Tuesday, December 29, 2009

An indoor bench

I own five stationary power tools. A baby drill press, a wet grinder, a Taig minilathe, a jigsaw and a bandsaw. The bandsaw lives in the shop, and is unusable during the winter; the other three live inside the house. The jigsaw sits on the kitchen table. Until recently, they sat on Workmates -- the greatest UK invention since the steam engine. But that meant that when I had to use the Workmates, the tools had to go on the floor. Besides, the lathe bench blocked my refrigerator door. So it's time to build a new bench. By careful measurement, I contrived to guild a bench that would just hold all-but-the-jigsaw. It is also an exercise in drawbored mortise-and-tenon joints. I have made many mortise-tenon joints, but always tight fits, secured with glue. Not until I read Peter Folansbee's blog did I realize how these joints really work. They are made for a loose fit. The hole in the tenon is offset towards the shoulder of the mortise. You drive a peg through it, and it pulls the tenon into the mortise. It is bomb-proof. Peter's blog (and website) have some pictures of the process, and see John Alexander's green woodworking website.

Anyway, off we went. I should have taken more pictures. Here's the bench under construction:Observe the Workmate, holding a piece of wood so I can cut the tenon. I don't show the floor, but it looks like chaos. All the wood is scrap, found lying around. I wanted a top made out of 2x6 but couldn't find them in the snow. Maybe next spring... so I used plywood to make the top. The result is
Cost USD 0.00. Now let's put some power tools in their place:
Much nicer. And I have two freed-up workmates, sitting on the porch ready for action. And I can now open the refrigerator door all the way! Long live drawbored joints. It is much easier to make a loose joint than a tight one.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Antlers away!

About this time of year, male moose start shedding their horns, which they only sport during mating season. There are two big bulls in my neighborhood. I have named them Ricky and Racky. Racky has, of course, the larger rack. They are pals; they go about together. Unexpected behavior to me, but then, I am no moose expert. So I was out skiing a few days ago, and behold (and also lo!) what should I see by my feet but an antler, freshly dropped:
Couldn't tell, of course, whether it was Ricky or Racky. But it's big. The tape is pulled out to 95cm (about 34") -- a large rack indeed. I searched all over for ithe other one but couldn't find it. Amazing: in the snow, almost anything looks like a moose antler, but is usually a rotten log. Camouflage at work.

We had a moose convention in the yard today. I was out in the wilds, skiing, but my son recorded the jamboree. But that is another post.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

New Logo

The Chalupy Acres blog now sports a new logo, designed by my son, who is a graphic artist and musician. It is, of course, Darth Spader, Vader's little-known agricultural cousin. Observe his elegant Darthhartt overalls. (For those who are unfamiliar with the reference, Carhartt is a high-quality purveyor of work clothes, a byword in Alaska and elsewhere. I practically live in Carhartt's products.)

Darth Spader is, of course, a horticultural genius. One of Darth's creations is the Salad Trooper:
There is, of course, all kinds of symbology in this image (also by my son) . For two summers, I have grown radishes the size of a large potato. Give ol' spud a fright, they will. Hence, the head of the Salad trooper: a giant radish. This is all a part of Darth Spader's plans for agricultural domination, which will be revealed as we blog along.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Blowin' in the Wind

When we returned from Thanksgiving in Anchorage, there were about 6cm of new snow on the ground. Time to plow out the driveway. The Clockwork Orange had been giving me a few problems. While trying to horse the thing around, I remembered the wheel lock on the contraption -- it is used to facilitate turns, for the average suburban snowblower-jockey. OK, squeeeze the handle and release. That should unlock the wheel -- and ol' Clockwork took off!
Moral: never assume anything. I assumed the whaeel lock was off. Had I tried this before, it would have saved me a lot of blood, toil, sweat and tears, to quote Sir Winston Churchill. Incredible. But now it was clear that I only had half a blower. Only the right half of the auger was working. Aha, said I, it broke a shear pin. Sure enough. The next day my son and I (a) replaced the shear pin and (b) raised the skids of the ground 30mm. This is because I have an uneven gravel driveway. Amazing! A new machine is born.
As you can see, it blows the snow high, wide and handsome; so well did it behave that my son and I decided that a renaming was in order, and it is now Horatio Snowblower. I feel much more confident about dealing with winter snows after this episode. The above photo was taken before we raised the skids; now you don't have to do anything but hold down the two clutches (one controls the drive, the other engages the auger and second stage).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Microforging, part I

When I embarked on duck carving, I was aware that by and large, my tools were too big. Trying to carve a duck's bill with the tip of a Frost knife (wonderful tool, don't want to slander it, but it is too large for a 2mm duck bill). was very difficult. Providentially, I read an article in the Backwoodsman magazine, and I am at the moment too lazy to go thumb through back issues to give you the exact citation. The author forges his own tools with a propane torch, and uses Sawz-all blades as raw material. (N.B. a sawz-all is a reciprocating hand-held saw, beloved in the USA by the construction industry, and by me for the same purpose.)

After some hemming, hawing, and very bad expressions in four or five languages, I got my act together. Basically you need a propane torch, available at any hardware store or Wal-Mart, something to act as an anvil, and a light hammer:
Let's see. Along the top, a US$ 1.00 vernier calipers, useful for rough and ready measurement; a plastic tub (ex-butter substitute) with tap water, a lighter for the propane torch, and a hand-operated grindstone. The Warrenton pattern hammer is a gem; got it from Grizzly Industrial for a few bucks. At the bottom of the picture, a Dremel-type moto-tool (Taiwan knockoff for about US$ 12, cutoff wheel mounted) in a homemade stand, and finally my 2.5 inch ( about 60mm) bench vise and in it, clamped, a piece of bar which is the "horn" of the anvil. Observe the flat conveniently built into the vise. Not visible is the propane torch, just aft of the anvil, mounted as close to the vise as I can get it. The little vise-grip pliers in the middle are my substitute for tongs.

My raw materials are (a) a chainsaw recoil starter spring (b) sawz-all blades (c) used hacksaw blades (d) used utility saw blades (e) even springy wire will make a microtool.

When I started this business I was big on hook tools:
But I anve since evolved, and made gouges, carving knives, chisels, reamers, and, as they say "etcetera". However, note the knife at the top of the picture. It is a small chip carving knife. I love chip carving, a pleasant recreation. I have a commercial chip carving knife of German make, I can do 6mm chips with it. With the little guy I can do 2mm chips.

Once you have made the tool (more about that later) you have to make a handle for it. I use branchwoood whittled to shape, and cartridge brass for ferrules. I collect shotgun shells, rifle shells, pistol shells, you name it; nobody in Alaska heeds the admonition (drummed into me in the US Air Force) pick up your *#$ * brass! after target practice. So much the better for me. I cut the base off with a cutoff wheel on the moto-tool. Then force it on, whittle a bit, and eventually you have a ferrule. I find .45 ACP to be most useful, but .223 (5.56 mm NATO) is a close second.

Above, a marking knife and my chip-carving knife. Eventually I plan to do a tutorial on the subject. It is very liberating. Need a tool? Make it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Clockwork Orange

Snow has come, 11 cm of it; fortunately I was prepared. I went down to Home Depot and spent my Alaska PFD on a brand-new snowblower (or snowthrower). My daughter insisted that I do this. I use the tractor and a home-made V plow for choice. But last year I had agonies because the tractor wouldn't get traction on the hard ice. And so I introduce another member of the Chalupy menage, the Clockwork Orange. Since it comes from Home Depot it is, of course, orange.
Did it work? Well, my driveway is clear. But it was an effort. These things are made for suburban driveways. I have gravel. So it tends to dig in. It is also having trouble getting traction. This may improve as I get a packed layer of snow. I will also put skids on it. I foresee chains in my future -- chains for the tractor, chains for the Clockwork Orange (Clocky for short).

The Home Despot (er, Depot) will also sell me skid plates; but I think a pair of child's skis cut down surgically might be better, and certainly cheaper. Stay tuned for further Orange bulletins.

The temperature went to -35C this morning. I will check my records, but I think that this is a record for November.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ducks, yas yas (Part I of who knows)

Some time ago I acquired a book by Ben Hunt, called "Ben Hunt's Big Book of Whittling." There is no date on the book, let alone an IBSN; my guess is that it is early to mid-50s, when I was still in a Venezuelan High School, struggling to get through . It has many interesting projects, but the one that caught my eye was entitled "miniature duck decoys."

The book supplied patterns for a number of decoys: mallards, pintails, and canvasbacks. This seemed like a fun thing to do --- and I am still hooked on duck decoys in miniature. So I had a few blocks of wood, and a Frost carving knife which I use for many purposes, and my first efforts looked a lot like this:
The blade of the Frost knife in the picture is about 6 cm long -- these are not gigantic carving projects!

The short story of how you carve these things is that you trace the pattern on to the block of wood. Since the object is three-dimensional, there will be three views to the pattern -- side, front, back. Then you cut away the surplus wood with a saw. If you have a small bandsaw, that's great. Then you go to work with a knife (or knives). Ben Hunt's book was designed for someone with a two-blade pocketknife; it is a very good project for a restless teen-ager, provided he or she learns to sharpen a store-bought pocketknife. The best description of decoy carving I ever found was in some other book: "Start with a block of wood and cut away anything that doesen't look like a duck."

Unfortunately, my bandsaw, although small by bandsaw standards, is much too big for this kind of work, so I used, mostly, a fretsaw to cut away the unwanted wood. I got my fretsaw at Lee Valley, it can be seen here:

A coping saw can also be used. Then, with the Frost knife (also available from Lee Valley) you start cutting away un-ducklike pieces. With the aid of a Japanese miniature carving set (again, Lee Valley) I had some decoys:
The duck at the rear needs more work, of course. Whee! This is not so difficult. Little did I know where this would lead. It would lead to painting ducks, making tools to carve ducks, finding a way around fretsawing, (which is very tedious, although very accurate), and dispensing with patterns.

The last may seem like heresy, but in fact, what you need isn't a pattern. What you really need is a bird book. From that, you can sketch your own patterns. It really helps if your bird book has at leat two views of a given bird, but truth is, your eye (and brain) has probably seen one gazillion birds, and you can fill it all in from one view. You must, of course, decide on a scale. I will get into all this in more detail later. You might want to start with a pattern from a book/magazine/Internet but after a while you can make your own and save some money. It's much more entertaining to do it yourself.

By the way, I never trace patterns on to wood blocks any more. Instead, I transfer the patterns on to pieces of aluminum beer cans. This makes a much more durable pattern than paper. Take a beer can (not exactly the hardest thing in the world to scrounge) and cut it apart. Use tin snips for the nasty hard parts, but the rest can be cut with scissors. Then place it on a stove and turn it (the stove) on. In moments, the enamel will burn off in a spectacular flame. Blow it out. You have annealed the aluminum: made it soft. Flatten it out with a mallet, hammer, or even a rolling pin. Now you can trace a pattern onto it, and cut it out with any pair of scissors, and voilá, you have recycled a beer can.

In subesquent posts, I will relate the miniature woodwork Odyssey and where it has taken me. Meanwhile, pick up that discarded beer can; it is very useful.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Moose in the yard II

So I look out my living room window, and behold (and also lo, if you wish):
Two moose calves investigate my compost heap (which they did not think was very tasty) and the remains of the lettuce (which they gobbled up as if it were candy. Moose candy). Behind the mooselet on the left, you can see a lighter brown splotch. That is mommy Moose, Madame M as I have named her. Emma for short. Emma, being a sensible moose, is browsing on some twigs that I didn't get around to clearing this summer.

You can see her a little better here:

Eventually my smell must have wafted over to Emma because she came over:
So note, any naturalists reading the blog: moose calves like lettuce, even when frozen solid. You supermarket shoppers wouldn't touch it, but being a moose calf is a serious business. On the other hand, they turned up their noses at spinach and leeks, the last of the hardy crops. Emma knows that birch and alder are the menu for the coming winter.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Case of the Rotating Porch, part II

The next step in the porch saga was to put some posts under the porch, to inhibit rotation -- as I said, end of cantilever. My original idea was to just bury some posts in the ground. I decided that was a Bad Idea. Posts rot. The way to avoid this is to use concrete footings. Concrete does not rot. My son had kindly dug some holes to put the posts into (yes, end a sentence with a preposition. How clumsy does "into which to put the posts" sound?). So I dug out the holes, because I want an upside-down T form for the footings.
The size of the form was determined by the amount of deconstructed cargo pallets I had on hand, and not by complex strength-of-materials calculations. Providentially it worked out to 30 cm sides, or a foot gringo, which is what I would have done anyway. Next I loaded in some steel strap, easily obtained (and very useful) scrap stuff used to reinforce packing boxes; cost $0.00.
Some stones get the strap off the ground. There is a salvaged piece of genuine rebar (reinforcement bar, known as cabilla in Venezuela) to support the center post, which comes next. But first let's get the footing done. So we go off to Home Depot (or Lowe's, but the latter had the pertinent section closed off that day) and get two sacks (50 Kg or 100lb) of ready-mix concrete. For small jobs, this is cost-effective at $8.00 a sack. By the way, it pays to coat your forms on the inside with old motor oil. Makes it much easier to remove. Find suitable container, add water, mix up:
And there's my footing. I let it cure a couple of days, as I should not have; makes a better bond if you don't. Next, a form nailed up out of my salvaged cargo pallets, some more sackcrete, and voila:
Now let that cure a few days. I left it a week. Putting loads on uncured concrete is a really Bad Idea. On the rightmost post I had a problem due to the erratic nature of the boards I used for a form:
Not quite square, is it? Neither were the forms. But no matter, it will work. This is not, after all, the Empire State building.

The next step (after the cure of the concrete) is to jack up the porch and slip in some 4x4, which I sawed off of a conveniently abandoned real estate sign (hence the odd color):
And she is finished. Note the red farm jack sitting under the porch. The thing is one of the most useful devices, second only to a come-along, that one can have. It will lift about two tons. With the jack, I jacked up the porch until about level, and cut the posts to fit. In the spring, I'll repeat the process, because it will settle and heave during the winter. It will probably have to be shimmed.

So far so good. But winter (the real Alaska kind) is yet to come. We will see what happens. Oh, yes, and we have to paint it to match. But that will wait until spring. Can't paint at -10C.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Case of the Rotating Porch, part I

The house on Chalupy Acres came with a cantilevered porch, as you can see in the following photo.
As you may see, there is no support under the porch. That is the meaning of "cantilever," although in this case there is no counter-lever, the back support is attached to a 2x4 nailed to the wall of the house. This is fine in summer, but in winter we must consider snow loads. The effect of a load on the roof is to cause the cantilever to rotate around its support. The load is taken, in my case, by three (3) nails per rafter pounded into some 2x4 pieces. Not enough, as I found out last winter. So the porch pulled out about 10cm of nails and was hanging, as it were, from a thread. This had to be fixed, and it was my big summer project. The first step was to prop up the porch by temporary supports -- some 4x4 stuff I had hanging about, plus some boards as a bottom support.

Then it was time to think about what to do next. There are two problems: (1) the cantilever design is inadequate for a real snow load and (2) the scheme adopted to hold the rafters to the plate (the topmost beam in the house) was totally inadequate.
The previous inhabitants must have spent a great deal of effort shoveling snow off the porch, or (more likely) did not encounter extended snow loads. Or both.

So the solution is twofold: (1) make some decent brackets to tie the rafters to the plate and (2) put some permanent supports under the porch. Bye-bye, cantilever.

So this post deals with brackets. At the hardware store I got some 3/8" (about 8mm) steel strap, and proceeded to forge L-shaped brackets -- perhaps "hot-bending" is a better word -- but not only must the brackets be L-shaped, the short arm of the L has to be twisted to match the pitch of the roof. Then holes for lag bolts must be drilled. The strap cost $10 and the lag bolts about the same, so I am $20 in the hole. However, compared to what a contractor would charge this is chump change.

Now, bending an 8mm piece of steel may sound simple, but it is not. Just try it. I rigged an improvised forge for the purpose:
At the left you can see the Dragon Lady, another Chalupy Icon. This is a propane torch connected to a midsize propane tank -- 10 Kg (20 lb) of propane. I use the Dragon Lady for a great many purposes: melting ice in the winter, flaming weeds, starting charcoal fires, starting the garbage-burning fires, forging... a useful Lady she is. Here she is stoking the oven made of firebrick and an abandoned barbecue . The pliers substitute for blacksmith tongs. On top of the oven, some brackets finished up. In essence, heat bracket (drilled) to red-hot; then stick it in a vise and start twisting. Mistakes are not fatal: heat it up and do it over.

And here is a bracket (several, in fact) in place:

Once I had the brackets, I thought I could crank the rafters back to touch the plate with a socket wrench. Ha! Not a chance. After several false starts, I went to the hardware store, bought two eyebolts (horrors, another $5), drilled some holes, screwed in the eyebolts, and employed the come-along, a device essential to bush Alaska, AKA a hand (ratcheted) winch. You see above the come-along pulling the rafter back to the plate. Your come-along can also extract your car from a snow drift, move a log when you can't get the tractor in there, and any time a heavy object can be pulled into place. It was a little hairy operating the come-along from a ladder; after the tension gets up it tends to pull you off the ladder. Most of the time, the ladder was unusable without extra support:

So we lost quite a lot of time nailing up ladder supports. But at last we had the rafters come-alonged to the plate and our labouriously twisted brackets in place, and lag-bolted to the plate and rafter.

The next installment is getting suports under the porch.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Snow! But not enough to ski on.

The anticipated event has occured. I woke up to snow on the ground. Not much as you can see:
Certainly not enough to ski on. But one can be certain that more is coming. The roads are clear; there is not enough to plow. It flurried up to noon; now it is just partly cloudy, temperatures about 5C.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A scenic interlude

I really have to keep up with the Joneses, er, blogsters. There are people who blog every day. I admire them, but I find this difficult. There are lots of things to do in a day. Future bloggers, please note: It is incredibly easy to create a blog. It is much harder to feed it. Well, when in a pinch, resort to scenery. I could have entitled this "The Four Seasons" a la Vivaldi, but that would be trite. Alaska has incredible scenery. For starters, here's dawn over Little Lonely Lake, 300 m walking from home:
These dawn shots are always tricky, from a technical point of view. If you meter as in a snapshot, the built-in meter is ovewhelmed by the sun and you get a washed-out picture. Have to meter on a darker spot, freeze the exposure (button halfway down on a digital cam) and then compose and shoot without letting up on the button.

Next, a beaver and his lodge.
This is (forgive me) a shot of Igor, as I called him (it might be Ivana, though). Igor and Ivana built a lodge (foreground) and spent the winter there. They are no longer there, an unexplained Alaskan mystery. You can see Igor/Ivana about the middle of the picture. Here's another shot of the lodge:
If you look carefully, you will see a float plane in the background. This is the quintessence of Alaska. Soon, the floats will be replaced by skis, or the plane stored for winter.

Wild life is not confined to beavers:
As you can see from the handsome ducks (on Little Lonely Lake) snapped here. There are days I want a 600mm tele. But the camera to mount it on would bankrupt me. Sigh.

There are lot of lakes whithin walking distance. Here is Crystal Lake:
The Kayak is as quiet on the lake as the scenery. No fumes, no noise. On a lake, a few strokes of the paddle will do twenty meters. Ah, summer. But eventually the fall cometh:
This is the Susitna river, which flows from the Susitna glacier. Geographically I live in the Matanuska-Susitna borough, which takes its name from the rivers which drain the glaciers with the same name. Got that? There will be a quiz at the end of the lecture.

Well, eventually, winter, like the Iceman, cometh:
This is Little Lonely Lake in midwinter. There are lots of nice things about winter. For instance, I can get on the skis, go about 2 Km and I get a lovely view of Denali, weather gods cooperating:
In the middle of the picture is Denali. Maps and Geography books call it "Mt. McKinley" but nobody else in Alaska does. It is 6194 meters -- the highest in North America. Since it rises almost from sea level, it has the highest sweep of any mountain, including Everest, because Everest rises from a --- ohhh call it 5000m level. Of course, when you get up to the 9000-meter level you have other problems besides the vertical, i.e. Oxygen lack. Denali is about 200 Km north of my house, according to the map.

And to conclude the scenic tour, here's Mount Susitna from almost exactly the same spot, on a different day:
Mount Su is the anchor point, so to speak, of the Alaska Range, which delimits the Mat-Su valley from the west. On the East, a similar function is performed by the Talkeetna mountains, full of legendary pots of gold. Literally. People still extract gold from the Talkeetnas, and trespassers may not be persecuted, but they will probably be shot. By the way, the place where the last two pictures were taken is called the Willow Swamp. It is just about impassable in the summer, but in winter you can ski on it.

Alaska is truly wonderful, four seasons and all.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Winter coming on -- break out the looms.

Fall has lingered on this year. The grass is actually green, and it has rained a lot. No snow yet. Temperatures mild, about five frosts this month, always above zero C in the afternoon . Can this idyll go on forever? Of course not. So it is time to think about my winter crafts, which can be done indoors, because soon the -10C, -20C and -30C temperatures will be here. One of my favorites is weaving. I have put together a number of looms, of which I have saved two. My favorite is the Inkle loom, which is a loom adapted to weaving long narrow pieces such as belts. My currrent version looks like this:
It is strictly home-made, of course. I suppose you could buy one, but I'd consider that a copout.

The Inkle loom originated in England, as far as anyone knows. My father built one and that was my introduction to the contraption. As you can see, it consists of a horizontal beam and (in my case) three uprights -- the classic Inkle has but two -- with pegs. The long threads, called the warp in the trade, go around the pegs in zigzag fashion. At the left is the tensioning arrangement, held down by a bolt (I need a wrench to tighten it, wing nuts are not up to the job no matter what the books say). An inkle takes a continous warp, that is, there is one great long thread going around all those zigzags. You cross it with the weft threads. Once you get the hang of it, it is not too hard.
By the way, the reason I put in a third upright on the loom is so that I could do short belts. It is disconcerting to come out with a three or four meter belt. I know of no person with a four-meter waist. In the picture, I use a shuttle to hold the weft. My right hand raises or lowers the shed -- the place where the warp threads go. It does require some concentration:
All great fun, and since I picked up the yarn at a thrift store for oh, three bucks, it is not expensive. Yarn, however, is sticky stuff; it is hard to do the sheds. I have since switched to embroidery or craft thread, just as my father did about 40 years ago.

A good book to start from is Helene Bress, Inkle Weaving; in these days of Google I no longer do citations in full. The book that started it all is Mary M. Atwater's Byways in Hand Weaving which dates from 1954. I doubt that it is still in print, but you never know. Maybe Dover has come to the rescue. Wonderful book.

Now, we come to real looms, on which you might weave cloth. These are horses of another color. For one thing, a full floor-standing loom takes up more space than a grand piano, and costs about as much. Roy Underhill's The Eclectic Woodworker has a description of building a full four-harness loom. I could do it, just. But it would be a strain, and I have no place to put it! So I built a two-harness table loom.
My son calls this thing the Macrame Torture Rack. It has a 96-thread wide capacity, the white strings with knots tied in them to guide the warp. In the picture, I am doing a 3 cm belt on it as an experiment. It works, but it needs some major revisions. Tying 2x96 heddles (the name of the strings with the knots) is excruciating work which I do not wish to repeat any time soon. Commercial looms use manufactured, machine-made heddles, and I envy them. Sort of. Back in the day, you tied your own heddles or didn't weave. With two harnesses, your options for patterns are limited. But it's all clean fun. Maybe this winter, Macrame Torture Rack v.2.0 will emerge.

On the other hand, there is the Navaho loom, a simple contrivance on which the Navahos have woven incredible rugs. If you Google R.M. Meluch, a Sci-Fi author who is a favorite of mine, you will come up with her home page. Click on "Navaho Loom".

I am surely tempted to build a Navaho loom. Only I will weave Navaho placemats; I have no room for a rug loom.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A bullrake

In the old days, you cut your hay with a scythe. The scythe is a marvellous tool. See, for instance, the videos and pictures on :: Scythe Supply :: Scythe blades, snaths, equipment.
I have no hay to cut, but I do have a great deal of brush. So, after much soul-searching I bought a scythe with a brush blade on it (45 cm long) from the above link. Their kit comes with scythe blade, custom-fit European-style handle, a peening kit (anvil and dies, you supply the hammer), instructions, and The Scythe Book by David Tresemer and Peter Vido. This was definitely a Good Idea (tm). Oh, yes, a whetstone and a waterproof sheath (called a Steinfass in Drew Langsner's book Handmade). The stone is a wet stone, so your sheath must be waterproof.

It takes a bit of doing to master the thing, and I do not consider myself an expert scytheperson. See some of the videos that are lined form ScytheSupply.com, above.
But I will say this: I have tried everything to remove brush, short of a brush hog (USD 5000, more or less) mounted on a tractor. I have tried machetes, or what passes for a machete in this country. They are not real machetes, they are long flat knives with no backhook. After half an hour my back aches. I have tried the motorized trimmers with Lexan blades. After half an hour I feel like a milkshake. They vibrate, make an awful racket, and run out of gas all too soon. And one big sapling breaks the blade. A lawn mower is totally outclassed by the Alaska brush, a mixture of fireweed, small birches, small aspen, and the never-ending alder. And you have to push the blasted thing. No way.

With a scythe, I can go for two hours and feel tired but not exhausted. So far so good, but what's this bullrake thing? Well, the scythe piles the brush up in neat windrows. Now you have to do something with the windrows. For this we use a bullrake.

A bullrake is just a very large rake. This one was made up out of bits and pieces of logs I had lying around, shaved on the shaving horse, of course, and whacked into holes drilled into the crosspiece. I have a double handle on this thing, because it is heavy; I also left lots of room on the tines on top because I thought it would behave like a garden leaf rake. It didn't.

What it does instead is to roll the brush windrows up onto cylinders. So I don't need the tines on top; I will cut them off. Sometime. So now I had these long tubes of "straw." What to do with them? Why, build a compost pile, of course!
According to Eliot Coleman, straw is the best material for a compost heap, because it decomposes eventually and all the air space promotes circulation, and I think this is pure serendipity.

The bullrake is another example of a tool that has been (almost) lost. In the old days you would have had many of them, for your crew to get in the hay. Nowadays nobody knows what a bullrake is, because hay is made with giant tractors and equally gigantic equipment that produces vast amounts of low-quality hay. It is low quality because it is not allowed to dry properly ("tedded" is the word). It is not allowed to dry properly because the machinery doesn't always work if you do. The more old-fashioned your equipment, the better the hay.

In my case I'm after brush clearing, but it's nice to get straw for free. Oh, yes, and you can use your bull rake to gather your grains, such as oats, after you harvest them with your scythe. Plans for the future. My plans (unlike Darth Spader's) are not yet complete.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Mush! No snow? No problem!

Many people in Alaska enjoy driving dog teams in the winter. Indeed, when the famed Iditarod race is going on, nobody pays any attention to anything else. But dogs must be trained, starting right now. And there is no snow on the ground! What's a musher to do? Ah, no problem:
Simply hook your team to your ATV (or 4-wheeler, or quad bike) and you're set to go. This ingenious Alaskan solution to the no-snow problem could become a fad, come to think of it; you could even find an ATV with a bad engine on the cheap. Excellent gas mileage, too; but you do have to clean up after the dogs. Not recommended in urban areas.

The dogs, by the way, are started, steered, and stopped with voice commands. "Gee", "haw", "whoa", "let's go" will get you left, right, stop, and start.

More on dog racing will come later.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

An improvi-shed for firewood

We are told by the sages to beware the ides of March. But here in Alaska, we have to beware of the equinox. Sure enough, on the 23d of Sep, I awoke to -1.1C. That is below freezing, for the metrically challenged. Hmmm. Time to build a fire. But this is not the time to go gathering your firewood. It may work in distant New (or old) England, but in Alaska, September is the month of rain. So if you start gathering your wood now, it will be wet. Wet wood does not burn too well, if at all; I found that out last year. Green wood is just as bad. Again, bitter experience. So we must gather our wood in spring, and let it dry out while summer's breezes blow. But if you don't cover your wood, it will not dry out. Last year I simply draped tarps over it.

Note the blue tarp, pronounced as one word in Alaska, i.e. blutarp. Without blutarp, duct tape (called gaffer tape in the UK), and WD-40, life in Alaska as we know it would cease to exist.

As they say in the software business, this is not such a GoodIdea(tm). In the middle of winter, your blutarp freezes to the firewood, especially with half a meter of snow on it. Then you have to somehow get the wood separated from the tarp and your wood out of there. This, last winter, posed a major problem. So this year, I started spring with the idea of building an elegant woodshed. You know, framed timber construction, steel roof, the works. But the porch (of which more later) and other things sucked up the time, so we come to September with no woodshed. What to do? Well, build an improvi-shed.

First, we use lashings instead of fancy joints, nails, or screws. Nails always work loose in cold, because the nails and wood contract at different rates. So, with ropework done, we got us a shed:
Well, at least we got us a framework. The next step was to take a big blutarp and tie it down to a frame.
Et voila, woodshed. Will it survive the winter? Will it collapse under a meter of snow? Does it keep out the rain ? Well, it keeps out the rain all right. For the answer to the other thrilling and dramatic questions, stay tuned.

Lashing is a very useful skill. I learned it in Boy Scouts, age 12. If you want to learn, see almost any backwoods, survival, or primitive living website.

By the way, since Sep. 23 we have had four or five sub-freezing days. The garden still has a cabbage, leeks, lettuce and spinach in it. All have survived, worst case a -2.4C frost. Amazingly hardy vegetables. But soon the lack of light will get to them and they will stop growing. I'm hanging out as long as I can. And with dry frewood too; an almost sybaritic luxury.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Darth Spader, Chalupy's Icon

This story starts in the day last year when John drove Lysander the tractor.

Everyone who has driven Lysander comes back with the same reaction: a delighted grin on their faces. If you tried him on a freeway, Lysander wouldn't do so well, but here in bush Alaska, he is a King. Anyway, after dinner that day John was doodling on the "tablecloth", sheets of paper that are used to wrap shipments or used by movers to pad objects in boxes. It is wonderful paper, it stimulates creativity. You don't care if you blow a drawing if the medium costs nothing. Anyway, after dinner John started doodling. Since he draws Star Wars characters at the drop of a hat, a sinister -- maybe-- figure emerged:
I must apologize for the awful colors in this pic, it is really black and white. I'm sure if I fiddled with the camera long enough I could find a better mode. And this is the birth of Darth Spader, Vader's little known agricultural cousin. "Soon, my plans for agricultural domination will be complete!" A classic line. Note that Darth drives a Darthall tractor; a close relative, one supposes, of the justly famous International Harvester Farmall line.

The next day, I was sitting at the table when John wandered down about midday. I happened to be wearing my pride and joy, a pair of Carhartt's overalls. So I said (and whence it came, I don't know) "Darth Spader wears Dathhartt overalls." Bingo. After John's coffee, the classic commercial appeared:
As you may be able to read, Darthartt's coveralls cover a multitude of sins; they are now Darth's trademark (or should I say IconMark?) Never mind.

Darth has become an Icon of Chalupy. You still have to meet the rest of the characters: Obi-Farm Kenobi, and the three pigs: Ham Solo, Leia Organic, and Luke Stywalker. But that, of course, is grist for another mill, er, post.