A Tyre to Ease Tiredness

Posted by Nick  | 16 Aug 2014  | 5 comments

Splitting wood is kind of fun. Actually, it can be a lot of fun once you get into a rhythm and treat it like a workout (or, if you’re like me, an outlet for pent-up frustration, in which case you overdo it and suffer the consequence of a kink in the neck). Like any physical activity, form is more important than strength and the right form can conserve your stamina. What’s equally essential to your endurance is having a practical setup. A chopping block that’s too tall, for example, isn’t going to allow you to impart the same amount of mechanical energy through your maul were the block shorter. Think of dropping an egg on a child’s head versus dropping an egg on a baby’s head. (Why would you smile at that? You monster.)

Form could also be called technique, of which an additional relevant term shares an etymological root: Technology. The right tools for the job, as they say, really do make life easier. So today I set out to apply some of that sweet technology to our task of splitting the seemingly never-ending stockpile of wood that resulted from the felling of a dozen cypress trees. The idea was laughably simple, but it would save us from the most toilsome of repetitive tasks: Bending down to pick something up.

I present Exhibit A – a log round being split, in which the impact has sent half of it hurtling to the ground:

That half round is still too big for the wood burner, so poor Char here will have to strain the cast-iron hinge in her spine and bend down to pick it up. Just imagine if her next blow glances the half round, shooting it off the chopping block once more. Horror of horrors, she would have to – yes – pick it up again.

Enter the man’s ingenuity! Or, rather, something I saw on the internet…

First, cut a large round as a chopping block and roll it a few hundred metres across a paddock:

Not forgetting to be an idiot en route:

Next, find an old tyre (we were fortunate enough to find a couple strewn about the farm) and envision a way of attaching it to the block.

The diameter of the block I cut was a little small to attach the inside of the tyre to, so I decided on cutting flaps into one side of the tyre to slide over the block.

Tyres aren’t all rubber. They usually have a strong steel cable imbedded in the inner rim. This was difficult to saw through. I growled at it, which seemed to help my progress.

With greater effort than I care to divulge, I eventually got the tyre fitted around the block and drove some roofing screws through the flaps, fixing the tyre firmly to the wood. It wasn’t perfectly levelled or centred, but sod it. It’s a rough tool for rough work!

Another makeshift thingamajig complete. It should do the job…

Look at that! Boom! No flying wood! No having to bend down after every split!

This handy little invention serves multiple purposes. Not only does it hold all the split pieces of a wood round together at a good height, the rubber tyre also cushions the impact of any misses, which preserves both the maul and one’s shins.

A “Lazy” Sunday

Posted by Nick  | 27 Jul 2014  | 2 comments

The past few weekends at the farm have been chock-a-block with demanding activities, so we made this Sunday a lazy one. Well, that was the plan…

Let me backtrack. Last weekend we had run out of time to plant some strawberries we’d brought down, so we left them on the kitchen windowsill. When we returned this weekend they were… not looking so hot. Sorry strawberries! So come Sunday morning, weary of Saturday’s heavy labour, we decided to casually check on our sad little lettuces and give them some equally glum strawberry companions.

Spring Snowflake, Leucojum vernum.
Spring Snowflake, Leucojum vernum.

Out near the garden clumps of snowflake flowers had shot up through the shaggy grass. It lifts the spirits to see these happy little white bells nodding over the winter landscape. It’s as if their presence is heralding the approaching spring. But they weren’t the only bulbs that had sprouted. We were in for a delightful surprise…

Garlic! This was unexpected. Surely we had pushed those wee cloves into the soil only a couple of weeks ago, right? In truth it had been over a month. Time seems to pass quickly on the farm, probably because we only visit on weekends. Nature does not delay just because we are absent!

After fawning over the baby garlic shoots, we pulled back the cloche to see how our lettuce and spinach were holding up against the heavy winter frosts. Two out of the four lettuce varieties we’d planted had perished – twelve plants total. A couple held tenacious, barely alive, but we put them out of their misery also. The two surviving varieties seem relatively frost-tolerant.

We forgot to bring down some gardening gloves, so dish gloves it was.
We forgot to bring down some gardening gloves, so dish gloves it was.

Our spinach, on the other hand, seemed to be rather enjoying the cold. The growth wasn’t prolific, as is to be expected in the midst of winter, but the little guys had established nicely. We tucked in the sad strawberry plants and gave them a good drink.

The spinach seemed happy enough.
The spinach seemed happy enough.

There was nothing else to do in the garden and now that we were out and about we naturally sought to get our blood pumping again. The plan for a lazy Sunday was slowly crumbling. We wanted a rest from the chainsaw and splitting axe, so exerted little effort by tidying up some of the odds and ends that were lying about the place. Like this:

And these:

We’re keeping all the timber we find since it’s an invaluable resource on a farm. We haul it all to the barn for now, where it’s sheltered. It was the perfect opportunity to use our new cart we had finished constructing the day before. We love it. It’s sturdy, it fits way more than a wheelbarrow, and most of all it’s infused with the satisfaction of being handmade, however amateur it might be.

So, after that, do you know what we did? Here’s a hint: We told ourselves there would be no chainsawing or wood splitting today. Today was a rest day.

Yep. So we spent the afternoon doing exactly that. We had a new log holder which made the job easier. It holds the logs level and at waist-height for easy cutting.

The pile of logs to be sawn and split is slowly diminishing. It should go quicker now with the help of that handy log holder thingamabob.
The pile of logs to be sawn and split is slowly diminishing. It should go quicker now with the help of that handy log holder thingamabob.

Char’s on the path to becoming an ace log splitter and I’m feeling more confident wielding the tool of death.

Our cart made hauling the firewood between where it was split and where it was stacked a breeze.

As the sun was going down and the chainsaw’s fuel ran dry, we succumbed to exhaustion and called it a day.

We actually made a pretty big dent in the wood pile. Perhaps only a third to go.

What a lazy Sunday it was.

Putting Wheelbarrows to Shame

Posted by Nick  | 26 Jul 2014  | 0 comments

What do you do if you desperately need to transport a wheelbarrow down to your farm but you can’t fit one in your tiny two-door coupe? You do what any idealist with a hoard of old wood would do. Build one!

Without any means to move larger things down to the farm like furniture (and wheelbarrows), we’ve had to improvise. Our “lounge suite”, for example, consists of an old picnic bench we brought in from outside. Comfy…

But next weekend we’ll be hunting for utes (or pickup trucks to our American friends), so if all goes to plan we’ll be turning up at the farm the following weekend with a tray-load of furniture and, thank heavens, a wheelbarrow.

But then why go to the trouble of building something in lieu of a wheelbarrow if we’re likely to bring one with us next time? Well, I’d like to say that a general-purpose cart has many more uses than the humble wheelbarrow, and that’s true, but the real reason is so I might satisfy (if only temporarily) this incessant urge to build something – anything!

The day before going down to the farm I pondered a simple design for a wooden cart and made a trip to the hardware store to fetch some bits and bobs. I knew plywood would be lighter weight than the thick planks we had in the barn, but I didn’t want to fork out sixty bucks for a sheet. The cart would also need some wheels. I inquired at a couple second-hand bicycle shops but was out of luck, so I opted instead for some pneumatic trolley wheels from the hardware store.

When I saw the prices for what I needed I started second-guessing the whole plan. Sixty dollars for two wheels and another thirty for the axle? Yuck. But Lady Luck must have spun on a dime for me, because just as I was about to dash the idea I stumbled across a trolley kit that included two wheels, an axle, and the trolley frame – all for thirty-five! They were the same exact wheels as the ones being sold individually, too. What the…?! Tricksters!

Fast-forward to the farm on a rainy Saturday afternoon. I rummaged through the barn looking for suitable wood, avoiding the pieces with cemented dollops of cow poop. As night fell a couple hours later I had all the lengths cut and ready to go. I brought the lot inside the cottage and commandeered one of the spare bedrooms as a rough-and-ready workshop. Eager to start piecing it all together, like a kid with a new box of Lego, I whipped out the tools I needed and got to work.

The base of the cart complete.
The base of the cart complete.

After the base was completed I was already starting to realise just how heavy this thing would be once finished… Nevertheless I was intent on seeing it through.

For our anniversary I’d bought Char a Kreg Jig Master System, which is a pocket-hole joinery tool for connecting work-pieces. I’m aware this is an unusual anniversary present from a man to a woman. But before I’m accused of buying a tool for myself on Char’s behalf, you must know that this is the kind of thing Char gets giddy about. Put jewellery and hardware in front of her and she’ll reach for the hardware every time. Chocolate on the other hand…

She hadn’t had a chance to use the jig yet, so I beckoned her into the temporary workshop and she excitedly dove into the project, figuring out her new toy.

What a nifty tool. It’s so simple and clean to use. Much easier than making complicated mortise and tenon joints. We were a bit overzealous on some of the softer bits of wood, so a few of the screw heads popped through. Whoops. Let’s just cover that up with the Dremel…

With the sides on it started to take shape.
With the sides on it started to take shape.

It got late so we called it a day. The next morning (which was still blustery and wet) we quickly set to work fixing some supports for the wheels and axle. This took a bit of number-crunching, but we got there in the end, composure intact. But our calm was about to be fried…

Wheels are on! But wait...
Wheels are on! But wait…

Oh, crap. Did we just put the wheels on the wrong end? Yes. Yes we did. I’d designed the front part to have a door so we could dump the contents of the cart; we were so consumed by figuring out how to construct sturdy supports that we totally overlooked which way the cart was facing. D’oh.

We mulled over our blunder for a bit, finally deciding to bite the bullet and move the wheel supports to the other end. It was easier than we’d feared and probably didn’t warrant all that cursing and face-palming…

With the wheels now on the correct end, it was time to attach the cart’s legs.
With the wheels now on the correct end, it was time to attach the cart’s legs.

After the legs were attached only the handles remained, but alas, it was Sunday afternoon. We needed to pack up and head back to the city. Damn. We’d have to finish the cart next time.

Easy now, those wheels are only rated for 200kg…
Easy now, those wheels are only rated for 200kg…

Our return this weekend brought brighter weather, so we took the nearly-finished cart outside to add the final touches.

Mmm, winter sun.
Mmm, winter sun.
Screwing on the handle arms.
Screwing on the handle arms.

We drilled large holes through the handle arms and jammed in an old oak hanbo I thought would be perfect for the crossbar. The final pieces added were some stops to hold the removable door in place.

With the handles and crossbar fixed in place, Char takes some final measurements for the door stops.
With the handles and crossbar fixed in place, Char takes some final measurements for the door stops.

Once complete we wasted no time in racing our new cart down to the barn to fill up with firewood. It held strong. It rolled smooth. It pivoted with ease. And it wasn’t even that heavy in the end. An engineering masterpiece! Well, maybe not, but it is pretty cute:

Even though we’ll probably have a wheelbarrow soon, I think our homemade cart will come in handy for hauling bigger loads whilst averting the tendency to topple over, since it has two wheels instead of one. It’s also quite practical as a means to cart around the tools needed for a day’s work. The flat tray acts as a kind of work bench and tool box which we found really useful for carting heavy items like the chainsaw and gear, fuel and lube canisters, and buckets down from the shed to the barn. The same goes for when we start our garden and have a heap of plants to transport to and fro. The angled walls of a wheelbarrow aren’t ideal for this kind of hauling.

Putting wheelbarrows to shame: A bucket full of firewood, a tool bag, camera bag, boots and safety gear, petrol canister, chain lube, splitting maul, and there's even a large chainsaw buried among other bits and bobs.
Putting wheelbarrows to shame: A bucket full of firewood, a tool bag, camera bag, boots and safety gear, petrol canister, chain lube, splitting maul, and there’s even a large chainsaw buried among other bits and bobs.

Does it work? Yes! How useful is it? Already it’s taken a literal weight of our shoulders. Is it charming as hell? You betcha. But one question remains… Will it stand the test of time? Well, there are more screws holding it together than a light-bulb joke, so I bloody-well hope it does.

Attack the Stack

Posted by Nick  | 06 Jul 2014  | 0 comments

Warning: What you’re about to see is so manly, so rugged, that you may require smelling salts to be revived. This post depicts me wielding a chainsaw. Not only that… I will also be wearing chaps. Hide your daughters.

This is not a Stihl advertisement. Though it damn-well could be.
This is not a Stihl advertisement. Though it damn-well could be.

Okay, so maybe this isn’t quite the portrait of masculinity you had in mind. This is actually rather embarrassing, exposing myself to the world all kitted up in brand new safety gear, looking like the glaringly obvious newbie I am. Hey, in my defence at least I felt protected.

Those handsome chaps are made of Kevlar by the way. Yeah, the stuff that stops bullets. I imagine most smallholders don’t bother with wearing chaps when they’re whipping around with the chainsaw, but after I watched a video demonstrating Kevlar’s stopping power… well, let’s just say I’d rather look like a fool than have my thigh be this month’s supply of mincemeat.

Overkill or not, the steel-toed boots, Kevlar chaps, leather gloves, and elaborate headgear gave this beginner the mettle he needed to tackle a mean stack of tree trunks.

Will cutting all this mean I can finally grow a decent beard?
Will cutting all this mean I can finally grow a decent beard?

As you know if you’ve read the earlier tree-felling post, this lot had to come down so we could clear a line of sight between the cottage and the wireless broadband transmitter on a distant hill. It was the price of getting internet installed. The majority was milled, but we were left with this large pile to turn into firewood. Hopefully it’ll last us a few seasons. As much as it saddens us to see large trees come down, it’s a bonus to have some resources like timber and firewood at the start of our rural life.

It was a lot of fun using the chainsaw once I got into a rhythm and my initial paranoia subsided. It actually feels quite safe, but wow, those teeth cut wood like a hot knife through butter – yikes! Char gave it a go, too, proving that “manliness” is not gender-specific.

A formidable lumberjill.
A formidable lumberjill.

I spent about three hours attacking the thick logs whilst Char busied herself with prepping an area for firewood storage, splitting some rounds with the maul, and starting a tidy stack for drying. It looks bloody charming.

Like a boss.
Like a boss.
The beginnings of a firewood stack.
The beginnings of a firewood stack.

It took a couple of tanks of gas to rip through about a fifth of the log pile, cutting lengths fit for our wee wood-burner. What consumed most of my time was moving the heavy logs into position and working around the ones that were balanced precariously. It was a game of Jenga. Chainsaw Jenga.

I think before getting stuck into the rest I might see about constructing some sort of support for the logs to make cutting less awkward and more economical.

I feel the need to express just how much enjoyment I got out of this task. It’s something I’d been daydreaming about for some time, getting grunty with a chainsaw and splitting maul. Not for any other reason than to satisfy some deep-seated manly urge. The experience enlivened a part of me which my pacifist mind isn’t entirely comfortable with… and I like that. And of course power tools are just plain fun. Can’t wait to return next weekend for more!

Water Tower Demolition

Posted by Nick  | 05 Jul 2014  | 0 comments

Our farm came with its very own water tower. It was puny as far as water towers go, but it was enough of one to warrant demolition. In other words, like so many structures on this farm it was an impediment to the view from the cottage whilst doing little more than standing out like a sore thumb. For us overzealous newbie land owners, we’re only too eager to create and destroy; whatever gets us closer to our (admittedly idealistic) vision. (In truth, very little gets destroyed; the materials, in this case at least, will be repurposed – perhaps even to rebuild another water tower at a later date.)

The metal tank that once sat atop had been taken down some time ago. We found it resting at the base of the tower, empty and in surprisingly sound condition. No rust or cavities. It will no doubt see use again someday, perhaps as a water supply for future gardens or the chicken coop. We rolled it into the storage shed for the time being, put to rest amidst kitchen sinks, reels of wire, and old tyres.

What the tower’s original purpose was we aren’t sure, but seeing as the farm had been in operation long before the introduction of electricity it could very well have been the main gravity-fed water supply to the cottage. It looks old enough. Or maybe it was erected in the not-so-distant past and served some other purpose. We’ll never know.

The old water tower as seen from the deck of the cottage. (The structure behind is a platform with a tank that used to be filled with diesel for the tractor, like an on-site gas station. It will probably be brought down, too, once we have some kind of machinery that can move it.)
The old water tower as seen from the deck of the cottage. (The structure behind is a platform with a tank that used to be filled with diesel for the tractor, like an on-site gas station. It will probably be brought down, too, once we have some kind of machinery that can move it.)

We figured taking apart the structure would be a fairly breezy task. We noticed that the platform had been fixed to the tall posts by thick wire rather than nails. All we had to do to decouple the platform was cut through the wire. No need to climb to the top and go digging for nail heads sunken in the aged wood.

After a bit of tomfoolery with weak wire cutters (or perhaps a weak grip), I swallowed my pride and snatched up the Dremel (a rotary power tool). After breaking a few of those flimsy cutting disk attachments – curse words echoing through the hills – I fished out the thicker grinding disk and gave that a whirl.

It worked a treat. Racing against the intermittent showers, I managed to cut six of the eight wires before the disk wore out (obviously not the optimal attachment for the job). For the final two I had to grapple with the wire cutters again. I got through the hardy bastards eventually, dangling precariously from the tower’s frame like a monkey in gumboots. (I think some heavy duty bolt cutters might be a wise investment soon.)

Now that the platform was free from its supports, next up was the task of somehow pushing it off. At first I tried by hand, but it was too awkward to hold on to the framing and push upwards at the same time, and to be honest it felt a little dangerous. If only I had something long and strong I could push it with… Then Char recalled the post hole rammer. Perfect!

Up...
Up…
...and over!
…and over!

Success! With a bit of effort (and a balancing act atop the ladder) I was able to lift one side of the platform high enough for gravity to do what it does best. It came crashing to the ground, narrowly missing the fence and doing us the service of disassembling itself upon impact. Don’t you love it when entropy works in your favour?

First objective complete.
First objective complete.

We both took to work hammering, prying, and growling at the stubborn braces nailed to the posts. Bashing them repeatedly with the post hole rammer seemed to work just as well as prying them off.

Detaching the braces was more difficult than you might think, like working with anything above head height.
Detaching the braces was more difficult than you might think, like working with anything above head height.

One thing we’ve noticed about handling old weathered wood is the amount of lichen dust you get in your eyes and nose. Every piece of wood here left to the elements invariably seems to be covered in the stuff. It’s a real bother when you’re straining and grunting as you heave this or that and you don’t have any extra hands to blow your nose or wipe your eyes – Ahh! When you do get around to blowing your nose, unspeakable horrors emerge. I think that’s how slugs are born.

Incapacitated by lichen dust.
Incapacitated by lichen dust.

What followed was some real labour. We had to dig out these four metre high posts, which we gathered probably had another third of that height in the ground. We figured if we created trenches in one direction we could push on the posts enough to lever them out.

And it worked. The soil here is just so loose that both digging holes and removing posts (even ones of this size) aren’t either much of a chore. It took all our might in tandem to lift the weight of each post but the earth surrendered them with little resistance. We filled in the deep holes and scraped the surrounding ground level before removing the nails from all the wood which had once comprised a tower. We shifted the lot into the barn to add to our growing timber supply.

Mission complete!
Mission complete!

In the end we had removed yet another eyesore and cleared our view of the farm from the cottage just that little bit more.