “I took a cabinet-carpentry course so I was doing woodwork right off the bat. Then my wife and I took the summer and went out to BC – we actually hitchhiked across the country back in the ‘70s when that sort of thing was going on – because we had friends in northern BC. When we got there, we saw all these beautiful log homes being built. We fell in love with them. At that time in the ‘70s there was a fella named B. Allen Mackie and he had written a book called Building with Logs. He had this philosophy that if you got yourself a piece of land and cut down your own logs and built yourself a log home that you could have a home for your family with no mortgage. He was a back-to- land sort of guy. The whole ethic of self- reliance and back-to- the-land, sharing your knowledge-style living, it really hit me and my wife and so that’s what I wanted to do.” Four decades later, Roger has built log homes in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and in the Blue Mountains of North Carolina. Each hand-peeled log in a Heartwood Log Home brings you closer to nature and in the self-reliant tradition of B. Allen Mackie it’s energy-efficient, too.



By David MacDonald R oger, did you ever get a chance to meet your mentor? RE: My wife and I actually did meet B. Allen Mackie when we were out in BC. He had started a school, a school of log building, and I had tried to get in but it was booked three or four years in advance. Things were really booming then. Allen started traveling to give short one and two week courses and after I returned to NS I was able to get in on one of those. What I really respected about the man – he actually passed away last year – was his philosophy that you should share what you know. If you figure out a better way to do something you should share that knowledge with anyone else doing what you’re doing – that way everybody benefits. As I mentioned earlier, that really spoke to my wife and I. There was a lot of log building going on in the 1930s. The Chateau Montebello in Quebec, which is the largest log building in the world, was built in the ‘30s. But the thou- sands of guys who built that, who figured out how to do what they did there, they kept their methods a secret. They thought that sharing that knowledge would diminish their work somehow. I never understood that. “What I really respected about the man – he actually passed away last year – was his philosophy that you should share what you know.” You’ve worked on a few historic log buildings yourself, haven’t you? RE: I worked out in Northern British Columbia for two years on log buildings built in the 1890s; it was a National Historic Park at Fort St. James. We were doing both resto- ration work and we were reconstructing. I stayed there for a couple of years and then I came back to Nova Scotia and started building log homes. What was your first year in-business like? RE: The first log building I did I built on spec: I bought logs and built the shell and put it up for sale and was able to sell it – so that was a good start. I had an old friend, Mike Coyle, who I went to high school with and he was interest- ed in log buildings – and he had taken the course from B. Allen Mackie. Another fellow, Rick McMahon, was also interested in the trade and it didn’t make much sense for us to be working against each other so we joined-up and started Heartwood Log Homes in 1984. We built log homes together for 24 years, until 2008. In 2008 it had come to the point where we decided that it was better if just one of us kept the company going – and so I did that; I kept it. My son, Nathan Ellis, who had been working with us for a while

bedrooms, which were sort of like suites for each family. They had their master bedroom, they had a big games room with a pool table, ping pong, air hockey – I forget all the things they had in there, but it was quite a sizeable room for playing in. They had a Jacuzzi, a sauna, and the kitchen was designed for multiple cooks because they knew when they would be having big family dinners they would have a lot of people in there cooking. The dining room was also quite large. There was 4,500 feet of logs in that place. That’s the largest we’ve done. The smallest was probably a 16 x 20 bunkie that we built for a fellow that we had already built a log house for. He wanted a little place for his grandkids to come to; just a place they could go and bunk out. There was no wiring in there, there was no plumbing, just the very basic 16 x 20 building with a little loft in it that the kids could go play in and sleep in. Then we build lots in between those two extremes. Where do the logs in Heartwood Log Homes come from, Roger? RE: We deal with woods contractors and land owners. We have one guy who is sort of our go-to guy. He knows a lot of the land owners around and he does the cutting himself. Many of the logs that we get are being cut for development

before that peeling logs in high school, that kind of thing, he stayed with me and is still working with me today. He’s been at it for a long time. He’s been doing the stairs and railings for us for quite a few years. Do you often come face-to- face with that general misconception that a log home has to be a traditional bungalow – a hunting cabin? I understand that you and your team go much bigger. RE: The biggest log home we’ve built was 4,700 square feet, six bedrooms. It was built as a retirement home/lodge for a couple from Porters Lake. They wanted to have a place where all their kids could come with their families and they could all get together with lots of rooms. So they had six


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thing basically the same with whatever joinery they have between the logs all built on there.

– and here in the Annapolis Valley there is a lot of develop- ment – for either farmland or a subdivision. If someone is cutting these trees down you can say that the logs in your home are as close to the natural condition as you can get. Fifty-to- 100 years from now people can go in that house and look at your walls and say, “Wow, look at that; that must have been some tree.”To me, it’s saving that log from just being milled up into 2 x 4s or whatever else might happen with it. We try to save whatever logs we can out of some- thing like that. Other than that, they are selectively cut on properties. Our logs come pretty exclusively from the Annapolis Valley. There is a lot of pine that grows through- out the valley here and there is nice sandy soil. The sandy soil helps when you’re hauling the logs out of the woods because you don’t want to be beating it all up over granite boulders and tough terrain – it’s going to be somebody’s living room someday, after all. What differentiates a hand-crafted log home from the manufactured options out there? RE: Manufactured log homes, well, they’re built by machine. Some of the machine log homes are good – they do a good job – some of them not so much. Anyone looking for a man- ufactured log home, I recommend you check it out care- fully, get references, and talk to other owners first. Usually they’ll start with an 8 x 8 cant [square of timber] and put it through a machine. It comes out the other end with every-

Generally, almost all of them use short lengths of log and they’ll be spliced so your wall, say it’s a 30-foot wall, will have four eight-foot pieces on it, spliced just randomly wherever they happened to land.

“The biggest log home we’ve built was 4,700 square feet, six bedrooms.”

Then with our homes, which myself I consider real log homes, we’re using the real logs, we’re cutting the trees down, we’re hauling them out full-length, getting them to our work site and we’re peeling them by hand. We take the outer bark off with a tool called a peeling spud, which is like a big chisel, and then the inner bark we take off with a pressure washer and what that does is it leaves this really smooth surface between the bark and the wood. It’s a smooth surface and it doesn’t need any sanding – and that’s what we’re going for. And of course our logs are larger. We are using logs up to 20 inches in diameter and we don’t go any smaller than 10 on a wall log – and usually we don’t even get down that

far so they will have a better R- value, which is its insulat- ing capacity, than the manufactured one. The thing about ours is when your house is built and you’re sitting in your living room – I still do this, sitting in my living room and I’m looking at the logs – you can see all the little swirls and where the knots go and the way the logs are fitted together and one log is big and one is small. It has a much better aes- thetic to me than all the logs being the exact same, uniform. Roger, I understand that Heartwood Log Homes is big on the use of natural log features. Can you please tell the readers just what that means? RE: Well in most of the log homes we do we engineer roof support trusses and log roof beams. We also do log stairs, we do railings out of log, we do a lot of mantles for fire places, we do furniture, beds, tables – a little of everything. We have done entire log dining room sets. Actually, we had a fella build a house in New Brunswick a couple years ago and it was a conventional home and we put log stairs in and we put log railings in up around the loft area and then he called and he wanted to have a log wine rack, so we got this big log with lots of character to it, lots of big knots and burls, and we drilled holes in it so he could stick his wine bottles in it and that looked pretty cool, too. We like to just play around with bits and pieces that we have left over and make something out of them. We did one house where he wanted a gnarly log – there was a post that

came up where the stairway was and he didn’t want just a regular post there, he wanted something really gnarly – so I managed to source something I knew he’d like and left a lot of the branches on it and we put that up for him. We didn’t tell him about it until we arrived to put the house together so he was pretty thrilled to see that come off the truck and stick it in the middle of his new house. We did a really good job of finishing it and he had an eagle carving so he put the eagle carving on the top and built an eagle’s nest on the top of this thing. It was pretty neat. We’ve also done a lot of those custom log features in con- ventional houses too. So somebody who maybe doesn’t want to go the whole route and have a log house, they can have these log features in their house and it gives it a really nice feel. A lot are log stairs. And it also works well in com- mercial “It has a much better aesthetic to me than all the logs being the exact same, uniform.” buildings, especially buildings that have something to do with the outdoors like fishing or hunting stores, that kind of stuff. What’s the actual building process like on a typical log

home for you and your team – and the client? RE: Our process begins here. We do all the construction here at our own worksite in Nova Scotia. We fit all the logs, we build the shell, we do all the finished cuts, we do whatever sanding of the knots that we have to do and we apply the finish. Then we dismantle the whole thing and we ship it wherever in Eastern Canada or the Eastern United States it’s going and re-assemble it on the foundation. We’re not spending a lot of time and having to move in a lot of equipment to someone’s building lot. We come in and typically we are there for two or three days and we have the whole thing all put together. As long as we can get a boom truck or crane in close to the foundation and we have lots of reach, we’ll take-on any project. That usually means having a driveway or a road that we can get a tractor-trailer in on because that’s how we transport your new log home. The house we are doing right now will be just off seven kilometres of private road. We get some of that; we have had challenges but that is part of the deal. When I’m building here at the worksite, I like to take lots of pictures and keep the owners up to date on what we’re doing and how things are coming along. Our whole design process is client-focused, too. We have sample plans on our website and we try to maintain a good range of sizes and styles. That 4,700 square foot house I mentioned earlier is on there, so is the smallest one we’ve done. We tell people those are templates: You can take and change around to make it work for you or make it a little bigger or a little smaller. We don’t want to be doing cookie cutter houses. Every person has different needs and every site has different needs. We’ve had people sketch out their dream log home on a napkin and that was the beginning of their house plan – and we managed to get it figured all out for them. And your business relationship with your clients doesn’t end there, does it Roger? RE: That’s right. We do repairs and maintenance on log homes. The maintenance of a log house is important. The maintenance begins with the design and construction of the house because a log house needs big overhangs to protect it from the weather, so our designs all have large overhangs. The other thing is when we are building we are using a borax-based wood preservative; all the joinery is treated with this and borax is a very safe and very effec- tive wood preservative. We have seen some problems on log houses and a lot of the problems that we’ve seen are because people are using the wrong kind of a stain on the house. They are using a stain that is film-forming and it is almost like paint. That seals moisture into the wood, which is not good. We have often had to strip these houses that have this paint on them and put a proper stain on and it makes a huge difference in how well the logs hold up. We have a glass blaster, basically a sand blaster, and we use a

crushed glass medium that does a really good job of strip- ping finish off. Then we use a breathable, penetrating stain.

We have a house that we built right on the Bay of Fundy and when the tide is in you can throw a rock from his deck into the water. When the tide is out, forget it. We built that in 1995 or six. This year the new owner wanted us to come down to check it out and redo the stain, so we did. It was in beautiful condition because it was looked after over the years.

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as spotlighted in the MARCH 2018 issue of SPOTLIGHT ON BUSINESS MAGAZINE

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