Barn News

Springtime Tradition #1

The end of winter here in the Shangri-la highlands is accompanied by a number of traditions, not the least of which is the status assessment and repair/maintenance of the power system.  Sometimes this occurs as early as mid-March, but with travels back and forth to visit Li’l T and his parents and the deposition of several inches of snow as recently as last week, this year “spring” and its requisite duties is/are late in coming.

It is an undeniable truth that when you are “off grid,” a prominent blessing is that you are your own power company.  It is also an undeniable truth that when you are “off grid,” a prominent bane is that you are, well, your own power company.  Last week I split my time going over the mountains to get some service on my truck (I am old; I remember buying a complete set of new tires for my first car, a 1961 Ford Galaxy 500 with a trunk big enough to hold six feet of a 4×8 sheet of plywood, for $50 in 1970.  Now, two tires for my F150 are $500!   Sigh.) and working on the water line.

I walked the quarter-mile of water line last Sunday to gauge the level of repair needed.  Even though the winter seemed fairly ordinary judging by memory and the consumption of firewood, the condition of the hydro system penstock suggested a different history.

In six places the penstock was breached and fractured with classic helical ruptures as evidence of water freezing in the line.  This was surprising as I thought I had been pretty conscientious when mothballing (draining) the system in November, but the proof of the contrary is unavoidable.   And, this was not even the full extent of the damage to the system (more about that later).

I spent the better part of three days walking up and down the creek to make the repairs to the line itself.  I’m still sore.  I wound up grafting in about 80′ of new line, requiring 14 new joints.

As occurs every spring I spent some time refining the path of the water line to streamline it and increase its efficiency.  And still, every winter I must endure the damage that nature inflicts on it.

Is there a solution to this neverendingly onerous burden?  Sure.  All it would take is to find someone who could bury 1/4 mile of water line 48-inches deep in a mostly-solid rock substrate.  Finding that someone would be a challenge, finding someone to sign the check for maybe $125k is an even bigger problem.

Thus, I learn to embrace the responsibility of putting the system back together every “spring.”  There is a lesson there.  Whenever I face a particular challenge or hardship, I try ask, “Okay YHWH, what are you teaching me with this one?”

Winter Projects (and way beyond) – Doors

This winter will be the one during which I begin to address the door issue in the barn.

For the past 13 years the entrance into my studio space has been delineated by a pair of doors comprised of nice wooden frames with double plastic sheets, shower curtains actually, that have performed surprisingly well.  But, the time has come to install proper insulated doors. Given the odd size of the doorways, determined by unalterable features of the original post-and-beam structure, the two doors into my studio space will need to be custom made.

The standard entry door to the first floor/basement was framed in about two hours if I recall correctly, needing to fit a compression fit jamb using only the things I had on hand one Sunday afternoon before heading back to Mordor.  What I had on hand was some scrap white pine joist stock and a tube of construction adhesive, along with a salvaged insulated door.  Years later this haphazard installation has become decrepit to the point where a good blast of wind or even a curious bear could take it down.

The garage-door opening of the first floor/basement was filled with a pair of four-foot-wide doors I made from 2x, plywood and with insulated glass inserts.  Within a year of their installation (the photo was taken at the completion of the original installation) a howling windstorm caused irreparable damage to them (we get serious hurricane-strength (!) windstorms every year or so out in the holler) and ever since they have just been screwed shut with plastic sheeting covering the entire section from the inside.  One thing has been made clear as a result, namely that I simply did not need a garage door-style access to the inside space as a matter of regular activity.  I’m thinking of building a pair of panels, one screwed in place as an insulated wall and the other openable as a door to allow me to wheel my smelting furnace cart in and out as my foundry work progresses.

Clean-up “Christmas”

One of the aspects of having a humungous Fortress of Solitude like the barn, four stories of 40′ x 36′ space, is that there are a multitude of nooks and crannies into which things can be tucked, stuffed, crammed, lost, and re-discovered.  I call these instances my own “Clean Up Christmases,” when I come across treasures I had forgotten, or at least misremembered.

Such has been the case recently when prepping the classroom for this coming weekend workshop Historical Wood Finishing.  As the first class there in over two years, the space had, shall we say, devolved.  That pesky Second Law of Thermodynamics; they tried repealing it but it just didn’t take.  It has taken me over two weeks to get it ready for the group on Saturday.  The level of “rearrangeritis” (full credit to James “Stumpy Nubs” Hamilton for coining the phrase to describe an all-day travail when moving one thing in his crowded shop) has been monumental, and monumentally rewarding on several fronts.  It has also given me time for contemplation about future projects, a topic I will address in numerous upcoming posts.

At the moment I am mostly reveling the rediscovery of two caches that were set aside for some future completion.  The first is the two sets of brass Roubo-esque squares fabricated before and during that workshop more than two years ago; all it will take is a day or two with some files and Chris Vesper’s sublime reference square to get them up and running.

A second trove is the pile of French oak scraps from the multiple iterations of the FORP gatherings in southern Georgia.  I brought them home in order to turn them into veneers, probably oyster shell style, to use on some as-yet-unknown project.  That “unknown” identifier is becoming more “known” as the days go by.  Then, much like my shop being the only one in the county with two c. 1680 parquetry flooring panels from the Palais Royale in Paris, my tool cabinet will be the only one with veneers from some c.1775 oak trees from the forests surrounding Versailles.

Who knows what other “Christmas” presents I might find during the never ending effort to impose order on my space?  Stay tuned.

Geetar Club

One of the aspects to living in a locale so isolated as Shangri-la is that it is populated by folks who are at the very least comfortable with isolation; for the “born here’s” it is simply the life they have always known, for many of the “come here’s” it is the life they actively sought.  If you cannot tolerate isolation, you leave.  I can speak truth to this, for about 99% of the time my only in-person contact is Mrs. Barn.  Going to the Post Office or feed-and-seed-co-op hardware store a few minutes a week hardly describes a life of social interactions — “social distancing” describes every day ending in “Y” out here —  and during this season of psychosis our only regular time of interaction beyond ourselves is at church.  (I am increasingly convinced that functionally Covid-19, while deadly to a miniscule slice of the population pie, is more of a psychological experiment in repression than a public health crisis; I will believe it is a catastrophic pandemic when the elites act like it is one rather than jetting about for vacations in Cancun or group dinners at fancy restaurants and when politicians and gubmint employees rather than small businesses lose their incomes.)

One of the things in which I have been long interested is finding other woodworkers here for fellowship and collaboration.  They are around but like me they mostly stick to themselves.  I’ve had some success in finding and interacting with gunsmiths, blacksmiths, metalsmiths, this smith and that smith, but thus far the woodsmiths have kept to themselves.  In recent months this has begun to thaw as one retired “come here” with whom I am on a local Board revealed he is a luthier, and lo and behold there is suddenly a critical mass of luthiery-ish practitioners in the county.  One is a newly arrived pastor/amateur musicologist, another is an actual full-time guitar maker who moved here recently and has a small studio in town.  (When your region’s largest metropolis has fewer than 200 people…)  Together we are in the gestational phase of starting a woodworking club with just the four of us working in my studio, the only space any of us has that would be amenable to the enterprise — plenty of workbenches in a heated work space.  I think the plan is for us to gather weekly to work on individual projects as our schedules allow.

Since I am in fact the only one of us four who has never built a guitar from scratch I will be the main hindrance to the overall performance level.  Still my enthusiasm for the effort is high, and not too surprisingly I expect to bring my own peculiar approaches to building a dreadnaught six-string guitar.  Eventually I will build a hammered dulcimer for Mrs. Barn, who has expressed a strong desire for one ever since listening to the pastor/musicologist play his at a local music program.   She never reads this blog so I will be able to maintain the secret surprise until it is finished.

Stay tuned.

Ironic Tyranny of Time(liness)

Last year when we were having the driveway rebuilt up to and slightly past the barn, I indicated a desire to have a small parking pad next to the barn for students and visitors.  “No hurry”, I says, “just fit it in whenever you get a free day.”  Then, after months of consideration a couple weeks ago I announced my contemplation to reduce or even eliminate workshops at the barn.

So of course yesterday was that “free day” for the contractor and they showed up with a truckload of gravel and the equipment to move it around.  Whether I need it or not, now I have visitor parking at the barn.

Actually even if I do not have students it will make a splendid staging area for cutting and splitting firewood.

Throwing In One Particuar Towel Leads To An Unrelated Solution

Recently while noodling with one of my ripple molding cutters in preparation for the September “Make A Ripple Molding Cutter” class, which like the upcoming “Make A Roubo Shoulder Knife” has been cancelled due to unanimous disinterest (I will soon write about the future of workshops at the barn, most of which have drawn nearly unanimous disinterest and will likely diminish for the most part), I decided that the underlying design concept for that particular machine was too flawed to rescue.  So, I tossed in the towel on that particular journey.

At the same time I was doing some cleanup and organizing on the main floor of the barn — alas when you have thousands of square feet of space the tidying is nearly an endless proposition — I decided to address the “problem” of how my lathe has been set up for the past few years.  At the time I thought I would really like having the lathe sitting on a mondo beam adjacent to two of the vertical timbers holding up the third and fourth floors.  In practice I realized that I REALLY did not like that set-up.  What to do?

Well, with the ripple molding cutter being moth-balled I suddenly had the perfect base available for use with the lathe.  So now it sits thereon, and I like the new set-up much, much better.  An additional benefit is that the new base is long enough to hold not only my wood lathe but also my micro machinist lathe.

Excellent.

And fear not about the fate of the mondo beam.  It now serves as part of a bench outside being used in my ongoing tactical training and practice.

A Collaborator Goes “On-Line”

My video production collaborator Chris Swecker has created a web site to market his new-ish venture, Seed and Fruit Media. If you are in the Mid-Atlantic region and would like to explore video as an element for your work, Chris is an excellent option. He is especially great at seat-of-the-pants production, and I find him a delight to work with and the final product is exactly what I wanted; whimsical broadcast quality footage.

Chris definitely has the chops for first-class work. He spent a decade out in Realityville working on big-time projects, and fortunately for me he has come back home to the place where he was raised.

We will be resuming filming the Make A Gragg Chair video early next month once the weather warms a bit. This was a bitterly cold winter, so shooting in the unheated attic of the Barn was not an option.

BTW I hope to post the next episode of the Veneer Repair video on Saturday.

PS Imagine the possible communication confusion when two of your closest collaborators are both named “Chris S.”

The Every-Other-Morning Winter Ritual

My morning routine over the winter involves a light bit of attention to the wood/coal stove one morning and a more in-depth regimen the second day.  Here is how my day usually begins for the heavy heating season from about the beginning of December through mid-March.  I guess I could just rely on the propane wall furnace, but since propane is the very highest expense method I am disinclined to go that route.  I’m guessing that would be somewhere north of $750/month even though my workshop is super-insulated (R43 XPS panels).  I longingly note the falling prices of gasoline and the simultaneous rise of propane prices, the last fill-up was almost $4/gallon.  So instead I rely on my triple combination of wood, coal, and kerosene.

On half of the mornings I arrive to a half-clean firebox with a few glowing coals, keeping the space between 45-40 degrees requiring only a couple minutes of cleaning out some of the clinkers.  All I have to do is fire it up again and it is ready to work all day and through the night.

On that second day, however, the residual pile of clinkers requires a pretty thorough cleaning of the firebox.  I must say I am pretty disappointed at the mound of clinkers remaining after the fire, I’ve been buying what I thought was good quality anthracite but as you will see there is always a full bucket of clinkers to get rid of.  If I had cleaner burning coal my clean out would take two minutes a day.

 

This is what the fire box looks like after two days of burning.  The clinkers fill the bottom from the bottom horizontal grate, slightly below the bottom of the opening, up to the top of the removable fence grates in the front.

The front fence grates slide up and out, giving me full access to the bottom grate so I can shovel out the clinkers.  (The ash falls down into the ash box below.)

It is now time to lay the foundation for the new fire to come.  I put the bottom fence grate in place and fill the space behind it with coal to a depth of 2-3 inches.

It is now time to turn my attention to the ash box, which slides out like a drawer.  Its contents join the clinkers in the ash bucket.

Unfortunately the ash box goes into a space that is larger than it is, so the areas outside the ash box need to be cleaned out too.

Once everything is cleaned out and swept the whole assembly goes back together.

On top of the bed of coal I place a paper towel left over from its use as a wax filter, then pile kindling on top of that.  I leave a little tail of the firestarter poling through the front fence to give me an easy place to light the fire.  Which I do.

Before long I have crackling flames.  This usually takes a minute or so.

After about three minutes I set the stove doors for maximum bast furnace effect.

About 5-7 minutes later the chimney is hot as a pistol.  This is not the heat level I maintain, I normally operate the stove near the bottom of the operating range.  I can now leave the stove on its own for an hour or so, then add another piece or two of firewood and another couple scoops of coal.

Meanwhile, upstairs at the floor level of the shop, I  have created a heat stack vent by raising the chimney collar.  This allows the hot air from both the stove and the chimney to more easily enter the shop.

Usually about the time I get back upstairs the stack is providing hot air for the space.

I augment this with a small fan blowing on the chimney to distribute even more heat into the space.  I used to have a heat exchanger in-line in the chimney but have it currently removed because it requires constant power and in the winter I often power down my entire system at the end of the day.

I add additional scoops of coal a couple times throughout the day, but mostly I just get on with my day, loading it one final time when I close up for the evening.

I cannot pretend I am completely satisfied with this system.  We are looking into upgrading the heat source for the cabin, and I just might do so for the barn too.  I’m thinking about a Kimberly gasifier stove but am still gathering information.

The Waxerie

My recent mysterious bout of vertigo (still ongoing but mild, I describe it as being “fuzzy around the edges”) limited my work in all phases, but in the latter part of the acute phase I could gently walk the driveway and putter in the barn.  One of the techniques I used was employing a long walking stick held diagonally across my torso, planting it solidly on the ground with every step in order to be a sturdy hand-hold as I wobbled my way up the hill.

One thing I could do was tidy up, put stuff away and clean the shop.  Since a hand-hold was never more than arm’s length away it went pretty well.  One of the chores I attacked was organizing the west end of the shop, a space opened up this year to remain heated all winter long and serve as my place to mix and make wax/finishing products.  I had an idea of the spatial configuration and it turned out to be terrific.  I also moved an 8-foot workbench in there to go with my six-foot folding table and the huge map case so I have plenty of counter space for my work there.

I know, famous last words.  Especially coming from my mouth.

Look at me being all science-y and stuff in my new lab coat.  I am not certain that my LAP cap is laboratory-grade, though.

I spent a couple days working out some production details for Mel’s Wax (a big announcement due SOON).

Coming and Going Just Got Easier

Recently we “got around” to a project more than a decade in the making, namely the rebuilding of the driveway at the homestead.  The issue came to a head a while ago when the UPS truck struggled getting up the straight but fairly steep and narrow driveway to the barn.  The existing driveway there was a “temporary” path laid down for the initial barn raising eleven years ago, so the time was at hand.  Between the hurdles of weather and resources we sorta scheduled the work late last winter and we finally got a stretch of days dry enough for the ground to firm adequately for the heavy equipment.  I believe the curb weight for a loaded dump trunk is in the neighborhood of 50,000 pounds.

As I understand it the process of building or rebuilding a driveway is dependent on the ability to first lay a deep foundation of cash on the ground.  Actually it begins with scraping the bed flat and smooth, then building the roadway with first coarse gravel followed by fine gravel.  It packs like concrete.

This is then smoothed and packed, and if done well will last for decades.  That’s what I’m counting on.

The new driveway crown is a foot higher than previously in some places.  Make no mistake about it, this makes coming and going to and from the barn a whole lot easier.  Now I will no longer have the UPS/FedEx packages dropped off on the cabin front porch when they are meant for the barn.