Grit Blogs >

Of Mice and Mountain Men

Stihl FS40C String Trimmer First Use and Review

Of Mice and Mountain MenI recently wrote about my adventure in trimmer shopping, this is the follow-up to that piece as a review of my new Stihl FS40C string trimmer.

Stumbling Start

Testing was delayed by the fact that I didn’t have a 1-gallon gas can. I have several 2-gallon cans, and one is a can into which I pump precisely 2 gallons of gas for use in my 2-stroke equipment. I have some gas/oil mixed up but that’s a 40:1 mix for my older tools. The Stihl FS40C string trimmer uses a 50:1 mix.

I bought a six-pack of synthetic oil for the Stihl, each bottle mixes with one gallon of gasoline. I figured I’d use that can of new gas and two bottles of oil and be all set to fire up and see what it can do. But the manual and some commentary online talk about the need to use the gas/synthetic oil mix within 30 days or it begins to decompose, and using degraded gas/oil can void the extended warranty (four years) Stihl offers. In fact, in reading the warranty there are several ways they try to get out of paying for repairs during that second two-year period.

So I popped down to the closest hardware store and bought a 1-gallon gas can, mixed in the Stihl oil, and filled the trimmer’s gas tank.

Firing Up My Stihl FS40C String Trimmer

The controls and start-up procedure are standard and familiar. This does have a convenient feature that opens the choke automatically if I gun the engine a little after start-up.

I pushed the primer bulb five times and the trimmer started up on the third pull. It would probably have started on the first or second had I primed it more. The first two presses on the bulb passed nothing but air — being brand new and never run.

One of the issues I’ve had with my old trimmer was keeping it running while at idle. It tended to die if I didn’t gun the throttle a little while walking from one spot to the next. If I had to set it down to open a gate it was sure to quit on me; but it started up again, so it was no big deal.

Stihl FS40C

 

As you can see, I could set this one down and leave it for a long time and it continues to purr right along.

Gas Mileage

One of the few complaints I saw in reviews on the Stihl FS40C string trimmer was that it has a small fuel tank and requires frequent fill-ups. But I found this not to be the case. Maybe it was an old review and the issue has been addressed since, or maybe the reviewer expects to trim for three hours solid. I trimmed my workshop yard (small but steep) and the dog’s play yard (1/3 acre) and still had some fuel left in the tank. That’s plenty of “mileage” for me in one session.

Power and Performance

Stihl review shop yard 2

At 27cc this engine is a bit smaller than the 31cc in my Poulon, but the Stihl FS40C string trimmer had no trouble powering through grass and standing weeds. The .80 line it uses punched through the small brushy stuff better than the .65 line on my Poulon. The bump feed on the line is not as touchy as the old one had gotten to be, either. I tended to use up line faster than I should because accidental bumps against the ground would feed line that just got cut off by the blade.  Not a problem with the new Stihl.

As I was working, I did notice that the engine went “flat” a few times. Each time I told myself, “OK, here we are running out of gas already,” but then it picked up power and kept going.  I’m not sure what that was about.

The throttle is responsive, the engine not too loud, and the unit is lighter in weight than my old one. This is largely because of the shaft design I chose.

Which Shaft?

You have three choices to make in trimmer shafts:

  • straight shaft or curved
  • long shaft or short
  • split shaft or solid

Curved or Straight?

Straight shafts use a mechanical gearbox on the end of the shaft to change the direction of power and channel it into the cutter head. Curved shafts use a flexible cable inside a housing to transmit power to the cutting head.

A straight shaft offers a lower cutting head, thereby being better at getting underneath fence rails, sheds, shrubbery, and so forth. The gear box makes the end of the shaft heavier, but is said to be more efficient in transmitting power to the cutting head. Just make sure you check the oil in the gear box occasionally.

The curved shaft eliminates that cast metal housing and gears, thereby making the shaft lighter. The trade-off is that the cable running through a curved shaft can create friction, and some folks complain about frequent failure of these cables. Mostly in low-end brands, though. I’d expect Stihl to use a properly sealed and lubricated cable and housing. I saw no complaints about this in product reviews by other buyers.

Long or Short?

Both styles come in a long-shaft and a short-shaft version. If you need a long reach (like reaching over a brow to cut a steep embankment) a long shaft is handy.  For tight quarters the short shaft is great.

Split or Solid?

Both styles also offer a split-shaft version that allows you to change out the implement on the end of the shaft. String trimmer, brush cutter, pole saw, leaf blower, edger, and cultivator are some of the attachments available for some of these systems.

I had the cultivator (tiller) and the brush cutter blade for my Poulon, but rarely used them. I decided to forgo the split-shaft this time around. I also bought a curved shaft for the first time, and a short shaft at that.

Putting It To Work

I noticed the difference right off. Not having the long shaft with gear box cantilevered out on the end of it made the trimmer much easier to handle. It felt weird having the cutter so close to my feet, though. I will definitely miss that long shaft when weed-whacking up in Copperhead County. That extra few feet of exploratory distance was comforting.

Stihl review shop yard 1

But working around my walkways and lumber piles was much easier because I wasn’t doing so much jockeying to move through the tight spaces and get into the corners.

In order to get the cutter head parallel to the ground, I still had to hike the engine up my side, but that’s because I’m short. The short shaft did help a bit as the hot engine did not have to be tucked up into my armpit.

Stihl FS40C String Trimmer Conclusion

I’ve used this string trimmer several times now and have found it to start right up, run strong (those momentary power drops have not repeated), and have plenty of power and work time. The lighter weight makes trimming less of a chore, too. I’m happy.

More Info: Listing on Stihl web site

Raised Bed Garden Project 2016-17 — Part 7

Of Mice and Mountain Men 

It’s been a while since I last checked in and that’s because this thing called LIFE happened. Technically it’s still happening (and that’s a good thing), but not so much all at once. So, I have resumed work on the mega raised bed garden box.

The first order of business was to finish up the timber walls. You may recall that I had completed the sections that ran alongside the barn and most of the part that runs out from the front of the barn (front wall). I completed this front wall first by installing timbers to step up the hill to the high corner.

Garden Project 2016-17 Front wall complete-Media

Then I worked my way back from that corner along the end wall until I go to the point that I needed to resume stepping down the hill. To do that, I needed to go around to the back wall and start building the steps up the slope to meet the outside corner so I could turn that corner and finish the end wall.

Garden Project 2016-17_Rear Corner Complete

Of course, I’m still lining these walls with 6 mil black plastic to keep the garden soil free of the pressure treatment, and to help keep the timbers from rotting from soil contact. It turns out that the landscape timbers being sold at Lowe’s and Home Depot are rated as “cosmetic” and are not intended for ground contact (BOGGLE!). So, it’s a really good thing I started out with this liner under and inside these walls.

On to Fencing

Once the timber walls were done, I resumed making fence panels from the square fence boxes I used in the 4 feet by 4 feet raised bed garden boxes in the former garden. Because of these, I already have all this PVC tubing and poultry mesh. These will make serviceable fencing to keep rabbits and (most) dogs out of my garden. Or as I quipped on Facebook:

Now that the wall and fence are complete, I will be able to keep those crawliflowers, rowdybeggas, brawlocci, tornups, sneak peas, swift corn, booger beans, and snapping peas inside the garden. The beats will probably continue to make noise to cover the escape attempts of the others for a while, but I imagine in time it will all settle down and become like the garden of weedin.

To make fence panels, I unwind the boxes, starting at the corner where the wire mesh starts and ends. I snip a few ties to gain some wiggle room and knock the three-way corners off.

Garden Project 2016-17 Reforming fence box (2)

And replace the three-ways with 90 degree corners.

Garden Project 2016-17 Reforming fence box (1)

(Actually, the first several panels were made by simply disconnecting the adjacent panel and leaving the three-ways in place because I didn’t realize I had three bags of corners sitting in my workshop. Oops.)

These boxes are 46 1/2 inches along each side. So, where I was able to make the steps 46 1/2 inches long, I could repeat the corner replacement, cut the mesh, and have a completed panel. But those were rare. So, I needed to straighten the opposite corner by replacing the three-ways not with elbows but with tees.

Garden Project 2016-17 Reforming fence box (3)

Then swing the new panel out and align the tubing with the open ends of the tee.

Garden Project 2016-17 Reforming fence box (4)

And “stretch” the mesh enough to get the tube ends to seat inside the tee ends. This was not as easy as it sounds. But once done, the tubing slid into the tees and all that tension was released, making a nice long panel.

Garden Project 2016-17 Reforming fence box (5)

Always too long. So, I needed to shorten it by finding the finished length needed, measuring out along the new panel, remember to allow for the length consumed in the elbow, and cut the tubing. Then I installed elbows and a 24-inch tube on the new end point.

Garden Project 2016-17 Reforming fence box (6)

I finish up by cutting the mesh with tin snips and zip-tying the mesh to the new end post.

Garden Project 2016-17 Reforming fence box (7)

Then I snip the zip tails and set the new panel in place. I used zip ties to hold it to neighboring panels so it wouldn’t fall over while I finished it up.

Garden Project 2016-17 Reforming fence box (8)

To strengthen these panels, I added 1-by-4 stanchions by screwing them to the outside of the box wall.

Garden Project 2016-17 Reforming fence box (9)

To hold the panels in place, I made saddle clamps of plumber’s strapping and washer headed screws. These held the panels down on top of the walls and to the stanchions.

Garden Project 2016-17 Saddle clamp single

Going this route, I can easily remove a panel if needed. Say, if I want to chip brush and blow the chips into the high corner of the garden during the winter.

Garden Project 2016-17 Saddle Clamp double 1

Once all that was done, I’m pretty well finished up.

Garden Project 2016-17 Fencing Completed 3

All that remains is to make a fancy wooden gate to hang in the front wall opening next to the barn. I’m using a fence panel there for now, so it’s not a “gotta rush on this” deal. I can instead attend to what is growing inside the garden since it’s August now and the squash, peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers are coming in fast. The dry beans will be a while yet. The asparagus ferns will need to be cut soon, and there is tons of weed control to do.

One thing I did not have to worry about was hornworms. Last year’s borage (starflower) dropped lots of seed in the soil (and that got moved into my new garden) and borage came up all over the place. I let them thrive between and around my peppers and tomatoes and pulled them up where they were not needed. And I have not seen a single hornworm this year! Yay starflower!

 

 

Garden Project 2016 — Part 6

Of Mice and Mountain MenThere is a spot at the low corner of my yard where twigs pile up against the chain link when it rains, and this filters the top soil out of the run-off. I’ve had a pad building up down there that is now about 8” deep, so I dug that out, loaded it into my wagon ...

Filling in the pits 161026

... and used the good topsoil to fill in the pits left when I removed the old (small) garden boxes. I moved plugs of grass I cut out during trenching into that good dirt, and I water it when I remember. As it settles, I’ll need to keep filling to restore the proper slope of the ground. Once that’s established, I can try seeding to fill in between the plugs. The row where I still have a couple of boxes is the row that will be fruit trees/bushes once all those boxes have been removed.

I have a pile of clay-dirt that was created when an excavator made the drainage ditch for us. Been there for years. Packed down and hard as concrete.

Filling in the deep corner 161026

I’m busting that up with a pick-axe and shoveling the clay into the bottom of the low corner of the veggie bed. I piled scrap lumber from the dead garden boxes in there first. When I get a good pile of dirt ready, I use a rake to pull it out along the wall and fill in around the lumber. That piece of fencing is just sitting there; I set it down to shovel.

I’m thinking clay in the bottom is a lot cheaper than filling it with good topsoil. Free is good. The wood and clay will work into a hegelkultur, but it’s down deep enough that about the only thing that might get down to it will be potatoes. And maybe not them (once the box is filled).

Filling in the gate entry 161026

I also loaded some clay into the wagon and brought it around to the gate. Since nothing will ever be grown just inside this gate, I don’t want to waste good garden soil here. I spread in a layer of clay, tamp it down good, and spread in another layer. I have a couple more layers to go, then I will cover the pad with landscape fabric and cover that with paver stones.

Two panels installed

I’m making the fence panels from the fence boxes by simply rearranging the parts. That means they’re not as finished-looking as they might be (using three-way corners instead of elbows) but I don’t want to invest in more PVC parts if I can avoid it.

I will need to add stanchions (probably pressure treated 1x4s) to support the fence panels in the long runs.

I fasten the panels in place with plumber’s strapping and washer-headed screws. That will make removing them again easy, if I need to. One reason I might want to do that is that my chipper has a low discharge that blows chips into a big, heavy-duty bag. If I remove a fence panel at the high corner of the garden (where the wall is lowest) I can blow the chips directly into the garden (between growing seasons) and rake them out across the patch. That way I’d bypass the task of carrying the 80 to 100 pound bag (multiple times) through the garden gate and lifting it to shake the chips out.

I’m laying corrugated cardboard over the grass inside the new wall to kill it and covering that with enough soil to hold it in place. Unlike landscape fabric, the cardboard will decompose once it’s done its job and allow roots to grow down through it. Hopefully the grass will die out over the winter and not come pushing back up through the garden soil in the spring.

That’s about it. I’ll keep doing what I’m doing as I can afford the materials, through the winter until it’s done.

That will involve completing the wall and fence panels, and removing the wooden boxes and landscape fabric from inside my vegetable patch. I will need to make a lot of dirt to fill this mega-box, but I can do that by adding chipped brush, baled peat, and kitchen waste. That will be an on-going task throughout the life of this vegetable garden, because the organics in the soil break down and need constant replenishment.

Blondie watch tower south 161026

Blondie Bear has finally come to grips with this project. She’s decided this thing makes a good spot for her South Watch Tower. She’ll be happy until I get the rest of the fencing installed. Then I’ll just have to build her another tower to watch from.

Garden Project 2016 — Part 5

Of Mice and Mountain MenLoad of 25 timbers

I bought another batch of timbers and got some more work done on my garden project.

Inside wall leveled

My first task this time was to level out the inside wall of the plot (next to the barn) and build it up to meet the low timber on the front wall (at the corner of the barn). This also meant going around the back corner and over to the stepped timber on the back wall at that level. From here on, I’ll be laying mostly full timbers and a couple of half timbers along the inside wall and the back.

Inside wall complete liner

I laid in two more rows, pulling up and stapling the liner before I screwed down the top timbers. This is as high as I’m going on this end.

Inside-back corner complete

That also completes the inside-back corner. I could run the wall up the slope with many small steps to match the slope of the land, but because I’m going to mount fence panels on top of the walls to keep dogs, rabbits, and buffalo out of the garden, I need longer level areas and taller steps: each step will be 3 or 4 timbers high, and I need to lay them out according to the slope. But I’m almost out of timbers again, so I’ll start on the front side. I’ll get more done there with what I have left.

Blondie not happy garden improvements

I have my first step established and my gate posts installed. Blondie Bear is not at all happy with my “improvements.” They just get in her way!

The fence panels will be made by re-purposing PVC fence boxes to make single (about 4 feet) and double (about 8 feet) fence panels that will sit inside each step. The fence box parts were not cemented together, so I’ll just remove the mesh and pull the frames apart. I can cut the tubing down if I need to make custom-length panels for certain spots, but I’ll try to keep that to a minimum.

I can work on those while I await my next paycheck and the ability to buy more timbers.

I will say that I am displeased with the timbers from our big-box, home-improvement store because of the lack of uniformity in timber size.

Mismatched timbers

The first few timbers I pulled off of this batch are 1/2” wider and 1/8” taller that the timbers I bought last time. I thought it was a problem of buying from two different batches. But as I worked, I found that some of the timbers in this batch are closer to the size I got last time. So I started paying closer attention and doing my best to minimize the obvious problems this is going to cause. This discovery did make me feel better; I was thinking I should have bought all the timbers I’d need at one time, even if it meant using credit to do it. Then they would all match. But that is not the case.

I miss the hometown lumber yard that got put out of business by “big box.” I never had this trouble with timbers from them.

Next time I'll finish up this series with a look at completed steps and fence panels.

Garden Project 2016 — Part 4

Of Mice and Mountain MenPreviously we have covered layout, squaring, trenching, and ground pins in this garden project of mine. Now, let's look more at the arrangement of the timbers themselves and the joinery.

Staggering Joints

Staggered Joints

Joints, where the end of one timber butts up against the end of another, are weak points. You want to stagger these so that the joints in one row do not fall too close to joints in the row just above or below it.

Longer is Better

Make use of long pieces of timber — they're stronger than many short pieces. In the beginning, as I stair-step up the slopes, short pieces cannot be avoided. But I will want to transition to longer pieces as soon as possible. Cut-offs can be used by placing them between longer pieces.

Lock the Corners

Locked corners

Be sure you alternate the overlap at corners to lock the timbers securely together (as pictured above).

Mark Your Fasteners

Marking screws

When you drive a screw or spike into a timber, use a construction pencil (with a wide, flat, sturdy point, as opposed to the delicate conical point of a standard pencil) to make an obvious mark on the outside of the timber where the fastener is. This will make it easy to avoid driving one fastener in on top of another. At the corners, mark both the side and the end to give yourself a clearer vision of where it is. Pencil is good because it washes off with the rain, so you don’t deface your pretty wall.

Pay particular attention to fastener placement at corners, or they will hit the fastener in the timber below it.

Buttresses

If you will have long, high walls, you will want to consider adding buttresses to help keep the dirt on the inside from pushing (bowing) the wall out at the top. There are several ways to do this, but the easiest is to use a post hole digger to drill a hole 18 inches deep beside the wall. Then, concrete a 4x4 into the hole so that it supports the upper part of the wall. This works well for 3- to 4-foot-high walls. Anything higher than 4 feet that will be holding back dirt will need a more aggressive approach, like anchored tie-backs or external cantilevered buttresses.

Cantilevered Buttress concrete

Stepping and Filling

I started at the low corner and worked in two directions — along the barn and along the back wall. When I got to the outside-back corner, I had to start filling in and building up in order to go around the corner and work up the outside-end wall.

Back Wall - End Wall

I used a large number of my initial 40 timbers just building height to accommodate this corner.

High corner_Ground timbers in

The final side to be dug in was the front, from the corner of the barn to the highest corner. Now that these are all in, there will be no more trenching or rebar pinning, so I can put those tools away.

Where From Here?

My goal for the initial 40 timbers I bought was to get all the ground timbers in and all corners locked together with at least one additional run. I have accomplished that with one timber to spare.

The next step will be to figure out where the permanent steps will be in the wall.

I do not think it practical to simply build up all walls until they are level along the tops of the walls. If I do that, the high corner will be 6 inches high, the front corner at the barn will be 39 inches high (the corner diagonally opposite will be similar), and the lowest corner (behind the barn) will be between 5 and 6 feet high! That would take a lot of timbers, and a lot of dirt to fill it up level.

A better solution might be to step it down to retain a slope, but a much less drastic slope.

A long wall might look like this:

DrawingTH

This is a simplified version, but the idea is to make three or four major steps rather than seventeen little steps. The little steps would be fine, except that I want to attach fence panels atop the timbers to keep rabbits and dogs out of my vegetable patch. A few steps of three layers would make that possible.

That’s enough for this round. See you next time when I begin filling in these stair steps!

Garden Project 2016 — Part 3

Of Mice and Mountain MenPreviously, we laid out where the retainer walls will be and squared up the corners. Now we’re ready to start digging for the ground-level timbers.

Fasteners

But first: how will we fasten things in place?

Beveled pin end

I’m using two types of fasteners. One is 1/2” rebar that I cut into 12-inch lengths. I bevel one end a bit, just to help it pass through the hole in the timber (drilled with a 1/2” spade bit) without snagging on the wood. Unless your ground is hard as rock there is no need to grind the pin to a point. Use these pins to fasten the timber in place on the ground.

HeadLok Screws

For timber-to-timber fastening, I’m using HeadLok timber framing screws. You can use a variety of fasteners, from spikes to lag bolts to deck screws. I researched them all. I’ve used decking screws before and found that they are a bit light-weight for this use. And expensive. I’ve used lag bolts and found they hold forever, but the heads have to be counter-bored into the timbers as well as drilling a pilot hole. Extra work, and the bolts are expensive. Timber spikes are the cheapest, but the timbers will jump around as you drive the spikes in, ruining your careful placement to get a good, plumb wall.

I went with the timber framing screws and am happy I did. The cost is more than spikes, but less than lag bolts (in large boxes), and they are rated to replace a 3/8” lag bolt. They are heavy enough to hold well and coated to resist rust for a long time (manufacturer claims “lifetime of the project”). There are several brands out there, this one is what our local home improvement store carries. My 20-volt cordless drill will drive a dozen or so screws before the charge wears down. A corded drill will run all day if I string a power cord out there.

Trenching

Trenching 2

Starting at the lowest corner, I use a square-nose spade to cut the sod along the inner edge of the orange paint line. I cut another line 5 inches inside of that, then dig out the sod between the cuts. These sod-chunks get moved as plugs to the area where I’ve removed and filled in the small, raised bed boxes.

Then I use a pick axe to cut the trench deeper as the ground slopes up.

Leveling Trench 2

I use a 4-foot spirit level to check my progress and to keep the trench flat and level until the depth is equal to the height of a landscape timber. Measure the length of timber you need, cut it, and lay it in the trench.

Liner

Low Corner Hegelkulture

I’m using 6 mil black plastic as a liner inside the wall. My theory is that this will help keep the pressure treatment in the lumber from leeching into the soil and will extend the life of the timbers. By putting the plastic in the trench so it is under the timbers — and up the outside to just above ground level — as well as lining the inside, it should help keep the enzymes (and insects) in the soil from rotting the wood. The pressure treatment will protect the wood for a time. I’m hoping that by lining the walls, this construct will last what is left of my lifetime — or, at least, what is left of it that I will be able to actively garden.

Pining

With the liner positioned and a hole bored through the timber about three inches back from the end, check one last time to be sure the timber is level end-to-end and side-to-side, and check that it’s sitting with its edge along the edge of the orange lay-out paint. Then use a small sledgehammer to drive the pin through the timber and into the ground.

The very first timbers (one each direction from the corner) will get pinned at both ends. From then on (at least on this job), only the far end will get pinned; the other will get screwed to the top of the previous timber as they stair-step their way up the slope.

Join me again next time and we’ll get more into arranging the timbers and joining them.

Garden Project 2016 – Part 2

Of Mice and Mountain MenIn Part 1, I discussed the need for revamping my garden plan. Now let's get started on laying out the perimeter of the new wall.

Being a former furniture maker, I’m fussy. While I could just toss some timbers on the ground and fiddle with them until the parallel sides are about equal, I’d like to get the corners as close to square as I can. Being on a slope (and having a garden in the middle, including trellises and fence boxes), running a tape measure across the diagonals isn’t going to work. But geometry can be fun. We’ll get back to that in a moment.

Being a Square

My garden bed is to be 20 feet by 28 feet. That 2-1/2 (eight foot) landscape timbers wide by 3-1/2 landscape timbers long. I lay timbers out on the ground using those proportions and eye-ball them into reasonably straight lines.

Lay-out Front

The storage barn that is next to the vegetable bed is square. I used that to help. I nailed a string to the trim on the far side of the front of the barn and ran it out to the high corner. I started with the string angled out a bit and brought it in slowly, until it just touched the trim on the near side of the barn. I staked the string and used that to line up the first side of timbers, forming a straight line from the front of the barn. I measured out the 28 feet from the barn and marked that — establishing the location of the first corner.

Squaring with 3-4-5 method

With the timbers for the adjacent side laid roughly in place, I used the 3-4-5 method to square that corner. Find the center line of the two timbers that form the corner (edges could be used on square timbers, but these have rounded faces). Mark the point where the two center lines cross (center of corner). Measure out 3 feet in one direction and mark it on the center line. Measure out 4 feet in the other direction and mark it on the center line. Use a tape measure to measure diagonally from the 3 foot mark to the 4 foot mark. Making sure that the timber on the established straight line does not move, move the far end of the other timber in or out until the mark on that timber touches the 5 foot mark on the tape. Fasten that timber in place, and the corner is now square.

3-4-5 works well with eight-foot timbers. For longer pieces and distances, 6-8-10 works, too.

Now fasten the string to the center point of the corner and roll it out to the next corner. Tension the string and swing it until it lines up perfectly with the center line atop the timber you just squared. Stake the string a little beyond the expected corner location, then use it to line up the center lines of the remaining timbers on that side.

Lay-Out Back

Next I laid timbers in along the side of the barn to the low corner (behind the barn). I repeated the 3-4-5 squaring process on this corner. Once the two diagonally opposed corners of a shape are square (and all the sides are straight), the shape is square.

Once all the timbers were in place, I used a can of orange marker paint to paint a line along the outside of the timbers. I’ll turn the timbers around so that the paint on them is inside as I build the walls.

Now it’s time to get digging. But I’ve reached my word limit, so I’ll pick this up again next time.