Cathlapotle Plankhouse, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service,Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge - 2014 Box House & Plank House Construction

  • PLANK HOUSES - CONTENTS: types of plank house construction; determining the age of a structure from examining the style & choice of building materials includes the need to understand plank house construction used by the Yurok in the Pacific Northwestern U.S. as well as later in modified form across other areas of North America.
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Plank house & box house construction.

This article describes plank house construction and "box house" construction used as early as the 1500's in the Pacific Northwest of North America as well as in sawn plank form in many other areas of the U.S.

Page top illustration: the Cathlapotle Plankhouse, a modern reproduction of a plank house located at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge - U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2014). This article is part of our series on determining building age by understanding FRAMING METHODS, Age, Types.

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Plank Houses or Box House Construction Method Defined & Described

Plank house (C) Yuroak plank housesAmong the Yurok Tribe living in the Pacific Northwest, particularly in coastal areas, we estimate that hand-split redwood plank house construction dates from well before 1500 while some plank houses have been built at settlements estimaged to be 3000 years old or older. These constructions were used by a range of Tribes in the Northwest extending from what is now northern California through Alaska.

At least some of these homes use a main frame of logs in vertical & horizontal bents and low-slope or horizontal roof supports. In plank house or "box house" construction, usually the thick planks form both the building walls and often they form most or nearly all of its supporting structure.

As we introduced at FRAMING METHODS, Age, Types, generally in the U.S., plank house was more widely used between 1880 - 1920, with some plank house construction continuing up to possibly 1950.

Box houses vs Plank Houses

Plank houses are also referred to as "box houses" in some areas but in fact although it too uses thick vertical planks in construction a "box house" is significantly different from a traditional Pacific Northwest plank house. Box houses were built using thick sawn planks, also placed vertically, typically on a horizontal frame but

In their most widespread use by Europeans in North America, plank houses were constructed entirely of sawn planks and without the use of larger dimensioned 2x lumber, while older traditional plank house construction used hand-split wood, typically redwood for construction.

The photo (above left) shows a plank house constructed by Charlie Frye for the Margaret Keting School in Klamath, CA, a Yurok Tribe facility. The Yurok Tribe is currently [2014] the largest Tribe in California.

Plank house construction methods have not been entirely abandoned, and occasionally continue to be built, as the New York Times pointed out in March 2012. The Times article describes a plank house contructed in Klamath, California by Willard Carlson, Jr. es Carlson's plank house, built for ceremonial uses and named Ah Pah "the beginnning of the stairway", follows traditional Yurok Indian design and uses large hand-split solid old-growth redwood planks for the building's walls and roof.

Plank House Locations & Builders

Plank house builders included

How Typical Plank Houses are Built

The following describes plank houses built in various communities in North America as early as the 1920's. The traditional Yuroak Indian plank houses described above will differ somewhat from what we outline below:

A 6"x 6" or 6" x 8" sill beam was placed on the ground or on a stone foundation. Long vertical planks consisting of thick 5/4" (or thicker) boards of varying widths (up to 12" wide) were nailed to the sill beam and extended vertically to the building eaves, at a height of up to 20 ft. The vertical planks were often spaced apart, up to one inch.

In a plank home or box house the floor framing was constructed of floor joists set into notches in the sill beam. To support a second floor in a two story plank house, floor joists were nailed to a rim joist that had been itself nailed to the vertical planks at an appropriate height. In other words, the plank wall is also structural, supporting the upper floor as well as the building roof.

The walls of a plank house or box house were made weather tight by nailing a vertical batten 1"x3" board over the gaps between boards. The wall interior was finished by nailing lath strips to the battens and then applying a plaster wall. The walls were not insulated.

Yurok Indian Plank Houses, Northwestern U.S.

In the North American Northwest (extending through British Columbia and even southern Alaska) rectangular plank houses were built by native Americans using redwood, cedar, and further north, spruce. Using planks up to 4" thick, some of these homes were secured by ropes so that they could be disassembled and moved.

As redwood trees are a protected species in California and elsewhere, it's worth noting these excerpts from the Yurok Tribe's remarks on the subject of the use of this material:

Our traditional family homes and sweathouses are made from fallen keehl (redwood trees) which are then cut into redwood boards. Before contact, it was common for every village to have several family homes and sweathouses. Today, only a small number of villages with traditional family homes and sweathouses remain intact. Our traditional stories teach us that the redwood trees are sacred living beings. Although, we use them in our homes and canoes, we also respect redwood trees because they stand as guardians over our sacred places.
The Fort
[built ca 1857, Fort Terwer was washed away in 1862] and Agency were built from redwood, which was an abundant resource and culturally significant to Yurok. Non-Indians pursued the timber industry and hired local Indian men to work in the up and coming mills on the Reservation. This industry went through cycles of success, and was largely dependent on the needs of the nation. At the time, logging practices were unregulated and resulted in the contamination of the Klamath River, depletion of the salmon population and destruction of Yurok village sites and sacred areas. - Yurok Tribe website, retrieved 4/13/2014;

Museum quality scale model Yurok Plank Houses (photo at abo ve left) are being sold to raise money for the Blue Creek - Ah Pah Traditional Yurok Village project that includes preserving plank houses. We encourage readers to support that project. The Yurok Tribe, principally located north of Eureka California in the U.S., is working to revive the Yurok language, the most widely-taught native American language in California. - The New York Times (2014)

Plank Houses in Some Communities May Be Covered with Modern Siding & Are Tricky to Recognize

From the exterior these homes may look quite conventional since horizontal siding was installed over the original planks on the wall exterior. Owners may not discover that their home was originally a plank house until they attempt to open walls to add insulation, plumbing or electrical wiring. But a clue to plank construction might be the observation that all plumbing was run around the interior of the building walls (to avoid freezing in cold climates and because there was no wall cavity).

Some of the plank houses we've inspected were made from scraps or salvaged lumber such as a home in Dutchess County New York that was constructed from packing crate wood.

Saw cuts and marks and how they can be read as an aid in determining the age and method of construction of builidings are at Saw Cuts, Tool Marks, Age of.

Hewn beams and adze cut marks are described at Hewn beams & planks.

Support the Yurok Ah Pah Project

More information about the Blue Creek Ah Pah traditional Yurok Village can be found at Ah Pah Traditional Yurok Village project -

Scale models of plank houses of this traditional design are also available for sale at, [20] - proceeds support the Blue Creek Ah-Pah project.

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