the homestead

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.


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.

A Week *Under* The Cabin

Finally after several years of dithering, we got the crawl space under the cabin insulated. The log cabin sits atop a stone wall in the front with the newer rear addition on a stone-faced block wall, with nary a lick of insulation to be found in the vicinity. Whether you are a physics purist determines if you think the cold was wicking in or the heat wicking out. One thing was evident always; the floors were cold all winter long regardless of how much we cranked up the wood stove. So the time had come to address the situation.

It was not straightforward.

For starters, I am not the most nimble fellow, on or off my feet, and the space underneath the living space was, well, close. I am not claustrophobic, I’m just large (notwithstanding my self image as a small man, due almost entirely to being a most enthusiastic basketball player as a kid. I was almost always the smallest guy in the game. Like Peter Follansbee my dream was to play power forward in the NBA but I definitely picked the wrong parents and stopped growing a foot too soon). Fortunately a chance remark to the fellow who grew up in this house 45 years ago yielded an excellent referral to Rick, a retired electrician/handyman who is a renowned spelunker.

After a few weeks of phone-tag we set the time to commence the project immediately after our week in Florida celebrating my Mom’s 102nd birthday. Being a spelunker Rick kept saying, “This project is going to be fun!” After a week under the house I wonder if he thought the same.

Our first task was to clean out the small amount of debris there, Rick uses a concrete-mixing tray hooked up to a rope for that, and then we got to work on lining all the surfaces — dirt floor and walls — with heavy duty plastic sheet. Have you ever tried maneuvering a hundred pounds of slick plastic sheet while on your belly? It’s less fun than it sounds.

Underneath the old log cabin the space was so tight I was of little help. Even Rick had to lose his winter jacket in order to fit. Once the plastic sheeting was in place he attached 3″ XPS foam panels I had salvaged years before (I used this insulation for my shop space and it worked magnificently). He was underneath while I was outside cutting the pieces to the dimensions he shouted out. All the seams were filled with sprayed polyurethane foam.

With the cabin space finished we moved to the newer addition where the space was comparatively capacious. The first task was to install a sump pump in a depression that was evidently created to hold water, it was in fact full of water when we specced out the project. Fortunately there was no water present during our week under the house.

The final day of the week-long project was tough for me standing outside cutting the foam sheets as a record breaking cold front was moving in. But then it was done.

The days immediately after the installation were record cold, with overnight wind chills in the -40 territory. Given that level of cold we could not adequately discern the efficacy of the insulation. That was followed by record-warm weather, so it has only been in the last fortnight when a “normal” weather pattern resumed that we could tell it was really making a difference.

I placed a dehumidifier and box fan in the space to get it really dry before I treat all the wood surfaces with borate salts solution, and once that dries we will dive back in and finish insulating the perimeter beam on top of the wall, from which the joists are hung.

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.

Making a 1″ NPT Tap For A One-off Use

I am in the process of reconfiguring the plumbing at the bottom of the hydroelectric system (more about why later) involving increasing the size of the final flow route from 3/4″ to 1″, a dimensional increase of 33% and, more beneficially, a volumetric increase of almost 80%.  But in order to accomplish this I needed to fabricate some fittings with 1″ NPT female threads, requiring a 1″ NPT tap.  Ever priced one of those?  The number is exceedingly off-putting so instead I made my own using a $3 piece of  1″ NPT pipe fitting from the hardware store.  Since I was cutting threads in Schedule 40 PVC it was more than robust enough for the task.

I first tapered the end of the pipe with a file, then sawed four kerfs into the surface of the threads with a hacksaw.

With files I then reduced the cross-section of the threads such that each of the four kerfs became four cutting faces for the new threads which were being cut into a slightly oversized 1-1/8″ hole drilled in the PVC.

The “tap” handle was just an assemblage of plumbing pieces, and the thread cutting could commence.

This allowed me to screw in the fitting I needed for the radiator hoses that connect the penstock to the turbine valves/nozzles/impeller.

It took about an hour to make the tap, and it saved many, many dollar$.