Tag Archives: Tinkering

Where are you spaceman?

So I mentioned a few weeks ago that I passed my technician class HAM radio test.  It took me a few weeks to get my call sign and ticket (my paper license) but I am now on the air.  While waiting on the FCC to issue my license, I researched radios and decided on getting a Handi-talkie (aka HT).  Basically, it is a hand-held radio that is a typical beginner radio.  I ordered a Wouxon KG-UVD1P which translates to the cheapest radio that had fairly good reviews (There is your Chinese lesson for the day).

My new Wouxon radio

That’s my new radio…yes, it’s on a new beehive

It took awhile to figure out what I was doing with this radio but a lot of that was really just learning how HAM radio in general works.  I had to research PL tones and offsets and repeaters and then figure out how to translate that to my radio.  Luckily Wouxon provides free software to assist in programming the radio from a computer…if you buy their $15 cable.  It was a bargain I soon found out!

So, I have been talking to (and listening to) lots of local folks on the local repeater.  A repeater is a system that “listens” on a particular frequency and re-broadcasts the signals it receives.  My HT can only transmit over a fairly limited distance, especially in these WV hills.  The frequency band in which I am licensed to transmit typically only works with 50 miles or so max.  As I advance, I will get licensed to talk at the frequencies that people use when they communicate globally, but for now I must communicate through the repeater…mostly.

My j-pole antenna

I was listening on the repeater the other night when “they” announced that the International Space Station would be passing overhead between 6:06 and 6:12 am today.  My HT does ok with its stock antenna but I figured I would need to beef things up if I was going to hear the astronauts, many of whom are licensed HAMs.  I searched around online and found plans to make a j-pole antenna tuned for the 2-meter radio band in which I am licensed and in which the ISS would possibly be communicating.

Close-up of my j-pole antenna
All these pipes have to be just the right length

I bought copper and connectors and a candy bar and worked on my new antenna.  I even used the metric system!  Anyhow, late last night in the dark, I was outside soldering copper pipe to be ready.  I hooked my radio to the new antenna and tested it last night and everything seemed to work well.  I could hear locals talking loud and clear.

The alarm went off at 5:45 am so I hustled outside, plugged in to my new antenna and listened…and listened…and listened.  Finally at 6:20 I gave up.  I was pretty bummed…mainly because of all of the sleep I missed but I am still pleased that I was able to build a nice and portable j-pole antenna.  So, if you see a handsome bald man wandering the streets of Charleston looking to the sky, calling out to spacemen, it is definitely not me…do not make eye contact…take shelter immediately!

8 feet is too much

We worked on the place again and made good progress.  The floor needed another layer of OSB to really suit my tastes so we got that installed and screwed down first thing.  Oh wait, the first thing we did was finish getting the second sheet of OSB hung around the outside walls.  Then we did the floor.  We laid down the last piece of flooring and check out how well it fit!  I am so thankful that everything is square:

We also persuaded Isaac to involve himself with the building of this place.  He did a great job screwing down 2 sheets of flooring.  My brother bought me a new Makita impact driver which is AWESOME!  It is so fast and light.

Anyhow, Isaac was running that and got a bit of the Dirty Harry feel going for him.  I guess he was feeling like he needed to pick on Abigail some though as he split after sheet #2 was installed.  Still, it was a great thing seeing the boy work!


The inspector checking on things…

So, after we got the outer walls done and the flooring down, we started on the inner walls.  On Sunday, we were able to get the interior walls for the bathroom and kitchen built.  We also hung about 1/3 of the sleeping loft’s floor joists.  We should be able to finish that pretty quickly which will make all of the high-up work like the last of the outer walls’ OSB and the roof rafters go up pretty easily.  The only thing that I though I was going to like but don’t is the 8 foot ceilings in the bathroom and kitchen (and eventually, everywhere else).

We installed 8 foot boards beside the 10 foot wall studs to support the sleeping loft floor. That leaves us with just under 2 extra feet for a knee wall in the sleeping area
Working on the sleeping loft
Shazaam! The bathroom and closet!

It’s too high and we lose some of the advantage of the added height of the exterior walls.  I am not redoing it now though so we are going to have really nice high rooms in our deluxe shed, or, as I have been calling it, the city-slickers’ deer stand!

See all of the progress on the cabin

And there was mud

We went back out to the place today to work more on the cabin.  It rained…all day.  Since time off is limited, we pressed on and stirred up all of that mud that we made from the pier excavations.  Holy cow all of that mud was heavy!  This entire building process is exercise for sure and we definitely got our share today.  After awhile, we joked that we needed to scrape the mud off of our shoes so that we would have room for more mud.


We put a tent over the areas we worked and it wasn’t so bad I guess.  We made a lot of progress.  I won’t say much as the pictures show a lot of what we got done.  There is still a ton of cross-bracing to be done but we ran out of wood and, more importantly, nails.  We will be heading back tomorrow for more of the same minus the running out of nails part.


See all of the progress on the cabin

Building our cabin

We like going up to our land to hang out and enjoy mother nature on the weekends.  If you ask the kids, of course, all we do up there is slave away moving piles of dirt.  Emily and I finally decided to show the kids what it meant to move piles of dirt so we broke ground last weekend on a building to house a toilet.  That’s all that really matters to the kids – a bathroom.  Well, that and air conditioning.  Anyhow, as all ground-breaking parties go, it was more symbolic than anything.  The real work began on Thursday evening.  A buddy of mine came with us and we have abused him all weekend…you know, strong back, weak mind.  So, we mixed somewhere around 4500 pounds of concrete and filled 9 12-inch tubes (that’s just to brag, it isn’t meant to really have any real meaning to you, dear friends) on which to build this place.


This saves lives but also shortens lives. Post hole digging is faster and easier with this auger but it beat me to death!
Isaac hiding from work in one of our holes. We are building a post-and-pier foundation.


Post and pier foundation

Emily and I are building a house, really.  It will have more than a toilet.  Emily calls it our “deluxe shed” as it will be more of a small cabin than a house.   I have been fascinated by the small house movement (see Tumbleweed Houses for example) for a while now.  The idea is put forth as an alternative to the trend of increasingly larger houses over the last 30+ years.  I don’t care what size house people live in but the small house philosophy suits me.  In a way then, we are sort of participating in the small house movement…except it is going to be our second house.  I think that must somehow be against the point of the small house philosophy.  Still, we really like the idea of simplifying and someday, the first house will be sold and we will fit the bill.

It needs skin and lots of details, but this is the cabin we are planning to build

We are off from work Friday, Monday and Tuesday so we are plowing forward for 5 days straight to see how far we can get on this place.  I have been working on plans in Google Sketchup (you gotta learn to use this program).  My model is pretty rough but it allows me to know exactly how many boards I need and how everything needs to go together.  It will be around 400 sq ft and have one of the coolest views anywhere.

The view from the cabin spot

Emily took some pics today and they are just incredible.  Anyhow, I will keep posting as we make progress on this place.  Anyone else out there have a strong back and a weak mind?  Have I got a job for you!

See all of the progress on the cabin

Making steps…

When we first bought our house, there were many issues with the place.  Like a fool, I thought I wanted an old fixer upper.  I am smarter now but no less obligated to pay the mortgage so I press onward with the repairs.  Anyhow, one of the first things that needed to be fixed was the ladder steps that led to the front door.  There were a number of concrete pads embedded into the vertical dirt wall leading up the patio.  I kid you not, we had to turn our feet sideways and sort of hold on to get up to the door.

The old perches
That shovel is the only thing holding me up
That's a pile of block!

So, when we first bought the place, Emily and the kids remained in Nashville finishing out her job.  I started to work on the new place without their help.  My Dad came down and we went to town.  The steps were the first order of business.  I plucked the concrete pads from the wall and started digging.

Almost done!

The fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to get new, permanent steps in place was to form them from cement blocks.  Dad hauled numerous tons of block with his truck and we made our block steps.


Those steps served us well for 5+ years but eventually, the winter rains got into the block and froze, causing some of the blocks to crumble and break.  After near death (several times…I didn’t want to over-react afterall), we decided that the steps needed some work.  The kids and I chipped out the old block.  We had to cut sections out of some blocks, but most were pretty ok.  Abigail in particular seemed to enjoy the hammer and chisel so I see a possible career path for her if leader of the universe doesn’t work out.

I took a day off last week to form up frames so we could pour new concrete over the remaining blocks.  It was sort of difficult that way because we didn’t have a lot of extra room to make the steps bigger.  Too high and no one would be able to reach the first step, etc.  So, we poured another 1.5 inches or so on top of the old block.  I hand-mixed 17 bags of concrete on the hottest day I could find.   I didn’t think the van could handle carrying all 17 bags at once so I started mixing the third that I had and sent Emily on two more trips to get more concrete.

The framing waiting for concrete
Ahhh...music to my...feet? Arms and legs? Well, it was like music anyhow

We waited and fretted and finally unveiled the new steps sans framing.  The new steps are beautiful and hopefully will avert life-and-death situations for folks coming to visit.  After all of the work, we noticed that we forgot to write our initials in the concrete.  I figure we’ll revisit everything in 5 years or so anyhow, so maybe we can do it right the next time around!

Water Rocket Fun

I am sitting here at Panera (yes…again…I know, I should go to work some) looking out at the dark rain clouds rolling in and wishing that we would get a bunch more days of nice weather.  I have always loved Summer.  I sort of dread the coming of Winter and Fall.

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I was thinking about some of  the things that I love about Summer and water rockets came to mind.  I think it sort of mixes water, heat, adventure, a little danger and an explosion of sorts.  How can I not love it?!

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When we lived in TN, we decided to make a water rocket to keep us all cool and give the kids something to chase.  You see, a water rocket shoots water all over the place and anyone nearby gets soaked.  It also launches pretty high up in the air and someone has to go and recover the fuselage.

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So, what is a water rocket you ask?  Simple…it’s a 2 liter bottle with 3 inches of water in it.  Add some compressed air and off she goes!  I glued some pvc pipes together in an “L” shape and added a bicycle valve and stem to the back (drill a hold in a pvc cap and insert the stem…seal with silicone).  All you do is put 2-4 inches of water into a 2 liter bottle and carefully hold it upside down on the open end of the pvc pipe.  Add compressed air via the tire valve at the other end and you’re in business.  As the air builds, the water starts to leak signalling that it’s time to let go!

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By not making too tight of a fit between the bottle and the pvc (some people suggest a tight fit but that’s more dangerous), you run very little risk of having anything explode.  I added some duct tape to the tip of the pipe to make is a snug (but by no means tight) fit between the pipe and the bottle.  Air will leak before pressure will build up too high.

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Of course, the bottle flying off the end of the pipe could be dangerous so make sure it points upward and not at anyone/thing.  Other than that, a water rocket is an absolute blast and something kids and adults will enjoy.  As Winter sets in, consider the design of your water rocket for next Summer.  It will be worth the wait!

Got my motor runnin’

I volunteer a bit of my time each week at Emily’s school.  There are a number of folks who work with individual kids on numerous topics.  I met a student who is interested in green energy so we are studying green energy topics.  In particular, we are building green energy sources or projects that use said sources.  In other words, we are building a generator like what might be used in a windmill.  We also plan to build a solar battery charger to keep my student’s portable video game system charged.  Part of my goal, of course, is to teach my friend about electricity and windmills and solar power, but a part of my interest is expanding my understanding of the topics as well.

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I remember back when I was in 4th or 5th grade.  We were messing with electricity (and not in the back of the classroom with paperclips and the wall socket) and learning how it works.  I remember one assignment for extra credit was to build an electric motor.  My Grandpa and I spent hours trying to figure out how to make one work.  We tried all sorts of combinations and variations but could never make it spin.  So, as a part  of learning about electricity and generators, I decided we needed first to build a motor.  A motor, of course, is sort of like the opposite of a generator.  Put power into a coil and it will spin.  Manually turn the coil and it will generate electricity.  Anyhow, it seems that building a motor is relevant to learning about generators.  This had nothing to do with my long-standing feelings of inadequacy regarding motor building…no indeed, this was all about educating my student.  It’s about the kids, right?  Ok, so I think it is pretty neat too.

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As I looked at electric motor plans, I quickly discovered what Grandpa and I did wrong…it’s all about ease of turning the motor.  Our motor turned pretty smoothly by hand, but there was a great deal more friction than what our set-up could handle.  I found all sorts of ideas on how to make a motor, but I wanted to make something that looked as close as possible to the one that Grandpa and I tried to make…I mean, I wanted one that my student and I could learn from…

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So…here’s what we did.  I bought magnet wire from Radio Shack (now, they are calling themselves “the Shack”…yeah, that’s more hip).  Magnet wire is just copper wire with super thin insulation.  We used a middle weight wire…the green stuff.  The package that The Shack sells has three colors/weights.  We left a six inch tail and then wrapped 30 turns of the wire around a AA battery that we were planning to use to power the system.  We left a 6 inch tail on the other end as well.  In order to make sure the coil stayed together, we wrapped each tail around the bit of coil on each side.  Basically, I just took the tail on each side and ran it through the middle and back out 2 times to hold the coil on each side.

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We bent a few paperclips (you could use any conductor) to hold the coil and put a few magnets between the paperclips.  Since our motor has magnets vertically placed (i.e. not on the side), we had to hold the coil straight up and down with the tails sticking out to each side.  I stripped the insulation off of one tail the entire way around the wire.  On the other tail, I stripped only the top half of the wire.    We hooked a few beads to each tail to dampen vibration (which we learned was necessary).  Regarding magents…I just bought run of the mill magnets at a big-box home improvement store.  Bigger, badder magnets would change the dynamics of the motor for sure!


(or try this version if you have trouble with the one above)

Once we hooked the battery pack to the paperclips, we dropped the coil onto the paperclips and gave it an initial spin.  It quickly “catches” and starts spinning like crazy!  You can imagine, I danced like Brittney Spears…only without the nastiness.  I made a motor!  I made a motor!  I mean…We made a motor!  We made a motor!  No longer am I burdened by 5th grade motor-failure-angst!  We both had a good time just watching it spin and it was educational indeed as it was a perfect segue into generators (I knew it would be!).  Next week, we’ll start tinkering with our first generator.  I am so excited!

Cider Press Plans

Since I made my cider press last year, I have had numerous people ask me for the plans I used to build it.  I couldn’t find any plans either so I sort of just starting cutting and drilling and painting.  I figured that when it finally looked like a cider press, it would be done.

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I suppose I did sort of congolomerate the ideas of plenty of folks and I added a few of my own so I can’t take all of the credit.  My press is made soley of pine lumber.  Hardwood is probably better but it costs more of course.  I do sort of wish I would have had some plans when I was starting though so I will provide a few measurements that might help you build your own…


Click the image above to see the cider flowing.  (Click here for a quicktime version)

By the way…you can see some of our first cider of 2009 over at Not Dabbling in Normal today.

Anyhow, here is my homemade cider press:

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The length between the red and blue squares is 3 feet.
Between the red and green is 3 1/2 feet.
Between the green and brown is 1 foot.
I just added the yellow square because I thought it looked nice

The uprights are 2×4 pine and everything horizontal is 2×6 pine.

Hopefully these additional shots will help it all make more sense as well…

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Dandelion Wine

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was making homemade hooch but I didn’t say what type I was making.  It’s sort of a funny thing…Emily hates dandelions with a passion.  I don’t understand her issues with them but she goes around the yard picking the heads off of them all the time.  Occasionally she’ll dig the roots, but mostly she just wants the flowers out of sight.  Always one to see an opportunity, I asked her to save the dandelion heads she picked for a project I had in mind!

Wine can be made from all sorts of things including various flowers.  Most people have heard of dandelion wine, but wine can also be made from clover, roses, pansies, coltsfoot, and golden rod among others.  Anyhow, the real key to dandelion wine, is to use the flower petals and not anything green.  I picked a ton of dandelion heads and cut the petals off of them until I had 2 pints of dandelion petals.  That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you consider the sticky factor, you’ll understand the effort that went in to this project.  My fingers were very yellow and sticky and I left yellow fingerprints all over the place!

Anyhow, I kept remembering how tasty the last batch of dandelion wine was many years ago so I pressed on through the allergies and rainbow of colors on my fingers.  I wrapped the petals in cheesecloth so they would be manageable and started my brew!

In a big open pitcher, I added the petals, 6 pints of water, 3 Campden tablets, 3 lbs of white sugar (as an approximation…remember 2 cups a pound, the whole world round…2 cups of about anything weighs a pound),  1/3 oz of citric acid (taste some of that straight up sometime!), and yeast nutrients.  I let this mixture sit for 2 days in the container loosely covered to keep dust out.  After 2 days, I added champagne yeast and let it sit another day.  Finally, as it started to bubble, I moved everything but the pouch of petals to a fermentation vessel.  The bubbler on top allows the carbon dioxide to escape.  Of course, carbon dioxide is a by product of the yeast converting the sugar to alcohol.

Funny story time…I know someone who was creative and decided to forego the typical bubblers used for fermentation.  Really, the whole point is to allow a bit of CO2 to build up and then force its way out without allowing other contaminants back in.  Some folks take care of that issue by stretching a balloon across the mouth of the fermentation jar.  Well, being extra creative, this person stretched a balloon-like male birth control item over the jar lid.  Of course, this method would work just fine to allow the CO2 to escape.  I am not sure how I would feel about the CO2 building up and…uh…inflating the “balloon” though.  Anyhow, without thinking about it, this winemaker bought the variety with spermicide too.  Some folks say that too much drinking may lead to pregnancy, but I think this may be a solution!

Anyhow, now I have to wait a few months until all of the sugar is converted to alcohol or the alcohol content rises enough to kill the yeast.  Either way, the bubbling will stop and the wine will be ready to settle/age/bottle.  I’ll post more on that when the time comes.

(Here is a windows media version if the above doesn’t work)

In the meantime, I will certainly enjoy watching the bubbles rise through the murky yellow concoction.  It bubbles and fizzes like crazy, very similar to a bottle of pop when first opened!

Recycling you can take to the bank

We recycle and reuse about everything we can.  It’s amazing how much packaging gets put around the stuff we buy.  Many packages are feats in engineering…I mean, has anyone ever been able to get all the stuff back into the original box from where it came?  I thought not.  The shape and structure of many packages are pretty amazing.People think a lot about how to maximize strength with minimal material and how to fit more stuff in a smaller space in the refrigerator…amazing!

Anyhow, lots of the things in my recycle bin can be reused for other stuff.  I am almost certain I stole this idea from somewhere, though I can’t remember where.  More importantly though, I found a way to draw attention to the lowly nipple fruit.  This bank looks a lot like the nipple fruit – a non-edible fruit apparently in the eggplant family.  I’d sort of like to grow some of these, just to say I have done it, but I don’t know what I would do with the fruit…I suppose it would just get me in trouble.

So, I found 4 old pop bottles we had left over from watching the Super Bowl .  I cut the tops off, right at the top of the label.  I had to monkey around a little bit, but 4 of those tops can be crammed together and super-glued in place to make a nipple-fruit-like bank (though watch out, super glue will haze plastic).   Take any lid off and drop coins in (or pull coins out) and you’re in business.  It won’t take all sizes of coins, but it you want, you can use 3 liter bottles for bigger sizes!  Abigail also suggested putting some rice in it so it could be used as a rattle/rhythm maker!

Now here’s the funny part…it is really hard to type with a nipple fruit bank stuck to your hand.  I got it stuck to my hand as I was trying to pry it off of the work bench…er…dining room table where it was stuck before I got it on my hand.  I think there must be a better way of hooking all of this together…

Anyhow, this thing looks pretty cool and is recycling you can really take to the bank!

In other news, I wrote a little program to change the header image of the blog every 15 minutes.  I took each of the pictures you’ll see somewhere in WV.  You may have to refresh your browser to see the update.  Is it cool or distracting?