the homestead

Rethinking, or, “State of the Barn Address”

 

It’s been almost thirteen years since the skeleton of the barn was erected, nine years since it was outfitted with the first of more than a dozen workbenches, and over six years since the first blog post.  Now safely ensconced in my 65th year, lately I’ve been contemplating the entire enterprise, reflecting on how blessed I have been and continue to be.  Whether it is good news or bad news, after serious consideration I have no plans to change the fundamental structure of activity on the homestead for several more years, but at some point life in the mountains will simply become too physically taxing and the barn and cabin will be in my rear-view mirror.  Until then, however, it is still full(?) speed ahead with a big smile on my face, albeit not necessarily in the exact same direction nor the exact same speed.  I’m working just as hard as I did when I was 30, but the output is demonstrably less.   My Mom is 102 and lucid so I’ve got to think about another forty years of engagement and productivity.

Here is a sketch of what future activities might look like.  No telling if it is accurate.

Conservation Projects

Early on I maintained a fairly vibrant furniture and decorative arts conservation practice but have no plans to continue much of that except for specific projects and clients.  Yes, I will continue to work with the private collection of tortoiseshell boxes that I’ve been working on for more than a decade.  Recently I was approached to collaborate on a couple high profile on-site projects and if those move forward, fine. I love it but at this point I’ve got other things I want to do on the priority list.  And I want to truly perfect my artificial tortoisehell.  And I want to explore new uses of materials in furniture preservation.  And invent new materials, or novel uses of existing materials.   And, and, and…

Making Furniture

I make no claim as a furniture maker of any note, but I hope to concentrate on making more in the future.  I would love to maintain a small output of Gragg chairs every year, and even modify them and take them in directions Samuel Gragg never went.  I also have enough vintage mahogany for eight more Daniel Webster Desks, so perhaps there are some clients who might want one.  Only time will tell.  I’ve always had a hankering to make some furniture in the milieu of Charles Rennie Mackintosh or Alar Aalto, so maybe that becomes part of the equation.  And I have these sketches for pieces representing a collision of Roubo and Krenov while they are sitting on the porch of a Japanese temple.  And Mrs. Barn has a list of things she would like for the cabin.  And exploring parquetry more intensely.   And finally get pretty good at woodworking in general.  And, and, and…

Metal Work

I’ve always had a interest in metalworking since my boyhood when I would spend time with my Dad in his shed, melting lead weights and doing a little brazing and welding.  Many of those skills have grown fallow but I am trying to get them back and take them to new places.  My love of tool making has been rearing its lovely head in recent times and I have every intention of bringing that focus closer to the bullseye.  And part of that has to include getting my foundry back on-line.  And tuning up all my machine tools like my machinists’ lathes and mill.  And getting really good at brazing and silver soldering, maybe even welding.  And, and, and…

Finishing Adventures

I remain committed to looking both backwards and forwards into the realm of finishing materials, ancient and super modern.  I truly believe Mel’s Wax to be a transformative furniture care and preservation product for which I have not yet discovered the key to marketing.  But I will keep at it because of my knowledge of its performance and my commitment to Mel’s vision for it.  And as for beeswax and shellac wax? Finishing with them may be among the oldest and simplest methods, but they can be extremely difficult and I cannot pretend to have mastered them.  And what about my fascination with urushi and its non-allergenic analogs and the beautiful things I want to make from them?  And what about the fifty bazillion things I do not know about shellac?And, and and…

Writing

My plate of writing projects is full to overflowing, building on a strong foundation of completed works.  Notwithstanding my current struggles with the manuscript for A Period Finisher’s Manual, due entirely to my having too much esoteric material to include in a reasonably consumable book (really, how much solvent thermodynamics does the typical woodworker need to know?), I enjoy every minute I am writing even when it is driving me crazy.  I’d better because my collaborator Michele Pagan is one full book ahead of me in the Roubo Series.  And there are two or three more volumes after that one.  And some day I need to finish the almost-completed manuscript for A Furniture Conservation Primer created with a colleague while at the SI and thus will be necessarily distributed for free via the web site.  And what about my treatise on the technology and preservation of ivory and tortoiseshell?  And the dozen mystery/thriller novels I have already plotted out?  And who knows how many short stories about the life of First Century craftsman Joshua BarJoseph?  And, and, and…

Web

My first of almost 1,200 web posts went up six-and-a-half years ago, which I understand in the world of hobbyist blogging, where blogs come and go like the tides, puts me as some sort of  Methuselah.  But certainly not in the same class as The Accidental Woodworker, who has been blogging daily for even longer IIRC.  Ralph, I tip my hat to you, sir.

I once thought the web site/blog would be a useful portal for soliloquies about my projects and things I’ve learned over a long and rewarding career, but now I am not so sure.  A while back I decided to make a concerted effort to blog at least five times a week for a year, and I think I came pretty close.  Surely this would increase my web traffic!  Well, not so much.  At the end of this effort my web traffic was 2% lower than when it began.  Despite fairly consistent blogging my visitorship has dropped by almost half over the past four-plus years.    So I just scratch my head.  I’m not whining, but instead recognizing that the flock who is interested in my musings is shrinking, not growing.  Oh well.  This is not a good or bad thing, it is just a thing, helpful in me making decisions about priorities.  I have no plans to really change anything about the blog, we’ll just wait and see where it goes.  When I am not somewhere else, with someone else, or doing something else, I will blog.

Recently I was chatting with someone who informed me that web sites and blogs are now passe and the currency du jour is the unholy trio of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.  Given that and my antipathy towards the latter two it is likely that I will undertake the former at some near date (yes, I know the relationship between Instagram and Stalkerbook) .  Something inside me rebels at the notion of validating the post-literate world, however.  Still, the economic treatise presented by Larry the Liquidator is not only dramatic but accurate.  Even the Professional Refinisher’s Group is moving forward, transitioning from a moderated email forum to a private Facebook Group, which will leave me behind.  But they will survive without me and I intend to maintain contact with that circle of fellowship regardless.

Trouble is, I am by temperament a bizarre mélange of buggy whip maker and hardline “emergent order” Hayekian.  Hmmm.  Not really sure how that works out.

Workshops

Integral to my vision for the barn was to have it be a place of learning.  As the facility was coming together, whenever I spoke to any kind of woodworking gathering the verbal response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.  The reality that unfolded was anything but.  I now realize that my vision was a faulty one and the enthusiasm was superficial.  Quite bluntly, almost no one wants to come to such an isolated location where local amenities are practically nonexistent, to spend a few days engaging in subjects I want to teach.  Fair enough, the barn is too remote and my topics are too arcane.  Like I said before, this is not a good thing or a bad thing, but just an instructive  thing to add to the equation.

As a result and in recognition of reality I plan to deemphasize workshops at the barn, perhaps even eliminating them altogether, notwithstanding that I created dedicated spaces for the undertaking.  Should a small group of enthusiasts approach me with the request to teach them, I will do so.  That is precisely what a quartet of guys have done for next June.  And, I might do an occasional blockbuster-type workshop (a Gragg chair class would be such an example, if that ever occurs; I had thought a ripple molding machine class might be such an event, but with zero response…), or I might travel a bit to teach but otherwise that part of the portfolio is likely to close.  Not definitely, but likely.

Videos

Hence my transition to teaching via video.  If I cannot get folks to come here perhaps my best strategy is to go to them.  I have a multitude of ideas (more than twenty full-length [>30 mins.]video concepts on the list) and a brilliant local collaborator to work with.  I am committed to this path to the degree that I have the time, energy, and resources.

Further I have decided that making shorter, self-produced and thus less polished “shop technique videos” might be a useful undertaking to post on donsbarn.com, youtube or Vimeo.  I will explore this avenue in the coming weeks and months.

The Homestead

With several buildings, several gardens, and a power system to maintain and improve there is never a shortage of things to do here on the homestead.  I want to build/expand more garden capacity for Mrs. Barn to spend time doing the thing she loves best.  And fruit and nut orchards.  And I want to finish creating a rifle scope for shooters like me who have lost most of the vision in their dominant eye.  And another hydro turbine downstream from the current one.

And, and, and that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject.

That is The State of the Barn Address, 2019.  To quote one of Mel’s favorite songs, “The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.”  Yes it is.  I am living the dream.

Plentiful Bounty

 

This is a grand time on the homestead as the bounties from Mrs. Barn’s passions for gardening and good eating become manifest.  She gathers the fruits of her labors daily, and processes them almost every day.  Canning, drying, pickling and eating good stuff are in the air all the time now and, thanks to her skillful efforts, into the winter.   On top of that is the yogurt and cheese she makes every week from the two gallons of whole milk we get from a local farmer.

Pickled cucumbers, pickled squash,

dilled beans, green beans, dried apples and strawberries (she picked over 100 pounds of strawberries this year!; I’m guessing she cans/dries about 150 quarts of food every summer and autumn),

tomatoes, and salsa are the results that will treat us all winter long.  The tomatoes are just arriving so fresh BLTs will be on the lunch menu for the next dozen lunches.

On top of all this the apples are beginning to turn so I can look out my studio window and see them hang in the trees.  Maybe it’s time to build an orchard ladder or two.

Finally, The Chinking

The culmination of the cabin work was the application of the new chinking.  The restoration crew mixed their own on site, a mélange of lime, cement, and sand.  Forty-plus yeas of experience has led them down this path, and I was in no position to second-guess them.

With the foam insulation in place (it will remain a high performance flexible foam in perpetuity since it will be encased in the wall, protected by the UV light that turns it into rigid powder) topped over by nailed-on metal screen lath was ready to be impregnated with the cement mixture.

Once again I was delighted to have turned the project over to someone else.  Their fortitude and skill to do this kind of work at height in direct sunlight was impressive.  I ain’t a’ skeert of heights, but the going up and down just wears me out.

The result is the cabin has never looked better.  The only thing left to do on the project is the replacement of a small damaged log section next to the chimney, a final step that will be completed next week.

Now to start saving for new windows for next summer.  I can almost hardly wait for winter to get here so we can see how effective all of this work has been.

Filling The Log Voids

Once the clean-out was complete and the underlying surfaces borated it was time for the space between the logs to be filled, which was itself a two-step process.  In the first step the voids were filled with spray foam insulation to seal the spaces from air infiltration.  This step alone should make a huge difference in the coming winter.  It is my ardent desire that the new chinking, along with the insulating and sealing of the crawlspace will reduce the need for firewood substantially.

Once the spray foam insulation had firmed up it was trimmed and the chinking lath applied over it.  This was tedious and time consuming work as the stainless steel mesh had to be cut to fit the opening precisely, then nailed in place every couple inches or so.

With the lath done all that was left was to apply the cement-based chinking itself with careful troweling to finish the task.  I had gone back and forth between wanting traditional cement based chinking and newer silicone based synthetics, but Tim the contractor has been using the cement based system for about forty years with great success, so that is the path we took.

In the end we thought the job looked terrific and would perform excellently as all the steps leading up to completion were conscientiously and skillfully executed.  I am especially pleased to get chinking with a fitted undercut so it does not act like a rain gutter on the side of the house as had been the case with the previous chinking.

It is nice to be here long enough to finally connect with the network of craftsmen here.  In such an insular community it is a slow process, but we are getting there.  And for this project all we had to do was find the right crew and sign the check (which was more than the cost of my first house!).

We are hoping that the big project for next summer will be the replacing of all the windows to install new high efficiency ones.  But for now, the cabin has never looked better and was never more weather-tight.

 

There’s just one little area of repair to complete this week, but overall we are mighty pleased.

 

Packrattery Saves The Day (Again)

My reticence (inability) to discard wood even when others might see it as decrepit has once again come back to reward me.

The hefty vertical timber adjacent to the chimney had degraded to the point where it needed addressing and most likely replacement.  Tim the restoration contractor really wanted to use a large hunk of vintage chestnut for the replacement, and low and behold I had exactly the piece he needed.

I had salvaged the chestnut posts from the lean-to of the lower log barn on the homestead when my brother and I replaced the aged and failing wasll structure with a new, built-in-place laminated post and beam wall two summers ago.  The posts from the degraded wall were approximately ten inches in diameter and seven or eight feet in length.  They weighed a ton.

I transported one of them up to the barn and started whacking on it with my 10-inch circular saw followed by a Japanese timber saw.  In about an hour I had a piece useable to the restoration crew.

Tim said it was perfect, and after some additional fitting the new piece was inserted into the void left by the rotted old one.

An Excellent Patch

During the process of removing the ancient chinking and other fills on the log cabin, a disturbing find was a fist-sized hole on the north side wall.  The hole was not necessarily a surprise as the north side was the most weather beaten with considerable surface lichens and some localized fungal rot, including some pretty substantial damage to some of the structure around the chimney (more about that next time).  But the hole was concerning since it went all the way through the log!

After consulting with Tim, the owner of the log cabin restoration company, I decided to have him attempt the localized repair rather than cut out the whole log section or fill it with an epoxy-based composite.  Tim thought he had just the right piece of weathered chestnut to make the fill, and the results confirmed his confidence in his skills and my confidence in him.

He had to excavate several inches on either side of the hole to get back to sound wood, and seeing the size of the pocket was a bit unnerving.  But, the final results were indeed impressive.

A couple months of weathering and the fill will be invisible.  Like I said, impressive.

De-chinkifying the Cabin

Just the sight of this brutal work made me all the more delighted that I passed the task on to other folks.  With hammer and chisel and prybar the several hundred linear feet of concrete chinking was removed, along with the mesh lath and fiberglass insulation underneath.  There was a mountain of debris at the end of every day, carefully collected and hauled off.

We had them start the project with this side of the cabin because this is where Mrs. Barn plants her pole beans, and we needed to get that done first.

After the joint void was cleaned and any decrepit wood was removed to leave a clean and sound substrate (there was a fair bit of this as the original chinking had not been relieved and the top of each course of chinking acted like a gutter, drawing in rain.  Good thing the logs were old growth chestnut.  It’s probably the only thing that saved them), the joint surfaces were saturated with borate solution to increase the rot resistance of the structure.

Though this description is brief I can attest to the scope of the work that took several days to accomplish.

Scale

This year in addition to insulating the foundation walls of the cabin crawl space we decided to replace the ancient chinking between the massive chestnut logs of the cabin itself in order to make it more weather tight.  We live in a fairly windy place and with the decrepit chinking in place there was often a brisk airflow through the cabin.

The first process was pressure cleaning the entire structure in order to identify the conditions underneath all the surface crud.

The size of that project was such that we contracted it out to a local log cabin restorer.  If I had tried to do it myself it would have probably taken two years and eaten all of my free time.  And made me grumpy since it would have kept me out of the shop most of that time.

Top to bottom all the stuff between the logs had to be removed with hammers and chisels. The crew cleaned the job site every evening, but the pile grew as each day went on.

It was fascinating to see between and behind the logs to the sub-wall of vertical boards on the inside. We found newspapers in there indicating that the inner sub-wall had been there since before WWI.

The scale of the project was indeed daunting.  The old chinking and lath has to be chipped out, the underlying insulation and debris and, as Mrs. Barn called it, “the biosphere of the logs” (snakes, rodents, and a bazillion lady bug carcasses), cleaned out completely, followed by a multitude of steps following.  All of this for the better part of a thousand linear feet of joint lines.  That scale alone precluded me from undertaking the project, especially once you add to the equation the necessary scaffolding and equipment needed to execute the job efficiently and the few places of rotted or damaged wood that needed attention.

The north wall was in pretty tough shape and would need the most work. You can see a void from the rot big enough to put my entire fist through to the inner sub-wall.

Over the three weeks of the project there was a crew of stout lads here doing all the work.  That made me smile.  All I had to do was watch and sign the check.

Stay tuned.

Combating Ignorance (My Own)

A couple months ago I had a “crisis”(?) with the power system for the barn.  I made it through most of the winter just fine, invariably shutting down the system on my way down for supper and turning it back on in the morning to save the power that would have kept the system up overnight.  Suddenly the power accrual fell off the cliff and I really got concerned.  A day that should have been inputting 300-400 watts into the system was instead producing 70, or 50, or even 20.  Since I had a generator wired into the system last year I was not at risk of being without power while working but the dysfunction was not insignificant despite the fact that I seemingly had enough power to work in the shop all day.

I trouble shot every aspect of the system I knew, even getting so desperate as to READ THE INSTRUCTION MANUAL (even my pal BillR who is an EE and MS Robotics guy says the system product information is almost impenetrable).  In desperation I corresponded with Rich, the EE who sold me the system, and BillR, who installed the solar components.  They too were scratching their heads about the situation.

Then at about the same time they both had a suggestion: make sure the Dump Load switch is turned on.   The Dump Load is a resistance coil to “dump” any excess electrons once the batteries were charged to full capacity to prevent them from being damaged by over-charging.

Yup, that was the ticket.  Apparently during one of the evening shut-downs I absent-mindedly (or at least inadvertently) threw the Dump Load switch to “off” and left it there.  The Dump Load switch is right next to the switches for the inverters.  With the Dump Load off the system would literally only accept the trickle necessary to keep the batteries topped off.  So, when I saw the system first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening, where no meaningful consumption was ongoing, the system had told itself to choke off any wattage input from the solar panels to protect the batteries.  During the day when I was using electricity the system would have shown an input equal to my usage but I would not have seen that.

In the moments following my turning the Dump Load back on I literally let out a whoop as the input went from 20 watts to almost a kilowatt because throwing that switch told the system to go full bore.

So I didn’t really have any kind of crisis, other than the one in my own mind due to the fact that I did not understand fully the intricacies of the power system, even after all these years.

Good thing ignorance is curable.

Rat Patrol

Spring comes to us so quickly and late that it is inevitably a frenzied season of activity.  It seems that no sooner does the snow stop than we have to start mowing twice a week.  And Mrs. Barn’s cabin fever breaks into a session of manic gardening that ends only when the harvest is done and the preserves are put up.

After three years of successful gardening last year was the tough one for Mrs. Barn as the big rats, a/k/a “deer”, finally discovered the tender goodies there and mowed them down.  Over and over again, regardless of how many fences or other dissuasions we installed.

This year we decided to get serious and installed an electric fence in accordance with all the instruction our friends and neighbors provided.  When we bought the system at the local feed-and-seed I requested an electric fence system that would not just discourage the deer but would provide enough current to kill and barbecue them in one fell swoop.  Alas the new system only shocks them.  A little bit.

The set-up preferred by locals is to target the vegetarian predators where their noses are.  Thus the three levels of electric tape are at bunny nose height, ground hog nose height, and deer nose height.  That big gap in between has us skeptical, but we were told repeatedly that this approach will work.

It has been successful up to this point, and in fact we have not seen any deer in the neighborhood of the garden since it went up three weeks ago.  They are around the homestead but steering clear of the front yard.  Prior to the electric fence we had a mama and her fawns taking up residence, and at one point over the winter I actually found them sleeping in the flower bed adjacent to the front porch.  Often when looking out the windows of the barn I could see up to a dozen grazing on the hill above the cabin.

But now?  None!  We are hoping for the trend to continue.  Plus, the garden looks so much better with much of the cobbled together fencing removed.  I will even dismantle most of the hoop houses, leaving only one or two to be draped with screen or plastic sheeting over the winter as needed.

It’s a win-win situation.  If I could get the barbecue function it would be a win-win-win.