the homestead

Springtime Ritual #2 – Garden Carpentry

Another of the regular winter/spring/summer rituals here in Shangri-la is to re-think the carpentry needs for the gardens, and this year two new hoops over the raised beds percolated to the top of the pile.  There had been hoops before but those were made in haste and only lasted ten years.  The time had come for something a bit more robust.  They get used year round, in the winter to serve as mini-greenhouses, in the summer to keep out the cabbage butterflies.

I decided to make the ribs with three lamina instead of two, so I ripped the requisite number of 1/4″ strips from pressure-treated 2x lumber.  The actual forming/laminating process began with constructing a form that can serve to fabricate laminated hoop ribs from now until I become part of the landscape myself.  I used scrap materials for the form and used clamps for making the first curved ribs.  I used up all the clamps I had that would fit and kept them engaged for 24-hours (I used T3 adhesive).

I got smarter.  On subsequent ribs I used deck screws and fender washers to clamp the laminations to the form.  With the addition of crown staples I was able to assemble two ribs per day.

After removing the laminated ribs from the form I restrained them with ratchet straps to keep the correct shape and size, and set them aside.  Once I had enough I could assemble the skeleton and cover it with the screening.

Stay tuned.

Springtime Ritual #1 – Upstream Edition, Finis*

The end was definitely in sight.  All I needed to do was make the fitted lid with two layers of screen, window screen supported by 1/4″ hardware cloth and haul it the 350 yards to the weir dam.  Somehow I have misplaced the camera with most of the lid-making images.

It was very satisfying to see the unit all together, ready to get to work.  The only hard part of the project, really, was hauling it up the hill.  It is very awkward and though not especially heavy, it was not a feather weight either.  I actually strained a tendon in my left hand rasslin’ it up the hill but that is recuperating nicely.

Once I got it up to the top I had to spend some time re-configuring the creek bed since the new box is so different from the old Rubbermaid tub.  But when it went in place with a solid WHUMP! as it filled with almost 100 pounds of water I knew the this was just right.  To make sure it would stay put from either a rushing thunderstorm torrent or a rummaging bear I filled it with several hundred pounds of rocks.

The connection to the pipeline was a slip-fit gasket inside the shower drain fixture so I hooked it up and we were off to the races.

*Now all I have to do is make a new metal chute and it’s done.

Springtime Ritual #1 – Upstream Edition, Part II

With the dovetailed box sides assembled I moved on to attaching the board bottom.  The orientation of the wood there was such that it will cause the maximum swelling and thus compression sealing that panel.

My strategery was to lay down a bead of asphalt and screw thing down tight for each board.  I left each board over-length by about an inch to reduce the risk of splitting from the screws.  I left the end board even longer to allow for a more stable outrigger effect when sitting in the stream after installation.

The successive board was tarred to both the sides and the preceding board.  Tidiness was not the objective, sturdy durability and performance was.  My only real objective was squeeze-out.

When the bottom was in place I turned my attention to one of the side boards that had a bit of surface cracking.  I trowelled on some tar on that whole surface just to make sure it would remain intact.  Probably overkill.

A line of tar on the inside and outside of each corner completed the assembly.  Using a hole drill I installed the shower drain fixture that served as the connector for the penstock water line.

Now all I had to do was make the screen lid and haul the monster up the hill.

Springtime Ritual #1 – Upstream Edition, Part I

Not only was the severity of the winter weather manifest in the damage to the pipeline and master valve, the existing intake setup (pictured above) at the top of the system was thrashed.  The Rubbermaid tub was several yards downstream from the weir (dam) and the copper chute was missing altogether.  I cobbled the system back together to give myself a few days to make a new capturing basin.  The time had come to construct the collector box I have vowed to make ever since installing the system.

Using some of my prized c.1840 11/4 bald cypress lumber I made the box I have always wanted.  The first step was resawing the 11/4 stock into three equal boards roughly 4-feet long and eight inches wide for the long sides and a foot long for the ends, and the requisite number of cross-boards for the bottom.  I started the process by cutting the initial kerfs on the table saw, then finishing the task by hand (the lumber was too wide for my upstairs band saw.  I could’ve used the resaw bandsaw in the basement but would have had to move a whole lot of stuff to excavate it.)  Sorry, no pics for this process.

The boards were foreplaned as the finished surface.  Incidentally, even though the wood is 180+ years old it is still tacky on the inside when re-sawn and planed, and cypress’ typical smell of patchouli oil fills the air!  BTW I hate square-post-through-the-bench-top planing stops a la Roubo and always have.  I much prefer the right-angle stop in the leg vise as shown here.  It’s just how I roll, or rile, or whatever.

With the lumber prepped I set to cutting the dovetails in the corners.  As is my custom I cut the tails on both pieces at the same time.  Normally I nail the two boards together but this time I decided to tape them.

Another of my multitude of peculiarities is a dislike of sawing out the dovetail waste.  I just incise the shoulder, pare out a bit, then go back and wail on the waste.  In a minute or two they are done.  I cut the pins basically the same way.

The dovetailed corners were screwed together with decking crews (pre-drilled and countersunk) since adhesive was not likely to perform permanently under water.  With the screws and the swelling from the moisture I expect these joints to remain tight until forever.  Even so, before installation I slathered the corners inside and out with tar, just to make sure.

Stay tuned





Springtime Ritual #1 – Downstream Edition

Once I got the water flowing through the repaired penstock I trudged down to the turbine to check the result.  As I approached the turbine I was gratified to hear the soft whine of the mechanism, and exasperated by the sound of spraying water.  Once I got close enough to see, I noticed an absolute geyser of water spouting from the master valve that allows me to shut down the system to allow for maintenance (read: extracting fogs or crawdads from the nozzles).

So I hiked back up to the first soft joint — there are a half-dozen joints that are actually radiator hose from a bulldozer, held in place by four hose clamps (this method is designed to allow the penstock to blow itself apart without damage if there is an obstruction downstream) and disconnected it.  Yup, the master gate valve housing was split, big time.  There was no way to do anything except replace and re-plumb the business end of the system.  A hairline fracture I could possible deal with.  An eighth of an inch? Not so much.

I decided it was time to make some substantial changes to the water routing at the bottom.  as it happens I was in town, i.e. “over the mountain” on other business so I dropped into the farm supply store there to upgrade my valve system to a 2″ solid brass spigot valve rather than the low-tech, low cost, and low strength PVC sliding gate valve.

I also decided to take advantage of the opportunity of the completely disassembled plumbing to enact a longstanding goal of upgrading the system and complete the second line into the turbine housing, something I had been hesitant to do while the overall system was working well.  This upgrade 1) balances the forces on the impellor shaft by directing the water jet to strike the impeller from both sides, and 2) allows for a near-doubling of the wattage output as well.

For the connections between the new brass valve and the turbine housing I used new 1-1/8″ heater hose from the auto parts store.  The water pressure at the bottom of the system is 40-45 p.s.i so these flexible hoses should work just fine.

Finally, the new setup has me contemplating changing my strategy of mothballing the system over the winter.  Given the increased robustness of the new valve and the elasticity of the hose connections, why not just let the system run all winter long?  Water can flow well below freezing temperatures, particularly water within a pressurized construct (pipeline).  This feature is enhanced by particulates suspended in the water itself (the water coming though the pipe is very hard, essentially mineral water) so that fact alone would suppress the freezing point.  Thank you Mr. Auletta, my 9th grade Physical Science instructor, for 53 years ago relating the anecdote of the coal fields’ slurry pipelines that can keep on flowing until 15 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, or 47 degrees below freeing!  And, if I wrapped the bottom plumbing with heat tape to keep the smaller lines and the nozzles above freezing, couldn’t it keep running all winter long when our coldest temps are just barely below zero, and only for a few hours at a time?


Time to turn my attentions to the intake end of the system.

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?”

No Apples This Year

While we were away for a glorious weekend of Easter worship and fellowship, an arctic locomotive roared through Shangri-la, dumping eight inches of snow and driving down temperatures to near 20 degrees.

By the time we got home on Tuesday much of the snow had melted (this image is from Wednesday), and we are expecting almost 80-degrees over this coming weekend.  Too late for the apple blossoms, though.  I guess the weather did not realize we are more’n halfway to May.

Winter Projects (and well beyond) – Harvesting Watts

Though I have been exceedingly pleased with my latest iteration of the hydropower capturing basin, a/k/a “Rubbermaid tub with a window screen” and its attendant weir flow sluice eliminating 99% of any debris build-up, a recent trip up the hill has revealed a fundamental shortcoming to the system — it cannot withstand a bear (?) attack.  The plastic tub-and-screen assembly was, to put it technically, knocked all whomperjawed.  The problem was temporarily resolved but now that it is winter and the system is mothballed for the season, the time has come for a more robust response to the travails of life here where there are plenty of big critters.

I’m thinking of fabricating a more robust wooden basin from some of my exquisite c.1840 cypress, designed along the same lines as the plastic tub and its screening feature but with the addition of long horizontal cleats on the underside of the box.  That way I can restrain the entire unit under a thousand pounds of rocks.  And it the megafauna tears that one up?  Hmmm.

I may also try to “straighten” the hydro line to allow year-round operation.  since water will flow in a contained line well below zero degrees F, there is no conceptual reason I cannot operate it here all the time.

Gotta noodle that one.

Plus, it is time to get going on the second water turbine that absolutely positively can run year-round.

Stay tuned.

Winterized, a/k/a Back to “Normal”

The last couple of weeks have been the whirlwind we have come to expect about this time every autumn as the yard is mowed one last time, garden is put to bed, the cabin and barn are readied for our vigorous winters (clear plastic is taped over all the cabin windows; three years ago was insulating and sealing the crawl space, two years ago was re-chinking the the cabin logs, this year was the new roof, and next year will be new windows all around), and the requisite tons of firewood are processed.

While Mrs. Barn toiled for several sunny days with the final harvests from the garden and the uprooting and soil-turning involved in the aftermath, along with digging up hundreds of flower bulbs to be stored in the crawl space under the cabin, I was tasked with building a new cover for the raised bed she uses for growing greens long into the winter.  That raised bed has always had a winter cover but the last one finally gave up the ghost so a new one was required.

I decided to build this one a good bit nicer and sturdier than the previous one, including four-ply laminated hoop ribs.  Since this project was one that is  likely to be reprised over the years we have here I made a frame on which I could assemble and glue the curved elements from 1/8″ resawn PT SYP.  I used T3 for the adhesive, gluing up one new rib every day.  Somehow I managed to fail in the picture-taking department, but in the end I have a custom-fitted cover for the bed.

After that I moved on to the annual re-stocking of the firewood pile.  I had about half of it already cut, split, and stacked on pallets next to the barn.  Once I moved that down to the crib I decided to process the remaining needed for the front porch even though I had a sizable surplus in the lower barn.

I got into the rhythm and worked my way through the whole pile of cut wood left over from last year (I still have about 2-3 years’ worth felled up in the woods, which I will process as time and inspiration allow over this winter), and wound up in the place I’d always wanted to be – starting a winter with two winters’ worth of firewood ready to go.

This was the excess pile in the lower barn from last year so I just left it alone to serve as the future BTU inventory.

Somehow this modest set of accomplishments managed to occupy nearly a complete fortnight.


Back to regular order until spring, I hope.

Nothing Wrong, Just Crazy Busy on the Homestead

I’ve not posted for almost two weeks, but in answer to the question, “Did you injure yourself again?” the answer is “No.”  It’s just been the period on the homestead that is always action packed every year, closing down the gardens after summer (Mrs. Barn was still harvesting beans and squash until a few days ago!) and getting the place ready for winter, combined with extensive barn cleaning (oh yeah, that’s a burning blog topic — “Watch me organize my inventory of dry powder pigments and tubes of oil paints and watercolors.”)  This year it all included making a new hoop-house cover for the raised bed she uses for greens long into winter, and as always splitting and stacking tons of firewood cut last year, and much more.  Alas, I do not work as quickly as I used to, nor for as long, and every year an armful of firewood gets just a little bit heavier.

Things should be back to the “normal” routine by the end of the week.  I’m delighted to have been able to leave the wood stove unused until the halfway point of November this year, it will get fired up perhaps next weekend, wondering if the generally mild autumn will transition to a brutal winter.  If so, we are ready.

Stay tuned.