I snapped up three rusty panel saws on the cheap. The skew-backed profile of the saw plates caught my eye and when I looked closer at the medallions they looked like older Disston saws even though one medallion in particular was obscured by buildup and totally illegible. One of the saw plates had some black paint covering it so I couldn’t tell how far gone the steel would be from rusting but I decided to take a chance and buy all three since they were only a few bucks apiece. I used some citrus-based stripping gel on the painted saw plate as well as the handle (someone had made a horrible attempt at staining it). I unscrewed the brass fasteners and removed the handles. After soaking the brass pieces in some warm, soapy water for a bit, I inserted them into my drill chuck one at a time and polished with some polishing cloth. The emblem on one medallion indicated a saw made between 1896-1917 and the other indicated a saw made between 1917-1940. I used the extensive resources available at the Disstonian Institute to date the saws. The third saw with the paint on the plate and poor finish on the handle was not in fact a true Disston saw but an inferior quality saw made by the Disston company and sold under the Warranteed Superior brand. This saw is still pretty old, probably dating back to the 1920-1940s but it’s definitely made with a lower quality steel plate and the handle seems to be made out of some sort of softwood lumber with less elaborate detail work and one less screw to secure the plate to the handle. In spite of all this, it’s still of a much better quality than anything I could buy new for the same price. I went ahead and removed the rust from the saw plates to reveal some minor pitting but nothing that would compromise the ability to cut safely. I sanded the handles smooth and decided not to fix any of the chipped horns or fill in any of the nicks or gouges because again, I thought none of that would affect cutting ability. After I applied a coat of finish and left it to dry overnight, I fitted the handles back onto the plates with the polished brass hardware and Voilà!
I wasn’t even thinking about it when I purchased the saws, but the three saws together offer a nice range of different cutting possibilities depending on how I file and set the teeth. One saw has 5 TPI, one has 6 TPI and the junkiest saw of the lot has 8 TPI.
I’ll probably file the two nicer Disston saws as rip saws, with the 5 TPI plate filed for softwoods and giving the 6 TPI plate a little bit more of a rake angle for hardwoods. The 8 TPI Warranteed saw already appears to have a little fleam on it so I’ll just keep that as an all-purpose saw for rough-cutting dimensional lumber and jobs of that nature. The fleam does make the teeth a little more brittle, and that is somewhat of a concern with cheaper steel and smaller teeth so I’ll have to be mindful of knots and so forth. The only remaining step is getting my saw set and files to bring them back into complete working order…
I’ve been thinking I ought to dedicate a post to some of the various books, blogs, and other media I’ve come across that have inspired me. I think every one of us has an innate yearning to build a cabin in the wilderness with all that entails: a sense of self-sufficiency and pride of accomplishment, to commune with nature and our primitive impulses, or just simply fulfilling a basic survival need to construct a shelter from the elements. Building a cabin in the woods, in a way, is the root of human ambition. This impulse for the most modest of conquests has been described in literature through the ages with some of my favorite and well-known examples being Thoreau’s Walden, Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, and Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. I remember seeing an enthralling documentary on PBS, Alone in the Wilderness, about Dick Proenneke who hand built a log cabin in Alaska where he lived for 30 years when I was younger and finding it just as inspiring when I revisited it on youtube a number of years later. In that same vain, a number of bloggers I’ve been following have left me with a similar sense of awe and provided me with some degree of confidence that I could also pursue this dream. Lou Ureneck’s From the Ground Up blog on the New York Times’ website details the account of the author building a cabin in Maine; Philosophy professor Mark van Roojen’s website about building a timber frame cabin in Wyoming’s Sierra Madre; and joiner Peter Follansbee’s blog about working green wood with hand tools have been some of my favorites. These are just a few examples of some of the great blogs out there that have made my dream of building a cabin with my own hands seem so tangible. There are also some great video series available for free online that I watch religiously including Paul Sellers’ Woodworking Masterclasses, Wranglerstar’s Modern Homesteading, and Roy Underhill’s The Woodwright’s Shop on PBS. If you’re reading this and dreaming of building your own cabin, I highly recommend checking out some of these other sites. And if you have suggestions for other great sites, drop a link in the comment section so we can all keep pushing the dream forward.
The Aurora Borealis viewed from Saganaga Lake in Minnesota/Ontario.
While browsing through some of the resources on the website of the Timber Framer’s Guild (an essential stop for anyone seriously considering a DIY timber frame project: http://www.tfguild.org/), I found some references to timber frame plug-ins for Sketchup, an open-source 3D drafting platform offered free from the company, Trimble (http://www.sketchup.com/). Having used Trimble GIS equipment as an ecological researcher, I began running through the possibilities of mapping the complicated terrain at my building sites in my mind. I thought it would be a useful exercise for planning layouts for the cabins in terms of views, window and door positions, access to the water, drainage, etc., but I was blown away by how much more I could do with this software and it was all free! Not only was I able to teach myself the CAD software in an hour or so just watching the free instructional videos online, but the software has add-ons specifically designed for timber framers to formulate and layout joints, generate building material lists, and much more that I’ve yet to try. After I spent some time messing around with different frame concepts, I started adding roofing materials, SIPs, foundation elements, staircases, furniture and appliances, and all sorts of other items offered in their user-generated warehouse. I tend to be an adherent to the old-school methods of doing just about anything, but it was certainly easier and less time-consuming to manipulate design features within this software rather than erasing pencil marks and redrawing. Not to mention all of the measurement calculations for drafting to scale were no longer necessary. I’m attaching one of the frame designs I completed below.
It seems that for a DIY person like me, I could mock up a timber frame design myself and submit the design to an engineer for tweaking and approval, and save myself some billable hours avoiding all the professional drafting work. And as long as I’m on the topic of engineers, I should mention that the Timber Framer’s Guild is a great resource to find engineers specializing in timber frames to help with your designs.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with architect David Salmela and discussing some design ideas for the cabin. The cabin he designed with the Saganaga site in mind is beautiful, elegant and very much characteristic of his modern aesthetic. The footprint is small, 18’x20′, but cantilevers out over the foundation walls that double as the garage. Everything is designed to take advantage of the views and build as vertical as possible. The living space is at the very top. I appreciated the conversations we had about design and I gained a lot of insight into some of the things I’ll need to keep in mind moving forward. Here is a picture of the scale model he built of his cabin design:
If you’re not familiar with the work of Salmela Architect, it’s worth checking out his web page to see a clean layout of photos from different projects he’s completed over the years. Truly amazing and unique designs from a master: http://www.salmelaarchitect.com/
I had a collection of axe, hatchet, maul, and hammer heads that needed hanging. Some had broken or rotten handles, some had cheap or ugly handles, and some were missing handles altogether. I decided to make them all new hafts using hickory. Before I could start I cleaned up all the rust and scaling on the steel by soaking the heads in vinegar overnight, scrubbing with steel wool and thoroughly rinsing away the acid. After fitting the new hafts into their respective eyes, I applied some wood glue to some wooden wedges and pounded them into the kerfs. When the glue cured, I pounded two steel wedges perpendicular to the wood wedges. Next, I used a pen torch to heat a staple that I used to burn a little emblem into the wood so everyone knows to whom the tool belongs. I then applied a couple coats of varnish to the wood consisting of one part boiled linseed oil, one part turpentine, and one part pine tar, and the steel got a paste of paraffin wax melted in equal parts mineral oil. I plan on removing some mushrooming with a file as well as dressing up the cutting edges, sharpening and honing a little bit closer to the moment I’ll be using them.
From left to right: an 8 lb splitting maul, single bevel hewing hatchet, 6 lb splitting maul, a little camp hatchet, a Kelly felling axe with badly mushroomed poll, a forest axe, a little ball peen, and a 3 lb sledge (note the distinguishable temper lines on the 8lb maul, hewing hatchet, camp hatchet, felling axe, and to a lesser extent on the forest axe and 6 lb maul)
In the previous post I mentioned that the weather hadn’t cooperated when some friends came up during the whitefish gillnetting season. Well, one of those friends returned about a month later and brought three additional friends to try again. There was quite a bit of fresh snow along the Gunflint Trail and Poplar Lake was expected to freeze over within the week. We had heard that a group of gillnetters who had just left a day earlier had caught around 60 whitefish. All we would have to do is run up to Saganaga Lake, grab my boat, launch it at the Poplar Lake boat landing, and set the nets on the far side of the lake. By this point in the journey, we had driven up from Duluth with a leaky gas tank for the outboard motor stinking up the car and it was far too cold to crack a window. We were not looking forward to driving much more with all the gasoline fumes but the possibility of catching a good number of whitefish made it seem worth the health hazard and discomfort. When we finally got to the boat, the first problem we encountered was the cable lock securing the boat was frozen. To aggravate us even further, the key broke off inside the lock. We eventually freed the boat by smashing the locking mechanism with the poll of a hatchet. In the future, I will not buy a cheap cable lock ever again and just stick with the tried and true chain with a padlock, although I’m happy I didn’t in this particular instance. We were able to free the boat but not the trailer so we had to strap the boat to the roof rack. When we got down to the road for the boat landing, it hadn’t been plowed and wasn’t going to be. We trudged precariously through the deep snow to the boat landing only to find the bay was completely frozen over. Our last hope was to ask one of the resort owners on the shore of the big, open water basin if we could use their landing. Thankfully, and after we purchased a few beers at his bar, the owner agreed to let us put in the boat. We loaded the gear and headed across the lake to the shallow bay where the whitefish spawn. We set the nets and headed back to the bar for another round before calling it a night. When we returned the next morning, the whole lake had frozen over and there would be no hope of launching the boat to retrieve the net. We searched along the shore for somewhere we could walk in and pull the net from the ice while wearing waders. Luckily, we found the guy who owned a cabin right in front of the spot we had set the net and he let us use his dock to wade in, break the ice out to the net, and pull the net free. Our efforts were rewarded with only two whitefish. We missed the best gillnetting by only a day or two.
I had a friend, his dad, and another friend come up from Wisconsin to help clear some paths from the building sites down to the water. It helped in convincing them that the gill-netting season for whitefish was underway. And even though the weather did not cooperate for the fishing to be successful, I’m thankful they came to help because they were much more adept at path visualization than I am. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the descent from the building sites down to the water is about 60′ and much of it is the bare faces of giant granite boulders. My approach would have been to clear a straight line down to the water and later devise a system of anchoring a staircase into the granite. Luckily, my friends dissuaded me from this course of action. Their approach, and what I quickly realized was the correct approach, was to follow the natural course of the topography in a meandering sort of way all the way down to the lake. The paths ended up longer but much easier to navigate, and felt as though it was the natural way to travel, as if it was a well-used game path. The paths also had the added benefit of winding around beautiful old-growth trees and past little vistas with views of the lake. There were a couple of spots where the path had to cut across a low, swampy area or jump over a little ephemeral stream so we reused lumber from the old docks I referred to in a previous post to make foot bridges. Instead of removing whole trees, we limbed them up to just above head-height. Not only did this make the path more secluded and enclosed, but it also framed the path in such a way that it was apparent which direction one would have to walk. I’ll have to keep up with the trail maintenance especially during the first few years. A lot of the early successional stage vegetation around here is especially adapted to exploit a disturbance that has left a site clear and sunny. As long as I stay in front of it, the forest will grow up naturally around the path and shade out anything wanting to grow underfoot, and I should have a defined, well-worn path in the future.
For anyone interested in building trails of any sort I would recommend checking the resources available at americantrails.org. I especially like the illustrated compendium of tools used in trail building. They also have a section dedicated to wildlife impacts of trails; a research topic in which I was involved with the University of Wisconsin Sylvis Lab.
When the property was purchased, there was an assortment of floating docks that had become untethered and somehow ended up strewn along the shoreline. I’m not entirely sure to whom they belonged but they were clearly no longer functioning for their original purpose. I recruited my sister to help dismantle them into manageable pieces and stack them neatly on the shore.
When the job was finished, there was a fairly sizable stack of usable lumber that must have been treated. Some of the other material was too far gone to use for any sort of building purposes but I thought it might help firm up some softer, boggy areas where I intended to eventually build paths. I took notice of a rubber roller fastened to the edge of one dock that must have been used to help pull a canoe out of the water. I have to keep that clever contraption in mind for a dock of my own in the future. We ended with a five gallon bucket half filled with rusty nails, cleats, corner irons and other hardware. I could tell some of the materials were quite old because not only was the dimensional lumber actually 2″ thick, some of the nails appeared to be hand cut. The nails that were already laying among the rocks would crumble when handled, so I pulverized them, mixed the iron oxide dust with honey and gum arabic, and made some watercolor paint. It took some trial and error to figure out how the coarseness of the pigment would take to the paper, but I painted a few pictures of moose with the watercolor.
I bought a kit for a temporary, carport-type structure at a big box home improvement store in Duluth. It was on sale, whatever that even means these days, and even though it appeared to be made of cheap materials and might disintegrate after a few months, I needed something to temporarily house all the tools and materials for the upcoming projects. It took an afternoon to set up, but the earth anchors that came with it were not going to work in granite. I ended up just weighing down the frame with an assortment of scrap lumber and rocks. It may be an eye sore but it has served its purpose well so far. The ugliness of the gray tarp among the beautiful foliage is seriously making me consider building a timber frame tool shed for my first project. This will have to do for now, and I do have to remember that I can move it whenever and wherever I need to.
I suppose the best place to begin is selecting the building sites. The land is about 10 acres, divided into two adjacent parcels with about 800′ of shoreline. As you can see from the picture, the shoreline is abutted by an enormous granite boulder (characteristic of the Laurentian Shield in these parts).
Building codes dictate that structures cannot be located within 100′ of the water line and require a bluff setback of 30′. This means that for all practical purposes, the only suitable building sites are up on top of the rock. There is approximately a 60′ vertical descent from the building sites to the water. This land was completely undeveloped when acquired with no access from the road, so the first order of business was to clear, fill and grade driveways to the building sites.
I was fortunate to find a local crew of equipment operators who had all their machinery nearby for another job, so I was able to split the transportation costs. There was a gravel pit relatively nearby so that was another bit of good fortune as well. It took about 3 days (with a break for the weekend) to clear, fill and grade two driveways or a total length of about 200′. The job required 432 yards of pit fill and 70 yards of gravel. About one-third of the cost was labor for the truck drivers alone so for anybody interested in filling a driveway, hauling distances need to be considered. I found it was also helpful having people familiar with building septic mounds involved because the driveways needed to be situated in a way that would allow for future sewer construction, both in terms of access, setback requirements and distance to the building sites. Another suggestion I took into consideration was how the driveway would accommodate a snow plow in the winter and ultimately went with a loop design for one driveway and a cul-de-sac area at the end of the other. After the driveways were finished, I applied for two highway access permits from the county (the land is along a county road). Success! I now have two driveways with their own fire numbers and three potential building sites cleared. The grade of the driveways is a little steeper than I would have liked, but I feel good that I saved some money and minimized the environmental impact by having the driveways a little shorter. The steeper slope also drains faster and adds some privacy from the road. It remains to be seen how easy it will be to drive up and down in the winter, though.