A Homestead Wood Fired Pizza Oven – Getting the material ready

Taking the BBQ’s apart turned out to be pretty easy – for the most part.  The segments were joined by spot welds, rivets or screws and bolts.

Bending tabs flat with vice-grips

Bending tabs flat with vice-grips

I had been worried that the latter – the screws and bolts would create a problem, but for the most part the were made from stainless steel and disassembled easily enough.  A few of the screws were stubborn and needed to be ground off but those were the exception.

The rivets were handled by using the angle grinder to remove most of the head and then driving the remainder out.

Finally the spot welds were broken by progressively working a flat bladed screw driver into the gap until the weld broke.  In some cases this resulted in a bit of tearing of the material but for the most part a pretty clean break resulted.

The next challenge was to get the material back into flat sheets so that a proper inventory could be taken and choices made as to how to cut the pieces made.   To start I used vice grips to bend the tabs flat.  Then I simply stepped on them … and this did flatten them out enough to make further work on them more reasonable.

Minion 1 at work - safety glasses check... footwear?

Minion 1 at work – safety glasses check… footwear?

Minion 2 at work... pizza and fire - it's gonna be fun!

Minion 2 at work… pizza and fire – it’s gonna be fun!

I next attempted to finish the process with rubber mallets – assisted by the minions who are also hungry for wood fired pizza – that got us further along but not far enough.  I tried to follow up by using a ball peen hammer either directly or indirectly though a wood block… no dice.  Using the hammer directly left ugly marks and started to stretch the material – a counterproductive action, while using the wood block as the intermediary didn’t serve much more after we’d already used the mallets.

So then I hit up the 50 ton hydraulic press and it worked great.  I only used about 5 tons of force so using a jack under say a car might be an option for those without this advantage.  But hydraulic presses are reasonably priced and you certainly don’t need a 50 ton unit to accomplish this.  The sheets came out nice and flat, the seams were still visible but flat so layout should be easy after this.

Using the hydraulic press to reclaim stainless steel sheets

Using the hydraulic press to reclaim stainless steel sheets

So now I have a nice pile of flattened stainless steel sheets – mostly heavier gauge – some a bit light… some square, some rectangular and some oddities.  So my next step is to figure out what size of unit I have material enough to build… Stay tuned for more.




Propagating hops by layering and rooting

So there are a few ways to produce additional hop plants.  You can divided the rhizomes (the root mass).  That’s easy and simple and great if you have enough established hop hills.  But… if you are just starting out you probably want to give your plants a bit of time to get established before you start engaging in serious division.  So I guess you could buy additional crowns… or you can use alternate means to multiply your own stock.

Fortunately hops want to root… you just need to present then with an opportunity to do so.

The new hop rhizome created by layering exposed

The new hop rhizome created by layering exposed

The easiest way to do this is by layering.  From a good crown you’ll get a bunch of bines – the first and strongest bunch train vertically for your production but additional bines can be run through soil in a large plant pot or window box  before being allowed to grow on or  trimmed.  The bines aren’t super flexible so think big curves not tight curves – which makes running them longitudinally in the window boxes a good option.  Keep the pots reasonably watered and the result should be about one crown per bine that was run through the pot.

But if you need to increase your stock even faster then you should probably considering rooting.  Last season I took a number of bine segments, dipped them in rooting hormone, stuck them in sand and had good success getting them to root in a home built mist propagation setup.  The setup was cheap and simple and while the layering method will result in one crown per bine the rooting method can take one bine and make a load of crowns – so if you are looking to rapidly increase your plant material it’s definitely worth the extra effort.

Hops rhizomes from rooted cuttings in sand - success for the two on the right

Hops rhizomes from rooted cuttings in sand – success for the two on the right

Exposed hop rhizomes created by rooting bine segments

Exposed hop rhizomes created by rooting bine segments

So, if you brew, buy crowns for your favorite hop varieties – they use vertical space so you can probably find a spot for them –  and multiply them to increase your own yard, share with friends or even offer for sale.


A homestead wood fired pizza oven – the build begins

A few years ago I enjoyed pizza in a backyard wood fired oven at the Little City Farm B&B and since then have flirted with the idea of getting just such an oven.  That one was a Cobb oven and although the simplicity tempts me I just don’t think that material would survive for very long in Ottawa with the abundance of rain, loads of snow, and lots of freeze thaw action especially given I don’t want to build a shelter for it.

That leaves three alternatives.  Masonry stoves, but with these you get a very permanent installation that is going to cost a pretty penny. Then there is regular steel… cheap, easy to work with… but this material will rust and burn out. Then there is stainless steel… Looks good, it’s  durable and won’t rust or burn out, it should spot weld easily, but it is fairly expensive.

The lovely commercial mangiafuco wood oven

The lovely commercial mangiafuco wood oven

Oh, and did I mention that the Mangiafuoco oven I like is selling for $3,500 before tax? Cool oven but, uh, yeah, no. I think the oven is lovely but I don’t really want it that much…. plus truth be told it, there is an added coolness factor is having something that you’ve built yourself, and I haven’t done much work with stainless steel yet so it should present a good learning opportunity.

So, last summer I collected a load heavier gauge of stainless steel that folks were throwing away… in the form of BBQs.  See, here’s the crazy thing.  Way back when, propane gas grills were pretty much all cast aluminum painted black.  The burners would rust out and need to be replaced but the body would last and last… and if a neighbor happened to decide to upgrade and drag their old one to the curb… well those bodies made for an easy source of aluminum to cast in the home foundry.

Now though, most gas grills seem to fall into the single season (or maybe two) low end units made with regular carbon steel painted black OR much nicer and more expensive stainless steel.  I’ve  got one of the higher end models that is completely stainless steel that I managed to snag at the end of the season clear out with a further discount because it had a ding in the back of the lower housing.  With it plumbed into my natural gas supply I never need to worry about running out of fuel which is great.  I expect that I will have to swap in new burner tubes and covers at some point but apart from that can expect it to last decades.

But, it seems that there are a fair number of semi-stainless BBQs out there.  They have the visible parts like the lid and maybe the doors fashioned in stainless but the rest is made of regular cheap but rustable carbon steel…. which means… those pieces of stainless steel sheet get rolled to the curb when the bottom burns out and the owner decides to buy a new one.  So last summer I started grabbing these lids and doors when I happened to see them…. now it’ time to start the transformation from waste to that $3,500 pizza oven.

Stay tuned as the transformation progresses.  Did I mention that the  $3,500 price tag was before tax?






Dude where’s the door? A failure to demonstrate resiliency.

Last weekend I shifted my bees from one location to another on the same farm.  Now the distance wasn’t all that great – maybe two hundred yards but it’s a better location for a number of reasons.

At the same time I did the spring maintenance – swapping the upper and lower brood boxes, opening the lower entrance while closing the upper and cleaning out the dead bees that had accumulated at the bottom of the hive.

The  "dude when's this door going to open up" hive on the right.

The “dude when’s this door going to open up” hive on the right.

The reaction of the bees was rather interesting.  While the move was accomplished  fairly early in the morning while it was cool some bees still exited at the original hive site.  Those “flyers” had several opportunities to follow the hives as we loaded them into the bucket of the tractor and slowly progressed over the field – some did but quite a few stayed glued to their original site.

When the hives were being prepped at the new location and the lower entrance was opened and the upper closed the reaction was just as interesting.  Bees from one hive that had taken flight as the hives were opened started to congregate at the level the upper entrance would have been at – but on the opposite side.   A few figured out where the lower entrance was – but many just hung around in the wrong place in the forlorn hope that somehow the pine would part and readmit them into the hive. It almost appeared like one or two had gotten there and attracted the others, as if hanging out with the folks who were clearly wrong was more comforting than leaving and looking for a real entrance.

By the time I was finally cleaning up the winter wraps at the original hive location the bees that remained there had caught on to the fact they were in a bit of a pickle and were agitated.  If they’d tagged along earlier they would have been ok… but by that point they were pretty much out of luck.  By the time I pulled out of the new bee yard shortly after noon there were still a couple of good clusters of bees on that one hive handing around where they though the hive entrance should have been – but obviously wasn’t.  I’m hopeful they found their way back into the hive but they were obviously confused and not doing anything terribly productive to rectify the situation.

That got me to thinking – how much were those bees like humans?  Clearly some bees were much better able to adapt than others.  So how resilient in the face of challenges and changes am I and for that matter are you?



Egg ‘n Ham Breakfast Bagels – breakfast on the go done right

Let’s give credit where credit is due.  Fast food gets loads of flack including the blame for making folks fat.  But consider that McDonalds – the quintessential fast food chain has been around for decades – including a whack load of time during which folks were in pretty good shape.  No question the portion size has a bunch to do with it as well as the frequency of a patron’s visit – but those are in the full dominion of the patron.

Ham and Egg breakfast bagel - whole wheat

Ham and Egg breakfast bagel – whole wheat

OK, so  where am I going with this – well to some of the fast food breakfast offerings.  Not only did the introduction of these mark a capital utilization and financial breakthrough for the fast food joints but also in many respects created many new food  items in the form of breakfast sandwiches.  Moreover, those breakfast sandwiches are great!

But just like you can make a better burger at home you can also upgrade the breakfast sandwiches by making them chez vous.  In my home I know that whenever I make up a batch of whole wheat bagels (which are so simple that you need to try them now) I had better have cream cheese and a fillet of our home smoked salmon or trout as well as eggs so that I can make bagels with lox and then breakfast egg bagels if any last to the next morning.  Failure to properly plan ahead – or at least warn the other occupants of the house that some component is missing (usually we’ve eaten though all of the smoked salmon) – will trigger a cascade of complaints.  And this is for something that is whole grain and pretty healthy no less.

So what are you waiting for?  Take the food you love from out there and make it better at home – starting with whole wheat bagel breakfast sandwiches.


Ham and cheese melt – Good food doesn’t need to be complicated

There probably aren’t too many among us who aren’t busy and find ourselves at points particularly pressed for time.

At those point it would be particularly easy to head out for a meal out.  Those meals in my view tend to be a bit of a waste – it’s not like most folks go out to a great restaurant for an awesome meal at these times… it’s more likely you’d head to a mid to low grade restaurant and plunk down between $7 and $30 for a “whatever” meal.  What’s the point of that?

Instead there are some great last minutes meals that can be pulled together that are not only healthy but taste great – especially if you mix them up a bit.

Take a simple grilled cheese and shift it up by making it with the whole wheat baler twine bread add ham and spice it up with dijon mustard and hot pepper rings.  You get a satisfying meal for a fraction of the price and with a fraction of the effort that it would otherwise take to drive yourself to a restaurant to wait for service.  Plus, if you’ve cracked open a bottle of wine or tapped the keg of beer you can begin refreshing while you’re cooking.


Hoop houses – the fast passive solar greenhouse alternative

At my previous home I had a 10′ x 12′ polycarbonate greenhouse from Harbor Freight.  Now I got it on sale and stacked on a 30% off coupon that brought the price down to about $500 if memory serves correct – a fraction of what I would have had to pay for the panels alone from other vendors.

Building a passive solar modified Harbor Freight Greenhouse

Building a passive solar modified Harbor Freight Greenhouse

The aluminum frame was pretty light, and I think they got away with this by putting in only a few of the clips that would hold the polycarbonate panels in.  The smart engineers must have thought – if we allow the panels to blow out in high winds the remaining frame won’t buckle, which is true enough. All and well for wind but confronted with snow and… well snow presses in rather than blows out… leading to likely failure.

So I ended up building a reinforced internal frame for the greenhouse with post footings below the frost line.  While I was at it I dug down two feed under the footprint of the greenhouse, lines the excavation with Styrofoam insulation and snaked corrugated drainage tile from the middle of the back wall to the middle of the front wall.

Abundance and extended harvests in a passive solar Harbor Freight Greenhouse

Abundance and extended harvests in a passive solar Harbor Freight Greenhouse

I rigged a thermostatically controlled fan located in the peak of the greenhouse to ducting which connected to the drainage line at the back wall.   When the system was on, if the temperature at the peak was greater than the soil temperature the fan turned on and effectively heated the soil mass from the bottom.  If the temperature in the greenhouse dropped to 3C the fan would turn on again in an effort to use the heat stored in the soil to ward off frost.  As added security if the temperature hit 1C a switch would turn on an electric heater – in my case an old hair dryer to provide a thermal boost.  The added boost was usually only required at the start and end of my seasons and for a very brief period before sunrise on cold mornings making it rather thrifty.

This system worked great.  Our safe planting date here is usually the end of May – but I was able to be harvesting salads starting at the beginning of April, and tomatoes in mid-May.  I’d also be eating fresh veggies until Christmas on the other end of the season.

Since moving I’ve missed my greenhouse – but my new yard doesn’t have room for a similar setup.  I have used low tunnels of hooped 1/2 inch pvc pipe to support spunbond fabric as a season extender – but it doesn’t come close to stretching the season near a much.

Frame of the medium height hoop house constructed

Frame of the medium height hoop house constructed

So this weekend I set out to rectify the situation with a couple of mid-height hoop houses over my two raised wood core beds which are 4′ wide and 10′ long.  I took inspiration from the hinged cold frames used by the folks at Wild Gourd Farm. 

My upper frames are heavier than need be 2×6’s rather than 2×4’s but I had all those on hand, left over from the ramps needed to get my two letter-press printing presses home… but that is a story for another day.  Given the heavier materials I added a 2×6 cross piece at the halfway point for rigidity. Four 2″ hinges are positioned a 1′ and 3′ in from each of the ends on one side.

Nice height afforded by 10 foot long conduit segments over a 4' gap

Nice height afforded by 10 foot long conduit segments over a 4′ gap

The 10 foot lengths of 1/2″ plastic conduit give a nice amount of headroom under the curve.  I chose to use 10′ wide building plastic.  I know it will yellow, but like the wild gourd farm folks I used duct tape along the lower portions that I stapled to the frame to preserve it’s integrity and I stapled it a the rigeline to a 1″ x 2″ that I laced to the top of the hoops.

My intent is to be able to install the plastic in the spring – use it until the end of May, remove the lower staples, and roll it up around the ridgeline 1×2 and stow it in the garage attic until fall when I reverse the process.  When the season become too much I can again take it down.

So the weekend saw the project 90% completed – the only remaining task is to build a wax cylinder thermally operated vent for each hoop house to prevent overheating, but that should only be an evening worth of effort.

At the same time, the kids were so enthused with the project that they each wanted their own hoop house to cover their 4’x4′ garden plots.  So together we built the frames, and then on two adjacent sides attached the pvc conduits and bent them over to their respective opposing sides giving a wigwam shape over which we put a piece of dollar store painters plastic drop cloth weighed down by bricks.  The light plastic won’t last super long but it should last long enough to get us well into May.

Wigwam style hoop houses 4' x 4'

Wigwam style hoop houses 4′ x 4′

The project was an easy and pleasant way to spend a portion of a sunny weekend, I’m already looking forward to recapturing some of the season that I gave up when I lost that other greenhouse…  Forget sweet dreams, I have green dreams.


Embrace the opportunity to fail – Building Capacity

Failure sucks. I mean hey we all want to succeed right? So why do I value failure and hope you’ve recently experienced it? Simple, if you aren’t failing you aren’t testing the limits, you aren’t growing.

Now let’s be realistic don’t fail by doing stupid stuff – getting injured or messing stuff up that could have been easily avoided doesn’t make sense.

Nor does making mistakes that could reasonably easily have been avoided by learning from the experiences of others – build upon per-existing foundations where you can – that’s smart.

Rather, push the boundaries for opportunities to learn, experience and grow.

Take this weekend for example. I had nearly 300 board feet of 1″ thick, 12″ wide rough pine lumber to turn into standard supers for the bees. A simple woodworking exercise right – even had one of the standard Langstroth hives I’d purchased last year from Dancing Bee Apiaries but kept unassembled to act as a pattern. I’ve even got pretty nice tools and quit a bit of experience with them. So it should have been comparatively easy to secure success right?

But, in spite of all of that there were still a fair number of failures. I thought that I was being smart using a nice 12″ compound miter saw to cut the boards which were up to 12′ long down to the appropriate size. Turns out that wasn’t such a great idea in practice. Once the boards were planed and ripped down to length the ends that had been cut on the miter saw weren’t at right angles to the long edges… and I’d been so efficient that I hadn’t left extra for trimming later. Oops, and it also was a real pain to try to pin the boards to the fence on the miter saw, which resulted in a fair number of edges that weren’t parallel to the long edges even before the other operations.

Also sub-standard was the cutting of the finger joints. There were a lot of finger joints to cut, and I found that the the key moved ever so slightly and the tolerances became looser as I progressed. Add onto that the number of keys to cut and it became a sizable job, oh and those not quite right angles caused by using the miter saw… since I was using the ends a the reference, it added to the problem.

So, the end product leaves something to be desired to say the least. Oh sure with a bit of extra trimming and some extra glue and paint they will get the job done. But, definitely not a pro-job.

Now, I did look for suggestions on how to tackle the task before I started out – but I didn’t find that much beyond plans.

So there will definitely be a number of sub-par supers in my apiary as a result of this weekends work and failures.

But I did learn a lot from each point of failure. The ugly supers were the price for the opportunity to lean and figure out how to refine the process. i haven’t squandered that.

Now I know how I am going to cut the boards to length next time. I’ve got a sketch of a special guide for the circular saw that should allow me to do a better job faster than would be possible with the miter saw.

For the finger joints – I’ve got another design sketched up for a jig that should make it possible to not only make a bunch of fingers at the same time, but also takes care of the indexing – and uses the long edges as the reference sides.

Will those modifications to the process work? I think they stand a good chance – but, but I know that failure there will simply see me go back to the drawing board.

So, take the opportunity to see where you can fail, paradoxically I think it’s the quickest way to success.


A ” Bee Super” weekend

This weekend started off with a truckload of 1″ thick 12″wide rough pine lumber, nearly 300 board feet worth. The objective – to turn them into a pile of deep supers to afford space to expand my beekeeping efforts this year.

Nearly 300bf of white pine ready to be converted to supers

Nearly 300bf of white pine ready to be converted to supers

Last year I’d purchased the deep supers I needed from Dancing Bee Apiaries – commercial grade units for $10 each, and they were very nice. But I was able to get the lumber at 40 cents a bf – which brings the price down to about $2.50.

Of course there was also a bunch of work involved in building them for myself – crosscutting, planing, ripping, dadoing the finger joints… But, I brought the tools out to the garage, the door open and the sun strong. A good day to do some physical work and make a bit of sawdust.

Cut to length - a bit closer to the final form

Cut to length – a bit closer to the final form

While it was work, there is something restorative in tangible accomplishments – and this weekend certainly produced that.

Sometimes the best way to spend a bit of time off is doing something productive that you can loose yourself in.

Just “Beeing” productive.


Tire d’erable – Maple taffy

If there is a quintessential flavor to the fall, for me anyway, it is cider.  That sweet flavor marks the conclusion of the summer and if not quite the close of the harvest season – its impending approach.

Like so many things in life there is the converse to the equation.  For me maple syrup, and particularly tire d’erable aka maple taffy is the taste that while not always in line with the calendar date for the start of spring, marks the reality in a much more meaningful fashion.  In order for the sap to flow the days need to be above zero but the nights still below, conditions which see the snow disappearing under the strengthening sun but not yet quite to the point that the hardiest garden occupants can be seeded out under protective coverings. If the final cider pressing coincided with the conclusion of the harvests of the previous season – save perhaps for some game and fowl – maple syrup season marks the sweet start to the promise of another season of bounty.

If you have a few maples you can easily secure some if not all of your own syrup.  Spiles, buckets and their corresponding lids are still available – even if commercial ventures have shifted to less labour intensive pipeline systems.

Tapping maple trees

Tapping maple trees – the first drops of spring

The tire d’erable – maple taffy itself is easy, even for first time candymakers (for that is what you will be after you have made it – a candymaker, and likely hooked on the process of turning simple ingredients and sugar into so much more).

If you don’t have your own trees you can use purchased syrup.  You’ll also need a pan of clean snow or clean finely crushed ice to solidify the liquid candy, and some sticks.  Popsicle sticks would be best but any clean stick or bamboo skewer will do.

As sugar solutions heat up they go through a couple of stages – the first is called soft ball stage, here the sugar solution when cooled forms a plastic pliable mass.  As its temperature increases it transitions into hard ball stage where when cooled you get a hard candy.  Move much beyond the hard ball stage and you get carbon – a disappointment compared to the other stages.

You can use a candy thermometer to establish these stages – or you can use the spoon you are stirring the syrup with to judge as small samples.  How viscous (thick) is the hot syrup as it cools.  If it starts to thicken significantly as it cools you are probably at softball.  If as it cools while pouring the sample back into the mother liquor you find some clinging to the spoon and perhaps forming candy floss ribbons from wayward drips you’ve reached hardball stage.

For maple taffy (tire d’erable) you want to get to soft ball stage, and you can even get a bit beyond soft ball to play it safe.

Once you’ve reached this point pour out lines of the hot candied syrup on the snow, wait about half a minute and then insert a stick at one end of the candy line, roll it up and usher in spring and the promise of a season of harvest.