One More Reason For Japanese Saws

In my frequent travels this past year to visit Li’l T and his parents and Barndottir the Elder I have almost always taken a traveling tool kit.  Perhaps not enough for major home repairs or construction but certainly enough to get most woodworking tasks done.  Fortunately, my SIL is an accomplished remodeler and the basement and shed at Barndottir the Elder’s home still has a pretty complete inventory of my tools, so I am almost fully set up regardless of which place I am.

My traveling tool kit is a very concise collection of woodworking tools with a couple of extra things useful for home repairs.  Perhaps one day I will blog about the contents of the kit, which resides in a mahogany surveyor’s theodolite box with a couple drawers added on beneath.

Since space is always a premium in a kit like this I have become additionally enamored with Japanese saws, more particularly Z-brand saws with replaceable/interchangeable handles and blades.  With one handle I can outfit it with any number of set-ups to accomplish everything from sawing timbers to fine dovetails and all points in between.  I keep a cardboard “envelope” for the blades and pack them separately from the handle, so the spatial footprint is surprisingly small for such a large range of sawing utilities.  In just the space of a handle I can carry a good set of saws.

Yet another reason to incorporate Japanese saws into your inventory of tools and skills.

‘Tis the Season…

… to harvest firewood for the coming winters.

The pile as of two days ago.

This coming winter is already taken care of, so now I am working on winters 2023, 2024, 2025, etc.  This week I have done nothing but retrieve a small portion of the windfall over the past year, yielding a heaping pickup every day.  Thus far my mountain of firewood to be split and stacked is about 1-1/2 winters, maybe more if the new cabin windows make the same difference as did the two previous projects — insulating and sealing the crawl space under the cabin, and replacing all the chinking between the logs.  These two ventures resulted in cutting our firwood needs by almost 50% last winter.

The road up to the previously felled timber is blocked by windfall trees which must be cut up and removed to even get to the upper inventory. Each of these trees renders almost a full pickup load of cut bolts.

I haven’t even made it to this tree yet, with its 40+-feet of clear trunk almost 24″ in diameter. If it were less logistically challenging, I would contemplate getting this one milled into slabs.

I’ve retrieved four truckloads, with at least another dozen still awaiting my ministrations.

This maple log was a particular challenge as I had to use some block-and-tackle to enable my little pickup to drag it uphill and on to the road so I could work it.  This made me appreciate my little Stihl saw all the more.  It is small and lightweight but can handle an 18-inch bar due to its narrow chain.  I keep the chain sharpened several times a day and have to swap out the current chain because I’ve worn it to the nub.

This week also brought the first swatches of color to the local flora.

CW’s 2023 WW18thC

This week by mail and email I got the announcements (several of them, actually) for the upcoming conference Working Wood in the 18th Century at Colonial Williamsburg, January 26-29, 2023.  The topic is certainly of great interest to me and since they have rescinded all their previous Covid restrictions I am likely going.

Over the past dozen years I think the only times I have gone is when I was a presenter, so this will be a pleasant experience.  I know most of the presenters and look forward to visiting with them, and hope to run into friends old and new.  I promise to be mostly congenial but have to brush up on some social skills that may have become dormant in recent years.

If you’re going let me know.

Back to harvesting firewood for winter 2023/2024 and well beyond.  There’s a lot of storm-fall out there.

On Display

Some months ago I was approached by my friend TimD, who was organizing a “Historic trades” weekend at his place with fellow gunsmiths, horn workers, blacksmiths, weavers, etc.  Tim is an accomplished craftsman, primarily making flintlock rifles and associated accessories like powder horns.  So, he was gathering a number of friends and acquaintances for a weekend shindig open to the public and he asked me to demonstrate making my Tordonshell to the crowds.  It was a peculiar technology to include but I was delighted to participate.  I spent three days on display and explained Tordonshell to literally hundreds of attendees.

I was set up to occupy Tim’s gunsmith shop, a reconstructed late 18th/early19th log structure, using the partner’s workbench I built for him a few years ago.

The front porch of the shop was occupied by other artisans including a wool spinner and my very own polissoir-maker Gary.

I was frankly surprised by both the number of visitors I had, and the intensity of their interest in both genuine tortoiseshell and my imitation of it.

Next year’s event is already on the books for Labor Day weekend and is expected to have around 30 demonstrators.   I am already at work for my demonstrations, as I will be making things out of finished Tordonshell as opposed to making the Tordonshell itself.

I hope you can join u there.

New Hoop Covers for Raised Beds

With the form for the curved ribs in hand I set about to making the four necessary ribs from 3/16″ strips of pressure treated lumber.  Using the combination of T3 adhesive and my fender washer/deck screw method I clamped the laminations to the form, followed by a boat load of crown staples.

When the glue had set (but not hardened fully) I removed the ribs from the form and strapped them to maintain the proper dimension until everything was dry and hard. Unfortunately I do not have any pictures of the skeleton all assembled (I should follow the example of RalphB who is scrupulous about photographing his projects).

With the skeleton finished I stapled 1/2″ hardware cloth as a skin.  This was a bit of a problem until I had a blinding flash of the obvious.  The tip of the pneumatic stapler kept sliding off the wire of the hardware cloth, that is until I filed a tiny notch in the center of the stapler tip, the part that slides up as a safety measure.  After that the process went amazingly fast.

The hoop covers were really light and easy to maneuver into the proper place.  Mrs. Barn wanted them to be attached and hinged so I made that happen, then covered them with a second skin of window screen to keep out the moths that love to eat up the veggies she grows inside.

Come winter we will cover these with plastic to turn them into mini-greenhouses so that she can grow things inside year-round.  This works well enough, but a big improvement in this regard is coming soon to the homestead.

Stay tuned.

Mundanities Vol. 4

It’s that time of year when there’s a run-up to firewood season.  I will soon find myself building a mountain of cut firwood next to the splitter and spending several days splitting and stacking the finished product to season and await its use.  We do not need any firewood for the coming winter, and perhaps even into the start of next winter, but my goal is to get ahead of the heating fuel curve by three winters.


In addition to that we’ve had some work done on the homestead (more on that later) that is prompting some aggressive brush cleanup around the log barn near where my pal Bob felled some trees eighteen months ago.  To that end I’ve spent the past two weeks working in the area extracting brush, cutting wood, and bush hogging.

A simple tool I made from, once again, wood from the scrap inventory and decking screws, has been exceedingly helpful; a saw buck.  It was made from pressure treated pieces left over from some long-forgotten project, took very little time or energy to become manifest.  In sort, a perfect “mundanity.”

Exploiting the properties of triangles and diagonal bracing the saw buck is very light — I can move and maneuver it easily with one hand while the other is holding the idling chain saw — and also exceeding strong with a holding capacity of several hundred pounds.  Thus I can easily get the piece(s) to be sawn up off the ground so that I don’t have to finesse the saw bar to keep it from touching the ground.  Around here if the running chain hits the ground, it hits a rock, and off to sharpening it goes.

A Different Kind of Craftsmanship (not exactly woodworking)

I recently ordered a new pair of lightweight logging boots to replace my old ones, now 20 years old and very high mileage (not to mention they weigh seven pounds apiece).  Somewhere in my search I came across this fascinating video of handmade boots.

Hooped Covers for the Raised Beds – Part 1

Our little corner of paradise has many idyllic features fitting my “Want List,” compiled over 30 years, almost perfectly.  Remote?  Check (as the realtors have advertised, we are three mountains back from the nuclear blast zones). Sparse population?  Check (reputedly the lowest population of any county east of the Mississippi River).  Isolation?  Check (nearest permanent neighbors a mile away).  Geographic beauty?  Oh yeah.

Rich, loamy soil perfect for gardening?  Uh, not so much.  I actually think that the primary “agricultural” product of our region is not cattle and sheep but rocks.  Even now after a dozen years of gardening the same spot Mrs. Barn gathers a new pile of rocks every Spring during her pre-planting preparations.   By the way, this has to be done by hand as the “soil” will beat the ever lovin’ snot out of a garden tiller.  I once rented a trencher to bury some electrical conduit.  Didn’t last five minutes.


Recognizing the nature of the “soil” here I built a series of raised beds for gardening before we moved here.  I ordered a truck load of “topsoil” that had to be screened to remove all the gravel, then filled the boxes with that screened dirt.  Soon enough there were green shoots popping up.

Early on I affixed PVC hoops ribs on the boxes so they could be netted in the summer and covered with plastic in the winter.  On two of the boxes I built removable screened hoop covers for the beds, and this past winter I was informed that the two screened covers were plumb wore out and needed to be replaced.

Given the importance of the enclosed raised beds I decided to make some first-class hoop covers for them.  I began by taking the time to make a form on which I could assemble laminated curved ribs.  Then the work got serious.

Mandanities Vol. 3, Making Charcoal

One of the things about living on the edge of the forest, especially if you are trying to carve out more space along the edge, is that you have to deal with a lot of wood and brush.  Bigger trees are not a strategic problem, they get cut, split, and stacked as firewood.  For branches smaller than wrist-sized it is a judgment call, are they firewood or are they kindling?  For the most part in recent years the primary use was as kindling as Mrs. Barn, normally the fire tender as she gets up earlier than I do, would fill the giant cauldron on the front porch with sticks to serve that function throughout the winter.

The simplest way to deal with excess brush and branches is to just throw them back further into the frontier at the edge of the forest, a “solution” that bites you when eventually pushing that frontier back as we are doing right now.  For the most part the ultimate solution is to either get a chipper or burn up the inventory in a burn pit or barrel.

Recently Mrs. Barn came up with brilliant idea — turn the excess into charcoal.  This plan may or may not have coincided with her exploration of the Weber grill as a smoker/outdoor oven/broiler to keep heat out of the kitchen when it gets hot here (in the 80s).  She has been experimenting with great success in that realm.  Combined with my own interest in charcoal-making it seemed like this was the time to begin skipping down that path.

I hired a local fellow to do a ton of weed eating around the homestead, and one of the things that venture revealed was the number and size of brush piles we had underneath the greenery.  So, I’ve been slowly pulling out the brush and clearing the path to the felled firwood trees out behind the log barn.  Since it was going to be burned up anyway, why not try to turn some of it into charcoal?

I’d attended a charcoal-making workshop many years ago and remembered that the “controlled ignition” system while more efficient was also much trickier; you gotta get the burn conditions just right to cause the raw material to smolder until it was fully carbonized and no farther.  The “retort” system — essentially cooking the wood down to its basic carbon form — though less efficient, struck me as much simpler and easier.  So, I dug out a heavyweight small trash can, took it to the burn barrel, and gave it a try.  With great success!

Actually the first step was to select a few wrist-sized branches and haul them up to the barn and cut them into 3″ pieces on the chop saw.  When the small trash can was full it was time to head down to the burn barrel and give it a try.

I built about a six-inch bed of twigs at the bottom of the burn barrel and lit that, letting it burn and adding fuel until I had a hot fire.  Then I lifted the small trash can into the barrel and sat it on the bottom fire.  This was not particularly easy as the contents of the trash can had not been seasoned in any meaningful way, they had just been a pile of brush in the tall grass.  The can was really heavy.

One I had the trash can situated in the barrel I fed a large galvanized pipe through the handle so that the trash can would hang once the bottom fire burned down.  I did not know if this was a useful approach but it seemed like a smart way to even out the heat through the charcoal can.  I then selected a large number of smaller branches, 1″ – 2″, and hand cut them into 6-inch pieces which I then fed into the barrel all around the outside of the charcoal can, filling up the barrel to the lid of the charcoal can.  I laid a handful of 2-inch sticks on top of the trash can and waited to see what happened.

As expected, soon enough there was a plume of steam coming out of the four holes I had pre-drilled into the lid of the trash can, as first the unbound water and then the bound water was distilled out of the wood.  This process took about three or four hours.  All I had to do was stand there and watch.

The real excitement occurred at about the 4-5 hour mark as the moisture was all gone — the presence of the moisture had regulated the internal temperature to 212 degrees (remember 9th grade Physical Science?) — and the temperature inside the trash can jumped to the point where formaldehyde and methanol were being distilled off from the carbonizing wood.  Quick as a flash I had jets of flame whooshing out of the holes in the lid and from around the rim where the lid fit the trash can.  For almost an hour the flames did their job, then they were gone.

After that I let the entire barrel-and-trash-can stay undisturbed while any remaining fuel burned off and the whole thing cooled down over night.

In the morning I could hardly wait to see what I had wrought.  The results were spectacularly successful, beautiful charcoal just waiting to be put to use on the grill.  The end product was 1/3 smaller and 3/4 lighter than the original.  I’ve got the system down pat and will make more charcoal as the spirit leads.  I’m going to burn up all the wood anyway.

Mundanities, Vol. 2

Perhaps I should call this series, “Fun with scrap wood” as many of the projects are derived from the piles of leftover wood laying around the barn.  Such is the case with this one.

Using pressure treated southern yellow pine and some cypress boards I fashioned this movable/removable shower seat for the bath tub.  I hand planed all the boards before assembling them with decking screws.  The seat slats are cut to fit between the bathtub walls and screwed to underlying battens, and top end elements perpendicular to them to rest on top of the tub walls.

I planed chamfers on the tops of all the seat slats, thinking it would eliminate any discomfort while sitting and taking a shower.  That has not worked out so well as the corners still press hard against flesh; I may go back in and round the upper chamfer corners.

Otherwise, the bench works perfectly.  I will keep an eye on the top piece to see if cracks appear along the screw line.  If so I will have to retool it.  But for now, when I need it I can grab if from the space behind the hamper, and when finished I put it back.