BACKUS -- It took a lot of labor and love for Bob and Sheri Gormley of rural Backus to build their dream home.
The two began building their home along Highway 84 in rural Backus in 1991, and they moved into the unfinished home in 1996. At that time there was no toilet or kitchen and boards covered openings where doors would go.
Today the home is still not complete, but it is livable. Minor work and the floors need to be done. The floors are heated and made of concrete.
Bob and Sheri Gormley of rural Backus built their dream home out of cordwood masonry. They began building in 1991, moved in in 1996 and are still working on minor projects. Brainerd Dispatch/Jennifer Stockinger
The home has taken so long to build because Bob worked out of the home for the first few years before he retired, so they couldn't work on the home full time. When they did work on the home, it was while watching the couple's then-toddler son.
To top things off, the Gormleys had no construction experience. Before moving to rural Backus, the Gormleys owned the former Twin Birch Motel in Baxter, which they sold in 1991.
The couple did not build a traditional home. They built a home out of cordwood masonry, a labor intensive construction method that is not common in Minnesota. There are cordwood homes in Canada and Wisconsin.
Cordwood masonry is an old building technique that uses round, split two-foot length logs stacked horizontally and held together with a mixture of cement, sand and sawdust. The logs rest on two mortar beds with insulation in the center.
The Gormleys decided to use this method after they sought bids to build their dream log home. Bob said estimates from contractors were not affordable for the family.
Bob and Sheri Gormley spent years building their dream home out of cordwood and it has strengthened their relationship. Brainerd Dispatch/Jennifer Stockinger
The couple researched the cordwood building method and found it would be cheaper than a regular stick-built home, especially since they bought the wood for a great price. Red Pine Log Homes in Backus sold the Gormleys all their cut-off logs. The logs were already dried out and did not have the bark on, which saved the couple a few steps.
The logs, mortar mix and insulation for the home cost $2,000.
Next, the Gormleys had to cut the wood into two-foot lengths. They also wanted most of the wood to be four inches in diameter. Once the wood was sized it had to be soaked in a borate solution to kill insects and retard mold and mildew. Then the ends of the wood were stained and sealed.
Once the wood was set, the Gormleys were ready to build. In the fall of 1991, they poured the concrete footings. The following spring they laid two courses of concrete blocks. Once the blocks were in place the couple placed fieldstone rocks in the interior and exterior walls.
"We thought we'd have the whole house built by this time," said Sheri. "But we only had the floor in. We were very naive."
The Gormleys collected fieldstone rock for years to use for the walls and the fireplace. They found rocks at abandoned gravel pits, along the road and at a friend's property.
The Gormleys' fieldstone fireplace is more than 26 feet high and includes a Wilkening insert. A large stone was cut in half and used as two separate shelves. Brainerd Dispatch/Jennifer Stockinger
"You'd think with 80 acres that we could find some rocks," said Sheri. "There were no rocks on this property."
Bob's grandparents owned the property at one time. His grandparents sold the 180 acres years ago. Gormley said the previous owner split the property and they were able to buy 80 acres.
When building the log corners and walls, the couple had to do one layer at a time. They could not finish one wall and then move to the next wall. They had to do it by layers to keep the pressure on the door frames even. The door frames were made out of old Douglas fir.
Sheri's father was a bricklayer and he explained how to mix the mortar. Sheri said when she was a child she was involved in a few of her dad's projects.
"Dad wanted to help us with the fireplace, but he didn't make it," said Sheri. "He became ill."
The Gormleys first used a gas-powered cement mixer that was missing a few teeth and later invested in a used electric mixer. The Gormleys and Bob's oldest son put up the walls. It took three building seasons to complete.
"Twenty-four pieces of wood was a days work," said Sheri. "We had to watch our toddler son and wait for the cement to dry. It was a long process. It was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together."
Bob said, "A lot of the times we didn't eat supper until nine at night. Sheri would say that I cracked the whip a lot to get things done. When it got dark out we used a lamp so we could see."
Bob Gormley made all the doors in the house. He hand-carved each wood piece and glued it to each door. Each door has a different quilt-like pattern. Brainerd Dispatch/Jennifer Stockinger
The couple hired a contractor and his son to help install the roof. The cathedral ceiling inside has four-inch vertical log rafters and 7 1/2-inch horizontal logs. The Gormleys are still in the process of sealing the rafters and the logs.
Gull Lake Glass installed several massive windows on the south side of the house that allow natural light in and help with the heating bill.
The cordwood house is energy efficient. Bob said they do not need air conditioning.
"It has to be in the 90s for several days before it gets stuffy in here," he said.
The Gormleys also experimented with their kitchen counters. The counters are made out of poured concrete and look like faded blue jeans. They took this approach because it was more affordable.
"It was an experiment," said Sheri. "They do a lot of these in California."
Sealing the countertop was a challenge since the sealant is made for floors and was not guaranteed to be food safe. They painted eight coats of acrylic on the counter. Sheri said they have to be careful since the countertops scratch easily.
The kitchen counters are made out of poured concrete and look like faded blue jeans. Brainerd Dispatch/Jennifer Stockinger
In the Gormleys' kitchen is a Swedish-blue antique Karr wood cooking stove, which sits back-to-back with the living room fireplace. It took contractors from Hackensack four months to build the fieldstone fireplace that is more than 26 feet high.
The inside walls are made of tongue and groove pine.
On the main floor the dining and living rooms are open. Along the cathedral ceiling, below the windows, there is a catwalk where antiques sit.
There is a bathroom, a library, an office and the utility area on the main floor.
Bob made the interior doors himself. He used several different types of wood, including pine and oak, pieced them together and glued them in a quilt-looking pattern. He also builds quilt stands and other pieces of art.
He sells his work at the couple's store, called Starwood, which is next to the house. The store and Bob's workshop are in one building, which is also made of cordwood materials.
Sheri makes rag rugs and knits, selling her works at the store. Her workshop is in the house's loft.
Other rooms in the loft are the couple's master bedroom, a family room and a bathroom.
The Gormleys are pleased with their home. They often have people stop by the store and ask to see the house since it is different. They will give people a tour of the house if interested.
The family learned they had to be in love with the project and each other to undertake such a construction project.
"We agreed on everything we did, but the light fixtures," said Bob. "That helped a lot. We had no major problems and it strengthened our relationship."
JENNIFER STOCKINGER can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5851.
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