Homestead Headaches

A Post From Digger

I like how the women folk are always rambling on about how enchanting their little homestead is.  Weather it’s half an acre in the burbs, or five hundred in cowboy country, its always the same.  Pretty pictures of flowers, kids playing, home cookin’, and cute baby critters…  Uhg!  Where’s all the mud, dust, blood, sweat, and crappy weather.  Anybody want to know what REALLY keeps a homestead steady?  Attitude!

I’m not saying this to discourage anyone,… not at all; I’m just saying it’s not always peach fuzz and baby giggles… For example; the Queen and Little Chef are always experimenting with new meals prepared from scratch using all natural ingredients.  These ladies know that there are few things finer than a full spread meal that’s been grown and raised on your own land, and most of the time their efforts result in something amazing!  When it’s especially brilliant, I’m always amused by the girls grumblings while they have to wait for mom to take a few pics for the blog before they can eat it.  I try to explain to them that excellence always comes at a cost, but the consolation is always met with a despondent glare that says “Yea,… whatever dad”.  As for me; I’m proud of the accomplishments my ladies make in the kitchen (mostly because I get to eat their achievements!), but once in awhile however,…  Well,… let’s just say that not every experiment is blog worthy.  I would like to elaborate more on the specific details concerning some of the failed experiments in the kitchen (they always sound dramatic), but I rarely understand what they’re talking about.

DSCN8992 (459x640)Where the kitchen is Grace and Little Chef’s domain, Jo and I spend allot of time in the shop.  I suppose I should say that Jo spends most of her time outside, and the shop is the next best thing when the weather turns lousy.  When she’s not reading a book, (usually outdoors at the risk of moms’ admonishment) she’s out there building something.  It’s like an addiction for her, and I can genuinely appreciate that.  Since diapers she’s been manipulating whatever materials she can get her hands on into whatever her mind can conjure.  For the most part I’ve always encouraged this ambition, but when she gets into the stocks of materials I need for work and drags them to all corners of the property to build a…  a…  well,… whatever it is she feels compelled to build right then, I have to reign her in.

The other day Jo came through the shop and left with one of my small hand saws.  At the time I was a little distracted helping Uncle Chris put a new timing belt in his pickup.  (By helping I mean leaning on the fender and sharing words of encouragement, like: “I think you’re insane for trying to attempt this on your own.  You sure you know what you’re doing?”  You know,… big brotherly advice.  And by the way; thank you youtube!)  Anyway,… as I watched Jo depart with my saw I thought, “wait a minute…” and followed her.  I found her with several pieces of one inch pvc pipe I keep stockpiled in the barn. (She had in her possession many more short pieces than I’d remembered having)  She was busy cutting a piece off when I asked her what she was doing.  “I’m making an automatic dog food dispenser.” (Feeding the dogs is one of the chores she shares with Little Chef) She said this as she lifted the piece up to her eye to peer through it.  “I’m not sure it’ll work tho’, it might be too small.”  I kept my composure long enough to remind her that she needs to ask me before robbing materials from the barn.  Yea,…  It was a little disappointing for her, but this particular girls’ attitude is rarely defeated, so after returning the supplies as I’d asked she moved on to her next project full stride!  Something about the “cat crusaders” (her club) needing a new, secret meeting place I think. (I didn’t want to know what that might entail, so I didn’t ask…)

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Notice the piece of one inch pipe at their feet.

I suspect Jo sets a better example in regards to attitude than most of us.  Setbacks happen all the time, but are usually a minor thing we quickly move on from a little wiser.  On occasion however, the good Lord seems compelled to remind us of what genuine humility is all about.  A couple of years ago Grace decided she wanted her garden to be even bigger (Have you seen her garden?!).  It was already put near 4,000 square feet, but I didn’t complain while I extended it another 20′ to the east, and full length north to south.  This addition roughly added another 2,000.  Now,… take a moment to consider just how big your house is.  I remember way back when I was a little shaver what my Ma would say every time she’d finish with the vacuum cleaner,… “I’m so glad we can’t afford a bigger house!”  She’d let out a tired sigh as she wiped sweat from her brow, (sorry Ma, I meant perspiration) and share her views on how silly it is for rich people to hire servants to maintain a ridiculously vast and expensive home.  This concept kinda stuck with me all these years, and while I was tilling the ground far beyond the original footprint of our garden it was on my mind.  I gave some thought to the countless hours we (Okay, mostly Grace) spent on hands and knees pulling weeds last year.  Where few would care to vacuum 6,000 square feet of carpet, try to imagine weeding that much area!  The point and purpose of all this extra space was to provide a greater surplus of vegetables for canning.  I get that,… but since this expansion, the only thing Grace managed to can was green beans.  ALLOT of green beans…  Guess which vegetable of all the vegetables we could ever possibly grow in the garden do I care the least for?  Yup!  Green beans!!!

DSCN7294 (640x480)Oh well,… I really can’t say much.  Once the irrigation is installed, Grace pretty much takes over maintenance of the garden.  I do have to admit tho’; her diligence this year paid off. (that is to say, she worked her butt off!)  That was until the late spring rains came…  Right up until that point Grace had somehow managed to single-handedly conquer most of the weeds across this generous space, and just a few more days of battle would have enabled the “Queen” to declare ultimate supremacy over the land (well,… this bit of it anyway).  I should share some things to consider right about now concerning the value such an arduous conquest would have ordinarily meant.  We drip irrigate the rows on 4′ centers allowing us to easily measure and offset each row to ground that had rested the year before.  It also gives us more room to weed and harvest, and it usually saves allot of water (we were plagued with irrigation failures this year).  Another great advantage to this system is that MOST years, once the moisture comes out of the ground the weeds don’t come back between the rows.  We typically just don’t see enough rain again until late fall.  You can imagine her dismay when after nearly two weeks of unexpected showers her whole garden turned green with weed sprouts (making all that effort lost and pointless…)  Grace bravely redoubled her commitment to purge this particular piece of land from the invasive onslaught of subversive flora as long as she could, but ultimately the allergies she always suffers this late in the season finally won out. (I’m thinking hydroponics may be the way to go, or better yet, aquaponics!  Yea,… I like fish.)

To add insult to injury, the area I’d extended the garden into wound up primarily dedicated to melons, squash and gourds, but nothing grew!  I don’t mean that the harvest was slight, I mean there was no harvest!  The plants were lanky, yellow, and in most cases didn’t even grow beyond the noon shadow of a goat.  By late July we knew something was very wrong, (even the weeds struggled) but it took a few more weeks for me to remember what I’d done… (Yup… My fault.)  Oh c’mon!  If the ground had looked any different from the rest of the garden when I tilled it, it might have occurred to me then; but it looked great! (it still had moisture)  As I stood there thinking about what might possibly be the problem, I remembered the go-kart track (Picture a small light bulb briefly illuminating over my head, replaced shortly by a dark storm cloud as I realized what an idiot I am).  Years ago I’d stripped the topsoil off this area with a dozer when I was building our first go-kart track. (For the boy’s,… of course.)  I’d completely forgotten!  Yea,…  Ooops!

2008 springsummer 194
This is me and big brother racing over the ground that is now the melon patch.

Things tend not to grow so well in subsoil even if it does look good.  I’ve been cooking down a large pile of old hay bales into compost all summer, and I’ll till it into the new garden space next spring.  That should help…

DSCN9593 (640x480)By chance the potato bin I built wound up on this same piece of ground as well.  Given that the bin was filled with good soil mixed with red sand a few inches at a time over several weeks excludes the poor soil from the lousy ‘tater harvest in this case.  Even our best soil is still pretty heavy with clay, so despite the liberal application of sand (well over 50%) the lower half of the bin stayed too wet.  Another disappointment, but another lesson learned.  Next year we’ll use straw with a bit of cured compost, and raise the bin off the ground enough to let it drain better.  That should help.  The ground we’ve expanded into (the old go-kart track) should improve greatly with liberal amounts of compost tilled in, and I’m also planning on a much improved irrigation system for the whole works.

Yea, we’ve had some setbacks over the years, but despite all the headaches our accomplishments far outweigh the disappointments.  Too often the difference between lost time and effort vs. education is attitude.  Personally, I’d rather spend a few days every year learning the wrong way to do a thing than spend the thousands it would take to have some professor tell me how to do it their way…  How about you?

Jade - Garden
In the end it’s all worth it!

This post was shared at: From The Farm Blog HopFrugal Days Sustainable WaysSimple Saturdays Blog HopClever Chicks Blog HopHomestead Barn HopThe Backyard Farming ConnectionTuesdays With a TwistThe HomeAcre Hop

Redneck Ingenuity

A post from Digger….

Grace has been encouraging me to share some of what I do around here for awhile now, and it’s gettin’ on toward the time of year when I can.  Hopefully for some of you this might lend some insight on the other side of homesteading.  (Don’t worry ladies, the Queen still has plenty of recipes and the like on the way.)

The “Gumption Trap” post created some curiosity about the disk poured from melted beer cans I’m turning on the lathe.  The disk itself is simply an attachment for the shopsmith that I’ll glue sandpaper to.  I already have one, but I’m stuck with the grit that’s on it, so the idea is to have several of these disks allowing me a range of sanding grit I can easily swap out for different needs.

Shop SmithOh sure, I could probably find them on the internet with some pursuit, but I know I’d never spend the money, and besides, where’s the fun in that?  I already have the means to make my own, and the reason I have these means is the story I’d like to share.

It all started with a CRASH!  I emphasized here for good reason as I can attest to the damage.  Oh, and apparently this was followed shortly by a second CRASH! (a failed attempt to correct the first crash).  At the time, little brother was here helping me insulate my shop (he did most of it), which of course meant that everything needed to be moved away from the walls, including the machine lathe that was about to be in the way.  It was late in the season so digging was slow, but I did have to work that day.  Because of this, I described to him that the lathe was very top heavy and the weight favored one end. (meaning it’s really difficult to move).  I detailed the effort it had taken to place the lathe where it was against the wall, and then guessed at the time I’d be back to help him with it.  I left shortly after for the doings’ that needed done assuming the point had been made.

1951 Lathe
This is the 1951 machine lathe. The red arrow indicates a new replacement knob, again made from beer cans.

Chris is twenty something, ambitious, and strong.  I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when he called a few hours after I’d left…  The conversation began with a long “Ummm”,… followed by a VERY pregnant pause.  You can imagine the sinking feeling this caused in me, and it didn’t improve much as he reluctantly described the events that prompted the call.  I didn’t mind hearing that my carving desk had been partially crushed, but the then as of yet undetermined damage to a machine lathe I didn’t even own concerned me somewhat.  I consoled him as best I could with a “No biggie, these things happen”, and commenced to finish the project I was working on so I could get home to evaluate what obligations I may need to fill.

By the time I got home, Chris had already found and ordered the cast apron that held the travel gears.  This fairly impressed me by the fact that in a few short hours (and having no experience with machine tools) he’d managed to identify, find, and purchase online such a fundamental component to an antique lathe.  This was heartening.  Further disassembly however found a left handed jack screw nut in several pieces.  Discovering just how rare and precious this little nugget of machined cast steel was in the market place encouraged me to consider alternatives.  I just couldn’t see spending more for parts than the initial cost of the machine.

Ultimately, the unique nature of this particular part lead us to one simple question.  Can we make our own?  The specific tolerances of the threads were critical, so the only chance I could imagine for duplicating the original was to pour molten metal around the screw. (For some reason Chris looked skeptical).  We would need a forge, a crucible, and casting sand tamped inside a form to hold the shape of the new nut.  I had NONE of these things, and having had no prior experience in the subject, I barely even understood the basic principals of casting metals.  Well,… it sounded like fun at the time.

FireChris and I scavenged through my scrap piles of steel and lumber, and after a couple of hours cutting, welding, chin scratching, and some very crude woodwork felt ready to make a REALLY hot fire in my wood stove. (Was this a good idea?  Well,… No.  Not really.)  We chunked up a fair pile of firewood small enough to drop between the crucible and a steel ring I’d hoped would contain the heat enough to avoid damage to my wood stove. (the idea was sound, but the application could have used some refinement.)  This process took several grueling hours of feeding the fuel and metering the compressed air by hand.  I suppose this would be a good time to share a personal quirk little brother has.  Chris has an acute, and at times potentially hazardous fascination with fire. (I’ve quite literally uttered these words in my shop: “Please don’t throw shotgun shells in the fire…”)  In this case however, it proved to remove me from a majority of the discomfort (think hot, sweaty, stinky…) kneeling on the floor in front of the wood stove trying to maintain the greatest temperature possible.  Let’s just say I was happy to keep myself busy with the form and sand.

Not having a casting medium, I mixed play sand with some clean clay soil I dug out of the bank just outside my shop.  I played with the mix and moisture until it felt about right and fashioned the form.  Hindsight compels me to advise against this approach.  The clay baked hard around the piece, and the course sand left a terrible finish,… but it worked.  Later I learned how relatively inexpensive casting sand is, and I intend to buy some…  Someday.

sandOriginally I thought we could melt brass for the purpose, understanding of course that brass has a much lower melting point than the stainless steel the jack screw was made of, but that was a dismal failure.  We did get it to melt (as well as most of the liner in my poor wood stove), but we couldn’t figure out how to remove the impurities.

The next morning we decided to try melting aluminum.  It’s much softer than brass which concerned me, but a whole lot easier to melt. (I’ve been collecting beer cans in one corner of the barn for years,… so I figured “what the heck.”)  I was gambling on the aluminum shrinking away from the jack screw as it cooled so we could simply thread it off.  It worked!  Quite well as a matter of fact…  Some cutting, filing, and a single hole drilled and threaded was all it took before reassembly.

PourNutI’d be lying if I said it worked like new when we were done, but hey, it didn’t work anything like new before it was dropped.  After countless hours of use without fail, I’d consider it a success.  Last winter I completely rebuilt that poor old lathe by the way (as you see it in the above picture).  My intention was to simply replace the old, leather flat belt with a much superior serpentine belt common in most (okay, maybe all) vehicles these days.  As it turned out, the extent of disassembly required to accomplish this task convinced me to go ahead with some major restoration, and I’m sure glad I did.  A couple of weeks cleaning, filing, polishing, and lubricating the surprisingly vast array of parts and pieces that wound up spread all over my work bench proved to genuinely improve the poor old girls’ function. (For those who might care; I found plain old car wax to be an excellent preservative and dry lubricant for the exposed machined surfaces that need to be as frictionless as possible.)  I enjoy having this resource, especially in good repair, and I use it far more than I ever would have imagined.  Sure hope the owner doesn’t want it back anytime soon…

Okay granted,…  Most homesteaders will never have a practical need to melt and pour any kind of metal for any reason whatsoever.  I get that…  I also get the fact that not everyone trying to develop and maintain a homestead would even begin to consider this kind of approach to such a random problem; but think about it guys…  Fire intensified with forced air, molten metal flowing into a shape of our own design, and a chance to prove a legitimate alternative to accepted norms in our culture through redneck ingenuity.  What could be better?  Oh!  And not to mention it provides a genuinely logical argument for our wives that greater dedication toward unburdening all those beer cans will help supplement a much needed resource. (I actually tried this on Grace.  Somehow she didn’t seem convinced).  For me, this sort of thing basically sums up the spirit of today’s homesteader.

I suppose I should add that the following fall we (Chris’ helped) rebuilt the inside of my wood stove.  The heavy tin liner was compromised during this adventure, and I don’t recommend others should attempt these temperatures in their own stoves. (My stovepipe is 8″ well casing.  That means it won’t melt!  I would not have attempted this project otherwise).  It worked for the experiment you’ve just read, but we’ve since built (again with Chris’ help) a good sized forge.  Youtube has many good posts on the subject.  It really didn’t take long, and everything it’s made from was scavenged. (with the exception of the ceramic wool liner I spent $60.00 on).  I have some good pics of the build, and I’d be happy to share how the project went if anyone is interested.


Homesteading Gumption Traps

Here’s another post from Digger!  I think I’ve got him hooked on this blogging stuff. 😉

According to Wikipedia “a gumption trap is an event or mindset that can cause a person to lose enthusiasm and become discouraged from starting or continuing a project.”  I could go on at length in this subject as I’m painfully familiar with it, but I’m afraid the length and breadth of it as a whole would soon intimidate my intentions of sharing insight gleaned from experience, thus leading to boredom and disinterest on my part and ultimately leaving this draft saved but unfinished for years before finally being deleted.  So why bring it up?  Well…

I’m always fiddlin’ around with some new interest, and always have every intention of finishing whatever that particular interest might be.  Far off in the back of my mind (where I don’t dare contemplate too deeply) there is a fond fantasy that someday I’ll start a project and work at it until it’s done without some distraction pulling me away.  I really don’t mind being distracted for the most part given that it’s typically caused by friends or family either with a need, or simply seeking fellowship; but what it means in the end is that I generally have half a dozen projects laying around the place cluttering things up.  Right now there’s a big hunk of aluminum on the lathe I’m trying to turn into a sanding disc for the shopsmith. (It’s made out of beer cans, but that’s another story)  Yea,…  It’s been there for about five weeks.

DiskLast Saturday while I was working on it Grace came out and asked if I could make her a tool that would cut the core out of apple slices…  It really only took a few minutes to grab one of those cheap (and dead) l.e.d. flashlights, chuck it up in the lathe to cut the ends off, and sharpen one end.  No problem.  The gumption trap came when I took the tool inside for her to use.  She was drying the apple slices in the dehydrator and making applesauce, which of course I needed to taste test. (Oh man did it smell good!)

Apple CorerNow look,… What I’m about to say isn’t derogatory in the least; Grace and I are best friends and I’m honored to be spending my life with her,…  BUT!  When we are both at home it can be hard for either of us to stay focused on whatever task may be at hand.  I have no idea what we talked about for an hour and a half that day, but we did.  We can talk about anything!  It could be the stupidist (is that a word?) subject in the world and we just chuckle and keep going.  Typically this is great, but it has drawbacks.  I remember one Saturday morning she came to me and sternly said; “You have to go to work today!”.  There was a long pause while I just stared at her.  I didn’t need to go to work that day.  So then she said “I have too much to do; YOU have to leave.”  And pointed at the door.  I don’t exactly know what she meant to do with that day in particular, but I got the message and made myself scarce. (probably a bunch of cookin’ for some church function, a birthday barbeque, or some other thing such as the like.  Frankly I can never keep up.)  I get it, and so does she, and now you might begin to appreciate how easy it is to spring the gumption trap around here.

Case in point; I nearly stepped on this little guy leaving for work the other morning. I have no idea where it came from but it was way too cold. An hour later I’d figured out the cab of my old dump truck was warm and cat proof. I didn’t know if it would find it’s way out the cracked window when I went to work, but it did.

For most folks there’s a line between the things that need done, and the things we want done.  When my wife gets involved that line gets kinda blurry.  Take her chickens for example.  We discussed raising chickens for a long time.  She did all the research and decided on the breed she wanted, and I was good with all that.  I kept telling her “when we have the facilities for chickens you can order them.”  What does she do?  Yea,… she goes right on ahead and orders them!  It’s summer time; I’m busy trying to get as many jobs done as I can before another winter sets in, and we have no place for a bunch of chicks! (I don’t care how cute they are!)  When she told me she’d gone ahead and done it, all I could do was laugh.  I really didn’t want to hear that the only way we were ever going to get prepared for the little buggers was to have them on their way.  I didn’t want to hear it because she was right.  I hate that!  This crafty little maneuver goes to show how familiar the Queen is with gumption traps as well.

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This is me finally getting around to turning our storage shed into a chicken coop.

To clarify her perspective:  She’s been waiting for a mud room I’d promised to build on the end of our home since it was set up.  “Before the snow flies,” I’d promised.  That was seven years ago.  (Thank you Lord for patient women!)  We only have lawn because she said it was time we had a lawn.  When she said it I looked at her and immediately realized that it really WAS time.  Never mind the fact that it’s the first week in August.  It’ll be fine.  And it was; because I babysat that seedling grass for a week and a half! (BIG gumption trap!)  But hey,…  If you want to see grass seed germinate and grow in three days, just plant it when it’s over one hundred degrees outside.  Oh, and keep it wet.  Really, I mean that part.

This summer it was Cornish Cross meat chickens.  Grace wanted them to be the right size for the girls to take to the fair, and this meant ordering them on the right date.  I didn’t argue this time.  I just resigned myself to the inevitable and waited for a want to become a need…  Now don’t get me wrong,… I like the idea of raising our own meat chickens.  It’s nice to know what they’ve been fed and that they haven’t been shot full of antibiotics, or worse.  By the way, she did her homework (to the extent that she knew more than the vet at the fair) and has several posts on the subject if your curious.

Sure enough, after three weeks having been confined in an old playpen IN MY SHOP, the “need” came.  I’d begun to wonder if the heat lamp weren’t in fact a grow light given their phenomenal rate of growth.  I’m tellin’ ya, these things grow FAST, and had already begun to outgrow the playpen.  They couldn’t be turned loose with the laying hens, so new accommodations were needed.  This wasn’t a surprise; we’d talked about clearing out one side of the barn for them, but that never happened.  (Several gumption traps there.)  Now that it was time, the chore seemed daunting, and beings Grace really liked the idea of keeping them on the grass, I began to consider potential alternatives. (I’m thinking quick, cheap, and easy.)  There’s an old canopy off a pickup I don’t own anymore that would work, but it was in the same side of the barn we’d considered clearing out before.  By the time I’d have managed to get the thing dug out, the chore I was trying to avoid would have been half done.  Besides, it’s made of fiberglass which means it’s heavy, making it hard to move around for my ladies; and given I was the one rationalizing the most logical course of action to take I decided that the barn is an awful long ways from any lawn we’d want these chickens on…  I chewed on it awhile longer trying not to think about all the other things on my plate, and finally decided to build a “chicken tractor“.  I don’t think chicken tractor accurately describes what I built, but it met the needed requirements, and way better still; the Queen was happy!  I ripped some old lumber on the table saw, grabbed the screw gun, and by the end of the day had a 3’x3’x8′ frame.  This is about the time the girls insisted it needed some paint. (Another gumption trap!)

Painting 2Some scrap chip board cut into triangles for gussets on the corners gave it enough structural integrity to be moved around the yard without falling apart, and hardware cloth I bought at the hardware store (umm… is there a correlation there?) wrapped three sides and covered the door at one end.  We learned the hard way that standard chicken wire allows chicks to stick their heads through the mesh making a fine snack for any of the dozen or so barn cats we have running around. (Can’t have that happen again!)  The bottom was obviously meant to be open, but what about the top?  The chickens couldn’t get out, but the cats and other critters would be able to get in if left open.  It needed to be covered but light enough to move around easily, so tin or plywood was out.  Cornish Cross also need shade, so wire alone was also out.  I had a rare epiphany and asked Grace to go find one of the living room drapes she’d become disenchanted with.  These were factory drapes that came with the red double wide, and at least for the living room just didn’t suit.  In my mind the dimensions seemed about right, and I was sure they’d be sturdy enough, so why not?  We both laughed when we spread it over the top of the chicken tractor; it was a perfect fit!…  By the way; the chicken tractor is still sitting exactly where it was when we removed the Cornish Cross to be butchered.  That was two months ago!…  Oh yea,…  That must have been about the time Papa Dave limped his broken combine up to the shop!

Gumption Trap

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