Red fox and red maple

The chokecherry, maple and birch leaves are starting to turn colors.  A young red fox is hanging around and looks like it’s changing into its prime winter pelt.

I have all the holes ready for the footings and all the rocks and boulders from the holes that I could lift are set up as a sort of retaining wall where the driveway turns into the building site.  The tools I used are pretty basic:  a rock pry bar, a spade shovel and a small pick axe that I bought at a flea market for $4.00.  A post hole digger or earth auger would have been pretty ineffective for this site in my judgement; too many large rocks and too much hard clay.  I ordered some flared, square footing forms that attach to the sonotube forms, and so I’m just waiting for those to arrive and the weather to cooperate before I begin pouring concrete.  I must admit that the foundation has proved to be much more work than I anticipated.  I thought I would hit the granite bedrock at a much shallower depth, but that was really only the case where the bedrock was exposed on the surface.  Lesson learned for next time.

I also took a weekend and went fishing on the Bois Brule in northern Wisconsin with some friends.  We stayed south of highway 2 to avoid the crowds and by doing that, also missed out on the lake-run trout and salmon.  Caught plenty of pan-sized native brook trout though and kept one just to taste.


Blueberries and black bears

In between rainstorms, I’ve been working on digging the holes for the footings and foundation piers.  I’ve been using a rock pry bar, pick axe, and shovel which has been pretty slow going with the bugs and 80-degree days in the sun.  The boulders I’ve had to dig out are large enough to be a huge hassle yet just small enough that I can’t justify renting a back hoe.  I had to special order concrete footing forms that won’t come until next month so looks like  I won’t be pouring concrete for a while.  I did make sure to orient the foundation so the roof pitch faces south for solar panels.  I plan on posting more detailed descriptions and photos of the foundation process once I’m closer to finishing.  In phenological news, the blueberries peaked around the first week of August and there are a couple of black bears hanging around.  Amazing to see how docile and indifferent to my presence the bears are when feasting on the abundance of fresh berries.

Hemlock beam

My first attempt at milling an 18-foot beam with a chainsaw came out less than ideal.  The guide rails I used were 10-foot 2x4s butted end to end and scabbed together with scrap lumber.  I used lag screws to hold the rails against the log and in retrospect, there is really no reason I should have assumed the milled beam would turn out reasonably square.  I’m glad I practiced on a windfall hemlock that had a pretty significant shake in the heartwood as hemlocks are prone to have.  I can learn from the mistakes, reevaluate and refine my technique, and move on to the more desirable white pine logs.  Plus, the hemlock 4×6 will make good practice for timber frame joinery when I get to that stage.  I’ll probably make saw horses or timber ponies with them and that will give me some practice with mortise and tenons, and also allow me to get a feel for all the new tools I’ve picked up over the past winter before I jump into the joinery for the actual cabin.  Another quick point I’d make is that I’m glad the first beam was hemlock for a couple reasons.  First, the old growth hemlock and yellow birch complex is one of my favorite forest types and secondly, hemlock has one of the best Latin names ever:  Tsuga.

This 18-foot 4×6 boxed heart hemlock beam is all I could salvage from a large windfall tree.  Multiple stems, knots, reaction wood and checking made the rest of the tree unusable for timbers.  After it was milled, I sealed the end grain and labeled the timber with the species and grade.

Post and beam auger

I picked up a post and beam auger with a 2″ bit from a retiring shop teacher who had it sitting on his desk for 20 years.  I had to drive an hour to get it but the low price and not having to pay shipping justified the car ride.  It’s not a familiar type such as a Millers Falls model and in fact I’m not sure what brand it is.  If anybody knows the manufacturer or can tell me anything about it from the pictures I would appreciate a quick comment or email to clue me in.  Some of the mortises I’ll be cutting will be 2″ wide so this contraption should speed that along.  I’d really like to find a 1-1/2″ bit to drill the rest of the mortises so I’ll have to keep my eye out for one of those.


Willow charcoal and another moose variation

I cut some green willow twigs, peeled the bark, and packed them in a Christmas popcorn tin with a few holes in the top and bottom.  I placed the tin on the fire before I went to bed and in the morning I opened the tin, revealing some willow charcoal sticks.  I did a rough sketch of a moose with the charcoal.  I’m not all that proud of the drawing but I thought a moose was an appropriate subject for the medium considering the word, moose, comes from the Algonquin word for “twig eater” and moose do love to eat willow twigs…

Moose rescue and a building permit

A friend just sent this photo from down the Gunflint Trail at Hungry Jack lake.  Apparently the young moose had fallen through the ice and some folks mounted a rescue mission.  Not sure I would have done the same for a variety of reasons, but this moose seems better off on top of the ice rather than under it.


Also, received approval from the county to start building (I redacted some info in the picture to honor the privacy of neighbors but most of it is public record anyway).IMG_20170407_145551523

Stay tuned for pouring concrete piers and drilling into bedrock as soon as the weather cooperates!

Cost estimate

I recently submitted a building permit application for a 12′ x 16′ timber frame outbuilding, and after a little back-and-forth over email with the county land use specialist while my application is under review, I was asked to come up with a cost estimate which the county needs to help track development.  Since I will be milling all the timbers and lumber myself, the estimate is significantly higher because it’s based on retail prices for specialty milling.  I came up with an itemized list of materials needed for construction and looked up average prices in my area.  For a little context, the building will be finished using the wrap-and-strap method with pine siding for the interior and exterior, yellow birch (or similar available hardwood) flooring, and metal roofing.  The building will sit on concrete piers and have 6-8 windows, a standard door, and possibly a sliding door.  Some important dimensions are 744 sq ft of wall space, 192 sq ft of floor space (plus an extra 80 sq ft for loft), 360 sq ft of roof space, and 1812.5 bf (board feet) of timbers.  The materials list:

Variable width pine @ $3.00/bf  –  $5540

Timbers (expanded list below) @ $6.00/bf  –  $10,875

Flooring @ $5.00/bf  –  $1,360

Roofing  –  $1,800

2×4 framing materials  –  $1,000

Sliding door  –  $500

Exterior door  –  $300

Windows  –  $1,800

Insulation  –  $1150

Plywood  –  $80

Concrete, rebar, and forms –  $95

TOTAL  –  $24,500

To calculate labor, I used the standard ratio of %30 labor cost to %70 materials cost for residential construction and came up with $10,500.  The grand total amount for the complete rough estimate of the finished building would be $35,000 and that is close to the assessed value I would expect for an insurance appraisal.  It seems like a lot for an outbuilding but I have to keep a few things in mind.  First, my out-of-pocket costs will be much lower, probably closer to $6,500.  Second, the building will last decades longer than a conventional stick frame structure.  Finally, the structure is fully weather-proof and ready to accept plumbing, heating, and electrical upgrades so it’s really much more than a lowly outbuilding.  For anyone interested in a more detailed breakdown of the timber materials, I have added a list below:

Sills 8×8  2-12′, 2-16′ (56′)

Tie beams and plates 7×8  3-12′, 2-18′ (72′)

Posts 7×7  6-12′ (72′)

Joists 5×7  5-12′ (60′)

Loft joists 5×6  5-10′ (50′)

Rafters 5×5  18-10′ (180′)

Wall girts and door posts 4×5  7-8′, 1-12′ (68′)

Collars and braces 3×5  9-10′ (90′)

Also hardwood pins:  12-1″dia and 75-3/4″dia; and wedges:  6-12″ x 6/4″ x 11/4″

Grade A medium amber

Finished boiling the sap I collected before the cold front came through last week.  Even though maple syrup is a little off topic for this blog, I decided to post about it because I like how the picture shows the glow of the syrup like it’s some sort of enchanted elixir.  I suppose maple syrup is a bit fantastical in a sense – it’s basically liquid sunshine stored in tree roots until the frozen darkness of winter passes.  And then it gets poured over pancakes.  The sap rising in maples is a true harbinger of spring and certainly phenological.  It would be interesting to know how our changing climate is affecting the springtime behavior of trees.  Perhaps syrup production documentation such as this blog post will provide insight for climate researchers in the future.

Zen and the art of chainsaw maintenance


We had some serious wind over the past week and with that came some windfall trees that will hopefully provide some of the timbers I’ll need for the frame.  Before I get started with that I wanted to make sure the chainsaws were ready to go.  Normally, I tend to eschew motorized machinery where a suitable, traditional hand tool would suffice, but since I don’t have draught horses and a pit saw crew (yet), I’ll have to settle for the portability and efficiency of a gas-powered chainsaw…for now.  I like to have two chainsaws: a smaller ~40 cc saw for limbing trees and clearing brush, and a larger ~70 cc saw for felling trees, bucking logs, and milling timbers.  The first thing I did was make sure the air and fuel filters were clean, before adding fresh fuel and bar oil (I try to store them empty, especially over long periods of inactivity).  Then I started them and let them idle for a while, adjusting the carburetor and throttle as needed.  Then I tested the compression in the cylinder to determine whether there was a good seal with the piston.

IMG_20170311_124347734.jpgThe smaller chainsaw had slightly lower than ideal compression but it should still run fine; the carburetor, throttle, and fuel mix can all be tweaked to get the whole machine operating in harmonious equilibrium again.  I checked the spark plug gap with a feeler gauge and made sure the clutch, exhaust port, and chain oiler were free from sawdust buildup and working properly.  Taking off the muffler to look into the exhaust port also allowed me to inspect some of the minor scoring on the piston which I suspect is the source of the low compression.  The next step was sharpening the chain, filing down the rakers and flipping the bar to make sure it will wear evenly from year to year.  The whole process is somewhat tedious but necessary to ensure smooth operation and maximize longevity.  And while it may seem like a hassle as I’m doing it, there is nothing more frustrating then having a chainsaw break down out in the woods halfway through a job or having to muscle a dull chain through a cut while putting extra strain on the engine.  It helps to think of the whole maintenance process as a ritual to achieve a certain peace of mind.  For me, a well-maintained chainsaw that starts on the first pull and bites effortlessly through a log is exactly like Robert Pirsig’s description of the Zen-like pursuit of quality in his motorcycle maintenance.  A wave of satisfaction accompanies the confidence that the machine is sound and its objective will be executed flawlessly.

Alaskan chainsaw mill and a cherry tree

Finally got around to using my Alaskan chainsaw mill on a cherry tree I felled on the edge of a field in North Central Wisconsin.  The tree was about 24″ diameter at breast height but the pith was pretty rotten and had some insect damage.  Also, since the tree was on the windward side of the field there was a pretty serious shake in the heartwood and the trunk had quite a bit of twist before branching into three main stems about eight feet from the ground.  Still, some of the wood was salvageable for boards and produced some nice, live-edge 10/4 and 8/4 slabs.