Let There Be (Sun)Light!

Maggie with hole in ceilingWell, approximately one year after we purchased an ODL solar tube from the Home Depot, we have finally installed it in our kitchen!!  So far we love it and are even contemplating installing a second one, although Will’s a little concerned that it might reduce our energy efficiency a bit since it’s a little less insulative than an intact ceiling with a thick layer of insulation.

The installation was surprisingly easy with two exceptions:

1. Short attics with fiberglass insulation are not fun to work in.

2. There were two pieces of pipe and we managed to swap them, meaning we were almost done and then had to go back to the beginning so it would all fit.  Aargh!

The first step was to stand in the kitchen, think about where we wanted to put in the solar tube, and drill a hole in that spot through to the attic.  I threaded a coat hanger up through the hole and then took the dreaded step of crawling around in the attic looking for it.  (It is surprisingly easy to get disoriented in a small space filled with insulation.)  Once I found the coat hanger, I figured out where the true center point of the solar tube would go (centered between the roof joists) and drilled one nail down through the ceiling and one nail up through the roof.

Maggie caulksNext came the fun but mildly intimidating step of drilling a hole in the roof!  We rented a “Sawzall” reciprocating saw for the job since it didn’t seem like a piece of equipment we really needed to own.  I am mildly afraid of heights but I do love power tools so I had a good time cutting out a big chunk o’ roof.  Happily, the solar tube is designed in a way that the hole does not need to be perfectly circular (it wasn’t) since it comes with a rubber “boot” that fits over the hole, under the neighboring shingles.  Once we had the hole cut, we pried up the shingles around it, put some roof sealant on the rubber boot, and slid it into place.

Solar Tube PipeSomehow we didn’t get any pictures of us sliding the actual metal tube into place, probably because I kept blinding Will with it.  The solar tube is comprised of two very shiny metal tubes and a clear plastic dome.  Sun shines down on the dome and then bounces down through the tubes to our kitchen, where a frosted plastic light fixture lets the light shine through without blinding anyone.

We slid one pipe down from the roof and then attached the dome on top.  Then I headed down into the kitchen with a keyhole saw (not powered this time) to cut a hole in the ceiling.   (The picture at the top of the post is my very ragged hole before we put in the light fixture piece.) Once I was thoroughly covered with drywall plaster I headed back up into the attic to put in the final metal tube.  This was the part of the process that was very difficult, largely because there was not very much room in the attic.  I’ve never been super handy with tin snips (picture giant deadly scissors) but it was particularly challenging to cut the metal tubes to size while lying on my back across three attic rafters.  The idea is to have one tube coming down from the roof and one coming up from the ceiling with about an inch of overlap.  Alas, I realized that I had the tubes swapped and the one I was trying to fit neatly into the ceiling fixture just wasn’t going to work.

Maggie installs domeSo, back up to the roof to remove the dome, swap the tubes, then Will stayed on the roof while I went into the attic and it was much easier to get the tubes together.  He pulled the top tube up while I put the correct bottom tube into place in the ceiling fixture, and then he pushed the top tube down, helping me wrestle the two tubes together and then tape them with the shiny metal tape enclosed in our original kit.  Whew!  I totally used some muscles I didn’t know I had but I would willingly do it again and I know it would go faster the second time.

Will it lower our energy bills?  I hope so, although lighting for one room is not that huge of an electrical draw.  We’ve also entered that charming time of year called Daylight Savings so the solar tube really only helps out at lunch time.   (Oh, I miss the days when Indiana ignored Daylight Savings!)   Still, increasing daylight inside the house is one of the best uses of solar “energy” even if photvoltaics are more sexy.  Having a solar tube makes the kitchen feel a *LOT* brighter so we’re definitely calling it a success.  And it was a great weekend project for improving my confidence in making minor home repairs.

Check out the before and after pictures!  (They’re a bit overly dramatic but the solar tube really does make a big difference.)

Kitchen Before Solar Tube

Kitchen After ODL Solar Light Tube

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Shoemaking 102: Making Lasts

Maggie with STS sockWe really enjoyed making shoes on our honeymoon but we also enjoyed acquiring the skills and some of the tools it takes to be a shoemaker.  Glen helped us each make a pair of shoes and a pair of lasts.  Lasts are basically molds of your feet.  They are used in what is called the “lasting” process where the shoemaker forms the top of the shoe and attaches it to the sole.  It’s totally possible to do this process directly on the wearer’s feet but that means the person has to be there for several fittings and adjustments.

Commercial shoemakers have a selection of generic lasts that they use when making shoes.  So you could go out and buy a pair of Women’s Size 8 lasts if you wanted to make Women’s Size 8 shoes.  (There used to be a bunch available at American Science & Surplus but they seem to have disappeared.  I’m sure there are some on eBay.)

Maggie preparing for last-makingOf course, every pair of feet is a little different.  Commercial shoemakers try to accommodate by using a variety of lasts so they might have size 8, size 8.5, size 8 wide, size 8 narrow, etc.  Still, there are a lot of feet in the world that don’t fit in any of the standard sizes, or at least not terribly well.

Glen’s favorite clients are people with exceptionally unusual feet.  Often they have suffered from burns or severe circulation problems that cause their feet to take on extremely unusual shapes.  He loves helping them find a way to walk comfortably and one of his key tools is making lasts of their feet.  The advantage of using lasts is that the shoemaker can tinker around with the design and adjust as needed without having the client come back repeatedly for fittings.  They are also really handy for folks who want to make shoes for themselves; it’s a bit awkward to bend down and fit a shoe to your own foot.

Maggie foot formsGlen says he’s still searching for the perfect method of making a custom last but is pretty happy with his current method.   He uses STS casting socks, which were designed for making shoe lasts. Step number one is to tape a plastic straw and a metal band to the front of the foot.  (You’ll see why in a minute.)  Step number two is to cover the foot in a plastic bag.  Step number three is to pull on the fancy STS sock.  It has some sort of magical chemical in it that when you get it wet and rub it, it solidifies.  Pretty crazy feeling, let me tell you.

Once it’s nice and solid, you pull out the plastic straw and then slit the sock (the metal band is there to protect your foot) so you can step out of the mold.  Glen had us trim off the tops of our molds because we don’t really need to know what our feet are like above the high-top level.  (He was running low on socks so Will got to use sexy knee-highs that reminded him of his soccer days.)

filling forms with plasterI guess you could theoretically stop here and have a hollow model of your foot but Glen’s technique is to tape each mold shut (yay for duct tape!) and then fill it with plaster to create a solid mold.  After the plaster dried, he spent a little time cleaning them up by removing the tape and sanding them down to make him smoother.  He also cut them in half.  Can you guess why?

The big difference between a plaster mold of your foot and your actual foot is that a plaster mold doesn’t bend at the ankle.  The way you get around this is to cut the mold diagonally from the top front of the ankle to the back bottom of the heel.  Put both pieces in a piece of pantyhose to keep them together and then you can slide the toe piece into the shoe and place the ankle piece in second when you are testing the fit of a finished shoe.

Pretty cool, huh?  I think I need to make some more shoes…

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Urban Maple Syrup

Our maple with two taps in itI don’t know if our location should really be considered “urban” but our sugaring operation is a far cry from when I worked at Fair Oaks Farm a couple years ago.  We have four pretty large sugar maples in our back yard so we could probably produce a reasonable amount of syrup but it still won’t compare with tapping sixty trees and pumping the sap up to a continually operating evaporator pan.

Tapping trees is pretty easy to do.  I was a little concerned we wouldn’t be able to find stiles (taps) easily but luckily our town has an awesome local hardware store called Kleindorfer’s and they have everything you could possibly imagine (and a bunch of other stuff).  My dad lent us his cordless drill and a 5/16″ drill bit and we went to work.  Our maple trees are large enough that we could have put in 3-4 taps per tree but I could only scrounge up two containers so we just put in two taps.  First I drilled the hole, then pounded in the stile, then hung the sap collection container (e.g. empty juice jug).

A maple tap in our treeOf course, collecting the sap is only the first part.  It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.  The general method is to boil the sap to concentrate it into syrup, although if it stays cold enough I might try the alternate method of freezing it and letting it thaw (the sugariest part thaws first and you can then remove the watery ice).  If it comes down to boiling, I plan to use the crock pot outside with the lid off.  (I have a friend who accidentally stripped all the wallpaper off her kitchen walls from generating 30 gallons of maple steam.)

If we’d been really good we probably would have set the taps a couple weeks ago.  The sap was flowing as we drilled the holes, which was exciting but definitely a sign that we got a late start.  I’m hoping we can make about a half gallon of syrup from our two taps, which would be plenty to last us for the year.  We might also try to make some maple soda from unrefined sap as another fun home project.  We’ll keep you posted.

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Shoemaking 101: It’s All About (In)Sole

tracing feetSome of you may recall that we enjoyed a rather unusual honeymoon in the mountains of Virginia.  We learned how to make handcrafted shoes from a lovely shoemaker named Glen and his wife Peggy.  It was an awesome experience and we each made a beautiful pair of shoes.  We also took over 1,000 photographs of the process so we could write some well-illustrated posts.  Of course, the challenge has been figuring out how to present all the information without being totally overwhelming.  Welcome to the first part of an approximately 20-part series (depending on how in depth we go).

There are a lot of different kinds of shoes in the world but the first two basic decisions to make are what style of shoe and what size of shoe.  Glen makes a number of different shoe styles but his favorite for beginners (and the one he wears most often himself) is a sort of boot that is actually rather similar to Converse All-Star sneakers.  He likes them because they are easy to make, easy to customize, give natural support, and hold up well.  Compare outlines

As far as size goes, most shoes are made using a generic foot model, called a “cast” that is assigned a number (e.g. Women’s Size Eight).  Some shoe manufacturers will have a few different variations within each size (e.g. 8 wide versus 8 regular) but your foot still has to be pretty close to one of their generic models for you to end up with a good fit.  The advantage of custom-made shoes is that they can be sized to the precise dimensions of your foot, which is what we did.

The type of shoe we made can be divided into two parts – the upper and the sole.  Glen starts all his shoes with the soles so we started by circumscribing (tracing) each others’ feet on old manila folders.  (It’s really hard to trace your own feet accurately.)  We did one tracing with the pen pointed straight down to capture the broadest outline of the foot and then a second pass with the pen angled in to measure the arch of the foot.   Once we had done each foot, Glen put them up to the lightbox to see if our feet matched or not.  He says that for about 80% of people, their left foot and right foot are significantly different.  Will’s feet were different enough that he made a pattern for each foot whereas my feet were pretty much mirror images of each other.

Scraping insolesOnce we had the tracings, we used those to draw patterns for the insole and midsole.  To create a midsole pattern, we marked four points on our foot: 1/8″ out from the top of the tallest toe, 1/8″ out from the bump under the pinkie toe, 1/8″ out from the heel, and 1/8″ out from the bump under the big toe.  Then we connected the dots in a pattern that looked aesthetically pleasing and left plenty of room for our feet.  To create an insole pattern, we simply traced a line 1/4″ interior of the midsole, so the insole ends up actually being just slightly smaller than the foot.

Here are the layers of the sole (the bottom part of the shoe):

insole – soft leather that your foot stands on

plastizote – squishy but resilient foam that provides some cushion, same size as insole

midsole – tough oak-finished leather piece that is 1/4″ bigger all around than the insole, used to attach the uppers to the lowers

crepe – optional layer of firm cushioning, same size as midsole

outsole – the absolute bottom of the shoe that provides tread

pounding glued solesWe started by cutting out the two insole pieces and the midsole piece.  They are all glued together, which is actually quite a process that builds some upper body strength.  First we had to rough up the pieces that are going to be glued, to make sure the glue would stick properly.  This was done by rubbing the leather or foam with a very dangerous-looking tool that is essentially little metal spikes on the end of a handle.  Then we applied Barge’s all-purpose cement and allowed it to dry partially before actually sticking the pieces together.  Finally (and this was a lot of fun) we would pound the freshly glued pieces with a mallet to make sure they were well stuck.

After all that, we had the very beginning of our shoes and were starting to see why handmade shoes are rather expensive…

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Making tooth powder

Toothpaste and tooth powder in front of their boxesIt’s been almost 3 months since I switched from tooth paste to tooth powder, which seems like a good time for an update.

My teeth feel as clean as they did when I used toothpaste and I’ve gotten used to the salty taste. I’ve brushed with regular toothpaste once or twice when I was worried about bad breath (and didn’t have any mouth wash) and it now amazes me how much it foams! After getting used to the powder, toothpaste seems needlessly messy and strong-tasting. I highly recommend tooth powder over toothpaste. It’s cheaper, especially if you make your own, and involves some very simple ingredients. I also haven’t had trouble with canker sores since starting dropping toothpaste.

According to Wikipedia, pre-made toothpaste didn’t become popular until after World War I. Before that, toothpaste was considered snake oil and many people made their own tooth powder. In part, the popularity of tooth powder must have been due to convenience. Without the now-ubiquitous collapsable tube, toothpaste would have been difficult to use, especially when you were running low.

Once toothpaste caught on, tooth powder basically disappeared. I haven’t been able to find any tooth powders in regular stores like CVS (a drugstore) or Kroger (a grocery store) even though they have entire aisles of slightly different toothpastes. Luckily, the small container that I got in September is still going strong. I’ve used about a third of it, including some waste figuring out how to get it on the toothbrush. I recommend wetting the brush and then just tapping some powder on. The water makes the powder stick to the bristles, so the powder doesn’t fall off when you start brushing.

If you’re worried about bad breath, I’d also use mouth wash. I’ve heard that gargling with salt water can replace mouth wash, but it doesn’t sound very fun. Beyond bad breath, another potential concern is fluoridation. If you drink city water, you’re probably getting plenty already.

I found some recipes online for toothpaste made by mixing tooth powder (bought or homemade) with flavorful oils and hydrogen peroxide. In general, I think that’s probably overkill. If you don’t have any major dental problems, you can make simple tooth powder by mixing one part baking soda with one part sea salt (the larger crystals in sea salt help it stick to your brush and act as an abrasive). You might want to start with buying a small container of tooth powder so that you’ll have the bottle. The little spout at the top helps get the tooth powder onto the brush and not all over the counter.

If your water isn’t fluoridated (because you drink mostly bottled water or have a well) or you have a history of tooth problems, you could try mixing sodium fluoride into your tooth paste with a ratio of 1 part of sodium fluoride to every 10 of your tooth paste. This emulates the amount of fluoride in US toothpaste (between 1000 and 1100 ppm). However, be aware that fluoride is mildly toxic and can cause staining of the teeth if you get too much.

If you try it out, let me know how it works for you!

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Leftover Preparedness Kit

Leftover Preparedness KitWill and I like to go out to eat.  Our restaurant budget is limited so we have identified several tasty and inexpensive options around town.  One of Will’s favorites is Bajio, a Mexican chain restaurant specializing in burritos.  He likes it because he can get a huge burrito dinner for less than $7 while avoiding his arch-nemesis, cilantro.

I like Bajio but I get a little frustrated with their disposable dishes.  The meals come in little foil pans and they have plastic lids for anyone who wants to take leftovers home, which we usually do.  We now have a collection of, oh, maybe twenty sets of pans and lids as well as fifteen sets of plastic silverware.  It’s recyclable but it seems like we can do better than that.

So we put together a “Bajio Leftover Preparedness Kit” which consists of one foil pan, four sets of plastic silverware, and four plastic lids.  That way all we need to get at the restaurant is our foil pan of food and then we’re set with our own eating utensils and carry-out lid.  I eventually hope to upgrade the kit to include some cloth napkins and reusable cups (they have a self-serve drink fountain so I think they’d be okay with us bringing our own cups).  For now, the key will be keeping a kit in the car so we are constantly prepared for impromptu burrito runs.  (We have been doing pretty well with the cloth grocery bags so I’m hopeful.)

Eventually I hope to also develop a more generic Leftover Preparedness Kit that contains some tupperware containers suitable for any type of leftover.  I really hate the styrofoam containers that most restaurants provide.  Number 6 styrofoam is recyclable here now but I still think styrofoam is creepy and eating out of it just sets my teeth on edge.  I’ve thought about carrying around some ziplock bags for emergency leftovers but as uncouth as I am, it still seems a bit awkward to pull a ziplock out of my pocket and fill it with leftover pad thai.

Any tips?

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Weekend Project – Starting Seeds

watering seed tray‘Tis the season for getting those garden plants started.  Many classic garden plants like tomatoes and peppers suggest starting indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost so I’m actually a little bit late.  (Last frost here is about May 15th, I think.)  My friend Maggie and I are growing flowers for our weddings as well as planting a big veggie patch this year. As usual, I pulled out my seed collection and decided I didn’t need to buy any new seeds but then after I had my hands in the dirt I realized I was missing some of the plants I wanted. Ah, well.

This is another project that gets a little messy but it was cold out so I did it on our dining room floor. Will only teased me slightly for getting dirt everywhere. (I swept it up later.) I bought a small bag of potting soil at our local farmers co-op. They also sell bulk seeds by the scoop, which I find absolutely fascinating. It’s like a candy shop for gardeners!

Anyway, I still had some seed trays from last year so I filled them up with potting soil.  I was a little worried about how to water them until I remembered that our kitchen sink has one of those handy spray nozzles.  It worked like a charm!

I planted echinacea, brussel sprouts, cabbages, blue fescue (ornamental grass), liatris, St. John’s wort, forget-me-not, lavender, two kinds of decorative sage, larkspur, and basil.  My planting tip o’ the week: bury seeds approximately twice as deep as they are wide.  These seeds were pretty tiny so I just kinda poked them into the soil and sprinkled a little extra on top.  A few of them have sprouted but they’re not super impressive yet so I’ll wait to post more photos.  For now, my two trays are sitting in the sun by our glass back door and have their little plastic domes in place to keep in the moisture.  Maggie has an awesome set up with grow lights and heating blankets so she’ll probably win the sprouting competition but as long as mine come up, I’ll be happy.

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Filtering Used Vegetable Oil (or How I Spent My Saturday)

Maggie filtering veggie oilYa know those projects that you keep putting off for months and months because they sound intimidating and then when you finally get around to it, it ends up being quite easy? Well, that was my experience this weekend when I put together a little filtering system for my greasecar. As you may recall, I love my greasecar but find one of the biggest limitations is filtering the used vegetable oil. Used veggie oil is pretty gross and it’s pretty heavy. There’s also the catch that it’s very bad to get water in your veggie oil fuel so anything that is washed also has to be thoroughly dried. Anyway, I have considered building a really fancy filtration system and have lusted after electrical veggie oil pumps but so far can’t justify the cost, so I have been using cloth filter bags from greasecar.com. They’re pretty cool but it has been challenging figuring out how to get the oil through them with a minimum mess. So after much deliberation, I built myself a little bucket filtration system!

Step one was cutting a hole in a bucket lid to accommodate the filter bag. Plastic buckets (and lids) actually cut pretty easily with a boxcutter although it took me awhile to figure out that it’s most efficient to just score the cut and then snap off the plastic rather than cut all the way through. (It also felt safer, as in less likely to cut off any of my fingers by accident.)

Filter bag in lidMaggie drillingStep two was drilling a hole in the bottom of the filter bag bucket. This is a two-bucket system, with the filter bag taking up the top bucket and the lower bucket storing the filtered oil. My goal was to let the veggie oil flow slowly into the lower storage bucket. I wasn’t sure how big to make the hole. I had brief flashbacks to my engineering hydrology classes at Purdue but decided to go with the trial-and-error method of hole-sizing, which meant starting small (it’s a lot easier to make it bigger).

Step three was cutting a larger hole in the lid of the bottom (storage) bucket. I wanted to make it big enough to let the oil drip cleanly through from the top bucket but small enough that the lid will still be able to support the weight of the top bucket even when it’s full of oil. I was amused to notice the recycling symbol on the bucket lid and realize that I can throw the plastic bits in with my recycling. Yay Bloomington Recycling!

Veggie Oil Close-UpBucket Lid with Recyclable signStep four was putting it together and testing it out. As you may have noticed, my jug of used vegetable oil sprung a leak at the bottom so I decided to “pour” it out of that end. I think the slow release was probably a good thing. The cloth filter bags are very effective but the flow rate is pretty slow, especially when the oil is cold. It was about 50 degrees out, which felt fantastically warm to me, but the oil was still a little thick. I hear that fancier folks have special veggie oil heaters to improve filtration rates. Maybe some day.

In the end, I managed to filter all 5 gallons of veggie oil with only a few minor spills. Then I poured the bucket of clean oil into the storage tank in my trunk, with a few more spills. Bleah. Alas, that one has to be chalked up to user error. I drove out to my aunt’s house last night but my engine never heated up enough to switch to veggie oil. I suspect there may be a problem with my thermostat since it never seems to heat up like it used to but that is another project. For now, I’m pretty happy with my new filtration system. It’s very satisfying to complete a little project and feel that I actually am a handy person. Next up? Figure out a way to decommission my dying water heater in a way that the landlord will HAVE to come fix it…

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