Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Making a heating pad for Mom

On my last visit to Mom's she mentioned that her heating pad was getting worn. It's one of those belt-style pads that's full of rice and you heat it in the microwave. 

We popped down to the basement to sort through her fabric stash (she has an amazing collection of fabrics and clothes ready for repurposing). We found a super soft shirt with a tight weave (so the rice grains won't escape) and some decorator fabric. I took measurements and the fabric and headed home to see what I could put together.

I doubled up the shirt fabric just to be sure it wouldn't wear too quickly. And to make sure the rice wouldn't poke through the weave. This is the side that sits against your back so we wanted it really soft.
The inside
The side that's visible when you're wearing it is made from the home-dec fabric. A bit stiff and more intensely colored, it's very pretty. The stiffness helps as it shouldn't flop about as much as her current model does.
The outside
I also made a small drawstring storage bag so she could hang it from a hook when not in use. This way it can be stored near the microwave yet still be out of the way. Since I'd never made a bag before I turned to Pinterest for inspiration and a tutorial. Ended up using this one. Good clear instructions and it went together very quickly.
Handy carrying bag
Sewing it up was fun and I enjoyed figuring out how to get it all together. I'm starting to get the hang of this whole sewing thing, I think...

Snow, solar, agility - basically a mishmash today

We're getting a more normal snow load this year than last. Chris has had to use the tractor to clear the driveway three times. That's always a production simply because it's so darn cold on that thing. We really need to look at getting a cab for it. 

My experiment in overwintering my rosemary seems to be going well. The plant I brought into the house didn't make it two months (my worst record ever) but the outside plant seems to still be good. I cut the bottom out of the bucket, put it over the plant, and packed it with dead leaves. The hope being that the heavy mulch would actually stay in place and let the plant sit in stasis until spring. Fingers crossed.
Rosemary still alive?
We installed solar PV in October and November was pretty good despite lots of rain but December stank because of the snow cover. We're grid-tied so we put the panels on the roof - great for getting them out of the way, not practical to clear the snow. If we were actually off-grid we'd have put them on poles that allowed the panels to tilt but we were looking to offset our electrical not get off the system completely. One thing that amazed me is how much the costs have dropped in just four years. When we built the house we had to pay a small fortune to get power all the way back here (we're nearly 2000 feet from the main road). We looked at going off-grid at that point but the cost was twice what commercial power cost. Now it's almost at parity. Would have made a different decision, I can tell you that.
Cooper tracks
Cooper enjoys the snow but we've got to keep on eye on her pads. January has brought heavy ice and the crust is hard on her feet. We're rubbing them with ointment to keep them flexible and help with cracking and so far it's helped her be more comfortable. We've also just decided to stay inside some mornings; no need to walk when it's below zero outside.

What do you mean it's cold?
Unfortunately she's a high-energy dog so no walk means, stir-crazy animal. We've taken to setting up a small agility course in the house and doing training. Frankly I think it's good for all of us. She gets both mental and physical exercise and we have the fun of working with her. We use a broom as a jump, pull out the dining chairs as obstacles (over, through, and even under), and work around the table. Minimal mess with maximum results. Pretty good.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Another kitchen update

"Another post soon" - famous last words for a blogger. When last we left the kitchen cabinetry we'd finished the South wall and were getting ready to turn the corner toward the stove. And then Thanksgiving and Christmas happened and it took a while to get back to it.

The corner has not only been turned, it's reached the stove. Hooray!

Chris chose to build the corner cabinet in place rather than do it out in the shop. It's big for one thing and the thought of carrying it into the house was daunting. Also, it's been freezing cold outside and it didn't make a lot of sense to heat the shop. 
Building a massive corner cabinet
I've got three shelves in the cupboard. The bottom shelf is (obviously) full depth and will hold lots of heavy, bulky items like crockpots, canning equipment, fryers, and other small appliances.
That's how big that cabinet is! Fantastic storage.

The second shelf is a bit over half as deep (15 inches) and is 11 inches off the bottom shelf. Why 11? Because that's how tall my tallest pot & lid combo is. And the 15 inch depth? We got there by having me lean into the cupboard to put away the crockpot in the very back corner. Chris then measured from the wall to see where my head was; so I can easily reach into the corner without whacking my noggin. Very practical, these measurements.
Test fitting a few items
And the top shelf is 9 inches higher than the second (yup, that's the height of my tallest stock pot/strainer combo) and is 8 inches deep. I designed the top shelf to fit my frying pans. The handles extend into space and are easy to grab. I don't keep my cast iron on that shelf simply because it's too heavy to grab out one-handed, but all the other flat pans go there. The very corner of the top shelf is not 90 degrees. Instead it bridges the sides so that I can put something a bit deeper there (like my grill pan).

The shelfs are made of cabinet grade hardwood plywood and Chris faced them with cherry. They looks so nice that I'm rethinking my plan to put cabinet doors here. I may leave it open instead (for anyone wondering why there is light peeking through from the top, the counter wasn't complete when I took the picture).
Starting to put stuff away
Connecting the two counters was tricky. We decided on a stepped pattern rather than a mitered corner. We like the visual texture better but that darn ash is really moving around on us. We're going to leave it, gaps and all, for a year to see what the summer weather does to it. If it stabilizes we'll fill the gap with copper, much like we did on the stair landing. 

We were worried (okay, not worried really, but mildly concerned) that the new section of counter wouldn't stain the same as the sink section. Remember we're using homemade natural stain. It varies. A lot. Well, we needn't have worried. Came out great.
Hard to tell we stained them weeks apart and with different batches.
We decided to put a double edge on the back of the counter. Design-wise it sort of matches the floor trim, the shaved raw wood edge at the top, the same curve to the bottom. So I like how it ties everything together. Functionally, it solves the problem of shrinking boards. See, it's actually mounted to the wall, not the countertop. The bottom trim edge is wide enough to hide the gap when the boards shrink. I confess we felt pretty darn clever when we thought of that.
So now Chris is working on drawers. I specified depth and he mocked one up. Drawer depths were again determined by the stuff that will reside inside. The top two drawers are 3.5 inches deep for utensils, pot holders, and knives (I like enough room to actually lay stuff out flat; I hate jumbled tools. I'll have to do a post on what's inside the drawers when we're all finished). The next two drawers are 5.5 inches deep and will hold smaller pots and their lids as well as my braising pan. The bottom drawer is 7.5 inches deep and fits my 3 and 4 quart saucepans with lids. The drawer fronts are cherry and will darken to match the vertical cupboard edges. I really think the whole thing is going to look wonderful - and be incredibly functional.
Testing the drawer design
I've been playing around with ideas for the drawer and cabinet pulls. Not sure what I'm going to land on yet but so far stones or old silverware are the front runners.


Friday, January 6, 2017

The Kitchen Sink

Way back when I started dreaming about our new house I had very specific requirements for my kitchen sink. My Grandma L had this wonderful porcelain cast iron sink - two deep sink bowls and a drainage area on the side. I wanted one just like hers. More or less. Well, really less. Because while I did want a porcelain-enameled cast iron sink, I hate deep sink bowls, and double bowls, and the one bowl I did want had to fit my Grandma OB's baking sheet, and I wanted two drainage areas not one. So pretty much, exactly like hers but totally not. Right.

Armed with Grandma OB's baking sheet I went to antique festivals, flea markets, and restoration shops. Either the sinks were in horrible shape, the bowl was too small for the pan, or they were WAY too expensive; I couldn't find the one I wanted. And then, magically, Chris was on Craig's List one day and there it was. A woman was redoing her kitchen and was getting rid of the original cast iron sink. A single bowl, double drain, white porcelain sink that had been in active use in a normal household kitchen, not a barn, not sitting out in a field. For $125. We threw Grandma's pan in the truck and went to see if this was the one.

It was. 

Ta da!
It was also heavier than a dead minister. (Why are ministers considered heavy when dead? Were they not heavy alive? Is my family the one who says this? Gotta look that up sometime). We really had to work to get that puppy into the truck. And then it came home with us and sat in the garage of the old house for two years. Yes, we broke a cardinal rule and bought something before we actually needed it. Given that it took about two years to find it though, I think it was the right decision. Finally we built BeechHouse and it sat in the carport for 4 more years while we worked on the house interior (has it really been four years???). 

And now, it's finally installed and I love it.

Ta da again!
If you've never installed a sink like this, it's designed to sit on a base like the one in the first picture. Or it can be hung from the wall. Or placed on legs. Lots of options which makes the underside of the sink really weird to work with as there are slots and wings and supports sticking out all over the place. Chris had to get in underneath it and cut holes in the counter in order to have it lay flush. Nothing like cutting into your brand new counter, eh? 

It's also not quite as deep front-to-back as the standard depth counter. Since I didn't want it recessed it had to sit proud of the wall. So Chris built a back section with a cherry shelf. Now my dish soap has a place to live and isn't in the way. The faucet? Another item that I bought well in advance just because I saw it at HD one day. Not in the expensive sink & faucet section but in the basic plumbing area. $10 and it's actually brass with chrome cladding. Heavy, excellent action, great flow. And no longer available. 

So we broke our own rule, twice, and got lucky, twice. I'm not going to mention the errors in judgment that caused the rule to be put in place though. Just know we won't be breaking it again anytime soon despite this resounding success.


Monday, January 2, 2017

Chicken Statistics

We watch them, they watch us. Entertainment for all.
I never expected my chickens to be economical. I mean, eggs at the grocery are pretty cheap, right? And around here, even farm eggs are reasonable (I can get local eggs for around $2/dozen. They aren't "organic" but they are from a small homesteader). So chickens fell firmly into the hobby category - something you do despite the cash flow impacts as long as those impacts aren't too terribly negative.

However I have sort of kept on eye on costs without stressing about it too much. Here's where we are, more or less.

In terms of startup costs you've got coop, birds, and equipment. We built the initial coop from an existing little building and added only a few items to convert it. Basically we spent around $35 on paint, floor tiles, and incidentals. Not a bad start. Then we totally lucked out when my friend bought a house that had a coop she didn't want. And she gave it to us! We were able to reuse most of the materials from that but had to pick up some stuff - around $150 for footers, 2x4s, 2x6s, flooring, and hardware cloth. In terms of equipment, the feeder was made from some PVC that we had laying around and I got a water cooler bottle from my brother so those were essentially free. Eventually I bought a water heater ($50) and a metal 2-gallon waterer to go with it ($25). Judicious use of coupons brought the actual cost down to $60. And I bought the birds from a local store for $3 each at 8 weeks of age. I know I got a bargain there as that's what new chicks typically cost so I got to save on the feed for those weeks. So that about $225 in startup costs. That's super low for a coop this size and really highlights the value of scavenging and scrounging. 

Then the recurring expenditures started as I had to feed those little mouths for 5 months before they even started laying eggs. The good news is that they were soon old enough to let forage for their own food. Obviously we had the feeder filled for free access to pellets as well, but they ate an amazing amount of bugs, grass, greens, and whatever the heck else they found. I was filling that feeder maybe once a week or 10 days. It was awesome. Since I didn't really keep track I'm guessing here, but I remember buying four 50-pound bags of feed at $12/bag. And now that winter is here I buy scratch seed for them too, one bag so far at $15. So $65 in purchased food for 2016.

The hens started laying at the end of September. Well, some of them did. Others waited until late in October and one is still holding out. But I did finally start getting eggs and they were great. They gradually increased from an average of three eggs per day to five. And for the most part I'm still getting those five despite the shorter days (I do not light the coop). I didn't keep track at first but eventually enough people kept asking me how many eggs I'd gotten that I starting numbering the them. I hit 246 on December 31st but I'd estimate at least 300 since they started laying. 

So on a "per egg" basis what has this cost? A lot. (225 startup + 65 recurring)/300 eggs is nearly $1/egg. Fortunately startup costs don't recur so if I ignore them that drops it to 22 cents per egg or $2.60/dozen. Not bad. And I expect that to drop even more now that production is up and running. We had a lot of growing months in that initial feed bill after all. 

Where is this going?
Are there things we're doing to mitigate the cost of this hobby? Yes! And we made some decisions along the way to make exiting a bit less painful as well. Such as making sure the coop could be used as a shed if we get out of chickens some day (in case you're wondering the original temp coop has already been repurposed once again and is now storage for garden tools and chicken related supplies).

Last summer I planted a chicken garden using free, old seed packets that I had acquired. So that provided some food for fall and early winter and helped mitigate the commercial feed bill. I'll definitely be doing this again. 

And I've started to grow fodder. I had some cover crop seed and I sprouted it. After 8 days it looked like grass and I fed the entire seed mat to the chickens. They loved it. Green stuff in winter! 
Sprouted rye on day 2
They also get let out to scrounge around on their own. Seeds from the bird feeder, stuff that blows out of the trees, and bugs that are still hiding in the leaves under all that snow provide activity and food.
Chickens and Cooper grazing on sunflower seeds
And none of this cost discussion included the other benefits I get from the birds. Fertilizer from their droppings, turned compost, and just plain entertainment value.