From the smallest details to the longest floorboards, a new cabin holds echoes of the past.

Cross ties cabin ceiling

Photo courtesy of the author

Cabin Lessons: A Nail-by-Nail Tale, my latest book, explores the journey our family embarked upon while building a cabin on the north shore of Lake Superior. The cabin was built fewer than 10 years ago — yet some parts are more than 100 years old. And we’d have it no other way.

We used reclaimed materials wherever we could. We used hefty pine beams salvaged from the Twin Cities Arsenal for the support beams and crossties. Straight grain Douglas fir boards from some old high school bleachers were prodded and planed into the kitchen cabinets. The cabinet hardware is from a long-departed art deco dresser. Tongue-and-groove pine from an old brewery floor became the loft floor. Patio doors, light fixtures, and stained glass windows had all led previous lives — but now live with us. Sure beats life in the landfill.

When all is said and done, reclaimed materials cost more dollar-wise than their home center equivalents — and labor-wise they usually require much more time and effort to prepare. But you get “what you pay for,” especially when you pay for it with a few blisters. The upside? Now, when we look at those hefty beams we can almost hear the easygoing conversation of the men who labored under their watchful eye. When we open a kitchen cabinet door we can hear the stomping of high school feet during pep rallies. The parrot in the stained glass window salvaged from an old Minneapolis bar knows a secret or two.

I also like the patina old materials bring to the game. Reclaimed woods, in particular, have the warmth and glow of old masters’ paintings. They have their histories. Not many people can spin a romantic tale about the 2x4s or composite decking they bought at the local big box store — but just ask me about those arched roof crossties up there.

Spike Carlsen

Spike Carlsen built a tree house at the age of 8 and has been swinging a hammer ever since. He worked as a carpenter and… See Bio

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