Category Archives: Tinkering

8 feet is too much

We worked on the place again and made good progress.  The floor needed another layer of OSB to really suit my tastes so we got that installed and screwed down first thing.  Oh wait, the first thing we did was finish getting the second sheet of OSB hung around the outside walls.  Then we did the floor.  We laid down the last piece of flooring and check out how well it fit!  I am so thankful that everything is square:

We also persuaded Isaac to involve himself with the building of this place.  He did a great job screwing down 2 sheets of flooring.  My brother bought me a new Makita impact driver which is AWESOME!  It is so fast and light.

Anyhow, Isaac was running that and got a bit of the Dirty Harry feel going for him.  I guess he was feeling like he needed to pick on Abigail some though as he split after sheet #2 was installed.  Still, it was a great thing seeing the boy work!


The inspector checking on things…

So, after we got the outer walls done and the flooring down, we started on the inner walls.  On Sunday, we were able to get the interior walls for the bathroom and kitchen built.  We also hung about 1/3 of the sleeping loft’s floor joists.  We should be able to finish that pretty quickly which will make all of the high-up work like the last of the outer walls’ OSB and the roof rafters go up pretty easily.  The only thing that I though I was going to like but don’t is the 8 foot ceilings in the bathroom and kitchen (and eventually, everywhere else).

We installed 8 foot boards beside the 10 foot wall studs to support the sleeping loft floor. That leaves us with just under 2 extra feet for a knee wall in the sleeping area
Working on the sleeping loft
Shazaam! The bathroom and closet!

It’s too high and we lose some of the advantage of the added height of the exterior walls.  I am not redoing it now though so we are going to have really nice high rooms in our deluxe shed, or, as I have been calling it, the city-slickers’ deer stand!

See all of the progress on the cabin

And there was mud

We went back out to the place today to work more on the cabin.  It rained…all day.  Since time off is limited, we pressed on and stirred up all of that mud that we made from the pier excavations.  Holy cow all of that mud was heavy!  This entire building process is exercise for sure and we definitely got our share today.  After awhile, we joked that we needed to scrape the mud off of our shoes so that we would have room for more mud.


We put a tent over the areas we worked and it wasn’t so bad I guess.  We made a lot of progress.  I won’t say much as the pictures show a lot of what we got done.  There is still a ton of cross-bracing to be done but we ran out of wood and, more importantly, nails.  We will be heading back tomorrow for more of the same minus the running out of nails part.


See all of the progress on the cabin

Building our cabin

We like going up to our land to hang out and enjoy mother nature on the weekends.  If you ask the kids, of course, all we do up there is slave away moving piles of dirt.  Emily and I finally decided to show the kids what it meant to move piles of dirt so we broke ground last weekend on a building to house a toilet.  That’s all that really matters to the kids – a bathroom.  Well, that and air conditioning.  Anyhow, as all ground-breaking parties go, it was more symbolic than anything.  The real work began on Thursday evening.  A buddy of mine came with us and we have abused him all weekend…you know, strong back, weak mind.  So, we mixed somewhere around 4500 pounds of concrete and filled 9 12-inch tubes (that’s just to brag, it isn’t meant to really have any real meaning to you, dear friends) on which to build this place.


This saves lives but also shortens lives. Post hole digging is faster and easier with this auger but it beat me to death!
Isaac hiding from work in one of our holes. We are building a post-and-pier foundation.


Post and pier foundation

Emily and I are building a house, really.  It will have more than a toilet.  Emily calls it our “deluxe shed” as it will be more of a small cabin than a house.   I have been fascinated by the small house movement (see Tumbleweed Houses for example) for a while now.  The idea is put forth as an alternative to the trend of increasingly larger houses over the last 30+ years.  I don’t care what size house people live in but the small house philosophy suits me.  In a way then, we are sort of participating in the small house movement…except it is going to be our second house.  I think that must somehow be against the point of the small house philosophy.  Still, we really like the idea of simplifying and someday, the first house will be sold and we will fit the bill.

It needs skin and lots of details, but this is the cabin we are planning to build

We are off from work Friday, Monday and Tuesday so we are plowing forward for 5 days straight to see how far we can get on this place.  I have been working on plans in Google Sketchup (you gotta learn to use this program).  My model is pretty rough but it allows me to know exactly how many boards I need and how everything needs to go together.  It will be around 400 sq ft and have one of the coolest views anywhere.

The view from the cabin spot

Emily took some pics today and they are just incredible.  Anyhow, I will keep posting as we make progress on this place.  Anyone else out there have a strong back and a weak mind?  Have I got a job for you!

See all of the progress on the cabin

Getting plowed

It wasn’t too long ago where I was getting tanked.  Now I am getting plowed.  The underlying theme there makes me wonder if I have been working a bit too much lately (the answer is yes).  But really, I got plowed this week.

I acquired 2 old plows and I am trying to decide what to do with them.1  I have considered turning them into mailbox stands and/or planters for flowers out at the property.  That might clash with the bathtub and toilet planters I have in mind though.  Then it occurs to me that I might be able to restore them and use the kids to pull the plows to turn over some garden space.  I guess I could use the Subaru instead of the kids.  We’ll see.  Anyhow, I guess a third option is to paint them up and make them sort sort of decoration inside whatever building we eventually build on the property.

So what do you think?  Do you have any other ideas?  They are too cool to junk but I just do not know what to do with them.  Help!

Making steps…

When we first bought our house, there were many issues with the place.  Like a fool, I thought I wanted an old fixer upper.  I am smarter now but no less obligated to pay the mortgage so I press onward with the repairs.  Anyhow, one of the first things that needed to be fixed was the ladder steps that led to the front door.  There were a number of concrete pads embedded into the vertical dirt wall leading up the patio.  I kid you not, we had to turn our feet sideways and sort of hold on to get up to the door.

The old perches
That shovel is the only thing holding me up
That's a pile of block!

So, when we first bought the place, Emily and the kids remained in Nashville finishing out her job.  I started to work on the new place without their help.  My Dad came down and we went to town.  The steps were the first order of business.  I plucked the concrete pads from the wall and started digging.

Almost done!

The fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to get new, permanent steps in place was to form them from cement blocks.  Dad hauled numerous tons of block with his truck and we made our block steps.


Those steps served us well for 5+ years but eventually, the winter rains got into the block and froze, causing some of the blocks to crumble and break.  After near death (several times…I didn’t want to over-react afterall), we decided that the steps needed some work.  The kids and I chipped out the old block.  We had to cut sections out of some blocks, but most were pretty ok.  Abigail in particular seemed to enjoy the hammer and chisel so I see a possible career path for her if leader of the universe doesn’t work out.

I took a day off last week to form up frames so we could pour new concrete over the remaining blocks.  It was sort of difficult that way because we didn’t have a lot of extra room to make the steps bigger.  Too high and no one would be able to reach the first step, etc.  So, we poured another 1.5 inches or so on top of the old block.  I hand-mixed 17 bags of concrete on the hottest day I could find.   I didn’t think the van could handle carrying all 17 bags at once so I started mixing the third that I had and sent Emily on two more trips to get more concrete.

The framing waiting for concrete to my...feet? Arms and legs? Well, it was like music anyhow

We waited and fretted and finally unveiled the new steps sans framing.  The new steps are beautiful and hopefully will avert life-and-death situations for folks coming to visit.  After all of the work, we noticed that we forgot to write our initials in the concrete.  I figure we’ll revisit everything in 5 years or so anyhow, so maybe we can do it right the next time around!

In the doghouse again

Dogs are easy, right.  Every kid ought to have a dog so they can grow up properly.  I had to be a good dad and get the kids a dog, right?  Oh, we got a dog alright.  It’s been a long time since I had a dog.  When I was a kid, we had a couple of animals but my responsibilities related to the animals were minimal…I was a kid.  Even, as an adult, I foolishly believed that my responsibilities from when I had dogs as a kid were the real extent of pet ownership.  I have since then been properly educated…

Over the summer, I dug postholes all about my yard to put up a fence to allow Ginny to have space to play and do what dogs do (which I have since found out is poop).  It was a big effort as I hand dug the holes and mixed concrete to hold the posts.  It looks great and seems to finally have been made Ginny-proof.  I next had to build Ginny a proper dog house.  I had all sorts of lumber scraps and stuff laying around so Ginny has a first-class house that didn’t really cost me anything.

I have not weighed the house but I suspect it weighs as much as my car.  Emily and I put insulation in the walls and ceiling and installed white siding so it will be the same color as our house.  Ginny doesn’t like to stay inside all day so I figured I needed to give her a heat source in order to be safe this winter.  We installed an outdoor light in the ceiling of her house and it keeps the space pretty nice for her.  I measured the outside temperature at 29 the other day.  Inside, after letting the bulb warm the space, the floor of her house was 44 and the ceiling area was much warmer.

Of course, for the light to work, I needed an outlet on the outside of the house.  The one and only outlet was on the other side of the house so I had to drill a hole in my brick and run power from the laundry room through the wall.  Without considering dog logic, I simply plugged an extension cord into the new plug and ran it to the light fixture in the ceiling of the doghouse.  The first day we left her alone with her new place, she decided to take a bite out of the pretty orange cord running into her house.  She got a jolt out of it I am sure.  It wasn’t enough to hurt her badly…she only had a small spot on her lip.  I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice another cord to see whether she learned her lesson though.

Being one to over-engineer whenever possible, I built an armoured cable to power her light.  I haven’t seen evidence of her trying her luck on the new cord, but I am pretty sure it is bite-proof and will keep her safe and warm.

I don’t know about you, but this whole dog ownership thing seems pretty easy, right?

Tilt Shift

I am not much of a photographer but I like trying.  Sort of like most things I guess.  Anyhow, I have always been a fan of tilt-shift photography.  I won’t pretend to really know the details of how tilt-shift photography works other than to say that by manipulating the angle/position of a lens relative to a subject matter, the focus will be skewed enough to make regions of the image look miniature.  One can buy fancy lenses for D/SLR cameras to accomplish such a task but they are pretty expensive for the limited use that I would get out of them.

Like nearly everyone on the planet, I have an iPhone which has a camera and all sorts of apps to take and manipulate pictures.  I found one program called (now get this) TiltShift.  I think it cost a buck which happens to be within my budget, so I downloaded it and have played with it a good bunch.  Below are some pictures I took and manipulated with it.  I suspect that a high dollar lens will take better looking pictures that I can produce with my dollar-app, but for my own fun, I am pretty pleased with the effect.  Have you ever messed with tilt-shift photography?

It’s Traditional

As Christmas approaches, we prepare, as most parents do, to pass along Christmas to our kids.  I suppose it sounds a bit odd to pass on Christmas, but the season is typically so complex for most families that I do not think that any other words describe what we do.  When I was a kid, it seemed as if we prepared for Christmas for months.  In elementary school, we glued together enormous paper chains that wound all through our classroom and into the halls.


I grew up in Pennsylvania near Lake Erie so we usually got snow early and heavy.  In my memory, almost every Christmas was a white Christmas.  Sometimes, it seemed as if we had a white Halloween.  Anyhow, the buildup to Christmas to my child-eyes was immense and exciting and just as it was supposed to be according to all of the Christmas carols, which of course, we listened too all of the time.

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At home, we strung together strings of popcorn and cranberries to wind around our Christmas tree.  We threw way too much tinsel all over the tree and made every type of cookie imaginable.  I remember picking different varieties of cookies from a large black water-bath canner which was packed full of cookies (talk about a dream cookie jar!).

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On Christmas Eve, my family went to my aunt and uncle’s house where our family gathered for what seemed like a fairly formal meal (though, as I now think back on it, the meal was not formal, just different from what we normally did at home).  My brother and I ate every last bit of candy we could find laying around in the numerous candy dishes around the house.  The meal seemed to never end as we anticipated opening the large pile of gifts that were always under the tree.

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Once we finally got home, we hurried off to bed so Santa could come.  The rule in our house was that no one could leave their bedroom until 6am.  I truly do not know how we survived the time between waking and 6am.  Surely a cosmic quantum time shift happened which caused time to slow to 1/20th normal speed.  Anyhow, we raced to the living room to see what was under the tree.  It’s funny but Santa never wrapped our presents.  I don’t think my brother and I ever noticed that Mom and Dad never gave us presents…all the presents were from Santa.

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So, flash forward to now.  My wife, of course, had her own set of traditions in her growing up.  When we married, it was not terribly hard to merge our traditions, but when our children were born, the traditions we established as a family seemed to take on incredible importance.  I know the kids will not turn into serial killers or hermits or <gasp> politicians if we don’t get our tradition just right, but I do believe it is important to keep the kids out of politics…I mean, help the kids look back on their childhoods with fondness.

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At first, we tried to mix the traditions with which my wife and I were raised.  It just didn’t work.  And, though it took some time to figure out, we realized that the traditions we impart to our kids have to be wholly ours….MY family’s traditions, not the traditions of my parents or my wife’s parents.  So, while I have such wonderful memories of the traditions surrounding the celebration of the Christmases of my childhood, I think that the responsibility to impart such memories to my children is even more special to me.  So, while the traditional things we each do to celebrate Christmas is special and important, I think the more important tradition is having traditions and seeing those traditions come alive in the eyes and hearts of our children.

So, what are your traditions?  How do you ‘do’ the holidays?  Of course, my take here was Christmas related, bt I am curious about how folks do Hanukkah or whatever holiday you may celebrate in your home too!

I wrote this post for Not Dabbling in Normal where I occasionally post, but I felt like it was appropriate for here as well…

Water Rocket Fun

I am sitting here at Panera (yes…again…I know, I should go to work some) looking out at the dark rain clouds rolling in and wishing that we would get a bunch more days of nice weather.  I have always loved Summer.  I sort of dread the coming of Winter and Fall.

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I was thinking about some of  the things that I love about Summer and water rockets came to mind.  I think it sort of mixes water, heat, adventure, a little danger and an explosion of sorts.  How can I not love it?!

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When we lived in TN, we decided to make a water rocket to keep us all cool and give the kids something to chase.  You see, a water rocket shoots water all over the place and anyone nearby gets soaked.  It also launches pretty high up in the air and someone has to go and recover the fuselage.

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So, what is a water rocket you ask?  Simple…it’s a 2 liter bottle with 3 inches of water in it.  Add some compressed air and off she goes!  I glued some pvc pipes together in an “L” shape and added a bicycle valve and stem to the back (drill a hold in a pvc cap and insert the stem…seal with silicone).  All you do is put 2-4 inches of water into a 2 liter bottle and carefully hold it upside down on the open end of the pvc pipe.  Add compressed air via the tire valve at the other end and you’re in business.  As the air builds, the water starts to leak signalling that it’s time to let go!

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By not making too tight of a fit between the bottle and the pvc (some people suggest a tight fit but that’s more dangerous), you run very little risk of having anything explode.  I added some duct tape to the tip of the pipe to make is a snug (but by no means tight) fit between the pipe and the bottle.  Air will leak before pressure will build up too high.

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Of course, the bottle flying off the end of the pipe could be dangerous so make sure it points upward and not at anyone/thing.  Other than that, a water rocket is an absolute blast and something kids and adults will enjoy.  As Winter sets in, consider the design of your water rocket for next Summer.  It will be worth the wait!

Got my motor runnin’

I volunteer a bit of my time each week at Emily’s school.  There are a number of folks who work with individual kids on numerous topics.  I met a student who is interested in green energy so we are studying green energy topics.  In particular, we are building green energy sources or projects that use said sources.  In other words, we are building a generator like what might be used in a windmill.  We also plan to build a solar battery charger to keep my student’s portable video game system charged.  Part of my goal, of course, is to teach my friend about electricity and windmills and solar power, but a part of my interest is expanding my understanding of the topics as well.

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I remember back when I was in 4th or 5th grade.  We were messing with electricity (and not in the back of the classroom with paperclips and the wall socket) and learning how it works.  I remember one assignment for extra credit was to build an electric motor.  My Grandpa and I spent hours trying to figure out how to make one work.  We tried all sorts of combinations and variations but could never make it spin.  So, as a part  of learning about electricity and generators, I decided we needed first to build a motor.  A motor, of course, is sort of like the opposite of a generator.  Put power into a coil and it will spin.  Manually turn the coil and it will generate electricity.  Anyhow, it seems that building a motor is relevant to learning about generators.  This had nothing to do with my long-standing feelings of inadequacy regarding motor building…no indeed, this was all about educating my student.  It’s about the kids, right?  Ok, so I think it is pretty neat too.

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As I looked at electric motor plans, I quickly discovered what Grandpa and I did wrong…it’s all about ease of turning the motor.  Our motor turned pretty smoothly by hand, but there was a great deal more friction than what our set-up could handle.  I found all sorts of ideas on how to make a motor, but I wanted to make something that looked as close as possible to the one that Grandpa and I tried to make…I mean, I wanted one that my student and I could learn from…

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So…here’s what we did.  I bought magnet wire from Radio Shack (now, they are calling themselves “the Shack”…yeah, that’s more hip).  Magnet wire is just copper wire with super thin insulation.  We used a middle weight wire…the green stuff.  The package that The Shack sells has three colors/weights.  We left a six inch tail and then wrapped 30 turns of the wire around a AA battery that we were planning to use to power the system.  We left a 6 inch tail on the other end as well.  In order to make sure the coil stayed together, we wrapped each tail around the bit of coil on each side.  Basically, I just took the tail on each side and ran it through the middle and back out 2 times to hold the coil on each side.

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We bent a few paperclips (you could use any conductor) to hold the coil and put a few magnets between the paperclips.  Since our motor has magnets vertically placed (i.e. not on the side), we had to hold the coil straight up and down with the tails sticking out to each side.  I stripped the insulation off of one tail the entire way around the wire.  On the other tail, I stripped only the top half of the wire.    We hooked a few beads to each tail to dampen vibration (which we learned was necessary).  Regarding magents…I just bought run of the mill magnets at a big-box home improvement store.  Bigger, badder magnets would change the dynamics of the motor for sure!


(or try this version if you have trouble with the one above)

Once we hooked the battery pack to the paperclips, we dropped the coil onto the paperclips and gave it an initial spin.  It quickly “catches” and starts spinning like crazy!  You can imagine, I danced like Brittney Spears…only without the nastiness.  I made a motor!  I made a motor!  I mean…We made a motor!  We made a motor!  No longer am I burdened by 5th grade motor-failure-angst!  We both had a good time just watching it spin and it was educational indeed as it was a perfect segue into generators (I knew it would be!).  Next week, we’ll start tinkering with our first generator.  I am so excited!