Oliver’s tent made of bed sheets, with lightweight nylon tarp fly. Image by Dorene Cameron Schiro

Tents are the handiest shelter when out traveling.  I prefer lightweight tents that add little to my load but keep me out of the weather and the bugs. 

I’ve made wall tents out of polyester bed sheets which are much lighter than the canvas fabrics used in commercially available wall tents. When I’ve traveled, either by dogsled or by boat, I have carried a set of poles for my tent. A basic tent such as the sheet tent shown in the photo would only need three poles, a ridge pole and an upright for each end.The ridge pole was the length of the tent, plus 6 inches on each end. I cover the tent with a lightweight waterproof nylon tarp. These tents are easy to set up and comfortable to camp in. 

I haven’t worried  about windows. I’ve always gone out with  a dog or two, and they gave me information about what’s happening outside the tent. A possibility for a window is to replace a square of fabric in the back of the tent with clear vinyl. The vinyl  is flexible and will roll up with the tent. Another possibility is to sew in flexible screening, with an over flap of clear vinyl inside that can be rolled up for ventilation or tied down against the wind.

In the winter, when I set up the tent for just one night, I didn’t shovel the snow first. That would have taken too much work.

To keep the upright supports from driving through the snow to the ground, I drilled holes through them, about 3 inches up from the bottom ends, and put pins through them crosswise. Then I’d put small sticks or branches with forks in them down on the snow, like snowshoes. I’d then set up the uprights in such a way that the pins rested in the forks.

Later, I switched to a different system. I rounded off the lower ends of the uprights and made wooden shoes that had sockets for them. They were maybe 4 inches wide, a little longer than that, and thin—¾” thick at the center and tapering in all directions. I carried those with me.

The wood stove

I put my wood stove just inside the door, to one side. To keep the fabric from flapping loose and touching the stove or stovepipe, I have some ties that secure the front of the tent permanently to the vertical pole on that side.

To make a shield to protect the walls near the stove from the heat, you can put layers of aluminum foil on a couple of sticks to deflect the heat or use galvanized sheet steel from a heating and air conditioning shop. That way the stove can be within a foot of the wall.

You need to cut a hole for the stovepipe in the roof, to keep the fabric from catching on fire. You then sew a sheet of metal to seal the opening and keep the remaining fabric away from the pipe. It’s a good idea to begin by setting the stove up inside the tent and see where the stovepipe hits, to determine where to make the hole.

For the metal, you can use a piece of lightweight sheet metal, a cookie sheet, or something similar. Punch holes every half-inch or so around the edges for sewing it into the roof. To shed rain, place the upper half of the safety inside the tent, and the lower half outside.

Cut the hole for the stovepipe in the middle of the safety material, elliptically, to account for the angle of the roof. Make the hole a little smaller than needed so that you can lift flaps in the metal to make a snug fit where it touches the pipe. That will prevent the safety from riding up and down the pipe when the tent flaps in windy weather.

I usually ran the stovepipe up through the tent, then added an elbow and ran the stovepipe forward or to one side so that sparks wouldn’t fall onto the fly or the tent. You can use another set of shear poles to support the horizontal pipe at the far end.

Visitor tent setup showing main shear pole, extended ridge pole, fly, stove safety, and second shear pole for stovepipe support. mage by Devta Khalsa.

You get a feel for what kinds of fuel are going to make a lot of sparks, and you try to avoid them. Beginners can get in trouble with sparks when they use newspaper or cardboard.

I carry a small lightweight wood stove and a 4-inch stove pipe. A tapered stovepipe also works. Each joint nests inside the next bigger one. I usually made my own. I crimped the ends of the pipes where they attached to the one below, so that condensation would run down inside the pipe, not on the outside where it would leave stains and give off odors. I cook over this little stove and stay comfortably warm. 

Making a stove

I usually made the tent stove itself out of two five-gallon cans. I cut one end open on both cans and crimped one to fit it inside the other. The stove was then 5 or 6 inches shorter than the length of the two cans. Several 2-foot joints of 4-inch pipe would fit inside the stope when I packed up my camp for traveling.

Chevron sold Blazo (unleaded gasoline) and kerosene in rectangular cans made of light and workable sheet steel, packed in vastly useful wooden boxes. Image from the collection of Ole Wik

I also made a backpacking stove out of a single five-gallon can. I shortened the pipes to go inside the stove or into and added on area under the main box of the stove. I could tie this lightweight stove to my backpack. 

Oliver’s handmade stove. Image by Curt Madison

Organizing the space

The bed will take up 3 feet at the back end of tent, running the full 7-foot width. If you have a bed frame, that will take up more space. Make it high enough to sit on. For a temporary setup, a bed can be logs full of brush, topped off with boughs and/or caribou skins.

I generally have a grub box that sits against the wall of the tent on the right side, between the bed and the stove. I keep a few extra sticks of firewood just inside the tent door.

I’d tie a piece of rope stretched along the ridge pole, which served as a clothesline inside the tent. This was handy for drying socks.

A view inside Oliver’s tent. Stove on left, grub box on right, portion of bed in foreground. Image by Curt Madison

Bedsheet tents are versatile and easily transportable. Using a little ingenuity, you can create a useful temporary shelter.

Other Temporary Shelters

At times I’ve come to a camping place tired, and all I wanted to do was get in a shelter away from wind and cold and go to sleep. I’d put the tarp down on the ground, put my sleeping bag on top of one edge, and pull the rest of it over me, without a fire.

There have also been a few times when I got caught out in wet weather and wasn’t intending to camp. In those cases, I made a brush shelter. I cut a tree off partway so that it fell over but was still attached to the stump, chest high. I cut out the limbs on the underside so that I could get out of the weather. I found little trees or whatever to lean against it, and covered them with branches, with the stems up. By making those sides quite steep and putting enough branches on them, they’d shed a lot of water.

If I got into that kind of a situation, it was usually because I underestimated the amount of time I’d be out. Now, if it looks like it will be too late or if I’m getting too tired, I’ll stop early enough and camp even though I’m not too far from home. [Oliver was 85 years old at the time of these interviews.]

It’s only six or seven miles as the crow flies from my place to a good hunting area. If I get a moose out there, I like to camp near the kill until I get it organized. As you can imagine, that’s a lot of work, especially for one man. That’s the kind of situation where I might have to build a temporary shelter.

When you’re out, little by little you learn to be simple and practical. You could use a tarp to put up a typical lean-to.  Or you can usr the tarp on its diagonal axis. This is easy to set up and provides a protected area to build your fire. You can build a little fire under that peak, as it’s out of the rain. It doesn’t take much of a fire to reflect heat back into the shelter.

Top: Conventional rectangular lean-to setup. Bottom: Oliver’s diagonal lean-to setup. Drawing by Brady Wedman

I secure one corner of the tarp at ground level and support the diagonally opposite corner at the front of the structure. The two edges of the tarp at ground level surround the living space and offer protection from wind, rain, and snow. The other two edges form a peak that projects out over the opening.

I use a coated nylon tarp that is 10 feet square. I’ve also used a 10 x 12-foot poly tarp at various times. Poly tarps are waterproof and light, though not indestructible. If nothing else, you can just use 6 mil Visqueen. I use a ground cloth made of a blue poly tarp beneath the lean-to.

Usually for an improvised camp, you go into a stand of close-set trees or the thickest brush you can find, to get out of the wind. Set up your lean-to so that the wind is opposite the opening, so smoke doesn’t eddy back into the living area.

You can use this setup for either winter or summer camping. If the ground is frozen and you cannot drive stakes, tie to a little bush or whatever is available. You can always put the tarp edge down and shovel snow on it.

I also sew ties for guy lines on each side of the tarp. If they’re up maybe 3 feet from the bottom edge, that’s a convenient way to hold the main part of the tarp out a ways, and it gives you a place to tie things.

If there’s nothing nearby where you can tie, you can fell a small tree, cut the branches off bottom side, and bury it upright in the snow where you want it. Leave the remaining branches sticking up as guy posts, and tie to them. It’s surprising how much that will hold.

In the summertime you need to have a bed net for mosquitoes. I usually have a couple of ties on the inside of the tarp where I can tie the net, at least the part over my head. It will be leaning in over my head, but the edge of the net is tucked under the bedding, leaving enough room to move.

For a bed, I don’t usually put down logs or boughs—I prefer caribou skins. Foam is fine, but hide is a lot better. Since hide slips around under you, I fasten two of them together in such a way that the hair on one flows toward the foot, and toward the head on the other. That stabilizes them.

I put my bed down crossways so that there is a space behind it for a pack or gear. The dog usually finds a comfortable place on his sleeping pad. A person’s got no purpose being out camping minimally if he hasn’t got a dog.

Sod Houses

Making a warm, weatherproof home is an essential skill for living in the North. Image from Sasha Wik.

Many people grow up with the idea that pioneering necessarily involves a log cabin in the wilderness. Even though sod houses were a part of our pioneering heritage, they don’t have the same mystique as a log cabin in the popular imagination. It takes a lot to overcome those ideas.  I don’t recommend a log house for homesteaders living in this area of Alaska. Log structures are practical for outbuildings or caches but not for homes. A sod home requires much less fuel to heat.

When I talk about a sod house, I’m talking about a house that’s partly dug into the ground which is different from a pioneer stacking up blocks of sod, as they often did in the Midwest.

I built a little log house after I first arrived in Alaska, but it was difficult to heat in cold weather. That’s when I began to think about underground houses.

In some situations, I’ve combined elements of both log and sod construction. For instance, I may dig a few feet into the earth, build the lower part of the walls with logs, followed by building the upper portion above ground as a sod house. 

When I was in high school, I’d written a book report on Vilhjálmur Stefansson’s The Friendly Arctic, which described the way sod iglus were made. [Vilhjálmur Stefansson lived and traveled with the Inuit of the Central Arctic Coast of North America from 1906 through 1912. Stefansson wrote that an iglu is a “more or less permanent shelter for man or beast.”]

When I moved to Kotzebue, on the coast, I built a temporary frame house, but when I moved across the inlet from Kotzebue, I was in an area with trees and sod and able to build an iglu for my family. It was about 14 feet square, and it was very much superior to the frame house. I had moved so that I could use firewood for heating rather than burn oil for heat. Wood heated the iglu well.

I built the sod home mostly out of poles. My friend, Charlie Jones, a Kotzebue local, had a little sawmill not far from where I was building, so I had him cut me some lumber for flooring.

House Size

If you’re going to build a dwelling of any kind, the first thing you must decide on is the size. It’s best to plan for a minimum of heated space, along with plenty of outdoor storage that doesn’t need to be heated. Keeping those priorities in mind takes a little self-discipline.

A living space 12 or 14 feet wide and 16 feet long will give plenty of room for a small family with a couple of kids. That’s even generous if the family uses a little ingenuity. For people who are totally inexperienced, it might be a good idea to try living in a 10 by 12-foot tent or a little trailer house for a while to see how much room they really need.

Suggested floor plan for a small tent. Note the clothes-hanging rod near the peak in the roof. Floor plan design by Ole Wik. Drawing by Brady Wedman

A larger house has less heat-losing surface area per unit of volume than a small house does. Owing to this area/volume relationship, a house with 200 square feet of floor area will not be twice as difficult to heat as one with 100 square feet.

Bear in mind that if you have an insulated area between your hot and cold spaces, heat will travel through the insulation faster when the temperature difference is greater. For example, if there is 1 inch of insulation and the temperature is 70 degrees inside and 68 degrees outside, the heat is not going to move very rapidly. But if the temperature is 68 inside and 60-below outside, it’s almost as if the insulation isn’t there.

Underground housing allows a dirt bank to be packed around the house at a slope of about 45 degrees. [This is the slope of the surface of the banked dirt. The sod home’s slanted walls are much closer to vertical.] If you pile the dirt all the way to the eaves of the house, as you should, it creates a heat bank, and it’s almost the same as if you were dug underground much deeper. You cover the walls with dirt for two reasons—it seals the insulation to some extent, and it keeps chimney sparks from starting dry sod on fire.

Make this bank against the sod home’s walls by layering first clean moss, then sod, and then dirt. You will want at least a foot of thickness up at the eaves and slope out from there to give you the most heat efficiency.

That’s why and how a sod home is efficient. Now let’s start on construction.

House Pit

            You begin with an excavation deep enough to provide the dirt you will need for banking and covering. If you’re going to build a house that is 18 by 12 feet, you’ll have to dig down about 16 inches to produce enough dirt to bank the walls. Going down deeper gives more heat efficiency, but you need to balance that against how far you want to step down when you pass through the home’s entryway.           

            First you cut the sod from the house area. Stack it up where you can find it and retrieve it if it snows before you are ready for it.

Dig your sod from an area large enough to extend beyond the house footprint to include the sloping backfill area around it. If you have a 7-foot wall on the house that is dug down 2 feet into the ground, that leaves 5 feet of wall to cover with banked dirt above the ground. If the dirt slopes at 45 degrees, you will have to cut and remove the sod at least 5 feet greater on each side than the actual house dimensions.

Cut your sod pieces down to mineral dirt, to include the top layers of organic material and humus. I cut them in squares or rectangles that are of manageable size to pick up and move. 


Four vertical posts define the shape of your iglu. If tamarack trees are available, that is the best post material in Alaska’s north. Cedar is good, or any type of wood that doesn’t rot easily. The lower part of each post can be charred over a fire to make it more rot resistant.

Ole Wik leveling his sod home’s floor. The corner posts have been set and the basic rectangular frame is taking shape. Image by Sasha Wik

Dig the post holes at least 3 feet deep to give the vertical posts stability. Remember, the whole building is fastened to those posts. If they’re not solid, everything else will be flimsy.

When setting the posts, it’s important to use a tamping pole with a small, flat end, of 2 inches diameter or less. Tamp down the dirt around the base of each post very solidly, in layers. When you get close to the top of the hole, put some good-sized rocks against the posts to increase the area for the lateral pressures that help to stabilize the posts. If you have no rocks, you can use blocks of wood instead. Use a variety like tamarack that doesn’t rot quickly.

Your posts will still rot eventually. They might soften a little as the wood deteriorates, but the house won’t tip over. The dirt propped against the sides of the house will prevent the posts from falling. You can install sister posts later next to the rotted posts to extend the life of house.

Ridge Pole

If you are going to build a house that has a center ridge poleand a sloping roof, there will be a post holding each end of the ridge pole, in addition to the four corner posts. The framework for the top of the walls rests upon these six posts.

An additional post midway under the ridge pole, in the center of the house, may be necessary to support the weight of the roof depending on the size and the length of the ridge pole used.  Without a midway post, the weight of the sod and 3 or 4 feet of snow on the roof, could cause the ridge pole to sag. A 10-foot-long ridge pole may not require a center pole for support while a 14-foot long one might need it.  A seasoned log is better to use than one that is freshly cut as it will not bend as easily under the weight. 

You can see some of the frame components Oliver is discussing in this interior view of one of the sod homes he built. Note the sloping roof, and the central ridge pole (right above the light fixture). Image by Micha Flicke.

Girts (horizontal members)

A small log or heavy pole will run across the width of the house at each end and sit atop the corner posts. The posts supporting the ridge pole will stand just inside of these cross girts.  Some iglus are small enough that they don’t need posts to hold up the ridge pole, as shown in the next photo.

To securely support the girts, make a ledge at the top of each corner post by cutting about halfway through the top and then chopping off the wood on that side. Flatten the end of the girt in the same way; it will rest on the corner post ledges. Or you could cut a “V” notch in the top of the corner posts and shape the girts to fit it.

There’s no need to worry about weakening the girt by cutting those notches or ledges. Half of the thickness of the log right at the end will hold up as much as the whole log will in the middle of the span. Later, your wall poles will also offer some support.

Mid Support

I usually put an additional post near the middle of the lengthwise walls because the roof is going to be heavy. Also, a strong middle spreader, going from front to back attaches to these posts. Its purpose is to keep the walls from pushing in. In this type of building, the weight of the dirt outside on the walls will push inward and lift up the ridge pole. Any house of a practical size for a family should have that middle spreader. The photo below shows the middle spreader but not the additional middle posts.

In the Wiks’ design, thick horizontal girts support the ridge pole, doing away with vertical supports in the middle of the end walls, under the ends of the ridge pole. Slanting braces carry forces from walls with thicker dirt banking to the bases of the opposite walls. A small pole running downward from the ridge pole to the girt in each long wall serve the same purpose. Image by Sasha Wik

Walls and Roof

The walls and ends must slope because sod and dirt will settle down and shrink away from vertical walls. A slope of just 5 or 6 inches in a 7-foot wall is enough to keep the sod and dirt hugging the walls. If you increase that to 18 inches, you will create a lot of storage space at floor level—for instance, under a kitchen counter or a bed.

You can put a log on the ground on the outside of the upright corner posts. The lower ends of the wall poles come against that log to prevent them from kicking in. The distance between this log and the corner posts will determine the slope of the walls. A steeper wall will have much less tendency to kick in.

Wall poles can be as much as 12 inches apart, center to center. Roof poles should be no more than 8 inches apart. However, I usually space my wall poles the same distance apart as the roof poles to create a smooth area for the plastic sheeting to come over the eave as I pull it on down to cover the wall. 

I leave the roof poles extend out beyond the walls a few inches, flattening them on the underside. Then I install the wall poles upright so that the ends fit up underneath the flattened off area. I saw off the excess length of the roof poles at a downward sloping angle. Then I smooth the end with a hatchet or a draw knife to make a rounded surface for the plastic to drape from the roof down the walls.

The Wiks’ sod house shortly before gaining its roof. The roof was made by laying closely spaced poles from the ridge pole to the girts, with a space left in the center of the back wall for the stovepipe safety, and two more spaces for skylights. Image by Sasha Wik


A bear skin makes a suitable insulation layer for a front door. If you use fur for insulation, put the skin side out. Otherwise, moisture will form between a plywood door and the skin, causing the plywood to deteriorate rapidly. A bear skin or a caribou hide over a frame of light poles is a good alternative to a plywood door.

If you have the materials and a rip saw, you can make an effective and substantial wooden door by ripping out 2x4s and fitting them together so that you have a door at least 2 inches thick. Make the door with a crosspiece at the top and bottom and a diagonal to brace it.

I like having a big window in the door with a wooden shutter that I can open from the inside so that I can see what is out there or even shoot through it if necessary.

If your door is set in a sloping wall, it will want to swing shut or open, depending on how it is hung. It’s better to make a vertical frame and support structure, inset into the sloping wall, so that the door is vertical and stable.

As for building a covered entry, it’s easiest to ignore that for the time being. You need to focus on getting a livable shelter as soon as possible, so concentrate on getting the core of the house established. Later you can frame an entryway that butts up against the house, separate from the house frame.


Make a window frame the size you want your windows to be.  Make the frame out of poles and make it fairly wide from inside to the outside so that it will extend out from the wall enough to allow for the sod and dirt that you will be stacking against it. 

Fasten the window frame into an opening between two wall poles wherever you wish the window to be placed.  The frame can either be upright or angled out an inch at the top to help the outside stay cleaner longer.

To set a window inside of the rough frame, you need the framing to be finished with a fairly smooth surface. That makes it easier to chink moss between the window and the frame around it to seal out the cold. I have designed a rip saw that is much more efficient than an ordinary hand rip saw, so it’s easy for me to cut material for things like that. But you can just flatten or hew lumber and true it up as best you can. [See Oliver’s Essay, “Rip Saws.”]

A thermopane [air-insulated, multiple pane] window is best for this cold climate. You can make one using Mylar, a transparent polyester film. Leave a 1-inch gap between layers. Install a vertical or horizontal crosspiece between the layers to maintain that space. It you have multiple layers, two or three dead air spaces, the window will keep clearer for visibility and light. I usually make up that Mylar pane as a separate unit and fit it into the frame afterwards.

Windows in a sod home Oliver built with and for Carol Schlentner in 1980. It still stands today. Image by Micha Fricke

Vapor Barrier

Once the shell of the iglu is finished, you cover it with plastic sheeting. Visqueen brand plastic sheeting is ideal for this. Use 6 mil or heavier.  Plastic sheeting is absolutely the key to this kind of structure. It keeps a bubble of warm air inside, while keeping water and bits of dirt and moss out.

You need to leave plenty of slack as you lay the plastic on the roof so that it can bag down between the roof poles when sod is placed on top of it. Also leave a generous overlap of 12 inches or so where it crosses over the ridge pole. Allow the plastic an extra 6 to 8 inches at the top of the walls to lap over the outside of the plastic sheeting covering the walls.

The plastic covering the walls is held in place at the top of the walls by a nailer strip of wood, or a half-pole.  I double the Visqueen over the nailer board and nail it right to the wall. The extra layers of plastic keep it from tearing easily.  The roof plastic drapes down over these nailer boards providing a watertight joint where the roof meets the walls. 

Along the bottom of the walls, I usually dig a ditch and put a strip of Visqueen into it for the wall poles to rest on. That way the pole ends won’t sit directly against the dirt and will be preserved longer. The Visqueen on the outside of the walls also ends down into that ditch but outside of the strip protecting the wall poles. Any moisture running down the wall needs to drain right into the dirt not into the plastic protecting the wall poles. 

Oliver is describing the system he used on this iglu, built on the tundra near Ambler. Image by Sasha Wik

At the ends and around the doors and windows you cobble enough Visqueen together in whatever way seems best, remembering to overlap the Visqueen so that it will shed any water running off the roof.

Moss and sod

Cut your sod as early as you can in the fall.  Stack it up so you can find it after the snow falls. I usually cut bricks of sod, maybe 8 inches wide and however long, and stack them atop one another. Bear in mind that you’re going to have to carry the sod to your building and you don’t want them too heavy.

There’s a lot of variation in the quality of sod. Some has more moss, which is better insulation, and some has more dirt, which is more fireproof. If you can find a place where there is grass growing, that is good sod because there are lots of roots in it. Often you can find places between trees where you can cut good-sized blocks of quality sod.

Clear the grass and small brush off close to the ground and set it aside for later use. Cut the sides of your blocks with a sharp axe. Pry and lift the sod loose from the ground with an adze or a shovel. Trim the bottoms of each piece so they are smooth. The pokey roots will tear your plastic and as the sod dries those roots will protrude even more.

Now you start sodding the walls. There are two ways to do that. One is to bank dirt partway up, and then put sod above that. I prefer to sod the entire wall, before banking any dirt. Without the sod between the walls and the banked dirt the house will take forever to heat up when you build a fire in your stove. It must thaw and heat all that frozen dirt outside the walls, especially if you have been away for a while without heat in the house. 

Iglu built by Ole and Sasha Wik, photo by Sasha Wik

As I go, I put smooth green moss right against the plastic or even a layer of dry grass, and then the sod. This prevents roots in the sod from tearing the plastic.

The sod will eventually settle, so when you get to the top of the wall, stack an extra round of sod blocks above the roofline and let the roof sod come over it. Even with that you will almost certainly have to go back and put more moss in the gap later after the sod has settled.

Put a layer of sizable pieces of the best and cleanest sod on the roof poles. Put the first layer rough side up. Subsequent layers can be placed dirt side down.

On top of the first layer of roof sod, I lay out a bunch of sticks or branches.  These hold everything together and keep the whole layer of sod from sliding or shifting.

When I put the second layer of sod on the roof, I overlap the joints of the first layer. Sod has a certain amount of give which allows me to squish the chunks together tightly too. This additional layer of sod with brush between the layers greatly increases the insulation value of the roof.

Sod shrinks in dry weather, and gaps will open. Then when the rain comes, it swells up again and the gaps close, but sometimes not entirely. You’ll want to go up there with a bucket of moss and sod and chink the gaps periodically.

In the fall the roof will be wet from rain, so its insulation capacity will not be as great. It will take a little more to keep the house warm. However, snow is a great insulator, and once it gets deep enough that it won’t melt, the house will be much warmer.

To keep your roof drier, you can make a different kind of roof structure.  Build a frame the size of your roof out of 6- inch logs. Place the frame over your first roof of poles and Visqueen. Fill the frame’s area with moss for insulation.  Then put another layer of rafter poles and plastic on top of that. That will provide a layer of good insulation with a vapor barrier above and below. Air can move through the sides of the roof structure allowing moisture to escape from the underlying moss during dry weather. That’s important, because if it gets too wet and soggy, things could start to rot.

However, dry moss can be a fire hazard. Use the method for the stove safety described below to reduce the risk of fire.

            The final step is to backfill the excavated dirt around the walls.

Alternatively, if your seasonal timing is tight, you can backfill walls before building the roof to prevent the piles of dirt from freezing harder and getting covered by snow. Image by Sasha Wik

Stovepipe safety

The next very important thing is the stove pipe safety[a structure designed to prevent a hot stovepipe from igniting the roof].

Build the stovepipe safety out of something big. For a house I use an abandoned fifty-gallon oil drum that will be placed to stick up through the roof poles.

Oliver’s oil drum stove safety. The top of the stove pipe is covered by a bucket while away to keep rain and critters from going down the pipe. Image from the Dammann collection

I open the drum by cutting off one end, making my cut about 3 inches in from the end of the drum. Then I flare the metal all around the edge of the 3-inch cut-off end, so that it will slip back over the sides of the barrel. This end becomes the lid of the stove pipe safety.

I make a hole in the center of this lid, a little smaller than a 6-inch stovepipe, and peen up the edges so that water won’t run down into the safety. [Peening is the process of repeatedly striking a piece of metal to bend or shape it.]

I cut the drum off at the desired length. I may use only a third to two thirds of the full drum depending on how thick my roof is. 

            Then I mark out a 6-inch circle in the bottom center of the barrel. I cut straight across the diameter of that circle a number of times to create triangular shaped tabs of metal that can be folded up into the circle, perpendicular to the bottom surface. I fold up the tabs. Next I install a section of 7-inch stovepipe around the outside of the tabs. This section needs to be long enough to stick up about halfway inside the drum. The 6-inch stove pipe will be inserted through this cylinder of metal later.

I cut a barrel-sized opening into the roof and build a frame of poles around it. I securely tie, with wire, two crosspieces under this opening and set the drum on top of these crosspieces. After placing the drum, I fill it with ashes, between the walls of drum and the steel cylinder in the center. If any ashes sift through any portion of the safety, I chink the spaces with rock wool or other insulation. [Rock wool is asbestos. The danger of asbestos was not recognized in the United States until the 1980s and 1990s. An alternative is aluminum foil.]

Where the drum passes through the roof, I create a plastic flashing so that water flows around the drum and not into the house.  To do this I cut a hole in the plastic sheeting so that it fits over the barrel. I cut a short horizontal slit in the plastic on both sides of the center of the opening. 

Then I cut a square piece of plastic as wide as the slit is long to insert as the flashing.  I cut a round hole in the center of this square flashing piece slightly smaller than the barrel. I slide the top end of the flashing under the roof plastic and leave the lower end on top of the plastic. That way the water flows right past the safety. I seal the edges with roofing tar.

Drawing of flashing. The roofing is placed over the upper end of the metal sheet so that rainwater will run down onto the metal, and from there onto the roofing below. Drawing by Brady Wedman

Then I install the top of the barrel and run my stovepipe up through the safety. I leave at least one full joint of pipe projecting above it.

I make a cap for the stovepipe by running wires from one side of a bucket to the other, both ways, inside the bucket about a third of the way from the bottom. I set the bucket upside down on the end of the stovepipe to keep the wind from blowing down the pipe. It also prevents rain from getting into the stovepipe and water from running down the outside.

For a stovepipe damper inside the house, instead of using a turn-type commercial one, I put two blades side-by-side in a hacksaw frame and cut a wide slot almost halfway through the stovepipe, slanting downward so that creosote running down the inside of the pipe stays there. [Creosote is a tarry liquid that forms on the inside of the stovepipe. It is a product of combustion and is especially formed when burning green wood. If lengths of stovepipe are installed with the crimped ends up, streaks of smelly creosote will run down the outside of the pipe.] I bend some tin can steel into a curve that matches the slit, rounded on the end to fit the contour of the inside of the stovepipe. I curl over the outside of the damper to create a handle for pushing it in or out as I use the damper.

To control the stove, I simply push the damper in and out. It is much more effective than a commercial turn damper, and it makes all the difference in the world. I just have to remember to open it up when I feed the stove. [The colder the weather and the longer the stovepipe, the stronger the draft will be. A commercial twist damper is a lot smaller in diameter than the pipe it’s sized for, and often will not shut the stove down as much as one would wish.]


The simplest floor is dirt, leveled with a long stick and covered by a tarp. At other times I’ve covered the dirt with layered spruce boughs. 

To make a wooden floor, lay down and level some small logs for supports, 3-4 feet apart. Cut some poplar trees or whatever is available to suitable lengths and flatten one side. This flattened side will become the surface of your floor. Hew the ends of the undersides down to about 1-1/2 inches so that you can nail them to the supports. Make the ends of uniform thickness and trim them individually so that the tops are uniform. Trim the sides so that the flattened off poles fit closely together.

Green wood shrinks as it dries. Once your floor planks have dried, you can crowd them together and nail them down.

That just about does it, but remember, these are principles, not specifics. I’m trying to describe what is involved so that folks can adapt it to varied circumstances. If you understand the underlying principles, you can usually figure out a way to do what needs to be done.

I’m quite impressed with the ability of most people to adapt to their situations in one way or another. I know of more people who have made a success of building and living in the North than those who failed and had to give up. Remember, if you need it, you can make it!

Additional resources:

•          For an article on building Ole and Sasha Wik’s sod house shown in the images above, see the article titled “Sod Iglu” in Shelter (edited by Lloyd Kahn. Bolinas, CA: Shelter Publications, 1973, 151). It contains many construction details.

•          For an article on building a semi-subterranean earth-banked house using commercial lumber, see the article titled “Rigid Frame” in Shelter II (edited by Lloyd Kahn and Bob Easton. Bolinas, CA: Shelter Publications, 1978. 144-145.)

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