Saturday, December 31, 2011

Clean it up!

It's been a good weekend for cleaning.  I've restored and perhaps saved several hundred dollars with some simple, if caustic, cleaning over the past week.

Intake Manifold

The 2002 Dodge Caravan Sport we drive as the family APC has been giving a "Bank 1 Too Lean" trouble code.  The 2002 does not use a Mass Air Flow sensor, but the older style fuel injection mixing which is acceleration based.  It's commonly used for trucks and isn't as good emission wise as mass-air flow but works well in that it is responsive in producing power.  This form of fuel air mixing is subject to air flow through the exhaust system, temperature and humidity.  The cheapest fix is possible the Idle Air Control valve is a bit sticky, allowing too much bleed-through of air at idle which can produce a rough idle (check) or the "lean" error (check).  So, today, one heavily cautioned bottle of intake cleaner was sprayed into the butterfly valve.  If you do so, follow the instructions on the can to the letter.  Wow.  A lot of brownish wash came out of the intake into the waiting wad of paper towels.

Starting was a bit tricky as you're instructed to spray with engine off.  It was very chuggy for the first several minutes but cleaned up it's operation with time and within 10 minutes I was able to idle up without it wanting to stall.  I took it for a drive as instructed and... amazingly, the throttle is in fact much more responsive and the idle is smoother, but we still have an engine check light.  Next guess is the injectors and I'm on treatment one of three for that.  We'll see if that handles it.  If not, most expensive saved for last, the catalytic converter could be getting plugged up.  At 95,000 miles, it shouldn't be all that bad but could be.

Savage 220D Sticking Firing Pin
A friend was sent home from a Christmas visit with a nice piece of hardware.  It's a 55 year old single barrel shot gun which was having some misfires.  Rem Oil is my favorite gun maintenance product, hands down.  After rods and swabs for cleaning barrels, Rem Oil is an essential in my book.  Spraying it into the firing pin hole in the breech face and into the trigger from below produced a little black wash and a now freely floating firing pin.  Previously, all coaxing could not get the pin to slide forward with the breech open.  Now a smack on the butt of the gun produces the head of the pin, shiny and clean, into sight.  And, no misfires today.  Getting this gun "fixed" could have wasted $90 or so bucks at a gunsmith who charges by the hour.

Canon MP 730 Wrong Cartridge Error
My neighbor made up his mind to toss his printer on the heap and asked if I wanted it for parts.  I thought I could get some bits for a Rep Rap from it so took it off his hands.  Then later, I thought, hmm... maybe this thing is just dirty?  Hooking it up and running through diagnostics found it was quite dirty.  I got nice and inked up cleaning the printer head inside and out with alcohol.  It also had some after market cartridges which I purchased brand replacements for.  The cleaning was probably the larger portion of the problems but the error does in fact seem to stem from the wrong cartridges.  Hopefully I can get it working with those I bought tonight, and thankfully, they can be returned if I don't use them to print (e.g. they don't clear the error).

With new cartridges installed, the printer still gave the error.  I tracked down a service center via Canon's website (which helpfully suggested I could order a print head from them) and contacted the service provider.  I was cheerfully informed that, per Canon's new policy, I could not be sold a print head without service provided by them.  Meaning, I would have to pack up the printer, drive 50 miles, deposit it, wait for a tech to check it out and discover what I already know, email me an estimate and me agree to pay and so on.  Nice policy.  Looks like I've got some new ink and nothing to print with.  Maybe I can use the ink for some hand painted items?  The MF device will surely yield up some interesting parts for the bin.

The basement
With the new year upon us, I figured it was time to get more organized.  Can never have too much of that I suppose.  So for my big new year's bash, I'm cleaning, sorting, stacking, organizing... all to make life a little nicer in the man-cave.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Random Bits

If you're anything at all like me, you keep every useful screw, nail, fixture, zip tie, staple or other unidentifiable but undeniably useful bit that falls into your possession.  I typically find a cardboard box lid or other miscellaneous container with a cornucopia of things that have accumulated over time.  In the past, this overlooked treasure would go untapped.  One day, I happened upon some clear divided storage containers with adjustable dividers.

There are hundreds of types, styles and sizes of divided storage containers.  I found the clear ones to be most useful for spotting contents while closed, and the adjustable dividers handy for fitting different odds and ends.  I have three now as my addiction has grown with use.  One sorts small, delicate tools, like the wood carving awls I inherited from my grandmother, or the X-Acto micro fine saw and miter box, various surgical clamps, magnifiers and the like.  Another contains crafty items like beads, brass pins, generally neat bits and bobs that would work well for projects with the kids.  I can take this box and a glue gun, sit down with my grade school pups and have a good time.

The third box is probably the most essential.  In this I have sorted screws of several types into their own bins: sheet-metal, wood, self-tapping and bolts.  It also has various flavors of cast off hardware such as washers of many dimensions, nuts, a whole slew of round white plastic discs from some forgotten item, slivers of snipped up old credit cards for use as shims, small hinges, hooks, plugs... pretty much one bin for almost every type of thing I've happened across while cleaning up the garage, the desk or the workshop.

I say this is essential as when I start any new project, I am better than half likely to be able to source most of my hardware requirements from my very own reclaimed hardware store in a box.  Affixing the table leaf to the old changing table to make a kids work bench: each screw came from this box of treasures.  Same for some nails and some carriage bolts to mount the vice.

If you have a shop or a crafting room, you are hopelessly disorganized and wasting money buying little packages of what you need for new projects if you're not harvesting the left-overs from old projects with a simple little divided parts box.  I found mine for $5 a piece at Lowe's in the organizer aisle (made in the USA too) and I'm sure your local store has at least one similar item to bring order to chaos in your shop or lab.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lamps and Lighting

I'm a picker of sorts.  I like finding deals and picking them out of the refuse for cheap or free when I can.  I was recently at Lowes and they had lamps on clearance.  I picked up a $170 tiffany style chandelier for $44.  Score.  Unfortunately not everyone appreciates stained glass.  I've been enthralled with it since I was a kid and the older boy at the neighbors where I was staying the weekend was doing some stained glass artwork.  I thought it was really cool at the time and as I grew to appreciate the difficulty of doing it well, seeing even somewhat mass-produced modern works from China, I like the overall effect the light brings to a living space.

Since my wife doesn't share the love of the lamp style, I have placed it in my workshop till we get my office built over the garage (some years from now I suppose).  It really changes the warmth level and with three bulbs instead of the one that had been, it's more evenly lit and useful to me. 

Four light (3 lit) Tiffany Chandler
As I was admiring the new fixture, I noticed my pile of stuff had grown when I recently upgraded our homes exterior lighting with motion sensing lamps.  Two of those I swapped out were good solid brass, needing polishing but good fixtures to hang on to.  One day I hope to incorporate them into my garden structure that remains planned for now, budgeted for much later.
Brass Carriage Lamp

Brass Sconce with beveled glass
Effective use of lighting is something I learned in my college days where I was privileged to study under a guy name Dean whom we called Dean-o.  The work I did for television sets was well regarded and I took it as a compliment when the Engineers said the cameras liked my lighting a lot.  It was a job I enjoyed because it was something I could often do at my own pace and take time to be creative and take pride in.  Hours spent 30 feet above the studio floor adjusting spots, floods, elipticals and soft boxes.  Fun times, hard work, lousy pay. :-)

On that thought, I captured a few shots of my finished basement area to illustrate how a table lamp in the right place can create much nicer lighting and interest than plain overhead lighting.  Below are two different views, the first with overhead lighting, the second with some old but nice table lamps.

My Desk
Overhead, flat lighting at desk

Overhead off, lamps on - warm and cozy corner
 The lamp is a hand-me down wood carved Benjamin Franklin-esque lamp lighter.  Situated behind my monitors, there is no glare but plenty of light on my work surface.  This second image captures some of the warmth the light adds.  It really helps demarcate my "at work" office which has cold overhead lights from my "at home" office which is typically lit as shown.  I like to feel like I'm in a different place altogether aside from just geographic changes between work-work and home-work, and the lighting helps a lot.

The Reading Nook

Overhead Lighting
Overhead off, lamps on - interesting faux window when viewed from across the room.
The paint in the built-in nook, which will one day have glass shelves for curios, has some luminous components that help reflect and amplify the light from the lamp.  I love the effect this has when I come down to the basement, current effective office, to work.  It's not perfect of course, the overhead lacks a finished ceiling or final lighting fixtures which will vastly improve things if I ever get around to completing them.  In the mean time, the lamps bring a nice comfort level to the basement living area.

Lamps and lighting do a lot to sculpt our living spaces and should be given ample consideration as an inexpensive and dramatic way to revive a living or work space.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Scrap Built Workbench for Kids

One of my recent shop projects has been building a workbench for my kid's more destructive desires.  I told them, "we need to make a special place for you to break stuff" since the usual places (everywhere) usually break unapproved items.  The total project cost: $81.

So it is that one old baby changing table, a donated table leaf, some scrap lumber and some left over heavy-duty shelving wheels came together to make a mobile workstation for my kids to tear things up.  Here it is about half done.  I have more drawer handles to make, some drawer dividers to cut and secure inside to make bins for parts, tools, etc., and then it's getting a red, white and blue paint job using a lot of left over paint.

I started by removing the rails from the top of the table and securing the table leaf to it with numerous salvaged screws.  Then I tried putting the wheels right on the bottom, but we were a bit top heavy so I had to extend the base with some scrap lumber.  Lag bolts and glue put the new, wider and deeper, base on the bottom of the table and I threaded 1/4 inch holes at 20 pitch so I could screw the wheels right in. 

I then noticed the table structure by itself was wiggly so I took one of the now detached rails to the miter saw and made several right-angle triangles to glue and tack with brads into the inside drawer support corners.  This cross bracing tightened thing up tremendously.

For handles, I've gotten some aluminum rod and bent it at a 90 degree angle.  On the ends I threaded it to 3/16" 20 pitch thread and found some nuts and washers to make it work with the existing pull handle holes.

To top it off, we bought a brand new $50 vice with anvil so we have something to properly mash, bash and otherwise break things with. I found some carriage bolts, left over from our swing set kit build years back, and with some scrap blocking and washers they made a good fit for securing the vice to the table top.

Hopefully, as my dear ones embark on their now legit rampage of destruction, they'll learn some valuable skills along the way and have a lot of fun learning shop craft first hand. :-) Project cost breakdown so far: $50 for vice, $6 for aluminum rods, nuts and washers, and about $25 finding bargain bin tools to stock the workspace with (a decent claw hammer, a no-mar mallet, a square with spirit level and a screw-driver set.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Oh dirt, yes dirt, that lovely, lovely dirt.  You think I've gone mad. Go on, admit it.

I was beating the weeds back in the garden today (around the beds, not in - those are behaving quite nicely) and found that my compost pile has composted rather nicely.  The texture of soil produced by two years of kitchen scraps, ash from the stove and the discarded weeds with bits of dirt attached have combined to make some really fine and outstanding dirt.  I'm really looking forward to turning it into a new bed once I get the initial digging done.

Composting is a terrific thing to do if you have a home garden or lack naturally richly textured soil.  My parents live in the woods and own a strip of grass along side.  The dirt there is the composting of every bag of leaves, twigs, ash and kitchen scrap they've produced over many decades.  Their garden soil is simply the most amazing you'll ever see.  Any garden vegetable will grow there and provided the deer don't get to it, be enjoyed at their table.

So what's with dirt? Why can some people coax forth bounty while others kill everything they plant?  Well, it's the dirt and the planting that matter.  Planting to the proper depth for the plant, shrub or tree in question is essential.  I planted a new $25 dwarf semi-sweet cherry tree about two inches too deep in heavy clay.  Then it rained for 4 weeks.  The tree died a slow drowning death.  I learned of the proper depth after complaining to my horticulturalist co-worker.  You'll notice that everything you buy comes with a suggested planting depth.  Pay attention to this - and if your plant isn't a water and alkaline loving sort, go a shade shallower in heavy clay.

I've talked about clay in the past - how to break it up mechanically or naturally (you should use a spading fork or let Swiss chard do the job - tilling makes potters clay and it will harden quickly in rain) and what to amend with.  Dirt, or more appropriately soil, is a complex thing.  It's alkalinity as well as its composition can vastly affect the health and success of your plant and shrubs.

I planted some hearty figs this year.  They love the alkaline clay and are growing like mad.  My two little blueberry shrubs, though, prefer it more acid and more sandy.  I turned equal parts sand, Canadian sphagnum moss and clay into a coarse mix and worked in a cup of Holly Tone which is an iron additive made for acid loving plants.  The blueberries went into wide holes half full of this mix and then filled over with it.  The plants are doing tolerably well.  If I were to PH test the soil and further fin tune it, I might get a bit more vigor out of them.  As is, I'll need to feed them with Holly Tone (also see Ironite) annually.

In my woods, there is a fair amount of detritus to help the clay be a better soil, but the honey suckle that grows thickly there robs so much shallow nutrients that hardly anything else grows.  Breaking out the honey suckle (hawthorn) at the root crown has allowed this soil to be generous to walnut, maple, wild cherry, ash, box or wax cedar, hosta, periwinkle (myrtle) and Japanese painted ferns.  Thinning has been the balance.  Eliminating also helps but then the shade value is lost and other trees take some time to restore it with their own growth, so I have been carefully mulching and feeding in these areas to help the soil have enough nutrients available, in only the spots I want, to keep my ornamental plants healthy.

Mulching and feeding are topics all their own, but they are critical parts, along with proper composition maintenance, of creating and fostering productive dirt.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Timing is Everything

Nice, old cliche to start us out today - timing is everything.  Funny, since time is linear and you are either on time or you are not... it's not like there's any margin for error, though sometimes you get a second chance.  But, I digress.  Timing this spring has meant riding the crest of the wave of wild weather.  God help those who have lost their homes this spring.  Here in Ohio, we've had one of the wettest springs I have ever witnessed.  I measure the relative "wettness" of spring here in Central Ohio by how high the creek gets in the heaviest spring rains.  A couple of years ago it crested into the farm field behind us for the first time in my notice (a time spanning just 11 years at this location).  Last year it did so once again.  This year, it partially flooded the farm field more than 5 times! ! !

The soil was so very wet this spring that by the last week of may, a time nationally where we usually see 85% of the corn and soybean crop planted, only around 12% was in the ground.  See, the problem with wet soil is that if you disc or till it, that which has high clay content tends to squeeze like a sponge and not rebound.  It gets more tightly packed and holds this shape.  Once the soil dries out, it is less air and water permeable in this compacted state and is much less friendly for growing crops in.  Not to mention, driving a 6 ton farm tractor through a muddy field is likely to get you stuck. 

A few weeks back, I waited for two precious sunny dry days to pass before I tried to turn the soil in my garden with a spading fork.  It was a bit wetter than I would have liked and clumped a tiny bit.  If things had dried out slowly, I might not have wound up with gravel - but as it is, the sun came out and we haven't had rain very much since, at least not here.  The sun instead baked the roughly turned soil and turned it into rock-like chunks which I had to break up with the garden rake and hoe.  Timing.  If I had waited a few more days to turn the soil, it might have been just a but harder to turn, but it would have crumbled instead of clumped. 

Sometimes, though, we don't have to be at the mercy of timing - we can make our own.  Last year I purchased a timer for our garden hose.  It has a number of modes like, manual (time adjustable period of time), rain delay (in days), start time and run duration.  I set it up to automatically water the now planted garden for 30 minutes each morning before the sun crests over the trees.  I don't have to remember, I don't have to wander out in the morning dew, I waste less water as there's much less evaporation, and the tender plants will be much less susceptible to scalding or wilting.  Wilting or scalding can be increased when water droplets magnify the suns rays and cook the leaves of your plants.  Watering early in the morning allows the water time to soak into the soil and run off or evaporate gently from tender young leaves.

Now the major bit of timing left is patience for my seeds to sprout!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Wild Foraging - what not to eat!

I mentioned last time that dandelions are a good wild food source, and it's true enough.  After my last post, I followed up my adventure with gathering a lunchbox full of dandelion flower buds with the kids.  Per usual, they were brave enough to try them but didn't much care for them.  Wilted with oil, they taste a bit like honey to me but have just a trace of that characteristic dandelion green bitter taste, but far too little to detract from the nice meaty texture.  Good solid food.

Now, as my curiosity has risen in the wild food growing around me, I've become more adventurous.  I found some tan, low and wide (about 2 1/2" wide) mushrooms with short stems and spongy undersides rather than gills.  It was also slippery on top and bruised a bit darker.  After consulting MULTIPLE references, I decided it was OK to eat.  I identified it as a Slippery Jack.  One reference advised peeling the slime off (easy enough to find and remove) as it might cause diarrhea.  Sauteed in oil, quite good standalone or with toast.  And sadly too sparse to make more than a snack of.

Other things I have found innocently look friendly, smell nice and taste wonderful but are poisonous or have powerful effects.  One is the wild parsnip.  I found this growing last night and, not immediately knowing what it was as it was not in flower, took a leaf and examined it.  No spines, no red or white lines, just a thinner-than-spinach, wide leaf.  I took a bite, chewed and spit. And the flavor was very nice, like anise or fennel.  Being cautious and mindful of the Army field guide universal edibility test, I didn't eat any or try to swallow it.

After some time, I found my mouth tingled slightly, which is not uncommon with wild food, but reason enough to learn more.  After looking at online pictures of weeds for more than an hour, I finally identified it and was a bit shocked.  Apparently, when in flower (and that's important) the sap of the wild parsnip is dangerous in that it is photo reactive, binds to the skin and can cause 2nd degree burn-like blisters.  Nasty and dangerous, noxious as a weed in this regard.  I also experienced a mild sedative effect that lasted for several hours.  Strong medicine indeed.

Now, I know that some plants are inedible till a certain stage of development or the reverse, edible till a certain stage.  And some other plants may be totally poisonous save the fruit, like the peach and cherry tree, or the mandrake (may apple).  But there's a strong cautionary tale here.  KNOW WHAT YOU'VE GOT when foraging wild food.  I could have woke up dead this morning, but was blessed with another day.

Recommended Reading;
The Illustrated Guide to Edible Plants - Department of the Army
(full disclosure - the link above is an affiliate link for my wife)

Disturbingly Common Poisonous Plants

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Stalking the Wild Dandelion

That I love the outdoors and all that it provides us is no secret.  I recently however was awoken to the bounty that lies in obscurity all around us.  A family friend had given us some used books a while back and one was picked out by my wife as of interest to me.  I didn't have time to look at it then but a recent book shelf shuffle brought it to the fore again and I took it up to read as March was thoroughly dragging me out waiting for the weather to cooperate with my plans for the outdoors.

The book is Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Field Guide Edition, by Euell Gibbons.  What a treasure.  The book covers a variety of plant life common to North America that is seldom regarded as anything other than a weed but is none-the-less edible in part or whole in it's proper season with proper preparation.

As the title of this post may intimate, this is the season for baby dandelion greens and root crowns and roots.  While recently incapacitated for a period of two weeks due to some strenuous over exertion on my part, and having had the first good nights sleep in some time owing to diminished pain, I was keen to get a little exercise this afternoon.  So I set out with the small garden spade and dug about 10 small dandelions, picked off the wet clay and headed inside to clean and prepare them.

After washing, I separated the reddish green leaves from the root crown and the root crown from the root and washed all three carefully.  This gave me a bowl of salad greens with root crowns and a small pile of broken roots.

The salad was excellent.  Baby dandelion greens are mild in flavor and nutritious.  I felt well indeed some time after ingesting this splendid lawn born delight.  The roots required a bit more preparation so I set them in a foil tray in the oven set to about 300F for about 2 and a half hours.  What I was looking for, per Euell's guidance, was for them to snap and be just brown through.  I tested them twice and found them satisfactorily snappy the second time.  Then I ground them and made a tea bag from them with a coffee filter and a twist-tie.

Mr. Gibbon recommended this as a coffee substitute but it is far different from any but the highest quality coffee I have ever sampled.  It has a slightly sharp but overwhelmingly smooth with a nutty flavor which imparts a gently tingle to your tongue.  The aroma is very pleasant and inviting and quite unlike anything I've had before.  The after taste is clean and comforting.  Really this is something I had never considered trying but quite like.  The preparation is a bit high in labor but no less than what a coffee bean endures on its way to my cup.  If ever I find coffee to be unobtainable, or tea for that matter, this is a fine substitute.

I'm delighted to note that a number of the plants listed in the book are ones I am already familiar with as interesting weeds and nothing more.  I'm looking forward to sampling them as food this year and the added bounty it will bring to our table!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

2011 Garden Planning

It's March in Ohio, which means a month of being taunted by the weather to come out and start your garden.  The rub is I know full well it will be mid-May before we have a sufficiently low risk of overnight frost to actually have any seedlings outside.  So, working backward the 6 weeks or so it takes tomatoes and leafy greens to get rolling, I'm waiting till the end of this month to start my seeds indoors. 

You may have read here in the past about my adventure last fall tearing down a deck for the materials I could salvage.  One of the things I was thinking ahead to was raised boxes for our tomatoes and herbs.  This will be closer to the house so they're easier to tend to and I can provide better protection for them from wind and critters.  As we were cutting that old deck joists up with a Sawsall, I was careful to keep 4 16" x 48" sections of the super structure as they formed nice boxes made out of rot-resistant 2x10's. 

I'll get some pictures up when they're in operation but the plan for now is to line them with 6-mil vapor barrier (just what I happen to have used as tarps on some of our wood pile this year) to keep whatever chemicals were used to treat the lumber from leaching into the dirt I'm going to fill them with.  The dirt itself which will come from our flood-plain - nice rich silt.   The vapor barrier will have drainage holes punched through into the ground so we don't drown the plants.   This is essentially just some throw-together container gardening, all with reused or reclaimed materials.  Hopefully it will keep the tomatoes happier and closer to our kitchen and hence more used and useful.

Beans are one of the big things I want to grow this year.  We bought an extra large stainless steel pressure cooker for my wife's Christmas present and I hope to do my first batch of canning this year, focusing on green beans and tomatoes.  I've got two new varieties from Burpee to try: Contender and Kentucky Wonder.  In addition, I have some purple bush beans saved from a couple of years back that will also go in the ground.  They did well the second year after our initial harvest, though I had to replant as I put them out far too early last year.

Still elusive this year on store shelves is Kale seed.  I might try to order some on-line since it seems to have fallen out of fashion.  I love kale.  It's hearty, super nutritious and cooks down to a flavorful cooked green.  Especially good sauteed with tomato and garlic.  Also makes for a meaty green on a sandwich - very satisfying.

The last big change this year is I decided to mechanically dig the rest of my beds.  Not with a roto-tiller though, I'm going to go for a back-hoe.  The main ideal in deep digging your soil is preserving the texture.  Using a spading fork produces a much superior texture to tilling.  Unfortunately, the clay here makes it a slow process.  I get about one bed created a year.  This year, I have decided that the beds need to be no more than 4 feet wide, so I also need to redo the space between the two I have and then set about creating 6 more.  The back-hoe will get the hard work done, after which I can break the large sections of turned up dirt down without pulverizing the soil.  Having worked with the two test beds for a couple of years, I now know that establishing the bed is the hard part.  Maintenance is a total breeze thereafter.

I'll also be planting the usual assortment of squash.  Our heirloom acorn squash is in it's third year here and keeps producing steady results.  I have four of them still in the cellar, though they are probably beyond being tasty, they are certainly edible in an emergency.  Some of these long keepers will be our seed stock this year.  Those that rotted will go to the bottom of the compost pile when I turn it over.

Other than that, nothing special or exotic on the menu.  The main focus will be production this year as I fear the future and what food prices are going to look like in the coming years.  Since I finally feel I have the knack for working with the Ohio clay, now seems the time to start cranking out food in bulk.  Best wishes for you garden plans this year!