Erik on WFAE’s Charlotte Talks

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I’ll be one of the guests tomorrow (Friday January 9) at 9 AM EST on the Charlotte Talks Show on WFAE 90.7. The topic is “urban homesteading.” It’s a call-in show so save up those questions. Guests include:

Matt Kokenes – Founder, MicroFarm Organic Gardens

Laura Denyes – co-owner, Wish We Had Acres Farm

Dr. Dave Hamilton – co-owner, Wish We Had Acres Farm; Naturopathic Doctor, Carolinas Natural Health in Matthews

Erik Knutzen – author, blogger and podcaster, The Urban Homestead, Making It: Radical Home Economics for a Post-Consumer World and Root Simple; co-founder, Los Angeles Bread Bakers

The show will be available for streaming around noon EST here.

Rip-sawing by hand


The first thing that comes to mind looking at this illustration from the classic turn of the last century manual The Complete Woodworker is, can we please bring back working in a tie, vest and apron? You’d probably have to journey deep into Brooklyn’s artisinal ghetto to find contemporary examples of dapper carpenters.

But I digress. What I like about this illustration is the deft use of the right leg in place of clamps when rip-sawing (cutting a piece of wood lengthwise with the grain). Some other pointers:

The angle at which the saw is held is of importance . . . A common mistake is to “lay” the saw: that is, to bring it too much into the horizontal, and this is especially the case when learning to follow the pencil lines with the saw. It is a habit which the beginner should get out of as soon as he can. The stroke should be wellnigh the full length of the saw, although this must depend somewhat upon the length of the worker’s arm; but in any case jerky sawing should be avoided. To lessen the strain on the hand and also to assist the saw in keeping to the line, do not grip the tool very tightly. . . In rip sawing the plank requires to be supported at each end, either on sawing stools or boxes. When the work tends to close and pinch the saw, a tendency which is always more evident when the sawing is not true, it will be necessary to hold the cut open, for which purpose the services of an assistant should be obtained, or, frequently, a small wedge may be inserted.

The illustration reminds me of the low to the ground benches and footwork of traditional Japanese carpentry:

And Egyptian carpentry:

I’ve seen video footage of present day Egyptian carpenters working barefoot. Feet, after all, can be just as handy as hands when it comes to manipulating a long board.

I’m thankful to be able to go electric rather than acoustic when doing rip-sawing around our compound. I don’t have a table saw, but I have managed to rip quite a few pieces of wood with my circular saw. That said, I’ve long felt like I need to learn some hand tool skills. Maybe barefooted and in a tie and vest?

032 Grist and Toll, an urban flour mill

In episode 32 of the Root Simple Podcast I talk with Nan Kohler, owner and miller at Grist & Toll, a mill in Pasadena, California–and the first mill to operate in the L.A. area in the last one hundred years. We discuss varieties of wheat, the health benefits of whole grains, how to work with them and why flavor is important. Kelly is not on this episode but will return to the podcast next week.

Ruth Reichl visits baker Richard Bertinet in England

Joaquin Oro wheat

White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Is it safe to use cinder blocks or red bricks in stoves and ovens?

As how-to book and blog authors we face many questions that begin, “Is it safe to . . . ?” And, for some reason, any post of ours involving rocket stoves sets off a firestorm of incoming Google hits.

An old blog post on a “Redneck Rocket Stove” made out of cinder blocks prompted many to suggest that the cinder blocks would explode due to heat. Leon, of the blog Survival Common Sense, does a good job of refuting this notion in a blog post, “Build a brick rocket stove: Is it safe to use concrete blocks?” The short answer is that those concrete blocks are not going to explode. But if you want something permanent you should use fire bricks and fire clay as mortar so it won’t crack.

Related to this issue is our use of regular bricks in the hearth of our adobe oven. Most sources suggest using fire bricks or kiln bricks. Kurt Gardella, the adobe master who led the workshop where we built our adobe oven, is a fan of recycling materials and saving money. We happened to have a pile of ordinary red bricks and he said it would be fine to use them for the oven floor. He was right. We have fired the oven many times and none of the floor bricks have cracked. If I had not had the red bricks on hand and I was at the brick yard buying materials for an oven, I probably would have bought fire bricks. But having just paid for sand and straw gives me cheapskate bragging rights.

Opinions? Have you faced this issue?

Saturday Tweets: Toilet Hacks, Egg Laying Charts and Food Porn

031 New Year’s Resolutions

vintage new years postcard

On the last podcast of the year, we review our 2014 New Year’s resolutions (Erik’s and Kelly’s)–what worked and what didn’t. Then we look at the goals we’d like to achieve in 2015. Lastly, we head out into the backyard to see the secret project Erik has been working on while Kelly was away for Christmas.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

2014: The Year in Review


Randy Fritz and a new crop of Angelino shoe makers.

In many ways it was a challenging year for us. I have not spoken about this on the blog, but my elderly mom faced a significant health crisis in the early months of 2014. She is doing better, thankfully. Through these months we were able to keep the blog going, a measure of how important it is to both of us. We were even able to, after two false starts, launch a podcast and put out 30 episodes. Blogging is a lonely activity, and I’ve enjoyed the reminder, through the podcast, that there are indeed other people in this world.

Kelly is away with her family this week, so we’ll have to wait for her perspective on 2014, but here are some of our posts I considered significant:

Analysis Paralysis
Kelly and I struggle with garden design. It’s actually a significant source of marital strife, largely when I fail to listen to her. She is the one with the degree in art, after all. In January we were still pondering the shape of our backyard. And we still are. We did manage to build some nice looking, hexagonal raised beds. Unfortunately, a series of possum and skunk raids, documented on a wildlife camera I got for my birthday, took out almost all the vegetables. I think I have the critter problem solved. Then again, I thought that before. Right now, why Kelly is away, I’m working on a secret landscaping project. Let’s see if she notices . . .

Advantages and Disadvantages of Raised Bed Vegetable Gardening
After a successful straw bale garden in the summer of 2013, I finally got around to building new raised beds to replace some that we had taken out. Our lead and zinc contaminated soil necessitates this, but I wish I didn’t have to use raised beds for reasons I outlined in this post.

Is Ham Radio Useful?
The jury is still out on this question, to be honest. I got my license late in 2013 (I’m KK6HUF, in case you’re one of the tribe). I have have a handheld 2 meter/70 centimeter radio and a rooftop antenna, but I haven’t used it much other than to check in on a local net a few times. I may have to table my amateur radio activities in 2015 in order to focus on other, more pressing, projects.

Easter Lessons
Kelly wrote about a troubled project involving dyeing eggs with natural materials. Natural dyes are a subject that interests us both, and I suspect we’ll revisit this topic in 2015.

On the Documentary Fed Up and Giving up Sugar and the Debut of our Podcast
We went to a screening of Fed Up and immediately gave up sugar. Or, should I say, Kelly gave up sugar and I cheated. As I write this I’m snacking on Christmas chocolates, so I can’t say I’ve stuck with the program. I have, however, greatly reduced my sugar intake overall and I’m more conscious of sugar when making decisions at the grocery store (it’s in everything!). Personally, I plan on revisiting the sugar issue. My new fresh, homemade muesli habit (thanks to the Komo FlicFloc) has allowed me to completely eliminate sugar for breakfast.

Hipster Compost and How to Make Stock
In June I pondered local sources for compostable materials (but did not compost hipsters, as some people thought I was proposing). Unfortunately, I did not solve the problem of where to put a large compost pile at our small house. I’ve got one tucked, unsatisfactorily, beneath the fig tree just outside our bedroom window. Later in the month Kelly “killed it” with a useful post on how to make stock.

Have You Ever Wanted a Uniform?
Kelly pondered a kind of house uniform and has made significant progress towards that goal this year. She now owns a functioning sewing machine and has taken classes. So far she’s made some very professional looking pillows and a few other projects. My money is on a uniform by mid 2015. I’m hoping she doesn’t impose a “cultural revolution” along with it, however.

Wild Food Lab: Foraging Taken to the Next Level
We took a number of amazing foraging classes with Pascal Baudar and Mia Wasilevich. The most revelatory class for me was Pascal and Mia proving that you can find food in hottest and driest month of the year during a apocalyptic drought. There’s a lot of people who forage, but fewer who know what to do with the wild foods they gather. Pascal and Mia are working on a book that I predict will be the foraging book.

Stoicism Today
In a very unlikely turn of events, an essay we wrote was included in a book on stoicism. I tried not to let it puff my ego up too much.

I Made Shoes
In October we hosted an intense three day turnshoe making workshop with Randy Fritz. This was one of the more commented upon things we did this year. I ran into Randy over the holidays and he promised to return for another workshop in 2015.

Compostible Holiday Decor
Kelly did an amazing job decorating the house for Christmas this year. No more cheap plastic crap!

Who Killed the Non-Electric Toaster
One highlight of this month, for me, was a conversation I had with the inventor of the non-electric, stove top DeltaToast. Finding an alternative to the modern toaster is one of those seemingly absurd and quixotic issues, until you actually disassemble an electric toaster and look at it. Then your whole paradigm shifts. Who would have guessed that my most significant “road to Damascus” moment in 2014 would involve toast?

One significant thing that I didn’t blog about was the completion of my “man cave” aka garage workshop. Now, after nearly 16 years living in this run down bungalow, I finally know where all my tools are and I have a workbench. Why didn’t I do this project first?

How did your year go? What significant things did you discover or make?

Picture Sundays: Joaquin Oro Wheat Loaf


This is a 100% whole wheat loaf I baked this week using locally grown Joaquin Oro wheat, a high protein, hard red spring variety. It was fermented with a sourdough starter (100% hydration for the bread geeks out there).

And thank you to Michael Pollan for inventing the somewhat crass #crumbshot hashtag. Look for more #crumbshots and a whole wheat bread baking e-book on Root Simple in the coming year.

Saturday Tweets: Peppercorns, Fig Trees and Your Inner Cleveland