Archive for the 'Rural Living' Category

Getting Cooped Up with Stormy Weather

May 13th, 2010

I have this problem.  It has to do with trying to make things better, and wanting to do things right.  Okay, that’s not usually a problem.  Except when you’re not a carpenter and you’re building something, the learning curve is very steep.  And you keep getting these insights and ideas… “Oh! Well then I can just…” or, “Aha! Now it shouldn’t be too hard if I…”     It’s easy to underestimate a lot of things when you’re still filling your knowledge basket.

Okay, so building a chicken coop isn’t rocket science.   Maybe it’s garden science or something.  I’m making progress, although we’ve had torrential rain the last few days.    This morning is no different, although I did get the flooring painted yesterday between the rain.

I started framing up the sides last weekend…  I like framing.  You measure the length you need (I hear my Dad’s voice in my head, “Measure twice, cut once!”).  Then you go measure the space you need… then you go get the wood you need, and then you forget if that’s really the measurement, so you go back and do it again.  Then you write it down so you don’t forget this time.

Then you make a straight line on your 2×4 (nothing is really straight you know… it just looks like it until you get ready to put it up or use it).   Then you go over to the saw, and then you reach for the 2×4, and then cut it and then go hold it in place to check and wonder why in the hell it’s too short!  And you realize you measured a couple of feet lower and there’s a slight curve to the post there, so you go do it all again…

Ah, but hammering nails is rewarding, and simple.  Blam, blam, blam!  The satisfying thunk of nails going in is just awesome.  Until you realize you weren’t ready to nail it there.  Da@#! Getting nails back out is no fun.

Of course, instead of just putting wood or siding on the outside, I decided to insulate the coop with a double wall.  As long as I was building something, I figured I would make it protected for winter weather.   Do the chickens need it?  Depends on how cold it gets, but I won’t have a heater out there.  Maybe a light bulb.  I don’t think I’ll run electric, and face permit issues and such.  I can run an extension cord out there and put a small bulb in for them.

I can even give the coop a green badge for recycling! I’ve re-used quite a few materials lying around, including wood that came from old benches and about a hundred nails that I took out from twenty year old planting bed frames.   These were galvanized spiral nails and worked really well (boy are they strong!).

I even dug up some older hardware cloth and cut it to fit the coop windows.    This window faces south, with the opposite smaller one on the north side.  I imagine the chickens could use another window in the front for ventilation.

The bigger space below the south window will be for the nest boxes when I figure out if they’ll go on the inside or the outside…  I would like a to have a door to open up (or down) and get to the eggs, but I’m not sure if making it flush with the siding would be better or if I should build a whole nest box extension off the side?

I got a little creative with a couple roof supports- these are joined at the other end on the front trim along with two end joists connected from the shed to the posts.  I crawled all around up there for a good while, so it’s a pretty strong roof.

Last Sunday I stayed out until after 9:30 pm in the dark finishing putting on the roof.    Heavy rain was coming and I couldn’t wait…   it wasn’t much fun on my knees with a flashlight in my mouth lining up shingles.   I was lucky I didn’t smash my thumb with a hammer, but a few nails went “Bing!” off in the driveway somewhere.

Fortunately I had help… the boy was out chasing fireflies (he was smarter than me that night…) and he would bring me piles of shingles as I needed them.   Then imagining that those nails would end up in tires and feet I said I would pay him a dollar if he could find them in the gravel somewhere.   Dang if he didn’t find them pretty quickly!

The chicken coop roof is a shallow angle and perhaps not optimal for shingles with just under a 2:12 slope, but both ends are protected from heavy winds with the bigger shed on one side and the house/garage about 50 feet away to the east.    The shingles are also glued down with roofing sealer.    I would like to box in the corners somehow under the eaves of the bigger shed just to protect them.

The good news is the roof works just fine…  rain comes right off as it should with drip edge all around.    Of course lots of chicken coops tilt the other way to keep the rain off the front, but that didn’t fit the plans for mine.   Gutters on the shed and coop would be nice… maybe to divert the rain into a barrel for the garden?

Now it’s time for insulation and siding.   Solid wood for the outside just costs too much, so I picked up three sheets of inexpensive siding.  I’ll have to keep it sealed and painted, but it should work just fine.

All things being equal, a taller chicken coop would be best.  I really liked this location however, and our coop is only about 4.5 feet tall at the front.  It will involve bending over to clean things up so I’m trying to build a good-sized door (or two) up front.   I could make swing out panels, but I would still like to insulate with an inner wall.   Maybe just insulate half the front?   Or will a door around 3’x3′ work okay?

I think I could have looked around a bit more for some real plans, and maybe I would have had some better ideas.  There’s some free plans available out there, but I guess the challenge of putting up my own chicken coop design was part of the fun…  But for specific chicken coop ideas, I really like the plans at ChickenCoopGuides.com .  If I had planned ahead a little, I would have kept careful plans of my own chicken coop design and provided that here… but instead, I’ve put some affiliate links at a sight with a really good product, and maybe it will help someone.   I’m kind of an intuitive do-it-your-selfer, and that’s how I approached my chicken coop.  Kind of like with cooking. I’ve never met a recipe I didn’t like to fiddle with!  Often it turns out great, but sometimes? Well, maybe not so good!

I do like the window in the bigger shed…  It will be like an observation window to the chickens!   I haven’t even got to the run yet, but it will probably be buried posts with 1×4 galvanized wire.   And I may still put linoleum down in the coop to protect the floor and make cleanup a little easier.   Then there’s windows, doors, nest boxes…  :0   Thanks for all the ideas and comments…. keep ’em coming!

The rain is with us for a few more days, but next week is supposed to be dry and sunny.  I’m going to get this thing finished… :)



Lost in Chicken Coop World

May 7th, 2010

A recap of building the chicken coop this week.   It took a while to clean up the area and add soil and gravel for a base.

Little surprises always pop up that you don’t plan for.  I needed to cut and replace a rotted end piece of the old shed where I intended to join the new coop. 

Grading and setting the base and floor foundation was more than I planned or expected. After all, how much do ten chickens weigh?

But then I thought we might need to get inside, or it would help to stand on during construction, etc. So I used some leftover concrete blocks and broken pieces to serve as supports on a gravel base,  and spaced the floor joists for strength.

I needed to add an additional section of osb flooring, and the joining ends needed to be reinforced for strength, especially at the planned cleanout door to the coop.

Now the floor is really strong. 


Today I’m trying to finish the framing to get the roof on (with rain in the forecast), and maybe this weekend to put the sides on. I’ll probably use osb sheathing all the way around… and I’d love to use horizontal planks of some kind for finished siding. Matching the older shed siding would be too expensive, but maybe boards made from cedar or something would work?

Another trip to the lumber store… I was inside the store a few days ago and met a guy who was a carpenter. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions. He said, “What are you building anyway?” “Oh, it’s a chicken coop,” I reply. “Wow,” he says, “everybody is building a chicken coop!” So I guess chickens are the big thing these days…

The chickens are only five weeks old but really growing.

They are now living inside the old shed.  Which was painted with really cute designs for a granchild, and has a linoleum floor.  They seem to be enjoying themselves and are living in style I tell you.  But don’t get used to it chickies!  Besides, your new home will be nicer, with about twice as much inside room.    The things we do…

Everything’s Growing!

April 7th, 2010

How did April get here so fast?! I think I’m still back in March somewhere, planning what to do this month. Now that I’m here, I’m wondering what that was…     As I looked into the small greenhouse this week I had to laugh that our snowman from Christmas was still in there!  He’s camping out in front of some sage.  Kind of a happy guy, isn’t he?   I’m months behind I tell ‘ya. Time just zooms by and I can only wonder what other forgotten treasures we’ve left behind.

But spring is surely here in Missouri.   It’s more than daffodils, because the redbuds and dogwoods have started to bloom… along with a host of wildflowers int the forest.  I’ve seen violets, anemone and even trout lilies this week.   And it’s about time for morels! 

The young boy and I went exploring a little after school yesterday.  The little hollow above the pond serves as drainage for half the watershed, and it’s fun to hike around in there at times.   Something caught my eye while cutting grass, so we went on a little treasure hunt before the heavy leaf cover hides it all.  

We found some neat pieces of dishes or pottery.  I don’t have any idea how old they might be, but it’s fun to imagine someone long ago using them, or the artist that painted the blue flowers.  And what could that rusty piece of metal have been used for?  The boy thought the rock was just neat looking.

We’ve had such warm weather that all the insects have come out.   But there’s a couple of cold fronts coming through this week that will chill things down a bit at night. Nothing close to freezing, so we’ll still be in good shape.  The cool weather is fine by me!  The oak trees have let down catkins already and everything has started leafing out now.  It is so renewing to watch the trees re-dress themselves each spring in shades of light to darker green. 

Even waking up this morning I was amazed at the difference between this picture taken just a day before and how fast the leaves are growing.  Soon we will see the orioles return and even our barn swallows.  The barn swallows are almost overdue, well almost.  But for the two years before last, they have always returned to their nests around the first week of April.  Last year they came around the 15th…  so we have time.  It may have something to do with the storms and weather patterns, but I’m thinking they’ll show up in the next few days.   I did see a tree swallow yesterday, flying low across the fields.

There’s so many things growing around here, which reminds me to share a picture of our new friends.   

I’ll just leave you with this for now… don’t you just want to pick them up or something?   Have a great week! :)

Happy Birthday Smokey

March 15th, 2010

Have you ever met the good folks at your nearby fire department?  I have… went to a new fire house opening ceremony last year, and one of our Scout family parents is the fire chief in a neighboring town.    I also got to meet the local volunteer fire chief  for our area last week.  He’s a nice guy, only he didn’t plan on stopping by for a chat.

But I sort of insisted, after testing the effectiveness of fire on asian grass clumps.

If you’re curious, fire works very, very well to burn asian grass clumps.   A little too well perhaps.   And when there’s a few close together, it really makes a beautiful, big flaming mass of fiery heat.

The only problem was that the grass and leaves surrounding those flames were a little too dry.  The fire decided to march along the pond and up the hillside a bit.   I wasn’t too concerned at first as I controlled the fire…  I’ve had a bit of experience with fires of all kinds on board ships- mostly getting out of the way of the folks that had to fight them.  But I ended up in a few fire parties, and dealing with fuel fires on deck at times.  Those are downright scary when your only option is to get the fire out as quickly as possible.

When you’re new to the seafaring life you practice “blind exit drills” in order to learn how to get out of a ship, or to a safe (safer) place.   After being at sea a while, all it takes to renew the vigor of fire safety awareness is a shipboard fire with dark passageways filled with smoke, alarms blaring, smashing your shins on lower bulkhead openings and racing up or down ladderwells to wherever your supposed to go.  It’s an almost alien, surreal experience that opens your eyes to how tenuous life can be multiple decks below the surface in an emergency.

On an aircraft carrier, with thousands of people on board, there are fire alarms every day.  If it wasn’t a drill it was a real fire somewhere.  Clang! Clang! Clang! Clang! “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! Comparment 2-3-4L, port side! Away the fire teams away!” Clang! Clang! Clang!  And on for the next half hour or more with constant updates until the fire is under control.   It’s interesting the first few times you hear it.  Life goes on, the mission goes on, folks are still doing maintenance, training, cooking, planning, eating, flying, and doing what they do to run the ship.

After a decade or so, you actually sleep through it, marginally aware of a fire taking place somewhere, knowing the tenor of the voice on the 1MC and when you’ll need to get to your station or somewhere else.   You say a quick prayer for the folks doing their jobs (poor bas#&$@s!) as best they can while you scrunch up a pillow over your ears.

But I was just raking the edges of my little grass fire, and looked behind me to note its progress.   I was surprised to see the fire racing quickly ahead, leaping at each new tuft of grass, with a little breeze pushing it on.   “Hmmm,” I thought… “It’s not supposed to do that.   Either it’s going to go out by itself, or it’s going to continue to burn up past the trees and hit the neighbors 40 acre hayfield… and maybe get to the woods, and… Oh, crap!”

So then I got my exercise for the day by racing a hundred yards up the hillside toward the house and, for the first time in my life, calling nine-one-one.   I’d love to hear that recording; “Um, huh, hah, huh, there’s a fire, hah, huh, hah… near the pond, huh, huh, huh, at my address, huh, hah…”  “Are you all right Sir?”  “Um, hah, yes, sure, but hah, hah, they better come just, hah, hah, in case…”

I got more exercise as I raced to get the portable watering barrel with the golf cart and fill it up somewhat (I usually always have the water barrel nearby when I use the burn pile, and I’ve never needed it before… murphy’s law!).  The curious 9-year old poked his head out the door looking at me like I’m crazy.   “What are you doing?”     I explain the situation briefly…  “What fire?!”   He was watching tv, and didn’t even know while I’m racing all around.  There wasn’t much to do at that point.  Of course he wants to come out then, but nope, I don’t want him to get hurt.

So there I go back to the fire burning along the pond.   Using the hose, the water helped put out most of the fringe that concerned me, especially where two cedar trees stand.  If you’ve ever seen a cedar tree burn it’s an amazing sight.  Intense, fiery, hot and quick!   I didn’t want to see it right then…

So there I am, finally putting out the last of the fire with smoke billowing up near the pond as the fire chief and a small pumper head down the gravel drive.  He saunters down as the smoke wisps away, clearing up, and says, “Well, looks like you’ve got it handled, huh?”  followed by, “Dispatch, recall all vehicles…”

I then apologize profusely for giving them an impromtu fire drill, but share one of my lifetime axioms in terms of safety that, “If you’re in doubt, there’s no doubt!”  So I thought better safe than sorry.   He was very kind, and said he was glad I called if I was concerned.  For some reason they thought our barn was on fire, and started rolling two other big trucks.  Not sure where they got that idea! Honestly I really didn’t expect to get the fire out that quick… took me about 15-20 minutes I guess.  And I always wondered how long it would take the fire trucks to get to us…  so now I know,  it’s a good 20-25 minutes at best.

He mentioned another neighbor down the road having a similar experience the week before on his dairy farm, nearly burning up his field.    He said “We don’t mind coming out and not getting dirty one bit… especially when we even get to go home early!”   I laughed, and could understand that for sure.   We talked a bit more and he described how he conducted controlled burns, but he said he usually has two or three other guys to help him.

Lessons learned:  Don’t assume recently frozen, wet ground is damp enough to not burn… Take that water barrel or fire extinquisher with you every time…   Chop those darn asian grasses down, or burn them in the rain!  :)  And if you think you need the fire department, then you probably do!

And did you know it’s Smokey Bear’s 65th birthday?  How appropriate.

I was reminded of a few other things that were very practical:  When was the last time you checked your fire alarms?  Or thought about gas cans in the wrong places… or what you might do in case of a fire?  Talked with the kids lately?   Or if your fire extinguishers (if you have any) are still charged up?   Lots more there, but you get the point. I showed the boy around the day after. He was impressed with the size of the area burned.

I also learned that the fire trucks may not be able to get back to our barn very easily.  And that although they don’t carry much water in total on board, they can throw a trash pump in the pond and string hoses a few hundred feet to the house if necessary.

And that if it takes them that long to get here, and find water, it probably won’t be necessary anyway.   Which is why our insurance rates are a lot higher than folks who live close to a fire hydrant or station.

That was my big adventure for an afternoon.  I recommend finding other ways to entertain yourself.

On the Road Again

March 12th, 2010

A milestone over the past week as I finally fixed the old truck.   Something with the clutch or transmission wasn’t working, and it was either getting stuck in gear, or popping out of gear.  I finally figured out (guessed!) that the slave cylinder had a tiny leak. Not enough to drain the master reservoir, but enough to prevent good hydraulic pressure to the transmission. After a little research online, a stop at the parts store and a few hours one night, it came out as good as new.   That was the only thing wrong with the clutch fortunately.

I thought it would be painful to bleed the system, especially with no bleed valve on the cylinder part. Instead I slowly dripped Dot 3 fluid into the tiny fluid port as bubbles popped up until it appeared totally full. That took a while, but had to open the master cylinder reservoir up top, the fluid started flowing out the end of the tube where I could quickly attach it to the slave cylinder, keep pressure on the clutch, and the air gradually was evacuated. Voila! No air bubbles!

My next move wasn’t so smart… like a knucklehead I wanted to test it out too fast, and pushed the clutch pedal in and heard a “Pop!” noise. Climbing back under the truck I realized it worked exactly like it was supposed to… except since I had not installed the slave cylinder to the transmission yet, when I actuated the clutch it popped the piston out of the cylinder and broke the retaining clip that held it in for easy installation. Arrrgh!

With messy visions of starting over, I took a few deep breaths and with lots of grunting and groaning, I was able to squeeze the piston back in enough to get it in place. Aahhh… I felt lucky that this particular truck had the slave cylinder attached outside the transmission bell housing, or I would have had to do a lot more work taking the transmission apart.

Why do this myself? Partly because I like to, but mostly to try and save some bucks. I spent too much at the dealer a few months ago to fix some fuel system issues, and they said I needed a new starter at the time because it wasn’t starting the truck properly. Heck, it costs money to get an opinion after nearly an hour of labor charges… the diagnostic fee.  I’m learning, but replacing the starter would have been hundreds more dollars on top of what I already spent.

Sure it started rough, and sometimes not at all, but for a truck I only use sometimes, I declined their kind offer.   Now however I was in “fix it” mode, so I tried a simple fix by replacing the starter solenoid for twenty bucks.  Guess what? That was all it took, and it starts just fine now… go figure.  One would think the dealer could have figured that out… or maybe they did. Makes you wonder.

I also put in a new power window motor since the driver’s side was mostly dead. I say mostly because it had been intermittent for a couple of years and had not worked at all for over 6 months. I swear I didn’t touch it, but that silly window motor magically started working after I bought the new motor!    Here’s a shot of the driver’s door with the panel removed- the window motor is between the outer and inner door frame!

Replacing the motor seemed like an extravagance as a “nice to have” item, but there’s no other way to open the drivers window without it… and if you’re like me, how can you drive a truck around without hanging your arm out the window for half of the year!?! :)   But that old motor would have stopped working again anyway, so I replaced it.  It was a little painful trying to squeeze my arm inside that door panel to get to the motor.

Ah, but that was another education as I took everything apart, stereo speaker out, etc. and then trying to squish my arm and tools in all kinds of directions to undo the dang thing. It finally dawned on me that the door was put together at the factory with the motor inside, and the bolt locations were marked so it could be replaced easily… duh!

I finally saw the two tiny dimples (I marked with yellow dots in the first picture) in the door frame to mark where the bolts were attached…. and to show me where to drill holes to get the bolts undone. After that, removing the motor was simple.    Here’s a photo of the old motor- they’re sealed units, but after 17 years it had a lot of rust all around.  Maybe I can use it for something?

How many things in life are like that? We struggle and look and wonder, sometimes wasting a lot of time and energy, and even giving up, simply because we just don’t know any different?   I like to do things myself if I have time, and I don’t mind paying a professional if you can afford it, or really need one.

But I’ll say one thing… if I’ve got a question or can’t figure something out, the internet is an amazing place to find answers or ideas.  Yeah, some of it’s good, some of it’s pretty bad.  But it’s a place to start.  Lots of folks share their lessons learned and it can really be helpful.   I can’t help but wonder if the pace of human evolution and change is increasing much faster now in proportion to the degree of shared information and ideas…

It does feel good to have the truck running normally again without spending a fortune.   I think it was $56 for the clutch slave cylinder, $20 for the starter solenoid and $49 for the window motor.  Would have been way past $500 at the dealer including labor.  Something to be said about old cars… the new ones just throw computer codes, and look a lot harder to work on.

So off we went the other day to get a load of straw for the garden.   I’d like to try using it for mulch and keeping the weeds down this year. The boy got to play in someone’s barn for a bit, and then back on our own driveway he tucked himself in up top for a short ride.

Before that night’s rainstorm I had some straw down between the rows to help prevent the soil washing out. We’ll add a bunch more as we go along…  Next week we can get those potatoes and peas in the ground!   Hey, maybe we can use some of that straw to make a scarecrow?!

Bundle up for the Cold

December 8th, 2009

Lots of rain and cold today… it was cleanup time in the barn with the woodstove going.  Looks like lots of snow for those of you west and north of us, but also very high winds.  Tomorrow the temperatures are going to drop to just above, or below zero degrees for us. Much colder for you folks up north I’ll bet!   With high winds of 30-45 mph the windchill factor will be downright dangerous.   Last month I made sure everything is winterized and put away, hoses disconnected, etc, but it’s worth thinking about things again before that kind of cold.  Pets and animals need a second look as well to make sure they can keep warm.  When it gets this cold we bring our outside dogs in the garage, even though they have nice little dog houses and cedar bedding.  The heavy coated Shiba Inu would be fine, but it gives them a break.   Somehow it feels like January’s going to be snowy…

The boy and I cut a cedar tree for his Grandma the other day.  It was fun looking for just the right one…  we found it at sunset near the pond (I forgot to take a picture!).  We’re debating whether we’ll cut our own cedar this year, or head to our traditional tree farm.  

We were not far from a straggly old scotch pine that was planted years ago.  How this pine tree has held on for so many years amazes me… every year a buck comes by and ravages the thing, usually killing a branch or two.  I’ve tried to help it out, but as you can see from the damage, it took a real beating this year from one of our antlered friends.    Oh, and the yellow lab was pouting because I wouldn’t let him in the water!


I just remembered that I haven’t put a bird feeder up yet!  Just haven’t made time to pick up some bird seed, so maybe tomorrow will be the day.   I’m curious to see if the squirrels will raid our feeders or not.  Historically we haven’t had very many closer to the house, probably due to the dogs wandering around.   But this fall there’s a population of nearly a dozen gray and red fox squirrels that have taken up residence in the oak trees around the house and barn.  They’ve practically taken over the place so it should be interesting.  

 Stay warm out there this week and take an extra blanket in the car!

Raising the Roof and the Moon

December 2nd, 2009

Ladders are simply wonderful tools.  As long as you can move them around a bit.


Yes, I really did that… I didn’t even bend a nail!

What a week and weekend… Thanksgiving was a really nice day, and the food was wonderful.  Had to keep the weight off, so I worked outside on the “everlasting shed project”  (sort of like Willy Wonka’s ever-lasting gobstoppers).   There’s nothing like a table full of delicious food on a holiday!  I’m getting hungry again…


We’ve been stretching those leftovers and it keeps getting better.   But yesterday was our last sunny, mild day for awhile… the cold is coming!  Maybe really cold with an arctic cold front dropping towards us.   We’ve been so fortunate- I think the news said this is the latest we’ve ever gone in the year without a hard freeze.  That was just fine for me and sure helped with getting the building up.   This was a few days ago getting the drip edge and the roofing felt laid down.


Yesterday I ran out early to try and finish the big stuff.   Which brings to mind another group of folks to appreciate more… roofers!  Shingles are messy, heavy, scratchy, and brittle when it’s not warm enough outside.  But somehow I’ll bet it was easier now than it would have been in August.   You also get to cut a bunch of them to fit along the way.   The ridgetop shingles are cut with a wedge, then layered on top of each other with nails and roofing cement to help them stay put.


While I was putting a few nails in the other day I was summoned to the house.  “Just a minute…!” I say, to which the boy replies that I’m supposed to come a little more quickly.   Seems that an uninvited guest was living on the sun porch.  Can you see it?


We get one or two reptile visitors in the house during the year it seems.  This guy is either a young Great Plains Ratsnake or a Prairie Kingsnake- I need to take a closer look.  He’s sleeping in a jar in the boy’s room for now… we can’t let him go until we get a warmish day again.

The past couple of days I was a tarry, sticky mess making sure everything was laying down properly with those shingles.  But its been a fun process… with a huge learning curve.  Except for the fact that I kept forgetting things after climbing up the ladder to the roof.  Up, down… up, down… It’s only 11 feet to the top in back, but nearly 15 feet high at the front. Seems a lot higher when you’re wobbling around on your feet and knees.  I can’t imagine how some of those roofers do those 30 foot gabled roofs.  That said, I’ve been having a grand ‘ole time and enjoyed the view from the top.

I spent a little extra time today looking at other plans for sheds… and I realize I could have done this from scratch with a little more forethought!  The designs they have at My Shed Plans are fantastic… maybe that will be for next time :)


Today I finally finished with the shingles and a ridge vent.  Then it was time to set a couple of small windows and the doors.  The boy came home from school and helped hold them in place for me.  It was great to have his help after he was out sick for a week.

As the sun fell below the horizon we were finishing up, and then the most beautiful sight appeared with the nearly full moon rising in the east.    Perhaps a good omen on wrapping up the big stuff, but it was fun to see the moon through the trees.  Later we saw the most beautiful halo around the moon- it must have taken up half the sky.


Lots of trim and finish to do on the little building, but I’m glad it’s mostly weatherproof now.  Bring on the rain and snow!  Okay, not really :)  Maybe a little snow…   As it is I’ve got a garage fillled with beekeeping equipment that needs a home.  The shed doesn’t look very big, but it feels like a mansion inside.

Well Happy December everyone- time to get those decorations up.  I’ve been slow-posting lately, but as winter sets in I hope to get back in the swing of things.   Hmmm… maybe I can graduate to a bigger building one day :)


Life and Thankful Days

November 25th, 2009

Sometimes life gets a hold of you and finding a little extra time is a challenge.   The past week has been like that- busy, fun, challenging, frustrating, and full of surprises.  Finally had a chance to have that old truck fixed with a few of its own surprises along the way, but in the end it’s working like an old truck should.   Then the young boy picked up something from somewhere that stuck with him for the past four days… he stayed home from school with coughing, fever and generally not having the best time.  I served as waiter, librarian, pet feeder and chief bottle washer in between cleaning the kitchen, garage and other odd bits.  Thankfully he’s on the mend, but we’ll have a quiet day at home tomorrow instead of our traditional visit with relatives.  Just what the doctor ordered as they say. 

He’s a bit more enthusiastic here in a picture from last weekend, and loved walking on top of the block wall.   It’s a strange sight when nothing was there before!


It’s going to get stranger… last weekend I had some professional help with the shed project from my brother.  He’s a carpenter, a builder, and a really creative guy with tools in his hands.  We managed to get the floor, siding and walls put together which was an enormous help.  He has a way of seeing a set of plans and finding ways to make them better.   Especially since I somehow managed to drift inward by nearly an inch on the sides of my wall!  I couldn’t believe it… I planned the concrete block wall for a snug fit around the shed to prevent leaves and such from falling along the siding, but my guides were off a bit somehow.  So it’s a tight squeeze at the front of the shed, but in the end everything will fit just fine.

Since then I’ve made progress with the trusses, supports and trim.  If all goes well I may have a roof in a couple of days!   It’s not a big shed by any means, but already I can see that it’s going to offer great utility for storage and workspace.  If I can beat the cold and rain over the next week it may be ready to go.



Of couse there’s always something else, and last night the icemaker in the freezer decided to leak.  It was late and I thought a few towels and an empty bowl would hold the line for the night, but nooooo!   This morning we awoke to a huge frozen waterfall and a steady “drip, drip, drip.”   Seems that the ice maker clogged up, or became plugged with ice backing up the water line.  That blocked the water valve to the open position leading to the unwanted ice sculputure.   Fortunately we’ve got a chest freezer in the basement that could hold the frozen food while fixing the refrigerator. 

After melting the ice mess, the entire refrigerator didn’t seem to want to cool down- I had visions of wolfing down a hodge podge of food before it all spoiled!  The weather has been so nice that it wouldn’t help to put things outside at night.  That’s something nice about winter -you can put a pot of soup or stew outside to keep fresh.  But with a few hours of time and disconnecting/reconnecting the fridge, it finally began cooling down.  Somehow it seems like I was lost in a void during those hours, like much of the past week.

We do have so much to be thankful for however, not the least of which is having food to eat, a warm home and the time to be with family.  And too, we wish another brother well, far from home across the world.  It’s just another day really, but one we set aside to remember the abundance in our lives and our way of life.  I hope you have a good day, without too many surprises, a good Thanksgiving and a wonderful week.   I’ve still got to get a pumpkin pie from somewhere!

The Walls and the Shed

November 16th, 2009

I’ve been away… working on “The Wall” over the past week.  We were fortunate to have a week of mild, dry weather, and I took some time to spend almost every hour of the day (and some in the dark) outside.   I haven’t even left the property in five days… and I learned a lot along the way.   Mostly involving how hard folks work that do this for a living.  I think I have new muscles, and found a few old ones that I had forgotten about!

I could have built this somewhere else.  A little farther away perhaps.  Okay, it would have been too far away, or too deep in the woods, or… something.  It would have been easier though.  Then again I’ve never been one to do something simply because it was easier.   Often the right, or better, or more efficient, or simply the preferred way isn’t the easiest.  

Of course sometimes it is.   When things work out like that it’s just peachy.  But not in this case.  A hillside where I wanted to build the shed, closer to the house.   This was thirty-four days ago.


I really thought it wouldn’t be that hard.  That’s the problem with starting something before you reeaallly know what’s involved.  Mea culpa. 

After hand mixing over 1800 pounds of cement, moving and setting 2800 pounds of concrete blocks, mixing 540 pounds of mortar, spreading 300 pounds of sand and three tons of gravel, I can only wonder… what in the heck was I thinking!?!

In this case, once I swallowed a few more mea culpas and got some decent weather it was time to get to work.  I may not have needed such a big footer, or a large backfill, or drain tubes…  but some old aviation maxims come to mind:   It’s better to ask for forgiveness than ask… wait, not that one!  

It’s better to plan for what might happen, rather than end up fixing what you could have prevented in the first place.


A little planning goes a long way.  And sometimes you just can’t fix what you could have prevented.  Of course sometimes you just don’t know.  And sometimes ignorance is indeed bliss… for a while.  I tend to believe that ignorance is no excuse.  I think it was John Hope Bryant that said, “If you do not know better, you cannot do better.”  So true for so many people, and that’s where education is supposed to come in.   The problem is that somewhere along the way of  not knowing better, a lot of folks get into trouble.  

Not wanting to be one of those folks in this situation, I decided to remedy the ignorance part with some research.  Finally armed with coffee, determination and a little information, I forged ahead.

I started pouring cement 10 days ago, after digging things out for almost two weeks.  That back footer is 18 inches wide and nearly a foot high, but I placed the wall blocks on the forward portion of the footer so I wanted it to be extra sturdy.  Rebar is embedded throughout, and more was placed for the walls.

While the concrete was curing I brought in the rest of the materials. 



I started placing the blocks just six days ago. I was surprised at how much mortar I used.  It took a while to get that “creamy, buttery texture” that worked so well.  Stirring mortar is really good triceps exercise!  I was generous (and messy) with the mortar both inside and outside the blocks, especially for the lower blocks.  The first day I took my time and only placed eight.  By the last day I did fifteen more quickly and effectively.  There were more than 50 large blocks and 22 cap stones in all.


I started at one corner, and worked across.  Staging the blocks before hand allowed me to see where I would have too much or too little.  The corner blocks are staggered and interlocked with the side walls, and overlapped for the rows.  I still needed to cut a small block for the middle of the wall at one point, as the base was slightly wider than the upper row.


After finishing the back wall with blocks, I painted it with masonry sealer, and then backfilled it with one-inch clean gravel.  First a base on the footer, then I used landscape cloth to wrap more gravel and fill between the wall and cloth/dirt embankment.  About six inches from the top I layered sand and soil, compacting it firmly, and then covered again with sand and rocks.


I used levels and wooden guides to help keep things straight while building.  Or straight enough… like many things I learned again that it’s easier to fix something earlier, because that error just becomes amplified over time.


Along the back wall I built in weep holes with half-inch copper pipe.  After I dug out the hillside, I noted after a rainstorm last month that water was draining through the soil, especially toward the left side.  I knew tremendous hydraulic pressure would affect the wall over time, so I placed eight drain tubes in all, five on the bottom at the footer, and two above the first row of blocks.  When I backfilled the wall, I made sure the tubes would be clear with larger crushed rock all around. I finished the side walls with drain channels lengthwise, and packed that space on top with clean, course gravel also.


It seemed like I’d never be finished, and daylight ran out too soon.  I worked for an hour after dark one night under poor lighting.  The next morning I learned that wasn’t such a good idea.  I had to fix a few things… but progress came, day by day.


Some of the days were in the upper 60’s last week, nice and warm. Unheard of for November, but I wasn’t complaining. Evening came quickly, and I enjoyed the sunsets.  I remembered a really nice one the week before while watching the boy play in the leaves.


I’ve been a tired puppy each night…  like somebody else.   I know this kennel looks awfully small for a 90 pound yellow lab… but he won’t sleep anywhere else!  I’ve got a nice sleeping pad for him in a  larger kennel, and carpet and rugs in various places… but this was his “home” as a puppy.  He squishes himself inside and sleeps there at night; the door is even open, but he just feels cozy there.  He was so tired, my pictures didn’t even wake him up. 


I was finally building the ends, and the side walls extended out past the side footers by three blocks.  The soil outside the walls was only about six inches high at that point, so I wasn’t concerned about side pressures.  But I dug out and packed gravel for a base before setting the blocks in a thick bed of cement/mortar.  The blocks should also be strengthened by the footer, and overlapping blocks and mortar on top. 


If anything shifts or cracks on this wall it will probably be near the front ends.  I believe the gravel and mortar is deep enough and strong enough to prevent shifting from freezing and thawing over time. The lower blocks are also filled inside with mortar and small gravel for the whole structure.

The wall is almost finished.  I didn’t ask them to sit there, but the basset and the lab found a new place to lay down.  I gave them bones to keep themselves busy.  Of course one bone wasn’t enough… they tried to sneak each other’s bones when they could.  The lab had an advantage- the basset hound kept falling asleep throughout the day!


I painted everything with masonry sealer once again, a race against time yesterday with rain coming.  Thankfully the rain held off while I continued to pack gravel, sand and dirt all around the outside of the walls.  


Finally it’s finished!  Almost.  I have eight end cap pieces that I need to cut to size and fit.  I don’t have a masonry saw and need a clean cut to set them properly.  I tried splitting a couple blocks with chisel and hammer, but that didn’t work out very well.  Actually, I did manage to split and shape that one small piece in the middle of the back wall, but the front end pieces will need to be exact. 


I just got things wrapped up last night when the rain came.  I covered up the wall end-holes with extra block  and went inside.  It rained steadily all night and we got about an inch.   This morning I went out with the umbrella to check the drain holes at the base of the wall…


It was nice to see clear water coming through about half the drain tubes, and draining down the gently sloped gravel bed.  That’s one of the reasons I want to support the shed on a “floating foundation” off the gravel base- to keep the floor off the moisture.  And there should be enough air circulation underneath to keep things dry over time.   Once I finish packing more dirt around the outside walls, I hope to get grass sod established to channel the water around the structure a bit more during rain.  A lot of it comes from the natural slope and the pasture beyond the fence line- I may try to build a smaller berm along the fence to redirect some of that water flow during rain.

Now if I can get another 4-5 days of decent weather it will be time to get the shed up!  I really have learned a lot… and I’m glad this part is finished.   I certainly have new respect for masonry craftsmen.   Not only because of the effort and skill involved, but the patience and diligence that it must take over time.   I wouldn’t ever try this on a large scale, but it makes for an interesting home project.

My little block wall is far from perfect, but I kind of like it.  There’s quite a few dips, curves and bulges here and there.  Kind of like me :)  But that’s okay, it just needs to serve a purpose, and with luck it should last a bit longer than most of us!

Warm November Days

November 9th, 2009

I’ve been engrossed in digging, pouring, setting and arranging blocks for a retaining wall the past week.  Looks like it will take most of this week too, and thankfully the weather has been amazing for working outside. We have a little rain in the forecast, but nothing that will hold back progress!  Along the way there’s still time for other chores and a little fun. And keeping your eye out for the little changes the season brings.

Took me a while to build the forms and hand mix 1600 pounds of concrete the other day.  Doesn’t look like much, but the footer at the back is nearly two feet wide and half as tall.   I’m trying to decide if that’s enough, or if I need to lengthen the footer on the sides or not.  The ends of the retaining wall towards the front will only be two blocks high, so I may be able to simply set them on a firm base.    The footer has rebar throughout, and more will be in the wall.   Because of the slope and water runoff, I’m also embedding small pipes in the wall for drainage.

Kind of hard to pour concrete with a basset hound in the way…



I did a double take when I saw this woodpecker the other day- it’s a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!  A funny name for a bird, and we don’t see them very often here.  One of the key identification features is that large vertical white stripe.  Lucky that I had my camera with me- I thought it interesting that the bird went to the only tree that has green leaves on it still- a very old flowering pear tree- it’s the last to lose it’s leaves in fall. This woodpecker has a beautiful red crest also, but the picture doesn’t show it.


I’ve only seen this species once or twice briefly before, but they migrate through around this time of year, sometimes hanging around a bit into winter. There are lots of telltale signs of the sapsucker on certain trees- many horizontal rows of small holes that were used to gather sap. It’s fun to see something you don’t have around very often.

A couple of days ago I wandered into the bedroom and all of a sudden a big bird went “crash!!!” into a large window. I ran over thinking it must have killed itself and wondered what it was. I stared in disbelief but it was a Cooper’s Hawk sitting on concrete below the window- it looked up and saw me and leapt off the ground flying off through the trees. We have them around the forest nearby, but they’re normally fairly secretive. It must have been engrossed in chasing another bird for dinner.

The young boy and I rose with the dawn and ventured out on the pond yesterday morning for a little fishing. It was beautiful and warm, and we paddled around while the sun rose above the horizon. He had a great time, and we caught and released a lot of fish. Speaking of things we don’t see very often, we caught one of the largest bass we’ve ever caught before in our pond.


You can definitely see why they’re called Largemouth Bass!  It’s not a big fish by bass standards, but at about two pounds it tells me the bass are growing better this year.  I’m trying to manage the population and size balance between bass and bluegill. We have a lot of large bluegill, and generally smaller bass.  But each year I take out a certain number of smaller bass to allow others to grow larger.  Not an exact science by any means, but they’re growing!

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