The Straw House Blog


July Update

Spring and summer have been busy around the house. The bench is complete except for finishing. I haven’t decided yet what kind of finish I want to use on the bench yet, though I’m leaning towards Tried and True Linseed Oil and Beeswax finish as I love the depth and glow it gives to wood. Danish oil seems to be the traditional choice.

I had to disassemble the twin screw vise and re-install it, but that was expected. It’s very finicky to install correctly even when you follow the instructions to the letter. There’s still a bit of stiffness in the last inch of travel but I’ll probably leave it as is for a while and see if any other problems develop before taking it apart again. The rear vise jaws are secured to the bench with 5” bolts threaded right into the bench top. The front jaw, just like the end vise chop, is a piece of spalted Maple from a tree off our land.

We also had the portable saw mill in to mill the logs that I mentioned back in April. Of the thirty-eight logs only two proved to be rotten so we got away pretty lucky with storing them for so long.

Unfortunately some of what we had thought was Maple when we cut it in the winter turned out to be Basswood. On the other hand some of the Bassword was very nice. In particular we flitch cut the crotch of the tree and found some gorgeous grain and colour which is uncommon in Basswood which is normally very clear and white.

We’ll stack and sticker the wood through the summer and hopefully the Ash will be dry enough to go into the kiln this fall. My goal for this fall/winter is to get the ceiling done.

Green Home and Garden Tour

Peterborough Green-Up a local environmental group is holding a green home and garden tour on June 7, 2008, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. We’re a part of the tour in addition to several interesting homes and businesses in Peterborough proper.

Details are available on the Green-up website.

Normally if you’d like a tour of our house you have to wait for the annual OSBBC Straw House Tour in October, so this is an early opportunity if October doesn’t work for you.

From the Green-up site: Take a tour of homes and businesses where real people are making real changes to reduce their impact on our local resources. These sites will showcase some of the inspirational environmental examples that residents in Peterborough are setting through personal actions.

Tour locations highlight examples of green lifestyles, including a totally off grid home, using recycled building materials, hot water heating, solar and wind energy, and more! Extensive natural gardens will also be on display at some tour stops, with examples of how to create great gardens while conserving water, providing habitat and food for wildlife, and enhancing the environment!



Wind Generator Update

We dropped the tower a couple of weeks ago to see if it was alright before we ordered new blades.

Our main concern was that the bearings and bushings might have been damaged by the vibration of the unbalanced turbine. Once the tower was lowered we took as much of the assembly apart as was feasible, checked the moving parts for excess movement and everything seemed to be just fine. We put the tower back up - the safest place for the tower is up in the air, not down on the ground.

J.P. from Generation Solar ordered us new blades and I figure they’ll probably arrive right as the summer doldrums start. Right now it’s sunny and there’s a strong (though gusty) wind blowing outside. Normally at this time of year there’s an abundance of both sun and wind that we never have to run the genset. With the wind generator out of commission we’ve had to run the genset a few times over the last couple of months. I hate that.


Here’s J.P. and a good shot of where one of the blades broke off from the turbine. You can see that the blades snapped off just past where they attach to the turbine. We still have no idea why they broke. We did find the other blade though, it was about 200 metres downhill from the turbine, laying in the grass.




We had quite a few logs ready for milling back in the fall and had even booked the sawyer. Then the first week of November the snow started. It has been a great winter for snow, not so much for milling logs. Most of the winter the logs were completely buried. So spring is here the snow is gone and Dad and I spent a good portion of the last two days cutting down trees and pulling them out of the bush.

Yesterday we took out a good sized ash tree, including one of the biggest logs that we have ever pulled. Today we dropped a dead butternut tree that fortunately was still solid. It yielded three good logs and one so-so log.

So at this point we have thirty-eight logs ready to be milled, including yellow birch (1), elm (1), ash (23), maple (3), cedar (5), butternut (3) and chestnut (2).

We’re planning on dropping some beech, poplar, ironwood, hickory, ash, black cherry, basswood and cedar this spring. We only drop trees that are in decline or dead, we try and get them before rot sets in, but it’s tricky, some species rot from within (like poplar) so by the time they look ready to take they’re already hollow. Our best guess is that in addition to the logs we’ll mill this spring we’ll have another thirty to forty to mill in the fall.

The logs are rolled up onto scrap wood to keep them off the ground, but this is a temporary storage solution. Hopefully we haven’t lost any logs to rot over the winter. We’re planning long term storage for air drying the lumber. Even with access to a kiln the wood should be air dried for at least six months. Some of the wood (mostly the ash) we’ll air dry for a couple of years so that we can use it for steam bending.


Bench Update

There hasn’t been a huge amount of progress on the bench this week. Both side have been planed (relatively) flat. The top will get a final touch up once the bottom has been completed and attached. Unfortunately some of the boards have pretty nasty grain and I’ve had problems with tear-out. I may splurge and buy a smaller low-angle plane to do the final surfacing.

This weekend I cut then ends of the bench square and started installing the end vise. The end vise is let into the end of the bench. Cutting out the inset involved lots of small kerfs and then chopping out the waste with a mortise chisel. I only have one mortise chisel, it’s a 3/8” Lie-Nielsen with an Ironwood handle. Ironwood is the hardest wood that grows in North America (we have a lot of it on the land) and you can tell. After an several hours of bashing on the chisel with a maple faced hammer the hammer is dented and the chisel handle looks brand new.

Now that the inset is cut the vise can be mounted. Hopefully I’ll get to that some evening this week. Next weekend I’m hoping to get the twin-screw vise mounted. Once both vises are mounted I’ll flip the bench on the saw horses and start building the bottom. I’m planning to build the entire lower structure with hand tools, including sawing the tenons and wasting out the mortises. It’ll be hard work but I need the practice and most of these joints are hidden and don’t have to be pretty.


Making the Bench Top

Holy crap I’m tired.

Dad and I started glueing up the bench top very early Thursday morning. The idea was that I could be there first thing in the morning, get one section glued up, then come home work all day, and head back up there right before dinner to glue up the next section. Then after dinner (thanks Mom!) we’d glue up a third section. With the top made up of fourteen pieces of wood we’d have make up four sections of three boards and one section of two boards. Those would then be jointed, planed and then glued to one another to form the bench top.

That worked very well on Thursday. So on Friday I arrived early and we got our first glue up done and clamped. Then we carried the glued up sections from Dad’s basement out to the back garage so that we could joint and plane them. Then we took them back to the basement again.

We figured that we would get the top to the point where we had an eight board section and a six board section, when we would transport those to my house for the final glue up. We didn’t think that we’d be strong enough to carry the completed table top out of Dad’s basement.

We almost weren’t strong enough to carry the two halves out of Dad’s basement.

And so, we made our first mistake. It was so much trouble getting the halves out of the basement we decided not to carry them to the back garage and plane them. “I’ll do them by hand” I said. “It’ll be fine!” Oh boy.

Once home we laid out the two halves on what I figured is the flattest section of floor in the house. Right at the front of the house. Joanne and I wrestled the two sections out of the truck and Gil and Declan carried all of the clamps from the back room to the front. By the way, I know that looks like a lot of clamps. It isn’t. There is no such thing as ‘enough clamps’.

So once we had everything ready Dad and I trial fitted the two pieces and found, to our surprise that they didn’t meet properly. Oh well, out comes the jointer plane, and I start taking strips off the edges of the sections. Now bear in mind that I’m fairly new to hand tools. To this point I’ve ‘six-squared’ several small boards, but the bench is two feet wide and seven feet long. Most of my planing exeprience has been with a #5 Jack plane but compared to a #7 jointer plane it’s practically a toy. The #7 is a significant hunk of metal. Once you get that thing moving it actually creates its own gravitational field. I do not recommend using it hunched over like that, much stretching was required afterwards.

So with the edges squared up we applied the glue with Declan’s supervision.

Then we clamped it.

While the glue was drying Dad and I drove in to the city to go to Lee Valley for the bench vises. I’m using the Veritas Twin screw vise as the face vise, and a large quick release steel vise as the end vise.

But those cannot be installed until the bench top has been flattened. By not carrying the two bench sections out to plane them I have guaranteed that by the time this bench is flat I will no longer be inexperienced with a #7 jointer plane. I have also discovered a wide variety of muscles that are apparently only used when planing. I’m nearly done one side, but I’m done for today. I intend to pour myself a generous portion of Highland Park 18 year-old and emulate Declan.



Building a Holtzapffel Bench

I determined some time ago, not long after building the coffee table in fact, that my ability to draw interesting furniture designs exceeded my woodworking skills. I also felt that it would be something of a tragedy to spend all of this time cutting and milling lumber only to wreck the boards due to my incompetence.

In January I took an an introduction to hand tool techniques course at the Rosewood Studio woodworking school. There I learned that:

  1. Most of my hand tools tools were shit
  2. I had a lot to learn
  3. I was going to need a proper wookbench

So I bought a few books about workbenches and started scouring the internet for information. The writer of the best of the workbench books is a fellow by the name of Christopher Schwarz. He’s the editor of Popular Woodworking magazine and Woodworking magazine (excellent if you are a hand tools enthusiast) and he knows more about traditional woodworking benches than anybody I know. Of the three bench types that he has written about I decided to build a Holtzapffel Bench. No, I have no idea how to pronounce it either.

The first step was acquiring the wood. We have plenty of 1” ash that’s already been through the kiln but I suspected that Joanne might take issue with wood that supposed to be used for the ceiling going towards a workbench. Unfortunately most of our wood has been milled 5/4 (~1”) which would require a lot of gluing. So I bought some 8/4 (~2”) ash from the fellow who rents us kiln space.

After it came out of the kiln we took it up to dad’s place so that we could dimension the lumber. Here’s the rough lumber ready to be cut up.

The idea here is that by rough cutting your pieces before jointing/planing you can save a fair bit of time and wood (thickness mostly). So as I cut out the rough chunks I carried them into the garage where Dad was running the big machines.

It took us a good portion of yesterday and all of today but we’ve got all of the wood for the whole bench ready to be glued up. I’ll pop up there a couple of nights this week and hopefully we can be ready to start building the base next weekend. The picture below shows the boards for the top laid out as they will be glued up. The darker coloured board is piece of Black Cherry from my land that Dad had in his garage and we have a lovely spalted maple board to use on the front of the bench top.




The tobogganing conditions the last couple of weeks have been stellar. We have 2’ of hard pack snow than runs smooth down the back hills and almost right to the house. Conditions are best in the morning after a good cold night when the crust is still frozen. By mid-afternoon this crust is slushy and the hills are slower.

This is the view from the top.

Of course to get there you have quite a walk ahead of you.

Savour the view for a few minutes, catch your breath and then it’s time to come down.

The run from the top is too long and steep for the kids to do themselves but there is a nice hill about half way that Gil can handle on his own. The longest runs are around 300m. We toboggan from the back property line almost all the way to the house for our final run.

Though sometimes speed gets the better of you and you and the GT part company.

Declan thinks that a soother counts as protective headgear.



Throwing blades

We went out this morning to play in the snow (more on that later) and we could hear a strange rattling noise. Things are usually pretty quiet around our house and the sound was coming from the north, which is very unusual because there is nothing but fields behind us for quite a distance. It turns out that the strange noise was coming from our wind generator which had thrown two blades sometime early this morning.

I’m not sure how this happened as it wasn’t particularly windy or cold or this morning. When I got up around 6am we were producing around 10A of power from the wind generator so I can only assume that it still had three blades.

Anyway I tripped the brake on the wind genny charge controller which slowed it somewhat then climbed the back hill to trip the main brake which is located in a sealed box at the base of the tower. That brake shorts out the leads and causes the turbine to stop.

Once that was done I set about looking for the thrown blades. I found one quite near the base of the tower but the other is missing. Depending on how fast the turbine was spinning and what direction it was facing the blade could be very far away.

The biggest problem for us is that we make the bulk of our wind power in the spring. In fact we’ve had such a wonderful confluence of wind and sun for the last month and a half that we haven’t run the generator in ages. There’s so much snow in the back fields that it’ll be quite a while before we can get a truck up to the hill to lower the tower. Not to mention that the gin-pole is buried under nearly two feet of snow.



March Update - Snow, Photoshoots and the Return of Sun

We had a huge dump of snow in the last 24 hours. It’s the biggest snowfall in the time that we have lived here. There’s at least three feet of snow in most places and more in the drifts. It took Joanne and I a couple of hours to shovel down to the cars and clear around them. Even so we’re not going anywhere until the driveway gets plowed out.

I love the snow so for me this is great, I’ll be heading off into the bush with my snowshoes following animal tracks and watching for the birds. I love trekking through the parts of the land that are normally too wet and inaccessible in the warmer months.

The week before last we had a camera crew here from an Australian magazine taking pictures of the house. So we had Gil take some pictures of them while they took pictures of us.

Now that we’ve left the grey grey grey months of November, December, January and February we’re producing lots of power again. Those months are what we usually refer to as the “100 Days of Grey” because the sun rarely makes any substantial appearance. We make a fair bit of power off the wind generator at this time of the year, but we still have to run the gas generator far too often for my tastes. Through the worst parts of December and January we have to run the generator about once per week. By that I mean that we run one full tank of gas through the genset, which lasts for about 7 hours.

Around mid-February the sun starts to make more regular appearances and especially in those brutally cold -20C and -30C days we can do quite well. As we move into March we tend to get both sun and wind - today we’ve been generating about 25A from the solar panels and between 10A and 15A all day from the wind generator. As a result we’ve run the dishwasher, and done five loads of laundry and we’re still making tons of power. We haven’t run the generator in about four weeks.