Friday, August 30, 2013

South Dakota: The Corn Palace

Growing up, I had parents that loved nothing better than to pack up the car during the summer and head west on epic vacations. I've visited almost every state west of the Mississippi and seen most of the big name attractions like Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Tetons, Giant Sequoias just to name a few. Coming from a mostly lush green state (though not so much these last couple years), I always enjoyed the earth tones of the west and have good memories of driving through the lands to explore far off places.

Then college, marriage and life happened and suddenly I find myself searching for the last long drive I had out west and it occurred nearly two decades ago. I've been out west many times over the last two decades but always by airplane so I've been limited to destination type vacations instead of epic tours. With three guests still around our place, we decided that a tour was in order and decided on a shorter tour out west to see some of the sights I had seen in my youth (and none of my guests, wife and children have ever seen) and perhaps see some I hadn't seen. We decided on South Dakota and the next several posts will chronicle some of our journey which took place in mid August before my eldest went back to school.

The first place we stopped at along our drive out west was the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. Now I've heard of the corn palace many times but never really had any desire to see it. I heard it had corn, wheat and other crops stuff to the outside and figured that it was done merely to create a tourist trap along an interstate which the west seems notorious for. While it was somewhat of a tourist trap, it was tastefully done and I'm glad I stopped.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was actually a very ornate building covered with grains that are redone every year to create new scenes and of course, attract people to come back for a visit. It was also a much bigger building that I anticipated as you can see in the first two pictures. I had expected the inside to be full of gift shops, food vendors, and other people working hard to separate me from my money. Although it did have a gift shop of sorts, the main purpose of the building seemed to be a community civic center. I was also surprised to see that the grain murals also continued to the walls inside.

I walked around the sides of the building taking pictures of the murals and pondering them as very well done works of art. Then I went inside to look at a few of the pictures of the corn palace in its various shapes and sizes (it has evidently expanded many times over the years) and the various murals its walls have been adorned with. I then made the obligatory pass through of the gift shop above that mostly carried the tourist type gifts I expected. Does anyone really get a shot glass from every place they visit? Although I didn't get anything, I did buy my daughter a cheap bow and arrow set for some entertainment in our motel room evenings and I was tempted to buy a pheasant pelt seen below. I've never seen anyone make a pelt out of a pheasant but I thought the ones below were done pretty well. I'm just not sure what I would have done with one because the seem kind of small for a rug. So I just took the picture below and walked out with most of my money still intact.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


When our oldest daughter was born, I thought it would be fairly easy to find a daycare for her in the three months between her birth and when my wife went back to work. I quickly learned that I was very naive and it took me nearly two months to find someone. Just from our conversation on the phone, I didn't have a very good feeling about her but we didn't have a choice. We arranged to bring our daughter and meet her in person the week before my wife went back to work and the day of the meeting, the girl called us to say she wasn't doing daycare anymore. We were left with five days to find someone else.

I went to the local Human Services branch and obtained a printout of about 50 licensed daycare providers in the county and started calling them in alphabetical order. I called the first half dozen or so and everyone said they were full or didn't have openings for babies. When asked if they knew of anyone they could recommend who might have an opening, they all recommended one person, Mrs. Z. I skipped to the end of the list and called up Mrs. Z but she like the others said she really didn't have an opening for a baby. She already had one and though she could have two, she never took two just so she could provide the necessary attention to all her older kids. Unlike everyone else though, she did tell me to call her back if I couldn't find an opening anywhere else.

I called everyone else from A to Y on that list and couldn't find an opening. In desperation, I called Mrs. Z again and told her that I couldn't find anyone who would take our daughter in and asked if she would give our daughter a try. We agreed to meet the next day at her place and talk.

Never in my life have I been more nervous being interviewed. We showed up at Mrs. Z's house and met her out in the backyard where she was watching over her other daycare charges. I don't remember much of the conversation but I'm guessing it was mostly telling her of our background and who we were. The most memorable moment was when our daughter obviously filled her pants up to the point the smell was overwhelming and extra was leaking out the edges. While trying to carry on our part of the conversation, my wife and I tried to change our daughter's diaper as best as we could sitting in lawn chairs and ended up with baby poop everywhere. We had to ask Mrs. Z if we could use her bathroom to clean up ourselves and try to wipe down our daughter's car seat and clothes with wet wipes. I was mortified and pretty sure that our trial was over before it started but Mrs. Z took everything in stride and said she would see our daughter on Monday.

At the end of that first week, I picked up our daughter and was beating around the bush about how to ask Mrs. Z if I was going to bring back our daughter the following week or not when she just said of course my daughter was coming back the following week. Our daughter ended up coming back for the next five years.

During Mrs. Z's funeral, there were lots of stories like this of people being helped by Mrs. Z as one after the other filed up to the lecture to tell their stories. I wished I could have told mine but I wasn't entirely sure I would be able to keep my emotions in check enough to tell it so I just listened, nodded and cried. She was given six months to live and make peace in her life. She ended up with ten months and during that time, I was able to take our daughters over to see her several times. They are even featured on the cover of the children's books that are being created as her memorial for frightened children in hospitals for various situations. I am honored that she wanted my kids to help represent her life and I'm honored to have been part of it as well. May she rest in peace.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Land of the Dutch

In our corner of the state, there is a town that was originally settled by the Dutch and in fact, many of the business names today still reflect their dutch heritage. It is a quaint town and a good place to stop on the way back from the airport to relax and enjoy a perfect summer day that wasn't scorching hot at they mostly are here. This town is know for their tulip festival and the millions of tulips on display earlier in the spring but they don't let summer go to waste as you can see from one of the many flower beds shown above.

The Dutch are known for the windmills and there are several around town. There are also signs of windmills everywhere along with their wooden clog shoes that they are also known for. I remember in high school when our band would travel up to play in their tulip festival parade. I was a drummer responsible for keeping the beat and our band was inevitably lined up with earshot of their local band which mandated that all participants marched in wooden clogs. About the only way I put on a decent show of keeping the beat was to sneak in a pair of ear plugs when it came time to play for the judges.

Above is one of the scenes that I just love about this town. This isn't in some busy center of the city. This is actually the alley behind the buildings that line main street. Instead of a shady dumpster lined alley that you might think twice about walking down after dark, they have this beautiful brick lined sidewalk on the sides of a nice moat. There are actually small business fronts in this alley that can only be reached on foot through the alley.

This is the view in the opposite direction just to show to you that it isn't too much wider than a typical alley.

Off one corner of main street is this gigantic windmill that I assume at one time was fully operational. It is now a museum and I have yet to arrive here when the museum was open. Someday I will time it better and let you know if my assumptions are correct.

With our legs stretched and a some local pastries consumed on a park bench in their central park, we felt much refreshed and got back to our drive back home. It was well worth the stop.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Auction of Dreams

I knew when I read the auction add in the paper that this one would be a rare one. I could tell two things from reading through the list of things for sell. This guy had been an avid gun collector and woodworker. I'm not into guns but I am into working with wood and this guy had good taste. His collection of tools were high end stuff, from the best brands and were all fairly new. I grabbed my checkbook and showed prepared to spend my entire Sunday afternoon there.

The auction started out pretty good for me even though they were selling most things as 'choice'. When they sell things choice, they usually hold up a half dozen or more things that are similar in nature and the highest big gets to decide which one and how many things he wants. If the winning bidder chooses multiple items, his bid is multiplied by the number of items he chose. If there are things leftover after the first round of bidding, the remainder are held up for another round of choice bidding. This continues until most of the best stuff has been taken and then the scraps are lumped together and sold as one bid. This leaves other bidders gambling with their bids. Do you let someone else win the bid and hope they don't want the same item you wanted so that you can perhaps get it cheaper the next go round of bidding. If you win the bid, do you take everything you wanted right now or try to get it in another round of bidding that goes cheaper. I don't like this style of bidding because I usually know the one item I want and I'm too cheap to pay a high price for it and someone else inevitably snags the item I wanted first.

The first item I was interested was a pneumatic pin nailer. I have two other pneumatic nail guns of bigger sizes and love them to death but would like to have a smaller version for more detail work. This guy had four Bostitch nailers for sale, two of which I already own and one that is bigger for things like roofing. They sold them for choice and the winning bidder took the biggest one for $75. I won the second bid for $40 and took the pin nailer which retails for about $110 brand new. I was stoked. About a half hour later I won the initial bid for choice of large pipe clamps, something I have been looking for a long time. Brand new, they sale for $40 per clamp for cheaper versions of the ones being sold at this auction. I won the bid at $12 and picked out 10 of the nicest ones leaving the oddballs and not so nice to be picked through in other rounds of bidding. The second round went for $12 as well so I did pretty good.

The thing about clamps is that they only have one moving part and thus never break or wear out which is why you never see them for sale used except for the occasional auction. Normally I try not to pay more than 1/3rd of retail for something at an auction but for things like heavy duty clamps that probably will still work well for my grandchildren, I am willing to up that as far as 2/3rds retail price.

A few minutes after the pipe clamps they had two dozen medium sized bar clamps for sale with the twist handles. I love them over the bar clamps with the quick squeeze action on them because I can get them much tighter. They too sold for choice and I won the initial bid for $5. These things sale for about $20 to $25 each in stores so I stocked up and bought all eight that were matching. For not liking choice auctioning, I was doing alright.

They moved onto the large gun collection so I took a break and carried all my purchases to my car and relaxed for a couple hours until they got to the rest of the tools. Although I didn't buy any of the small power tools because I had most of them already, the routers, drills and such went for fairly decent prices. I had high hopes when they moved to the large power tools of which there were a couple I was pretty interested on. These were all sold individually which is the style of auctioning I prefer but the first few items sold for probably 80% of retail value. There were a few items sold next that I already owned or wasn't interested in. Finally they got to the industrial bandsaw which I was most definitely interested in. The brand and size that this guy sells brand new for $900+ dollars.

Because it was six years old and has lots of moving parts that can wear, I decided that I probably wouldn't bid more than 1/3rd of new value. They started the bidding at $2000 which I thought was a joke and after a couple minutes backed down to $250 before someone bid. It quickly shot up and eventually sold for $500. I was disappointed but because I don't really have a need for a bandsaw until I cross numerous other projects off my list first, it just didn't make sense. So I paid for my nailer and clamps and drove home. I was happy and don't regret not buying anything that sold. I couldn't help but think though that this auction was kind of a dream auction for someone who didn't have much for woodworking tools. Normally at auctions you find tools that are 50 years old or cheaper new ones. There were none of these at this auction.

The next morning I headed out to the garage early while it is still cool to build a new clamp rack to hang up all my newly bought clamps along with some of my older clamps, a project that I hadn't yet done in the year we have been living here. My small clamps are loose in the bottom drawer of my tool chest which is fine but my larger clamps were just tossed into a corner. All but the blue and silver clamps are new to my collection.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Building Built-In Bookcases: Part Three

I wanted to title this post as "My Wealth On Display" or something along those lines but didn't for the sake of keeping these three posts on building built-in bookcases kind of similar so other's may find them in the future. But more on that wealth later.

At our old houses, I stained the bookcases walnut in color because the room had no other woodwork at the time. I ended up putting wood crown molding and building a fireplace mantel and staining all that walnut too. It was alright but because of the lower lighting conditions, the wood grain was all but lost in the darkness and I always felt that was a shame. After staining my workbench an antique cherry color, I loved that rich reddish brown color and felt that it would be a good color to stain these bookcases. It would halfway match our free-be piano that my wife got years ago and also the railing of the stairs. Since the crown molding was already painted white, I wasn't too concerned about matching that.

When I went to the store to pick out some stain, I was amazed at how much stain technology has come along since the last stain I bought a decade ago. Not only are there more choices, but there were different formulas for different types of surfaces, i.e. vertical, overhead and flat. There was also choices in stains and gels. Finally, they now have stains that are a stain and polyurethane all in one bottle. I was tempted to buy that latter stuff but wasn't sure how it would work. Anyone else out there used that stuff and can add your two cents worth? In the end, I went old school with what I knew best and got gel stain and ordinary polyurethane.

After applying the finish on the bookcase, I can say two things. I should have gone with ordinary stain and not gel stain. Gel stain has to be wiped off after a few minutes which means twice the overhead work of doing the underside of the shelves. My arms would only let me do four or five compartments before my arm was numb and my shoulder feeling like it was separating from the rest of me requiring me to take a breather. I thought the gel stain would be easier to control from drips when working overhead and perhaps so but since I was staining all surfaces, I don't think it really mattered. Second, the gel stain really didn't get the wood quite as dark as I would have liked and wasn't conducive to multiple coats to achieve a darker color like stain would have been. But in the end, I'm pleased with the result.

On my previous bookcase, I didn't polyurethane the wood over the stain. Because it is a low wear surface because I'm not constantly sliding books across its surface, I didn't need too. This time since I was going with a lighter color, I applied polyurethane mostly to give it a gloss appearance and to cause the wood grains to pop out a bit. I liked it much better than the stain because there is no constant stirring required and it is just brushed on with no additional work. I put two coats on the upside of the shelves where the books rest and one coat on the sides and back. I didn't put any on the underside of the shelves. After two coats, I did a light polish with steel wool and called it good. I am happy with the results.

As you can see, I got my library collection finally unpacked after over a year of sitting in boxes. It is like seeing old friends again after a long absence. Most of the shelves are only a single row deep but a few of them are two rows deep.

I have several shelves of non-fiction books that I have read and which I consider classic books that I loan to other individuals who I think might enjoy them as much as I did. I have several shelves of books in my to-be-read column when I get a chance. That sounds like a lot of books but I'm the kind of person that likes having a selection to choose from. Sometimes I'm in the mood for some historical introspection and sometimes I'm in the mood for some cold weather exploration. I like having a choice. There are probably a half dozen shelves of reference material that come in handy from time to time on various projects and aspects of my life. There is a few shelves of fiction literature that I used to enjoy reading but has gathered dust for the last 15 years or so. I figure someday when I get caught up on all the very entertaining true stuff to read about, I can go back to reading fiction again. There are a few shelves that contain collections of authors whom I enjoy reading. There is a shelf for my oldest daughter where I stock books that are becoming age appropriate for her and a couple shelves for my wife though she reads only on rare occasions.

As you can see, there are a few knick knack items up but we have another box of them yet to unpack. I just ran out of steam before getting to them and besides, my wife has a better eye for those kinds of things. One last related project is to install some sort of track lighting in front of the bookcase to improve things. Right now there is a single can light at the base of the stairs that is really the only light source in the area. But I'm saving that project for later when I get more weather sensitive things completed.

I have already spent a fair amount of time sitting on the bottom steps of the stairs gazing at my now completed bookcase. I feel a sense of immense wealth when I see the books on those shelves. There are thousands of hours of good memories and far away places I  have explored on those shelves and maybe a thousand hours yet to read. People are always amazed because I seem to know a little bit or perhaps a lot more than they do on a myriad of subjects. It isn't that I'm smart but because the source of that ability sits on those shelves and I enjoy seeking out knowledge in them. This winter when my fireplace is up and running, I surely do plan on starting a nice fire and increasing my knowledge even more. You can take everything but my books and I'm still a rich man. Take my books and I'm as poor as can be.

Building Built-In-Bookcases: Part Two

After I got one case assembled, I repeated the process three more times so that I had a total of four cases when I was finished. The first one I immediately took downstairs before building the remaining three just to make sure everything fit as it should. This reminds me to make sure you calculate the diagonal dimension of the case to ensure when you are tipping it up it doesn't hit the ceiling. Since I also built a platform to raise the shelves up off the floor a bit, this gives me more room for tipping them without scraping the ceiling.

Here they are all set in place on top of the 2x4 platform I built. On my previous shelves I built for my old house, I simply side the shelves up against the wall. This created two problems. First the walls weren't straight so there were gaps between the shelves and the wall. Secondly, because the middle stiles were thicker, it gave the shelf an odd aesthetical appearance. So this time, I left enough room that I could adjust gaps as needed to make things appear pleasing to the eye. I shimmed between all the cases and clamped them together and then centered the whole works to the space. Once I had that dimension, I took them back out and started installing them one by one from the left to the right.

Once the first one was screwed to the wall which I did down low where my future books will cover up all the fasteners, I slid the next case in place. I shimmed it away from the first to my predetermined dimension, clamped it in place and screwed the cases together. I then screwed the second case to the wall and to my base while making sure everything was plumb and level. On the second case, I also had an electrical outlet that I wanted to cut around so that took some measuring.

Here they are all screwed together and firmly in place. My oldest daughter can now safely use them like a ladder and not worry about the shelves and hundreds of pounds of books tipping over on top of her.

Finally, I used some hardwood oak 1 by material that was included in my previous cost estimate to cover up all the exposed plywood ends and to give it a structural appearance. Three quarter thick plywood just doesn't have the same aesthetic look as my 1-1/2" rails and 3-1/2" stiles. I decided not to replace the crown molding though I may after I get everything stained if I think it will add something to it. I did replace the baseboard trim to help give it that built-in look I was going for and also to help hide the fact that the floor isn't level. I could have bought a wider board and scribed it to the floor but that would have been a tone of work and I think the white trim will help break up the color of the floor to the stain of the bookcases and provide visual interest. Although I presanded all my pieces, there always seems to be some scuffing as I get those thing moved into place and after setting tools on the shelves as I am working. So after everything was in place, I did a light sanding with a quarter-sheet palm sander, vacuumed up the dust and prepared to stain everything.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Building Built-In-Bookcases: Part One

Above is a bare wall minus the baseboard and crown molding trim that I forgot to take a picture of before snapping this picture. It is at the base of our stairway, near the office to the immediate left and near the family room with the fireplace to the right and behind me as I took this picture. It just screams built-in-bookcases to me. I come from the camp that there can never be too much shelving in a house. They are just so darn useful for getting stuff off the floor and organizing it a manner that is easy to find. So I quickly determined to build a bookcase on this wall when I reached a good point in my house remodeling project and the weather was cool enough to work in the garage. Not in my wildest thoughts did I think that we would have the coolest weather in recorded history for the last week of July which made it just about perfect.

I also want to say that you just can't find any decent bookcases as a pre-made solution. They are all cheaply made out of particle board and within months of use, are full of sagging shelves, not to mention their cheap laminated wood finish that doesn't hold up to a sneeze. I built some built-in-bookcases on either side of my fireplace at our old house and they got rave reviews by everyone who looked at them and were a major selling point when it came time to sell the house. Hopefully if we ever sell this house, the same thing will occur here. They are pretty easy to make and I think look beautiful when completed so I thought I would write a few posts as kind of a how too guide in case others might be so inspired.

This is my raw materials for this project. I bought 3/4" cabinet grade red oak plywood for the bookcase sides and shelves and 1/4" cabinet grade red oak plywood for the back. The 2 x 4's are to built a platform on which to set the finished cases that can be shimmed and leveled to get the lowest shelf up off the floor a bit to give it a finished look. I also use it to block between the top of the uppermost shelf and the ceiling to attach trim to later. All told, this project cost me about $400 for all my raw materials, including the stain and polyurethane.

Once you have a nice workbench to use as a build surface, it saves a lot of wear and tear on your back. The last built-in-bookcases I built at the old house, I didn't have such a workbench and built them on the family room floor. It wasn't the best situation because as you can see, it generates a lot of dust and I always had to be careful not to scratch the floor. Out in the garage, I can be as dirty and as careless as I want too. Plus I can stand up while doing all the work which makes it much easier on my body. You can also see my only other workbench in the background. It most certainly can't help me with this project.

I don't have any fancy equipment for this project except for possibly a router. For ripping the plywood down into side panels and shelves, I cut off a strip of the 1/4" plywood to use as a straight edge for my skill saw. I made everything 15-3/4" wide to maximize the plywood usage and also because my wife likes the shelves extra deep so I can store my books and she can display knick-knacks. I just have a regular old blade on the skill saw and it does a good job when ripping the plywood and doesn't splinter it much. Since I was alone on this project, I used an adjustable height stand to hold up one end of the plywood as I ripped down the length of it. I used my offhand to run the saw and used my right hand to catch the piece. The hardest part of the entire operation is sliding a whole sheet from the floor to the workbench table.

Each strip of plywood destined for shelving could make three shelves once crosscut to size. I again used my skill saw but used a 4 feet clamp on saw guide that can be bought at most hardware stores. They are worth their weight in gold at making lots of repetitive straight cuts up to four feet long. As you can see, I use a framing square to make sure it is square to the board. Another note is that because I was using a general purpose blade on my skill saw with fewer teeth than I really needed, I put the display side of the shelf down when cutting because when cross cutting plywood, it splinters the top side of the board pretty good. I don't mind this because the splinter side is on the underside of the shelf and is stuck into a dado on the side panels anyway.

To make the dados on the side panels, I did two boards at once to speed up the process and because they were sized to fit on my workbench table and still be able to clamp them to the surface to prevent them from moving around. I added the offset of my router from the edge of the bit to the flat side of the guide to my measurements from the top of the side panel to each shelf. I put all this on a piece of paper so I simply had to put down my tape measure and make a mark where the cross cut guide goes to make the proper located dado. After cutting all the dados, I cut the side panels to their final length. I purposely left them long while doing the dados in case I made an error and put a dado in the wrong location. I figured I could then just flip over the boards and have a second chance at correcting my mistake. As fate would happen, I did make a mistake and have to flip one set of boards, cut off a few inches from the top and recut the dados. I ended up making one shelf with a little over 16" of height and five other shelves with 13" of height.

Once all the parts where cut out and to proper size, I glued and nailed them together. On my previous shelves, I used glue and screws. The screws had superior holding power but required me to pre-drill all the holes ahead of time to prevent the plywood from splitting plus it was time consuming. Last year with some of my severance pay from my old employer, I bought a pneumatic air kit from the local box store. It had a pancake air compressor and two pneumatic nailers for 16 and 18 gauge finish nails. I've used them several times already and I can see why people who have them love them. The one drawback is that I occasionally had a nail that would fly out of the board at a weird angle. Because they are too thin to drive out and redo, I would cut them off below the surface of the wood with a dremel tool. This left small scars on the wood but when it was stained later, they were awfully hard to see unless you got your head inside the shelf and were staring at it. Also, when books are in place, they are all but hidden.

Another thing I did differently is how I cut the dados in the plywood. On my previous shelves I made a template with a slot in it and hogged out everything in the middle with a smaller than the dado bit. This time I actually bought a set of plywood dado bits that are sized to the finished thickness of plywood so I just needed a straight edge and one pass. Once all the dust was blown off the boards, I would apply glue to the dado, place my shelve up to the slot taking care to place the display side of the shelf in the right direction and tap the backside of the side panel until it was seated in place. I would then nail it five or six times with the finish nailer from the outside of the carcass. When I am finished, there will not be a fastener in sight.

Once I had all the shelves and the sides glued and nailed together. I threw a whole sheet of 1/4" plywood on the backside and nailed along one side and the top of the case using the plywood edges as a square. This squared up the carcass as neatly as could be and is much faster and easier than measuring the diagonals and trying to do it that way. With one side and the top nailed to the back of the case, I ran my router with a flush trim bit down the other side and the bottom to cut off the excess plywood flush to the case. This prevents mistakes or a lot of measuring and cutting flimsy plywood with a skill saw. After it was cut to size, I finished nailing the remaining side and the bottom of the case and I also nailed through the back panel into the back of each shelf every six to eight inches. This helps hold the shelf from sagging in the future in the back and in my next post, you will see how I prevent it from sagging on the front side that is open to display.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Cheddar Town

One of the shows I tend to watch when it is on is America's Test Kitchen. I like it because they tend to explain the science behind how things work in the kitchen. I also have several recipes from them that I make at home and every one loves them. Another portion of the show reviews kitchen kitchen gadgets and appliances and the ones I have gotten based upon their review haven't disappointed me. Although there isn't a part of the show I dislike watching, the one I get the least benefit from is the tasting section where they do taste tests on various products. Nine times out of ten, the winning item or even the whole panel are comprised of stuff that simply isn't sold here in the midwest.

Only four miles from where I grew up, an artisan cheese shop started up a handful of years ago and has done quite well. Because it is outside an extremely small town that people 40 miles away have never heard of the name, it thrills me to no end when people ask me where I'm from and then ask if that is the same town as the creamery that makes the cheese. Although I was long gone by the time it started up, it is still my hometown and thus I take some pride in that fact. About three years ago, the creamery made national headlines with one of their cheddar cheeses which won the top award not only here in the states but internationally.

So as you can probably guess, America's Test Kitchen recently had a cheddar cheese tasting segment of artisan cheeses that can be found here in the states and some imported from Europe. After going over the various cheeses, the one that they identified as the best cheddar cheese was... you guessed it... the cheddar cheese made by the local creamery from where I grew up. Awesome. Perhaps now we will be known as the county that is home to a famous cheese maker instead of the county that arrested a cow several decades ago or the only county in the state without a red light or fast food restaurant.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Fired Up

This is my fireplace or more precisely, what remains of the fireplace after it was butchered. It had a nice arched front to it and no doubt burnt wood in a nice fashion. However, the previous owners told me they had a phobia about burning wood and had an electric insert put in. They didn't mention that they butchered the metal lining of the brickwork hid behind the trim but even if they had, I don't think it would have prevented me from buying this house. However, I do love to burn some wood at a recreational level during winters and I have lots of wood to burn with five more large hardwood trees still on the stump, I would like to get this fireplace working before winter.

I'm torn as to what to do right now. Because the metal lining of the firebox was butchered to run the electrical outlet for the electric insert and the bricks have been hacked, I don't think I will be able to have an open fireplace short of completely demo-ing what is there and starting over. I'm not terribly fond of the bricks used but the practical side of me says they aren't terrible either. So I exploring the possibility of putting in a wood burning insert into the cavity if a properly sized one can be found. After lots of searching, I finally found a local place that was willing to come out next week to look at the situation and give me advice and a quote on what should be done with the fireplace.

If it isn't easy or priced right to salvage what is there, I may end up just tearing out all the brick myself and starting over from scratch. Then I can do things properly and the way I want them done but the drawback is that it will require a lot of time which I would really like to spend on other projects I have in mind before the year is out. So for now I am doing what I have done best on this project, procrastinating. Perhaps once the fireplace rep comes out next week, a plan of action will begin to firm up in my mind and I can start this project simultaneously with the other six I am currently working on.

On a more positive note, I drug the electric insert outside to take a few photos to try and sell it on the web and discovered a false grill on the front that popped open and revealed the controls. Up until now, I hadn't found a way to turn it on and assumed it must have been by a remote control taken by the previous owners. So I drug it back to the fireplace, plugged it in and saw that it does work but looks cheesy as can be. I get the same affect of looking at it as I would seeing a video of a fire on my cellphone. In other words, nothing at all.

Friday, August 9, 2013


With three guests remaining, I still find myself spending quality time where ever they aren't and one of my first projects that I tackled was building a workbench for my garage. I have a workbench that is slid up against a wall. It is a big old heavy thing made from 2 x 4's and plywood and on it rests my crosscut saw, drill press and large assortment of screws, nails and fasteners. On a shelf under the top I have an air compressor, a jig saw, a planer, a small lathe, and an assortment of other jigs and fixtures. I present all of this to you so that you understand when I say, it can't be moved and because it is up against a wall in the corner of a garage and has large tools taking up real estate, it isn't practical as a bench to do much work on.

Along the wall on the extra wide portion of our garage to the side of the garage door, I have a bunch of shelving for storing all the assortments of tools and supplies needed in running a household from a handyman's perspective. Because I do need to access them from time to time and don't want to get rid of them, I decided that the solution to my problem was to build a smaller workbench that I could drag out to the middle of the floor when needed that was adequately sized so that I could assembly projects on its surface and walk around all sides. Every side of the table needed to have an overhanging edge sufficient to allow me plenty of clamping space which I really didn't create when I made my other workbench against the wall.

Back when I took high school shop, the woodworking area had these large laminated table tops about three inches thick and six feet square. They were beautiful for working on and every so often, they were sanded down and refinished as needed. You could assemble a tank on those things and I've always wanted one of my own. However, after looking forever, I found that you just can't buy something like that. They just don't exist. So I found some woodworking plans for an all wood version of a comparable table and started in making the legs last fall.

Two things happened. One, the legs called for mortise and tendon joinery and I really don't have a good setup for creating the mortises. I have a handful of dull chisels and a router. I tried routing them and although successful, they were ugly looking creatures. The second thing was my choice of wood which I chose as Douglas Fir. It is a stout wood to build a table top out of but it is pretty tough to work with at times because it has a tendency to check and warp. I built my legs, Baby Abbey was born, winter set in and the project languished.

With guests, I decided to resurrect it so that I can use the workbench to construct my custom built in bookcases, a project that will soon be on the head of my list. Looking for an alternative, I went to one of those large box stores and I found a workbench in a box that had a fairly nice metal base to it of about the right size. The only problem with it was that the top was made from pressed together cardboard like material that would last me about one project before sagging and being something I would loath. So I decided to buy the table and make a custom top for it from the materials of my old project and that is what  you see above.

Because I wanted a solid 2" thick top and I wanted to prevent future warping, I ripped down my douglas fir planks into 21 strips, planed them and glued them together 7 strips at a time. Once I had three planks of 7 strips, I planed them down to the same thickness and then glued the three planks together into one table top. From their I used a belt sander to get everything smooth and routed a relief round over around the perimeter edge. I bolted the entire thing down to the cardboard like top that came with the table leaving overhang on every side for plenty of clearance (something the table I bought and most others I looked at didn't have).

I think I mentioned already that douglas fir warps a lot and I had one plank of 7 strips that warped a bit after the glue set up. I put it on the outside thinking that I could pull it down when I bolted it to the other table top and it did a bit. But it also twisted the metal frame just slightly so my table top isn't quite flat. For 99% of what I will use it for it is plenty flat enough, better than any other surface I have in this house but it still hurts the anal side of me a bit. Perhaps someday when I break down and get a welder, I may stiffen up the base a bit to fix that problem. I might also put some castors on the bottom instead of leveling legs that came with it to make it a bit easier to drag across the floor.

I was just planning on putting a couple coats of polyurethane on the top prevent glue from sticking and other liquids that I might use from staining the top but while looking for some, I found some antique cherry stain I had leftover from a previous project at our old house. I thought it would look cool on the workbench and give it a more antique look so I applied a coat of that before three coats of polyurethane. Now I have a workbench that looks like it might be better suited as a large buffet table inside. I plan on starting my bookcases in the next week or so and that should mar up the finish enough to keep that idea out of my wife's head.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Westward Pilgrim

Although Madison county is primarily recognized as the place with all the covered bridges seen in the Clint Eastwood movie, it is also the birthplace of John Wayne. They have a little tourist trap of a gift shop behind the house and charge lots of money to actually tour the inside of the house. I've never done the tour and really don't care too. It is a small house with furnishings from the early 1900's and most likely don't even belong to the Morrison (John Wayne's real surname) family. But the gift shop is always well air conditioned and they always have a John Wayne movie playing on the television so I don't mind a stop. We also spend some time out behind the house in a gazebo and contemplate life from the shady comfort.

This is probably the fourth or fifth time I have stopped there but the first time I knew that there was a statue of the Duke on the other side of the block as the house. When I heard that, I snuck down the alley behind the house and remedied that situation.


An Indian walked into the trading post and asked for some inexpensive toilet paper. The proprietor showed him a four pack of double quilted rolls for $4.99 but the Indian said they were too expensive. The proprietor showed him an eight pack of 2-ply tissue for $2.99 but still the Indian said they were too expensive and asked for the cheapest stuff the proprietor had. The proprietor sold him a 16 pack for $0.99 and the Indian went on his way.

The next day the Indian returned with the toilet paper saying he didn't want it because it was John Wayne toilet paper. The confused proprietor asked the Indian to explain what he meant by John Wayne toilet paper. The Indian told the proprietor that the toilet paper was John Wayne toilet paper because it was rough and tough and didn't take shit from anyone.

The only John Wayne joke I know.


After an aborted bridges tour and a stop at the birthplace of John Wayne, we still had time on our hands so we drove into the city and stopped in for a tour of the capital. I've been there many times over the years but always find something new to photograph and study. Below is the painting called "Westward" by Edwin H. Blashfield that takes up an imposing presence over one of the stairways. Although the picture doesn't show scale, it is probably close to 20 feet tall and 50 feet long. It is loaded full of meaningful symbols of which I won't go into but I thought it rounded out this post of John Wayne, the king of the west for a time in the movie theaters.

Monday, August 5, 2013

More Graffiti From Madison County

Needing to get out of the house the weekend we had nine of us fighting for space in our house, we decided on a short road trip of which we have many stock planned ones that we take guests on. After giving our guests some choices, they chose the tour of the Bridges of Madison county and after making a picnic lunch, we were on our way.

Despite coming from a tropical country, Filipinos seem puny weaklings in the Iowa heat of summer so we actually only made it to two of the six bridges and the two we made it two were the least scenic of them. But I've got a million pictures of the bridges in their habitat so I wasn't too upset when we called an audible and opted for some air conditioned places. 

As old readers know, the thing that fascinates me most about the bridges is that they get regular coats of white paint on the interior and people are actually encouraged to leave their mark. Although I haven't yet, my daughter has and we did find her hand print and name still written where she had put it on our last visit. I love walking down the inside of the bridge and reading what others have written and as I have done in the past, here are a few that I thought I would share with you.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Oh Deer

This picture was taken nearly a month ago but I'm just now getting it posted. He is growing fast and no longer has trouble walking. In fact, he runs pretty swiftly when spooked. He also ventures out into our lawn quite often without his mother in sight.

Why this one is quite cute and cuddly looking now, I'm sure I'm going to be saying choice words for him later in the year as I build the fence around the area we are planning on turning into a garden. Without a fence, I know they would make quick work of the garden and so a fence is in order. Him and his buddies are free to make my land their home but darn if I'm going to give them free meals too!