A Michigan log home reflects the tastes and demands of its proud owners

Story by Amy Laughinghouse
Photography by James Yochum

I like different things–not what everyone else has,” says Chris Zinser, whose love for the unique and extraordinary fueled his long-held passion to live in a log home.

For Chris, a Michigan-based plumbing and heating contractor and self-professed perfectionist, not just any log home would do. He wanted the grandness of soaring, 27-foot cathedral ceilings; the friendly appeal of a front porch anchored by massive stone planters; the drama of a complex roof system that juts away from the house like the massive prow of a ship. “I wanted all the outside stuff to grab everybody’s attention,” Chris says with a laugh.

Chris had already found the perfect setting for the home–a hill on a densely wooded 6-acre lot, overlooking the town of Clare, Michigan. He also had sketched out the plans for the 2,700-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom home that he pictured so vividly in his mind. Next, he had to find a log home builder who would be equal to the task of transforming those plans into a home which Chris would share for years to come with his wife, Diane.

He began his search by questioning friends and family members who had already built log homes. His aunt and uncle had erected a log home five years earlier, but they weren’t pleased with their builder. “I didn’t hear good things about him, so I didn’t even go to him,” Chris says. But one of Chris’ acquaintances, who also owns a log home, offered a glowing recommendation of his builder, Michigan Log Homes, run by Charlie and Linda Wagner. “He had nothing but good things to say about Charlie,” Chris recalls. “I took his word. I didn’t even look around at anybody else.”

But it wasn’t just his friend’s recommendation that convinced Chris to seal the deal with this small, family-owned business. Chris also was impressed with the handcraftsmanship displayed by Michigan Log Homes, which cuts and mills its own timber and typically erects fewer than six custom-built log homes a year. “The logs are all hand-peeled,” Chris says. “You see the knots, the curvature and the draw marks. I like that look. It’s just more rustic.”

In addition, Chris discovered that he and Charlie saw eye-to-eye on the value of cedar. “I know cedar is rot- and insect-resistant, so it wasn’t a tough decision to use cedar,” Chris says. But he was pleased to learn from Charlie, who builds exclusively with cedar logs, that this species provides superior insulation as well.

Another key factor in Chris’ decision was the fact that Michigan Log Homes harvests cedar trees low enough to the ground to retain their distinctive flared bases, which Chris wanted to feature at the cross corners of his home. “They don’t have grooves coming out of them,” says Chris, who opted for 7-inch, full-round logs that are flat on the tops and bottoms.

Finally, Chris found that Charlie was willing and able to build a home using only Chris’ rough drawings. “Chris says, ‘This is the vision. Can you build it? The answer is, ‘Yes, I can,’ ” says Charlie, a colorful, jovial man known as “Chain Saw Charlie.”

Acting as his own general contractor, Chris oversaw the clearing and excavation of the sloping lot, which required a 125-foot long, 5-foot high retaining wall. By the fall of 1996, four months after buying the property for his future log home, Chris arranged to have the basement dug out and the foundation poured. Heavy snows delayed the start of the log home’s construction until March 1997, but once Charlie’s crew rolled in, it took just three months to put the logs in place.

Chris enjoyed the camaraderie of Charlie and his crew, who camped onsite until the home building project was complete.

“They had a bonfire every night, with all the extra pieces of log,” Chris says. “One of the guys on the crew was the camp cook, and I always looked forward to sitting around and eating Benny’s dinner every night.”

Experiences like this help Charlie build not just houses, but friendships. “My relationship with the home owners starts out as a business situation, but when we’re all done, it becomes a family,” Charlie says. “I get Christmas cards from a lot of them.”

But those festive evenings by the fire are more than simply a bonding experience for the builder. Charlie does some of his most creative thinking at night, when he takes one of his so-called “lunar walks.”

“The guys are out by the campfire, and I just walk through the house,” he says. “I see what I can create here or there. And if the home owner likes the idea, bango, there it goes in place.”

Among Charlie’s ideas born beneath the moonlight was the elegant, curved entryway into the dining room, the only room that’s comprised of standard stick-frame construction covered with log siding. “I was going to have French doors, and they talked me out of it,” Chris says. “Now I’m glad I did the arch.”

Charlie also welcomed Chris’ suggestions. “I was worried my bedroom wasn’t going to be big enough, so I decided to add a dormer,” Chris says. “When I left to go to work in the morning, I stopped by and said, ‘Throw me up a 5- or 6-foot dormer.’ Charlie replied, ‘If you’re going to build a dormer, you build a big dormer.’ And he built about a 13-foot-wide dormer.”

“I’m only a couple of hours from the saw mill, so I drove back and I milled the logs for his dormer,” Charlie says. The expanded 15-by-32-foot master bedroom features plenty of room for a huge walk-in closet and a second-story deck, complete with a log railing that has a spot for Chris’ morning cup of coffee.

When unusually shaped logs are called for, Charlie finds what he needs within his collection of “wacko” logs. “They’re bent and twisted,” he says. “They’re all leaning up against a rack, so I can walk right down 50 yards of bent logs. I may haul 12 bent logs to a site and use two. It’s like putting together a puzzle.”

After Charlie and his crew completed their work, Chris still had many puzzle pieces to assemble himself. He called upon his brother-in-law Bill Moore, a carpenter, to help him with the finish work. With help from his friends, Chris eventually completed the porch, with its log railing and 42-inch cultured stone planters, plus a set of wide steps leading to a fire pit trimmed with real stone. He even found time to finish his basement, adding another kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and media room.

“I was skin and bones by the time I got done,” says Chris, who had burned off 20 pounds by the summer of 1999, when he finally declared the project complete. But he estimates that he had saved nearly $100,000 by doing much of the work himself. “I liked doing it, too,” he insists. “You get a little more satisfaction.” •

For a list of companies who contributed to the home, see the April 2001 issue of Log Home Living


Styled by Gisela Rose