Thursday, December 27, 2007

Reuse: Old PC Parts for Art and Education

I am cleaning out my office in preparation of relocating it to the basement so our oldest can have her own bedroom. In the process, I realized I have accumulated a large cache of defunct computer hardware. I had often wondered about the mileage I would get converting old simms to key chains, that sort of thing. Never did I imagine the more organic possibilities till I started googling and found this great post on techblog.

Well, my mind got working and I started tearing things apart for pieces parts. I had read a year or so ago about a guy taking apart old Hard Disks to harvest the raw materials. Aluminum casings and machined parts can be recycled. There's a minor amount of copper in the read/write arm coil. And there are some butt-whoopin' rare earth magnets - the kind that you DON'T want your fingers to accidentally come between.

The later turned out to be the most entertaining find so far. This on the heals of getting a 140 piece kit of Magnetix for my oldest. She loves them and I love playing with them with her. There are tons of fun things you can make. I made one half of an alternating field magnetic impulse rotor with some parts on the coffee table. She thought that was pretty cool, as did I... so we bought another $50 of parts today while we were at the store. Should be able to make the whole 360 degree rotor. Set up properly, a little nudge pushes two like poles into opposition. As the rotor arm pushes into the opposing like-pole field, it is building potential kinetic energy while moving. As it crests the resistance of the fixed like pole magnet in the outer array, the opposing like pole field gives the rotor arm a little push.

At the same time, an oppositely poled magnet is positioned just out of reach of the previous like poled magnet and is attracting the arms magnet towards it. The speed boost is enough to hurl the arm past the oppositely poled magnet towards the next like polled resistance field. This process repeats until the arm moves out of the field of the fixed magnets surrounding the orbit of the arm. In theory, with a full 360 array, the rotor arm would be pushed and pulled around in a circle forever... provided there is very little work being done other than pivoting about a fulcrum. And, with ad-hoc positioning and nothing to really hold things in place, it's highly likely the experiment would wind down or stall after a few rotations.

Anyway, that aside, I thought - yeah - some really really strong magnets mounted on screw tunable fixtures would make this a more finely controlled experiment - possibly even come close to being able to generate a little power. So, I started tearing the magnets out of my stack of old disks. The unexpected thing was just how fun it is to play with them. I created a buffalo, a sea horse, and the last (best), a camel - readily identified as such by a 3 year old, so I feel that's a good measure of the verisimilitude I achieved with metal parts.

It occurred to me that something like this might make attractive desk top art. It just takes an eye for natural organic patterns - like picking out shapes in fluffy white clouds on a summers day. Pondering the other innards of the HD's, I thought the control arms looked an awful lot like birds heads. I might make a loon or a peacock out of non magnetic parts next. My official excuse, though, is the pile of parts I'm collecting will be great for art as well as mechanical engineering lessons for the kids as they get older. I even pulled the motors from the HDs, which means we can have some 7200 RPM fun at some point too. :-)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Finishing Wood

With carpet installed in the basement, walls painted and trim partially purchased, I've started staining the woodwork that eventually be installed along the baseboards, around the doors and windows and around the built in cabinetry.

The three color process is producing amazing results. The baseboards received an initial base coat of Red Oak about three weeks ago. A week later I applied a coat of Sadona Red which significantly warmed the dark base. Tonight, I applied Bombay Mahogany Red polyurethane. The color is rich and lush. I love it.

Here you can see a snap taken with my new camera phone (a freebie for renewing my service contract). I had to play with the contrast and brightness a little as they are wet here and reflecting a lot of the garage ceiling, which is white. When they dry, they'll get a good rub down with some 0000 steel wool.

Tomorrow my daughter and I will go pick up the rest of the wood - mostly for trimming doors. I'm trying to keep the woodwork simple and not too fancy. I'm trying to pull off a simple, pseudo Japanese / Chinese style.

To this end, the carpet was selected for an appearance similar to a Ta tame mat. The wood work is getting three coats of transparent stains to mimic the lacquered look of finer Asian furniture. The colors are dark wood and light floors and walls to somewhat match some of the "traditional" Japanese style one can see influencing some contemporary Japanese architecture today.
It's a fun, but slow project.

Hopefully I'll have some pics of the trim in place and the doors with their final paint coats on soon... probably late January at the rate things are going. :-)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Creating Wood Grain

There are a lot of ways to create a wood grain effect. You can by rollers with a bold pattern on them for applying or thinning applied paint. Another approach is to use a brush to apply paint in specific directions and in multiple layers.

Using a manufactured door as a grain guide, above, I started painting our cellar door last week by applying a coat of Killz using a directional pattern.

Later last week, I added the first color coat, repeating the pattern. The white Killz shows through at this point, exaggerating the effect. But it will still have a strong grain pattern after the second coat of paint is applied and to the casual eye, will look like the door is textured instead of flat and featureless.
For the record, my wife really hates this look. So, for the next coat, I elected to use a roller to put a smoother texture on. Happily, some of the "grain" still shows through but the top coat is smooth and glossy. This is what I ultimately wanted - a finished but deep look. I'll post about the final result when the trim is stained and installed. Should have the hardware on then too.

I had wanted to do my wood staining and painting this way since I took notice of Chinese and Japanese antique furniture. They apparently, in bygone golden years, would use 13 or so layers of lacquer to create just the right depth and luster. I'm happy to use three modern multipurpose products to create just a touch of depth. :-)

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Making a Bark Mat

I had a great "nature moment" with my kids about three weeks ago. We were bringing some branches I'd pruned from our hybrid willows (grow in dry conditions and are straight rather than drooping) up to the brush pile. My first born wanted to use the greener branches as swords or something. I thought - aha - teaching moment. I sat the two of them down to see who could peel the longest piece of bark from one of the green branches in the bunch we had.

After some practice, I came up with a pretty good technique. I'd start peeling with my thumb nail and then would get the whole circumference of bark peeling and would pull it at an angle perpendicular to the branch. This made for lots of long broad strips. (please excuse the crude illustrations produced from memory.)

The kids thought this was great fun and soon we had a small pile of bark strips. I took them up to the picnic table and started showing them how to weave them to make a place mat. They had done this for school with construction paper, so it wasn't anything new really, but using bark made it more interesting since the pieces were oddly shaped and had two colors, a green grey on one side and a bright white green on the other.
Weaving is pretty easy. Start with a cross. Then start alternating pieces above and below one axis, alternating axis each time to begin to give the structure some strength.
As you go, be sure to carry the under over pattern out so that you create a classic basket weave pattern. The more strips you add, the more strength the mat will have. To make it really strong, snug each new strip closely to its neighbors. This tightness will reduce play in the finish mat and help keep it together without needing glue.

Eventually you'll have an odd shaped mesh. Trim it with kitchen shears to the shape you like. Here is ours, trimmed to the shape of an octagon. Also important, this is what it looks like after spending three weeks between the pages of one phone book, under a stack of 5 others. Pressing it as it dries keeps the bark from curling and helps form the wet freshly peeled strips to each other making a tighter weave.
To top it off, I stained ours with some Bombay Red polyurethane to give it that "fresh from Peer One" look. Here's the finished product. This is strictly a personal taste thing. It looks great green and would probably be good to go with a clear lacquer. I'm getting my office decor together as I am moving office as soon as the carpenter (me) has things tidied up ready for the carpet layer. And this is one of the colors I have picked for the wood work, so there you go.You could probably get away with using this under a ceramic tea pot - a small one. This only measures about 4 1/2" in real life. The kids thought it was really neat and wanted to take it apart before I stained it. I think "stained" also now means "Dad's". :-)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Repurposed Keyboard Drawer

I was getting to the point where my desk space was so cluttered with cables, monitor stands and my laptop that I no longer had much room for anything else, like my Mac Mini which has been sitting patiently dormant on top of a filing cabinet for most of the year.

Inspiration struck when I saw a DIY project on Lifehacker a while back where someone used some black plastic pipe to create a cheap riser for their monitor. Being someone who appreciates the finer details, and not being able to find black (only white PVC), I turned what might have been a 10 minute hack into about two hours, but I love the results.

Helping the success of the project, I have an older computer desk of the same "wood grain" and color which now only stores our printer, the UPS, and a lot of old game CD Jewel cases. The keyboard pull out drawer was no longer in service at all, except to hold a couple odd bits of junk, so I pulled it to become a new monitor stand.
I picked up a 24" piece of PVC for $2.46 at Home Depot. Using my mitre saw for straight cuts, I measured out 4 3" sections and cut it up. A hand file and skill knife were needed to get the melted plastic burrs off. Then I painted the sections with two coats of gloss black, sanding between coats. The top coat was Krylon Crystal Clear. I finished the surface with some 000 steel wool which gave it a rubbed rather than high gloss look. As it turns out, matching the luster on the Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboard rather closely.

You can see in the picture above that the Mac Mini is now back in the realm of the living and my laptop is tucked back under the shelf with plenty of room for air to circulate around it. The only challenging bit now is getting media in and out! It does slide out easily and I left myself some room on the right to get SD cards in and out to transfer pics from my camera to my laptop.

After removing the slide rails from the keyboard tray, no further assembly required. Simple, elegant, and most importantly, cheap and quick.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Inexpensive Face Lift

We've made a couple of improvements to our house since moving in almost 8 years ago this week. In the shot below, you can see where we finally replaced the shingles in year 3 with something more substantial (and properly installed) as we had grown weary of finding shingles on the lawn every time the breeze got up a bit. You can also see the front door and shutters are black. This was paint applied shortly before we bought, judging from the small can of touch up I found squirrelled away in the basement under the steps.
[picture removed by author]
This weekend, we made a very inexpensive upgrade. The black paint was wearing thin and looking pretty weary itself. So, we painted the front door and shutters a new color, one that better suites the newer, slate colored shingles.

We also invited twenty some-odd flies to live with us during the time I had the door open to dry between and after coats.

The end result is amazing. We love it and it only took about 4 hours total effort and some bravery atop a rickety wooden step ladder. My mother-in-law and mum both love it too, which means I have truely succeeded. :-)

On a side note, if you look at the weeping cherry to the left o the window, you'll also note it is much fuller now than 5 years ago thanks to aggressive and careful pruning on my part. I've been careful to prune it to spread and then allowed it to waterfall down into different levels. Great tree for recreational pruning... invasive though, gotta keep cutting back the leaders.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Tool Crib

When I took Wood Shop I and II in High School, we had a Tool Crib - the place all the tools were kept, sleeping like babies presumably. In my quest to keep from losing tools for months on end in the clutter of my home, which has happened before - I lost a couple of C-clamps for about two years before finding them behind the stud wall I clamped in place for installation, still holding on for dear life.

So, not wanting to waste something otherwise perfectly useless, I gave the spring from a donated baby crib a new life as a tool crib in the basement. You can see it below attached to the end of the storage shelves I built to help get our piles of stuff organized into one neatly stacked heap.

I used a few zip screws to anchor it and then just wedged in tools in groups according to function. Hammers, pliers, clamps, saws, putty knives, and miscellaneous tools are mounted here and there with the aid of a few extra nails and screws. Almost all of my tools have found a home here except for the major power tools. The heat gun came in a throw away box and has a hanger built into the top end, so it's hanging there at the top of the crib.

It's not very appealing visually, but it's dead easy to find my tools now and was cheaper and less space consuming than installing peg board and hooks to do the same job. And, it's tucked away in the storage area of the basement, out of sight and out of reach of the little ones.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Laying Out Floor Space

I'm so looking forward to getting the House reorganized a bit. I'm approaching completion with the plastering in the basement and it will soon be ready to prime and paint. I'm currently researching methods and colors for that, but in the mean time, while I'm taking it easy here and there (a guy's gotta rest sometime), I'm playing with furniture layouts.

This was made easier thanks to FloorPlanner. You can see a screen grab of one of the layouts I created below. They have lots of template items you can drag onto the drawing area. Fortunately for me, I had a semi scaled bitmap of our basement already and was able to import it as the background. The free account has some limitations but this was enough to get what I wanted.

I used their built in templates and ability to rotate, resize and reshape them to create representations of the various pieces of furniture I have. All I need to find are the fake trees to go in the corners to complete the layout once I get all my furniture down there.

The items in the closet behind the office chair are my server and game rig. I plan to relocate the dehumidifier there as well to act as an air conditioner of sorts. This will help keep things cool, dry and the closet will provide some sound deadening between me and the PSU fans.

One of the things I like about this layout is it divides the existing space into two rooms with the bookcases. I also made some dead corners more interesting by taking the bookcases in an arc, mimicking the arc my three piece desk will create, instead of a straight side to side partition as originally laid out. Now all I need to find is a cable planner tool. :-)

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Good Stuff

So about that paint I've been going on about. The brand is Sikkens. It is NOT cheap, but it is easily the nicest oil based paint I've ever worked with. It covers in one coat with a brush or two with a roller. After a bit of experimentation, I think two coats with a roller is far quicker than one coat by brush.

In our case, I chose the Sikkens Rebold solid exterior stain. The only problem I've had is drying. It's been too humid for it to dry quickly but drying it is. Some of it where the brush put it on thick is taking a week plus owing to the humidity I would guess. We went with their 'cedar' tone, which is probably my only complaint. To my eye it's more taupe than cedar colored.

Here in Ohio, I went to a professional paint store (Creative Paints in Plain City, OH) and paid $43 a gallon. I'm happy enough with their service and the results thus far on the kids playhouse to go back for another gallon I'm likely going to need to complete the work on the deck.

On the creative DIY / Hacking front, I found a great use for an old pesticide disposable pump sprayer. It's the kind that has the attached holster on the side for the spray wand ( the sort you pull rather than squeeze to charge the pump). I cut the top off, washed it out and used it to caddy my brush and some Turpentine (white spirit). That way whenever I took a break or the paint got a bit too gunky on my brush I could give it a dip and a rattling inside the container and then slip it into the holster till needed again. This also kept the brush fresh enough that end of day cleanup was a snap with soap and water. And, since the container is recyclable plastic, when I'm done with reusing it, I can still take it in for recycling.

Next time I'll show you what I did with a discarded baby crib under-spring.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Stripping Paint

A few years back I painted our cedar / pressure treated deck with Olympic water based, opaque deck stain. It held up where the wood was good, but where the wood was weather damaged the paint lost it's adhesion sooner than expected. So, this summer, I've been experimenting with the best way to get the loose stuff off.

I started with just the garden hose. It blew off loose paint pretty easily but I could see there was still more that was curled and flaked. So, I picked up an electric power washer (Karcher)
at Wal*mart (imagine that - a German engineered product at Made in China ™) for $98. It works really well and came with two wands, a powerful 1500 psi fan wand and and insane rotating pencil brush wand that I can only imagine would destroy the wood on the deck completely.

As it is, the problem with the paint coming loose to begin with is due to moisture getting between the paint and the wood. So, where there are places on the deck where the paint is still good, the high pressure spray worked to compromise some of this paint over time. I learned this when I followed up my spraying with a push style wire brush to get any remaining loose bits and then a bleach wash to prepare the wood for painting. I think the bleach worked to further loosen paint as well for, when I set about rinsing down the deck with just the garden hose, more paint came flying off.

My goal had been to keep what was good and paint over it rather than strip the entire surface area of the deck. I decided I needed a better, more thorough way to get all the paint off. So, I picked up a $19 heat gun and tried that. It only served to scorch the wood while it melted the paint. And it was taking a really long time.

Last bet - a rotary wire brush attachment for my power drill (fine grade.) This does a quick and terrific job of getting to genuinely loose paint while burnishing the good paint down at the edges. I think this is probably the most effective, non chemical, way to strip paint from soft wood. The only down side is, well, you have to BE down to use it - on your knees or sitting. No standing up like with the power washer. As such, it's a huge pain for me and my lousy back. Fortunately, I have a couple younger guys I know who don't terribly mind a little hard work in exchange for cash, so hopefully I'll have some help here shortly.

Next time, I'll tell you about the paint I found out about. It's not cheap, but it is very very good.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Project Updates - More Pavers, Playset Built

It's been a busy spring. I only slowed down this weekend due to a tweaked disc in my back. A couple of days of rest, physical therapy and joint supplements and I'm feeling 50% better. But, of more interest than my decaying body is what has been accomplished so far.

I wrote a little while back about some of the paver work I've been doing. Here's the second step on my landscaping that has been paved with the Old Port ™ Old Castle ™ pavers.

I can't remember how many cuts I made but it was a lot considering I didn't use a wet saw. I think I broke three beyond immediate use - they might serve as odd shaped edging later on.

The other big accomplishment was assembling the million piece play house. Holy cow that took a long time. Thankfully, my Dad showed up two days before my daughters birthday to help me finish it up and we had it done in time to clean ourselves up and grill some chicken and brats for dinner. You can see the play house as viewed from our deck off the back of the house.

This is the Cambridge by Leisure Time Products, Inc. sold by Sam's club. It took about a month of free time to assemble and would have taken longer if my wife hadn't measured, sorted and labeled each piece. We had to get the instructions off the companies website and print them ourselves as they neglected to include them in the pack.

Having built it, I would not recommend it. I would recommend going to a lumber yard near you and asking them if they have plans for which they can also supply materials. You are more likely to get something solid and durable, though probably much less complex. While this is a really neat playhouse and swing set well suited to small children not afraid to climb, larger children will make the floor boards bend and the joints groan. I only weigh 172 and it creaks and warps under my weight. So, playing with the kids is kinda ruled out. But, my kids seem to love it. They really haven't "moved in" yet - no other toys except a red plastic chair have made it out there, but no doubt that will follow in time.

I will say that when we were shorted a ground anchor, it was shipped within days, no charge, direct to our door. I think the company is probably a good one, but like so many other things being made in China these days, the quality isn't really American.

Next step is to stain it with a good water sealant and pigment. It comes pre stained but I want to make sure it really lasts. My dad recommends Sikkens, which isn't the cheapest but enjoys a very good reputation so I'll be trying to track some of that down soon.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Playground Kits

After substantial pressure from various matronly family members - all of them, Mom, wife, Mom-in-law, my kids are the proud new owners of a pile of parts. It's supposed to be a Play fort / swing set but putting it together is going on the second week.

We bought the Cambridge play set available at Sam's club. It is not cheap, but it is designed well. Engineering is another matter. I don't have a great deal of confidence that some of the materials would support an adult (especially not the adult assembling it) but it is supposed to accommodate 9 children at once - presumably evenly distributed over the structure, not piled up in one spot.

It's put out by an American company so the assembly process and instructions are easy to understand and logical. It's manufactured in China, so the quality of the cedar components is fair as opposed to good or excellent. I can't say I'd recommend it just based on some of the things they include - like the scrap wood used to create the composite beams which are then sleeved with several millimeters of heavy plastic. The scrap wood is one of the questionable engineering choices. We'll see how it holds up I guess.

Assembling this monster is something like 700 parts (not including about 2000 pieces of hardware) and 100 to 102 steps. The instructions are 100 steps long but with the wind in our area I opted to: 101) dig holes for the screw in ground anchors and 102) pour concrete around them once fastened to the base of the fort. This thing will suffer structural damage before it tips over in the wind... again. Happened twice during assembly already.

My kids, though, are the final arbiters of what is good and not good in the back yard and so far the wavy slide (still on the ground awaiting it's turn to be installed) and the step ladder (now assembled and attached) are enough to make them giddy and constantly ask if it's done yet. I just point to the pile of parts and repeat that it will be done when there are no more parts left. And that may be a couple of weeks yet.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Laying Pavers

I've been stealing a little time here and there - 4 hours at a time - to place pavers in my landscaping project that has been going on for... ages. I've been working with dry fit masonry for over 5 years now, strictly as time permits. Mostly, dry fit (my term I think - and as opposed to what I would guess is wet fit which would involve mortar) is easy stuff. You stack blocks to make little retaining walls and there you go.

Well, my project features a 4 ft high serpentine retaining wall, a 3/4 circle planter and 5 steps. It has taken a lot of time and effort to get it to where it is today and finally I have started getting serious about the pavers. Since I don't have a lot of time I can plan to dedicate to it, renting a wet saw is somewhat out of the question. So instead, I've been honing my skills with a masonry hammer and chisels. Each time I get deep into the work, I find a new technique or trick that makes working with the chosen materials easier. I thought I'd share some of those here today.

Landscape blocks are usually rated by PSI. Some have a relatively low PSI, akin to cinder blocks (the kind they use for basements and foundations.) Others have a higher PSI and hold up to the stress of freeze and thaw better. I have found that the harder the material (greater PSI) the more sincere you need to be, both in adopting the material (more PSI = more physical work to cut by hand) and when applying cutting force.

Some of the pavers I have are, if memory servers, in the 10,000 PSI range and take a lot of force. In fact, babying them seems to often cause them to break in the wrong spot as they are a little on the brittle side. The blocks I use, however, are closer to 4000 PSI and too much force causes them to break unpredictably. They like to be broken a little at a time.

In both cases, using a fulcrum for them to break over usually provides a straighter cut. I use a 3 " chisel for most cuts and drive it with a 3 lb. hammer. I usually clean up the cuts with a masonry hammer, using the chisel end for breaking down bumps and the flat end for smoothing rough areas. Also, using the 3 lb. hammer in combination with the mason hammer makes for a very finely controlled 1 " chisel. Just hold it in place by the handle and hit the flat end with the 3 lb. This is great for shaving rough cuts down just a hair with several quick taps. Often when I have two bricks to fit together tightly one needs just a shave to change the angle of the face just a few degrees and this gets the job done.

Also, when working with small stones, I usually work on top of a larger block and often step on the block I am cutting to secure it without mashing my fingers (good sturdy boots are indispensable in any regard). Today, for example, I had a small piece to fit in that was 1" x 2" x 2" and I had cut it down from a piece of scrap. Getting the edges straight on the last few cuts required liberal use of my boot and the mason hammer as a chisel technique.

The other thing that is great about high PSI pavers is that you can use them as a grind stone of sorts. I had a slender piece to stick between two other pavers and needed to smooth the cut side without destroying it. Hammering was out of the question. So, I placed it rough side down on another paver and used a rubbing motion till it was as smooth as the other paver. It fit in the tight gap perfectly.

I hope to have more time this summer, maybe even enough to finish the project, and more photos and tips to share. I hope you are enjoying your projects as much as I am mine!

Friday, May 4, 2007

Estimating Labor

Friend: "I'm in over my head. I started to redo x and found out it also needed y, z, and a bucket of p & q when I got into it!"

Answer: The Bible rocks. Luke 14:28 has this useful advice for avid DIYers:

"For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it"

I heard this same quandary from at least two or three people this week as spring has motivated the hibernating "real man" in many of us to get to tackling that never ending list of things needing doing around the farm, castle, etc.

I think these experiences help validate a DIY estimating formula I have been working on for the past few years as projects around our house have often gone the same way. It's taken 4 years to do the basement and this formula has allowed me to more effectively schedule work in the past months.

(1 layer material * Square feet affected * [material factor] hr) = Total Hours

Sheet material factor: .3 (cutting, installing, measuring twice first...)
Mixed component material factor: .6 (grout, mortar, specialty floor coverings)
Unmixed component material: .25 (paint, plaster)

In practice, I've come to consider a layer of material as separate jobs. Tiles = 1 layer and grout = another, so tiling the 6 ft by 4 ft (- 2 sq ft for vanity/sink base) should work out:

Lay tile:
(4*6-(1*2)) * .3 = 6.6 hrs

(4*6-(1*2)) * .6 = 13.2 hrs

Total Estimated hours (not including beverage breaks, football breaks, naps, etc.)
19.8 hrs - or most of a weekend.

If I have to level the floor or cut and lay down sub floor ahead of laying tile, then I can figure on adding another sheet material time calculation:

Lay sub floor:
(4*6-(1*2)) * .3 = 6.6 hrs

I expect you could adjust for metric as well as factor in help. I typically have no help, but when my wife is available to lend an odd hand here or there it does speed things up considerably.

But obviously, this is far too general to be useful in all cases. The way I came up with it was to look back on all the DIY I have done in the past and honestly estimate the time it took. Really, football, basketball, beer... it really has to be factored in if you aren't getting paid by the hour to do this stuff. If you are your own boss, make sure you are honest with the boss. :-)

Saturday, April 21, 2007

New Home for Home Improvement

After using Expression engine for a while, I got a bit tired of fighting spam. The Expression engine tool was nice but as a demo, it offered no captcha upgrade and configuring it was a long slow learning process. So, here, I have relocated my posts for your reference and enjoyment. Please be aware web searches for these articles may still point to On this now site, I hope to spend more time posting about what will occupy most of my time this summer - home improvement - D.I.Y., of course. Cheers!

Creating a Stone Stair


One of the best values in landscaping is a truck load of stones of varying size. You can usually get three or four tons for around $100 depending on your local economy and availability of materials. In the mid-west there is an abundance of "river rock", usually rounded organic shapes rocks that were pushed around by the glaciers during the last ice age. Typically any quarry in the mid west that offers sand and gravel has a pile or two of stone to offer too. I'm not familiar with the types of stone available in the South, New England, the North West or the South West, but the general specifications for this project are the same. You want a number of stones between 12 and 24 inches wide and between 6 and 14 inches high of varying depths. The easiest way to come by these is to have a load of randomly sized rocks delivered. I say random as opposed to screened by size as the random lot will provide materials for other project's I'll be discussing. You'll have a pile of rocks in the yard for the summer but the kids will love you and some of your neighbors may even confess to a little envy. Either way you go, a small sized load (often you can pick your own if you can transport them yourself), or a large random selection should produce a nice set of stones suitable for a simple staircase.


You'll want a sturdy shovel (the kind with the rounded end, not a spade), a good pair of work gloves (the new latex coated elastic kind I find have a superior grip and wear to leather work gloves) and some common sense: always lift with your knees, not your back or groin. Optionally, you may want a stone boat and or pry bar for transporting and manipulating larger stones. In my case, I made a simple stone boat out of a discarded car tire and a tow chain attached to my garden tractor. The tire slid harmlessly over my lawn and driveway and was slick enough that I was able to pull a 100 lb. stone with my tractor.

My Stair in the woods
Selecting Stones

Using natural, as opposed to manufactured, stones gives a very rich and pleasing look and feel to your work. Manufactured blocks provide precise edges and can have their appeal, but a really professional look can be achieved with stone. Ideally, you're going to pick stones that have one or more large flat sides. This will be the run of the step that stone will become. Pick, if you can, stone colors that contrast with or compliment the color of your house and other surroundings. Picking colors that are too similar to your house can create a bland appearance where the stone work fails to stand out against the backdrop of the house. The same goes if you are installing your stair near a deck or gazebo. You want stone color that won't clash or disappear. Light colored sand stone is a value shift, color wise, from browns and tans. Red granite is a value shift from redwood, and white or grey granite a value shift away from cooler grays and blues. Red granite with a blue house creates a bold contrast which may possibly be what you are looking for, but keep in mind the curb appeal (even in the back yard) of your house is derived from what most people will think about it, so choose wisely. My personal favorite is the white to light grey granite as it goes with the most colors and settings, whether near a pond, a flower bed or an old half of an oak whiskey barrel. What you get may be random as well, which only adds character and interest. In the example shown here, I have availed myself of limestone, granite and other igneous rocks that have good density and resist splitting. The limestone probably won't hold up as long as the others, but it was a freebie (pushed into my yard when the house next door was built). Pick what you find pleasing if all else fails.

Site Selection
Someone elses nice work

Any part of your yard with a good amount of slope to it will do. Generally something with a 4% or 6% grade (about 30 to 45 degrees if viewed from the side) will provide a good location. But that's just the mechanical aspect of it. Aesthetically, you want the stair to serve as a transition between one area and another, leading someone through your garden or other landscaping through a particular point in space. This funnelling of foot traffic makes planning the rest of your landscaping much easier as you now have a set of focal points to plan around: the view from the bottom of the stair, the view down the stair, and the view to either side of the stair while ascending or descending. In my case, I had a foot path through the dense honey suckle shrubs that have taken over a portion of my lot. Most fortuitously, there was also a geed deal of slope along the path, which made the ideal spot for a stair. Take a look at some other examples.


If your site is ideal as mine, you may be able to get away with minimal work. All I had to do was carve out a bit of ground for each step, starting wit the bottom step and working my way up, and then use some fill dirt packed in around the edges. You may need to adjust your stone several times to get the run (the flat top) sufficiently level. Use gravel or earth which is free of organic matter such as weeds and sticks for leveling by throwing a handful at a time under the stone and checking the level each time. Stand and jump on each step as you go to help seat it and to determine if you have a snug enough fit. You don't want them to wobble any at all as it could lead to injury. After it is seated in place, fill around the edges with more dirt and use the handle of your shovel, inverted, to pack earth in around the edges.

To minimize shifting of your stones over time, you may want to dig them into the ground deeper, or if this is an integral part of other landscaping where no shifting and settling can be tolerated, consider digging twice as deep as you need and start with a bed of well packed gravel and other smaller stones. The Romans built their roads to last and typically put the largest monolithic stones on the bottom and then progressed to smaller, tightly packed stones ending with cobble stones. Laying a foundation of other large stones will minimize shifting from freeze and thaw over the years. In my case, it's a foot path in the woods and occasionally shifting (and maintenance) is acceptable to me, so one layer of large stepping stones suits my needs.
Someone elses nice work

To wrap it up, I'll be adding some Sweet Woodruff as a ground cover on either side of the stair owing to the shady and dry soil in this area. When completed, it should be a very pleasant surprise for anyone strolling through my wood.

Building a Simple Block Fire Pit

Update 6/15/2011: after three or four years, this is the most popular article on this blog by far.  You people really like your block fire pits!  As you read below, put special emphasis on sighting.  Where I built ours is too far away from the house for regular use and it sits disused most times.  Something to think about when picking a spot.

Update 9/12/2013: I've written a follow up and have included some tips for cooking with a fire pit and making your own charcoal.

Generally, a good fire pit contains the burning items (hopefully some nice dry wood) but still radiates a pleasant amount of heat and light. A great fire pit can support a coking grate over hot coals or open flame. On a camping trip I took with friends in '05, I did all the cooking and everything except the eggs was cooked over an open flame. (I used a portable butane stove top for the eggs... too much close contact for the cook to use a camp fire). An effective fire pit will draw air from the sides into a sheltered interior. This keeps the fire from blowing out and allows it to draw oxygen so combustion can occur. If your fire pit is deep enough (from rim to embers) this inlet of air also helps the smoke go straight up instead of into your eyes, nose, and clothes. An finally, a really nice fire pit looks good. It doesn't stand out as the place you burn stuff in the yard. Ideally, it adds to rather than detracts from your landscaping.

Fire Pits as seen on Google Image Search

So, tall order. We want a good or great, effective, really nice looking fire pit. To meet all of these criteria, I chose to make use of some of the extra landscape blocks I had from another project I intentionally over estimated materials on so I could do this project. (The customer didn't mind - it was me!) You can really use any non-flamable material. Steel, iron, rock, brick, even earth if you have a high enough clay content. I chose block for its consistency of shape and dimension. Flag stone, which is flat and can be selected for uniformity of height, would also make a good choice.

Start by selecting a location. If you cool your home ambiently (leave the windows open in the summer as opposed to running the AC) don't place it too close to your house or up wind if you can help it. A flat and level area is preferable as you will want to have stable footing for chairs and small tables around your fire pit. Also, you don't want to place it directly under an over hanging tree. While this seems very cozy, the heat from the fire can wilt, scorch and even kill your tree.

To prepare the site, outline the area you would like to transform into a fire pit with string, biodegradable marking paint, or my favorite, a garden hose. You'll want to excavate the sod and or weeds (depending on your lawn maintenance schedule) and an inch or two of top soil. If you are building your fire pit on top of an existing foundation, such as a concrete patio, skip this step. Be warned though that the heat from your fire could potentially age your concrete prematurely through uneven heating and cooling. Which brings to mind the method by which you will extinguish fires in your new pit. In the case of stone, concrete or any masonry, let the fire burn down when at all possible. Pouring cold water on a hot fire, more specifically, on hot stone or brick work, will lead to rapid temperature changes in the material which will most likely crack. The exception would be ceramic. If you use earth to make your fire pit and then fire the clay used for about two days at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, you will have a monolithic mass that can withstand quite a bit of abuse. But since you aren't likely to do that, build small fires in your pit, not bonfires, and keep sand in a bucket handy if you really need to put it out quick.

The way I outlined my area to dig was to lay a coursing of block right on the ground in a circle the size I wanted my pit to be. The ground was a little soft from a recent rain, so dancing around on them for a few minutes (jumping up and down, hard) left some nice impressions and the perfect digging guide. I used the dirt to fill in some dog holes. Dogs live in holes? No, but they sure act like they want to when they find one occupied by a rabbit.

After that, I laid in some crushed #6 gravel. Do you need crushed #6 gravel? No. Sand will do. Pea-gravel will do. #4 crushed gravel will do. You want something that will compact to a level building surface. Replace all of the dirt you removed with your leveling granules of choice. Organic matter is not a good choice.

Then I threw up three concentric courses of block. The first two levels were of larger circumference than the top two to leave gaps for ventilation between the blocks. The top level was the only one that I set with the blocks all flush to one another.

Once the block was all in place, I filled the first coursing with more gravel (because I had some left over) and the second coursing with fist size rocks, the look I wanted in the bottom of my fire pit when people happened to look in. The rocks are easy to refresh later if I decide the current set has become too blackened with use.

As an optional final step, you can lay a patio or skirt of smooth gravel around the fire pit. It's nice to have the grass not growing right up to the edge of the pit, and adding a patio (not covered in this article) really raises the bar for back yard entertaining. In my case, we have a fire pit located remotely from the house and I used smooth gravel on top of weed barrier (plastic) as a 2' (two foot) skirt around the fire pit. Makes for a nice weed free place to set down a cooler, firewood, or whatever else you don't want wet from late evening dew on the grass.

Here's the materials list for my specific implementation.

36 4" x 11 " tapered landscape blocks (Old Castle "Old Forge" blocks)
10 cubic feet of crushed gravel (purchased by the ton for a larger project the week before)
20 cubic feet of smooth gravel (bartered from my neighbor with 20 cu ft of crushed gravel)
30 fist size round quarry rocks (purchased by the ton for general landscaping purposes)

If you buy the materials in the quantities specified, you will probably spend more money. Still, you should be able to do this for under $150.