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Learning to Live

Setting up Shop: Making a Workbench for Making Armor

So, I've wanted for the longest time to work metal, specifically, to make armor. For years I've wanted to do this, but I haven't had the space (living in an apartment), and I haven't really had the tools I need. Having moved into our small house, we've got a little more room for Making Things. Some of that room has needed to be reclaimed in various ways - the spiders, sometimes, are particularly challenging. Particularly in the basement. It's possible that I'm something of an arachnophobe, and when I arrived in the house, there were brown recluse webs everywhere. My first move was to buy a 72-pack of Catchmasters and artfully arrange them around furniture and along baseboards - they seem to have made a pretty sizeable impact. My girlfriend mixed a spray out of lemon and peppermint essential oils, heavily diluted, and mists all the corners once every couple of weeks - this too seems to help.
Over the months since we moved in, we’ve knocked the spider population down to acceptable levels - except in the basement. It's unfinished, with open joists above, and they just love to hang out up there. For a while it was way more than I wanted to tackle, but eventually I went down there armed with a dust mask, a Maglight, and a broom to do valiant battle upon my arachnid nemeses. Removing most of the cobwebs, I did find quite a number of spiders. After that purge, they seem to be slow in reestablishing themselves, so I just knock down the webs every couple of weeks and kill any that I see. It's tolerable. *twitch*

Well, onward and.. downward, I guess. If I want to do any armoring, it’ll have to happen in the basement. I thought about getting a yurt, just for the purpose. Carefully considered buying some canvas from Panther Primitives and making my own light, airy, spider-free environment, but I don't have a convenient upholstery sewing machine, however, nor the cash to devote to good canvas at the moment, so I figured I better just suck it up and get right to the metalwork. Which means an uneasy truce with the diminished number of arachnids still sharing my home with me. It’s fine. Really.

Recently, I got tired of procrastinating and bought mild steel plate and rod from a local metal shop. Several things magically came together at this point, and I made a deal with a friend who had the tools but no space, so my tiny basement will serve as a shared shop on some evenings. I've got really good friends, I find - another helped me transport an anvil to my house, and yet another helped me wrestle a hundred or more pounds worth of said anvil and stand down a cramped staircase.


I'm also building a bench on which to mount a small old vise that I unstuck, and my (first) friend's small Beverly shear for cutting out pieces. 

  Benchtop under Construction

You know, it's funny... I've hemhawed for YEARS while saying, "Oh, man, I'd LOVE to learn to make armor," but it wasn't until I started doing it (buying the metal, committing to the purchase of some tools) that what I needed started to fall into my lap. And once I'd committed, it literally RAINED good luck. Good thing I was prepared to take advantage of the deluge of opportunity by my decision to commit, huh? 
Tonight I'm gonna help a friend of mine put together a basket hilt for a practice sword, and then I'm going to pattern out a spangenhelm. At some point I'd also like to fabricate a way to better control the draft into my woodstove, so that I can choke it down to a nice simmer in the evenings (it currently has two modes, Full Steam Ahead, and Off) - I imagine I'll burn a lot less wood that way. 

Woodstove Fire

I'd like to stay focused, though: once I get the armor done, I'll be able to fight again, which is an absolute blast.


Doghouse Chicken Tractor: Update

So the chicken tractor is fully completed, and I'm amazed how simple it is to care for these creatures when they get fresh ground every couple of days. They were kinda freaking out for a little while (what is all this green stuff?! and is this DIRT?) but they got used to it pretty quickly, and they're experimenting with scratching. We've since introduced them to the idea of eating scraps, and we're experimenting with different foods to see what they like. I've learned that chickens do not get along with potato scraps or chocolate (various compounds in these foods can be toxic to them), but that my chickens, at least, like the bugs on the kale better than they like the kale itself, which I find kind of hilarious. 

Side view

The tractor itself is a bit heavy, as you can probably guess from the pictures, particularly on the doghouse side. It should be pretty durable, however, and my girlfriend and I can move it pretty easily, so it works. At first, I was a bit worried about the neighbor's dog and the chickens, but he comes over quite often and checks on things without ever trying to attack the chicken wire or dig under, so that's a relief. The chickens were a bit worried at first, but they seem to mostly ignore him now. We've seen very few varmints since we moved here, and I'm gonna guess that's at least in part to his doggy diligence. We are planning on adding a screen of 1”x2” garden fencing around the bottom, extending outward parallel to the ground, to deter any attempts at digging. Fastening it with fence staples will let us fold it up when it's time to move. 

Ze Marans 

I still need to build a new roosting bar or two and add some laying boxes. I know that I've got a couple of months or so for the boxes, but they really liked having a place to roost, so I might try and squeeze that in one of these evenings. 

 The Hatch is Open

If you've got any suggestions, let me know at, or on my Facebook page.

Have fun :)

Doghouse Chicken Tractor

    Behold, our half-completed chicken tractor! The Marans are getting a little big for their feathered britches, so my girlfriend and I worked up some new digs. I've got a pretty palatial doghouse (with a covered porch, even) that I got from some friends who needed to get rid of it (they built it from the plans that appeared in the first issue of GRIT Country), and some scrap cedar cutoffs I got from a fence contractor.  

    We'd love to have a dog, but because we're renting, fencing the property just isn't in the cards - and I'm not an indoor dog kind of guy, for the most part. The doghouse has sat vacant for several months, and surprisingly, none of the local critters or roaming canines have taken up residence. When we realized that it was time to give our feathered charges a new, outdoor home, it immediately came to mind. It's a little on the heavy side, the base having been constructed from 2x6, but that'll keep it stable, and help prevent predators from getting free helpings of my grass-fed eggs. 

   We could have covered the bottom of the 'yard' portion with chicken wire, but I want the chickens to be able to scratch and dustbathe, and I've no experience, so I don't want any possible obstructions. If a predator makes it in, well, I'll know for next time, I guess. Other than the weight of the chicken tractor, I plan to lay some sections of woven wire down along each side, attached to the frame with fence staples, to deter digging or lifting from the outside. We did decide to use some new lumber for part of the frame - two new 2x4s and two new 2x6s form the top and bottom side rails of the yard, respectively.  They're joined together and reinforced by pieces of the cedar cutoffs. We also hinged the gable ends of the doghouse and added ventilation holes covered with 1/4" hardware cloth. Right now, the Marans are experiencing the wide world from the safety and convenience of the doghouse's chickenwire-screened front porch. For the first week, we're limiting their run to the doghouse as a sort of 'coop-training.' It'll also give us a few days to finish the rest of the tractor. 
    I was really nervous when we first put them outside, but they figured it out eventually. They stood on the porch for a long while, but when it finally got fully dark, they filed into the coop to perch on a makeshift roost I made from a stick and a couple of cedar cutoffs. They seem to like actual tree branches, although I'm sure that any wood with rounded corners that's a little wider than your thumb will do - just be sure to avoid pvc or metal pipe, as it's difficult for them to find purchase, and the metal can freeze little chicken feet in winter. This morning I went outside to find them chirping contentedly - two of them are making a noise that could be a cluck in the making. They're still not really excited about me opening the coop, but, this too, shall pass, and delicious eggs are in the offing! 

    Right now we're bedding them down with cedar chips, and we'll probably change to straw in a week or two. Nesting boxes will go in one side of the coop, with higher and more permanent roosting bars on the other. We'll hang the food and water from a piece of cedar in the middle-ish of the tractor's 'yard.' 
Now we just need to figure out what to build for our six new Buff Orpington chicks!

Cute Fuzzy Chicks: Blue Splash Marans

We got gifted with some cute fuzzy chicks!

We’ve been putting together new episodes of Tough GRIT, one of which talks about chickens (surprise, surprise), specifically the care of newly-hatched chicks. Meyer Hatchery generously gave us a box of chicks for the episode. We had a few more chicks than we needed, so I had the opportunity to adopt a few. I chose four Blue Splash Marans pullets. ‘Marans’ (with a silent s) is the name of the village in France where the breed originated, pronounced muh-rahn, I’m told.

Blue Splash Marans Chick 

Blue splash chickens have some really interesting stuff going on, genetically. Basically, they’d have black plumage, but there’s an incompletely dominant ‘Blue’ gene that dilutes black coloring. To break it down, Mendel-style:

(BB) If the chicken ends up with no blue genes, they’ll have black feathers;

(Bb) One blue gene will partially mask the black color and you’ll get that gray or slate blue color.

(bb) Two blue genes will yield a splash-colored chicken, where the black is mostly masked and you get a pretty ‘Dalmation’ pattern.

If you build a Punnett square, you'll see that Splash x Splash will always breed more splashes, even though Blue x Blue gives a mixture.

Pretty awesome, right? Nothin' says good-lookin' like a good pair of blue genes.

There’s a lot more to know about blue chicken genetics, but I’m digging in with a will. If you’re interested, this site is a good place to start. Of course, you don’t need to know anything about genetics to raise chickens well, but we like to know what makes our animals the way they are.

 Adolescent Blue Splash Marans Chicks 

These chicks are between 2 and 3 weeks old now, in that awkward adolescent stage, and after a few more weeks they’ll be ready to move into their new chicken tractor. Guess that means I need to get to building it, huh. I've never built one before, and we're debating between an ark-style, and having the coop on one end, like Caleb and his wife did. 

Caleb and Gwen's Awesome Tractor 

If you've got any suggestions, let me know at, or on my Facebook page.

Have fun :)

Old Thresher's Reunion at Mount Pleasant, Iowa

This last weekend I had the good fortune to head up to Mt. Pleasant, Iowa for the annual Mt. Pleasant Old Threshers’ Reunion. It was, without a doubt, one of the coolest festivals I’ve ever been to – with more old iron than you could shake a stick at. 

 Rainy Drive to Mount Pleasant 

The drive there was a little rainy, due to the tattered remnants of Hurricane Isaac blowing up through the Midwest, and though it rained a bit on Saturday, Sunday and Monday were beautiful.These wonderful folks all came out of the woodwork on Labor Day weekend, bringing with them treasures, carefully restored and maintained pieces of our heritage, to relax with one another and share their stories and their engines with one another, and with anyone who comes to experience the charm of a simpler era.

Field of Allis Chalmers Tractors   

There were tractors lined up literally as far as the eye could see – Allis Chalmers were this year’s featured tractor, but there were hundreds of examples of Deere, IHC and Case as well, not to mention the myriad of rare and awesome old machines from smaller companies. 

Rare old 1919 Allis Chalmers 

This 1919 Allis Chalmers caught my eye - The seat arrangement is really interesting, and I think it's an interesting link between horsepower and modern tractor design. Along with the tractors were other fixtures of agricultural history, including a wide variety of threshers, balers, and other implements I couldn’t identify.

 Restored International Harvester Corn Sheller 

In another area of the grounds there was an enormous showing of stationary gas engines, and in yet another there were all shapes, sizes, makes and models of steam tractors and stationary engines, representing a few hundred years of American history. This beautiful Cushman water-cooled engine was run by a friendly but shy fellow who was very patient with my beginner's questions. Everyone at the show was very kind, and happy to teach raw novices about the engines and their history.

 Water-cooled 10 HP Cushman Gas Engine 

 The Old Thresher’s Reunion prints many of its own signs and flyers at the show by hand – in one of the two huge museum buildings, is collection of old printing presses, painstakingly maintained and used with love each year to provide signs for the show grounds, handbills, collectible flyers, and even a broadsheet newspaper cataloguing the events of the show. I've a video of one of the presses in action which I will try and upload later this week. 

Blacksmith's Tongs  

The museum buildings also hold some functioning giant stationary steam engines, which I might cover in more detail in a later post, windmills, both for water and electricity, cutaway constructed barns, so that you can see how they were framed and shingled, and displays of tools and implements concerning every aspect of early American life. I think the wide variety of tongs used by early American smiths is fascinating. Part of the magic of blacksmithing (at least for me) is that if you needed a tool for something, you just made one, right then and there.

The Old No. 12 Engine 

The showgrounds were expansive enough that a small railroad was constructed to ferry showgoers around the circumference, sporting an actual steam engine bearing the markings of the Georgetown Loop, and cars painted from the Denver and Rio Grande line, and the Midwest Central Railroad. I've a video that I'll try and upload later. There were also small trams being pulled by more modern John Deere tractors, for shorter hops.

I hope to write more about this later, but if you don't have plans for next year's Labor Day weekend, the Old Threshers' Reunion might be an experience well worth your time.

Hammer and Chisel: How to Cut Bricks and Firebricks


Kasey Moomau

Cutting your own firebrick (or any other square brick or stone) is no big deal - all you need is a hammer and chisel. You could use power tools, I suppose, but if you’re only cutting a few bricks for one project, it’s faster and cheaper to use hand tools. I take great pleasure from learning that I can do easily something I thought was really tough or complicated, and many folks these days are unfamiliar with, and intimidated by, simple tools and rough materials:  


“But you have to be an expert in order to cut stone,” you think. “What if I get it wrong?”  

Well, if you get it wrong and can’t fix it (OH NO!), then you must: 

    - Locate and acquire another rock or brick. (I understand these are cheap and widely available)

    - Look at your broken brick and spend a moment thinking about WHY it didn’t work. Then decide what to do differently, feel good about it, and try again.

    - Repeat if necessary. I learn something most every time I mess up. I figure that’s worth two minutes of observation and a brick, but you can do the math yourself and decide.

  Hammer and Cut Brick 

Pieces and Parts 

You can improvise with almost any heavy chisel and whatever hammer you like or can find. I have used a cold chisel (a heavy, dull chisel for cutting cold metal) as a substitute in the past with some success, but masonry chisels are usually available at your local tool store for cheap, and trust me, that wide blade (see photo) makes your job much easier. I use a 2 lb. short sledge, and a masonry chisel I bought at a hardware store for $5. Wearing long sleeves and gloves ($4) can help protect you from flying chips, and eye protection (also $4) is essential. I like working outdoors, but you can do this in any well-ventilated area. If you decide to improvise rather than buy a masonry chisel, try not to use the fine-edged chisels that are made for cutting wood or hot metal; cutting brick or stone will tear them up. 

Masonry chisel about to cut brick  


Some people prefer to lay the brick on packed earth or sand when scoring, as they believe that it helps hold the brick fast, and transfer momentum from the chisel through the brick more efficiently. I have used a bare wooden workbench or a pile of other bricks in the past without incident. In the photos, I’m using my porch. I should note, though, that the height of your work surface makes a big difference. If you can put the top of the chisel at the height of your hip or so, your hammer will be at a much more comfortable angle for repeated swinging. Experiment and find what works for you.    

Measuring and Marking 

Before cutting, lay the brick flat on a workbench, measure where you would like to cut, and mark this with chalk or a pencil if you want. To break the brick, we’re going to use the chisel to score it; this will create a controlled, precise crack all the way around the brick, so that the break happens right where we want. If I want a perfectly square break, I generally mark lines, so that I don’t make a chisel placement mistake. 

  Chisel score line on brick 


To score, set the chisel against the brick on the marked line and wrap your hand firmly around the straight part of the chisel, keeping your fingers and thumb between the striking surface (‘hammer’ + ‘fingers’ = ‘bad’), and where the chisel starts forming the blade. Hold the chisel upright and steady but don’t squeeze - squeezing will transmit the shock of the hammer blows to your hand and can tire or injure your hand; I find that wearing gloves really helps with this, because your skin doesn’t stick to the chisel. If you’ve never done this before, lightly tap the top of the chisel with the hammer a couple of times, holding the hammer so that the head is a couple of inches above the chisel, and then dropping it. This will give you a feel for what’s going on. Repeat this if necessary until there is a visible mark on the brick.  

  Cutting brick with hammer and chisel 

Smooth and Steady 

Try not to cut one spot too deeply all at once; this can cause the brick to break in ways that you don’t want; cut each side about the same. Once the brick is lightly scored all the way around, go around again, striking a little harder. If you haven’t ever used a hammer or chisel before, this is where you can experiment – each time you go around the cut line, hold the hammer a little further up in its arc before letting it fall. Try to get comfortable with how the hammer wants to fall gradually - it may seem tedious, but it will give you much better aim later when you want to swing full blows.  

The Right Way to Do Things (cleanly cut bricks, happy hands, and peace on Earth)

  The Right Way 

The Wrong Way to Do Things (Crooked cuts, flat fingers, and the sound of the Doom Bell)

The Wrong Way 

Breaking Bricks 

    When breaking stone, the most important thing is to confidently follow through with your hammer. That doesn’t mean that you need to swing hard, but you need to let the hammer transfer all of its momentum to the chisel, and the more relaxed you are when you do this, the more likely you are to strike straight and true, and thus get a straight crack. In my experience, a little confidence helps you relax, and practice gives you confidence, so go hit some rocks (safely). Below, the ragged horizontal break is what happens sometimes if you don't score all the way around (I just pounded the chisel through the top of the brick, and this is what the bottom looks like) and the clean vertical break (with white scoring marks) is what happens when you score evenly; you get a nice, straight break. 

            Brick Cut with Chisel 

    If the brick doesn’t immediately break (firebrick usually takes a couple more hammer blows than regular red brick; I think this is because it is made of smaller aggregate, and baked hotter) just put the chisel back in the score line and start digging it deeper, being more aggressive with your hammer blows. It’s important here to keep the chisel straight upright, and to swing your hammer with good control so that it comes down straight onto the chisel; an angled chisel can cause a crooked break. 


            Cutting stone is not rocket science. The most important thing is to try it, and to not worry. It might go wrong, but I guarantee you that if it does, you’ll be able to figure out why and fix it, and you’ll feel good for having jumped out there and learned a new skill. 

A Little House in the Country

Kasey MoomauRecently, I came across a brilliant opportunity, a little house on 5 acres with affordable rent. I’ve been yearning to garden for about a year now, and I’m excited to escape my apartment in town (with nearly zero outdoor growing space, unless you count the bed of my pickup in the parking lot) and go live in the country, where I grew up. Even though I won’t be able to move for a month or so yet, my girlfriend and I are already knee-deep in plans for rainwater collection, composting, cold frames and fences.

The prospect of being able to once again share our lives with a pet or two or three has filled us with a kind of mania; we spent a weekend touring animal shelters and our breaks at work involve furtive rifling through, oohing and aahing over Australian shepherds and Swiss mountain dogs in need of loving homes. We want to have some chickens, as well, and have been looking at designs for chicken tractors. One of my esteemed colleagues recently brought some beautiful heritage Buff Orpington chickens with her to work - a robust culture of share-and-tell is one of the perks of working with these wonderful folks - and I really liked what I saw.

We’ve decided to cultivate several separate garden beds (to aid in crop rotation in the coming years) on the sunny south slope behind our new abode, with permanent paths betwixt the beds to help control soil compaction. Our good-natured future landlord has kindly agreed to let us start our garden now, even though we haven’t moved in yet.

I’ve dreamt about this stuff for long enough; I think I’m going to love doing it.

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