The anticipation of living in a log home is the logs. Whether you use them strategically or indiscriminately, logs are how people define log homes. But logs are just the building material. There’s so much more to a log home. Once the house is finished and furnished, the logs become just one ingredient of the look.

When you plan your log home, therefore, it helps to see the total picture, which is how your logs integrate into the overall expression of your ideas. Unless you have an unusually vivid imagination or have already spent a lot of time around log homes, touring a sales model will go a long way toward helping you design your own log home by providing an array of visual cues.

Your present neighborhood probably doesn’t have an actual log home, but one isn’t far from where you live or plan to build. Many log-home companies have nationwide or regional sales networks. If they don’t have a designated sales model, their dealers and builders may use their own homes to show prospective customers the distinguishing features of their company’s system. Or they have satisfied customers who are gracious enough to let them bring serious-minded customers by for a tour.

Even if a particular company you are interested in doesn’t have a model home near you, it is worth the expense to travel to the nearest one that you can tour. If you go to where the company has its mill or yard, you’ll also be able to see for yourself how your logs will be produced. Whether you prefer milled or handcrafted logs, the transformation from tree to timber is an impressive process.

First, you need to find a model home. Two ideas:

  • Check your state’s listings here.
  • Consider a trip to western Montana or east Tennessee. Driving along U.S. Route 93 from Flathead Lake to Hamilton will keep your head snapping from one side of the road to the other as you pass company after company and log home after log home. Likewise, Interstate 40 around Knoxville will reveal several company models conveniently located at interchanges and plenty of billboards directing you to companies a little farther off the highway. As an added bonus, these areas have plenty of sights and activities besides log homes to make a trip there worthwhile.

And when you get to a model home, …

  • Get an overall feeling. Walk around the outside and inside without paying attention to details. Let everything sort of soak in. Then go back for a second look, this time focusing on any features that catch your eye. Most models have a floor plan handout you can carry around with you and make notes on. Compare things you actually see with the floor plan of the home to prompt your mind to look at two-dimensional drawing in three dimensions.
  • Second, scrutinize the outside. Look at how the home suits its building site and surroundings. Notice the general shape, whether it appears mostly horizontal or vertical. Look at how the logs stack up and how adjunct features—porches, decks, walkout basements, garages—enhance or detract from the look. Pay special attention to the roofline and to the roofing material. Shingles, shakes and metal are all popular with log homes, but each conveys a different identity. Lastly, note window placement. You may want more glass or less.
  • Third, get up-close and personal with the inside. The interior, after all, is the whole point of living in a log home. It involves not just a look, but also a feeling. Make sure it’s one you’re comfortable with. Notice not just how the rooms are arranged, but also how they use volume. Openness and lack of hallways, for instance, are characteristics to today’s log-home design. Many log homes today have soaring ceilings in the great room. But look at the walls, too. Big round logs create a scale that you probably aren’t accustomed to. See how the light coming through the windows brightens the home—or fails to.
  • Pay special attention to the level and quality of the trim details. The finishing touches usually work subtly but effectively to add refinement to the home. This will be especially important if you decide against a true rustic look.The flooring will no doubt concern you. Wood is the obvious choice for some people, wall-to-wall carpeting for others. Until you see how your preference works with logs, however, you won’t really know if you should change to suit this very different kind of house. If you have an opportunity, see how other materials work—tile, stone and linoleum—and how various materials work in combination throughout the house.

Touring a sales model also can give you ideas about furnishing a log home. Planning furniture can be a daunting task when contemplated in the abstract. Once you see how materials, colors, textures and scale are handled in a model home, you’ll gain confidence in your ability to furnish your own home—or recognize you’re in over your head and seek professional help.

Looking ahead can also help with the design. If you have a favorite piece or grouping, you will want to make sure the design incorporates it effectively. For instance, don’t design a master bedroom with windows closer together than the width of your king-size bed frame. Likewise, if you have a piano and want to give it its own space, consider a special alcove or a separate music room.

Although your main reason for visiting a model home is to get ideas for your own design, take advantage of the opportunity to check out the quality of construction and other features that distinguish this log home from others or log homes generally from other kinds of homes you are familiar with.

Also, be aware that any sales model must aim to have broad appeal. You aren’t likely to encounter eccentric or off-the-wall designs. If you like generally what you see but think it’s too tame, discuss your ideas with the dealer. The beauty of log homes is that almost anything you can imagine can be built. What’s more, almost every log-home plan is to some degree a custom design, so log-home companies are used to creating one-of-a-kind plans. You don’t have to fit your dreams into the sales model you see.

Other bits of advice:

  • Ask if you can take still or moving pictures. Being able to identify distinguishing features is even more crucial if you visit several models.
  • At the conclusion of your tour, spend some time with the dealer asking the questions you’ve jotted down. If you aren’t well versed on log construction, ask him or her to show you or tell you about the walls and roof system. Some models set up cutaways to show the company’s building system or various systems. At the very least you’ll receive a brochure depicting them.
  • At this stage it’s probably best not to ask too many technical questions. Instead, ask what ifs. What if we wanted to combine features of this model with another floor plan? Can we have this same floor plan but with the master bedroom on the first floor instead of a family room? What if we wanted an attached garage with a studio apartment over it? What if we wanted something smaller? Bigger? How costly are modifications?
  • If you like the model you toured, or the company’s look appeals to you, consider investing in a plans book or video to take home an browse through. Or find out the company’s website address and explore at your leisure.

Even if you didn’t particularly like the home you toured, you will walk away with more ideas than you started with. And when you set about imagining your own log home, having been inside an actual home yourself, you will be in a better position to design a home that you will enjoy living in for many years.

This article ran in a longer version in the annual Log Homes Plans special issue of Log Homes Illustrated.