Easy To Make Furniture: Sunset DIY Manual From the 1970s

PVC pipe and an avocado colored cushion? Instant outdoor furniture, or so this campy 1970s furniture manual, Easy-to-Make Furniture,from the editors of Sunset Magazine, would have you believe.

While I think DIY furniture books from this period are somewhat horrifying, I have a respect for their can-do attitude in the face of the era’s declining wood shop skills. Then, WHAM, the global economy and Ikea came along and wiped out the last remaining economic reasons to try to make your own furniture.

That being said, I think some clever folks with time on their hands and an eye for discarded materials could make use of some of the concepts in this book.

So start dumpster diving! Let’s take those scavenged materials and revisit the bean bag. Easy-to-Make furniture has its own unique twist on the concept. Say hello to the “Multiposition Tube Seat”:


And yes you can have a particle board chair:

With a built-in magazine rack:

Scope out this book in its entirety here.

Make a Brigid’s Cross

A little cross hanging on our chicken coop

Spring is here. In LA, it’s definitely in full swing, but I suspect even in more northerly places folks may notice a slight change in the air, or find early flowers like snowdrops or crocuses pushing their way through the snow. Spring is stirring.

To celebrate spring this year, I made a few Brigid’s crosses to hang in the house and out on the chicken coop. They’re protective symbols, intended to ward off both evil and fire. Who doesn’t need that, I ask you? And it’s fun to put some fresh decorations up to counterbalance the post-holiday doldrums.

These symbols can be interpreted as Christian crosses, but they also have a definite pagan sun-wheel feel to them (energy circling around and around). Brigid herself did double-duty as a pagan goddess of smiths, poets and healers and later as a patron saint of…smiths, poets and healers.

Wikipedia says the symbol was unrecorded before the 17th century, so who really knows where it came from. (Shades of Spinal Tap!: No one knew who they were or what they were doing…)

But what the hay. St. Brigid’s day is February 1st, and the cross-quarter holiday of Imbolc, which marks the coming of spring, is celebrated around the 2nd. I think this weekend would be excellent time to make a few Brigid’s crosses for fun and luck.

A proper reed cross

They’re super-easy to make. Just go the Fish Eaters site for very clear weaving directions. Traditionally they are made out of reeds or long pieces of straw. I had neither, so I used some broom corn*, which didn’t result in a symmetrical effect that reeds give, but is sort of cute in its own way.  (FYI for you southerners: I tried palm fronds first, but they were too slippery. And seeing me trying to weave with them gave Erik flashbacks to Sunday school!)

*No, I haven’t made my broom yet! I’m hung-up on getting some nylon cordage in a decent color. For some reason our hardware store only stocks it in florescent shades.

The Chinese Wheelbarrow

From the very cool Low-tech Magazine, the Chinese wheelbarrow:

The Chinese wheelbarrow – which was driven by human labour, beasts of burden and wind power – was of a different design than its European counterpart. By placing a large wheel in the middle of the vehicle instead of a smaller wheel in front, one could easily carry three to six times as much weight than if using a European wheelbarrow.

 Read the rest here. So who will be the first to make one of these with an old bicycle wheel?

Gingerbread Geodesic Dome


Scout Regalia Reel 02: Gingerbread Geodesic Dome from Scout Regalia on Vimeo.

Now you can bake your own version of Drop City without getting “baked” yourself! Some local designers, Scout Regalia, have cooked up a gingerbread geodesic dome and offer a kit for making one.

Now when it comes to geodesic domes as shelter I’m with former dome builder Lloyd Kahn who concluded that “Domes weren’t practical, economical or aesthetically tolerable.”

But when it comes to gingerbread domes, I’m all for it!

Via the Eastsider.

Michael Reynold’s Beer Can Houses

Construction of One of Three Experimental Houses Built from Empty Beer and Soft Drink Cans.

The National Archive just put thousands of 1970s era images from the Environmental Protection Agency online. One of the photographers working for the EPA, David Hiser, captured New Mexico architect Michael Reynolds building houses out of adobe and aluminum cans. See a selection of these photos after the jump . . .

Detail of a Wall in an Experimental Home Built of Aluminum Beer and Soft Drink Cans near Taos, New Mexico.

Caption: “Detail of a wall in an experimental home built of aluminum beer and soft drink cans near Taos, New Mexico. for this wall the cans were laid horizontally in two thicknesses which are separated by a vertical sheet of foam insulation. The exterior will be a combination of glass, exposed can ends and unpainted concrete. Unskilled labor and the cheapness of materials will allow the structure to be built as much as 20% less than conventional housing.”

Exterior of an Experimental All Aluminum Beer and Soft Drink Can House Under Construction near Taos, New Mexico.

Caption: “Exterior of an experimental all aluminum beer and soft drink can house under construction near Taos, New Mexico. This shot was taken two months after the foundation was laid. the wood forms on the top will be used to pour concrete beams.”

Interior View of the All Aluminum Beer and Soft Drink Can Experimental House near Taos, New Mexico.

Interior view of the all aluminum beer and soft drink can experimental house near Taos, New Mexico. the owners report the house seems to work well so far and gives the feeling of being very solid. the south facing windows capture heat from the sun, a good feature because the winters of the southwest are severe.”

Bottle Window in the Entranceway to an Experimental Home Built with Empty Steel Beer and Soft Drink Cans near Taos, New Mexico.

Caption: “Bottle window in the entranceway to an experimental home
built with empty steel beer and soft drink cans near Taos, New Mexico. the ends
of the cans used in a non-load bearing wall are seen around the window.”

Another Experimental House Made of Empty Steel Beer and Soft Drink Can Construction near Taos, New Mexico.

Caption: “Another experimental house made of empty steel beer and soft drink can construction near Taos, New Mexico. This house will be plastered with adobe like the other homes in the area, but will have cost up to 20% less, according to architect Michael Reynolds”

A View of the Experimental House Made of Empty Steel Beer and Soft Drink Cans after Completion with Adobe Exterior.

The same house, above, with an exterior coat of adobe.

Lawyer Steve Natelson, Who Lives near Taos, New Mexico Relaxes on the Bed of His Experimental Home Built of Empty Steel Beer and Soft Drink Cans.

Caption: “Lawyer Steve Natelson, who lives near Taos, New Mexico, relaxes on the bed of his experimental home built of empty steel beer and soft drink cans. On the wall is a mural of cans left exposed. It was the first such house built by the architect Michael Reynolds who believes this type of housing can be built for as much as 20% less than the conventional method. The Federal Housing Administration has shown interest in issuing loans on this type of housing. The cost is $25,000 to $30,000 for a two-bedroom home.”

See more of David Hiser’s photos of New Mexico here.

For more about this EPA photo collection read an article in the Atlantic, “Documerica Images of America in Crisis in the 1970s“.

Earthquake Proofing the Pantry

So I finally got around to earthquake proofing the pantry. All it took was a bunch of four foot bungee cords which seemed to have just about the right amount of stretch to span our seven foot shelves. You could probably use the same four foot bungee cords to span an even longer shelf. I used eye hooks to anchor the ends of the cords.

Looking at the picture, the height of the cords on some of the shelves might not be optimal (looks like some of the jars could slip under in a good shaking). But, all in all, I’m pleased with the results.

Mud for the People! Building an Adobe Garden Wall

This weekend Kelly and I had our first adobe encounter. We were lucky to have been invited to attend a workshop led by Kurt Gardella and Ben Loescher. Kurt also teaches both live and online classes that you can find out about on his website, www.kurtgardella.com. We’ll post announcements for future classes, because I haven’t had so much fun in a long time! This past weekend’s workshop focused on making bricks and building an adobe garden wall. If you want to learn about adobe, Kurt and Ben are the folks to go to. And, lest we forget, adobe is the traditional building material of the Southwest United States and many other parts of the world. Adobe needs just people power and locally available materials.

What follows, after the jump, is a pictorial essay of our adobe experience.

We missed the first day of the workshop, but pieced together what Kurt and Ben went over. One of the first steps is to determine the clay/sand content of your soil and to do that you do a jar test. When you mix some soil with water in a jar and let it sit, the clay settles on top, the silt below that, and the sand on bottom. You can measure the sample and determine percentages.

At the workshop, held in the high desert town of Landers, CA the sand and clay were sourced locally and from the site.

The clay got sifted through 1/4 inch hardware cloth to get out chunky bits that can lead to weaknesses in the bricks.

To make both the bricks and the mortar, water is mixed with a half a coffee cup of asphalt. The asphalt helps the bricks and mortar resist water. Traditionally, prickly pear cactus soaked in water and fermented was used before the modern convenience of asphalt.

Our instructors went with a mixture of about one part clay to two parts sand for the bricks and mortar. 

A couple of handfuls of straw were added to each wheelbarrow full of mortar and brick mix to add strength.

Here’s the consistency of the mortar.

To make a brick you press the clay/sand/straw/water/asphalt mix into a form made out of 2 x 4 lumber. The nice thing about adobe bricks is that you can custom size them for your project, though there are traditional sizes.

Before you build anything, however, you have to test your bricks. Here you can see different sand/clay mixtures drying in the sun. You can also make a brick out of whatever soil you have on hand and see how it holds up.

The first test Kurt did was drop one on a corner from about waist high. It didn’t break and thus passed the test.

Another test is standing on a brick. Even though the brick we used weren’t really finished drying, they still passed. For a building that will be inspected you will probably have to send bricks to an engineer for more precise tests.

This is the way you stack bricks for drying. Depending on the climate, it may take several weeks before they are ready to use.

And you have to be careful how you transport them. This is the right way to stack bricks when moving them in a truck. If you stack them flat you risk a lot of broken adobe. 

Adobe bricks are heavy. To move them out of the truck we formed a big bucket brigade. Here Kurt demonstrates an advanced technique where you toss a brick to the adobe worker next to you.

Ben explained different types of foundations and how adobe construction can meet even California’s stringent building code. And, yes, if you build it right (vertical rebar and a bunch of other details) an adobe building will stand up well in an earthquake.

To begin our garden wall we placed a “story pole” on each end of the wall to keep everything plumb and on the level.

Since it was just a garden wall and not a building, we did a simple gravel foundation beginning with this trench.

And some gravel-compacting line dancing.

Kurt dry-laid the bricks to emphasize that you should size structures to the dimensions of your bricks to avoid, as much as possible, cutting bricks.

When laying bricks we used our thumbs as a guide to space the mortar joints.

Kurt showed a couple of different ways of cutting adobe. One way was just scoring with a machete.

A light tap and the brick broke neatly in two. This brick is still a little moist in the center–good enough for a garden wall, but not dry enough for a building.

Next, Kurt showed how to shovel the mortar (again, made out of the exact same sand/clay/water/straw/asphalt mixture as the bricks and in the same proportions).

After you dump the mortar, you roughen it a bit with the end of a shovel to make it easier to press the brick into the mortar bed.

Here Kurt presses a brick into the mortar and lines it up with the line attached to the story poles

He also checks with a torpedo level. Kurt explained that you can’t “develop a close personal relationship with each brick.” That is, you have to keep the wall level as a whole unit and not get caught up in overusing the level on each brick. He also explained the work flow. The master mason sets the level of the end bricks and the apprentices fill in the center of the wall. When everyone knows their task, with the master providing guidance, things move along smoothly.

This spoon-like object is what you use for “pointing” or creating the groove in the mortar between adobe bricks.

You can also use a bent piece of plastic electrical tubing as a pointing tool. You only point if the wall will not be plastered. If you plaster, irregularities in the joints help the first layer of plaster adhere.

With a lot of people working, the wall went up fast.

Kurt demonstrates an alternate way of keeping the wall plumb and level.

He also showed how you would integrate doors and windows into and adobe structure.

Nearing completion, the wall is looking so good that I want to rush home and build one myself.

Kurt brought along an assortment of tools that you would use for plastering, including some really nice Japanese trowels. He also explained, that for the first plaster coat, you can also just use your hands. Such is the sculptural quality and plasticity of adobe. You never stucco adobe. Adobe is plastered with adobe and/or lime/adobe mixtures. Typically, plastering is done in three coats, a rough coat, a leveling coat and a finish coat. Screen your materials with progressively finer screens as you go. The materials for the finish coat should be quite fine, say fine enough to pass through 1/8″ screen.

We ran out of bricks and did not complete the wall. It also began to wobble a bit, a sign that it’s time to stop. Four or five courses for a structure is good for a day. Let it dry and it will be ready to continue the next day.

At the end of the workshop we went into a little “homesteader’s” cabin on the property. The deal with homesteader cabins is that back in the 1950s that the government would give you a five acre parcel if you built a shack with the minimum dimensions of 12 by 16 feet. So people built tiny shacks to just those dimensions!

Kurt teared off some nasty wood paneling in the shack to show how you could retrofit a building with adobe. Here he is starting to fill the space between the interior studs with adobe. The idea is that the adobe will insulate the walls, providing vital insulation in a harsh desert climate. This may not work as well in more humid places. Here the thick layer of mud will dry fairly quickly. Elsewhere it might encourage mold.

Next we nailed some reed fencing material over the adobe-filled studs and started to plaster the wall with the same adobe we used to fill the wall. The reed fencing gives the adobe something to hold on to. Here again, as with the garden wall, the interior wall would be given three progressively smoother coats.

The miracle of all of this is that it is dirt. The insulation is dirt, the bricks are dirt, the mortar is dirt and the plaster coats are dirt. Nothing could be simpler. There’s an art to it, to be sure, but its amazingly elegant in its essence.

As the sun set over the high desert landscape we concluded our building and headed over to Pappy and Harriet’s for some beer and BBQ. I’m really looking forward to working with adobe again someday soon.