THINGS I’VE LEARNED
BY TOM HECK
A Cabin from Scratch
8. As soon as I was done building the cabin, I found
out about yurts. Had I known about yurts, I would
have built one of those instead.
9. I learned how to become more self-sufficient.
In the spring of 1983, I was finishing up my second year at Virginia Tech. I still hadn’t found a major that was right for me; I felt lost and frustrated.
While I was deciding what to do, I met a local guy
named Eddie who must have sensed I was ready for
a challenge because he asked if I wanted to build a
cabin on his property. His offer caught me off guard
since I had zero experience building. I thought about
it for one night and decided this was exactly what
Eddie agreed to guide me in the building process.
I started clearing the land about a month before
exams started. After classes ended, I set up camp
next to the building site and began to work from
sunup to sundown. I moved in just three days before
the fall semester. I lived in the cabin from summer
1983 to fall 1985. No rent. No utilities.
I built the cabin for $1, 100 and the investment paid
off in more ways than I could ever have imagined.
The last time I visited the cabin was in 2000, and it
was in good shape. I have no idea if it’s still standing.
10. I learned how to ask for help after I injured my
back and needed help stacking firewood.
Some lessons I learned, in no particular order:
1. It’s not critical to have electricity, running water,
and a phone to be comfortable.
2. With no phone, it was hard for friends to contact
me at the spur of the moment. With no phone,
I learned how to plan better.
3. I learned how to conserve water. I learned the
value of a clean and abundant water supply.
11. I learned how valuable electricity is.
12. I learned how to navigate a dirt road under all
types of conditions (deep mud, ice, snow) and
learned when to park and walk.
13. I learned how to stay warm in the winter.
I learned how to cut wood and prepare kindling.
I learned how to quickly start a fire in a woodstove
and keep it going. I learned the value of a well-built
4. I learned to use a chainsaw without hurting myself.
5. I learned how to be quiet and enjoy it.
6. I learned that building a home is relatively easy —
it’s not rocket science. This knowledge has provided
me with a great sense of security over the years.
7. I wished I had built a cabin with half the footprint
and a second story. Building the foundation took an
enormous amount of time compared to the rest of
the building process.
14. I learned how to be super safe with fire. If my
cabin had ever caught on fire, the whole thing would
have burned down in minutes.
15. I learned how to play the banjo. My solitude
and lack of distractions (like TV) afforded me lots
of free time to explore and create. Even now, when
I play the banjo, I’m reminded of all the hours I spent
playing in the cabin.
Illustration by Drew Morrison
Tom Heck is a daddy, banjoist, team builder, and maker.
See photos of his cabin build at
14 Make: Volume