If you’re interested in building a cabin, don’t make the mistake of starting the task without securing the proper equipment. Keep in mind, having the proper tools is one thing. Knowing how to use those tools, now that’s what’s important. It will help greatly if you have a bit of skill and practice to back you up.

It doesn't have to take much to string out a foundation.

Let’s start at the beginning. What are the minimum items needed to layout your foundation area?

  • String: Used with wood stakes, you can mark off the ground area of your cabin and its location. This will also help you decide if you are comfortable with where you have chosen to build.
  • String Level: This extremely valuable tool is a leveling tube with bubble that attaches to your string. Your sting then becomes a leveling device that can span much greater distances than a conventional level. On fairly even ground, the string level may not be as crucial during when marking off your foundation as it will be later on when making it level. However if your ground is uneven, use the string level between your stakes to be sure your strings are more exact in length and easier to line up on your square.
  • Square: This angled, flat metal tool will ensure that corners of you cabin or the angle from footer to footer of your foundation is exactly 90 degrees. Without a square, it is difficult to get a perfectly rectangular or square cabin.
  • Stakes: Consider having two stakes per corner of your foundation and one for every footer between. This will allow for a more accurate placement of your string with better control over your 90 degree angles, and the string can often be left in place while you work, always acting as a guide. One stake per footer or corner is possible, as I discovered on my own project. However, there were moments when I had to check and recheck my work that I had wished I had permanent, well marked lines to work along.
  • Tape Measure: You’ll need a tape measure to find the length of each side of your cabin and determine where footers will be, where stakes should be placed, etc.
  • Compass: In the backcountry, and especially with trees blocking your view, you may need to use a compass to be sure you’re facing your cabin in the desired direction. With plans for large windows in the second story gable of my designs, I used a compass to face those windows directly at Mt. McKinley (Denali) in the event that I get a view from that height. With trees in the way, I was unsure in the beginning. You may be more concerned with sunlight, a lake, etc.

Now it’s time to put in the foundation. The type of foundation you are constructing will determine what tools are needed. Below are the minimal items I required for constructing concrete footers using sonotubes and concrete.

  • Shovel or Post Hole Digger: I in fact purchased a posthole digger and never even used it. I found that the shovel, if used correctly, did a much better job, and more quickly. A standard shovel will dig a hole just the right size for an 8 inch tube. The shovel will also be sued to mix the concrete.
  • Large Container for Water: In remote location, chances are you don’t have running water from a hose. Water is needed for your concrete and can be secured by a number of means. I chose to use a waterproof bag I had on hand, lined with garbage bags for extra waterproofing. The bag was dipped into the nearest creek and filled with as much water as I could carry comfortably back to the jobsite. Buckets would be the normal item used. My method was chosen out of necessity, and allowed for a greater amount of water to be gathered in one trip.
  • Wheelbarrow or Mixing Board: You’ll need a place to mix your concrete, cement and water. This is easily done in a wheelbarrow. Without a wheelbarrow, consider a large, flat sheet of plywood as was chosen for my project. The bag of mix may have instructions for this method or refer to the building section of this blog.
  • Knife: Comes in handy to cut bags of concrete and cement.
  • String Level: The string level can once again be used to mark lines on your tubes where they should be cut so that each is at the exact same height. If each footer is perfectly level, the concrete poured to the edge of each will be level, brackets will be level, the first floor of the cabin and so on. This will help immensely in the future construction.
  • Standard Level: Use a level to ensure that brackets placed in the concrete-filled tubes are each level. Use pieces of wood of equal size below the brackets to ensure each is at the exact same height and maintaining that level state you’ve tried so hard to quire.

Square, hammer, saw, tape measure, carpenter's pencil

With the foundation in place you’ll then move on to construction. You’ll get nowhere without these crucial items.

  • Tape Measure: Measure lengths of wood to be cut.
  • Square: Used to draw perpendicular lines on the lumber surface for cutting. This will ensure that the ends of your lumber are true and square.
  • Pencil: Have a sturdy pencil on hand for marking lumber. A carpenter’s pencil, wide and flat, does work better than any other for this purpose.
  • Saw: This can be a handsaw or a power, circular saw. I began my project with a hand saw and later brought the portable circular saw to the jobsite via an ATV. Either method is fine, although, a handsaw is much more difficult, will quickly cause fatigue, and makes perfect cuts hard to obtain. Aside from cutting your sonotubes, only use a handsaw if you are skilled with it. Also, be sure it is a quality saw, sharp and straight. A cheap saw can become a nightmare.
  • Level: Leveling is crucial along almost every phase of construction.
  • Hammer: If you’re not sure how this gets used, you may be in over your head.
  • I'm using a level to make my posts plumb and a portable drill/driver to drill holes for bolts to fix the posts to the footer brackets.

  • Drill/Driver: If your cabin requires posts and beams to be drilled and bolted together, then a drill is required. Either a hand drill or power drill will work. A power drill will of course make life easier and will often allow for drilling in place where as lumber will usually need to be marked and laid out flat or on a sawhorse for a hand drill. A power drill/driver will be more useful when it comes time to zip screws into floor joist bridging, through your subfloor or in window frames.
  • Ratchet or Wrench: Need to secure bolts or screws for posts and beams, if used in your cabin construction.
  • Chalk Line: If for some reason your OSB/plywood doesn’t come with lines already marked on it, a chalk line will allow you to mark long, straight lines on your subfloor so that you can quickly know where to put screw in. I noticed that the lines on my subfloor were not always so perfectly printed, but they were good enough that a chalk line was not need, even though I had it in my tool set.

Miscellaneous Items

  • Tarps: You’ll want to protect your lumber and the work-in-progress. A couple of large tarps are extremely valuable.
  • Bungee Cords: These will help secure your tarps and are useful when transporting materials to the jobsite.
  • Rope: It’s always a good idea to have rope in the backcountry. You never know when you might need it. I for one had plans of using it to hoise and hold lumber in place while building.
  • Pulleys: If building alone, pulleys can be used in a number of ways with your rope to hoist lumber into place.
  • Barrel or Steel Drum: Can be used to storing gear in or for rain collection for drinking or mixing concrete.
  • Gloves: You’ll be glad you have them and sorry if you don’t.