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:,42884,42902

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.