Of Makers and Bowyers


Film One: Harry (Archer & Bowyer) from Dylan Ryan Byrne on Vimeo.

I had a great time yesterday as a guest on a panel discussion at the LA Times Book Festival with Mark Frauenfelder and David Rees (thanks to Alisa Walker for being the best moderator ever). We talked about DIY culture and the ethos of being a “maker”. I think it’s safe to say that all of us on that panel have great admiration for talented “makers” like the bowyer in this video. It’s been one of my many goals to step away from this computer for a bit and learn how to make a bow. Or at least to finish the backyard projects that currently block access to our target bale!

Via Exploriment

A Japanese Themed Modular House

We continue our Japanese week at Root Simple with a nice modular house from an Oakland based company called Joinery Structures. From the Joinery Structures website:

RIKYU House is based on a grid layout system. While this system achieves a high level of efficiency and cost effectiveness for each project, it also offers the ability to customize each design to the client’s specific needs and desires.

The RIKYU House features recycled components and elegant details:

You provide the site and foundation and Joinery Structures fabricates and ships the building on a truck. If only more modular buildings looked like this!

Via Lloyd’s Blog.

A Rocket Stove Made From a Five Gallon Metal Bucket

The principle behind a rocket stove is simple–rather than cooking on an open fire, you burn wood in an insulated chimney. Rocket stoves are highly efficient and easy to make. They run on twigs, so you can avoid cutting down a whole tree just to cook dinner.

We’ve had a rocket stove made out of brick in our backyard for several years. The post we wrote on it in 2007 is–oddly–the most frequently searched post on this site. I figured that since there was so much interest in the topic it would be good to offer one that didn’t require masonry work. Better yet, I figured that it should be portable, so I made it out of a five gallon steel paint bucket. (eta: for your googling pleasure, it seems retailers call these cans “steel pails” rather than buckets). The project took less than an hour to complete and I’m very pleased with the final result. We created a pdf with full instructions that you can download at the Internet Archive. What follows are some photos showing the building process:

Using a piece of 4″ vent pipe and a 90º elbow, I made the chimney. See the pdf for the exact dimensions.

I traced the outline of the vent pipe on to the lid of the bucket and cut this hole out with a jig saw. Tin snips would also have worked.

Using the vent pipe as a guide again, I cut out a 4″ hole near the bottom of the bucket.

I used one part clay (harvested from the yard) to six parts vermiculite as my insulation material. Mixed with water, the clay holds the vermiculite together. I could also have used dry wood ash, but I had the vermiculite and clay on hand so that’s what I went with.

With the vent pipe in place, I packed the insulation into the bucket and let it dry for a few days before putting the lid on.

I found a barbecue grill at Home Depot that rests on the top of the bucket to support a pot.

Next you want to get yourself a tin can, take off both ends and open it up with tin snips. Cut a piece to serve as a shelf in the mouth of the pipe. It should be about 4″ long–so it sits forward in the mouth of the vent. The rear part of the vent, where the fire burns, is open. The twigs rest on top of the shelf, the lower half is for drawing air.

The last step was to add the new Root Simple stencil to the back.

Some fire tips from the little lady, our resident pyro:

A rocket stove isn’t like a campfire–you don’t throw on a big log and kick back. Cooking on it is intense and concentrated, best suited for boiling or frying. The best fuel source is twigs, small ones–I prefer pencil-sized twigs, and I never try to burn anything thicker than a finger.

To start a fire just shove some paper or other tinder under the shelf toward the back of vent. Lay some very thin twigs, pine needles or other combustibles on the shelf. Light the paper and watch it go. Start adding larger twigs to establish the fire. Of course, twigs burn fast and hot, so you have to keep adding more fuel. Also, the twig are burning from the back (the fire is concentrated in the bend) so as the fire consumes the sticks, you just keep shoving the unburned parts to the rear.

There’s a balance between choking the vent with too much wood and having too sparse a fire. After a few minutes of playing with it you’ll get the hang of things. If you’re doing it right, there should be no smoke, or almost none. These things burn clean.

Let us know if you like the pdf and if you would like to see more similar instruction sheets (maybe in an ebook format) of these types of projects. There’s also a good book on using rocket stoves as heaters:  Rocket Mass Heaters: Superefficient Woodstoves YOU Can Build by Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson.

The World’s First Lamp

Erik’s link to the orange lamp on Saturday reminded me to post this. This is Project #1 in Making It, and we often open our lectures by building one of these, but I realize I’ve never talked about oil lamps here on the blog.

Forgive the somewhat atmospheric photo. What you’re looking at is the simplest thing in the world: an oyster shell filled with olive oil and balanced in a small dish of sand. Three pieces of cotton string are lying in the oil with their ends poking just a little way off the side of the shell. Those are the wicks.

This is a shell lamp. This is perhaps what the first lamp ever looked like. (A Paleo-lamp?) At the very least, this is a fundamental human technology. When you build one, you’re echoing the practices of so many cultures over so much history–from the flat clay oil lamps of Rome to the soapstone lamps of the Inuit to the the ghee-burning temple lamps in India.

Even if you don’t buy all this romance, it’s a good trick to remember next time you’re in a blackout and running out of candles.

One reason I burn little shell lamps like this because I like candlelight, but candles are expensive, especially beeswax candles, which I prefer over petroleum-based candles. Since these lamps use olive oil or any cooking oil for fuel, they’re a great way to us up those rancid or off-tasting oils which tend to clutter the back of our cupboards. I save the stale or otherwise suspicious olive oil from my herb-infused oil experiments for this purpose– oil which I’d have to throw away otherwise. This makes my flame habit essentially free.

The shell lamp FAQ:

  • A lamp with a single wick burns approximately 1 tablespoon of oil per hour (burn time varies by wick size and number). You can easily top off the oil as it burns.
  • Anything cotton makes for a good wick: a bit of string or a shoe lace or a sliver of cotton rag work great. The wider the wick, the wider the flame. Also, I keep meaning to try a twist of mugwort–I hear that works.
  • Want more light? Add more wicks. The shell above has three.
  • Yes, you can add a few drops of essential oil for scent.
  • Adjust the flame height by lengthening or shortening the wick length. The oil doesn’t get hot, so you can just poke your finger in the shell and push the wicks up or down.
  • Don’t use lamp oil, kerosene, etc. as fuel–only cooking oils. Conversely, don’t try to burn cooking oil in other types of oil lamps, like hurricane lamps. 
  • Stabilize tilting shells either by nesting them in one another or by putting them in little dishes of sand, salt or pebbles. I’m using a couple of oyster shells that I dragged home from an oyster bar right now because I broke my favorite shells, but in terms of restaurant-sourced shells, I prefer big mussel shells because of their depth. Scallop shells work well, too.
  • If you don’t have a shell, you can use any shallow vessel. A jar lid works especially well if you dent one edge to make a little “V” for the wick to rest on. Lately I’ve been eyeballing ashtrays in thrift stores, wondering how well the cigarette rests would work as wick rests. 
  • Like any candle, the open flame can set things on fire, but if you knock one of these over it’s not going to erupt into a conflagration of doom. Olive oil and other cooking oils have high flashpoints. All that will happen is that you’ll stain your favorite tablecloth. The wick will most likely be snuffed out in the spill. If it doesn’t get snuffed out, it will continue burning if it can continue to draw oil from the spill.

The Most Beautiful Shed in the World

Located in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, this writer’s shed designed by Erin Moore has some mighty fine details. According to a blog post on Float Architectural Research and Design,

The writing studio is designed to reveal the ecological complexity of the site to visitors and in this way it is successful: Small tunnels under the studio bring rare reptiles and amphibians into view through the floor-level window. The water collection basin that doubles as the front step draws in birds and deer. At midday, the silhouettes of these animals project from the water onto the interior ceiling. Windows on the west and north sides frame different bird habitats—the tops of fence row trees and the patch of sky at a hilltop updraft. The roof diaphragm amplifies rain sounds and the collection basin is a measure of past rainfall.

I’ve got shed envy.

Via Lloyd’s blog.

Earth Based Finishes for Walls

Kurt demos proper hawk and trowel technique.

I just spent a blissful weekend in the California desert learning earth based finish techniques from adobe master Kurt Gardella. Some observations:

  • Earth plastering is not something you can learn from a book. It takes practice and hands-on experience. In this excellent workshop we got three full days of learning the techniques both for indoor and outdoor surfaces.

Clay, sand, wheat paste and prickly pear juice as an exterior plaster.

  • There’s no simple recipe for earth based finishes since clay and sand have different properties depending on where they come from. You figure out the right proportions of clay/sand/straw by doing test patches. Too much clay and the surface will crack. Too much sand and it wont stick to the wall when you try to trowel it on. Straw can be used to strike a balance. We did a second scratch coat on the first day that ended up cracking badly. We tried to add more sand but that made the plaster too hard to trowel on. The solution was to add more straw, which allowed us to keep a higher clay content in the mix, while preventing the coat from cracking when it dried.

Kurt shows how to work over the final mud plaster coat.

  • Earth based walls have an indescribable, almost metaphysical presence. I had been in the small desert cabin we plastered when it had wood paneling. Once the walls were filled with cob and the plaster coats applied it had a weightiness that’s difficult to describe in words. Some other advantages: it absorbs sound, regulates humidity and is a good insulator. Drywall seems flimsy in comparison. There’s something about traditional plastering techniques (even the lath and plaster of our 1920s house) that give a room a comforting feeling. Of course, plastering with a hawk, trowel and darby take a lot of skill and time which is why they are seldom done anymore. It’s a pity.

Image from japanesetrowels.com

  • The Japanese make the best trowels. And, yes, there is a japanesetrowels.com. The flexible ones are especially nice for finish coats. But they ain’t cheap.

Fermenting prickly pear.

  • Rotted prickly pear cactus juice, combined with some wheat paste, makes an amazing stabilizer when mixed with adobe. The mucilaginous texture of prickly pear gives adobe a stability that helps it resist water penetration. To extract the cactus juice you chop up prickly pear, put it in a bucket with some water, and let it ferment for a few weeks. We used a prickly pear stabilizer in a mix that covered the top of a cob oven.

If you’re interested in learning adobe techniques Kurt Gardella will be coming to LA to teach a class on oven building. More info here. Some plastering will be done in the course of the oven class.  There’s also a nice book on the subject: Using Natural Finishes: A Step-by-Step Guide.

One last thought: Working earth plaster by day and sleeping in a cozy desert cabin with a copy of the Odyssey is just about as perfect a life as I could hope for. Thank you Meredith and Doug for your hospitality!

Insect Hotel

This is old news, but we thought it worth repeating in light of last week’s review of Attracting Native Pollinators.

Above is a picture of the winning design of a native pollinator habitat built by Arup Associates in response to the Beyond the Hive competition put on by the City of London.  The Core77 post we’re linking to has more views and also some pics of the runners up. It might give you some ideas for building your own habitats at home.

How to Make a Mosaic Stepping Stone

Not liking the pre-fab stepping stone options out there, I decided to take matters into my own hands and make one with glass mosaic tile. It’s easy to do using what’s called the “indirect method” in which you press the tiles onto a piece of contact paper. You then use that sheet of tile to cast your new, custom stepping stone.

The first step is to come up with a design, either hand drawn or printed out from the computer. Since you’ll be working in reverse, you flip your design left-right. I chose the mercury, the symbol of transformation (it seemed like a good metaphor for a garden). No need to flip this particular image, of course. When sizing the design I like to keep in mind the size of the tiles I’ll be using so that any lines are about one tile wide.

I transferred the design to a piece of clear contact paper. Next, I taped the contact paper, with the sticky side up. to a piece of melamine coated fiberboard. Melamine is a good material to use because it helps it has a very smooth, even surface and is unlikely to warp. In addition, using melamine for the sides of the mold helps it release more easily. I built this mold out a piece of a discarded Ikea bookshelf.

While I was cutting the bottom piece, I cut four additional small pieces of the bookshelf to form the sides of the mold.The dimensions of these pieces determine the size of your stepping stone. I made a simple box by joining the pieces with screws at the corners. If you wish, you can spray the sides of the mold with WD-40 to help release the mold later. I forgot to do this, but it released fine anyway

For the mosaic itself, I used glass mosaic tile leftover from an old project. The glass picks up reflections and shimmers on a sunny day. The drawback is that it’s pretty expensive. The brand we’ve used in the past is Bisazza. You can also, of course, use broken plates, pebbles, pieces of metal or tile left over from other jobs.

To cut glass tile I use a pair of tile nippers. I like to break the square tiles into four small pieces to simulate the irregular look of ancient mosaics. I wear a pair of safety glasses and do the cutting in a box to keep shards of glass from flying around. I also do this outside or in the garage so little shards of glass don’t end up in our house. Once cut, I press the little tile pieces against the sticky side of the contact paper–face down, or “good side” down.  The sticky paper holds them in place.

When you’re finished sticking all the tiles down, it’s time to mix up some concrete. I used one part Portland cement to three parts builder’s sand. I poured my concrete into the mold and used some chicken wire as reinforcement. I just cut the wire into a rough square that would fit in the mold, poured half the concrete, placed the wire in the mold, then finished the pour. 

Once cast, I put the stepping stone in a garbage bag to slow down the curing process. After a couple of days I carefully removed the mold. One advantage of this technique is that it’s “self-grouting”: the concrete should flow between the tiles during the pour. It worked well, but I will have to do a small amount of grouting to fix a few spots the concrete did not reach.  

You could also use this same reverse method to make designs that could be pressed into a mortar bed when tiling, say, a kitchen or bathroom.

For more garden mosaic ideas see a previous post we did on the subject that includes a link to the stunning pebble mosaic work of Jeffery Bale.