What I Learned Building a Cabin in the Woods

In 2017 I built a small cabin in the woods of Nova Scotia. I did almost none of the building, but did do most of the design of the cabin and am now doing the follow-up work on it.

Building a cabin is shockingly cheap. It’s one of those situations where you get about 80% of the benefits of a house for only 10% of the money. Sure there’s no running water and the fit and finish is a bit rustic, but that’s part of the charm. At the end of the day you can have a waterproof structure that’s very comfortable and useful, and can pay less than $10,000 to build it.

First you have to find some land. My friends and I bought an island together several years ago, so that part was checked off for me. There is cheap land all over the place, made many times cheaper if you can get friends to split it. For a simple cabin you don’t need electricity or water, so you can buy land that’s not very useful to other people.

I also have at least one friend who built a cabin on his friend’s land. No one who buys many acres actually needs so much space, and they might be happy to have you have a little cabin there as well.

I made my cabin 12’x16′ with two stories. If you do things in multiples of 4′, buying materials and making cuts will be a little bit easier. In retrospect, I’m not sure making such a tall cabin was a good idea. Friends of a friend who are excellent builders had no problem building it, but it’s now obvious that I couldn’t have done it myself. I think I could have done a single story building, though.

The other part of the height that I didn’t think about is that it is much harder to build the top part than the bottom part. I’m in the process of putting shingles on now and I don’t really have any idea how I’m going to do the ones all the way up on the top. The bottom ones are easy.

Speaking of shingles, I chose to do cedar shakes because they are beautiful and natural. I love how they look, but I understand why everyone else does vinyl. It would have been so much easier to install, and I would consider it next time. Building a cabin is somewhat about choosing your battles, and it would be nice for me to be able to work on the interior rather than nail shingles on one at a time.

Windows are expensive and hard to carry by boat, so I instead chose to make a whole wall of plexiglass. The end result is absolutely stunning, but I found out the hard way that it doesn’t block UV like a window would. My gray bedsheets are now a weird purplish color. Plexiglass was also much more expensive than I expected it would be, so it’s unclear if I saved any money.

It’s very easy to set up a reasonable solar system. Buy a lithium-ion based battery pack system (I chose one by a company called River) and a 100w panel. This combo allows you to drain the battery to zero whenever you’re at the cabin, and the small panel with keep it topped off when you’re gone and add a little extra capacity every day. On Amazon you can buy any 12v light and power it from the battery pack using a DC car adapter. Don’t use the inverter feature of these things, as it uses too much power.

I was originally going to put a wood stove in, but ended up just getting a catalytic heater that takes a standard propane gas tank, just like a barbecue grill. It’s not as cozy, but it sure is a lot easier to deal with. I might swap it out eventually.

I also opted to build the cabin a few feet off the ground. This makes it much easier for me to upgrade the cabin in the future by running wires or pipes underneath, or storing batteries or water tanks. The downside is that it makes those high up shingles a lot trickier.

I’m still fighting some small waterproofing issues and haven’t really figured out how to do a lot of the upcoming projects, but that’s part of the fun. A cabin is both a fun place to spend time alone and with friends, and also a nice low-stress opportunity to learn new things and do some physical work.

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Photo is pretty self explanatory. I’ve since made a huge roll-up curtain that covers the whole window, so UV bleaching is a thing of the past.

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