Things I’ve Learned — A Cabin from Scratch

Things I’ve Learned — A Cabin from Scratch


In the spring of 1983, I was finishing up my second year at Virginia Tech. I still hadn’t found a major that was right for me; I felt lost and frustrated.

While I was deciding what to do, I met a local guy named Eddie who must have sensed I was ready for a challenge because he asked if I wanted to build a cabin on his property. His offer caught me off guard since I had zero experience building. I thought about it for one night and decided this was exactly what I needed.

Eddie agreed to guide me in the building process. I started clearing the land about a month before exams started. After classes ended, I set up camp next to the building site and began to work from sunup to sundown. I moved in just three days before the fall semester. I lived in the cabin from summer 1983 to fall 1985. No rent. No utilities.

I built the cabin for $1,100 and the investment paid off in more ways than I could ever have imagined. The last time I visited the cabin was in 2000, and it was in good shape. I have no idea if it’s still standing.

Some lessons I learned, in no particular order:

1. It’s not critical to have electricity, running water, and a phone to be comfortable.

2. With no phone, it was hard for friends to contact me at the spur of the moment. With no phone, I learned how to plan better.

3. I learned how to conserve water. I learned the value of a clean and abundant water supply.

4. I learned to use a chainsaw without hurting myself.

5. I learned how to be quiet and enjoy it.

6. I learned that building a home is relatively easy — it’s not rocket science. This knowledge has provided me with a great sense of security over the years.

7. I wished I had built a cabin with half the footprint and a second story. Building the foundation took an enormous amount of time compared to the rest of the building process.

8. As soon as I was done building the cabin, I found out about yurts. Had I known about yurts, I would have built one of those instead.

9. I learned how to become more self-sufficient.

10. I learned how to ask for help after I injured my back and needed help stacking firewood.

11. I learned how valuable electricity is.

12. I learned how to navigate a dirt road under all types of conditions (deep mud, ice, snow) and learned when to park and walk.

13. I learned how to stay warm in the winter. I learned how to cut wood and prepare kindling. I learned how to quickly start a fire in a woodstove and keep it going. I learned the value of a well-built woodstove.

14. I learned how to be super safe with fire. If my cabin had ever caught on fire, the whole thing would have burned down in minutes.

15. I learned how to play the banjo. My solitude and lack of distractions (like TV) afforded me lots of free time to explore and create. Even now, when I play the banjo, I’m reminded of all the hours I spent playing in the cabin.

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Tom Heck

Tom Heck is a dad, Maker, and banjoist. Most of his Maker projects don’t fit in his car very easily. Tom is passionate about the Maker Education Movement and is the VP for Education Initiatives at Makey Makey.

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