I was delighted to receive an invitation last month from Anselm Fraser of the Chippendale School of Furniture to join a small party heading out to Switzerland to help restore an abandoned log chalet.
A short flight from Edinburgh to Geneva and a 2 hour train journey took us to 1100m above sea level and the village of Val D’Illiez, our home for the next 2 weeks. In a small isolated clearing at 1400m (slightly higher than Ben Nevis) sat the stunning but dilapidated log cabin, home to a family of stone martens and some 4 million woodworm.
On arrival at base camp our enthusiasm was immediately whetted by the sight of two tonnes of planked timber which was to be used to transform the interior of the chalet. This enthusiasm was dampened slightly when we learned that the only access to the cabin was on foot up a steep slope, under a waterfall and along a narrow ledge. Every tool we were to use and all materials would have to be strapped to our backs and hauled up there. We were assured that the cunning omission of this information prior to our departure had been purely accidental.
However, our first sight of the chalet changed everything; the building was absolutely stunning, and in an idyllic setting with a view down the valley to one side and to a waterfall on the other. We couldn’t wait to get started.
The chalet had been unoccupied (by humans) for over 60 years and unaltered from its construction around 1840, albeit with some interesting new structural angles that we strived to retain as a result of years of snow compression and minor earthquakes. The chalets in the Val D’Illiez area need to be able to support around 40 tonnes of snow in winter, so this building had done well to have only dropped a couple of feet or so at each side. Particularly when you consider there are no foundations and the structural timbers are simply lying half lapped on top of each other with no metal fixings.
The top floor was untouched from the last residents, with 60 year-old piles of hay lying over the loose half log floor boards. So, before we started work, we spent a morning removing all traces of the hay and dirt, lifting each board to make sure no dust was trapped under the new floor boards to fall for years to come over those enjoying their muesli in the rooms below. Hot and dusty work, but everyone felt much cleaner after the job was done. Interesting artifacts were discovered under the hay, including a large, perfectly intact wooden sled.
Our aim for this year was to tackle the woodworm infestation and prevent further destruction of the timbers, as well as construct reliable internal walls and floors for the upper level. Masks on, we removed the rotten timber, taking it back to a solid core. On one section this involved removing nearly half the width of each log, but sufficient remained to ensure the structural integrity of the building. The construction and layout of these chalets made access to all sides of the timber relatively easy, allowing almost 100% surface coverage with woodworm spray, so we are hopeful we have halted their destructive games.
The design of this chalet, like all others in Switzerland, was simple as 19th century Swiss farmers didn’t have the power tools we now take for granted. However, the builder’s skill is easy to see; the logs are half lapped with great precision using only an axe and adze.
Having identified a suitable location the a chalet, a wedge was cut into the hillside to create the flat ground floor. Rocks from the gully nearby were collected and dry stacked to provide a base for the main floor walls built of squared and lapped timbers. These were felled in the immediate vicinity to create a clearing for animal stock around the cabin.
Two central vertical beams with a cross beam were then erected to the height of the roof apex, with a tongue down each side onto which round wall timbers with V-shaped grooves at one end were slotted. Six logs up provided outside support for the roof timbers, which were cut to overhang by one metre to provide shelter from the rain for the wall timbers.
With the wood treated, we cut and fitted the floors, walls and a couple of internal doors copying the simple but remarkable wooden hinge design of the main building. A bit like the original builders, we couldn’t use metal hinges and had access to a limited range of tools (but the chainsaw pretty much featured in every bit of action!).
Every day continued to involve the steady grind of shuttle runs to carry timber up the hillside. It looked a lot of timber and it felt like even more, but we seemed to get through it surprisingly quickly.
As the walls came up the darkness set in as all natural light from the big gaps in the outside walls was blocked out. A generator was needed to provide light to continue working. Some sympathetically designed windows will definitely be on the cards for next year.
By the end of our two weeks we were able to stand back, exhausted and admire a very wooden interior without a straight wall or a 90 degree angle to be seen. It was exactly the look we had been striving for. We even had time to carve a dining table with our chainsaw, sticking rigidly to the same angular principles.
On the way back to Edinburgh I had planned to complete some designs for a rocking chair commission, but found my mind constantly distracted by thoughts of building my own house. I found I had completed a fairly comprehensive set of house drawings before we touched down and I am now seriously looking into how I can fit in a house build while at the same time trying to establish my bespoke furniture business. My wife’s eyebrows seem to sit a lot higher than they used to.