Archive: » 2022 » October

Seasonal Splendor

Even on a slightly hazy morning, the drive back from the hardware store featured a landscape of almost fluorescent colors on the mountain behind the cabin.

Autmn beauty is a fleeting thing here in the Virginia Highlands, a good year giving us at best three weeks of polychromy.  This year we had about a fortnight plus a day or two.

Hard to not be distracted when this is the view from the window.

During that fat fortnight the drive up the road and the view outside the shop windows was glorious.

Another splendiferous happening during autumn in these parts is the annual making of apple butter the old-fashioned way. Twice we have been able to go to our friends Pat and Valerie to help cook, stir, and can apple butter in accordance with Pat’s mom’s recipe (I think), using a giant copper-lined cauldron resting above a wood fire.  This year we had brilliant, crisp days for the event and garnered almost 150 pints each day.

The assembly line firing on all cylinders.

Perhaps the truest from of magnificence on these days is when we got to scrape caramelized apple butter off the bottom of the cauldron with fresh biscuits and popping the treat into our mouths.

Words do not suffice.

Advice For A Young Adult

In recent weeks I’ve been corresponding with a friend-I’ve-never-met about a wide range of topics, and the question came up (paraphrased), “How can I best help my teenager to pursue a life of skilled woodworking?”  (The Dad is a brilliant woodworker but has a more-than-full-time profession).  The young adult recently visited the North Bennett Street School and was much impressed.

But, what are the other options?  It’s not a question I have given much consideration before now.

The family in question does not live in the US so moving to attend NBSS is only one option on the table.  Any good fit for the youngster will be considered regardless of location.  From conversing with the Dad I think anything from long-term apprenticing with an excellent mentor to finding a first-class skilled trade school is on the table.  The only objective is to obtain a thorough grounding in the craft, so two-week workshops are not in the cards, nor is necessarily a BFA at a university as the goal is to impart the complete skills necessary to live a long and productive life as an artisan, not inflict malignant social/political indoctrination.

What are the other options for becoming a skilled furniture maker, boatbuilder, musical instrument maker, traditional timber framing, or anything similar?  The things that come to my mind are Ecole Boulle in Paris, West Dean College and City and Guilds in the UK, some luthiery and violin-making programs, etc.

I will check more with the Dad to find out any particular proclivities of the prospective student, but if you have any good ideas please let me (and him) know about them.


Years ago when my sister’s family was visiting and we were giving the kids a walking tour of the property, one of my nephew’s exclaimed, “Uncle Don, it’s just like you live in a state park!”  As you can probably deduce from some of the firewood-harvesting pics, the topography for much of the property is, shall we say with literary license, exuberant.   One moment of inattention or one spot of poor footing can put you on the ground in a twinkle of the eye.  Given my poor vision with almost zero binocular depth perception and my history of injury I am becoming increasingly attentive to keeping upright in the place I want to be moving or standing still.

Traipsing around up and down and across the hills requires good footing and for all of these years I have relied on an old pair of lumberjack-ish boots.  For standing, these are the most comfortable footwear I have ever worn, but as my excursions into the forest have become more purposeful, they were wanting.  For starters, as the knobby soles became worn they were less able to grab the ground as needed, but even worse is the fact that they weigh about 8 lbs apiece making the traversing of rough terrain all the more problematic.  Hiking around iffy ground with a brick lashed to each leg is not optimal.

Since firewood-harvesting became integral to my routine here I started looking into spiked-sole lumberjack boots (the term for this type of boot or shoe is “calked;” I have no idea of this etymology) as a response to slippery footing.

After much browning of the interwebz I found this pair of “calked” boots built on a hiking boot platform, thus reducing their weight by around 50%.  They are comfortable, lightweight, and grab the ground like they were, uh, spiked to the ground.  They have transformed my time in the woods or when bush hogging the hillsides, or even just mowing the yard (although I must be attentive to where the water hoses are so as to avoid stepping on them).  In these arenas, they are perhaps my most important tools.

Pollen PPE

Given my longstanding allergies to pollen and my fortnight in the hospital with pneumonia this past July I am increasingly attentive to what I breathe, especially when doing yard work.

For several years I wore a fitted industrial respirator when mowing and trimming, but even then I often had several days of wheezing and sneezing afterwards.  While in the hospital in July I noticed that several of the caregivers wore powered air filtration helmets.  They seemed like a near perfect solution to my problem.  Their units were designed for medical/laboratory conditions and cost roughly $3k so that was not where I was going to go, but then I recalled the filter helmets often worn by wood turners and began my exploration there.

My first choice was the Axminster APF10 unit from England.  It seemed to have the most streamlined configuration and the most comfortable fit.  On inquiry I was informed that the company did not ship to the US so I had to remove them from consideration.  (I am uncertain as to their current shipping regs; I might still like to get one, so if you are going to the UK and would be willing to pick one up for me there, let me know.)

In the end the only option left to me was the Trend Airshield Pro unit, which I did order.  In some respects it is a fine unit, in other aspects not so much.  There are other options, generally for the sandblasting and welding arena, but the prices for many of those units ($1500 and up) put them outside my immediate consideration.

When evaluating the Trend Airshield primary functionality, keeping the nasties out of my lungs, it does an excellent job.  I have worn it several times mowing with nary a sneeze, wheeze, nor runny nose in the aftermath.

Alas, the unit is clearly designed for a static posture in use, in other words being used by someone standing in one place, not moving or bending very much.  It is very top-heavy so the motions involved with mowing or trimming are problematic.  It has fallen from its perch several times in use.

Getting the headband to fit properly remains a challenge, at least for my head, despite adjusting everything there is to adjust.  On a comfortability scale from 1 to 10, I would rate the unit a minus 3.  To get it snug enough to stay put while I am mowing or trimming or brush-hogging it is painful to wear as the front band imbeds into my forehead.  I am working on devising a padding system to make it tolerable, but I am not there just yet.  It seems that there is something just not right about the configuration.

As for the final consideration, namely price, at around $350 it seems expensive but a cost I am more than willing to bear given my respiratory allergies and desire for wheeze-free living.

Big Doin’s In Little Homestead

At long last Mrs. Barn has agreed that the time has come for me to build her a year-round playground.  This required a new terrace to be cut into the hillside just above the garden plot, which in turn required a bulldozer to accomplish same.   Since I do not own a bulldozer, rendering me as less of a man I know, I asked around and three friends independently gave me the name SteveB as the guy to do the job.

After several weeks of back-and-forth phoning he finally showed up a few weeks ago to do the deed.  There is nothing quite so much fun as watching a good ol’ boy and his bulldozer at work.

I literally set up a lawn chair in the bed of my pickup and sat watching him all day.

It took him about six hours, back and forth in the space, to finish the job.

Working just by eye he created a long, wide, flat platform and when he surveyed the project afterward, he confirmed that it was not perfectly flat; it was a couple inches higher at one end than the other.  For a 150-foot-long run that struck me as pretty good.

The greenhouse I will be using as my model, belonging to my friend F.

So, what will go there?  For starters I will be copying my friend F’s greenhouse, hoping to get that built over the next few weeks, weather and family commitments allowing.  Once that is up and running I expect Mrs. Barn to spend almost every day there through the winter since she loves puttering in the dirt and hates the gloom of short days and cold weather.

Once he was done with the new terrace SteveB he moved across the creek to smooth out the gnarly terrain in the space where we had felled a number of trees eighteen months ago to give better sunshine to the garden plot on that side of the creek.

That outcome was every bit as successful as the terrace, and we now have a wide range of options for using this plot of land.  I’ll probably start with a parking spot and a small bed of gravel.

I seeded both patches of dirt and there are now flourishing stands of pasture grass there.


Mundanities, Vol. 5

One of the curses(?) of occupying a space as large as the barn is that there is often little incentive to throw things away when their useful life is over.  Even if some artifact is no longer functional, you see, its carcass may serve as the raw material for some new application.  Such was the case with this simple project.

After many years of faithful service the old garden cart simply rotted away.  The wood panels forming the box of the cart were friable to the point of needing no tools for the disassembly, gloved hands were all it took to take the detritus and toss it into the fire pit.  The wheels and axel, however, remained robust albeit a bit rusty, and were kept in waiting in the basement of the barn for several years, just waiting for the new generation of use.

Once I got a new hefty riding lawnmower I realized that the homestead needed a tow-behind wagon for moving mulch, compost, etc., for Mrs. Barn’s gardening efforts.  So I made one.  Simple, sturdy and functional.

I ripped a pile of PT-SYP and assembled the unit with deck screws.  I will make and affix the tail gate at some point soon, depending on weather and other projects.  I’ll also fit it with a tarp liner so dirt and gravel can be hauled without falling through the cracks.

It was satisfying to get such a nice project in just a few hours of low-intensity work, requiring little precision and only a framing square and screw gun for assembly.

A Wordy Week

Generally, aside from my time with Mrs. Barn the overwhelming number of my conversations occur underneath my snow-white hair and between my years.  That said, lately beginning with my three days of being on display at the 18thC Trades Show I’ve been talking out loud a lot.  This week was a continuation of that theme.

On Tuesday I was at a local civic meeting and asked about my “newcomer’s” observations of our regional community and spoke at great length on the subject.  Yup, even though we bought the cabin over 20 years ago, we are newcomers.  That makes a certain sense in a community where dozens of families can directly trace their arrival here well over 200 years ago.

On Thursday my long-time friend and even longer-time broadcaster Brain Wilson interviewed me for his “Something Completely Different” podcast, discussing current events in the political economy.  Say what you will, my perspectives are indeed “something different” than you are going to encounter in the corporate mega-media.  You can track down the podcast fairly easily on your own, which saves me the aggravation of posting the link and then receiving gripes and moans about my mean, radical wrongthink ideas.

Friday morning was a long interview with Neal Bascomb from the Work/Craft/Life publication, discussing the H.O. Studley tool cabinet.  Since I am always willing to discuss the collection and my relationship to it, the hour flew by.  I will definitely post a link to that once it is published.

Friday afternoon brought a visit to the studio by my local friend, musician and luthier also named Neal, where we discussed at length the nature and manipulation of hide glue and the vagaries of guitar picks.

I feel all talked out, ready to resume my routine of silence listening to books, lectures, and interviews on my mp3 player while I make progress on projects in the studio and on the homestead.

Wall O’ Wood

It’s time for the ceremonial portraits of this winter’s firewood.  Even with the side crib already almost half-full after last winter, it took four days for me to load the pickup and move wood from the stacks of seasoned wood into the crib and on to the front porch.  I’m working as hard as I always have but the output is diminished.

After the performance of the cabin envelope last winter following the complete re-chinking the previous year (that alone cost twice as much as my first house) and the crawl space sealing and insulating the year before, I am fully confident that even with a severe winter we are all set.  In previous winters it took almost two full side cribs plus the porch-full to keep Mrs. Barn warm enough, this past winter it took the porch-full plus half a crib-full.  I’m liking that trend line.

We’ve got new high performance windows on order to replace the 80s era windows now in place, windows with the particular feature of providing wonderful ventilation year round, open or closed.  Depending on the performance of the supply chain we will be getting the new windows installed just before the dead of winter.  Keeping fingers crossed.  With new windows, the cabin should be cozier than ever.

Tomorrow I start splitting, stacking, and seasoning the firewood for the coming winters.  There’s still at least two or three dozen heaping trucks full of timber on the ground.  If I get done with everything already on the ground, I calculate 4-6 winters of firewood a-waitin’.

Huh, Never Had This Problem Before

Last winter I started to finish the doors for Mrs. Barn’s clothes cabinet I built many moons ago using recycled chestnut lumber, warts and all, from an old, dismantled shack on the hill.

After preparing the doors (built as a single unit then sawn apart) with some scraping and burnishing with a polissoir, I laid down a seal coat of gloss Pratt & Lambert 38 varnish, a long-time favorite of mine, which I sanded lightly once it was hard (oil/resin coatings do not dry so much as they harden via chemical reaction).

I applied what I thought would be the top coat of Pratt & Lambert 38 “Dull” varnish because that would leave the surface looking most like raw wood, and set the still-wet doors aside to resume work “some day.”  Well, “some day” was a couple weeks ago.  To say the least I was surprised at the outcome of my previous work.

The evidence of age and deterioration that I had purposely left on the surface as an aesthetic design element had turned completely white.  What happened was that the wet varnish pooled in the recesses and the flatting agent, almost certainly a microscopically fine silica, was present to such a degree that it imparted total opacity to the finish film in those areas.

I’m pretty sure I know how to solve the problem, but I have never encountered something like this before.

Stay tuned.

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.