Tag Archives: DIY Chronicles

Portable radio

Michelle and Don stopped by this morning to pick up some amateur radio gear I got from Dad that I’m no longer using. We stood around talking for a while, and Don showed me the prototype of a large variable air capacitor he’s fabricating for use in magnetic loop antennas. So of course I had to show off my latest project: a portable box containing a low-power transceiver, digital interface, power supply, antenna tuner, and antenna.

OK, in terms of raw geek street cred, my portable radio box isn’t as cool as fabricating a large variable air capacitor. But it’s worth something as a small piece of systems engineering that addresses a specific problem that I face: our new house is clad with stucco on wire mesh, which means I live inside what is essentially a Faraday cage; and the landlord does not allow permanent outdoor antenna installations (let’s face it, most visitors to a cemetery don’t want to see a big antenna array). Now I can grab this box, walk out to our fenced-in patio, sit down and get on the air. Mind you, as with any good DIY maker-type project, there is room for improvement and expansion: it definitely needs a door on the front to protect everything; I’d like to add a straight key for Morse code and a space to store an Android tablet for digital modes; I’m thinking of a separate battery and solar cell unit to go with this; maybe someday I’ll add a small linear amp. But in the mean time, this works as is, and it was fun to sit outside in the sun yesterday and monitor the mobile maritime net.

Pounding flowers

One of the best projects we did in Nature Camp last week was “Pounding Flowers,” a project from the book A Little Bit of Dirt: 55+ Science and Art Activities To Reconnect Children with Nature by Asia Citro (Woodinville, Wash.: Innovation Press, 2015), pp. 72-73. The idea is to collect several different flowers, arrange them on a piece of watercolor paper, cover them with paper towels, and pound the heck out of the flowers so that they release their juices which are then absorbed by the watercolor paper.

Our campers, who were ages 6-7, particularly enjoyed pounding the flowers with rubber mallets. So did we adults: the feel of the impact of the rubber mallet on a hard concrete floor was satisfying in itself, and the addition of the flowers sandwiched between towels and watercolor paper was even better.

(Photo courtesy of Ecojustice Camp; parents provided a media release for this child.)

But I was not entirely satisfied with this project myself. The paper towels did not work very well; they tended to shred under heavy pounding, and the flowers tended to shift under them. So tonight I tried something different. I collected some flowers; arranged them on a piece of watercolor paper on a smooth concrete surface; then instead of paper towels I laid another piece of watercolor paper over the arrangement, and pressed gently down.

This worked extremely well. It was even more satisfying to pound on, because the top piece of watercolor paper didn’t shred, and it didn’t shift much. When I was done, I got two pieces of pounding art, mirror images of one another. And, best of all, this process yielded more detail of the flowers: I got distinct outlines of the petals or pistils in some cases.

This was a very fun process art project to begin with, and by sandwiching the flowers between two pieces of watercolor paper it got even better.

Compact camp cook box

I’ll be driving across the continent by myself during July, camping for about two and a half weeks of that time. The camp cook box we have is big because it’s designed for two or more people. I decided to make a more compact camp cook box for this trip.

I found an old wooden wine create we had in the basement, did extensive repairs, and sealed it with some leftover wood sealer. A standard plastic dishpan fit perfectly inside, and I attached two wood strips for the dishpan to slide on. I made a small cutting board, elevated on wood runners so there’s storage space under it.

The dishpan holds a 2-quart pan with a teapot nested inside, a 1-quart pan, a mug, a small wood box with a sponge and scrubbing pad, dish detergent, and matches in a waterproof case. Under the wood cutting board there’s a cloth tool roll with various kitchen utensils (measuring spoons, stirring spoons, vegetable peeler, can opener, etc.).

I didn’t buy anything except the dishpan; everything else was something we had lying around. I spent too much time hand planing the wood for the cutting board, then hand-rubbing it with chopping block oil. And I used no power tools, which also took more time. But who cares if it took too long? Who cares if the various parts and pieces don’t quite match? I had fun working on it. This kind of project is like process art: the final product is less important than the process of making it.

Failed rain barrel

Carol and I wanted to put together a rain barrel for the middle school Sunday school class in eco-justice. Of course we waited until the last minute to purchase materials, and so when I saw the “DIY Rain Barrel Diverter & Parts Kit,” it seemed like the perfect solution. The packaging proclaimed, “Works with Plastic Barrels, Wooden Barrels and Garbage Cans.” So on a Saturday evening we purchased one of the kits and a 32-gallon trash barrel, and brought everything to Sunday school the next morning.

DIY Rain Barrel Diverter and Parts Kit

The class had fun drilling holes in the trash barrel for the plumbing fittings. But when we tried to install the fittings — a faucet and a drain hole — into the holes, the class found it very difficult to screw the fittings in. Before people got too frustrated, class ended, and after class I figured I’d try putting the fittings in myself — but they just wouldn’t go. After a lot of fiddling, I finally managed to force them into place. It started raining, so I quickly put the trash barrel, er, rain barrel next to an existing rain barrel that was already full. I directed the overflow from the existing rain barrel into the new rain barrel. It started filling. And then I saw that it was leaking around the drain hole. I wound up having to plug the drain hole with threaded PVC fittings, gasket material, and pipe joint compound. I should have replaced the faucet fitting as well, because by the next day, it, too, had a very slow but noticeable leak where it went into the trash barrel. And now, after three weeks, the sides of the trash barrel are very definitely bulging — it simply isn’t strong enough to bear up under the weight of the water.

Failed rain barrel made of a trash barrel; note bulging sides

Instead of purchasing an expensive pre-packaged “DIY Rain Barrel Kit,” I should have gotten a couple of 3/4 inch bulkhead fittings, two sink faucets, and one of those blue plastic rain barrels. Live and learn.

Pot-in-Pot Preservation Cooling System

This system, developed by Mohamed Bah Abba of Nigeria, cools food by evaporation, using no electricity. The Arabic term for this device is transliterated as “zeer,” so it is sometimes called a “zeer pot.”

How it works: The Pot-in-Pot Preservation Cooling System consists of two nested porous clay pots, with fine sand in between them, and a cloth covering the opening. You pour water into the sand, until it soaks through the outer pot. You also soak the cloth in water. As the water evaporates from the outer pot and the cloth, it cools the inside. The sand and pots act as both water reservoir, and thermal mass (so the pot stays cool when you open the lid). The moist interior is especially good for cooling fresh produce (which is what it was originally designed to do).

How cool it can get (theoretically): The inside temperature of the Pot-in-Pot Preservation Cooling System depends on outside air temperature, humidity, air flow around the pot, and whether the pot stands in the sun. Under ideal conditions, the inside temperature should get close to what meteorologists call “wet-bulb temperature.” Some users report temperatures as low as 40° F. I will track the temperature inside this pot over time.

How I made one:

Materials:
1 – 12″ dia. terracotta pot
1 – 14″ dia. terra cotta pot
6 – small pottery feet
2 – corks to fit the holes in the pots
1 – 12″ dia. pot saucer
1 – old T-shirt
25 lbs. of fine sand
water

Note that dimensions of terracotta pots are variable, so you may have to adjust things to fit what you can get.

BlogApr0916a

Sand the holes in the pots until the corks fit smoothly inside. Cork the holes. Place 3 of the pottery feet in the bottom of the 14″ pot so that the 12″ pot will fit inside without the corks bumping. Then fill the rest of area with sand, leaving room for the cork in the 12″ pot. Now put the 12″ pot inside, and fill the space between the pots with sand with a funnel — I made a funnel from a cut-off seltzer water bottle — to within an inch of the top of the outer pot.

BlogApr0916b

Place the whole assembly on the three remaining pottery feet, so air can circulate on the bottom, which will increase evaporation and cooling slightly.

Pour an inch or two of water into the 12″ pot, wetting in the inside of the pot. Next, slowly pour water into the sand, letting it soak in. The idea is to give the water time to soak into the sand and the terracotta pots. It can take several hours and up to a gallon of water to fully charge it. I found if I rushed this step, the inner pot started floating up; then I had to weight the inner pot with a cinder block to keep it in place until the water soaked in. Some people suggest tying the inner pot down with a strap or rope; others use threaded rod with nuts and washers (expensive and sure to rust). I had a cinder block on hand, and that worked fine.

BlogApr0916c

The pot saucer isn’t entirely necessary, but it helps keep the inside clean, and where we live it helps keep the squirrels out of the food (the cinder block might even keep raccoons out). Pour some water into the saucer, soak the old T-shirt, and cover the pots with the T-shirt, adding even more evaporative surface. It gets pretty windy where we are, so I tied the T-shirt in place.

Total cost: about $55 (if you have to buy sand), with no cost to run it ever. Mohamed Bah Abba sells them for 40¢ ea. in Nigeria, a brilliant example of low-cost yet highly effective technology from the developing world.

More about this invention here.

Clay pot irrigation

Carol and I are experimenting with low-water irrigation systems for the garden. I’ve been using porous hose irrigation for years, purchasing porous hose made from recycled rubber tires, and burying the hose a few unches under the surface of the soil. David Bainbridge’s book Gardening with Less Water: Low-Cost, Low-Tech Techniques shows other highly efficient irrigation systems, including buried clay pots.

A buried clay pot is about as simple as an irrigation system can get: take a terracotta pot, put a cork in the hole in the bottom, bury it almost all the way in the soil, fill with water, then cover with a terracotta saucer.

Filling the buried clay pot with water

In the photo above, we’ve buried a clay pot in the tire garden built by our congregation’s ecojustice class, and Carol is filling it with water. In the next photo, Carol is about to put a lid on the buried clay pot; you can see the cork down in the bottom of the pot.

Putting a lid on the buried clay pot

Bainbridge suggests placing buried clay pots about every 24-36 inches in a standard garden. So we figure that one buried clay pot is probably enough for one tire garden. It will be interesting to see how often we have to fill the clay pot.

In our garden at home, we’re planning to try a somewhat more complicated version of this system: a porous terracotta capsule, fed by a hose. Until we get that to work, here’s a photo of the tire garden with the buried clay pot in the middle, and the squirrel-proof cage in place:

BlogFeb2616c

Experiment in hugelkultur

Carol has decided to experiment with hugelkultur in the garden this year. A hugelkultur garden bed consists of decaying wood and other compostable material from plants. This technique is supposed to create more fertility in the soil, and improve water retention. Given the ongoing drought here in northern California, improved water retention alone makes this technique worth trying.

Rather than build up a mound of decaying material, as is typical with hugelkultur, Carol got me to make a raised garden bed; with the tiny amount of space we have for our garden, this seemed to make the most sense. We got some cheap boards from a lumberyard, I scrounged some scrap wood for the corners, and in about an hour we put together a bed 96 inches long and 25 inches wide. Then we put in some partially finished compost, along with twigs and small branches.

hugelkultur raised garden bed

In the photo above, we’ve put down a layer of partially finished compost; the two buckets behind the raised garden bed are more compost waiting to go in. Carol has started laying some twigs and branches on the compost. After this, she put down another layer of compost, and then added a layer of potting soil we purchased from the hardware store across the street.

Carol is also planning to set up a greywater system (she is something of an expert on the topic). We already collect greywater — we have to run about two and a half gallons of water before the water in the shower gets hot, so we collect this and use it for watering the garden. Given how bad the drought is, that wasn’t enough water, so she is looking at other easily accessible sources of greywater that we can use without annoying our very nice landlord.

If you look closely at the photo, you’ll see potatoes growing in the raised bed behind the new bed. Today they started wilting a little. The National Weather Service predicts “dry weather and above average temperatures are likely to persist into the first half of next week”; we’re going to have to start watering the garden now, right in the middle of the winter-wet season. This is global climate weirdness happening in front of our eyes; maybe hugelkultur is one small way to help restore some balance to an out-of-balance world.

another view of hugelkultur bed

Above: The bed with more twigs and branches, and more bins of partially finished compost ready to go on top (photo credit: Carol Steinfeld).

Venison

Yes, yes, I know, once you saw a Disney movie in which a deer was killed and now you can’t eat venison. However, from an ecological standpoint, deer are a native species that fill an existing ecological niche, unlike the soybeans in your tofu which are invasive exotic species raised in monoculture fields that wipe out countless acres of habitat. And if you’re a small farmer, like Carol’s friend Eva, deer are an herbivore pest in a landscape that now lacks large carnivores to keep their population in check. So eating low-fat, free-range, non-GMO, antibiotic-free, organic venison that is untouched by American Agribusiness is actually an environmentally sound act that lets us humans fill the ecological niche of the large carnivores we have mostly extirpated from North America. It’s nice when we humans can play a positive role in the ecosystem, instead of just replacing the existing ecosystem with our own suburban and urban ecosystems.

When she stayed with us earlier this week, Eva gave use part of a haunch of venison. Carol stir-fried some chunks of venison with onions and greens; it looked really good, but I decided I wanted plain venison. I sliced it thin, and gently fried it in a little butter for a late brunch.

Venison cooking

After gently frying both sides, I covered the pan and let it steam for a minute until the meat was just well-done, with no red in the center. It was fabulous: lean, tender, and very tasty. I re-heated some of the “Warthog” wheat berries in the pan drippings, and the combination of the nutty wheat, the butter, and the meat drippings was the perfect addition to a satisfying brunch.

Wheat

Carol’s friend Eva, who is a farmer, stayed with us last night. When farmers check luggage on the plane, what do they bring in that luggage? Turnips, onions, garlic, frozen venison — and wheat berries. The wheat berries are a hard winter variety called “Warthog,” from friends of Eva’s who farm in Essex, Massachusetts. Eva soaked the berries in water overnight, and we cooked them in the rice cooker this morning. We added a bit of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt: the perfect breakfast.

Hard winter wheat, var. Warthog

Supercharging Altoids (R)

Back in 2006, when Wrigley bought out Altoids (R) brand mints, they replaced the peppermint oil with artificial flavor. Although they soon resumed using real peppermint oil, the mints have never been as strongly flavored as they once were. So here’s how to supercharge Altoids (R) so they taste as peppermint-y as they did prior to 2006:

Go to your local health food store, and get the peppermint spirits which are sold as a dietary supplement. I got “Herb Pharm” brand “Peppermint Spirits Essential Oil and Whole Leaf Extract”. Note that they have changed the label since I bought mine (a one ounce bottle lasts a long time), and the new label is different than the one you see in the photograph below. Now get a small dinner plate, and spread out the mints on it.

Supercharging Altoids (R)

1. A mint ready for supercharging.
2. Adding peppermint spirits; the typical mint will absorb about three drops.
3. After adding peppermint spirits to one side, let the mint dry out (this could take 15 minutes).
4. A mint flipped over waiting for peppermint spirits to be added to the other side.
5. A supercharged mint drying out and waiting to be eaten.

Once you add peppermint spirits to both sides, the mints are somewhat damp and fragile, and it’s best to let them dry overnight before putting them back in the tin.

(If you want to know more about artificial flavor in Altoids, I wrote about it back in 2006 here, here, and here.)