the homestead


Recently I was reviewing the manuscript for Joshua Klein’s great new book about polymath and furniture maker Jonathan Fisher for Lost Art Press as I had been asked to write the Forward.    The book is an excellent reading and learning experience, and one of the descriptions of Fisher’s day-to-day life caught my particular attention.  In addition to everything else he had to do was the onerous task of obtaining many tons of firewood requisite for each Maine winter.

My friend Bob, who is a lifelong timberman, came for couple hours a few months ago and felled more than a dozen large ailing trees that had been damaged over the years.  His help is incalculably important as I simply do not have the experience necessary to fell very large trees with confidence, while he has felled literally tens of thousands of trees and manages to drop them safely right where they need to go.  Among this year’s prizes was a wonderful old oak with a long, straight trunk, that had been damaged in a storm last winter.  I’ll be splitting and riving that one in a few weeks, I hope.  More about that later.

Sometimes we just go where the trees are, but I am particularly interested in thinning the woods to the south and southwest of the barn to perhaps extend the daylight portion of winter days by an hour or more.  Currently I lose direct light by about 3PM and I aim to push that to 4 or 4:30.  That will be the best I can hope for unless we remove the crest of the hill occupying that space.

Once the trees are on the ground I can then return at my leisure to cut them into bolts and haul them down the hill.  Inasmuch as I have the same objective as Jonathan Fisher, gathering tons of firewood each winter, I am more than delighted that almost a century ago the good folks at Stihl, Dolmar, and Festool worked independently to provide us with what we now have as the modern chainsaw.  Ditto whoever combined a gasoline engine, hydraulic piston, and steel wedge to create log splitters.

With the side crib completely full with a double course of wood and the front porch filled with only a walking path to the front door we are ready for winter.  I’m now working on my firewood pile for next winter with hopes of eventually getting a couple of years ahead.  It’s the mountain way.

Straightening Up





With the shed roof line as straight as we could get it (there was still a tiny bit of dip but I was fearful of literally tearing the building apart if we went any farther based on the screeching coming from the building itself) we began the steady process of assembling in-place the laminated post-and-beam to replace the sagging wall.

We started by assembling the posts complete from three laminae of 2x8s with the center board being off set the width of the beam dimension and notched a couple of inches to serve as the tenons so that the beams could be assembled in-place fairly simply.  This also provided good purchase for the concrete we were using as the footer ex poste.

Since the rear corner being the highest, we shot for everything eventually becoming level with it.  So as the posts were constructed moving forward, we had to dig out holes in order to make all of them the same length.   Once the structure was complete I began the gentle lifting of the front corner with a post and hydraulic bottle jack.  Even I was astounded to recognize that the front corner needed almost 16-inches of raising to get everything level-ish.

With that I filled each footer hole with dry concrete mix, and old trick I learned from a deck-builder friend of mine, who said that you could use dry concrete in holes like this and it would absorb moisture from the ground and set in fairly short order.  I have used this method numerous times in the past and it turns out he was right.

The following week I dismantled the original wall and salvaged almost all of the material to use as the new 3/4 wall.  That new configuration, along with the new structure, has transformed the space from a sagging, foreboding cavern into a robust and airy storage space for the tools and machines necessary for maintaining the homestead.  For the moment I have left the rear section of the wall un-built as we are debating the desirability of a door opening there.

Unsquare Dance


Back in the mezozoic era when I was in college, I hosted a late night jazz show on the college station.  My theme song was a Dave Brubeck piece (as would be the case with any civilized person in that situation), in this case Unsquare Dance.  For whatever reason this tune, or more precisely the title, leaped into my head when I first saw the juxtaposition of the new and magnificent stone wall with the whomperjawed lean-to attached to the ancient log barn behind the root cellar/granary.  I’d always recognized it was a bit off-plumb, but goodness the comparison was sobering.  My desire to get it straightened out needed to become action.

About that time my younger brother came for a week-long visit.  We are pretty much two peas in a pod, although he is a better marksman than am I.  He is an excellent carpenter and builder, so once I knew his schedule I ordered some 2x8x8′ pressure treated SYP to use in building the new wall structure.

The strategy was to assemble  stick-built laminated beam to serve as the top plate for a post-and-beam configuration, about a foot inside the original wall.  But first we had to jack up the roof to some semblance of planarity, which we accomplished with hydraulic bottle jacks and extra 2x8s to wedge the roof to the height we wanted.  It took a day of gradual lifting, but we finally had it ready to work on.  The foot worth of swale was as gone as we could get it, and it was time for the hard work to begin.


Arched Bridge – Finis

The final day of bridge building involved cutting, painting, and installing the decking, which was made from the same 1×6 material used for the beams.  Prior to installing the decking I mounted electrical wires to the underside of the structure.  These are the wires that 1) carry electrons from the solar panels on the cabin to the power system, and 2) will eventually carry electrons back to the cabin from the system.



A little debris clearing, including the old plank walkways, and the job was done for now.  I’ll let the paint weather a bit, then wait for a warmer sunny day to sand it and apply another coat of paint, sprinkling the sticky paint with play sand to give it better traction.

Between the new stone wall, arched bridge, and new wall on the lean-to on the old barn (more about that later), the vista from the side deck has been transformed.

Arched Bridge – Day One

The root cellar on the homestead is just across the creek from the cabin, about 100-feet from the back door.  Well, technically, it is across two creeks, one coming from a series of springs way up the hill and the other emanating from the spring that is about halfway between the root cellar and the cabin, and used to provide the drinking water for the cabin until the artesian spring was discovered 350 feet up the mountain in the 1980s.  For the past dozen years or so the access to the root cellar was across two increasingly rickety plank bridges, and I had become increasingly concerned about the footing there as Mrs. Barn is usually the one retrieving vittles from the cellar.

The time had come for an updated structure to (re?)establish ease and safety for the trek.  Since I’ve made a number of curved beam structures before, both bridges and arbors, this was the route I chose to take here.  The total span of the space being covered was 25-feet, and one of the issues for the logistics was rendered irrelevant by the choice of an arched structure; the two end points were not level with each other.

With my long time pal Tom visiting for a few days, I decided that the time had come.  I ordered some sweet 1x6x16′ pressure treated lumber, and it turned out to be nearly “Select” grade.  We ripped each of the 1x6s in half, then used them to build the laminated arch in place.

With each end point determined by the site of the creek banks, I used concrete blocks in the center of the span to define the apex of the gentle curve and establish the form of the arch itself.  Placing dead weights on each end of the laminae as we built them up, a near perfect arch was formed and replicated with each new layer.  By off-setting the 1x3x16′ pieces when we glued and screwed them together, the arch was well accomplished.

Each lamina was attached to the preceding one with decking screws @ 6-inch spacing, and excess Titebond III weatherproof glue.

The result was right on target.

The goal for the first day was to finish each beam to a bit more than half height, which we did.

Tinkering With The Hydroelectric System

With my brother and nephew “in the house” we took a walk up the hill to do some noodling about the penstock (pipeline) for the hydroelectric system.  Since it froze last winter I had awaited its thaw and repair, the former occurring in late April and the latter after I returned home from the Studley exhibit.  I did not complete the penstock all the way to the original capturing basin as the last 400 feet or so were quite difficult and gained very little additional head (the amount of water fall in the system) — only about 2 psi.  For the mean time I had simply immersed the end of the penstock into the creek bed.


With the three of us in hand I located a near perfect location for the penstock head only about 40 feet upstream from the temporary location.  It was a place where the creek narrowed and one bank was a huge rock and the other bank a movable pile of rocks that could be configured to a width of just a couple feet.  With a little bit of bed and bank reconfiguration it seemed like a darned good place to construct a new diverging and capturing dam.


To test the idea I went to the hardware store for a couple hundred pounds of sand, and grabbing a handfull of feed sacks to use as sandbags, backed my trusty 4WD pickup up the hill to be adjacent to the location.  In short order we had a less temporary but fully functional sandbag structure in place and the system was up and running with excellent performance.  To enhance the new basin I built a debris catcher to place over the spot and reduce the amount of leaves and sticks to clean from the intake.  My hope is that the new basin needs housekeeping only every month or so.  Once I am back on my feet I will fabricate a little more functional debris trap for the end of the penstock, but that will have to wait another six weeks or so.

With Apologies to The Talking Heads

…tearing down the house…




Recently my younger brother and his son visited White Run for a week of vacation, during which we tore down a shack that had been a blight on the front hillside corner of the property.  My local pal Tony said he thought it had a lot of chestnut in it and I needed some chestnut to make battens and some trim for the shed over the root cellar, so that was all the impetus we needed.


Day One was marked by the removal of the roof and much of the siding, yielding indeed a very large quantity of chestnut boards from the roof sheathing and ship-lapped siding.  So we tore into it with enthusiasm, first peeling off the standing seam metal roof and underlying tar paper.


While my brother and I were working on this my nephew stripped all of the ceiling boards out of the one room inside.  These ceiling boards were among the treasures of the project as the were long, straight pieces of 6″ wide by 3/4″ thick chestnut.


Unfortunately like all of the interior surfaces, they were plastered with numerous layers of newspaper and cardboard, affixed to the surfaces in part with flour paste, easy enough to remove, augmented with literally thousands and thousands of tiny upholstery tacks.  We removed as many of these as we had time for, but I will have to go over all of these boards with metal detectors before I use them.  Still, these are magnificent boards.


It turned out that all of the roof sheathing and almost all of the structural lumber, run-of-the-mill 8/4 stock, were chestnut, which back until the early 20th century was a dominant local material.


It was pretty warm that day, probably about 80, and we took frequent breaks for refreshment.


By five o’clock we were done for the day.


Day Two pretty much finished the deconstruction phase of the project, harvesting an even greater stack of oak sheathing from the walls.  Most of the sheathing boards were 5/4 white oak, 7-1/2 feet long.  Some of these boards were in excess of 16″ wide.  Our stacks of salvaged vintage lumber that had been air drying for a century kept growing throughout the day.


I started the task of loading the salvaged lumber into the truck and the unloading and stacking it in the log barn.  I think this load was all chestnut.


The second load was a mix of the long chestnut with a mound of white oak.


Oak stacked in the lumber barn.


Chestnut roof sheathing stacked up.


More chestnut, including a lot of 8/4 structural material just awaiting me to do something with it.

On the next day in my quest for new experiences I decided to break my hip.   I cannot recommend it as it is much less amusing than I had been led to believe.

Thus endeth this chapter of life on the homestead.

Not exactly a project worthy of Joshua Klein (and huzzahs to Joshua, Julia and company for getting the house down without any injuries!) but it made us pretty pleased with ourselves.


Salvaging the Root Cellar III

Once the contractors departed I jumped in and replaced the original floor of the shed.  The building had settled enough that I wound up shimming the joists at the new wall about an inch prior to laying the new 3/4″ CDX flooring.  Once that was done I retrieved some of my stash of rigid foam insulation from the barn fourth floor and cut and placed three inches of foil faced polyisocyanurate rigid insulation in between the joists from below, in essence turning the root cellar into a super-insulated chamber.

The winter set in about then and I abandoned the project for eight months while we coped with winter and the all-consuming Studley projects.



Finally on my return from the MJD tool auction I turned my attentions to finishing this project.  This included first clearing the path across the creek to the entrance of the root cellar and the construction of a temporary walkway bridge to hold sway until I build the permanent arched bridge there this fall or next spring.



The next step was to excavate the rubble on the entrance path to the cellar door in order to find a place to put the huge stones left in place by the concrete contractors who managed to leave the collapse rubble in place.


One special treat was removing a several hundred pound mass of poured concrete slag that was simply left in place.  The wrong place.

The moving of all these hunks of stone and concrete was achieved through the judicious use of horsepower in the form of my truck, placed across the creek directly opposite the cellar door, with the stones lashed to the tow hooks on the bumper with rope.  Gently I pulled the stones out, then placed them with iron pipes and other leveraging tools.



Once that was done and the space was cleared enough to actually work I undertook the finishing of the masonry so that the doorway could be rebuilt, along with some repointing of the stonework inside.



The last big construction task was to fabricate a bear-proof door for the cellar, which I did with two layers of pressure treated 2x construction lumber with the two lamina assembled cross grained with a box of decking screws.

The final steps were cleaning up, clearing out, and moving in the new gravel to level and smooth the floor in order to fit the door bottom and threshold.  And that is when I suffered the debilitating attack by the gravel laden wheelbarrow.


This is how I left it, the final details will have to wait another month.

Salvaging the Root Cellar II

With the shoring in place we had a bit of time to think through the ultimate resolution to the problem of the collapsed root cellar wall.  The options ranged from reconstructing the original wall with the original materials strewn on the floor of the cellar, building an all weather wood foundation to replace the original wall, constructing a concrete block wall, and finally the option we went with, pouring a new monolithic concrete wall.  This technology has been making serious headway in places like here where the providers of skilled trade are pretty scarce.





One of the first orders of business was to replace the wooden sill plate on the shed wall.

Fortunately I have a substantial inventory of large timbers.  These were mostly being compiled for the eventual building of workbenches, but this need trumped that one.


Once the new sill plate was in place it allowed Tony to remove the poured-in-place rock wall top beam that was part of a 1953 rehab of the original building.  Under Tony’s direction the ground adjacent to the previous wall was excavated fully in order to provide access to the structure for some repair and new work.




Once the new sill plate was in place it allowed Tony to remove the poured-in-place rock wall top beam that was part of a 1953 rehab of the original building.

Then the concrete contractor moved in to set the forms and rebar/wire mesh for the new poured wall, followed by a new poured inner wall on the opposite wall to make sure that wall didn’t collapse also.  Some remedial stone work to finish off the corner you see here, and the crews cleared out leaving the rest to me.

It took 14 months but I finally got back to it last month, which I will recount next time.

Salvaging the Root Cellar I


The Spring of 2014 was a hectic time as we were trying to get moved from the house in Maryland in order to take up full time residence in the holler by the barn.  We found ourselves taking frequent overnight and even out-and-back trips with the truck loaded with possessions to relocate.  The pace of these trips meant that at times we would swoop in, unload, and leave.  Well, in this one particular day we were just walking around for a minute before jumping back in the truck and heading to Mordor on the Potomac.


As I rounded the root cellar/garden shed I was struck by something in the corner of my eye that didn’t look quite right.  On closer examination my heart sank, as the catastrophic damage to the building was readily apparent.   A look underneath from inside the root cellar confirmed that decades of frost heave and the spring snow melt caused one wall of the root cellar to collapse with a couple of tons of debris scattered about inside.

With zero time available I departed for home and called my pal Tony to ask him to take a peek at the problem and offer some counsel.  Tony is a local contractor and amazingly inventive guy.


He reported back a couple days later that he had shored up the building with some of the timbers in my lumber storage and hydraulic jacks from the barn.  That would hold stasis until we decided what to do next, which I will recount in the next blog post.