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Building a Grain Mill – Easy as Pie

Build a grain mill

Build a grain mill

As easy as pie – just a bit longer to realize the result.  Seriously. Really.  You just need the right tools (which are reasonably priced) and to gain some insight into how to pull everything together with smart techniques.

Not really much different than baking a pie – and there are lots of folks who are seriously intimidated by the thought of pulling together a great pie crust and that perfect filling.

But, that’s why cookbooks and cooking shows are so popular – they provide both guidance and the insight into the techniques needed to effectively convert the ingredients into the finished product.  Once you’ve done it once that initial hurdle of getting those techniques down is breached and going from making an apple pie to a peach torte is comparatively a breeze.  That’s no different with metal working – get a handle on how to pull one project off and you’ll be well on your way to having the skills and confidence to pull off much more complex projects.

In terms of how high that bar to entry is – with modern power tools it really isn’t much more difficult than baking that pie in a home oven.  Wire feed welders are not only easy to master but also low cost – as I write this Harbor Freight has their welders on for $110 for the smaller unit to $180 for the midsized one that I adore.  Their angle grinders start at $20 for a 4 1/2″ “heavy duty” one that will do for the work you have to carry out on the project to $45 for a versatile 7″ unit all the way to $65 for a top of the line 9″ unit – but those prices are all before you apply the 20% off coupons that always seem to be floating around.  Another $20 will get you the needed drill.

Homebuilt Grain Mill, Tortilla Press and the required tools

Homebuilt Grain Mill, Tortilla Press and the required tools

Add in the consumables and hand tools and even if you are starting your shop from scratch you’ll be able to buy the tools and the materials needed for the grain mill build and have money left over compared to buying a comparable mill with 6″ diameter burrs.

Now the economics of building your own tortilla press isn’t nearly as compelling – but if you’ve got the tools… well then building it is a breeze.

Of course, the prime advantage in my opinion isn’t the grain mill, or the tortilla press, ore even the nicely equipped shop – but the change in perspective that you’ll gain once you’ve seen how achievable these metal working projects are.  That shift will see you empower your independence, and that

is really cool – especially with a slice of pie.

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Homemade Penetrating Oil

I often work on rusty kit -so I always ensure my tetanus vaccination is always up to date, and I have penetrating oil on hand to help free rusted parts.

Homemade penetrating oil alongside commercial products and a can of white gas.

Homemade penetrating oil alongside commercial products and a can of white gas.

If the requirement is small or time sensitive I will generally use a commercial product.  The ones I make sure to keep on hand are lanolin (wool grease) based – because they are not only good penetrating oils, but because the lanolin is an excellent way to protect metal against rust without establishing a gummy surface that would require a lot of clean-up before the tool can be used.

But when I have bigger projects that require a lot of penetrating oil – such as the corn binder that I am rebuilding for sweet sorghum harvesting – I turn to homemade penetrating oil which costs a fraction of the commercial products, and while it may not work quite as quickly that price advantage is considerable.

Quite simply you want to use a light oil – that can be diesel – which I’ve used very successfully to free up stuck engines or a mix of a heavier oil – such as an engine or transmission oil – and a light solvent such as acetone, paint thinner or my favorite naphtha – also known as white gas or Coleman fuel.   All will work just fine but I keep naphtha on hand for my camping stoves and find that it doesn’t have the odor that acetone does.  Generally I add between 10 and 20 percent solvent to the oil depending upon the starting weight of the oil and how much I slop in (accuracy isn’t very important here in my experience).  Mix the two in a container and then use a regular oil can to dispense them.   Easy as can be and priced right.

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Essential Power Tools – The Wire Feed (MIG) Welder

A visit to the local Princess Auto store (roughly the Canadian equivalent to the American Harbor Freight stores) when I was in high school netted me an arc welder that was heavily discounted because the manufacturer had mistakenly shipped the wrong model to the store.  That purchase proved to be the catalyst that saw me gradually get drawn deeper and deeper into metal working.

Wire Feed / MIG welder an important addition to the homestead shop

Wire Feed / MIG welder an important addition to the homestead shop

Since then I’ve picked up a number of different welding systems, oxy-acetylene, engine driven stick welders, plasma, MIG and finally a spot welder.

It’s the MIG / wire feed welder though that ends up being the sixth most important power tool (in my opinion) to add to your workshop – and the one that will really open up a big segment of metal working to you.

Since I have and regularly use a number of different welding systems you would be right to question why the MIG is the first one that I suggest you should get, particularly since it was one of the last to actually assume a place in my own shop.

Simply, a MIG/wire feed welder offers the best combination of capacity, learning curve and price among all of the welding systems I have.  On price – the 170 amp unit I have from Harbor Freight is on offer as I write this for $190, but I am reasonably sure that there will be some discount coupon in the next few months that knocks that price down to about $150 – which is very reasonable indeed.

Necessary accessories - auto darkening welding helmet, gloves and wire brush

Necessary accessories – auto darkening welding helmet, gloves and wire brush – along with a partially finished grain mill

While a stick arc welder could be had at a similar price point, the learning curve for this latter welding setup is more difficult.  A wire fed rig by comparison is downright simple.  It’s not quite “If you can pull a trigger you can be a welder” but it’s not that far off.  Likewise, a wire fed rig will allow you to weld a greater range of material thicknesses that are of interest to a home shop fabricator.  You can work on fairly substantial thicknesses of steel – not as heavy as can be handled by stick arc welding – but probably most of what you’ll be doing on one side.  But then unlike the arc welder you’ll be able to effectively weld sheet steel – like car and truck panels – that a stick welder would find difficult to handle.

On the Oxy-Acetylene side the learning curve isn’t significantly different from a MIG.  It is probably even easier if you get a torch like the Henrob.  But, the cost – especially if you are going to be doing run of the mill work – is going to be several times what a MIG would run you when you figure in the cost of decent sized tanks.

Now, I really appreciate having both of those systems in my shop, but I have no hesitation in recommending folks grab a MIG/wire feed as their first welder.  For some it may prove to be all the welder you’ll ever need.  Others may find it simply serves as an introduction to what is possible for them to accomplish and serve as their own catalyst to broaden their metal welding systems.

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Forming curves in sheet metal without slip rolls

Sheet steel bent and welded to form shroud for the homestead grain mill

Sheet steel bent and welded to form shroud for the homestead grain mill

You might not expect this coming from someone who puts up a significant number of posts discussing tools and the projects that can be accomplished with them… deep breath – you can accomplish a lot without much in the way of tools.

Specialized tools can really speed up work and make projects easier – but you can accomplish some pretty cool things with very simple processes.  Case in point – forming curves aka radius bends in sheet steel would normally be done with slip rolls – but you can do a very acceptable work for a lot of jobs using only a piece of pipe mounted in a vice.  Sure it takes a bit longer than putting it through the rolls – but in a lot of cases it will get the job done just fine.

Build a grain mill

Build a grain mill

Frankly,  I really value the options and capacity my tools provide.  But, I have been building my workshop for over two decades, and while some folks might go out and drop several grand on tools it seems more reasonable to expect that most folks would want to dip their toes in the water first to see if doing more mechanical work is really something they want to take on before dropping big sums of cash (if they do have that financial freeboard).

Fortunately a lot can be done with relatively low cost tools and simple techniques.  I’m building another grain mill – this time for a friend so I decided I’d take a few short videos to show just how easy it is to build the grain mill since I know the finished product is probably pretty intimidating to most.  Check out the book Building the Homestead Grain mill for all of the detailed instructions on how you can build your own professional grade grain mill using simple tools.

 

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Essential power tools – the angle grinder

Welcome back to another “Tool Tuesday”.  Featuring prominently in the number three spot on our list of must have power tools is the angle grinder.

9" angle grinder and accessories

9″ angle grinder and accessories

The angle grinder is the power tool version of the hacksaw, the file and the wire brush all in one.  It is quite simply the most important tool to have in your shop if you are going to be working with metal (after the all purpose corded hand drill that was featured as the top must have tool of course).

There are multiple ways to join metal that are easy to accomplish including using pop rivets, metal screws and bolts – but before you start joining you need to have been able to form to shape and that means cutting and grinding and this is where the angle grinder shines.

You’ll want to pick up 1/8″ thick metal cutting disks, 1/4″ thick metal grinding disks and wire wheels (which make removing paint and rust a breeze).  If you are going to be cutting brick, concrete or tile you can pick up masonry cutting disks as well.

Now, you’ll find grinders come in a variety of sizes, from the 4 1/2″ models up to the beefier 9″ units.  While I have a smaller 5″ grinder my go to unit is a 9″ and it’s backup is a 7″.  For cutting and grinding disks I’ve pretty much standardized on 7″ diameter disks which I’ve found to be more common (and on sale more often) than the 9″ ones.  I also appreciate the extra power offered by the larger units.

That said,  the smaller ones are nice if you’ve got to work in tight spaces – such as under a vehicle or aren’t quite as comfortable with the heft and power of the larger ones.

Of course part of the process of determining what makes this list and where it ranks is price.  To give you an idea of the price these run between $20 and $65 at Harbor Freight as of now – without using one of their 20% off coupons they frequently circulate which would knock the price down to $16 to $52.

So if you don’t have an angle grinder yet pick one up today along with a selection of disks.

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The essential power tool – the corded hand drill

Welcome to “Tool Tuesdays”.  In an environment where everyone seems to have a top ten I thought I’d add my own – but since it’s tools we won’t be stopping at ten.

Without question I think the must have power tool – regardless of how much work you do – is the 3/8″ corded drill.  It’s really a slam dunk given how much use it is likely to find in anyone’s home, and how much effort it will save compared to doing the same job by hand.  At the same time a good unit is low cost – you are looking at less than $50 for a unit that should serve a home shop well for years – and on sale the price might fall to half that!

Now, what exactly do you need to accompany the drill to get the most out of it?

A twist drill bit set - note the reduced shank diameter on the 1/2" bit to fit the 3/8" drill chuck

A twist drill bit set – note the reduced shank diameter on the 1/2″ bit to fit the 3/8″ drill chuck

Well, for starters a set of regular twist drill bits.  Don’t go super discount here – they will just frustrate you.  You don’t need to buy pro grade bits but pretty good quality drill bit sets come on sale at attractive prices fairly frequently – pick one up.  Ideally you’ll be able to get a set with a range of sizes – which generally come with more of the small bits which break more frequently.  If you can only afford a set of bits with one of each size up to 3/8″ or 1/2″ (which if you have a 3/8″ drill will need to have a reduced diameter shank) get a package of 1/8″ drill bits which I find is the best all around pilot drill size.  Remember if you are drilling metal you’ll want to get a can of oil to lubricate and cool the bit while drilling.

A spade bit

A spade bit

Twist drill bits will go up to 1/2″ in a hand drill without issue – larger twist bits are available but those really need a drill press or specialized drill.  Rather if you are working with wood there are a few more styles of drill bit.  Up to nearly 2″ there are spade bits – these are simple and cheap.  If you are drilling where you might hit a nail these are the bits to use.  An added advantage are the extensions available for this style of bit – need to drill through a foot of wood – as needed to be done with the homestead cider press – and this is the bit for you.

If you are doing much finer quality wood work requiring larger holes you’ll probably want to get forstner bits.  These cut around the periphery of the hole and chip out the central section and don’t tend to rip out wood as much as you would with the spade bit.

A hole saw set

A hole saw set

Larger holes in metal or wood can be accomplished with a hole saw.  Instead of cutting out all of the materials as the preceding bits have these only cut out a thin strip around the radius of the cutter.  This is allows you to cut a much bigger hole using less energy.  If you are cutting metal choose a bi-metal set.

While we covered a whole bunch of bits you might not need anything beyond a set of twist drills.  But you will want a set of power driver bits – these are bits with screw heads.  These make putting in and removing screws easy.  Remember you may need to drill a pilot hole for the screw first depending upon what you are doing.  Get a bunch you will find that these tend to wear out, even the really good ones.  Bulk packs are reasonably priced – pick up a set and you’ll love using screws.

A set of power drive bits make installing and removing screws easy

A set of power drive bits make installing and removing screws easy

Finally, there are a bunch of tools that have a shank to fit into the drill chuck including wire brushes and shown here a buffing disk that was just used to polish the stainless steel on the homebuilt stainless wood pizza oven.

Why corded when cordless are available.  Well a few reasons – good cordless units that could compare with a corded one in terms of power are going to be expensive,  cheaper ones just don’t measure up for power or longevity of the batteries.  Plus these drills don’t use much power so you can easily use a light gauge long extension cord for a reasonable price.  As well, if you are going where you’ll only have your vehicle you can easily power these off of an inverter attached to your vehicle battery.

Hands  down you need at least one corded drill along with a twist drill bit set and driver bits in your home.

 

 

 

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Sweet Sorghum in Canada

Sweet Sorghum - Dale on the Left and Simon on the right.  Dale is 3 weeks ahead.

Sweet Sorghum – Dale on the Left and Simon on the right. Dale is 3 weeks ahead.

I’ve been growing varieties of sweet sorghum for more than 20 years.  Now sweet sorghum or even grain sorghum for that matter isn’t a typical crop for Canada let alone Eastern Ontario.

But, the description in the Peter’s Seeds and Research catalog for Northern Sugarcane tickled my fancy enough to order and trial it.  I should be honest and say that the threshold to tickle my aggie interest is pretty low – but this sounded like a really cool plant, and indeed it was.

It grew well, and later towards the end of that company’s life Tim Peter’s was kind enough to send me a sample of the John Coffer refined Dale variety in spite of it no longer being listed in his catalog.   I’ve since obtained a host of different varieties to trial including a number from the USDA ARS seed bank – which included some pretty cool varieties from India with high sucrose contents – which would allow regular crystalline sugar production and not only liquid syrup yield.    I also received a few varieties most graciously from Morris Bitzer from the University of Kentucky including Simon which is supposed to be 21 days earlier to harvest than the regular Dale variety.

Now, I’ve never had an issue having any of the varieties of sorghum I have tried reaching maturity save for a few varieties which are daylight sensitive and grew wonderfully but never headed out.  The successes include Dale, Sugar Drip, Mennonite, and a bunch of ARS varieties.  But,  given how much earlier Simon is supposed to be I wondered if a cross might be in order… not only to allow for a hedging of agronomic bets, but also in order to allow for a staggering of harvest dates for processing.  So I’m interested in trying a cross between my John Coffer Dale and Morris’s Simon.

Sweet Sorghum planted out

Sweet Sorghum planted out

Anyway,  this year I decided I wanted to boost my seed stock and plant enough that the syrup harvest wasn’t just sucking on the stalks.  So I started the seed in trays – the Dale three weeks ahead of the Simon in the hopes that i might be able to overlap their flowering period – and committed to building three 4’X8′ raised beds along the back hedge.  It’s not the best of spots, not receiving full sunlight but will have to do.

Those were completed this past weekend so I transplanted the sorghum along with a bunch of AC Sierra Sunflowers fronting the beds.  Now Sierra is a cool variety in itself.  It is an open pollinated dwarf oilseed sunflower that was bred to allow farmers to harvest the crop without needing special headers on their combines.  That lowering of the capital risk bar created markets for oilseed sunflower whose development led to a transition to more productive hybrid varieties.  But for smaller scale production, I still think open pollinated varieties where seed can be kept and evolved to better suit local conditions has a lot of allure.  but I digress.

Anyway,  this year my goal is to grow out a significant quantity of Dale and Simon seed, try my hand at making a cross and also build a small sorghum press.

The Little Wonder Sorghum Mill - Inspiration for the impending build

The Little Wonder Sorghum Mill – Inspiration for the impending build

Why build a press?  Well for starters sorghum syrup isn’t a typical Canadian product – that would be maple syrup – nor is it even a northern US product meaning a fairly long trip south would be necessary to get to where Sweet Sorghum was more common.  Don’t overlook the “was” in that last sentence either – sorghum mills aren’t like one of my letterpresses or machine tools which were common and still viable commercially into the 1970s, and hence are today “obsolete” but not yet rare, sorghum presses fell out of fashion long long ago.   Moreover, I’d really like to get the three roller horizontal units rather than a vertical roller one more suited to having the mule on the walking pole, and those especially the smaller ones that are still around appear to be in very high demand.

Fortunately I happen to have a whack load of metal working tools that are always eager to be put to work – funny how that function stacking works out eh?.  So much like with the homestead grain mill build it looks like I will be engineering a modern rendition of the small end of the commercial horizontal mills over the course of the summer.  With the sorghum in the ground I’ve got to get moving… (of course there are always a few projects vying for attention but the need to be ready for a harvest is a pretty good incentive to set a solid pace).  Stay tuned…