For stories that are strange but true, …
Stuff that I’d really rather you didn’t know about, …
For stories that are strange but true, …
Stuff that I’d really rather you didn’t know about, …
I’ve been working on the doors, off and on, for forever.
Back in 2012, when we’d moved to the green house and I didn’t have a place to putter, I put up a bench in the barn and spent half my summer there, sanding down 2×6’s we’d saved from the Chicken Wing of the old barn. We had a big, wet pile of them, and the idea was to use them in the new house. Mostly, I wanted to use these 2x’s to make doors. Sounds simple, right? Like a silver bullet, maybe? Or gutters?
At the time, I was thinking quick and dirty. What’s the easiest way to make a plank door? My plan was to drill each plank sideways with 3 holes, and fish 1/2″ threaded rods through them, cinching the doors flat. Now that I think back on it, that idea doesn’t even sound good on paper, but it seemed reasonable at the time, and when I made a prototype, it came out really nice. Never mind that doors built that way will sag and will be free to twist, or that there’ll be light between the cracks, or that it won’t handle expansion well. These are just details, and I was on a mission, so I sanded down as many as I needed and drilled 3 holes in the edge of each plank. Which explains why, in their final form, so many of the doors have 3 holes drilled in each edge.
I gave them to Phoenix for finishing and when they finally came back, I was way too busy with Other Stuff to switch gears and put the doors together, so we stacked and stickered the boards in a pile in the basement and I chipped away at the Other pile.
But really, I’d put the cart before the horse: Before I needed doors, I needed door jambs.
Since there were a couple dozen really nice 9-foot planks in the pile, I decided the design should make a Statement by running the jambs all the way to the ceiling, which puts a transom over each door. And because I wanted a certain ‘look,’ I plastered right up to the jambs, and there’s no trim. This was a lot of work! Mind you now, these are 2×6’s that are 2″ x 6″ and they’d been rough cut, exposed to farm animals, and then buried in the mud for several years before I pulled them out and stacked them up. They’ve got live edges, old nails, insect borings, and color and texture out the wazoo. All this was a long time ago, so I won’t make a long story of it, but I’m telling you, the door jambs alone are a work of art.
So I want the doors to look nice.
Meanwhile, the 56 sanded and sealed planks for them sat in a pile in a corner of the basement, drying out, and when I was ready to make the doors, they were not only nice and dry, but also twisted and warped. The holes in the edges no longer lined up, and the threaded rod method was not going to work. Which is probably a good thing. Not only that, but the boards had shrunk, and instead of needing six planks for a 3-foot door, I was going to need 7. Or fewer doors.
I decided I’d spline the planks together, which gives a nice rigid structure and blocks all the light between the planks. This was back before we moved in, and there wasn’t time to do all the doors, but we decided that the one door we absolutely had to have was at the top of the stairs to the shop. So I planned to build that door as a pipe-cleaner, to see if the splining method was going to work. I argued with myself: I’d made a threaded-rod prototype and, in the end, It hadn’t helped, so why bother with a prototype at all? Why not just make the whole pile of doors?
Because, I decided, even I am not that stupid.
I thought it through in my mind: Clearly, this door should swing Out, towards the front door. But do I want the hinges on the left or on the right? Hmmm. I wanted to get this right, because I am always carrying heavy, bulky stuff up and down the stairs. Just as I was about to get it wrong, inspiration struck, and I decided to put hinges on both sides, and use 2 half-width doors, swinging In, over the stairs. Believe me: it works. So I splined together 2 narrow doors out of 3 planks apiece. The process worked, and they came out perfect.
To mount them, if I used regular hinges, my 36″ opening was going to leave me with a 32″ passage. But if I could find a hinge that works ‘like so,’ I’d still have a full 36″ passage for hauling junk through the doorway. Well you can’t find a hinge that works like that, so I decided to make my own. I wouldn’t say they’re pretty, but they’re pretty cool. And they work perfectly. Other Stuff reared its ugly head again and, for months, we lived with just this one door in the house. It was never a problem except occasionally in the bathroom, and we learned to – um – sense when someone was in there.
I used the last stretch of bad weather before summer ’13 kicked in to assemble the rest of the doors. To get the widths right, I ripped some boards in half and turned them on edge to give me a 2″ width increment without making it look like I’d ripped one of the boards down. One live edge stands proud on the door face, and all the doors’ cross sections look different. I set up enormous routing jigs on the shop bench and routed the spline grooves so they aligned even when the boards themselves did not.
I glued them all up, put them in a pile ‘out of the way’ in another corner of the basement, and did Other Stuff all summer. Come the fall, I started thinking about indoor projects again, and the doors were high on my list, so …
Hinges: Um …
The doors and the jambs are gorgeous, and I really -Really!- didn’t want to be making big ugly holes in them for hinges and knobs. So I decided I’d try to mount the hinges on Top of the wood instead of mortising them into it. The wood is already full of nail and critter holes, so nobody is going to notice a stray screw hole if I decide to change the hardware some day. But surface-mounted hinges are ugly, and when they’re not, they cost an arm and a leg. So I thought to myself: my stairwell hinges work great, so if I could just make them look as good as they work…
Dad’s timing has always been “a little off,” and he sent me my Christmas present in November. (And his holiday newsletter in October, as I recall.) One of the boxes was his 20-year old Henrob-2000 acetylene torch set, and I set it aside thinking that if a metal cutting project ever came up, I was all set. Well I had some 1/8″ steel plate left over from the gutters project, and I started by cutting off some pieces to practice on. My bandsaw leaves sharp pieces of swarf behind, and …. Ouch! That’s not what I meant by cutting!
Cutting with a torch is a lot like welding, and takes plenty of practice.
The wisdom of welding is “watch the puddle.” (And it’s really true.)
For cutting, they tell you to “watch the oxygen tip,” but they don’t tell you what to watch for. I made a mess of many pieces of metal before I figured it out. (Don’t ask.)
My first hinge was supposed to look like a saw blade and, for a prototype, it turned out OK. I wish I could say that all the shiny grinding marks were artistically added to evoke sharpness, but the truth is that I had to do that much grinding just to get rid of the gobs of slag. Still, it looks great on my office door.
I won’t bore you with the details, but here is a gallery of some of the other hinges we’re using. (You can click most of them for bigger images.)
It wouldn’t be a bathroom without a crescent moon.
Also in the bathroom: 2 big tits!
In the hall closet: The sun and sunflowers.
The corner office:
In the other hall closet:
In the Master bedroom:
In the Master bathroom:
Now I could finally try to hang the doors. Some of them worked fine, but 3 of them just wouldn’t lie flat. If you go back to the picture of the “enormous routing jig” above, you’ll see that I’ve got 2 screws in each end of each plank, so each twisted board is being un-twisted by just a little bit in the jig. Combined, the assembled door is out-of-plane by 2-3″, and they look like hell against the nice plumb jambs. Damn.
I bit the bullet and cut the crooked doors apart, and re-assembled them so the twists add up to net-zero. This end view of one of the doors may look like a haphazard bunch of barn boards, but it’s really a precision-milled assembly, and the planarity came out good. It was the project that wouldn’t end. I had jambs, doors, and hinges, and I was getting tired of the whole affair, but if the doors won’t stay closed, or if there’s nothing to grab to close them in the first place, then you might as well not have doors at all. So I still needed handles and latches, and I was still dead set against mortising into the wood.
Futhermore, I was informed, the color scheme of the whole schmear had to be consistent and pleasing. Yes dear.
In my office, the doorway is 60″ wide, and the door covers half of it and it’s locked in place most of the time. Using cold-rolled steel, I cobbled together a latch which is attractive, slightly industrial, and a little over-the top. I had a wooden handle on the pivot, but it clashed with the color scheme and is gone.
All the doors are heavy, solid-wood affairs, and when they hit a ‘stop,’ there is a big noise, a small earthquake, and a rebound. Any door that’s going to get used is going to need some kind of shock absorber. I bought a selection of springs and rare-earth magnets and experimented until I had a compact, jamb-mounted doorstop that caught and retained the door with neither a thud nor a bounce.
For bathroom and bedroom doors where you “shut yourself in,” I needed something with the full holding power of a rare-earth magnet from the outside, but a levered release from the inside. What I came up with doesn’t come across very well in the photos, and could use some tinkering, but it has the same visual theme as my office door and it gets the job done.
Finally, I needed a plain old handle, with no moving parts, to grab when I need to pull on a door. I was warming up to cold rolled steel by now, and I heat-bent some 1/2″ x 3/4″ stock and then tried to figure out if there was a way I could grind it into a pleasing profile. The shape of the bent section is living proof that, in an incompressible fluid, “Div ρv = 0″. I like that, and I decided to use these contours as the basis for the shape of the handle.
I’ve always thought my sharpening grinder should be turned sideways to reduce the wear on the abrasive wheel, and I used the door handles as an excuse to finally take it apart. I mounted the raw, bent handle on the slide that usually holds a dull blade, adjusted the angles to match the curve of the bulge, and “sharpened it” for about 20 minutes per side. It gave me a tapered profile that looks and feels like it belongs on the doors.
OK, so I got a little bit carried away. What did you expect?
Honestly, if I were to come across these designs in a store or a craft fair, I would probably not pay money to have them in my home, but I would make a mental snapshot, talk the guy up, and then put it on my list of things I ought to try my hand at.
It used to be that, for Christmas, I’d do a production run of about a dozen of one thing or another. I’ve done toy blocks, cherry step ladders, loaded dice, folding side tables, bakers feet, bulletin boards, screw-top cans, garlic boxes, wavy bowls, … not to mention plenty of bad and worse syrup and jelly.
I haven’t done this for a few years, and I blame it on the usual suspects: I’m busy. It’s too much trouble. I don’t know how. There’s no time. I’m out of ideas. Bah humbug. How about: I’m out of excuses.
Remember grampa’s 3 rifles? There was the Big Gun I told you about, and a little one, too. And then there’s a Goldilocks gun that’s not too big and not too small.
It’s a Winchester model 1894, a .32 gauge lever-action firearm which, if you were surrounded by bad guys, you’d hold it at belt level and pump it between shots as fast as you can. Problem solved.
It fires a ‘special’ bullet. But a ’32-special’ is sort of like being ‘perfectly normal:’ Nothing special. It is actually different from regular .32 ammo, but the reason they called them ‘special’ seems to be mostly advertising: Gun people like their stuff ‘special’. Naturally, you can’t just walk into a store and buy these bullets (although they’ll special order them for you), so I bought a box online. Mail-order, no questions asked.
But how would I make one?
In college, there were gun nuts down the hall who used to reload their ammo in their dorm rooms. They’d replace the primers, weigh out the powder, and press the slug into the case with a reloading machine. Fifty or 100 bullets at a time. And nobody got hurt.
And over the years, Dad has shown me all kinds of cool stuff about lost wax casting.
So theoretically, I know how to do this.
Just to double-check, though, I got online and googled it, and it turned out that you need all kinds of supplies and equipment to make silver bullets. A furnace, a vacuum system, torches, crucibles, waxes, flux, silver, investment, clamps, vulcanizing rubber, presses, and safety equipment. It was early December, and I was thinking: ‘I gotta get this done by Christmas?’ Clearly, there’s no time for safety equipment.
Dad gave me a furnace several years ago, and it’s been sitting in the back of Chuck since we moved. It weighs a ton, but it still works.
And a few years ago, I turned a 3/4 hp vacuum pump into a dryer for my hearing aid. I keep it on my nightstand and run it every night. (just kidding)
Plus, I’ve got torches out the wazoo, so my checklist already starts out with “check check check,” and I’m off to a good start.
So I got online and wrote a check for $100 for a crucible, some wax and investment powder, and got to work.
The first task was to disassemble a bullet so I could take measurements. It took me 3 holding jigs before I got one apart, and I was thinking that if everything is going to be this difficult, then the schedule is looking mighty tight, indeed. Once I got it apart, I realized that – yikes! – this thing is full of gunpowder! I was doing this work at the same bench where I usually do my welding, so how do I dispose of it? In the end, I dumped it in the fire-pit out back, and I’m hoping that even after a winter’s worth of wetness, our first campfire of the Spring will have a little extra sparkle.
Now if I had a silver bullet, I’d want to be able to take it apart, put stuff inside, and put it back together (with one hand behind my back). So I needed to find a way to hold the bullet in the casing, and a friction fit was probably not going to work. How about if I thread it into the case? Bad news: Goldilocks is some weird diameter that’s too big for 5/16″ or 8mm threads, but too small for 3/8″. And although I could thread the bullet on the lathe, I couldn’t turn the case. Too small and too thin.
What to do? The prospect of ‘gift cards for all’ focused my mind.
When I first started metalworking, I made myself the world’s clunkiest tool post grinder, but it vibrated something fierce on my old lathe, so I never really used it. It runs fine on my big lathe, though, so I decided to try grinding back a 3/8″ tap to a special flat-top profile that will mate with a bullet lightly scored by a 3/8″ die. I did the math, and I needed the flat bottom of the thread to be about 4 mils deep into the inside face of the casing, which is only 10 mils thick to begin with, and it ‘gives’ when you squeeze it. This was going to be hard. It took me 2 tries to grind a tap to the right diameter, and then I had to grind back the clearance angles so it could cut cleanly. It didn’t work.
With such shallow threads, the tap didn’t have the ‘grab’ it needed to feed itself into the hole, and it cut more like a reamer than a tap. So I swapped my lathe around so my tailstock was in the middle and then I bumped my cross-feed table into it, driving it at 16tpi. The tailstock center drives the tap into the hole at just the right speed. It still didn’t work.
The casing was too thin and flexible, and it just flexed out of the way instead of letting the tool cut it. So I made a collar and clamped it around the neck of the casing to keep it from bending. And it came out perfect! Wow. Better than expected. Woohoo! So I banged out 11 more. Bam bam bam!
OK, so I’m half done, and that only took me 2 days. What’s next?
I decided I don’t have time to mess with rubber molds, which means that for every bullet I want to cast, I need to make a single-use wax blank on the lathe. Because the bullets are threaded, the diameter has got to be pretty accurate. And because the mating thread is only 4 mils deep, it’s got to be rrreally accurate. But I wasn’t sure exactly what that number’s got to be, because … because there’s a measurement involved that I just can’t seem to pull off. Oh well. So I decided to shoot for .328, and then ran the wax a few turns into a 3/8″ die and got a decent fit.
I made 12 wax bullets and mentally patted myself on the back for making a spare, since I only had 11 threaded casings. So if anything goes wrong, I’m golden.
I mounted them, 4 at a time, on sprues so they could be cast. I used a couple of configurations that, it seemed to me, ought to work. And if anything goes wrong with the first casting, I’m golden, because I’ve got 2 more queued up.
Well, I don’t know what went wrong, but the first cast did not work.
The directions say to heat to 300F for a couple hours.
Then to 700 for an hour.
Then to 1350 for a couple hours.
Then to let it ‘soak’ for an hour.
And then to pour the cast.
And I had every intention of doing exactly that, but the furnace seemed kind of feeble, and it would only go so hot, and it wheezed to a halt at 850F after 6 hours. So, with little to lose, I decided to melt some silver and pour it.
The directions also say to use an oxyacetylene torch to melt your silver grains in a crucible and to make sure it’s not just melted, but good and hot when you pour it into the mold. And, again, I had every intention of doing exactly that, but the oxygen tank chose that exact moment to run out, and the torch started getting erratic. So, thinking on my feet, I panicked and poured the silver melt down the sprue hole.
Now think about this melted silver, being poured down a warm hole in the mold of my wax. Silver melts at 1800F and the mold is 1000° colder than that, so most of it solidifies on contact, and what little is left is supposed to flow thru a full half inch of 1/8″ dia sprue and then fill up an un-vented, gas-filled, bullet shaped chamber. And leave a shiny, smooth finish. Are you kidding me? My wax is all wrong. What was I thinking?
So far, that’s 2 forced errors and a stupid mistake, and I can live with that. But what rrrreally pisses me off is that I put all 3 of my wax-in-plaster flasks in the furnace on the trial run, and melted them all out, so now not only am I back down to zero wax bullets, I’m almost out of wax!
I’m not so golden after all.
When Dad learned to cast, he was mentored by Bob Winston. Bob said that when Dad first showed up with a failed casting and asked what he’d done wrong, the answer was ‘just about everything,’ and they became fast friends. So now I had my own casting disaster on my hands. I was stumped and dejected and didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I was thinking Christmas is going to be a bust this year, and I put out an SOS to Dad. And when he replied: “You have made every mistake possible,” I knew what he was really saying was that I’m a chip off the old block.
For all the time I’d spent googling how to do this, getting a little advice from Dad was like having my own personal Siri – minus the voice recognition. He told me exactly what to do:
For once, I did exactly that, and I was ecstatically happy with this imperfect casting.
Actually, that one was supposed to have 3 bullets on it, but one of them fell off in the vacuum chamber because my joints were weak. So I practiced my wax welding and, from there on, every wax and every pour was better than the last one.
So I was over the hump and the hard part was done, but finishing the job didn’t go smoothly. The surface of the castings were way rougher than I’d expected, and they wobbled off-center because the threads were not perfectly axial. So what I’d hoped would be a job for steel wool quickly became another machining nightmare.
There are 2 ways to use a silver bullet:
For once-in-a-lifetime problems, fire the bullet. The primer (just so you know) is live and, if you hold it close and hit it just right, it will explode and, because the bullet is screwed in, the shrapnel will kill you.
For run-of-the-mill problems, get comfortable, light a candle and settle back. Hold your silver bullet close to you and relax. Breathe deep, as though you’re curing a case of hiccups. And then follow the directions in the Christmas poem inside it.
And your problem will be solved.
This was a great project. In less than 3 weeks, I turned a crazy idea into a cool gift and just about every step of the way was a new problem to solve.
I made a baker’s dozen of them and gave 12 away.
Because if anyone needs a silver bullet, it’s me.
Are you thinking to yourself:
“Is that all you did last summer? Work? Didn’t you have any fun at all?”
Of course we did!
We’ve got 5 guns and 2 people in the house, and that’s still below average for Vermont.
The only time I shot one of them (the guns, not the people) was when a disoriented ground hog in Westford was staggering in circles across the lawn. He collapsed in front of me before I could get a shot off, but I shot him anyway. Twice. Three of our guns are Mary’s, and since I had no idea how to shoot them, I took them into town one day and asked.
Two of them are your basic good quality, good condition, common rifles. The 3rd is a Winchester model 1910 .401 ga, with a scope and a low serial number. The guy at the guns ‘n’ tackle shop told me not to shoot it, clean it, or scratch it, because it’s valuable. Of course that’s a lot like telling me not to put gutters on the house, but it helps that you can’t seem to buy bullets except from ammunition collectors, so it’ll be a long time before I find out for myself whether it’s worthy of the nickname ‘The Hammer of Thor.’
When I buried the drainage pipe for the front garden and gutter runoff, the pipe poked out of the ground near the top of a slope. The first time it rained, the runoff trickled out of the pipe and down the hill, carving the beginnings of a channel down the hillside. I didn’t want to have a lot of uncontrolled erosion over there, so I scraped out a channel, lined it with fabric and rocks and, when we mulch and plant on either side of it, it’ll make a nice accent.
If you have any fish-shaped rocks laying around, send them my way, because we call this ‘the fish ladder.’
I went to 2 auctions this summer, where lots of tools and equipment were on sale.
I’d bought our trailer at auction when we moved and, while I got it cheap, it needed work and in the end, it was “less of a good deal” than it seemed at the time. So when I go to auctions now, I make it my mantra to ask: Do I need this cool stuff?
At the first auction, there were about 300 lots of small-to-medium tools and some restaurant stuff. I thought most of the bids were kind of high for me, but stuck around to watch. Toward the end, interest had dropped off and people had left, and Lot #292 came up: a pallet of 3 hydraulic pumps. Nobody was bidding on them, so I bid $50 and won. I haven’t done anything with them yet, but I have the itch.
The second auction was a metal fabricator selling his shop. Lots and lots of Olde Tyme Big Iron tools and everything it takes to run them, and not a computer in sight. I’ve always wanted a surface grinder, and they had a beauty for sale. Made by the Reid Bros Manufacturing company, no less, with ‘REID’ cast right into the cabinet stand door. Obviously, I’ve got to have this machine, which goes for $6k and up nowadays on the black market, but I stopped bidding at $500 and it sold for $650. It’s probably a good thing, because I would have had to get it home and -honestly- I’m not sure I need it.
All year long, I worked in the shop, making sawdust. Occasionally, the shop would get too dirty, even for me, and I would box up the kindling, bag up the sawdust, and bring everything else to the dump. I kind of envisioned that, when we finally put in a vegetable garden, the sawdust could be tilled into the soil, so I just kept accumulating bags of it. They say, though, that sawdust robs the soil of nitrogen if you don’t compost it first, and I knew that if my sawdust ruined a season’s harvest in Mary’s vegetable garden, I’d never hear the end of it.
(In Westford one year, I piled my sawdust near the house and mixed in a whole bag of ammonium nitrate to help it decompose. I smelled ammonia through the foundation all winter long, and the soil was barren for 2 years. This is not a good plan.)
So I had all this sawdust on my hands, and no real plan for it.
Meanwhile, we are very
anal diligent about separating our trash into compostable, recyclable, and throw-outable piles. When the compost bowl by the sink gets full, it gets emptied into the 5-gallon pail in the garage. When the pail in the garage gets full, we start a new pail. When we run out of pails, … well, we really didn’t have a plan for that.
We ran out of pails right about the time the sawdust had to be moved, so I decided to make a compost pile. I’ve never been very successful with composting: the pile never heats up enough to kill the weeds, it smells, and if you keep adding to it while it simmers, it never gets fully decomposed. So this time, I figured we’d pay attention to the brown/green ratio, and build 2 piles: one to decompose to completion without adding to it, and the other to accumulate fresh cuttings.
The jury is still out on whether it’s working or not, but the temperature got to 110 degrees before I re-mixed it. It’s a good sign, but I think I’ll have to do better than that.
The garage was a shit show, and if we’re going to be parking inside this winter, it had to be cleaned up. There were piles of stuff everywhere and it seemed to me that, since the cars had to go on the floor, maybe some of this stuff would be better off on the walls? (or thrown out)
So I tidied up and organized one wall into a bench/shelving/storage area.
It’s a big improvement, and there are still 2 walls to go.
There was a peculiar combination of weather patterns this year that led to an abundant apple crop statewide, including ours. We’d known we had apples on the property, but never paid them much attention because they weren’t near the house, the brush around them is always overgrown, and the fruits are mostly too high up to pick easily. But now that we live on the back of the property, everywhere we looked in September, there were branches heavy with fruit. I started to wonder if there wasn’t something we could do with them.
For a start, I tried to count the trees and found about 2 dozen of them (and another, it seemed, every time I went outside). Red ones, green ones, yellow, brown and pink ones. Solid, striped, shaded and stippled. Big and small, round and irregular. Sweet and sour, early and late. And all of them on full-sized, gnarly trees in need of pruning. Thousands and thousands and thousands of apples. It was amazing.
When we rented the cherry picker to finish the painting and the gutters, I’d hoped to use it to pick a couple of tall trees, but it needed to be plugged in to keep the hydraulics working and the closest trees are further than my extension cords would go. Plus, my trailer back-up skills on wet, uneven ground are lacking. So I picked what I could with a 10′ stepladder and -believe me- it is the wrong tool for the job.
We made lots of apple jelly and applesauce. And chutney and butter and gift bags and then we composted more than a few. The deer got fat on them, and I berated myself for throwing out my home-made cider press last year.
If I only had a hydraulic pump, I thought to myself, I could make a Real press next year ….
With the gutters and gardens in good shape, it was time to spread some gravel around the ellipse in the north yard so I can drive up to the shop door without tracking in mud.
I had two 15 yard loads delivered and started spreading it with the tractor.
This is not as simple as it sounds, and after spreading gravel for a couple hours, you hurt. So after a couple hours, I was looking for an easier way, and I drove the tractor across the side of one of the big piles toward a hard-to-reach spot.
In the beer commercial, “It’s not weird if it works.”
In my backyard, “it’s only stupid when it doesn’t.”
I guess I had the load of gravel raised a little too high, and I might have been going a little too fast. But when the tractor started tipping, I didn’t stick around to make any adjustments. I jumped clear and landed running.
I clamped some steel onto the ROPS for leverage and chained it to the Tahoe’s trailer hitch. Mary pulled forward and the tractor righted itself. No problem!
Last year, when we were planning the siding for the house, Mary decided she couldn’t live without bark. I was not thrilled, but we compromised with a plan to use it as an accent on the front and back porches.
I trimmed it with the last of the 2×6 barn boards and some reclaimed oak left over from a door project in NYC. Working mostly when the weather was bad, I finally got it installed, and it has a nice look.
When we decided to sell Westford and move, the first thing we did was to gut part of the Green house to save the beams and the original flooring. We filled off a roll-off box with debris and carted all the wood to a burn pile in the swale. We never got around to setting it afire, but we kept adding to it whenever we did work on the barn or the new house, or cleaned up brush in the fields. After 18 months of that, the pile was more than 8′ high and 20′ wide at the base.
We got a burn permit and told the fire department not to panic if they saw smoke coming from our road. We connected enough hoses to reach around to the back of the pile, baptized the it with some diesel fuel, lit it, and backed away.
When a pile of that size gets going, a garden hose isn’t very helpful, but I’d still rather have one than not. A pile of wet wood 30′ from the fire got hot and burned itself down. And even after the flames died back, the heat of the coals made it hard to get close enough to throw more brush onto the pile.
In the end, it stayed contained and after a few days, when the scorched earth had cooled, I scraped the site, buried the nails, and we’ll probably do it again in a few years.
Mary puts up with a lot.
In 2012, she had a scaled-back vegetable garden planted at the green house, and then they dug a trench for the well water, right through the middle of it.
In 2013, there was no garden at the new house. Unless you count the brand-new (but empty) flower gardens that I was building at a rate of about 1-a-month.
In 2014, I was informed, she wanted a vegetable garden.
The plan was to till the area where the bulldozer guy had said he’d piled up 18″ of topsoil. But wherever we dug, it was clay 2″ down. In Westford, everything is clay too, and we gardened in raised beds, ringed by RR ties and filled with really nice compost-y dirt. But RR ties rot, especially when you start with the worn out ones removed from the tracks. A guy up the road is a lineman and told us we can get free telephone poles from the electric company. I figured a 16′ pole would weigh twice as much as 2 8′ RR ties, so they’d be easy enough to jockey into the trailer, but it turns out that telephone poles, like giraffes, are waaay sturdier close up than they look from a distance, and they could barely be budged. Luckily, Mary had come with me to the bone yard and, with me doing the heavy lifting, and her rolling the fulcrums into place, we managed to make off with several sturdy specimens.
I maneuvered them into place and we weeded the enclosure. We brought 2 dozen loads of soil up from the Big Pile and splurged on a truckload of compost, which we tilled in with a big rented rototiller. It’s about 500sf of really nice, deep, organic soil, and we’ve got 90 garlics planted in the corner. Ready for spring.
Sunday September 29
(No picture available) 11 am
Took a shower. Loaded up and left for a drive in the countryside.
(No picture available.) 11:00 pm
Asleep in bed.
We never eat fruitcake, because it has rum.
And one little bite turns a man to a bum!
Oh can you imagine a sadder disgrace
A man in the gutter, with crumbs on his face?
– The song of the Temperance Legion.
Whoever designed the roof line on this house must have been drunk.
Sure, all the water that pours off the roof in a rainstorm makes its way into the drain pipes we buried in July, but the math says a slug of water falling off the north roof would hit the ground at 35 mph if the air would let it. It power washes the the ground where it hits, and mulch and plantings don’t stand a chance.
Plus, most of our thunderstorms blow in on strong winds from the North, and the water falling from that side of the roof gets blown back onto the house, and the picture window, slider, and door to the shop take the brunt of it.
What I really need is some gutters.
But when they put the roof on last fall, the guy in charge took me aside, looked me in the eye, and said: “Do not put gutters on this roof.” He said that sooner or later, the day after a big wet dump of snow is going to be sunny and warm, and the snow will avalanche off, taking chimneys, vents, antennae, and gutters with it. And he should know: he makes a good living fixing such damage.
So I can’t win.
Apparently, the usual way to deal with roof runoff is to put a lot of crushed rock and sturdy bushes under the drip line, but Mary is bent on having attractive plantings in those areas and I found out the hard way in Westford that if you channel your water toward the foundation drain, you’ll eventually get dampness and mold. Plus, sturdy bushes don’t help with wind blown runoff.
So I got online and googled gutters.
They’ve come a long way since I had them installed in Westford, so I had a contractor come by to look it over and give me a quote.
And a heart attack: $4500 bucks!
A friend had recently had a (simpler) gutter job done for $1200, and 4x sounded way high. The contractor had promised to mail me his quote, along with a bunch of product information, but it never came, and it dawned on me that maybe he figured it as a tough job and didn’t want to get involved. Sure, there’s a high roof, some nasty valleys, and a stepped fascia profile, but it didn’t seem too horrendous to me. So I got to thinking.
Always a dangerous thing.
What would it take to put up a home-grown gutter system?
Probably a lot. I’ve never done anything like it before, and I don’t have the tools or time to do anything like it. This is a bad idea.
But what about a gutter system unlike anything you’ve ever seen before? One you look at and smack yourself on the head, thinking “That’s crazy. I’m glad I didn’t think of that!”
This is also a bad idea.
Before we moved, Mary set me up to take a welding class in Hinesburg, and the lesson I took away from it was that if I want to get good at welding, I have to practice. So ever since then, I’ve been looking for a project involving lots of welding.
The only thing my welder is good for is steel, so how about we make a gutter system for the house out of structural steel?
The little guy on my right shoulder said: “Snap out of it! That’s crazy. It’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. ”
The little guy on my left shoulder said: “That would be cool. What would it have to look like?”
Wouldn’t you know; I can only hear in my left ear.
So I did some sketching, and decided there would have to be 3 manifolds to collect the water from the gutters and the valleys, and by the end of the afternoon, I’d built 3 plywood mockups.
So far so good, but I needed steel.
Queen City Steel is right next door to Garden Way, where Mary has a gift certificate, so we went to Burlington and came home with a Hydrangea plant to climb the new trellises, and some 10′ pieces of 1/8″ steel, which fit in the Tahoe with the back gate closed.
We were both happy.
I reminded myself that this is crazy to begin with, and then I made a steel manifold, just to see if I could do it. It took a few days, but it turned out good, and I learned a lot about warping and spot welding, while filling the house with a smokey haze. All further welding sessions, I was informed, should be performed with the windows open.
Mary said: “What did you say these things are for?”
The voice of reason said: “It’s going to weigh a ton, turn to rust, cost a bundle, and look like hell.”
Reid said: “Exactly! Come on, it will be fun!”
Three manifolds are going to need three drain pipes. The idea was to screw 4″ pipes to the side of the house and run the water directly into the drainage pipes we buried in July. Back then, I didn’t think the front porch needed a gutter, but when we put the front garden in, the topsoil we mounded up made the water puddle up pretty good, and it really needed a drain, gutters or no.
So I dug a ditch and put in a drain pipe, with a branch for a gutter.
Just in case I should ever decide to put one in.
The hardest problem was shaping up to be putting a drain pipe on the North side of the house, where the roof valley pees into the wind, 19 feet up. A drainpipe would have to follow a laser path through an obstacle course, avoiding 6 electric boxes and a window on its way to the ground. With 3 bends in 2 planes, building this monster was a leap of faith, and proof that high school geometry is useful.
This assembly weighed in at over 100#, and there was no way I was going to haul it up an extension ladder, position it with one hand, and fasten it in place with the other. A couple of brackets held it up while I planned my next move.
By a stroke of luck, right behind the 15′ vertical line of the pipe, there’s the structural column that holds up the beam that holds up the roof, so adding a drain pipe to the load is like adding a straw to a camel’s back. I splurged on some attractive 8″ lag bolts to hold it securely in place, and when that warm, slippery-when-wet dump of snow comes along and tries to tear the gutters off, it’ll have to take the structural column with it.
By this time, the little voice of reason on my right shoulder had given up. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he muttered. “You knew what you were getting into.”
I knew I was knee deep in a tough project, alright, but I wasn’t in over my head. Everything else I still had to do, I knew I could do. But there was a lot to do.
For starters, I wasn’t sure how I was going to make the gutters themselves. We didn’t want to attach anything to the fascia, because Mary likes the red color and wants to be able to see it.
We also wanted it to look funky, and nothing is funkier than angle iron.
But will it work? Your basic seamless gutter has a cross sectional area of about 20+ sq in, vs about 7 sq in for 3″ angle iron. Will that be enough to handle a hard rain? I’m still not really sure about that, because thunderstorm season is behind us. But I know regular gutters barely slope at all in a long run. And in a storm, I think all that cross sectional area just lets it fill up with water before it starts flowing sideways. I figured if I can give my gutters a serious tilt, 7 sq in will be plenty.
And how was I going to mount these things? It took a lot of head scratching before I had a stroke of genius:
Little pieces of 4″ angle, welded to short 3/4″ threaded rods, each mounted to a truss.
Attractive and adjustable, rock solid without touching the fascia, and simple enough to make 44 of them. And versatile, too: just picture these brackets accessorized with Chinese lanterns, Tiki torches, tarp grommets, or Christmas lights!
By this time, I’d gotten a lot of practice welding, and I was a lot better at it than when I started. So even if my welds are not very good, they’re not too bad, either.
(if I do say so myself)
Getting the manifolds built had gotten the whole project off the ground, but they really weren’t done. The weld penetration was about half the thickness of the steel, so the insides of the welded edges were really crevasses where water was going to collect. I decided to braze these cracks smooth. The last time I tried brazing, I melted holes right through the metal, but by now, I was beginning to understand the subtleties of heat, and the only mishap I had was running out of gas. Twice.
And, of course, the soffits and fascia had to be painted before the gutters could go up. Mary did what she could where the roof is close to the ground, and for a week, my extension ladder was my BFF. I never had a mishap while I was on it, but I turned my back on a windy day, and the ladder took aim at a window.
It’s a long story, but I’ve been working on a bi-fold door for Marshall’s bathroom.
It’s a pretty cool door, made from leftover hickory flooring, and with vertical pivoting louvers that don’t let prying eyes see you sitting on the pot. For debugging, I had it mounted on a wall in the cellar, and it opened and closed smoothly, but I was kind of stuck: To open it from the outside or to close it from within, you pretty much had to use your fingernails.
It needed a handle.
I used a piece of scrap wood to rough out a shape I liked and then decided that the prototype was perfect, so why make a whole ‘nother handle? Except that the piece of wood for the prototype had a big ugly hole drilled smack dab in the middle.
My first thought was to just finish it the way it was and then tell Charon: “Give me the gum,” and plug the hole with it. That wasn’t going to fly, though, so I said to myself, ‘plug the hole with something decorative.’ Famous last words.
This is a bathroom door, and anyone else would do a crescent moon. But in my bathroom, I start each morning and end each night brushing my teeth, and I keep my toothbrush in my happy cup. Maybe a happy face in the handle would make Marshall’s bathroom a happier place!
I went to college with a guy with a sharp eye for rocks. This guy could pick a pottery shard out of a pile of gravel from 30 feet away. In the dark. Gary collects minerals and every Christmas for the last 35 years, he’s sent me a box of rocks. I open it and make a mental note that “I really must learn more about minerals” and then I put them back in the box and set it aside. It’s a good system, and I have quite the rock collection.
When we moved, it was easier to just move the box of rocks than to get rid of it and, in the aftermath of moving into the new house, Mary and (mostly) I were grousing about how much crap we’ve accumulated and critiquing one anothers’ crazy junk.
“A hundred mason jars? Get rid of them!”
“Oh yeah? Well how many pumps have you got sitting in the cellar?”
“Hey, this is all good stuff,” I said, and opened up a random box to prove it.
It was my box of rocks, and she gave me that look and didn’t say a word, and I just shut the fuck up. Maybe she has a point?
Anyway, I was looking for something that looked like a happy face, and I decided to look in that box of rocks. Most of them were pretty sad looking rocks, but this rock here looked to me like a little green man with one eye and a unibrow saying “Have a happy day!”
Then I took the hole saw I used to poke pipes through the tile in the shower and drilled out a round core.
Then I went back to the saw and cut the rock flat and then sliced out a thin section. At this point, a part of the rock broke off, and now it looks like the little guy has a crew cut.
Finally, I glued it in, cleaned it up, had Mary finish it, and installed it at Charon and Marshall’s house. And now, if you squint, you’ll see there’s a Teenage Mutant Ninja Happy Face guarding Marshall’s bathroom, saying:
bought oil for tractor, bulbs, groceries. took off backhoe and got tractor up onto driveway. EMC. cut grooves for 1st door.
set up and grooved 3 doors. worked with fairpoint guy for internet service.
finished up with fairpoint guy. groceries, gun shop, screws. installed more shelves. grooved 2 more doors. debugged ashton’s trailer.
waffles. installed last of shelving.
milled splines for doors. burlington errands. dinner out
plugged away at shelving. cut up scrap wood for campfires. trial assembly of a door slab. worked on tractor. campfire.
slider screen. door assembly
fixed mower. fixed tractor. met cheryl. excavator with ashton: roughed out south and west sides
day 2 of excavation. roughed out north side. ashton dug out dirt and I piled it up. tractor problem traced to intermittent solenoid fuse
dug daylight trenches. extended rock wall on west. broke chain saw felling trees near rock pile. dinner at celias.
worked with Ashton: laid drainage pipes, gravel, fabric in trenches, fixed clogged fuel screen in tractor, dug out front entry. hauled rocks out of woods.
spread and raked topsoil. gravel+stone at front porch. g&s at back porch and path to garage and trailer park. raked west side. hurt my back in the shower.
several stops in town. replaced oval drain under south valley. put on bernard’s york rake. raked rocks with Mary. rebuilt stone row to create triangle garden. tara chased BZ up a tree.
moved front dirt pile to north pile. fixed tractor necker’s knob. replaced clay in triangle garden. mined rocks with excavator. placed large rocks.
rodeo’d around picking up rocks and york raked. Mary planted grass and mulched with hay. did calculations for ellipse garden.
string trimmed ellipse and apple tree. staked out ellipse and spaded outline. trimmed dirt back to actual outline. installed all drawer slides onto cabinets.
came up with a plan for pivoting downspouts. mined 5 loads of rocks. put on backhoe. dug out for ellipse gravel base.
severe thunderstorms and got to watch the water pouring off the roof onto the new landscape.
picked thru barn wood pile and moved pieces for front porch. Moved them into garage for drying. Built 1/4 of base layer of ellipse wall. spread dirt around propane tank. spread dirt around front yard big rock. set some rocks in front walkway. went to Noyes museum open house.
tendonitis in left wrist. buried pipe from house to ellipse. mined rocks. fixed wheelbarrow. rearranged my office.
glued up part of a door. chain sawed big clump of trees. re-set flat rock in front. built quarter-circle garden. worked on gutter problem.
Not a thing. went to cheesemakers festival in shelburne.
got gravel. glued doors. called gutter guy. debugged lawn mower. 40% or ellipse base layer
glued doors. made handle for bifold door.
glued doors. errands in town. met with gutter guy: $4500. fixed lawn mower
glued doors. cut a mineral to embed in bifold handle. went to auction: bought 3 hydraulic pumps. extended rock row at entry.
placed 6 more rocks at path to front door. scooped piles of dirt. blueberry picking.
swapped out broken doorknob. got more hay. finished base layer of ellipse. collected raked rock piles. Mary raked and seeded grass
made blueberry jam with Mary. hauled brush into piles to be burned. Mary raked and spread grass seed.
met with criscolo and appraiser in westford. worked on Marshall’s door handle. made salad for dinner at Adam’s. Dinner party in burlington.
finished door handle for bifold door, including setting the stone. Set some large rocks in oval. set end stone at entry. placed 2 rocks for front garden.
weeded front garden. assigned barn wood for front porch.
Reid: Come here.
Higher. Mmmm. Harder. Gggggg. Right there.
So, Cat, we’ve been here for a couple weeks now. How do you like your new home?
Not too shabby. There’s lots of places to perch and plenty of fresh dirt. It took me awhile to figure out that we’ve moved, though, and for weeks, I was spending my days at the Green house and just eating and sleeping here.
I know exactly what you mean.
And the new dog over there gives me the shakes. I don’t like her at all.
Maybe if you just tried to be friendly once in awhile. You like to groom, so try grooming her?
Or maybe not. That bitch chased me up a tree, you know.
I saw that. And when you got back that night, you had a gob of crud in your fur that I couldn’t get out. What did you do, shit in your pants?
Rub me a little lower, please. Down. Over. Mmmm.
Nope. I ran up a tree and got full of pitch. Then I watched the dog charge by right below me. Tara got chewed out but, when I finally came home, it was all “Poor little BZ. Are you OK? Have some extra kibble.”
You do like to play with your food, don’t you?
Other than that, it’s a nice place. I’ll get used to it.
What about you? Do you like it?
It’s good. It’s turned out beautiful, but it’s kind of elaborate. It sure is a lot of work!
You’re making it a lot of work, Reid. Why don’t you just keep it simple? Buy some cheap doors, hire a college kid. You can buy towel bars in the store, you know.
Yes, but you’ve still got to put them in, and then it wouldn’t be Art, would it?
I don’t get it. Give me a pillow, some kibble, and an occasional bird in my turd, and I’m a happy cat. But you, you’ve always got to be building crazy stuff from scratch, and usually the hard way.
And it takes me forever, doesn’t it? It’s always an adventure, but I get it done.
I’m trying to try everything once, and do it nicely. And as long as I can pull it off, why not?
Right, but so far, it’s looking like there’s nothing you can’t pull off, so you’re doing everything, and you’re doing it all the hard way. You’re going to kill yourself, Reid, and then who’s going to rub my neck?
Luci, if you’d let her.
You’re right, though, and I’m glad the frantic pace has given way to one that’s merely aerobic. I’ll do this for a couple more months and then I’ll look back and shake my head and marvel about it, and brag about my mistakes.
And you’ve made some good ones, huh? Remember the time you installed the square sink base sideways so the shelves fit vertically?
Yup. That was stupid, but it’s no big deal. Michaelangelo carved David a little cross eyed, you know, but nobody notices.
And he’s 9 feet tall, too, just like your doorways. Face it, Reid, you’re no Michaelangelo.
So what’s next on your list?
Doors. Gutters. Bark. Another bathroom. Whatever strikes my fancy.
Do you fancy we could make some dinner? From scratch?
Would you settle for some extra kibble?
Now that even Mary agrees that the inside is ‘Mary-ready’, Mary is ready to start landscaping.
For starters, can’t we do something about the view? The view was already pretty good, but with a chainsaw as my paintbrush, I set out to improve it. I took out some trees that had died from being too tall and were blocking parts of the horizon. I took out some ugly swamp trees and, after digesting the improvement for a week, took out a stand of birch that was smack in the way. What’s left, we think, is much-improved.
But chainsawing is not like putting in tile, where ‘prep’ is the work, and putting in the tile is the prize. With chainsawing, dropping the tree is the fun part, and then you’ve still got to clean up all the logs and branches. So after I felled the first couple of trees, I got right to work moving the logs into a pile. This is hard work and, in a contest between man and machine, Man won when the tractor belched blue smoke and died. The backhoe needs work, leaks hydraulic oil, and was -ahem- 2 gallons low. I’ve fixed the tractor several times since then, but the logs and branches are still down, so I guess you could say I’ve bought the much-improved view on credit: I owe it a lot more work.
(Like cats, machines communicate with one another in ways we don’t understand, and I think they were saying ‘double-or-nothing’ when the lawn mower belched blue smoke and died the other day. I re-built the carburetor, straightened the frame, and fixed the tire, and now it it’s fine.)
The fundamental problem with the landscape is that it’s too flat near the house. The yard could be gussied up a bit, but let’s solve the underlying problem first. The house is built on a slope, and sited a little deeper than it probably ought to be. On 3 sides, the grade is basically flat, and doesn’t do shit to shed the water. This needed to be fixed.
The roof has 2 valleys, and when it rains, they become “point sources” of runoff for 800sf of roof apiece. One of them is 19′ off the ground, and it looks like something from Yosemite when it rains. The other one pours off in a stream big enough to have fish in it. All this water hits the ground and doesn’t know where to go.
So the plan was to bury drainage pipes from under the roof valleys to daylight, and then re-grade the surfaces so downhill would always be away from the house.
That’s a lot of dirt, and there was no question of man-vs-machine this time: we rented an excavator, with Ashton to run it. Ashton works for Mary and is Bernie’s son. Very sharp in his own way, with his finger on the pulse of everything that happens in town. Ashton’s done excavation before, so I started off by giving him guidelines and a long leash. It didn’t take long before I joined in, though, with the tractor, a shovel, or Dad’s old K&E hand level. By the end of day 1, we’d graded the south (uphill) side of the house and started on the west side.
Day 2, we tweaked the grade on the west, where the level of the foundation is not much higher than the base of the mound. This led to some head-scratching, trying to come up with a way to make the runoff flow away from the house, uphill around the mound and into the woods. We solved it the usual way: By adding rocks.
Next, we tackled the North (downhill) side, which was dead-level, if that, for 50 feet out from the house, and a muck-hole in the rain. We had to work around the septic tank and pump station, with their 3 manholes, and a lot of dirt had to be moved.
So Ashton excavated, while I moved the dirt into a huge pile in an out-of-the-way spot. We left an apple tree intact as a reminder of where the original grade had been. The tractor started acting up again and I debugged and fixed a clogged fuel screen and an intermittent contact to a 3A fuse.
We were making good progress, but we weren’t making it look easy.
Ashton was having all the fun, running the excavator, and when he quit for the day, I climbed aboard and tried out the controls. They don’t work like the tractor’s backhoe, and it turns out that there is a schism in the industry between ‘farmer’ and ‘standard’ controls that makes Windows vs Apple look like small potatoes. I never did quite get the hang of it, but after a week of trying, I was getting close, and when I went back to using the tractor, I found I could barely control it. It’s Either/Or.
On Wednesday, with the grade pinned down, we started trenching for the daylight drains. We went the whole nine yards, with fabric, crushed stone, and perforated pipe. We dug 280′ of trench that day and got the pipe laid into the South trench before quitting for the day. The next morning was more of the same on the North side, with an extra bend in the line because –remember the dirt we’d piled up “out-of-the-way”?– it was in the way.
We’d started the landscaping late in the season because there had been non-stop rain during June, and the week we had the excavator was mostly hot and dry. It’s one thing to think we’d solved the runoff problem, but seeing is believing, and what we really needed was a good thunderstorm. We got a doozy a few days later and, with no vegetation in sight, it was a little scary to watch the water puddle up and then gather steam. Bottom line is that it flowed away from the house on all four sides. The swales were awash, the drains flowed, and 15 minutes after the rain stopped, pretty much the whole yard had drained itself into the woods and toward the meadow. Everything worked as-planned.
(The day before the rain came, Mary had set her potted herbs out in the sun and when the storm hit, a shriek rang out from her office. Her basil plant was dead-center bulls-eye underneath the runoff from the roof valley and was rapidly becoming hydroponic. Fresh from a shower and dry in clean clothes, I ran out onto the porch and, like Superman in a phone booth, stripped and rescued the plant. The plant survived.)
With the runoff problem solved, we set about making it pretty. We’re both sick of looking at a muddy expanse of yard, and Mary set right to work planting a lawn. And she doesn’t fool around: she raked it smooth, gathered the clumps, cast the seed, hayed it, and set up sprinklers. She’s been through 3 big bags of seed already, and the folks at Agway want to know how many holes are in our golf course.
We leveled off a space next to the garage that we call ‘the trailer park’ and put in some gravel walkways and garden beds.
Rocks are a landscaper’s duct tape, and there’s nothing they’re not good for. Plus, they’re cheap and abundant. Years ago, someone cleared the land with heavy equipment and pushed the rocks into a heap at the edge of the meadow. I’m guessing this pile is 6′ tall by 30′ wide by 100′ long, and there are full-grown trees growing out of it. It is the mother lode of rocks, waiting to be mined, but it’s hard to get at. So during the week Ashton was here, after he’d quit for the day, I would drive the excavator over to the heap in the woods and pull out rocks. The idea was to clear an access path for the tractor, and to harvest a few boulders the tractor can’t budge.
For the front entry, I wrestled 2 borders into place. Getting rocks to mate with their neighbors, at the right height, and in a smooth curve is waaay harder than it looks, even for little rocks.
We’ve made a lot of progress in July, and it ain’t over, so stay tuned…