Thursday, September 25, 2014

Recommended Reading: Robert's Projects

Robert has a farm in PA and has a load of great posts of farm-scale projects.  If you like the stuff I do but are looking for bigger projects and a wider range of skills, check out Robert's Projects.  Very well considered write ups.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Dry Fence Style Retaining Wall

If you wondered why I have been building a stone boat this summer, it was to haul a lot of sand stone and limestone from my little hill-side quarry on the North end of our lot. The purpose for all of this labor was to build a short retaining wall at the site where I will soon be building my combination wood-shed and green-house.

Dry fit stone walls are ancient in origin and require a good eye and patience to construct. To "dry fit" a wall is to use no mortar, but only bits of stone wedged into cracks and crevices to firmly set larger pieces of the wall in place and prevent wobbles. Some particularly skilled practitioners of this art yet today build beautiful full hearths and interior fireplaces from nothing but boulders and river rock.

Stone masons of yesteryear would use a variety of tools to shape stone when it became necessary to cut a stone to fit a need in a wall. Overall, though, tools often being absent, many ancient stone walls that stand today were made with only the materials on hand and a lot of care and patience.

My favorite stone working hammers - the 3 lbs sledge has a home-made honey-suckle handle.

Some of the tools used in antiquity included hammers made from other stones or iron or steel, hand drills which would be hammered or bow-drilled to make holes, and my favorite: splints and wedges. A good splint and wedge set would go along with a hand drill, which would be repeatedly hammered to make a line of holes along the edge you wish to cut. The modern equivalent is an pneumatic impact driven drill. Into these holes, a set of splints would go, then into the middle of each set of splints, a wedge. Tapping the wedges in sequence along the line of holes would steadily increase the pressure and eventually cause the block to fault in a line along the increasing line of stress. Today, we have diamond saw blades and circular saws which can do a much neater job in a fraction of the time. While the cut is nearly glass-smooth, it lacks the charm of the methods of by-gone eras.

I think stacking firewood by the face-cord as a kid conditioned me well in the art of fitting odd sized pieces together to make level layers upon which to stack the wood high and steady. Learning a lesson on what not to do from stacking wood is swift and merciless. A toppling row of logs can inflict pain and bruises as well as frustration. The trick, I have found, is to not only be patient but to consider all of your options. Eventually you get pretty good at visualizing which pieces will fit in the spot you're working and pave the way for a stable structure.  It's also important to not be afraid to undo something that isn't working.  I had three different parts of the wall that were all tight and tamped together, but when walked upon shifted dangerously, so down it came to be built in a more sound fashion.

Starting the wall.

With logs, this quickly becomes routine and simple. I've stacked 2 standard cords of wood in just an hour or two following simple patters of cross bracing for stability and leveling by selecting logs from the pile of like size as I go. With chunks of stone, the game is quite different.

First Section Complete

Naturally, you want a firm foundation. This can be undisturbed soil or compacted gravel. In my case I have a little of both. The gravel pad along which I am building the wall is flush with the earth on the high corner and 16 inches deep on the low side, making two sides sloped enough away from the square and level pad to require reinforcement to prevent erosion and critters or roots from undermining. Upon a level path laid out between stakes in the ground, I start by laying down stones that will create the first level or a monolithic section of the wall. From there, it's very much like assembling a jig-saw puzzle in three dimensions.

Tamping in gravel, using a stick, to fill cracks and stabilize stonework

In my situation, I have a lot of sandstone and lime stone, and a lot of crushed gravel. So I've combined the two in my building process, using the crushed gravel to fill cracks and back fill beneath wobbly stones, and pieces of splintered limestone as shims and wedges to tighten things up. The stability of this method can be attested to by the fact that I can walk on this wall without any wobble beneath my feat. Each stone has been tightly wedged into place and rests firm.

Finished wall with pile of wood waiting for a winter home.  Shed foundation beams pictured at left.

Now that the wall is done, the much harder work of leveling the landscaping beams that will be the foundation of my shed begins. Making one level is not so hard. Interconnecting four in a box with lap joints and leveling and squaring all four will be quite a challenge - especially as each beam requires two people to safely lift off the ground, and I am a one man crew.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Stone Boat In Action

I finished up my stone boat this week, wrapping things up by screwing the runners on.  The runners got a heat treat with the propane torch and then I melted Paraffin into them for protection.

Once that was done, I took it for a test spin with the riding lawn mower.  Even with the weight further distributed over the are of the skids, the riding mower lacked the mass to gain traction to get it up the hill when loaded with stones.  So, out came the big guns, my 1973 International Harvester 284, which perhaps not inconsequentially is a 28 hp, 4 cylinder smaller size farm tractor.

You can just about make out the crease in the  grass from the boat in that picture.  Still a lot better than tearing up turf or killing myself with a wheel-barrow.  I had tried using my garden cart with the lawn tractor, but I wound up with two flat tires after just getting it partially loaded.

Here are a couple of videos to cap off the project.  Getting the stone from the quarry site to the construction site was the sole purpose I built this boat for, but it will no doubt serve in the future for other projects that require moving heavy loads.

Here's the boat in action!


And here's my haul for the evening.  At the end, if you're wondering, I said "I'm tired.".  Kind of hard to tell.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Making a Traditional Stone Boat

A stone boat is a bit of an anachronism in this age of mechanization.  You can think of it as a sled for heavy stones.  Farmers in the 1700's would use them, usually pulled by an ox or team of oxen, to help clear their fields as they tamed the wild, and the boat made it easy to transport the stones they pulled from the earth.  These stones may have become the foundation for their home, walls for a cellar, a hearth or chimney.  In very rocky areas, stone walls and fences were and still are today a common sight.

So why is this tool from yesteryear such a handy device on the modern farm where a bulldozer might suffice?  For starters, a heavy piece of equipment capable of shoving or carrying stones around is an expensive item.  It also virtually guarantees you will be tearing up the ground as you go.  A stone boat, on the other hand, distributes the weight of the stones you are hauling over the entire surface area of its runners.  This reduces the point loads that wheels would have, reducing the impact to soil.  In my case, I've been quarrying stone from a hill size in the midst of neatly mowed garden paths.  I do not wish to tear up the sod, so a stone boat is an ideal device for dragging my stones around.  Also, I don't want to have to lift the larger stones up into the bed of my pickup truck, and just rolling them end over end onto the boat is fairly simple.

To make a stone boat, I started out with some salvaged deck timbers from an old free standing deck which I tore down at a friends house.  He inherited it and really did not like what he had.  If you've been reading along, you may recall that I've used those deck materials to make our picnic table, wooden stakes, and some raised garden beds among other things.  You never know what an afternoon of hard work and helping a friend out is going to yield.

Selecting some better pieces of 2 x 10, I knocked together a frame, then put some of the old deck boards back on this new frame to make my boat.  I then added reinforcement to the under carriage to take the strain of a large eye bolt which would become the hitch for the boat.

Finally, using my saws-all, I rounded the front of the frame to accept the runners.

For the runners, a bit of red-neck engineering was required.  Starting with pine tongue and groove siding acquired from cleaning out a co-workers garage, I stuck them into a 5 gallon pail full of water to soak roughly 18 " of the boards.  I left them there for 5 days to make sure the wood was good and wet and pliable.  1/2" pine doesn't bend too easily, so in order to get them to bend and have the curve I want for my boat runners, I propped them on bricks, wedged them under the rear wheels of my mini-van, backed it up and set the parking break.

I'll leave it there for a week to allow the boards to dry out some, then bolt them onto the frame of the boat to complete their drying out time.  I have to admit, I didn't think this would work, but so far the boards are bent perfectly with no sign of breaking or splintering.

Once this project is complete, I'll be able to begin constructing a stone retaining wall for the gravel pad that is the foundation of my as-yet wood shed / green house.  I hope to have that well under way this August.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Carbonizing Wood: The Picnic Table

Several years ago I became aware of the origin of the blackness inside those half wood barrels you see for sale in garden centers.  The wood is charred to guard against decay.  Charcoal, it turns out, has very little to offer mold and fungus in the way of nutrition and so is very resistant to it.  What led to this understanding, for me, was seeing that a house and barn had been clad in charred wood, and that several wood product manufacturers now offer carbonized wood in various degrees of "cooked".  Being the curious guy I am, once I had a propane torch, I wanted to see how easy or difficult it was to master this technique.

First a word about the table.  It was built from salvaged wood using a pattern I found on the internet.  It's really quite simple and any search will turn up a number of patterns to chose from.  I chose one that fit the materials I had on hand, all scrap and salvage.  Only the lag bolts and screws needed to be purchased.

As you'll see in the video below, it's trivially easy to char wood.  With clean, stripped wood, just wave the flame of the torch back and forth over the surface until the desired level of char is achieved.


After the wood is charred I find that with the pine decking the loose soot is easily wiped off on your hands and clothes, so I removed this with a fine brass wire wheel attachment for my electric drill.  Just lightly running over the surface to remove the powdery char was all that was needed.  The remaining browned wood is still amazingly rich in color.

In Process - freshly washed after stripping

The final step involved using an old jug of "wet look sealer" from Baer.  I had thought to use it in the basement long ago but decided against it for some reason I can't recall.  It's water based and was still in good condition and the results on the charred wood are amazing.  I applied the first coat with a brush, the second with a sponge brush, and the third coat I just poured it into the cracks and crevices and smoothed it over with the foam brush to fill in as much of the irregularities in the surface as possible.  

Ready for Dinner - Blue hue reflecting the sky

The end result is quite impressive.  It came out much better than I had anticipated and I have to give the credit to the materials as the work was far too easy for me to consider this high craft-work.  See for yourself. If you decide to try the method on your own, make sure you use your torch in a well ventilated area and try not to set your wood on fire.  Small gouts of flame are going to be normal with resinous woods, but self-sustaining flames should be extinguished quickly.

Deep Grain

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Failing: Learn From Your Mistakes

Usually I talk about what has gone right.  Seldom do we like to dwell on what has gone wrong.  But in this case, I fought a good fight and so don't feel too badly about acknowledging when it was time to call it quits with a repair job that just didn't want to be.

It all started when I reassembled a mower deck after obliterating the spindle housings after hitting a fist size rock.  In that case, I was fortunate enough to find, and was able to get replacement spindle housings for less than the cost of a new deck.  A week later, I had my mower back in operation but I failed to consult a parts diagram, and as I now know, omitted an important spacer.  With the spacer between the top of the spindle housing and the bearing missing, the pulley rode directly on top of the spindle housing, creating a lot of friction and heat.  Eventually the, the somewhat toothed hole in the center of the pulley wore smooth, and then as it loosened, oblong until it was so worn it had no more ability to hold the mower belt in tension and it failed with much noise.

I was able to purchase a replacement pulley for $13, and was back in business.  That is, until late last week when yet again, I discovered the same pulley wearing out. Fortunately, I caught it before it was bad, but it was definitely spinning free.  Exasperated, I pulled things apart and discovered that the spindle itself had worn to the point where there were no more ridged teeth to engage the pulley.  So, I got back on the parts site and ordered a new spindle.  While doing so, referencing the part diagram for the part number, I noticed the spacer.  It all clicked in a moment of realization - the spacer was the problem.  Without it, the spindle and pulley could not hope to function properly for long.

This is where the fail really starts rolling though.  So, first lesson learned: consult a parts diagram and make sure you have everything when you reassemble something.  Not being one to give up easily, and wanting to mow my lawn while waiting on new parts, I devised a way to get the spindle and the pulley to lock up and work as intended.  All I needed was a little machine work and a suitable washer to turn down as a temporary replacement spacer.

As you can see below, with a little drilling and filing, I created an index slot in the pulley, and a hole in the spindle to receive a set screw which I imagined would engage with the slot.

Notion courtesy of: "507 Mechanical Movements"
In theory, this was a sound mechanical principle.  I made a couple of miscalculations, however.  First, my set screw was just a happy find in the parts bin.  I had no idea what the strength of the material was in terms of hardness or even composition.  It might have been mild steel from the ease with which it failed.  Second, I drilled and tapped the hole in the spindle, but the spindle was hollow, and the wall thin, and getting my hand held tapper to cut threads correctly was a challenge and it didn't go so well.  As a result, the screw jammed in the threads and turned itself in half with the torque of the vice-grip pliers I was using to insert it.

SO close, but not working out.  I reasoned at this point that if I had spacers, I could make it work, so I drove all the way to the hardware store hoping to get a replacement pulley and maybe find a lucky washer that would match the spacer dimensions.  I found one with the right ID (inside diameter), but not the right OD.  So I thought - no problem, I have a metal lathe, I'll just put the washer on the outside of the chuck, turn it down and have a spacer.

Unfortunately, my bench lathe is a 7" made for larger, heavy duty work.  I haven't a chuck small enough.  My machinist mentor later asked me: "Did you try putting the washer on a bolt and..."  "DOH!"  Yes, I could have mounted it to a bolt with a couple of nuts and put the bolt in the chuck.  Duh.  But, by the time I learned that, it was 24 hours past the time I humbled myself, gave up on trying to repair my mower with make-do parts, and wandered down the street to borrow my neighbors riding mower.  The grass looks great.  His new John Deere all-wheel steering mower was a beast and got the job done with nary a complaint. I might have to upgrade... some day.

I strive to learn from my mistakes so that I might not repeat them, and that I might learn to be more thorough, and careful, in the future.  I hope this little story helps someone else avoid similar pitfalls!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Creating Additional Parking

America is a funny place.  Even some of the poorest people have a small herd of cars grazing in their front yard.  There are .797 vehicles in the US per every 1 citizen.  Considering that many of those people are only legally passengers, and that many who are of legal driving age don't even own a car, it's actually a lot of cars.  Like most families with more than one driver, we have more than one car.  Part of this is strategy, and part if it is just God's grace.  Long story short, I couldn't sell the old Dodge mini van when we upgraded to a used Honda Odyssey, but it has worked out very well having a paid-for backup vehicle.

This blessing, however, presents a problem.  My driveway is only 20 feet wide and 78 feet long.  Crammed end to end, I could fit about 6 cars in it. Our garage (crammed with other stuff) is attached and faces the street, so while urban neighborhoods often have a detached garage in the back and a back yard to stuff an extra vehicle into, our driveway, so far, has been the only parking available for us.  This has made shuffling the vehicles a bit awkward at times.  The solution dawned on me last fall - I need (just like a couple of my neighbors have) an extra parking spot. Thus began a seemingly simple project: kill the grass, spread some gravel around, call it good.  Alas, "simple" quickly led to "expensive" as my over-developed sense of perfection took over.

Here's the final bill of materials.  The initial grading was "free" since I already own the 1973/4 International Harvester 284 which I used to scrape the area bare.

Fuel for Tractor and Hauling
Pressure Treated Landscaping Ties
12 Tons of 305 unscreened gravel,  delivered
Bobcat S150 Rental, w/ Trailer
Dr's Visit
Total   :-/$741

The lumber yard got me for $36 each on the 6, 6" x 6" x 12 ft landscaping ties.  Once upon a time you could get them a lot cheaper.  My dad and I built a lot of stairs and retaining walls when I was a kid and I remember they were closer to $8 a piece back then.  But, they make in my case what is essentially a weed barrier and retaining "wall", albeit only about 2" tall.  I buried them 4" in the ground to keep them from sliding out of place, and to keep grass rhizomes from creeping under them.

Why 12 tons of gravel?  Because I wanted the gravel bed to be deep enough that my vans wont sink into the wet clay beneath after a heavy rain.  And I needed some extra gravel for an upcoming project.

The Dr's visit was for a hernia.  Yes - long heavy beams should not be lifted up by one person.  Turned out to be minor enough that with care it went away,  for the most part, in a few months time.  It did slow me down quite a bit last fall, however, when I began this project.

While the project started with grading the grass off last fall, followed by digging long square trenches by hand with a spade, the gravel was dropped in the street last night and I had it scraped up, spread around and packed down with the Bobcat by this afternoon.  The results are probably not all that impressive, but the suddenly open driveway feels spacious.

Bus Parking Only

A somewhat separate project was the disposal of the dirt that I scraped up to make a level spot in the yard to begin the project.  I had thought about using it to level a part of the hill in the back yard, but there wasn't enough to make much of a difference.  Instead, I decided to cover it with a truck bed load of mulch ($40) and plop a Sand Cherry tree in it ($37).  The rock border was a happy find that I discovered on my property when I was trying to dig a flat spot into a hill to park a future gazebo.  In my way was a vein of sand stone. It yielded up several stones of varying sizes and makes an attractive border for my dirt pile.

Dirt pile?  What dirt pile?

So, if you're considering this project for your parking needs, you can save yourself some money by doing some things yourself.  While the Bobcat rental and gravel was expensive, having a parking spot made for me could have run into the low thousands depending on the contractor you have chosen.  

Having a truck to tow the Bobcat on its trailer 10 miles too and from the rental place saved me $115 on delivery.  But it also ate up a lot of gas in the F250's V10, did a number on my brake pads (I could smell them on the way back into town) and gave me a chiropractic exam as the combined mass of the trailer and Bobcat S150 fought with the truck all the way to and from the store.  That was probably the most unnerving part of the whole experience.  Driving the Bobcat was a piece of cake and saved me a lot of time and effort.  If you have a big job to do, make it smaller by renting or borrowing some big tools.  :-)