the homestead

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.

40 Days and 40 Nights

I take note of my friends in the Northeast remarking on what a wet and soggy summer it has been up there, even chuckling at Patrick Leach’s comment that the only reason it did not rain for forty days and forty nights on July is that July does not have forty days.  Meanwhile here in Shangri-la it has been at least that long since we have had a decent rain, our yard is getting crunchy.  Fortunately Mrs. Barn laid soaker hoses throughout the gardens when she planted this spring so she is able to keep everything moisturized just fine (we are now near peak bean harvesting time).

Yesterday I measured the flow of the creek and it was just under 15 gallons per minute, or less than 10% of what is normal for this time of year.  Suffice to say the the hydropower turbine is almost silent.  Fortunately the solar panels are pounding out watts, certainly enough for my needs in the shop.

Next week I start setting up for the upcoming Gragg Chair Workshop.

I Hate It When Stuff Like This Happens

Ever since moving to Shagri-la my favorite trimming mower has been an ancient Craftsman mower that was given to us by our friend SM when she lived with us for a few months back in Mordor.  This is about the most basic lawnmower I ever encountered.  There are no controls, really.  There is a primer to pump gas into the carburetor to make sure the unit starts when the cord is yanked.  That’s about it.  For years and years it did the job for those areas around the edge, areas too close to the house or garden or whatever for the lawn tractor to fit there.

Recently I noticed it began to perform oddly, then it ceased to perform altogether even though the engine was running just fine.  On closer examination I saw that the twin alignment pins on the hub had sheared off, as had the bolt that affixed the blade/hub to the engine shaft.  And, the bolt had sheared off below the surrounding surface of the shaft.

My next task is to see if I can drill out the center of the broken bolt inside the shaft and try removing the broken bolt rod with a screw extractor.  I hope this works as I have not seen any new mowers on the market that meet my desires.

Grrr.  Stay tuned.

Admiring Craftsmanship From Below

One of the things percolating to the top of the “Needs To Be Done on the Homestead” list over the past winter was the clearly evident need to bring some attention to the roof of the cabin.  We had the standing seam roof washed and painted right after we bought the cabin twenty years ago but it was once again showing some age.  I think the metal roof was probably installed around 1980 but there is no evidence one way or another.  I only know it was looking tired in 2001.

My original thought for this summer was to get the old roof pressure washed and coated with roll-on epoxy paint.  (My days of scampering around a steep roof are past, so the only certainty was hiring someone to do the task.)  Asking around I got a sense of what that might cost but ran into a hurdle of finding someone who lives in the area to do the job.  It was then that we saw the new roof going on the house of the farmer from whom we buy milk.  It was a new, beautiful honest-to-goodness traditional standing seam roof, albeit with a  baked enamel finish, and when I asked him about it he told me that one of the Amish families new to our area had done the job.

Not long after that I took Mrs. Barn and the older Barndottir to the new greenhouse just south of town, also operated by the same Amish family.  While there I happened to speak to the father about our possible project and within a fortnight he was up to give me a bid.  His estimate for removing the aged roof and replacing it entirely with brand new baked enamel steel roofing was almost the same price!  The decision was not really hard to make.

Given the large number of aging standing seam metal roofs here in the hinterland he has been kept busy almost non-stop repairing and replacing them.  He told me they moved here to be full-service carpenters (our county has one electrician, one plumber, and two home improvement enterprises so it was fertile territory) but his roofing work has pushed almost everything aside.  We got on the schedule for a new roof in October.  Then two weeks age we were notified that there was an opening in the calendar and our new roof project would begin the following day.

One of the drawbacks to living in such a remote are with such a sparse market of skilled tradesmen is that getting someone to do a job and do it in the time promised is pretty discouraging.  So, when the roofers said they would show up at 9AM the following morning we were anxious to see if it would actually come to pass.

They arrived around 8.30AM.  And, got the cabin roof stripped and installed in one day, using their mobile rolling mill to crimp all of the metal panels on the spot.  Good thing as there was rain in the forecast.  We knew in advance that they would be gone for three days attending a horse auction.

The second work day they also said they would be here around the same starting time.  That was an untruth.  They arrived at 7.20 and began installing the front porch roofing almost as fast as they were stripping off the old.  By early afternoon they were packed up and gone with the flashing, storm clips and gutters installed and the job site cleaned up.  I gladly handed over the check for the full payment.

I for one am thrilled at the prospect of more skilled tradesmen moving in to the region and I am helping a newly arrived Amish blacksmith build a foundry in his shop using one of my smelting furnaces.  Now that is going to be fun!

“Over And Done?” Not So Much…

When I had the adventure last summer of overturning a lawn tractor on top of myself and laying in the icy stream until the rescue crew could arrive, when it was over and done I thought it was over and done.  Recently I’ve had confirmation that the incident was not “over and done” once the rescuers tipped the tractor enough to extract me from underneath it, retrieved the tractor from the creek, and my psychedelic bruising finally migrated to my toes and then faded after a few weeks.  True enough, the bone bruise to my shin was swollen and discolored for the better part of a year since but that has subsided.  Nevertheless the incident was probably the final straw for the cartilage in my knee which now requires some surgical housekeeping next week.  Everyone who has been scoped and vacuumed assures me it is a piece of cake.  That would please me if it is true for the experience to be a piece of cake rather than a $%^& sandwich.

As to the tractor itself,  it started right up after sitting upright for a day and I was able to resume mowing once my leg felt better in a week.  However, I could not get the 48″ mower to cut evenly and I spent a fair bit of time tinkering with the levelers on the deck.  I got it better but never really was able to cut the lawn as smoothly as before.

This summer I got through one full mowing with the same problem of unevenness but on the second mowing the mower deck kept throwing off the 10-foot serpentine drive belt (the mower deck has three cutters, which I cannot recommend as it adds considerable complexity and fragility to the system).  Despite all my additional efforts to get things aligned I could not get it to work.  I wound up detaching and removing the mower deck from underneath the tractor and the problem was immediately apparent; the center drive hub had become completely broken and was no longer aligned with the other two cutters/hubs, so of course it was going to throw off the serpentine belt.  In fact I think the hub was so broken that the only thing holding it in place was all the grass mulch packed up against it.  two of the four flange ears were broken completely off, the other two were hanging by a thread.  No wonder I had been unable to get the mower to cut smoothly by simply tinkering with the levelers.

This systemic failure must be a weak point in the mower deck design because when I called our local shop the center hub was one of the parts he always keeps in stock.  I got a new one, swapped it out for the old one, and once I re-installed the deck and adjusted the levelers the mower cut like a champ.  I still have to adjust one or the other of the levelers about 1/8″ to get the cut perfect, but I was very pleased at troubleshooting the problem ad resolving it.  Not as pleased as if I had derived the answer last year and several hours of work earlier, but now it is good to go.

On top of al that I figured out how to email myself pictures from my phone.  I am walking tall today!

The (ahem) Beauty of Isolated Solitude

Living in a place where my nearest permanent neighbor is a mile away suits my preferences almost perfectly.  The national psychotic spasm over the past year-and-a-half has pretty much passed us over, as our population density enables “social distancing” on any day ending in “Y.”  Most days the only people Mrs. Barn and I encounter are each other.

But all is not perfect, in that while we have a clinic in town a visit to a specialist is an all day event requiring a trip over either three or four mountains, depending on which doctor is being visited.  Ditto real shopping, we have a convenience store, a feed and seed co-op, and a Dollar General but the nearest grocery store is an hour away, most general shopping is a half hour further.

Trip to the DMV?  Whole day.  Trip to the lumber yard?  All day.

Spring is always a hectic time around here with the gardens being planted, the grass needing mowing every third day, and this year we have had the calendar augmented with nuisance medical issues requiring a lot of back and forth trips out of the mountains.  I for one am very much looking forward to getting the debris inside my creaky knee vacuumed out next month.

All that to say that things are hopping here and blogging just ain’t at the very top of the daily “To Do” list.  That might make me a bad blogger, and I will give that concern all the attention it. deserves.

House Work

I often tell first-time homeowners that, “From this point on, one of your ‘hobbies’ better be working on the house.”  It has always been that way for me, although I am finding the scope of the projects are getting smaller as my bones get creakier.  Small things, okay.  Large things like re-chinking the cabin and the upcoming new standing seam metal roof?  Better leave those to younger and more nimble folks.  The problem is exacerbated by the dearth of a labor pool in the hinterlands.  To get skilled tradesmen to attend to a specific need you might have to wait up to a year or so once you “get on the list.”  Any man available for hire as an hourly wage laborer is available for a reason.  I’ve got leads for a couple of younguns to help out on the homestead on occasion but I have to wait for school to get out to firm up those connections.  We’ve got Amish moving into the community which I hope will alleviate some of this shortage.

Recently I had a nice little project that was pretty important.  Ironically it was on one of the newest pieces of wood on the cabin, on the rear side of the mud room built around 2008 or so.  The beveled sill at the bottom of the board-and-batten siding had decayed to the point that it was literally falling off.  unfortunately it was originally made from soft white pine so its life span was bound to be short.

With very little effort I was able to excavate the detritus and make the necessary measurements for a new one.  My first inclination was to make the new sill out of PTSYP, but given the current price of lumber (~$14 locally for an eight foot PT 2×4) and my depleted stock of PTSYP I went in another direction, one that was actually more appropriate; I recycled some of the chestnut framing lumber from the old shack up on the hill.

I re-sawed a full 2″ x 4″ stud to the size and configuration of the piece being replaced.  Given the “run of the mill” character of the chestnut I had to hand plane it a but to get it less curv-ey so that it would just slide into place.  It did, and a handful on mondo finishing nails later it is in place looking like it was always there.  Well, it will look that way after a few weeks of weathering.

This whole side of the cabin gets the brunt of the weather so I will certainly have to re-visit it at some point.


Last Spring while wandering around the woods above the barn I made a surprising discovery, the hook and tip from a logger’s cant hook, the tool used to turn and manipulate logs on the ground.  I have no idea of the vintage nor heritage of these tool components, they were muddy and rusty but still beefy enough to be sound and perhaps reused.  I’ve only been harvesting trees for less than a decade and these tool parts were certainly not mine; the previous log harvesting was four decades ago, long before I was on the scene.

I brought them back to the barn and stuck them in my “tool projects” box.

When I began setting-up to work firewood again a couple weeks ago in the aftermath of clearing the trees around the log barn, and not coincidentally opening the sky to provide copious sunshine for Mrs. Barn’s little orchard and garden adjacent to the stone wall, I recalled this earlier find.  There was no handle remaining for the cant hook parts so I checked with the hardware store.  They did not have anything suitable for use.  Instead of ordering one I checked my lumber stash and Surprise! found the perfect scrap of vintage white oak to make a new handle.  The rough stock was no account, having the live-edge running the full length of the narrow 10/4 board that I probably saved because I could not bring myself to throw away a piece of wood that “could be used for some project, some time.”  Happily that time had come.

Even though I already had two log-handling tools, one a standard cant hook to roll a log over, the other a timberjack to roll the log over and lift it up off the ground for easier chainsawing, I decided to make a new handle for the cant hook parts and thus have one in reserve.  Adding to the tool inventory is pretty much always an irresistible enticement.


I sawed out the blank for the handle and set to working on it, starting with the tapered end to match the metal fittings.  A drawknife, spokeshave and rasp accomplished this in short order.  Then I just started wailing away on the blank to make it rounded and swelled or tapered as needed for comfortable use.  The hours spent with hand tools, working hard and even working up a good sweat in so doing, goes in the WIN column in my book.  In a couple of hours, with my hands and arms tired from the exertion, the handle began to take shape.  Actually I was working the metal spokeshave so vigorously that I had to wear gloves to protect my hands from the heat of friction.  No kidding.  Even with a sharp blade and a waxed sole the tool got really hot.

As I was extracting the desired handle shape from the rough stock the pile of long, sinuous shavings grew repeatedly underfoot.  In their own way detritus like this (and from rendering Gragg chair parts) is treasured in our little Shangri-la as it provides perfect tinder for rejuvenating the wood stove every morning.  Being an early-riser Mrs. Barn relishes being able to deposit a handful of these shavings on the bed of coals from the overnight fire along with some kindling and gets the fire going in just a minute or two while she sits and reads with a cup of tea as the sun is coming up.

Put another check mark in the WIN column.

As I approached the final shape and size of the new handle I affixed the hook and serrated tip on it so I could actually hold it and mock-use it to get the size and shape just the way I wanted it.  A few more minutes of shaving a bit here, a smidge there, and it was ready to be put to work.  The only thing left was to paint the handle fluorescent orange like the rest of my woodlot tools (to find them much easier on the work site).

A vintage tool rehabilitated and added to the working inventory of the barn without having to reach for my wallet?  A big WIN.

So, an ordinary discovery deep in the woods yields a Win, Win, Win opportunity.