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Built to last: How a Pan-Abode cedar cabin connects three generations

As cottagers, we constantly look to the future. We can’t wait for the start of summer, for the next long weekend, and for the moment when we turn off the paved road and onto the winding gravel at the end of a Friday-evening commute. But for those of us who grew up spending summers at the lake, the cottage is our closest connection to our past—especially if a family member built it by hand.

That’s certainly the case for Tom Vandewater, whose father, Jim, built his family’s cottage using one of the original Pan-Abode log-cabin kits. “In 1959 my dad bought a piece of land sight-unseen on an island on Go Home Lake,” Tom says. “Ontario was selling off crown land in the area, and he won his bid on a plot that he liked.” Since it was two decades before Tom and his sister were born, a simple, sturdy cabin was all Jim needed. “He had to build within two years, so he bought a Pan-Abode kit, which he built with friends and beer.”

Three of Jim’s friends, each of whom were engineers, purchased island plots at the same time, and while Jim’s finance career didn’t have much carryover to cottage building, his Pan-Abode cabin went up a lot more quickly than those of his construction-savvy buddies. “They were using math—my dad just followed the instructions,” Tom explains.

Anyone who has built so much as a bunkie on Canadian Shield knows how difficult the process can be, but for Jim and his Pan-Abode cabin, it went off without a hitch, and the build was completed over the course of six weekends. “He was done, and everyone else who was building from scratch or from other kits would be a third of the way through. Meanwhile, Dad was sitting with a roof over his head and pouring drinks,” Tom says. “If it was raining, he’d let them stay at his place while they were building because they were still putting walls up with two-by-fours and cladding.”

Room to grow

While the original Pan-Abode cabin was the perfect summer getaway for Jim, his growing family eventually needed more space. “Once my mom arrived on the scene, the outhouse wasn’t to her specifications, so a bathroom was put in,” Tom says. “And we needed more space in the ’80s after my sister and I were born, so we built a two-storey addition with a giant loft in ’86 with my sister and me helping.” Since the addition had to match the quality and appearance of the original cabin—and fit with the original plan—the family contacted the Pan-Abode team, who customized a plan to give them extra space.

Soon it was time to grow again. When Tom and his sister started having kids of their own and bringing them up to the lake each summer, they realized they needed even more room. This time, instead of another addition, the family decided a whole new structure was in order. Naturally, they returned to Pan-Abode for a plan that would match the original cabin from the early ’60s. “We wanted a place where Mom wouldn’t wake up at 5 a.m. with our kids yelling and demanding Frosted Flakes,” Tom jokes. They decided on the Quadra, a cozy two-bedroom cabin with wide windows and an open kitchen. “The lot was big enough that we could build a sleeping cabin, so I emailed Pan-Abode to see if they could modify the plan based on our site layout and where we wanted the front door.”

The DIY approach

With the modified plan in hand and Pan-Abode’s pre-cut Western red cedar logs transported to the island, Tom and his brother-in-law set about building the new sleeper cabin themselves. They put up the walls and even tackled the plumbing, though they relied on a contractor to hook up the septic system and get the water up from the lake. “It was a good two-year project that took five years, but with Pan-Abode, the easiest part was building the actual walls of the cabin. You put them together like a puzzle, and it just works,” he says.

Throughout the evolution of that initial plot of land, the family never questioned whether they’d continue using Pan-Abode. “In terms of DIY, it’s great. The logs are all pre-cut, and the walls going up is far and away the easiest part of the process,” Tom says. Part of the reason it’s so easy is that Pan-Abode not only pre-cuts the logs, but they also label them with numbers that make them simple to organize and fit together with clear instructions using the company’s patented “lock joint” building system.

Customization and quality

The ability to customize any Pan-Abode plan was a key feature for Tom. “They handled all of the modifications, and it was fantastic,” he says. “They’d send me a plan, I’d request changes, and they’d make them while accounting for all of the engineering that goes into the structure.” In fact, it’s rare for Pan-Abode’s customers to stick to the original design. Many modify the plan to suit their property, whether it’s rearranging the window placement to make the most of their view (or minimize their neighbour’s view) or rethinking the subfloor based on the type of foundation that’s required for local code. Colours are a key choice, too—everything from the type of roof to the material that frames the windows—and an interactive guidebook on the Pan-Abode site simplifies the selection process.

While the DIY building process was a main draw, it was also the enduring quality of the original cabin that brought Tom back to Pan-Abode. And that craftsmanship is rooted in the choice of materials, particularly the Western red cedar. “We wanted to stick with Pan-Abode because we already knew the lack of maintenance their wood requires compared to our friends on the lake, who are constantly fixing things,” he explains.

Not only is Western red cedar a low-maintenance wood, but it’s also insect and rot resistant, and it’s far easier on the environment. Even the stains that Pan-Abode uses have low or no VOC content, as you might expect from a Canadian company based in British Columbia. Pan-Abode’s commitment to sustainability was a huge factor for Tom and his family. “We know where they get their logs from, and we know that they harvest it sustainably,” he says. “I don’t think it was as much of a consideration in 1960, but it definitely is today.”

Building memories

Of course, the quality of the building materials means nothing if they don’t add up to a final product that customers love. And it’s the experience of being inside the cabin that Tom appreciates the most. “When you walk in, the smell is just fantastic. Even in the original cottage, you know you’re in a cedar cabin immediately. The wood is sixty years old, but it still has that aromatic cedar quality,” he says. “There’s something about the cedar they use. It just looks incredible. It’s so clear and beautiful—there’s barely a knot if you can find one.”

Pan-Abode pays close attention to both the appearance and practicality of the wood. For all external-facing parts of the logs, the company has a best-face policy to keep the cedar as clear as possible, because even though knots are a natural part of wood, they’re potential weak spots for weather and critters to get in. On the flip side, the interior walls feature knots and rich grain to bring out the wood’s characteristic beauty. And while Pan-Abode does its part to provide gorgeous, high-quality Western red cedar, Tom also loves knowing that he played a role in creating new cottage memories for his family by building it himself. “Aside from the beauty, there’s something about just being inside of it,” he says. “You can sit and look around and think, I built this.”

Thinking of building your own dream cottage at the lake? Learn more about Pan-Abode’s custom log-cabin kits at panabode.com