Russ Dowdeswell has spent most of his working life building log homes. His inspiration, he says, was Allan Mackie, who 30 years ago taught him how to build a log home, as part of his ‘back to the wilderness’ philosophy.

Very early on Russ built the log home in which he lives today with his family. That learning experience resulted in his building log homes for a living. Today, he is operations manager for Unique Log & Timber Works Inc in central BC at Lumby, which lies in a lush valley set among timbered hills, extending east from the Okanagan Valley.

The Unique Company was established in 1990 when the current owner, Martin Kleinhenz, and a German partner, purchased the assets of Highland Log Builders at Lumby. Martin, a German architect and engineer, had come to BC looking for a supply of log homes for the German market.

While the initial goal to supply the German market was accomplished early on, much of recent sales growth at Unique is the result of the strong North American residential market, particularly for second homes. The US market represents 70% of total sales. With steady growth since 1990, Unique Log & Timber Works is now one of the largest log home builders in BC, with 48 employees producing 20-30 structures a year.

One of the strengths of Unique is the full design service catering to clients’ individual tastes. Different log work styles are offered, from the traditional saddle notch to hand hewn and dovetail notched corners. A chink style of logwork is also an option, which simulates the appearance of an early pioneer style using mud and moss between each log, with a modern asphalt foam sealer.

In addition to logs, a timber frame structure is another option; it consists of large vertical posts and beams held together with mortise and tenon joinery pinned with oak pegs. Timber frame can provide large open spaces of soaring roofs and windows, and is often used as a hybrid, in combination with logs or conventional building systems.

According to Russ, today’s log home is vastly different from the modest log cottage in the wilderness that Mackie envisioned. Today, Unique produces large log homes for the North American market, which average 8,000-10,000ft² in floor area – more mansion than cottage. Smaller log homes are also produced in the 4,000ft² bracket and exports to Germany are typically about 2,000ft².

Log homes are usually located in mountainous, forested areas, very often near ski resorts. Russ calls them ‘trophy homes’, a symbol of luxury, as they are expensive and individually styled and distinctive.

Handcraft operation

A tour of the Unique premises illustrates Martin Kleinhenz’s emphasis on quality. It is a handcraft operation, quite unusual in this day of computerised production lines. Despite the slower approach, Unique’s efficiency and product quality has been recognised with ISO 9001 certification.

Production starts with hand picked logs. Trained buyers scour the province for large, first-growth logs, sound, cylindrical and with little taper. Lengths are preferred as long as possible, but on average range between 30-60ft with mid diameters of 14-16in.

The predominant species used is Douglas fir which is sought as far away as the BC coast, 350 miles away. Other species, such as spruce, pine and cedar, are used if the customer prefers.

On arrival at the factory, the logs are debarked. A pole peeling machine rotates the log against a floating planer head which follows the contour of the log, taking the bark down to the cambium layer, leaving the solid wood untouched.

Logs are then dried in a cylindrical, natural gas-fired vacuum kiln. Each charge contains up to 100 logs and it takes about two weeks to bring the moisture content down to 19%.

Unique is the only handcraft whole log home company in BC that kiln dries logs. Dried logs have advantages such as permitting a higher level of hand finishing and staining, and minimal shrinkage and settling in pre-assembly.

Kiln drying is essential to enter European markets. All North American wood must be heat treated to obtain a sanitation certificate necessary for import and the kiln temperature far exceeds heat treatment requirements.


The next step is to pre-assemble the log structure according to approved plans. This takes place on a covered, 30,000ft² concrete pad which can accommodate three or more structures at the same time. Once pre-assembly is complete, including floor and roof systems, the structure is disassembled and transported to the customer’s site. Immediate disassembly is a major advantage of dried logs. With green logs, the structure must remain in pre-assembly for some time while shrinkage and settling is complete.

Covering the assembly area protects the dry logs from the elements and provides controlled conditions for craftspeople to work. Each structure becomes the responsibility of a supervisor and their crew of craftspeople. Work on each log begins with hand peeling 1¼8in from the surface with a hand shaper or planer to give the log consistent colour and a handcrafted look.

Using power saws, each log is cut to length and corners notched, usually with a scribed saddle join. Each log is carefully hand fitted into place to prevent drafts or moisture penetration. Window and door openings are stabilised with angle iron, inset in the ends of logs. Care of detail includes cutting insets so that electrical outlets are flush with the surface of the log when installed.

When fully assembled, a coat of stain is applied to protect the logs and timbers in transit and in reassembly at the final site. The various parts of the structure are coded so that it is reassembled in exactly the same way at the final site. Two supervisors are on hand for this final assembly to ensure qual-ity is preserved. For overseas exports, contractors are employed for the same function.

Covered lorries are used for North American shipments to final site and as many as 12 lorries may be required for a single structure.

Overseas exports are placed in containers and transported to Vancouver for vessel loading. European exports proceed via the Panama Canal. Because the logs are kiln dried, staining in transit is not a problem.

Official recognition

Log home building in BC grew steadily over many years but was not officially recognised as an industry until a government survey was taken in 1995. It found 130 companies with 1,800 employees and sales of C$164m. At that time log home building was officially classified as a division of the BC value-added industry and, undoubtedly, the industry has grown since then.

With growth comes maturity and the Log Building Industry Association of BC was formed in 1995. Russ Dowdeswell was the first president and he noted that the association focus is on setting quality standards and apprentice certification for log home craftspeople. The production of log homes is a good example of how the wood products industry in BC is adding value to its log harvest through innovative ideas and development of niche markets.

Demand has been strong in the US market, with residential construction at record levels. While this has benefited Unique Log & Timber Works, Russ would like to see more market diversification. Exports have been steady to Germany and some sales have been made to Austria and Japan, but he would like to see more overseas business, particularly in the EU and the UK.