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.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lumber from Logs II -- heavy artillery

The ultimate weapon in the backyard lumbermill arsenal is a bandsaw lumber mill. These are major machinery; even the cheapest one (new) will set you back several thousand dollars. (You can google on bandsaw lumber mill and get torrents of information.)

For those of us who cannot justify such an expense, there is always the Alaska Chainsaw Lumbermill. Granberg's Alaskan Mill is a neat gadget. It costs money, but is cheap at the price. It is basically a steel frame that carries the chainsaw as you rip.

The first job is to set up a frame of wood or metal, place it on the log, and even things up.
The frame is a 2x4 structure nailed up from commercial lumber. I abhor commercial lumber, but sometimes one must swallow one's scruples to progress. (Politicians do this as a way of life.) Having done this you nail or screw the frame to the wood, being very careful where you place the nails. You do not want to run the chainsaw into a nail.

Next, you set up the mill, following the rather terse directions that come with the mill. (See Granberg site, above). The mill rides on the platform you just set up. If it is straight and level, the chainsaw will be likewise. So you take a full cut, and rip off a slab.You now have a nice neat surface on the log. The chainsaw rides on that surface for the subsequent cuts. Actually, for my first cuts with this contraption I used a piece of power pole, kindly provided by Matanuska Power when they replaced a pole, and I got a few 25mm (1") boards out of it.
I am sitting on the slab I just ripped off (literally). The power pole turned out to be either cedar or redwood. It is much easier to rip cedar than it is to rip birch.

Looks easy, doesn't it? It's not. First, in ripping the big stuff, you need a big chainsaw. I used my largest, Siegfried the Stihl, with a 50cm (20") bar, all of 61cc or so. It is up to the job if you don't force it, but just. The saw roars, and it is going full ahead all the time. When you crosscut, the saw is loafing for the top and bottom parts of the cut. Not so in ripping.

The sawdust outlet on saws is designed for crosscutting, so when you have the saw on the side, it comes out right in your face, along with the exhaust. Protective gear is mandatory. The stuff is heavy. But it makes very nice boards.

The ultimate book on chainsaw lumbermaking is by Will Maloff, and it is out of print. Mr. Maloff has a website; Will Malloff-working with wood. Mr Maloff advocates a 120cc (or more) saw, along with meter-plus length bars. Another unjustifiable expense. But if I was cutting up the monster trees that he does, I'd have to do it or pass up the lumber. See his website, and look at what he's ripping up.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Squaring the circle, or lumber from logs

In Alaska, we have a paradox. While we are surrounded by trees, lumber is very expensive. This is because it is imported from the "lower 48," as we call the rest of the USA (except Hawaii). There is enough lumber -- spruce, anyway -- to go a long way, but for various political reasons, which I will not rant about now, it is unavailable; when it becomes available it is in some remote location. Okay, this is a challenge. I want a workbench for metalworking projects, so I decided to build one, from logs that grow on my property or I find lying around on the power line right-of-way , for instance. The wood of choice is birch, because it is a hard(ish) wood. If the scandinavians can build things out of birch, so can I. There is nothing but birch, spruce, alder, and aspen in this part of Alaska.

The traditional way to do this is by hewing the log. You outline the square you want on the end of the logs, snap chalk lines to indicate where you want to cut, saw down to the chalk line, and then chop (hew) out the stuff between the cuts. A picture may be in order:
Here it is spring 2008, and I am hewing out the cuts I made with a saw. I am using an adze to do this. Some say a broadax ( a one-side-edged axe) is easier. But broadaxes are only made, as far as I know, in Sweden, where this kind of thing is considered an art form, and they are very pricey. Well, this makes quite a decent log, but it takes a long time! It is also tiring, me not being as young as I once was. So, when I finished that first log, I went to plan B. Let's see if we can do it with a chainsaw, freehand:
Above, I use an (electric) chainsaw to slab one of the crosspieces. This is much hairier than the adz, because a chainsaw is a dangerous tool, but it takes minutes. Does it work? Glad you asked.
The surface leaves much to be desired, because the chain is a crosscut chain, and I am ripping -- going down the grain. (I have since acquired a gas chainsaw that has a very narrow bar, and it leaves a much better surface.)

Here is a finished crosspiece:
I happen to think that the picture above is a rather nice still life. By the way, the workbench in the picture came up with me from Juneau. I built it entirely out of found wood, at a cost of $8.00 US for fasteners (bolts to hold down the top. There are no screws, nails, or staples in that bench, and there will be none in the new bench).

The third option in lumbermaking is the heavy artillery option, but I'll leave that for another post.