Monday, December 30, 2013

DIY... (venison) Pot Roast?

So, maybe not DIY in the standard "build something out of scrap" sense, but given the deer came from our back yard, pretty close to DIY "free range" goodness.  However, in the spirit of resourcefulness, I made my own recipes up and it seemed to be well received on Google+ so I thought it worth posting them here (so as to not forget what I did to make this taste so good!)

The loins I used came out to about 8 chops which were all packaged together by the butcher.  The meet, btw, has been in my deep freezer  for over 2 years.  Yes.  And it was still free from freezer burn and delicious.


Venison Pot Roast

1 lb venison loin cut about 1/2 thick
4 potatoes
4 large carrots
4 garlic cloves
1 large onion
1/2 cup beer
1 cup water
salt and pepper
Cube venison, onion and potatoes (red skin or whatever - I usually scrub them and leave the skins on), peel and slice carrots, peel and mince garlic.
Layer in crock pot or slow cooker:  onions, venison, carrots potatoes, salt & pepper to taste (about a 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper is a good starting point). Edit (almost forgot) sprinkle garlic over top.
Pour in 1/4 of your favorite beer and 1 cup of water and cook on high for 4 hours or low for 8.
Makes 10-12 servings


Bonus Recipe - Venison chili 


I made this one for the Christmas Potluck last year with, you guessed it, meat from the same deer.

1 lb Ground Venison
1/2 stick butter
2 cans of your preferred chili beans - we like Northern or Navy but kidney or black would do, too, depending on the flavor you like
1 can stewed tomatoes
1 can tomato sauce (I use Hunts in both cases)
1 onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 celery sticks, sliced
6 cups of water
1 Tbsp habanero sauce
1 Tbsp chili powder
1/2 Tbsp Cumin
Salt and Pepper to Taste

** secret ingredients **

1/2 cup dark molasses
1 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder


Prepare beans according to directions if starting with dried beans.

Brown venison in a large skillet with butter and onions.

Combine everything except spices in stock pot and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer and cook till celery is clear.  Stir in molasses and other seasonings.

Makes about 8-10 servings.  Great with corn bread.



Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Emergency Candles

You can find loads of videos on youtube telling you how to light your sardine oil on fire.  I decided to try bacon grease today.  Perhaps no surprise, it works great.  Here's how I made my emergency porcine luminary.

1. Fry up some bacon.

2. Important step: eat the bacon.

3. Pour off the drippings into a fire-safe container.  I used a glass desert dish.

4. Unroll a cotton ball, take about 1/4 of it and roll it into a thick wick.  Mine wound up being about 5-6mm thick and about 2 inches long.  I soaked it in the drippings so it would sink instead of float, then put it all the way down with about 1/4 inch exposed.  I used a plastic fork to keep the wick from sinking out of sight as it wanted to do.  A tooth-pick would work as well.

5. Pop the whole thing it into the freezer to expedite setting but you could probably let it set out at room temperature for the same effect, or set it in the snow.

6. After hardening, it took about three matches to get it going.  One might have done it if I'd been smart and held my bacon candle at an angle to begin with.  A thinner wick or more exposure might have made this easier.

7. (Optional) I cut the bottom out of a water jug to make a diffuser / hurricane lantern enclosure and set it out on the picnic table.  And there it glows.

Bacon + Fire = Perfection
I'll update this post with the total burn time for six strips of bacon later on.

Update as promised: The bacon candle provided reliable light and modest heat (perhaps enough to keep a tarp shelter warm) for 5.5 hours and then began to flicker as the fuel ran short.  Depending on conditions, I would estimate it has another 15-20 minutes of flicker left in it.

Post action summary: I lit this thing at 6:25 PM and had to finally blow it out at 1:00 AM.  It had consumed almost all the grease and most of the wick remained intact.  The inside of the jug is covered in a thin but quite distinct layer of soot.  Definitely not something I recommend for use in your home.  As with all open flames, use caution.  I blew this out because I wanted to go to sleep and not hear the wife complain of the picnic table / deck / house being on fire - as unlikely as it may be.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

PVC Drop Ceiling Spacers

The basement, often the last frontier in home improvement, presents unique challenges for interior finishing.  Walls need to take into account the moisture condensating potential of both the exterior walls and floor.  Flooring needs should be considered in the context of radon, flooding potential and durability.  And, ceilings present their own issues.

Many of us look to suspended ceilings for our DIY basement needs.  It's easier to install than drywall and provides future access to plumbing, vents and wiring should the need arise - though that need may in reality be very seldom.  But ceiling panels have some issues I don't care for.  Many products are paper or paper composites with a variety of binding, coating and strengthening chemicals included.  They can be fragile, have an odor, absorb cigarette smoke and discolor when water, either from leaks or condensation on pipes, drips down and seeps through the absorbent material.

So, for my basement ceiling, I'm taking a little bit different approach.  I'm going to treat it the same way I would cabinet construction by using an inexpensive but beautiful birch veneer 1/4" plywood.  2 foot squares are available from most lumber yards.  I've been slowly acquiring what I need from Lowes as they only stock 7 - 8 sheets at a time, and you have to pick through to find those sheets with the best veneer quality.  Many times the veneer is missing the centers of knot holes and either it was filled and sanded at the factory or not.  In either case, it's not as appealing as undisturbed birch wood grain.   When coated with a clear polyurethane, birch, like maple, takes on a luster and depth that is reminiscent of Tiger-eye polished stone, though much more subdued. You can also get some nice variation in the wood grain tone, from a cedar red to a maple white.

I'll put together an article on the final installation of my wood ceiling and work involved later, but wanted to give some attention now to my solution for clearing some drain and water pipes in one section of the basement ceiling that posed a problem for my installation.

In most of the finished area, I have what you see below going on.  3" furring attached directly to the joists to provide a grid to secure the panels to later.

Typical furring strip installation


But in a small 6'-9" x 11' 8" area, I have a 2" PVC drain coming down from the kitchen sink and dishwasher which has to run perpendicular to, and beneath, the floor joists.   I needed a way to get my grid uniformly beneath this obstruction while still providing a level, sturdy mounting point for my birch plywood panels.

After some thought, I settled on 1" PVC pipe spacers.  I cut them from 8' stock to a uniform length using a couple of blocks of wood on my miter saw as a jig to ensure length and alignment were consistent.

Then I hunted down some 5" deck screws which would be long enough to go through the 1/2" furring strip, up the center of the segment of pipe, and at least 3/4" into the joist.  The spaces also help square and align the furring as the screw pulls the strips flush against the bottom end and top end with the joist.  And it's amazingly strong.

Drain pipe visible at far end.

Looking across 3 furring strips


The strength of the PVC sections under compression between the strips and joist makes the spacer act like a 1" column in terms of lateral and upward stress.  The screws are long enough to provide a serious amount of hold and I can do a pull-up on one strip!

I still have a ways to go.  You can just make out in the top image of two above the drain pipe.  My furring strips are 8' long so I have to yet span the remaining distance.  The strips also end short of the next joist, so I'll be employing some blocking to provide a place to fasten the hanging ends.

I like this solution from a cost and durability perspective.  I could have cut wooden spacers, but then I would have needed to drill some very straight holes through them as well.  The PVC being already hollow is a very forgiving and easy to use spacer in that regard, not to mention lighter-weight, and was easy to cut by hand and clean up the plastic burs with a pocket knife.  Made lots of plastic chips to shop-vac up, but I'm covered there.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

How to make your own Cooking Charcoal

Way back when I started Random Fortification, one of my earliest posts had to do with a block fire pit I made with excess landscaping blocks, some rocks and some gravel.  While the most popular post on this blog for the last several years (only recently knocked off by the oak floor grate,) it went largely unused.

This year though, my neighbor accidentally supplied me with the final ingredient to making the fire pit a must-go destination in the back yard:  two ceramic coated cast iron cooking grates from his old grill.  Since that rainy day in his driveway, my family and I have cooked out roughly once a week at the somewhat remote fire pit.

Having planted a crop of sweet corn, we had lots of great fire roasted corn to go along with grilled onions, tomatoes and whatever meet we drug home from the store that week.


I'm not a big fan of store-bought charcoal, but charcoal is what you need if you don't want your food crispy and black on the outside and pink or cold on the inside.  Slow, low heat is the key to perfectly cooked food.  But, keeping an even heat with a wood fire is difficult at best, so if you don't want neat little bricks loaded with flammable chemicals but want to cook over charcoal, here's the simplest way I know how to produce this handy campsite friend.

1. Build a camp fire with some good dry hardwood.  You're going to need to build this first fire and burn it down a while, but subsequent fires won't take as much work.

Making a fire
I like to start off with three or four pieces laying on one another forming a triangle or square.  I put my tinder in the middle and lay kindling on top.  Using a Bowie knife or similar with long strokes on a piece of wood along the grain, pushing away from you, will produce ample kindling and if you take time, you can make decent tinder this way too.  I usually just grab some dry grass, thistle or milk weed silk, dry leaves, or scrape some very dry bark into shreds.  Apply a match, lighter or sparks till your fire is going.  Feed it regularly to keep the kindling burning in contact with the fire wood till the fire wood is burning.

2. Once the logs are well burned into the glowing charcoal state and most or all of the sugars, moisture and other bits have burned off, use a fire tending stick or poker to break up the logs and tame the fire down a bit.  You want to break it into large, fist size or smaller, chunks of black and/or glowing charcoal that is still radiating a lot of good heat.

3. (optional) Pile this up under your cooking grate and let the grate heat up.  I usually add a piece of feeder wood to one side, a bit away from the food, so that I can be making more charcoal for next time if I wind up burning this batch all the way down.

Cooking over Charcoal 
Cook your food over the coals, blowing on them to keep them just burning and glowing to provide even heat.  Sometimes I continue to add kindling or shavings to provide some smoke flavor to the food and provide fuel to keep things rolling.  I also keep a cardboard tube handy for blowing on the fire.  The trick here is not to put your mouth on it like a wind instrument and blow through it but to take advantage of laminar air flow by keeping the tube end an inch from your mouth while you blow.  The low pressure created in the tube when you blow down it draws air in around the end you're blowing in along with what you provide, moving a greater volume of air through the tube, reducing your work or increasing its effect.  This is a standard piece of kit in my camp cook box.

4. As soon as you're done cooking (or when the charcoal is all black / glowing) and enjoying the fire, slowly pour water over the charcoal and burning wood to extinguish the fire.  Your charcoal is ready to go for next time and will be much easier to bring up to temperature with just some kindling.  Just leave it in the fire pit and as long as the pit is well drained, it should be easy to get going again next time since it will have little in the way of moisture retention.  You can always add more wood to your fire as you need to replace charcoal.  We've cooked about 5 meals over the charcoal from just 6 pieces of wood in this manner.

That's about as simple as it gets and all you need is regular fire wood like oak or, most desirable, hickory.  Cedar is also a nice add-in but the charcoal is much less dense and shorter lived than that made from hardwoods.  You can also use charcoal in the construction of an improvised water filter to help reduce the presence of metals and pollutants.  It won't remove bacteria but will make the water more palatable.  You should treat or boil the water to make it potable before drinking.

A bag of store-bought charcoal costs about $20 or so.  A bundle of camp fire wood can be had for $5 in most places (depending on where you are) or for free if, like me, you heat with wood and are always cutting down dead or diseased trees and making firewood.  Economical + fun.  And no smelly chemicals.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Oak Floor Grate - Concept to Completion

Four years ago, I had the chance to work from home in my basement one winter but I was freezing my tail off.  I had two ceramic electric heaters cranked up, and 1" Styrofoam insulation wedged into the window openings and taped up in the egress door.  Frost was accumulating around the edges of one window.  I realized my carefully laid plans for a nice basement office were falling flat in the dead of winter.

So, the next fall, we bit the bullet and installed a wood stove.  The basement has become the primo destination in the winter for every activity.  We keep the thermostat upstairs at 61F during the day and let it drift down to 59F at night.  Meanwhile, the basement hovers between 72F and 85F depending on what the stove is doing and what kind of wood is being burned.  Maple gets nice and hot and is a good mix for burning with oak.  Hickory brings aromatic bliss as does cedar kindling and cherry wood.

One thing I would really like is for the upstairs to be as pleasant as the down stairs.  So, while we were having our floor replaced, I thought it would be a good time to install a floor grate common in the old houses which featured basement boilers.  Usually those are cold air return vents to let the cooler air settle down into the basement where the boiler or furnace would draw it in and heat it and feed it up  through an iron octopus of pipes and vents.  In our case, the hope is that warm air will rise from the wood stove, almost directly through this grate to the living room while cold air falls down the stair well, making the whole house a bit more evenly heated and comfortable.

I started out looking for cast-iron antique grates but the local Habitat Re-store had sold through their small supply.  I looked at local home improvement stores but all they had were standard vent sizes and I wanted something a bit larger. I decided, with time short, as we had the installers scheduled mere days away, that I would build my own from oak.

I started by sketching the idea out on a paper placemat at one of our local favorite restaurants.  From there, I wanted to build a model in Sketchup to make sure it worked, but I'm old school and learned to model 3D objects in three-axis views using Lightwave back when I was working towards Film and Video special effects and Sketchup is just one long exercise in frustration for me.  So, I dug out an old copy of Lightwave and built my floor grate with perfect precision.  From that, I knew the design would work and what my dimensions were.  Lightwave has a measure tool like Sketchup so I was able to check and recheck dimensions while I built.


After another trip to our local Lowe's, I had all the wood I would need:
- 5, 1 1/2" x 1/4" x 24" oak "planks"
- 2, 1 1/2" x 3/4" x 24" oak boards

The design would rely on interlocking pieces for strength and uniformity.  First I taped the planks together in a bundle so that my cuts would be uniform, then I marked out 4, 10 3/4" lengths along with blade space for the table saw.  After cutting, they were taped into two packs of 10 using the same masking tape.  I wrapped the tape in a spiral down the length of each pack.  This provided a nice surface to draw the cut-outs directly on the pack and also serves to limit splintering on the trailing edge that a table saw can often produce in hard wood.

One pack of ten would have 3/4" dado cuts facing up, spaced 3/4" apart and the other would have the same facing down.  The ends had a 3/4" rabbit on the bottom and a 1/8" rabbit on the top.  This left a 5/8" tongue that would sit in the the 1/4" x 5/8" groove cut into the perimeter rail pieces.

Cutting the slats was tedious but rewarding when they all fit together tightly.  Small imperfections in spacing that occurred due to not using a fence with a key meant some pieces actually bend to fit in place, fortuitously locking the members together tightly with no glue.


One tip I picked up Woodsmith magazine was creating a custom top for my table saw.  You can see it clamped down in the above picture.  I used my dado blade to cut a guide slot for my perpendicular slide and placed it so the slide could run within 1/8" of the dado blade.  This allowed me a greater degree of precision as the stock guide slot is a bit loose and 2" further to the left of the blade.

Once the lattice was knocked together, I started on the rails.  I was concerned about the potential for structural failure though.  Below you can see my area of concern in the cross section on the right, which is from the original design.  The cross section on the left is a modified design I came up with, explained further below.


In the cross section on the right, I was worried the 1/4" neck would experience failure along the grain if someone put their full weight on the grate.  My solution was to use a 10 degree bevel.  This also alleviated my other concern, that of the wood breathing and either shrinking  and falling through the hole or growing and warping against the floor boards under the pressure.  My oak bench seat has a 1/2" to 3/4" bow in it owing to Ohio humidity.  It is firmly jammed against the ends of the window box, which consists of 2 2x6 king studs on either side. But I digress.  The point is that taught me something about oak. The slats have a 1/4" tongue but that runs along the grain so I'm not worried about a failure there.

The rails were first beveled using the table saw with the ripping fence and another plunge cut on the ply-wood table top so that I had solid alignment pushing the rails past the blade using my push stick and guide.  ALWAYS use sacrificial materials to guide and push your wood through your saw.  NEVER use your fingers.  

Then the rails went for a ride in the compound miter saw to get 45 degree miters on each end.  Finishing up involved applying a film of glue to the inside of the rails, on all three sides of the groove and on the face above and below using a 1/2" brush and Tight Bond III wood glue.

With the beveled design, any change in dimension would cause the grate to rise up out of the hole or settle down into it a bit.  I cut the floor at the same angle to provide a good amount of contact and, like a cork, gently worked the grate into place with my heels on the corners.


The following day, the installers came and finished the floor (they had come just short of this location on the first day of work), and that night I applied a coat of Polyshades (tm) Pecan polyurethane.  I used a 1"  foam brush to get into the holes and a 1/4" fiber brush to get into the tight spots. After rubbing it down tonight with 0000 steel wool, it looks pretty good.


Total cost was about $24 if you count the stain, which I had.  Materials came in at $18.  Total build time was about 6 hours from design to completion, spread out over three days in my evenings and free time. Finished dimensions are 11 3/4" x 11 3/4 " x 1 1/2 ".

The finished grate looks great, and is rock solid.  Thumping it with the ball of my foot feels no less solid than the floor itself.  Hopefully it will last for years and help achieve the desired distribution of heat in the house this coming winter.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Homemade Survival Gear

I feel like I've been attending Youtube University lately.  In recent weeks I have learned how to make notches in stakes, how to tie my jungle boots up to minimize snagging the laces in the underbrush, how to cheaply package matches in a waterproof, air-tight container, how to select a knife, and lately, how to make a pocket knife holder and one of those survival bracelets from 550 cord that have become so popular.

The point is - you can do it.  All it takes is time, materials and the willingness to learn.  The bracelet took about 15 or 20 minutes to tie.  I think I spent about the same amount of time stitching up the knife holder.

I used 550 cord inner thread to stitch up an old piece of grey webbing that I scavenged from one of the kids discarded, disassembled and parted-out car seats.  The bracelet is fairly ubiquitous by now as they have become fund raisers for kids to make.  I was mostly happy to learn how to do it as I love knots and always enjoy learning a practical application of a new and easy knot.

On one hand, this was cheap entertainment and fed my "be productive" itch while I'm recovering from a crap-tastic head cold.  On the other, these were worth making because they have real utility in a camping or hiking scenario.  The crappy D-ring on the sheath there is a hammered hard-drive platter spacer (aluminum).  It turned out to be too small so I got rid of it and will probably put a cord loop on the bottom there for attaching other handy items, like a fire flint or compass.

Here are links to the videos in question.

Tying a bracelet from 550 Paracord

Making your own knife carrier

 I want to thank Marcos Ronald Roman Gonçalves for his many excellent survival posts over at the Survival Community on G+.  It's a wealth of free education that will pay real dividends in the field.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Antler Skinning Knife

Continuing my weapon building spree, I'm working towards a bit more craftsmanship than the quick and dirty long-handle machete.  In this case, I found the local pet store was selling deer antlers as dog chews.  Nice bits and pieces perfect for small knife handles.  Below, I have the steel blank I've been working on, a scrap brass pin and the antler.





The blank is from a 7.62 x 39 spam can opener.  Decent steel, hard enough to hold an edge.  Not the best stuff but for free, I can't complain.  I used a Sharpie to lay out the scrap to be removed and started doing that tonight on the grinding wheel and drill press.  The area that will be ground to an edge is marked with the vertical lines.

A little better look at the blank.  The tang is angled to provide the best fit into the handle.  1/8" holes will receive pins once I have the antler drilled to match. Precision will be pretty key here but I learned a lesson from the machete project.  Firmly affixing the blank to the side of the handle stock to mark the center points for drilling makes for very accurate placement of the holes.  

The shape of the can opener handle was pretty choice for what I had in mind for a skinning knife.  One doesn't want a sharp point that might risk piercing  the intestines when field dressing a deer.  If I choose, I can also put a reverse hook on the top of the blade to make that first cut up the belly of the deer easier to make with a gentle pulling motion.  Lots of commercially available knives have begun including this option.


The piece of antler was about $5.  It fits nicely in the hand and provides a good texture for the thumb on what will be the back of the knife handle.  The pins will go in the side visible here and the whole thing will be anchored with some 5 minute epoxy.

I'm hoping to have this project done soon.  I'm also going to make a sheathe out of old boot leather that I've been saving from my dearly departed and much loved Survivor work boots.  I'm thinking a sheath with a belt clip will work out well.  I'll see how it works out with the materials I have available.