Category Archives: cabin projects

Michigan Maple Syrup II

4.1.2017 – Saturday

It’s been a few years since the last time I helped with maple syrup. This go around the endeavor featured 90% less mud than the last time! As with every batch before, the Ol’ man did pretty much all the work. He placed the taps, collected the sap, and began the boil. By the time I arrived with my family, now featuring five members total, all that remained to do was the finishing.

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Sarah and I and our three kiddos arrived Friday night. My folks had already been settled in long before, and the boil was beginning to slowly come to an end as the night sky lit with stars. While my family settled in for the night and prepared for bed the Ol’ man and I discussed plans for tomorrow. The most technical step was ahead of us. This time there was plenty of help.

Saturday morning saw us rise with the morning light. Dad started the fire right away. After Sarah prepared French toast and sausage patties and we ate, work began outside. Jars were lined up and the pan was topped off with it’s final amount of sap to boil. The fire kept on at a reliable pace while some of the hoses and tools from collection were prepared for storage. The whole process went smoothly and afforded me plenty of opportunities for photographs.

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New for this year was a large tank used for sap storage. Collection remained the same as previous years. The Ol’ man is still working out a satisfactory way to pump the sap in and out of the tank. Perhaps on the next go around this will be sorted out.

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The wood burner kept on cooking and performed well. However, a lot of heat was lost from the lower portion of the stove. The ash clean out tray rotted from the heat and the thin metal failed. Heat also escaped through the walls of the stove below the fire box and above the ash tray. To combat this, plans are underway to install fire brick for heat insulation and construct a new ash clean out tray from heavier gauge metal. The firebox is 100% lined with fire brick, but when we leave the ash clean out ajar the fire burns hotter from he extra airflow, helping achieve the ideal oil. The steel that the stove is built from can take the heat but the ash tray couldn’t.

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The specific gravity was checked periodically. Once at the appropriate moisture content was achieved, the fire was quenched with snow and we began to pour off the finished syrup into bottles.

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The finished syrup was run through a strainer and then through two grease splatter screens.

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As the finished syrup was removed, the stove was adjusted with a hydraulic jack to push more syrup toward the pour off spigot.

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The big upgrade this year was the addition of a ball valve to the aluminum kettle. The smooth opening and closing and long handle meant no burnt fingers and virtually no spilling. Had the request been made, the Ol’ man could have filled shot glasses.

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Every drop counts. The pan was tilted to extract every bit of finished syrup.

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Immediately after the last jar was filled clean up began.

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This year saw the production of 12.25 gallons of finished syrup. It was a bit darker than previous years and we noted a more bolder maple flavor. The larger batch and longer period of collection meant that we didn’t get an early batch, but instead had one large batch consisting of early and mid-season sap.

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While the clean up continued Sarah began to make maple candy in the cabin with my Mom. Some syrup from a previous season was heated until it reached 34 to 36°F above boiling. After it was allowed to rest for a little it was stirred until it just began to turn lighter in color and slightly cloudy. Then it was quickly poured into molds.

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The second batch went a little better. We attempted to transfer the molten sugar from pot to a smaller container before pouring it into molds and it solidified too quickly. Batch two went straight from pot to mold. We also stirred it a little too long the first time as well. As soon as we suspected a a slight lightening in color we began to fill the molds.

It was a successful year. With such a large supply of syrup and candy it may be two years before we boil again.

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Shaker Chest of Drawers

4.17.2017 – Monday

Today I finished a project long in the making. There were a few small projects this winter, but for the most part I’ve been singularly focussed on this one massive double project.

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I’ve found a lot of inspiration in the works and articles of C. H. Becksvoort and that lead me to an article in Fine Wood Working Magazine. After settling on the plans for a Cherry Chest of Drawers by Michael Pekovich I started taking inventory to see if I had the needed supplies for the build. As it turned out, I did! Enough for two chest of drawers. Upon Sarah’s request I added an additional bottom drawer, making the case a little taller and meeting the requirements of my wife’s clothing storage needs. As I got further into the project I sent an e-mail to C. H. Becksvoort and got a response with much needed encouragement that concluded with “Enjoy the drawers. They are the best part.” That marked the half way point in the build as well as the birth of my third child.

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I began by pulling wood from a stack down by the garden area just before first snow of winter 2016-2017. With a stockpile of cherry in the shop I worked to get more maple and pine for the drawers. Luckily, the Ol’ man had a supply back on the home forty. With the supplies in shop and the rocking chair nearly completed I finalized the dimensions for what would become a set of eight-drawer cherry chest of drawers. And began.

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Armed with chalk and a tape measure I dug through my lumber and sorted out what would become the case and drawer fronts. After that, smaller boards could be used for the back boards and drawer dividers. I carefully selected 10″ and larger boards for the dresser top and fronts of the larger drawers.

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Starting with thick 7/8″ boards I used the router to cut a glue joint for mating the boards together. I used Tite-Bond II for glueing up all panels. The little zig-zags where the boards come together make glue-up easier and lend to less scraping to smooth the resulting panel. Most of the time the panels didn’t need to be run through the drum sander. The few that had less-than-perfect seems were sanded within 12 hours of glue up to ensure flatness before any wood movement could occur. It’s best practice to assume that all boards will move and plan accordingly. On a large panel I flatten immediately after glue up. When building small drawers I try to cut dovetails and glue up within 24 hours of final thickness planing on the parts. If time allows I like to plane my materials 1/8″ oversize and let it sit for 48 to 72 hours before final dimension is achieved. Over time I’ve learned the humidity profile of my shop. Running a dehumidifier all times of the year and holding 40-45% RH has created a very predictable work space for wood movement. I find it preferable to work with dry wood that will expand with the seasons instead of shrink with the seasons.

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The next step was joinery. I started with the tails. with the tail boards cut I moved on to the pin-boards. Extra care was taken on the case. The pins will be visible on the top of the case and the cleaner the joint the better the top would look. I supported all my cuts to prevent tear out and took tiny bites. Everything was hand fit and shaved carefully after every test-fit. Eventually the fit was clean and snug.

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To prepare for the drawer guides I built a router guide and then cut the dados. With the dados cut I then routed the sliding dovetails deeper into the dado. Once all the joinery was completed on the case I was able to assemble it (and breath a sigh of relief – a mismatched dado from one side to the next would have been crippling to my moral). I used gorilla glue, a polyurethane based expanding glue. It has a longer set time and it is slippery, which assists in large glue ups with tight fitting joinery. The glue can also be sanded without clogging sand paper and is easily removed from the inside of the case using a cabinet maker’s plane. It’s more flexible than Tite-Bond and tends to move with the wood, preventing the phenomenon of raised glue-lines. Raised glue-lines occur when wood shrinks and the glue does not. Running your hand across a surface with raised glue lines reveals each seam between boards. The thicker the panel the greater the raised glue-line may be. However, I prefer Tite-Bond for glueing up panels using up to 1″ thick stock because of it’s fast set time of about 30 minutes compared to 2-4 hours for Gorilla Glue.

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The assembled case was then scraped and sanded. The large Veritas shoulder plane was the perfect tool for shaving end grain on the dovetailed corners. And it is quite satisfying to see perfect end grain shavings. The belt sander makes me nervous but saved a bunch of time on the large panels, as long as I stayed away from all the edges! I didn’t dare go within 3″ of the dovetailed corner. I needed perfect edges for applying the trim and fitting the base.

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Here we have the dividers. The front dividers are cherry and the back are hard maple. The plans called for soft maple but I was all out. I’m also still a year away from having basswood and poplar at the ready. Unable to find a downside to a harder wood I moved forward. The dividers have a dovetailed end and two, three, or four mortices. Dovetailing was done on the router table… very carefully standing each piece on end. Each one was hand fit to the case before any joinery. Each was also carefully labeled because sometimes one would fit better if it were a 1/16″ longer or shorter. Little variations like this are part of a hand-fit look… if you can even identify the slight variances. I also prefer to fit everything so it is un-stressed in the hopes that seasonal movement will not compromise a joint and lead to the unthinkable: a split or crack!

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I took a break from joinery for a bit to make the eight boards for the back of the case. No great feats of joinery for this step, just a simple rabbit cut with a dado-stack on the table saw to make the half-lapped boards.

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After a break from technical work I delved in to some ultra precision work on the router table. I made several dovetailed blanks that wold get shaped in to trim to attach to the top of the chest of drawers. The track was also cut carefully from hard maple with several extras being produced, providing me with a selection to choose from later on with fitting the trim to the track. The more track pieces, the better chance to find the perfect fit.

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Keeping in line with precision work the bases were constructed next. Some carefully cut dovetails were created and then followed up with a perfectly fit miter.

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On the bandsaw I cut the arches and fillets for the base. Clamping the base sides and front to a flat block of ash on the shoulder of my router table acted as a guide for my card scraper.  The jaggy bandsaw cut was tuned up perfectly straight and smooth. An old block plane that I ground down served as a cabinet maker’s plane. Don’t feel bad about for this antique plane, it was acquired for cheap and hadn’t been used in decades. Cutting off the front of block plane gave it new life, earning it a place in my tool cabinet. I like to think that this is preferable to sitting in a box somewhere rusting away.

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The cherry base received reinforcements with hard maple screw/glue blocks as well as a hard maple ledge to attach the base to the chest. A rabbit in the base supports the chest, so the maple ledge is really only there to strengthen the structure of the base (keep it straight) and attach the base to the chest while allowing for seasonal expansion and contraction.

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The dovetails were cleaned up (If you can’t tell that I love my Veritas large shoulder plane you have been looking at the pictures) and I applied finish. Throughout the project finish was applied as I went. It was nice to build in stages and helped to keep me sane, providing some satisfaction and sense of accomplishment as I moved from one stage to the next. Though it wasn’t always, finishing is now a deeply rewarding and somewhat relaxing part of any project. I favor the application of a wiping finish with a foam brush. I then wipe off the excess with a rag lightly wetted with low-odor mineral spirits. Between coats I will buff with 000 or 0000 steel wool, taking care to clean the wood with compressed air and tack-cloth before the next application.

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What a mess… but at least there is progress. You’ll notice it is dark out. I finished at least half of my work after night fall, after work, after the kiddos went to bed. Hopefully my wife will look upon her chest of drawers with fondness as she thinks of the depth of my love… or contempt for leaving her alone nearly every night this past winter.

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I batched out the tenons on the table saw with a dado stack and then cleaned them up with a shoulder plane and chisel.

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An important element for the durability of the case is seen here. The front tenon on the drawer guide is glued in to the front drawer divider. The slides rests in the dados cut in the case and supports the weight of the drawers. The back of the slide then sits loosely in the rear divider with a 3/16″ gap (the drawer slide is 3/16″ too short). That gap is there to allow for the sides of the case to shorten and lengthen in width through the seasons. That gap (where the electric screwdriver is pointing) will close and open depending on the moisture content of the wood through the seasons.

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This is the bottom of the case. The internal structure is complete and I cleaned up the dividers with a finely set hand plane, cabinet scraper, and sand paper. I probably spent about an hour just breaking all the sharp edges on the case. Take a good look at the dovetails on the bottom of the case, once the chest of drawers is fully assembled they will be hidden.

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The trim was one of my favorite parts. I had taped off the front when I applied finish and glued the trim on directly to the bare wood that had been covered with painters tape. Long grain orientation meant I didn’t need to worry about expansion and contraction. On the sides however, the top of the case was perpendicular to the trim grain orientation. Step one was to align the track. I started with a single long piece and drilled all of the screw holes. Then on the crosscut sled I trimmed it into five separate pieces. The trim was then slid over the track and glued to only the first piece of track and to the miter of the front trim piece. The rest of the track was waxed to allow for movement. As mentioned above – earlier in the build I used a straight edge and shoulder plane to create a perfectly flat top edge so there would be no gaps between the case top and the trim (and stayed clear when using the belt sander).

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Nothing like perfectly aligned trim and a silky smooth finish. The dovetails are clean and tight as well.

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It was time to begin making drawers. For the task of cutting half blind dovetails I found a chisel from my Grandpa Nicholas’s old tool box and put it in to service. Using a Dremel I carved it in to a shop-made fish tail chisel and sharpened it. It took an edge well and excelled at it’s new role.

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When I build drawers I begin with the sides. Using the saw blade angled at a 1:6 angle I used a miter gauge and stop block to batch out the sides. The blue tape on the board is there as a reference and makes sure I’m working on the correct part of the board. A goof at this point means I need to mill a new board and start over. Luckily, or perhaps due to experience, no boards were lost for the entirety of the project from a mis-cut tail board (that’s 32 tail boards!).

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Then I cleaned up the tails with chisels. I used a 1/4″ chisel to hog away the waste and then clamped the board and carefully used a bevel edge 1/4″ chisel (brown handles) to pare clean corners at the base of each tail. Other tools pictures are my 6″ rule, mechanical pencil, and dividers – all used on each drawer for layout.

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Midway through the project I picked up a Veritas Dovetail Saw Guide System from Lee Valley Tools. It was a game changer! After a little while I had learned how to use the guide to precisely cut through and half blind dovetails. Most of the time I didn’t have to pare any material away because the saw guide was so precise.

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Early on I used a small sliding T-square to check my work. The fishtail chisel was a star for getting into tight corners and cleaning up my half-blind dovetails. It sliced through end grain cherry with remarkable efficiency. After a few drawers I no longer needed the T-square; but it was very helpful for checking my work as I built up my skills.

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When gluing up the drawers, parallel clamps (orange) were a favorite of mine. Also handy were some shop-made corner squares that I used with my quick-clamps (blue). The F-clamps (green) weren’t necessary, but I used them to guarantee a tightly closed dovetail. Again, Gorilla glue was my glue of choice for dovetails.

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Cleaning up the drawers after glue up took a while. Again, my large shoulder plane was the star. One handy feature of my beam and base workbench was how easily it accommodated the drawers for sanding and planing. After sanding to 180 grit I routed the 1/4″ quarter round on the drawer front and then sanded to 320 grit. A coat of finish (except for the bottom edge of the drawers) and it was on to the next drawer. I left some wood bare because it will better except paste wax than finished wood. The wax will lubricate and provide years of smooth opening and closing.

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As I built drawers I built drawer bottoms. I needed a lot of pine. I even salvaged some small pieces from a pallet I had been holding on to out of laziness. Finding usable pine for two small drawers was motivation to finally break down the pallet. The rest of the pallet served as fuel for the wood burner. Pine was dimensioned to 3/4″ and then allowed to dry a few more days before milling to 1/2″ thickness. I added my glue joint to the edges of the boards on router table to facilitate a trouble-free glue up of the bottoms. About 20 minutes of sanding on each with a belt sander with 180 grit left a nice smooth drawer bottom. The half inch bottom needed to fit in to a 1/4″ dado in the drawer sides, so there was one more trip to the router table involved before being mated to a finished drawer. It was a bunch of extra work but I love the look (and smell) of solid pine bottoms. The bottoms are left bare without any finish applied.

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The drawer fronts got bigger… I had lumber up to 13″ wide of 5/4 cherry. My jointer only reaches 6 inches and planer 12.5″ width. To flatten such a larger board I picked a piece of MDF from the cut-off / bargain bin at a big-box store and hot glued the cherry to it. With one side flat I could pry the glue off and plane the opposing side. This technique worked flawlessly.

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Pre-Finishing the knobs allowed me to polish them up nicely and select for color and character prior to installation.

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I chose to cut off the tenon of each knob and instead attach it with a screw. The process began by camping the knobs in a shop-made holder and trimming off the tenon. Then I drilled and tapped the knobs. Two taps were needed. a standard #10-24 tap started cutting threads and then a bottom threading tap finished the job. It took a light touch and some practice with a cordless drill to get the feel for it. I stripped the threads on the first two knobs. My first failure taught me I couldn’t hand thread; I had to use a power drill. My second failure taught me that the tap had to thread in and then back out several times during the process for chip clearing and clean results. Correctly done it is very difficult to over tighten and strip the threaded wood. The knobs are attached with authority using a #10-24 stainless steel machine screw 1.5″ long and a stainless steel washer. If I get in to turning and want to make my own knobs this makes it easy to swap out these mass production knobs.

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One last look at those gorgeous half-blind dovetails. Even though they weren’t cut with the precision of the top dovetails they still look so good.

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And now the dovetail are hidden forever…

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To install the knobs I marked the position of my hole with a ruler attached to an edge guided rule with double sided tape. Then I found the center of the ruler and made a light mark.

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I checked for center using a large divider. This was only a way to double check the position. It caught an error on one drawer where I was off my 3/8″.

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I clamped a block to the inside of the drawer to prevent tear out and then used a shop-built drill guide to align my brad-point bit. The guide is a simple scrap piece with a rabbit. The wood sits flat on the drawer face and the drill bit is guided at a perfect 90° to the work surface. I used blue tap on the guide to prevent scratching on my newly finished drawers faces.

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One last look at the back before I cover it up. You can see how I routed the drawer bottom to fit the 1/4″ groove. I like this type of route because it slightly wedges the bottom in, deterring rattling, and preventing the bottom from moving around in the drawer.

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When attaching the back boards I used wedges to space the boards at the correct position to allow for seasonal expansing and shrinking. Once the boards were screwed in place the wedges were removed.

 

And that’s it. Two Shaker inspired Cherry Chest of Drawers.

 

Some of my building notes for each Chest of Drawers:

  • 134 full dovetails and 20 half dovetails
  • 123 pieces (one large panel or one knob = 1 part)
  • 30 mortices and 30 tenons
  • 8 dados
  • 14 sliding dovetails
  • 2 trim pieces attached with 10 segments of dovetailed track
  • 72 (approx.) glue joints used for panel construction

Drawers: 

  • 2.5 hours to build bottom from pine rough sawn
  • 3 hours to prepare stock for sides
  • 5 hours to cut tables and pins
  • 2 hours to sand, fit, and tune up dovetails
  • 1.5 hours to finish

Base:

  • 2 hours to prepare stock
  • 5 hours joinery
  • 3 hours to shape and route
  • 1 hour to sand
  • 2 hours to install blue blocks
  • 2 hours to finish

Back boards:

  • 3 hours to prepare stock
  • 2.5 hours to sand and half lap
  • 2.5 hours to finish

The case:

  • 12 hours to prepare the sides from rough sawn
  • 5 hours to cut the tails
  • 10 hours to cut the pins
  • 2 hours to cut dados
  • 2 hours to cut sliding dovetails

Internal frame:

  • 5 hours to prepare form rough sawn
  • 4 hours to cut matting dovetails
  • 3 hours to cut mortises
  • 8 hours to cut tenons
  • 4 hours to glue assemble
  • 2 hours to fine tune

Carcass:

  • 6 hours to flatten with hand plane
  • 4 hours to sand
  • 4 hours to build trim
  • 3 hours to fit trim
  • 4 hours to finish

Assembly:

  • 4 hours to prepare/finish/install Shaker knobs
  • 2 hours to install back boards
  • 1 hours to install base
  • 2 hours miscellaneous activities

Other:

  • 10 hours to clean shop
  • 5 hours to photograph
  • 10 hours to sharpen and set up new tools

** all times are estimates and total about 225 hours per chest. Research and practice joinery easily puts the project passed 500 hours for both chests.

 

A few other smaller projects finished this Winter:

Old College Rocker

12.1.2016 – Thursday

The gun deer season wrapped up with warm weather and no accumulated snowfall. Things just didn’t work out for handgun hunting. Despite the lack of success in the field, there was some fun to be had with left over pumpkins from Halloween. When filled with water and shot with a .44 magnum hollow point the concussion ripped them apart in dramatic fashion. It was quite a sight and an impressive demonstration of the power of magnum handgun cartridges. It was also very satisfying to see evidence of a well-placed shot at 75 yards. Another range favorite was shooting gourds with VMAX .223 Remington ballistic tipped bullets. After a successful hit, the only sign of the gourd was a momentary cloud of water vapor and the sound of tiny fragments landing in the woods.

A busy work schedule and the low deer population meant that by best chances for a successful hunt was at home instead of at the cabin. This set of circumstances lead to more time in close proximity to the wood shop. I love a good project, and lately I seem to be more involved with restoration projects than fresh wood and clean sheet designs. That will change this month when I start construction on a Shaker inspired chest of drawers. The rough sawn cherry lumber is already in the shop. But anyway, the latest project and the title of this post has to do with an old cherry rocking chair. I suspect many folks who find themselves with a particular object of sentimental or monetary value do so as a consequence of circumstance instead of intent. An old safe may be bought for the sole purpose of being hidden in a coat closet and protecting money or jewelry, then get resold and then passed on once, and then twice down through family members until one day it is recognized as having a family history, a sturdy quality, and a classic design worthy of preservation. I don’t know the complete story of the Old College Rocker, but I can piece together some of the history.

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It arrived to me in fairly poor shape. OK… it was one degree away from kindling. Generally, when the value of a piece of furniture is measured in BTU‘s there has to be a reason to save it other than simply it’s monetary value or potential return on investment. The first step I had was simply to figure out what needed to be repaired and replaced. I started a list:

  • replace seat leather, batting, cotton under seat covering
  • redo all joinery with modern glue and hardwood dowels
  • repair ~10 cracks
  • fabricate some pieces for chipped areas
  • sand, stain, and refinish
  • replace felt on runners (to project hardwood floor at cabin)

I began by repairing several split seat parts. Most cracks were repaired by spreading the wood apart with a wedge and then applying glue to one side. If the crack was large enough I would use a glue spatula to push glue into the crack. For smaller cracks I built up a puddle of glue and then used a shop vac to pull the glue through the crack.

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Blue tape and clamps!

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More clamps and blue tape. What happened to this chair?

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The Ol’Man acquired this chair sometime during college at Steven’s Point. Somewhere along the line the chair was repaired. I found evidence that the legs have come loose previously. Loose legs was the primary reason the rocker found it’s way to my shop. When I investigated further, I found several joints overflowing with extra glue and an oak spindle that should have been cherry. Admittedly, I tried to repair the loose legs two years ago but my fix didn’t hold. One problem with repairing old furniture is that all the old glue often needs to be removed first – that is why my quick repair failed. When modern glue is applied it needs to thoroughly penetrate the wood fibers to form a strong bond to both pieces. For the seat of the chair I was able to drill the dowel holes slightly larger and cut new hardwood (white ash) dowels for a snug fit.

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At the bottom of the legs sit the runners. They take a lot of abuse from multiple surfaces and shifting weight. A table chair sits flat on the floor in a single position. Weight is evenly and consistently distributed on it for the duration of it’s useful life. A rocking chair endures shifting weight through a range of motion. Somewhere along the line one runner got damaged and needed repair. The chipped runner was smoothed with a hand plane before glueing on a replacement piece of cherry. Once it was smoothed out to match the contour of the runner the tenon hole was re-drilled.

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And then there was scraping and sanding… lots and lots of scraping and sanding. It took forever. I walked away for a while because it was so slow and tedious. I’ll do two spindles a day and be done in no time I thought. I procrastinated a week and then sanded them all in two days.

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Thankfully, after sanding I could reassemble the chair. Assembly is a very satisfying part of any project. It is even more satisfying on a restoration. The seat was glued up first, then the arm rests and back, followed by the legs.

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I used wedged tenons for the arm rests and chair back. One way to make sure a joint doesn’t loosen up is to make it a mechanical joint. A wedged tenon joint is a mechanical joint that physically expands the tenon until it is tight in the mortise. As long as the wedge is in place there is no wiggle and the joint cannot come apart. A little glue locks it all in place.

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The legs were the biggest challenge. They had loosened before. I cleaned up the tenons and holes, removing the old glue. The joints were not as snug as newly constructed joints. I had to abandon Gorilla Glue in favor of epoxy. I’m relying on the space filling properties and strength of epoxy to hold the chair together for the next several decades. Using a generous amount of epoxy I massaged the joints until all the airspaces were filled. Apply some strategically placed clamps and it was finally starting to look like a rocking chair again.

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The project was gaining momentum. the excitement of a chair taking shape kept me motivated and the project moving along.  It didn’t take long to apply gel stain to the chair.

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The color was starting to look nice. A few coats of a wiping finish and the chair really took on a rich antique shine.

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I was entering uncharted territory: upholstery. I referenced the photos I took earlier when taking the chair apart and started to work in reverse. The wire and coils weren’t too difficult. For the seat I salvaged a memory foam pad destined for the curb and the Ol’Man tracked down some leather. It took two tries to get the tack strip on so the leather was smooth and uniform.

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This was about the time the Ol’Man arrived with Mother for Thanksgiving. It looked done but it wasn’t. I had on order some material to put under the runners and needed some fabric to cover the exposed springs underneath the seat. A few days later the rocking chair was finally complete. I trimmed and tacked on the cotton cloth to cover the springs and applied 3/4″ VELCRO strips to the runners. The soft side of self-adhesive VELCRO was used because of it’s touted durability and high-quality adhesive backing. Time will tell, but initial impressions suggest that using the loop side of VELCRO strips is a substantial improvement over felt pads. It looks good too and spans the entire length of a runner.

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It’s done. Finally. It took nearly a year to complete… mostly because I was busy building bunk beds, camping, cutting wood, and of coarse; working. Total shop time was around 60 hours and materials ran about $80. For the effort and money it might not have been worth saving. But I saved it anyway. I learned some new techniques and tricks and will get to enjoy it for years to come. I know there is a certain cabin-goer eager to take a seat next the window by the wood burner and check trail-cam SD cards on a laptop while birds eat just outside at the feeder. I also know someone, who in February, might like to try it out at the cabin to test out it’s capabilities at putting a newborn to sleep (now if we could just pick out a name).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cabin :: lean-to

10.28.2015 – Wednesday

The lean-to at the cabin has either been in planning or construction since the end of 2012. It began when a suitable site was selected near the location of the old cabin. In order for work to begin on the lean-to a visual inspection of surrounding trees was undertaken. The basswoods were cleared out some time earlier and work continued to remove any trees susceptible to falling from the influences of strong winds. This photo is from September 29, 2012 and shows the clearing where the old cabin used to sit. The apple trees remain and the lawn had come in strong.

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The concrete slab was added in May 2014. The concrete is a six bag mix and has re-rod throughout, measuring approximately 24′ x 12′. This mix was indicated as the best in terms of strength and durability for our application. The extra Portland cement added a little cost, but compared to the cost of the entire project and the planned lifespan of the structure, the cost was easily justified.

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Also in May 2014, the final trees that could threaten the lean-to where fell. there were two near the lean-to site that had dead tops. Once fell, we could see the true damage to the internal structure of the tree. From this and a wind storm from a previous winter, I learned two simple rules for deciding which trees should be removed to protect personal property.

  1. If the center/top of the tree is dead up to a maximum thickness of 3″ the tree should come down in the next two years
  2. If there is a spot of exposed wood (no bark) on one side of the tree too large for bark to heal over, it will eventually fall in that direction.

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The next major step was the construction of the lean-to. This happened in June 2015. The Ol’ man received help on this one from someone with experience in building construction. Due to my work schedule not aligning with the construction days, I was unable to contribute much on this project. Taken July 18, 2015, here is a photo of the nearly constructed lean-to.

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The Ol’ man was already hard at work filling the lean-to. The horizontal boards were installed and the back 1/3 of the lean-to had verticals for piling wood against. By mid-August the pine rough-sawn had been added to the sides. A shelf had also been added above each bay for lumber storage. Again, the Ol’ man took on the task when I was unavailable – actually, while he put up the walls I was busy at work building a woodshed of my own very much like the cabin lean-to.

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The last step in the project was to add some color to the siding. This is the finished lean-to, picture taken October 10, 2015.

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Some information on the lean-to:

  • slab size: 12′ x 24′
  • concrete thickness: 4″ & thicker on edges
  • concrete reinforcements: 1/2″ re-rod throughout
  • height: 9′ front, 7′ back
  • roof size: 14′ 6″ x 26′ (1′ overhangs)
  • siding: 1″ thick rough sawn pine
  • exterior treatment: Sickens SRD
  • headers: two 2″ x 10″ glued and screwed together
  • headers secured to posts with SPAX washer-head lag screws
  • posts: 6″ x 6″ treated posts
  • trusses: 2″ x 6″ spaced 16″ on center

Even though my contributions didn’t go beyond site selection and photography I learned a lot from the cabin lean-to project. My own lean-to project shamelessly stole the design principles from the cabin lean-to and I used my fine-woodworking background to figure out the rest. My own lean-to ended up being 32′ x 12′ with a roof measuring 14′ x 34′ 8″ with a 2/12 pitch. A technique I used to notch my beams involved a simple circular saw crosscut jig and a 3/4″ screw-tip auger bit. The remaining material was then easily removed with a large framing chisel. It was much easier to accurately align the notches once the posts were in place than to try to dig my hole to the exact depth needed for pre-notched posts (especially since I found a large immovable object 32″ deep in what was supposed to be a 48″ deep hole).

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One additional technique I employed was to use a plunge router and a dado jig to cut the notches in all of my trusses at the same time. Hows that for uniformity? The notches made it very easy to set and align the trusses.

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To wrap up and make this a two lean-to post; here is the wood shed I built. The smaller lean-to pictured below was constructed in Fall 2014 and tested the waters for the larger wood shed. The wood shed is designed to store 15 to 16 cord and leave an ally open for the shooting bench (full capacity is 19 cord).

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I don’t have a price list for the cabin lean-to but I do have an inventory from the construction of my woodshed. If you are looking for numbers and an exact part list here it is: Wood Shed Supply List. Whenever a new project is started it always seems to follow the rule: spend a little extra, get a lot more. The lean-to at the cabin didn’t need to have a concrete slab, colored tin, and solid-wood siding. But all those extras sure look nice, and give this project the ability to endure long in to the future. The concrete keeps the contents of the lean-to high and dry and the level surface makes it easy to stack and store items. The tin is mostly for aesthetics, but the extra cost was very little given the limited amount of tin required by a project of this size. The wood siding was a bargain – again proving sometimes it’s who you know and not what you know.

Cabin :: changing forest

10.23.2015 – Friday

Forestry management and the cyclical occurrence of the spruce budworm have changed the landscape near the cabin. The cabin is still tucked away in the forest surrounded by trees. There is little risk of having a cabin in the middle of a field as a consequence of logging or infestation. None-the-less, we miss the trees. Take a look back at May 2009 and the 6×6 stand had a lush food plot bordered by some mature balsam fir… skip forward to present day and all that remains are the bones of once thriving giants.

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From the stand, there was a hint that something might be wrong with the balsam fir. The tops were starting to die. I did some light research and downloaded a PDF from the www.michigan.gov/foresthealth website titled 2012 Michigan Forest Highlights. It is a 40 page document, easy to read, and especially helpful to landowners. 2010 was mentioned as having an alarmingly widespread infestation which resulted in defoliation in 2012. Thinking back on it, the Ol’ man and I had an amazingly successful grouse hunting year in 2012 – I wonder where this little worm fits in the food chain. Either way, we should hopefully witness a 30 to 50 year period of re-growth. There will be plenty of space for new trees; we previously had enough balsam fir on our land to construct a log cabin and garage and have left over timber for paneling. Now the bare branches of mature balsam tower overhead draped in mosses and lichens.

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At the other corner of the 40 acres is the 4×4 stand. The view from this stand changed in the matter of a few months. This summer, logging took place, which resulted in the clear cutting of a soft-wood stand surrounding the field overlooked by the 4×4 stand. Any hardwoods within the cutting boundaries were also clear cut. The maples that remain in the second photo were marked when the timber was surveyed and must remain after all the cutting is complete.

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Walking out in to the field and looking over the horizon the cutting extends almost to the nearest road – about half a mile. Clear cutting is quite efficient. Only a few lone stumps stand as sentries over an expanse that was once a forest.

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Turning back toward the stand, it’s a bit lonelier than before. The stand used to sit back a few yards from the edge of the field under the canopy of mature hard maples. It was tucked away under branch and leaf in summer. In the fall and winter the stand stood quietly while the creeks and rattles of maple branches talked to each other with every cool breeze or change in temperature.

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Unlike the spruce budworm, the logging has provided a few immediate benefits. The side window on the 4×4 stand now has a clear view of the cedar swamp and looking out the front of the stand a 300+ yard shot is now an option. A few trees were taken out near the gate to the cabin as well. The logging is not very noticeable along our road, and as a consequence of having to accommodate logging trucks the gated two-rut was greatly improved. The width stayed the same, but the hills were leveled out a bit. After the last log was hauled out some gravel was brought in. Unlike years passed, a trip to the cabin during the snow melt will be uneventful and a lot less muddy. While I may reminisce about how difficult the drive used to be back in the day, it will be thought of with pride as an difficult task accomplished, rather than a time I’d like to revisit. Take a look back to a previous post on Maple Syrup for a refresher of what Michigan mud looks like.

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The loss of nearly all of the mature balsam fir was a bit disheartening. On the one hand, the spruce budworm is a native species that has evolved alongside the balsam fir. Like most animal populations it will thrive and decline, and when viewed over the coarse of several lifetimes I have little doubt that somehow this little worm fits into the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem. After all, something has to eat the worm. Still… I miss the trees. I don’t quite have the same fondness for clear cutting. While man has been felling trees since before recorded history, our efficiency at the task has increased exponentially, and there is realistically nothing that can deter a modern logging operation. Hopefully as the machines advance so will logging practices. While I have a stronger-than-most background in science, my disagreement with clear-cutting is more a personal opinion than a sound forestry management plan. Simply stated, I like hardwood forests and mixed evergreen stands. As long as poplar stands keep getting clear cut the forest will always be poplar stands and will not undergo the usual process of regenerating. Maples for example, can survive to well past 50 years old and never grow taller than 30 feet or reach a diameter of greater than 2″. But as soon as the opportunity presents, then can tower to 70 feet and swell to a diameter of 18″ or greater. When these dormant maples are cleared out when a mature poplar stand is harvested, they never get the opportunity to mature, and the poplar stand remains a poplar stand until the next cutting.

I am certainly not opposed to logging. I have had a hand in felling several dozen mature trees, both for lumber and for firewood. Unless I pointed out the stumps you might not notice these trees are missing. That’s a benefit of selective cutting. I’ve been building up a reserve of elm, white ash, and hard maple just a few trees at a time. It can be hard watching as a mature tree falls before the chainsaw and becomes lumber. When I get the boards in to my shop I do my best to create something worthy of the sacrifice and effort of felling that tree. These large, old trees, conceal some truly wonderful lumber under their bark. It takes a lot of effort to go from tree to log, log to board, board to finished furniture. I’ve had that privilege for many of my projects, and am looking forward to someday saying that my dinning room table was once a towering elm tree that stood on my parents’ forty. Knowing the source of my lumber offers a bit of legacy to a project.

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I unexpectedly have a little free-time coming up that I’ll use to assemble another post soon. In other words, I have all my firewood piled for the winter and I’m not ready to start a new project in the shop. In the meantime, here is a preview of what’s to come. This is the prototype shooting-bench. I’ll be constructing an ambidextrous version out of 2″ thick cedar timbers for the cabin in the months to come. This one is white pine. Look for hi-res photos and a detailed write up after completion of the final version. And yeah, the Ol’ man cut the cedar himself.

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Michigan Maple Syrup

4.9.2014 – Wednesday

A warm spring night, a wood fire, and the sweet smell of hot sap 100 yards off…

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With my mid-week break I packed up the family and we trucked to camp in the Pilot… well, most of the way. The Honda has some neat AWD tricks but when the Ol’ man decides to park his Z71 Silverado 4×4 at the end of the road and walk the rest of the way, I wasn’t about to bury the Pilot and risk damage to a vehicle without proper skid plates. Quite handily, the Ol’ man was kind enough to provide us with transportation via the Pioneer. Once the family was dropped off at the cabin, Dad and I made a gear trip and hauled the rest of our supplies to camp. This also gave me a chance to document the mud. There are a handful of photos in this post that are HDR (high dynamic range). Each HDR photo is a composite of 3 photos taken at different exposures. I processed my HDR photos to achieve realism (versus the over-processed artsy stuff you find elsewhere on the internet).

IMG_9622 HDRThe loggers chewed up the half-mile of road it took to get from our forest parking spot to the gate. While the ride was rough, the heavy machinery drove the frost down so the real mud didn’t start until our little two-rut road.

IMG_9638 HDRThe frost had kept the water on top of the road and created some spectacular mud. It’s thick and slimy, resisting remodeling just enough to force the Pioneer’s tires in to the ruts. The 11″ of ground clearance was used up in a number of spots. After our trip we regrouped and ate supper. During supper, the Ol’ man mentioned there was a spectacular view to be had from some recent logging a few miles down the road. The night was young, and that was all the push I needed to take an evening side-by-side ride with the kiddo. Meanwhile, Sarah and the little one decided to tend the fire and see how far they could sink into the big comfy couch.

IMG_9690 HDR We soon found ourselves on a beaver dam the loggers used as a road. The water was beginning to eat away at the frozen embankment. After the crossing we scaled a steep hill that the Spring melt had turned into a 200 foot mud-run. The Pioneer made it about 100′ before coming to a stop. It appeared that the spectacular view was in jeopardy, and additionally that I had the entirely wrong footwear for trekking through a foot of mud. Quite amazingly, 4-wheel differential lock got us moving again. Sorry, no photos of the hill. Dad wasn’t stopping once we started moving again.

IMG_9681 HDR A view from the beaver pond.

IMG_9658 HDRIt was worth the trip. In the right 3rd of the above photo the clear cut can be seen.

IMG_9696 HDRLooking back at the ridge we just traveled. The previous photo was taken from the ridge in the center of this photo. Tomorrow we would start boiling.

The equipment has been in storage since Spring 2013 – when we originally planned to do the inaugural run. Going back to 2010 I can remember the slow acquisition of parts and supplies. Bags and holders were one of the first supplies bought. I think some of the bag-holders were acquired in the 1970’s. The pan was the next big purchase. It was custom made from stainless steel. After the pan a steel stove was produced by a high-school shop class to match – for the price of metal and a pizza party upon completion. Later acquisitions included ball valves, garbage cans, buckets, skimmers, hydrometers, a turkey deep-frier, bottles, and so on.

The stove, sketched out by high school shop teacher Derek is revision 2. Revision 1 had a tapered fire box that ended at the pipe. Revision 2, what we have, has a square firebox with a flat exhaust to the pipe. Ultimately, we achieved a very controlled boil with no foam. Revision 1 has historically produced a lot of foam and a very strong boil. It’s a mystery why we did not get foam from boiling, but we noted a few differences between last year’s boil from Revision 1 and this year’s boil at our camp from Revision 2:

  • We used bags to collect instead of buckets
  • Our stove produces a consistent boil, but the smaller fire-box means the boil is not as vigorous as the boil produced from Revision 1
  • Our trees are 30 miles North and about 30 years younger

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Nonetheless, the reason for little to no foam from our boil eludes us. To achieve “ideal boil” we established the following settings:

  • 3 – 4″ of sap in the boiler pan (24″ x 48″ x 7″) and the top dripper pan (12″ x 24″ x 6″)  slowly adds sap at about the same rate as the boil removes moisture from the sap.
  • Bottom ash tray was opened about 2″ for increased airflow to the fire
  • Maple and birch was burned in the firebox, criss-crossed to form a latticed stack three pieces high by 3-4 pieces wide
  • As soon as the wood burned down we raked the coals and made a new stack of wood (about 25-30 minutes)

IMG_9745 HDR IMG_9759Unlike a wood burner in a house we did not want coals. A complete combustion is preferred with lots of flame. A hot fire gives a good boil and clears out the coals, making room for more wood. Too many coals kills the boil.

IMG_9765We tested our boil rate to give an estimate to how many hours would be required to boil down the 200 gallons of sap we collected. Once we had a stable boil and the depth of the boiler pan was consistent at 3.5″ we measured the drip-rate at 2 cups in 1:16.00 minutes. That came out to about 6.25 gallons per hour.

IMG_9774 HDRWhile the boil was underway we collected sap from the 80 taps placed a few weeks earlier. The sap flowed hesitantly this year, so today’s collection was 3 days worth of sap. The plastic tailgate on the Pioneer needs some reinforcing when there is over 500 pounds of sap sloshing around. It may be hard to see, but there is a strainer cloth (flour sack dish towel) bungee-corded to the top tank inlet. We filter the sap at collection.

IMG_9784 IMG_9797 HDRToday’s collection didn’t even average a gallon per tap over three days. The bags pour better than the pails and we had very little spill when transferring to the collection tank.

IMG_9801 HDRThe collected sap is then drained into a sterile 5 gallon bucket and transferred to some 35 gallon garbage cans buried in the snow bank or a larger snow-covered tank just barely peaking into the photo below. From there, sap is added 5 gallons at a time to the dripper pan.

IMG_9804 IMG_9812Tools of the trade: folding chairs, card table with foam skimmers, the 5 gallon bucket, and some iron tools for raking and shoveling coals.

The last bit of the process was not documented. My break ended a day earlier than required to see the process completed. We ended up boiling about 200 gallons of sap and getting 5.75 gallons of syrup (after spills). Once the sap reached the correct moisture content (59 brix at boil) to become syrup the fire was quenched and the hot syrup was transferred and strained through a flower sack dish towel into a 6 gallon turkey deep frier. The frier is stainless steel and allows us to strain the finished syrup and reduce the surface area to volume ratio of the boiler pan, keeping temperature and specific gravity stable, allowing more time to fill bottles with hot syrup. The bottles are filled, capped, and set on their side for at least 20 seconds before being stored upright. Due to my absence during the final steps I don’t have photos or much in the way of commentary. For more information on how to make maple syrup, check out this helpful document from the University of Maine Extension: Bulletin #7038, Maple Syrup Quality Control Manual

12V :: fan box

2.27.2014 – Thursday

Sure was nice out today… except for the temperature. The sun was warm and bright but the wind dulled my sense of touch to the point that taking off my gloves to gain more dexterity for strapping a car seat into the Honda Pioneer was a foolish decision.

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But inside the cabin the weather was much the better. Wood heat. Wonderful, radiant, wood heat. A rolling flame softly rising against the glass pane. As much as I could while away the day sinking into the couch next to the fire, the latest cabin project required my attendance in the basement. The Ol’man had already run a surrogate wire up the wall behind the gas stove from the floor to the ceiling – which we would use to pull the lamp cord through and up the wall. In the two weeks previous I was able to acquire some things:

  • $17.62  – KingWin Four Channel Turn Knob Multi-Fan Cooling Controller FPX-001 (LED Indicator for Power On/Off, Control 4 Sets of Fans, 3 Pin Fan Connections)
  • $5.00    – 2x Neodymium Magnets 1/2 x 1/2 inch Cylinder N48 (26 lbs pull force each)
  • $1.51    – 2x Neodymium Magnets 1/4 x 1/4 inch Cylinder N48 (6.3 lbs pull force each)
  • $27.80  – 4x Evercool 60 x 25mm High speed 3 pin fan EC6025H12CA (Dimension (mm): 60 X 60 X 25, Bearing Type: 1Ball Bearing, Speed (RPM): 5000, Rating Voltage (VDC): 12, Power Current (AMP): 0.24, Air Flow (CFM): 26.5, Noise (dBA): 30, Pin Type: 3 Pin Type / 3 wire)
  • $0.85   – 5 amp blade fuse
  • $6.20   – 4x male &  female insulated connectors
  • $0.35   – 1x butt connector
  • $9.00   – 50 feet of lamp cord (18-2 copper stranded, $45/250 feet roll)

I had some extra parts as well – that’s just what was used in the final installation. The actual construction took about 5 hours start to finish with some additional time invested in gathering measurements from the stove. The total for this project was $68.33 and 5 hours.

 The fan box is an alternative to a $260 factory accessory. The factory accessory plugs into exiting connections on the stove and requires access to a 110V outlet for power. The objectives that had to be met by the fan box were 12V DC power, easy installation, ability to use existing wiring on stove, and to force enough air between the fire-box and firewall to increase heat distribution throughout the basement. 12V DC power means that we can heat up the basement without wasting power idling an inverter. The magnets allow for easy installation and adjustments. I purchased wire connectors that mated with the existing wiring on the stove for installation. And lastly, the fan controller allows for each fan to be individually adjusted for output (which is nice for fine-tuning the airflow to noise ratio).

Design wise, the fan box is glued together with a few plugged wood screws. The fans slide in from the open end and all the wiring connections are enclosed.IMG_1786

Sliding everything into the box allows for easy maintenance and fewer screws. The fit is snug so there is no rattling. IMG_1783

Once the cord cover panels and controller plate is slid in the end cap is magnetically held in place by small 1/4″ x 1/4″ cylinder magnets that mate up with screws counter sunk and adjusted for a perfect fit. IMG_0254

The two large magnets are quite powerful. As a test I was able to easily support two hammers over the fan area without failure of the magnetic  bond. IMG_0259

I had thought that a rheostat was pre-installed on the stove, but when I started the install I discovered that there was a space for a rheostat and not actually a rheostat. The stove has an aesthetically pleasing ON/OFF rocker switch for the front flame. The flame turns ON and OFF with the switch, but also turns ON when the stove fires up and starts to produce it’s 20,000 BTU output. I suppose in a house it would be nice to see a constant flame without having the stove run at 100% in order to see the flame. For the time being the switch has been repurposed as the ON/OFF switch for the fans (instead of the rheostat switch like originally planned). The install went reasonably smooth, making this the 3rd 12V accessory added to the cabin after the LED lights in the kitchen and the charging station automotive outlets. Three of the six slots on the 12V cabin fuse block are now in use.

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The blue LEDs are visual indicators that the fans are on. They do make sound as well, but if we decide to slot in quitter fans in the future it may be nice to have a visual indicator that something is running. IMG_0300

Two additional accomplishments for today were the replacement of the energy hungry 42″ plasma TV with a much more conservative 42″ LED TV, and the discovery of a battery charger that does not make LEDs on the 12V system pulse. The unofficial drop in power for plasma to LED is from 15 amps to 2.5 amps (multiply by 12V for watts). The charger we now use at the cabin is better designed for utilizing 12V power and uses a constant current to charge batteries instead of a pulse wave. The result is no more voltage fluctuation on our 12V system. The charger appeared in the previous post and is the Nitecore IntelliCharger i4. The charger is able to charge our AA, AAA, CR123a, and 18650 flashlight batteries. A $5 car cable makes it ideal for our charging station. At about $20 street price, it replaces the Lacrosse BC-700 Alpha that we’ve been using with a 12V to 3V automative transformer and charges the batteries in about 1/3 the time – still acceptable to promote longevity of the battery, yet quick enough to provide a useful upgrade to the current charger.

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Now at night we can charge our flashlight batteries, have only the 12V kitchen lights on, and watch shows on a 42″ LED TV and only use a total of 6.5 to 7 amps! (or about 80 watts). Add just 0.5 more amps and the basement can be warmed up using the fan box to push hot air out of the gas stove. IMG_0298

 

Remember how I mentioned it was cold? It reached 0.0°F at the cabin in the sun. Right now, at midnight EST it is -21°F and dropping (without windchill). This is a winter for the record books. I’m glad I’m not a yearling deer this winter.