To hear writer Spike Carlsen talk about the planning, designing and building of his family cabin overlooking Lake Superior on the North Shore is to feel exhaustion in the extreme.
For every tale, good or bad, humorous or excruciating, you can feel his back ache, his blisters mount and his calluses start to form.
“My wife and I learned in building a cabin — as in blending our family of seven — you make the decision you’re going to do something, then keep the faith,” said Carlsen, of Stillwater. “Tackle problems as they arise, call in the pros when you get in over your head, learn from your mistakes, keep on truckin’.
“I worked as a carpenter for 15 years, so I pretty much knew what we were getting into,” he added. “Still, it was far from easy. No one got hurt. We started with 70 fingers and ended with 70 fingers — but we went through a lot of Advil.”
Carlsen and his family’s two-year adventure of cabin construction on a lonesome cliff of eroding clay is chronicled in his new book, “Cabin Lessons, A Nail-by-Nail Tale: Building Our Dream Cottage from 2x4s, Blisters and Love.”
Carlsen called the book part memoir, part construction manual.
“My wife, Kat, and I have been married for 20 years, and the best part of the project was bringing our family together — her two kids from a previous marriage, and my three,” he said. “We all participated in the construction from beginning to end. You can learn a lot about a person swinging a hammer next to them, having a casual conversation as you work toward a common goal. The experience has brought our blended family closer.”
Carlsen’s life history makes him qualified to build a cabin and write a book about the painstaking yet joyful experience. As a carpenter and accomplished woodworker, he ran his own construction and remodeling company. As a magazine editor and author, he has written about home remodeling and has four books about wood and woodworking, including the award-winning “A Splintered History of Wood: Belt Sander Races, Blind Woodworkers and Baseball Bats.” His cabin tale is Carlsen’s fifth book.
“Writing ‘Cabin Lessons’ pulled together all the things I love: Writing, building, my wife, our kids and the North Shore,” he said.
Asked if building a cabin from scratch was more like poetry or prose, he said: “Designing it was closer to poetry — free verse at that. We stayed fluid during construction to accommodate materials and whims encountered. But looking back you could almost see it as a collection of short stories, each with its own little plot.”
Using a smudged piece of graph paper as a blueprint, Carlsen and company finished the 600-square-foot cabin in 2005. Construction took two years, but he’s still “picking away at it,” he said. However, the book took far longer. It came together in fits and starts over roughly 10 years before it was finally published. “We didn’t have a set schedule, so that eliminated the pressure lots of people encounter when building or remodeling,” he said of the cabin. “And doing most of the work ourselves removed a lot of the financial angst. I think we defrayed roughly 50 percent of the cost.”
Carlsen said he wrote the book and mailed a rough manuscript long before his current editor at Storey Publishing ever read it. At the time, he was writing books full-time for six years, and before that he was executive editor of “The Family Handyman” magazine. He said his best ideas for the book came about while driving to work or making the 200-mile trek to the cabin. He said he “wrote” much of his book in his vehicle.
“I eventually bought a voice recorder so I could record my thoughts before they disappeared,” he said. “I had little pieces of paper and digital notes scattered everywhere.”
With the rough draft sent to an editor, Carlsen moved on to other writing projects. But like building his cabin, Carlsen’s book publishing tale had a plot twist all its own. His first editor took a new job (as publisher) and passed his manuscript to another editor, who eventually took another job in the company. When that editor was cleaning out her desk, Carlsen said, she came across his manuscript and read it. Four hours later, she decided she wanted to publish it.
“She e-mailed me while I was sitting on a beach in Tulum, Mexico,” Carlsen said. “She said, ‘We love the manuscript. Can you whip it into shape in eight weeks?’ ”
Giddy but a little overwhelmed, Carlsen said he worked nonstop for eight weeks rewriting the entire manuscript. “Moral of the story? Never underestimate the power of the printed page,” he said. “If the manuscript had been in digital form it never would have been chanced upon. It just blows me away when I think about it now; how it all came together so quickly.
“Stuff like this only happens in books,” he said with a laugh.
As Carlsen looked back on his family’s odyssey of building a cabin, he said he gets great pleasure remembering the shared experiences. Each part of the build evokes a different memory.
“My wife, Kat, and my oldest daughter, Sarah, installed the decking for the front deck one fine, sunny afternoon. It’s etched in my brain how much fun they had working together, while honing their carpentry skills,” he said. “The reclaimed beams, the fir flooring, the wood stove, the windows, even the paint on the walls all conjure up memories working side by side with someone in the family. It makes being there a richer experience for everyone in the family.”
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.