Next skill – knifemaking?

I have been debating what skill would be most efficient to learn next.

Flintknapping? I am in the right geographical area for it, and I can find practitioners to learn from at the annual pioneer-skills fairs or at the Heritage Center. It requires minimal tools and energy input (holding a rock in your hand and hitting it with another rock to make it sharp, anyone?) but carries risk of physical injury (holding a rock in your hand and hitting it with another rock to make it sharp, anyone?)

Luck and networking seem to have brought me another option, though!

See me smiling?

I’ve been interested in metals since I did my senior comprehensive paper on the unique crystalline structure of Damascus steel – but I haven’t had a chance to work with it past tiny craft workshops on enameling. So this was a dream come true.

On January 15th, I joined Trampas on a trip to PrairieCon’s Winter Gamesday – where we played Galaxy Trucker and lots of Agricola (mmm, Agricola!)  His parents live around there so we took advantage of their guest rooms. Trampas’s dad Cliff happens to be an accomplished blacksmith, and loves sharing his skills with excited newbies. So, with a great deal of help, I got to both forge a knife from a railroad spike AND heat-treat, haft and sharpen a used sawzall blade into a paring knife!!!!


Cliff’s propane forge, Hotsy.

This is forging temp. You WILL singe your eyebrows if you get too close.

Propane turned all the way up, for grins and comparison.

Cliff did the drawing-out with a 7-pound hammer he made himself from a sledgehammer, and I did the shaping and smoothing with the 1-pound wussy girl hammer that was the only one I could control. Even the 2-pound hammer was hilariously ineffective.

Trampas helped shape the point!

This is why you have a hole on both ends of the forge – so you can position the part that needs greatest heating, in the hot center area. Here we were heating the join between blade and handle so I could straighten it back out – it got a bit turned during forging.

Finished forged blade, with scorch mark where I leaned too close to the hilt while concentrating on a detail of shaping. The blade is not entirely smooth – I intended to leave some areas in forged-condition instead of polished to prove that it was a forged knife, but the final polishing and sharpening took them quite a bit smoother than I expected.

And coolest of all, Cliff sent me home with a teeny firebrick forge like the one in the center of this photo, to practice more on my own! This is entirely suitable for recycling used blades – in fact, we heat-treated the paring knife entirely in my own forge.

Yes, it does take a lot of fossil-fuel input – but right now that is available, and practicing the skills with easy heat will certainly not be wasted if in the future I have to use hard heat. Plus, recycling old metal? Heck yes! Now to collect old horseshoes, railroad spikes, dull sawzall blades, and circular saw blades with carbon all the way through…  

(The facilitator for the brain-tanning class had made the class wahintkas out of chopped up circular saw blades that he ground sharp. Starting with the right kind of saw blade  – carbon all the way through instead of only on the teeth – and heat-treating would have made them a great deal better at retaining an edge. There are elk farms around here that sell shed antlers for hafting…)

I took notes, but there was SO MUCH going on. Can anyone recommend a good introductory text to serve as a memory aid?


Alternative Housing – Shipping Containers

Ever since I saw a Discovery Channel? program on alternative houses feature a home composed of three stacked shipping containers nestled into a 10-foot-deep lot at the base of a cliff, I have been in love with the idea of making a home out of these amazing modular components.

  • They stack!
  • They’re inherently structurally sound and you’d have to work pretty hard to ruin that,
  • they’re much cheaper than standard building methods, yet still rectangular enough to use standard-sized components for alterations,
  • they require a minimum of external maintenance, which means you need to earn a minimum of future income to pay for that,
  • one end of a container will easily fit a full size bed across, or four twin-size bunks lengthwise;
  • the walls are magnetic and thus offer crazy interesting removable cabinetry options –
  • and most importantly, the insulated ones used for refrigerated transport have the same R-value as straw bale housing. Duuuuude.

Cut in some windows for ventilation and you have an infinitely rearrangeable transportable comfortable home that doesn’t advertise itself as full of stuff worth stealing. 😉

While realistically I will probably stay in this house for a while,  that doesn’t stop me from dreaming…

While this particular design includes a lot of glass that would have to be compensated for / covered at night to slow heat loss, the basic idea is perfect. Imagine four shipping containers, in two stacks of two with open courtyard space in between – and that courtyard space enclosed and finished. Each container would include all the privacy an occupant could want – bed space, a bathroom, a kitchenette/kitchen and relaxation/sitting space – and the shared public space used for large crafts, gatherings, exercise, board games, running around in the sunlight, and st-r-e-t-c-h-ing.  Given how much I miss the college shared-house arrangement of having interesting friends easily accessible whenever you want to debate some pop-culture reference, this would be an ideal setup for an extended family or four friends to live for cheap on a bit of cultivatable land.

My friend Trampas said he would come play with me if I didn’t call it a commune, but instead an Evil Lair. Named Skullcrusher Mountain.

It’s all about the branding…

Disaster Preparedness: Making room for guests in small spaces

Aka, “This is the way the world ends – with your brother-in-law sleeping on your couch – but my couch is a two-seater and gives you a horrible crick in the neck.”

I’ve been working on making my house more versatile – redesigning it by functions it needs to accomodate, which usually do not match up with rooms it already contains. It’s important to me that I can:

  • store basic food ingredients and the means to process them;
  • store art/craft / project  materials and enough room to use them effectively without having to clear new space every time, because that means I won’t use them;
  • and have enough clear, open and welcoming space for friends and family to stay with me if they need it.

After all, I got laid off in 2010; a few family members a few months later; and now, even in North Dakota land of the new Oil Boom, unemployment is creeping back up again.  It’s not unthinkable that someone I know will need help. If it’s me, I have my legume stash in the basement; if it’s my family or friends – I have my legume stash in the basement!

What makes preparedness feasible, is when you realize it’s not just a time-and-money sink for a long emergency that may never happen. The same preps will help immensely for a medium-term emergency – like a blizzard snowing you in for a week and breaking the Just-In-Time grocery store supply lines. (Well, not THIS creepy crazy year… usually in January we have one week of -60 F windchill. This January, we had a day of +60 F actual temperature.) And of course, the same preps will help immensely for a short-term “emergency” – like a crowd of friends over for movies who drink a bit too much wine and decide to sleep over, who will need blankets and breakfast. 🙂

Sharon Astyk also makes the point that you don’t have to have tons of extra money lying around to stock up on these contingency supplies – if you don’t treat these things as backup, but as essential parts of your daily routine, then you’re not buying two of everything – you’re only buying one multifunctional one. The stuff that integrates neatly into your everyday life is the stuff that you can afford to purchase, and use.

Let me illustrate that point a bit better with a recent problem I’ve been considering – how to make sleeping space for guests, now that the ex-husband has taken the futon.

(You may notice that I read modern design blogs in my spare time.)

Option 1:  A folding mattress with a matching tray table – mattress and end-table in one.

Yes, it’s multifunctional; and yes, I could make it in any color to match my decor; but you can really only have one in the room I have, and it would be annoying to sweep around. Probably not the right choice for me.

Option 2: “Stay in My Home” by Designasyl

At first look, this is pretty awesome! Much less footprint; it’s got a drawer where you could stash a small basket of backup hygiene supplies like a toothbrush, hairbrush, handkerchief, pads, etc; the table and pull-out drawer give the guest someplace private-feeling to store their own things; and the table-top makes it at least somewhat multifunctional.

Major drawbacks for me – again, I could only have one or two in my space, it’s pretty clear what it’s supposed to be, and having the mattress rolled up on the floor in my house guarantees it will be coated with dog and rabbit hair in about 2 minutes.

Option 3:  A six-person daybed! Awesome!!!

Apologies that I have no attribution for this – the styling looks like it came off, but I cannot find it again.

The clear winner!!  It has multiple uses, and does REALLY WELL at all of them.

This daybed takes up the footprint of a normal couch; can break out into as many as six mattresses if needed; the pillows store on the top making the backrest of the couch version; and the sheets can be folded and stored in between the layers, requiring no additional closet space dedicated to them. I have the sewing skills to make the mattress pads myself (mmm six coordinated black-and-white upholstery prints from my stash), and while I don’t grow bamboo, this would make a lovely project to get a carpenter friend to give me a primer. (I am unutterably sad at missing out on a shop class, through all my years of schooling.) I am thinking having a frame on both narrow ends, and having two diagonal choke ties from “armrest” to base to keep the mattresses in place?

I’ve got room in the basement for this now. I am considering keeping the basement empty, for possible roommate longterm, staging area for decluttering/destashing short term, and basically just to prove to myself that I can get by in ~800 square feet of upstairs + utility rooms. If I keep going with that, then when my current loveseat dies, I already have the replacement selected.

DIY Erosion Control

This summer I had an unfortunate incident with water in the basement, and the people fixing the issue recommended I focus on the drainage in the front yard. Over the years, the dirt right by the house had become packed down to level instead of sloping away, therefore giving the water more opportunity to hang around by the foundation. This is exactly what you want when trying to store water in the earth for the benefit of trees; not so much near structures.

So, in November I had a bunch of black dirt imported to regrade the drainage before the first winter snow flew – with about two days’ notice. Not enough time to get the bare dirt covered. I bought covering material, but there was no time  to apply it before this fall’s Surprise Business Trip. Hooray, muddy mess in spring!

The snow melted, and was never replaced. Hooray, second chance! You can see from the smudges of dirt on the pavement from the melting of even the tiny bit of snow we did get that the risk of erosion was real.

The original plan was to separate bales of oat straw from a local garden center into those nice little “books” they tend to split into on their own, and lay them out to cover the bare ground evenly. The compression of the straw should hold the books together long enough for snow to mat them down for the rest of the winter; I would tack down the ones on the edges with landscape fabric staples. The straw would degrade over the winter and spring, and make a nice mulch-in-place for the medicinals I plan for 2012.

As I laid out the books this fine January day of 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and reflected on the 20 mph wind already tickling the edges of the straw, I realized this was a terrible idea.  I needed something better to hold the straw down. I dashed into the garage and found a lovely roll of 7′ bird netting!! A quick roll down the center sidewalk gave me a smooth place to unfold the amount I needed, and I had just enough landscape staples to tack down the edges. Voila! A nearly-invisible retention system that increased the visual match to the rest of the winter yard. Barely ghetto at all!

The best thing was, I completed an entire project by myself without having to run to the store for ANYTHING. A distinctly rare pleasure, that I hope to see more of in 2012. After taking Sharon Astyk’s Adapting in Place course in April 2011 I’ve been thinking about what supplies I should lay in; she emphasizes how nice it is to have project materials stored ready to hand, and after this I thoroughly agree.

The best thing about the entire original situation was that I HATED the plants by the foundation! And now they’re gone! Mwahahaha!

What-if Clutter

This is meeeeeeeeeee.

“But I need to save these empty plastic containers with air-tight lids! I just gave away seven of them with the Christmas legumes! I do actually use them!”

I actually had to make myself throw away a bread bag at SOMEONE ELSE’S HOUSE yesterday.

Decluttering is going to be a big theme for me this month. I got a start on clothes last year, but someone GAVE ME BACK what they didn’t want of the good stuff so now I have to convince myself to get rid of it all over again. 🙂

The astoundingly early Honeyberry (haskap)

If you have room for two shrubs in your yard, consider the Honeyberry – the earliest fruit I harvested in 2011. They’re described as tasting like a mix between a blueberry and a currant – so, with a bit of tartness to them. That’s a fairly accurate description… I quite liked them, anyway! Others wanted sugar added.

These are the two smaller of the commercially-released varieties from the University of Saskatchewan. Berry Blue and Blue Belle? They should be ~4-6′ tall at maturity.

May 6: first flower.

May 11: whole bush in flower.

June 2: green fruit already present.

June 13: ripening.

June 24: ready to eat.

About 8 oz total yield from two first-year shrubs, maybe 16″ high each.



October 4: Settling down for the winter.