How to Build a Timber Frame Shelter

Timber frame shelters can range from temporary camping structures to permanent storage buildings. Depending upon the design, it helps to have plenty of felled timber, or standing timber that needs felled, at hand. If you are erecting a temporary shelter in a park, you should never cut any standing timber or green wood, unless you have permission from park authorities. Three designs (certainly not the only possible) are the lean-to, the A-frame and the upright log shack.

Select two sturdy poles that are at least as big around as a man's arm, with a side branch or fork in the top. Cut the poles 2 feet longer than the intended height of the structure. Select a third pole as long as the length of your intended structure. If you cannot find one long enough, you may have to cut a third forked pole and use two poles to create the needed length.

Dig two holes at least 2 feet deep. Dig more holes if you are extending the length; dig one hole for each upright forked pole. Set the uprights in the holes with the Y forks or protruding branches parallel to each other, and edge-on to the intended front of the structure. Refill the holes with rocks, dirt or concrete (the last if this is going to be a semi-permanent structure), and tamp it in firmly. If you are using dirt and rocks, pour a bit of water into the hole to help it settle. This is especially useful if you are working in dry clay.

Place the poles you cut earlier in the forks of the upright poles.

Select long, sturdy poles that will reach from the top of the lean-to front that you have just made to a point at least 3 feet behind the standing poles. Place these poles at 2 or 3 foot intervals, with one end on the horizontal poles and the other end on the ground. Make sure the ground end of the poles are placed a uniform distance from the front.

Bind the structure together using twine, peeled bark, vine or braided grass, depending upon what materials are at hand. Lay twigs (sticks about the size of a man's thumb) across the leaning sticks at 12 inch (or less) intervals.

Cover the structure with waterproof material. This can be strong plastic (such as carpenter's drop cloth plastic), canvas, camper's ponchos or natural materials, such as bark or grass.

Start covering the structure at the bottom if you're using bark. Drill a hole at the top edge of each piece and attach it to the cross members using the same binding material you used to fastened the parts together. Lap the edge of the second row of bark over the first, just as shingles overlap on a house.

Cut a handful of blades, if you're using grass, at least 1 foot tall. Fold the handful in half, forming a loop at the top of the bundle. Place the loop on top of the bottom row of cross members, pointing toward the bottom of the structure. Reach through the loop, under the cross-member, grasp the other part of the bundle of grass and pull it through the loop, forming a slip knot. (This is the same knot used to add fringe to scarves.) Continue across the bottom, then move to the next row. Continue until the structure is covered.

Attach more permanent coverings, such as sheet metal or fibreglass, using nails or screws.

Cut three poles, equal in length. Lay the three poles out on the ground in a triangle. The distance from the bottom pole to the apex (pointed top part) should be at least 2 feet taller than the intended height of the structure.

Fasten the ends of the poles together, forming two triangles. Use twine or other binding material, or drill holes through the ends of the poles and secure them with pegs or bolts.

Make one frame for every 3 feet of length of intended structure. Stand up the first two frames and fasten them together using smaller poles, about the size of a man's wrist and at least 3 1/2 feet long. Attach these by lashing or by drilling holes and using bolts, pegs, screws or nails. Place them across the upright parts of the triangles, reaching from one to another. Add triangles until the structure is the needed length.

Angle a long pole across the inside of the structure, starting at one bottom corner and reaching toward the apex at the opposite end of the structure. Secure with your chosen type of fastener. This will keep it from twisting as you work on it.

Add more cross member poles up the sides of the A-frame. Make sure there are no protruding limbs on these; they will secure the waterproof covering. Place the poles about 1 foot apart, ladder-like, up the outsides of the A-frame.

Cut small, smooth poles and nail or peg them down to the tops of the bottom poles of the triangles. This will form the floor. Adding it before working on the roof covering will help stabilise the structure.

Add waterproof material to the outside of the structure. Sheet metal or fibreglass are excellent choices. Nail or screw them into place. However, if they are not an option, plastic, bark or grass thatching (as described for the lean-to) will work.

Select at least four large logs, at least 8 inches in diameter and at least 9 feet in length. These will be your corner posts.

Mark off a 12 by 12-foot square on the ground. (For larger structures, you will need more uprights.) Indicate the location of doors and windows. It is a usually a good idea, in the northern hemisphere, to orient windows on the east and west sides of the house, and the door on the south side. Keep the north wall solid, or plan to install a chimney there.

Dig a post hole at each corner of the marked-off space, at least 3 feet deep. Ideally, set these in concrete, but you can substitute mud-crete (a mixture of clay and cement), or just plain clay mud and rock. Make sure to set the post holes firmly. Make the tops of the logs as level to each other as you can possibly manage.

Cut two slightly lighter poles the same length as the logs (but still keep them pretty sturdy) for each window. Dig holes, and set them in so that the outside edge of the poles are in line with the outside edge of the corner posts.

Cut two poles that are at least 6 inches in diameter and the same length as all the others, and set them in the correct position to frame the door.

Cut four poles that are 13 feet long and about 4 to 6 inches in diameter. Lay them down on the ground next to the upright logs. Mark where the logs are located. Using a hatchet, make notches about 2 or 3 inches deep that will fit over the tops of the upright logs. Cut the end notches so that they go all the way out to the end of the log.

Place the logs on the side walls. Fasten them down to the tops of the uprights by drilling through the top of the log to the upright underneath it, and then pinning it using pegs or lag bolts (lag bolts are easier to use).

Place the front log across the tops of the uprights at the front of the shelter. Trim off the ends so that the notches fit smoothly on the top of the post inside the side logs already in place. Fasten down.

Add wall braces on the north wall, as you did for the windows and door on the other walls. If you will be installing a fireplace, put these about 6 inches away from the fireplace structure, and cut two pieces of pole from the 12-foot pole selected for that side of the house. Notch and install them, resting one end on the ledges made in the sides of the fireplace. If there will not be a fireplace, place the braces equal distances from each other and the corner posts, then notch and install as you did for the other three walls.

Dig a shallow trench about 6 inches deep between the uprights--except for the door posts. Cut small poles, about as big around as a man's wrist, long enough to reach from the bottom of the shallow trench to the top of the top logs. Place the thicker ends in the trench; lash, nail or peg the upper ends to the top cross members. Do this all the way around except for the door, window and fireplace spaces.

Create window spaces by making notches on the inside of the window uprights at the height desired for the bottom and top of the window. Insert small poles, about size of the size of a woman's wrist, across the space, creating a top and bottom window frame. Fill in the top above the frame and the bottom below the frame using small pole pieces.

Make a door by cutting enough light poles to fill the doorway, when placed there side by side. They should be the right length to go from about 1/2 inch above the ground to 1/2 inch below the top of the door. Cut two cross pieces, 1/2 inch shorter than the width of the door. Use pegs, nails or screws to fasten the cross members to the uprights.

Attach cloth or leather straps to the ends of the door cross members, then to the corresponding places on the door frame. These will serve as the hinges. Put a nail or peg about halfway up the other door frame pole (on the opposite side from the hinges), and slip a string between the poles on the non-hinge side of the door. Loop this string can over the peg or nail to hold the door shut when someone is inside.

Add the roof using the same techniques described in adding the roof to the A-Frame.


Know your manpower. A lean-to is more suited to a scout troop than a log cabin. Add a fireplace on the north wall of the A-frame, if desired (see Resources for a link). Make sure to create notches in each side of the outer part of the fireplace structure on which to rest the wall-tops.


Logs are heavy, and felling trees can be hazardous business. Work with a helper, and have an emergency plan for accidents.

Things You'll Need

  • Wood logs
  • Wood poles
  • Saw
  • Hatchet
  • Hammer (or a flat-head on the hatchet)
  • Waterproof roof material
  • String, peeled bark, vines or braided grasses
  • Sheet metal
  • Fibreglass roofing
  • Hand auger or battery powered drill
  • Scrap leather or heavy cloth
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About the Author

Daisy Peasblossom Fernchild has been writing for over 50 years. Her first online publication was a poem entitled "Safe," published in 2008. Her articles specialize in animals, handcrafts and sustainable living. Fernchild has a Bachelor of Science in education and a Master of Arts in library science.