Sunday, 24 May 2020 11:01
    Monday, 18 May 2020 02:49

    Preface:

    I think I need to create a section called "Rens corner", but she only made some non-committal noises when I asked her if she'd be interested. However, despite the fact that I didn't actually do this, I feel I can add a little bit of wayward experience, and advice.

    Back to the pretzels...

    When most people think of bread, and they think of loaves, or flat breads, or even rolls in one form or another. However, outside of Germany, pretzels often fall somewhere off the "mainstream bread" track.

    I think pretzels in Australia (and perhaps other countries as well) are often mistaken for the ones found in the potato chip aisle at your local supermarket. These are quite a bit different to the true fresh bread-like pretzels that are so popular in Germany.

    If I had to put pretzels in a "bread category", I'd probably be putting them into the same category as the humble bagel as both are boiled, then baked. So if you like the idea of a salty, freshly baked bagel, then real pretzels are probably appealing to you.

    Ren arbitrarily decided to make fresh pretzels yesterday as I was out in the workshop, so there weren't any photos of the process. Sorry.

    Side note: This is actually the first dough to be proofed into our recently emptied, defrosted, and retrofitted freezer that has been (temporarily) converted into a much larger bread proofing box and occasionally, higher temperature cheese cave. So I'm going to guess that testing the setup was part of her motivation... but it is weird to think we proofed our dough, which is usually best done at around 25oC... in a freezer. (Don't worry, I'll add another article about this conversion).

    So I came back in from my workshop to be hit by the smell freshly baked pretzels all cooling on a wire rack. Let's just be clear here, having poor impulse control when it comes to eating freshly made bread, I tried help myself to a pre-dinner snack.. but was thwarted by the rather unexpected security system....

    Those pretzels had fused to the rack, and were having the kind of issues "letting go", that some Jewish mother friends of mine have. Their words, not mine.

    In fact when slowly prised away from the rack, the non-stick coating was attached to the pretzel, rather than the rack... since I don't think non-stick coatings are healthy to eat, I simply opted to cut the pretzel away from the rack, and leave the base still attached to the rack, ready to be soaked and scrubbed away later.

    I don't know if it was the fact that I was really hungry, or the fact that it's pretzel-based deliciousness, but I was going to have a second one, no matter how hard it was stuck on. I guess I looked weird muttering again to the pretzel/cooling rack, sometimes gentle words of encouragement, and other times, using scarier-than-average knives.

    All in all, the humble pretzel is a delicious alternative in bread making that is great as a treat now and then. However, I strongly recommend that you use baking paper during the cooking and cooling stages to avoid similar problems if you want to try to make some.

    The recipe Ren used...

    Ren used the pretzel recipe found in "Germany" recipe book, part of the "Gourmet Pilgrim" series. Which is one of the few recipe books that comes shipped in a biscuit tin. The book is actually an interesting read, and shows you how to make foods found in various regions of Germany, a bit of history and culture is thrown in there too. In all of this self-isolation, perhaps a book like this is a good idea to others.

    More information about the book can be found here:

    https://www.gourmetpilgrim.com/our-books

    Unfortunately, due to copyright, I can't share the recipe with you. However, there are plenty of freely available pretzel recipes out there on the web for you to try.

    So when making breads, don't limit yourself to what you think is "normal". Try the breads and treats made in other countries, and see whether or not you can avoid certain sticking situations I had to deal with.

    Stay safe and happy baking!

    Ham (and Ren by proxy).

    Tuesday, 05 May 2020 11:53

    A sous vide machine is something that may seem excessive or complicated at first but well worth the investment. I honestly think is one of the greatest things to have for a reasonably serious cheese maker. If you make cheese, you don't want to over shoot, or drop below desired temperatures, frantically adjust, then forget an important step, all because you're stuck trying to control the temperature of your milk. Imagine how much more time consuming it gets when you make two ore even three types of cheeses all at once. With sous vide devices in place, you simply set it up, turn it on, and get on with the actual cheese making.

    Star Wars and bad puns...

    I don't know if anyone particularly cares about "Star Wars Day" (which for people who haven't a clue, is "May 4th"). It comes from the Star Wars quote:

    "May the force be with you" (just exchange the word "force" for "fourth")


    However, being a bit of a nerd myself, with that pesky I.T./Scientific Instruments/Drone company career, years upon years working in academia, and living on campus for over a decade (as a staff member) I really didn't have much chance in nerdiness stakes.

    So how do I celebrate a fictional holiday for a fictional story? No, not buy buying a light sabre. Although, I decided I'd buy something that's shiny, somewhat cylindrical, and capable of burning flesh, and that is....

    By literally buying my fourth, sous vide machine on May 4th. To increase my functional cheese making capacity (factually) by a third over my previous capability.

    Sounds almost like a tongue twister, doesn't it?

    Sous Vide Explained:

    It has come to my attention that I really haven't given much explanation about what a sous vide is. Sous vide is a french term (Pronounced "Sue-veed") that translates as "under vacuum". It's a rather unusual way to cook things, that is becoming very popular of late.

    The general gist is this. You stick a piece of raw meat (maybe with some herbs, spices and/or butter) in a vacuum sealed bag. Then put that bag in a bath of water and cook it in extra low temperatures (generally somewhere between 51-90C (or 125-199F) for a very long time.

    If barbecuing "low and slow" (low temperatures for a long time) produces a more tender meat at 110-120 degrees Celsius, (compared to higher temperatures), then sous vide takes this to a whole new level. In some ways, it goes beyond slow cooking. So if you want your meat to disintegrate into flavoursome tenderness on contact with your tongue, this is probably the way to go.

    While the meat is cooked to delicate perfection, the down side of this is that you don't get that browned "bark" in your meat, so sous vide steaks are often seared with a hot pan for a few seconds after cooking to get that delicious, almost charred effect. Also, you won't get any "smokey" flavour.. because nothing really got that hot in the first place.

    If you're wondering... "Aren't we in the cheese making section?"

    Well I use my sous vide machines somewhat differently, in that I use them to control the temperature when making cheeses.

    When I first learned to make cheese, the instructor assumed that everyone would have a very basic setup. Namely, a boiling pot full of water. If you are managing your temperature manually, when the bath water cooled down, you'd scoop water from the boiling pot into the bath to increase the temperature, and then scoop some of the cold water and put it back into the pot to minimise waste/stop overflowing.

    It works, but it requires constant monitoring. You'll literally spend all day, scooping water from the pot, to the bath, and back again. If you've got several cheeses to make, you really can't manage several vat temperatures all at once and still make that many cheeses without help.

    By using a sous vide machine, I can just set the temperature I want for each bath, and let it do the rest. Once you have one machine, you'll never want to go back to the manual control method.

    Sometimes I like to make a few different cheeses (each needing a different temperature) I'll run several vats with their corresponding sous vide machine controlling that temperature. Other times, I want to make a lot of the same cheese, then I need to run multiple vats with multiple machines at the same temperature to ferment an appropriate amount of milk.

    Other times, if the stove is busy, I'll stick 2 or even 3 sous vide machines into the one vat to rapidly increase the temperature of my water bath. This can be very handy when making cheeses that involve cooking the curds. You need the milk temperature to rise by roughly 1-2 degrees Celsius per minute, and that gets hard for larger vats of milk. However, the stove and a very large saucepan/stock pot is still going to be a better method for rapid heating.

    Anyway, when this fourth one arrived at my door step, I was a little surprised when I opened it. The plug was clearly not designed for Australia. This particular one was a 220V model, but came with a European plug. You can get an adaptor, but when I have so many fluids around, I prefer to use an appropriate power plug, so my plan for May 6th or for another Star Wars pun, "Revenge of the Sixth" I got the plug converted to an Australian one.

    Now it works really well!

    So if I use four, 12L vats to culture my cheeses, heated by four sous vide machines. I can handle up to 48L of milk in any given session. Depending on the type of cheese(s) made, I can get a yield of 3.5-5Kg of a low-yield cheese like Parmesan, or up to 7Kg of Brie, perhaps somewhere around 10-12Kg of "fresh" cheeses like cottage or cream cheese.

    I have no idea what I would do with 10+Kg of cottage cheese... I'm more likely to make Parmesan, Halloumi, Cheddar and a small amount of Quark all at once. Simply because they stagger the finished time well, and can be used in a variety of differing meals.

    Anyway, I hope you are safe and well out there! I think I need to plan my next cheese making session!

    Ham.

    Saturday, 02 May 2020 01:11

    It might be something that only hits the hobbyist cheese maker at the last possible minute. You spend hours, even days making one type of cheese, so you want to get the best 'bang for buck' ratio you can. Looking at all those huge 200Kg wheels of cheese waiting patiently to be cut up at the local delicatessen/cheese monger/fancy food establishment, a cheese making hobbyist might just think a seemingly simple little thought "I could go bigger too", and dream of somewhat more impressive 2Kg, or 5Kg, or even larger wheels.

    What a journey that innocuous thought has created....

    Dear reader, in this self-isolating time, I may have gone a little more nuts than is probably warranted. In the past two months, I've made:

    • 20L of milk into two small Parmesan wheels.
    • Another 20L of milk into Pepato, (one medium wheel)
    • 10L of milk into Swiss. (medium)
    • Another 20L into Parmesan. (one bigger wheel)
    • 20L into Jarlsberg (Two medium wheels)
    • 22L into Gruyere infused with black garlic. (an even bigger single wheel, weighing in at just under 2.9Kg).

    Looking at the general trends, I'm definitely getting bigger, and there are definite advantages:

    1. Making bigger batches means I can make twice, three times, even four times the amount of cheese with only modest amounts of extra time and effort (well... there's extra cleaning.. and a corresponding amount of time will be needed when brining, but not much else).
    2. Making bigger wheels are more space-efficient in the wine fridge.
    3. Bigger wheels may take longer to age or allow the cheeses to be aged longer, allowing greater flexibility on the consumption date.
    4. Surface problems like unwanted moulds are far less likely to reach the bulk of the cheese internally.
    5. It's generally harder to excessively dry a large wheel. This prevents cracking/crumbling... unless you put it in a dry environment for particularly long periods of time. Still not recommended though.

    However, there are down sides, which I've mentioned before in other articles. But the one that brings this particular blog post to life is the dimension of my last cheese. The 2.9Kg Gruyere.

    While I'd love to tell you that I love waxing my cheeses. The truth is that waxing only suits the harder cheeses. While Gruyere fits into this category, I used a particular recipe which incorporates "Propionic Shermanii" culture, the culture which creates the bubbles or "eyes" in Swiss style cheeses.

    Cheeses made with Propionic Shermanii will swell up during the second phase of the ageing process. As such, wax is likely to crack and not work very well as a moisture and microbe barrier. To make matters a little more interesting, I've infused black garlic throughout the cheese, and during the pressing phase, this has breached the surface all over the place. In short, the rind has many breaches. To stop unwanted mould from growing, I need to basically spray the entire surface of the cheese with vinegar, remove as much air as possible from the surface, and seal it up while providing the cheese enough room to expand.

    It is for this reason, despite my general abhorrence toward the excessive use of plastic, that I break down and use vacuum sealed plastic for this sort of case. Ok, so that's the solution, why bring this up as a separate post.

    My larger wheel is too wide to fit in the standard 28cm wide roll of plastic that my Food Saver can handle. Interestingly, it's extremely difficult to get a wider vacuum seal bags/rolls. When the bag is wider, the length is often significantly shorter. So when you need something that's 35cm x 40cm... or more on each dimension, you're not going to find that outside of industrial machines. Even if you could, many of the commercial sized bags will only work on commercial machines. You see most home-sized vacuum sealers need a textured bag, and the commercial machines use smooth bags, and use other means (usually higher temperatures) to melt the bag closed.

    Ham's cheap-ish attempt at an improvised solution.

    At present the cheese is in a large, dry-curing bag that I'd normally use in my more meat-oriented endeavours, but I used a sous vide trick of submerging most of the bag (except a small opening in the zip lock seal) to use the water pressure to squeeze a decent amount of the air out. This was then sealed it up. However, I don't think this is going to work long term.

    The longer term, but still improvised solution:

    Now I could just buy an industrial sized machine, and buy the bags to fit. Obviously that would work, but that is a very expensive way to go. Some of these vacuum sealers cost thousands. I don't make enough large cheeses to justify that kind of expense, so my solution:

     

    Buy the home-sealer-friendly, but larger 45cm x 6M roll, and use my existing machine.

     

    Before you ask: "How will that fit in a 28cm wide Food Saver?" 

    Ham's plan to use a wide roll in a standard vacuum sealer

    By sticking 28cm or so in at a time. Using the vertical (grey) image, depicting a wide section of plastic roll. The procedure is as follows:

    By using the seal-only function (not vacuum then seal function) on the vacuum sealer:

    1. Sealing the corners somewhat diagonally. You may need to cut off the corners first (indicated in blue), so the machine will allow it.
    2. If the corner seals don't cross over in the middle, (like the top edge in the diagram) trimming the corners off (if not done already) and sealing the middle (like the bottom edge of the diagram) may be done.
    3. Put the large piece of meat/cheese/whatever inside the bag using the unsealed end now! (It won't go in afterwards).
    4. Seal the bottom corners, cutting off if needed. Important, leave a gap between the sealed corners for the final sealing (marked red on the image)
    5. Again, trim the bottom corners off (still marked blue) to allow the sealer to finish with a "suck and seal" as normal.

    Using the "vacuum then seal" function:

    1. Stick the (now skinny enough) unsealed end (still marked red) into the food saver, allow it to suck the air out, and then melt the final seal in place. All done!

    It's obviously a more involved process, but I think it'll work. I'm waiting for the delivery of the new rolls, and I'll update this when I give it a go.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Post delivery update:

    Well it actually worked! However, I must warn you that this is a very fiddly way to do this. It took me nearly 20 minutes to convince the machine to do this. Oh, and you know how I put that step 3 in bold... Yeah I missed that the first time. The good news was that I remembered it as the very next seal was still hot, so I just peeled it back open.

    Here I'm about to do the final seal. So this bag is upside-down, relative to my drawn diagram above. The bag looks like a really wonky heptagon in real life. At the very bottom, you can see the cross over of seals that would be at the top of the diagram above. At the top left, you can see the double seal where I undid and redid the seal there.
    Here's the final, vacuumed sealed roll. In this image, the last seal is at the bottom. I went around resealing the front with a second line of sealing, to be safe. It took a very long time to suck all the air out, perhaps leaving the opening a little wider would have facilitated that.

    So now you know how to seal a 450mm wide roll in a 280mm wide sealer. Sounds like a square peg really does fit in a round hole, doesn't it?

    In case you're wondering where I got the wider rolls from, (because I couldn't find it on eBay, or the usual haunts). I ordered them from from a Aussie supplier over in Western Australia called La-va. They sell higher-end vacuum sealers and accessories. You can find the link to the rolls here:

    https://la-va.com.au/product-page/e-vac-structured-standard-vacuum-seal-rolls/

    Note: Just remember that most household vacuum sealers need the textured/structured kind of bags. If they are just clear plastic, they are for commercial sealers, and won't work in your machine.

    Stay safe and have fun!

    Ham.

     

    Sunday, 12 April 2020 02:18

    Isn't it fun when you can't go to work? Some people may disagree. Unfortunately, my workplace has entirely shut down "Until further notice" because our clients have all shut down. In short, there's literally no one to support, and so I put my efforts into staying positive and creating delicious cheese.

    I recently found a dairy that will:

    1. Offer me milk at discounted prices.
    2. Allows me to get the large quantities of milk without running into numerous item limits at the local supermarkets.
    3. Deliver to my door.
    4. Offers a surprisingly high number of people who want to talk to me in these self-isolating times. I think I've spoken to everyone but the guy who actually milked the cows, had deep philosophical conversations with their sales rep, and actually kept more in contact with them than many of my friends and family. But that's a whole other story that I won't bore you with here.

    This has been an amazing relief to my cheese making endeavours.

    Shameless product placement
    Am I heating up the milk or encouraging shameless product placement. (Why choose, I can multitask too!) I suppose I was offered a free sample, so technically this is sponsored. But they don't know I run a web site.
    In this case, these are two 10L batches, both making a somewhat experimental variety of Parmesan.
    Cooking the Parmesan curds
    Cooking the Parmesan curds. This is best done using direct heat because this would take all day using the water bath method.. and time is critical here.

    Moving onto the moulding, pressing, brining and drying, you eventually end up with... <cue drum roll here>

    A wheel of Parmesan, roughly 875g from 10L
    A wheel of Parmesan, roughly 875g from 10L of milk (5L full cream, and 5L skim)

    I still had some milk left over, so I decided to make something close to Parmesan, but with a couple of twists:

    1. It used nothing but full cream milk... and
    2. It had a bit of "kick" into it.

    So the answer is Pepato. Pepato is a Sicilian cheese... sometimes made with sheep milk. However, it's effectively a Romano cheese (full cream milk Parmesan) with whole peppercorns added. Remember: when adding things to cheese, you need to sterilize them first. So I literally boiled some peppercorns in a saucepan for 30 mins, then used the resulting sterile peppercorns, and boiled.. err.. peppery reduction to the curds prior to the moulding stage.

    This is the result:

    Pepato!
    Pepato!

    Pepato is close in recipe to Romano and Parmesan in some ways, however, it has a higher moisture content, so it won't age as long as Parmesan. Valerie Pearson's book "Home Cheese Making in Australia" suggests aging it for 2-10 months at 10-12oC in the "cheese cave". I've actually already crossed the 1 month point... so I'm thinking I'll let it age "as is" for another month, then cut it up and vacuum seal the pieces so I can age varying pieces to different degrees, and see which I prefer.

    I hope you're all safe and well. Try to have some fun too. Take care!

    Ham.

    Sunday, 15 December 2019 09:37

    Problems with choosing an appropriate category....

    It may seem strange to worry about this, but bees fit into a number of categories here. Do I put it under pet care? gardening? wood working? or food stuffs? In any case, there's a lot of reasons to do a bee keeping course for us...

    Why do a bee keeping course?

    Ok, so I make cheese, and make things from wood. Wren makes candles, soap, cosmetics, and "beeswax wraps". Every single one of these activities finds a use for bees wax. My cheeses can be coated in wax for aging and preservation, wood working uses wax for polishing, smoothing, and preserving wood (particularly chopping boards). I couldn't quite tell you what the beeswax does in soap... (perhaps some sort of softening?) but I know it's used in natural ointments, lip balms, and deodorants which Wren makes and sells a lot of.

    Adding to the fact that we both have a "sweet tooth" (or should that be "sweet teeth?"). Honey is used in our ridiculous tea obsession, on sandwiches and toast, we make honey cakes (thanks to a certain former Russian-now-Kiwi-who-lives-in-England for the recipe) we use it to feed the bacteria in our bread making, and give the bread a slightly less refined sugar component. In short, beekeeping is something that fits well into our existing activities. If I could run it in my back yard, I would also do it for the pollination benefit in my garden. Unfortunately, the simple fact is we're too close to our neighbours, we don't have enough flower diversity to keep a hive going well in winter. Another reason that we can't do it at home is the fact that our yard gets way too little sun to maintain a healthy hive in Canberra's climate.

    This is the bee keeper's equivalent of "Where's Wally?" (Americans call it "Where's Waldo?", and almost every country calls it something different). The game in this case is called "Where's the queen?" Do you see her? No, nor do I! Bee keepers will go frame by frame, looking for her, to assess the health of the hive. There's a distinct possibility that if she is there... you'll miss her... and if you don't see her, she could be dead, off mating "in flight", or taken a swarm and left for greener pastures... or more flowered pastures.

    Booking the course and why we joined the association.

    Nonetheless, we decided to do the "weekend beekeeping course" run by the Canberra Beekeeper's Association in the off-chance we could find somewhere to put a hive. It's a popular course, booked months ahead of schedule. Given the sensitivity of bees to cold temperatures, and the reluctance winter usually has of letting Canberra go. These courses usually only run from late September to February. If you're interested, I highly recommend that you join the club first. Whether you join as an individual, or a family, the price is the same. $40 per year. If you are a member or have a family membership, the course price drops $40 per person who does the course. So I effectively paid $40, to save $80 for the two of us when we booked the course... and now we're both members and can turn up to meetings and join the mailing lists should we want or need to.

    The members meet on the third Wednesday night of each month, and are some of the loveliest people I have ever met.  They aren't just interested in making a buck, many of them do it to impart knowledge and to share their passion. This makes them really great at telling you what you need to know, and everyone brings something meaningful to the meeting. I was particularly impressed by the diverging opinions, the reason one person liked one particular type of hive, while another found  that a completely different style of bee hive suited their needs. Each person had a "beekeeping philosophy", ranging from almost purely natural for educational and pollination purposes only, to a heavy focus on honey production and commercial pollination. Most of the people I met were of the retiree persuasion, so you can understand why production might not be so critical. When people expressed a controversial opinion, they outlined their reasons, and had at least considered the perspective of others. In this age of Internet "Trolls", the ever-abundant "over-inflated senses of entitlement/intelligence", and general infantile behaviour from people who should know better, it was a joy to see such collaborative attitudes.

    Things I learned from the course:

    Always learning.

    The fact remains that beekeeping is a process of ongoing learning. Even long-standing, 7th generation beekeepers will inevitably need to get a second opinion, a helping hand, and/or maybe major assistance at some point. As people grow and change, so too do their perspectives, their needs, and their priorities. The way things are done are constantly evolving. People are discovering things about bees that we had absolutely no clue about, and that is not going to change unless the bees do indeed die out.

    The course was largely taught by a man called John Grubb who had been bee keeping for roughly 12 years. While he did his best to ask the multitude of questions thrown his way, he was honest when there was something he didn't know. You see, you can only speak in general guidelines, but as soon as you start thinking something is "certain", the bees will "surprise" you. This was a recurring theme. However, before you start thinking John didn't know anything, I should state that he covered a lot of material, and incorporated at least two practical sessions a day. (Bee suits, gloves, and jackets were provided). One of the fundamental lessons he taught us was that every hive can be different, and that there are many reasons a hive can behave strangely. Observation is key, and to think carefully about your actions when considering the bees.

    The occasional "Pro tip".

    One of the most important and interesting facts was the fact that if you eat a banana before visiting a hive, the potassium in the banana makes you smell like the "alarm pheromone" which will not make the swarm as docile as you'd like. In fact, it's unlikely to go well for you... or anyone around you. Another interesting tip was that you can be arrested for using a beekeeping smoker during a total fire ban. Trust me, you don't want to be wearing a bee suit on during bush fire weather anyway.

    The costs of getting started:

    It might seem surprising, but beekeeping is a hobby that can be surprisingly affordable, or surprisingly expensive to get into. A common break down of costs include:

    • Beekeeping suit + gloves ($100-$200)
    • Smoker $75-300 (don't buy the sub $40 models)
    • Basic three box Langstroth hive ($200-250)
    • Tools, tape, clean drop sheet, spare frames, perhaps a box. ($150)
    • Bees (varies by area). Usually $50-150 Some are sold with hives, or a nucleus hive (a.k.a: "Nuc").

    So that's a total cost about about $500 and up. It's not uncommon for some of the fancier hive styles to be over $1000, but depending on whether build it from scratch, buy a kit and you assemble it yourself, or buy them pre-made you can do it cheaper or much more expensively if you wish.

    Note does not include extraction tools, they usually cost about $200-400 for a 3 frame, stainless steel centrifuge in Australia, possibly a "hot knife". (up to $100)  If you're interested, it's likely the local club will have that to borrow if you join. Of course, you also need jars to put your honey into as well.

    Note that in some states and territories, you are required by law to register your hive, and have a design that is "inspect-able". True "natural beekeeping" hives may not have that facility and thus will make it illegal if you're found out.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Sunday, 01 December 2019 12:08

    If you didn't read my last post about "what would you wait 14 years for?" then you probably don't understand just how unprepared we are for this harvest. We harvested 6Kg yesterday, and another 3Kg today, and we haven't even done the "low hanging fruit"  yet. (I actually mean that quite literally).

    So what do you do when your cherry tree has easily produced something akin to 50-100Kg of fresh, viable cherries? Obviously eat as many fresh as possible, but no one can eat such a glut, without severe repercussions (and I do speak from experience). However, eating everything is impossible, especially when it's only going to be good on the tree for another week or so. Oh, did I mention that front yard of strawberries is producing 20-50 strawberries per day? (That should continue until the new year) Our blackberries, loganberries, raspberries, figs, nectarines, peaches and apricots are mere weeks away from harvest too. Christmas time is indeed a busy time of year! Even without the Christmas "spanner in the works" and all that it includes.

    Enter the food preservation frenzy!

    Just "Jammin"

    Ok, we're highly experienced when it comes to making apricot jam. However, cherries are a new addition to our schedule. Making jam in on one batch, I call it a "jam session". However, when making it in excessive quantities, in multiple batches, sometimes concurrently, other times, in rapid series over days, or even weeks, I have to make some sort of fun out of it. To my pun-tastic and groan-worthy-joke-oriented mind I like to call such an undertaking: a "Jam-boree"... usually because we get some friends over to help, and it always makes things more fun! Pipping cherries by yourself for hours on end... not so fun... unless you're listening to all the songs your partner doesn't like, and nibbling a scary amount of the freshest cherries you've ever had. Let's face it, I picked them after all!

    Messy bench showing many cherries in varying stages of being cleaned, stalked, pipped, and prep'd
    Top Left: A view from atop a ladder, amongst the cherry branches. You might think that all cherry picking is the same, but it's not. The further from the ground, the slower going it becomes. You have to keep climbing down to move the ladder, instead of just walking over and reaching up for the lower branches. Wind in branches can really knock you around when you're on a ladder, and move more and more as the branches thin out. This can make grabbing the cherries you want quite difficult as they sway in and out of reach.
    Top Right: Cherry preservation happens to be very messy and involved. It's totally the cherries fault.. Note the pot full of cleaned, stalked, and pitted cherries right up the back. That's all me. :-)
    Bottom Left: This is a 50cm wide colander with cleaned and stalked cherries.
    Bottom Right: Reducing the cherries and sugar into a delicious jam can take quite some time. I recommend keeping a better eye on it than I did... noting the jam on the edges.

    In light of the massive surplus of cherries, and other fruit bearing down on us in the coming weeks, I bought 20Kg of sugar, 10 packets of pectin (also known as "jam setter".. which is branded and erroneously spelled "Jam Setta"... <cue spelling error-based cringing here> which if you're interested, helps to ensure a nice thicker consistency to the end jam. Making jam is simple, making jam well is not so easy. Making a good jam is a balancing act between batch sizes, the speed of reduction, and how far you reduce it down. If you don't reduce it enough, you get a syrup. If you reduce it too far, you get fruit-flavoured toffee. All of them are delicious, but the applications for the final extreme-end products can be severely limited.

    What we've learned about jam making from hard-won experience:

    1. Larger batches in "one big pot" will take forever to reduce. If you don't consistently and frequently (by frequently I mean almost constantly) stir it, you'll burn the jam on the bottom before you know there's a problem. It is a major pain to clean up a burned jam pot. Wren and I highly recommend you limit it to 4L at most in one pot when you're just starting out (there's no reason you can't have multiple pots though). Using non-stick or stainless steel woks work, as do paella pans. The shallower depth will accelerate the reduction, but they're not as shallow as most frypans/skillets, which easily spill if you stir/boil too energetically, or fill it up too far (which is very easy to do). Regardless of your cooking implement of choice, ensure you only have it on medium heat at most on a small or medium sized burner/element. You're aiming for a slow simmer, not boiling.
    2. You'll get better and more consistent results with smaller batches.
    3. Slow and steady is far better than trying to rush. Make sure you have enough time to complete this task. Interruptions can get very messy.
    4. You can sterilize your jars and lids in boiling water, this is a great idea if you have swing-top lids with soft rubber seals. However, we find it easier to just put clean jars (and corresponding lids) together on the shelves in our oven and set the oven to 105 degrees for half and hour. If the gaps in your shelves are too big and lids fall through, try putting them on a baking tray/pizza stone/even one of those wire cooling racks people use for cakes. Timing the jam and jars is important. You need both the jam and the jars to be hot when you fill the jars so you don't crack the glass when you pour it in. Waiting until they're cool to fill them will not seal the lid, nor will it be properly sanitized. Once a jar is full, immediately and tightly put the lid on before you start pouring the next jar.

    Yesterday, we turned that 6Kg of cherries into roughly 12 jars of cherry jam.

    Chillin', Churnin', and Jammin'

    We started making a batch of home made cherry ice cream last night, we finished it this afternoon. The process was quite involved. We weren't sure about this new recipe, so we only used 1.6Kg of cherries, 3/4 of a cup of sugar, and roughly 400g of thickened cream. After blending, reducing, and simmering, we only have 1.5L of ice cream to show for it at this stage. It should be ready for serving by tomorrow. Making ice cream is basically blending fruit into pieces or even puree, reducing it down to thicken it up, adding sugar and cream, simmering it to ensure the sugar is dissolved, then churning it and freezing it at the same time. Then just freezing it to both store it long term, and to firm it up some more.

    Then we made another 8 jars of jam after dinner. I expect we'll make another 30 or so jars of jam before we're done, and freeze another 10Kg of cherries for later use. Cherry relish has also been discussed. However, for each batch of cherry-based products, I can spend anywhere between 20 minutes, and an hour just picking the fruit. Then washing, stemming, and removing the seeds can take another 30 mins to 1 hour, depending on the harvested amount.

    Day three of "Cherrylimpics" We've had the "warm up" jam batch. The mad sprint-like work on the ice cream. Now we're going for the marathon of cherry preservation. This time, it's not a team sport, it's largely a solo effort. So I spent 5 hours picking cherries today. Picking nearly 20Kg, I then spent another 3 hours pitting cherries. When Wren came home from work, we made another 12 jars of jam, and we're in the process of freezing 5Kg of pitted cherries for future use. I'll do another 5Kg tomorrow.  That leaves about 4Kg for another batch of ice cream.. I'm thinking I'll add some chocolate chips to it. I have chocolate, a grater, and arms threatening to fall off after a day of fruit picking, cleaning, pipping, and preserving. What can possibly go wrong?!

    I'll keep this updated, and add more pics when I can.

    Stay safe, and have fun!

    Ham.

     

    Tuesday, 26 November 2019 09:50

    It seems like a pretty serious question, doesn't it? 14 years is most of a childhood. When we look at ourselves today, can we even imagine how we each will change in the next 14 years? It's roughly one sixth of a life... unless you happen to be my favourite 105 year old... who has lived through two world wars, with the depression in between, the first Australian radio station, TV, the first transistor, and all the technology and drama afterwards. The stories she tells, and the "Aussie battler" sense of humour is both inspiring, and humbling....but back to the question at hand....

    Wren bought her home in 2004 "off the plan". It was completed late that year, and after she moved in, she planted two trees in early 2005... one apricot, and one cherry. (Don't worry, she chose a variety of cherry that does require a second tree to fruit). Now the trees are fully grown, and the apricot has been nigh on bullet-proof. It produces an average of 30-50Kg of edible fruit a year... factoring some loss to the wildlife like possums, bats and birds. Some years it's less, and other years been enough to bend branches to the ground. Let's just say that we're experienced apricot jam makers... when we finally get sick of the fresh fruit. However, the cherry tree has been a completely different story...

    This cherry tree has been an epic saga, of dogs digging it up, pests, leaf curl, rain damage, storm damage, cockatoo damage, and almost every other dilemma you can imagine. Yet Wren has persisted, and with a few years of my help, we've managed to beat back one problem after another, until the problems are either eradicated, or substantially reduced. Now please note that we do NOT spray chemicals in our garden, and this choice means that the typical "kill everything with spray" isn't an option, so it requires a bit more thought and care.

    Lessons learned the hard way:

    1. Pet management is needed for younger plants:

    Wren spent years fostering homeless dogs. Now as you'd imagine, many dogs who come from broken homes have issues, poor training, and some long-established bad habits. Wren mentioned that dogs frequently would dig up the garden, rending garden and trees alike decimated. The back lawn looked like a mini moonscape with holes, divots, and other ankle-destroying landscape features. I shudder to think how many hoses and hose attachments Wren bought over the years. Fencing off trees is something I would recommend if you have digging/chewing-prone pets... whether that's dogs, chickens or something else entirely.

    2. Soil health leads to plant health:

    Canberra is not renowned for its high quality soils. In fact, in most suburban areas, there's a heady mix of clay, rock, and builders fill that lies mere centimetres from the surface. Wren dropped this cherry tree directly into this soil, and I'm going to be honest here... she wasn't exactly gung-ho on the watering and soil conditioning front. It survived, but I wouldn't say that it thrived.

    In 2017, I did a Permaculture course, and using my new found knowledge, decided to turn the largely unused lawn space into a garden for herbs, vegetables, and fruit. So I carpet mulched the lawn to kill it, then added mixed compost, manure, and straw, on top of that, and then layered another layer of mulch for effect. I then ran several lines of "dripper hose" along the length of the former grass areas to encourage soil moisture, worms and microbial activity. Six months later, the trees showed a visible sign of improvement, namely in surprisingly rapid growth, beyond what we had seen in previous years. A healthier plant is less likely to suffer from disease, or if it does get one, the effect is mitigated, slowed, and perhaps more limited to a smaller section of the tree.

    3. Pest management instead of pest eradication:

    This tree has suffered from "Cherry slugs" for many years. Flies lay their eggs on the leaves in early summer, then the "slugs" eat the leaves until there's literally nothing left, and then grow into flies, mate, and the eggs fall to the ground as they're shed in autumn, they lay dormant there until spring, some slugs crawl their way back up to the tree, or were laid in the tree already.. and the cycle starts itself over again. By allowing our kiwi fruit vine to grow up the tree, planting lemon verbena and garlic at ground level, and spraying "Neem oil" extract on the tree, the biodiversity of the leaves from various plants, along with the strong fragrance of the neem, verbena and garlic, confuse the pests and make it harder for them to find the tree. There's a lot of merit to separating trees with different plants in between, and the results are not only less problems, but staggered harvests, easier management, and of course, diversified crop yields.

    Watering the ground instead of spraying leaves has not only reduced water use, but also avoided some diseases like leaf curl, or at least, substantially slowed it's progress. Some fungus or mould based problems are spread by dripping water from one leaf to another. Keeping the water off the leaves while watering the roots provides moisture without the associated problems of foliage watering.

    4. Netting really is essential:

    You might think that animals might leave you something, but for many years, the cherries were just starting to ripen. We'd go to work with a lot of cherries on the tree, almost ready to pick, and when we came home, we'd have literally, nothing left but "pips on sticks". I freely admit that I've spent some quality time from 5am-7am sitting on the top of a ladder, effectively working as a fruit-paid scarecrow to ensure the birds don't eat my crops once they've found a hole in the netting, or on trees that I haven't got enough netting for.

    There are a lot of ways to net a tree, but for fully grown fruit trees that are definitely not dwarf varieties, a 10m x 10m net may not be enough, and that's the biggest one I've found that's commercially available. The tightness of the weave is also important. I prefer as tight a weave as possible. Preferably 10mm x 10mm square holes or smaller. This eliminates small birds who I've seen dive through a 30mm x 30mm hole in the net to get to my raspberries. Tighter weaves are also less likely to get caught on branches, and reduces the chance of branches growing through the net over time.

    The timing of putting the netting can also be important. I prefer to let the flowers be pollinated by bees and birds (as well as any pests eaten by birds) while they're out in spring. I leave the netting off entirely during this phase. However, while the fruit is still green, I'll try to net the tree then to discourage problems like "early tasters", or fruit destruction by cockatoos.

    If you need a useful tool to put netting up, I recommend Ham's cheap "net putter-upper-er". It's basically one of those extendable painting poles, with a cheap roller attachment screwed on to the end, but with the roller cut off so that there's just a 50-100mm straight piece of metal at the end, and I round off the cut tip to reduce the chance of it catching the net or on anything else. You simply stick the pointy end through the holes in the net, and lift it up and over branches. If you must do it from within the tree, you can poke the pole up and through the branches, and work the net over one branch after another. Just remember to ensure that have enough slack to pull the net over, as the pole may give you a lot of reach, but it also gives the net a lot of leverage to work against you. If the net gets caught, you may not be able to move the net further.

    5. Regular watering does NOT mean over-watering:

    It may seem odd, but watering once a week, even when the tree is fruiting, is better than watering every single day. If you over water trees, the fruit can split when the water content in the fruit exceeds the fruit skin's ability to grow. I strongly urge you to water with a good soak for an hour, then leave it alone for a week. This is much more similar to sporadic rainfall. By allowing the soil to dry out a bit before the next watering will reduce moulds, fungi, mildew and other diseases while giving the tree a regular supply of water, softening soils, and encouraging soil life to aerate the ground, decompose sources of nutrients, and manage potential soil-born issues by increasing diversity and therefore, competition.

    Over watering can result in increased problems such as fruit drop, cracked fruit, plant disease, lower yields. Again, I'd recommend using a watering system to maintain "watering discipline".

    And the result, after 14 years? Is this!

    I don't claim to be a "natural" green thumb. I just try to learn from my mistakes, to try different solutions until something works, and get my hands dirty on a reasonably regular basis. A fruit tree may seem expensive when you see a price tag of $50-100, but the harvested yield of just one season once the tree is mature can outweigh that many times over. I paid $15 per kilogram for a box of cherries grown in Young last week to bring to a birthday party because these weren't ready. There's probably 3-4 Kg of cherries shown in this shot alone. For extra points, can you spot the kiwi fruit leaves in this image?

    So there you have it, and I should mention that these cherries are edible now, but will get a bit of extra sweetness in the coming days. If you haven't tried fruit toast made with fresh or dried cherries, you are truly missing out, and I encourage you to try it.

    Never give up, and eventually you'll learn enough to succeed. Happy gardening, and happier harvesting!

    Ham.

    Wednesday, 23 October 2019 11:35
    Bird of Paradise
    A bunch of "Bird of Paradise" plants in bloom.

    Birds of Paradise are known for their unusual flowers by many. Experienced gardeners will also remember the challenges that the extremely large, flexible, yet fibrous leaves from plants like these can pose. Particularly when you're pruning, or removing them. You see, the leaves are too large for easy cutting with secateurs. You can trim the overall bush reasonably well with hedging shears... but the base of the plant can be really challenging, even with a chainsaw!

    Hedging shears start to fail in the dense, fibrous, often-clumped together stalks. I tried a pruning saw, but found that the teeth clogged up with fibres.. when the leaves didn't simply sway with the motion of the saw. A whipper/line trimmer failed completely, so I even went and got my chainsaw out. However, the hugely long fibres found in the leaves are drawn by the chain into the saw, and generally jam there. I even derailed the chain once when the accumulated fibrous bits managed to wedge under the drive gear.

    Enter the mattock.

    Lacking an axe, I decided that I needed to swing a mattock around, and half-hack, half-dig the Birds of Paradise plants out. Now when one plant had over 1.5 square metres of tightly packed, dense stalks, that's a lot of work for an I.T. desk jockey like me. I consumed over 5L of water over the next 4 hours, and chewed through a box of tissues. Listening to "A hard hand to hold" by Ace Young while struggling with some plants may not sound enthralling to some, but lyrics ended up being somewhat prophetic, after the day I had, I needed a day to recover, because I am still struggling to hold things properly.

    In fairness, it wasn't all the mattock-swinging that wore me out. The local landscaping supplies place delivered my order a few days ahead of schedule. Now the one thing most people don't know about landscaping suppliers, is that they will literally tie sleepers together, forklift them into the truck, and when that truck gets to your place, they will literally tip sleepers, soil, and whatever else you ordered into a pile next to the road, get you to sign off on the delivery, and drive off as fast as possible. Sorting it out, or moving your overpriced lumps of wood away from the calculating eyes of kerb-side collectors, when you have 13x 70Kg sleepers to move is "all up to you". Now, with Wren at work, and neighbours who are pregnant, elderly, or riddled with cancer... I understandably-yet-unfortunately, didn't have anyone volunteering to help me out. So after moving all 910Kg of bulky, extra thick cut ironbark (a particularly dense wood), into the safer areas of my yard, my everything hurt.

    I still have maybe three square feet of stalk to dig out, but I was hoping to find a better (powered) option to cut this back. Unfortunately, I haven't found it yet. That's a problem for tomorrow. Perhaps a fine-toothed blade will be better at not dragging fibres on something like a reciprocating saw will help...

    To sum up what I know so far:

    1. Use hedging shears to cut pack the leaves a bit, and make access easier.
    2. Long-handled loppers can help you get a bit further down, but this is very time consuming.
    3. Use mattock to hack/dig the rest out... but for larger plants in harder soil, this will take quite some time.

    Here's the mess created by the pruning....

    An update on the reciprocating saw:

    A reciprocating saw with wood cutting blade

    This is a reciprocating saw. Think of it as a jig saw for demolition.

    I tried this on the smaller clump of severed stalks today. By cutting it away in sections, I found this worked well. I didn't have a fine-toothed metal cutting blade, but I used a wood-grade blade and to my surprise, that didn't jam up like the pruning saw. Getting in low enough  for easier cutting was quite challenging. In the space of about 20 minutes, I managed to remove most of the smaller clump. However, I didn't get as much done as I'd have liked, since I had a visit from those door-to-door religious people who genuinely asked me "Are you ready to make a lifelong commitment to your God and saviour?".

    I have mentioned that I'm an irreverent kinda guy right? I merely replied:

    "From a logical standpoint, to be life-long, I'd have to have been committed since birth, and given many religious beliefs regarding abortion, and the termination of a life before birth... life-long might be considered even longer. Now, since I can't go back and start again, I can only say that such a commitment would be impossible at this stage. If you're simply asking whether I am willing to shift from my current beliefs for the remainder of my days, then I'm sorry I'm just not interested, good luck with your spreading the word though".

    We then had about an hour-long chat about gardening. I think it was just to break up the door-to-door grind. When they left, they covered the remainder of my street in record time, so I knew they weren't having much luck.

    Religious anecdotes aside...

    I hope this helps someone, and at least helps to eliminate some of the tools that I've found to be ineffective.

    Stay safe, and happy gardening!

    Ham.

    Friday, 20 September 2019 16:34
    InfraredTree
    Infrared Tree Shot

    One of the many, many ways to learn about photography is doing a weekend workshop. Photography workshops are an interesting alternative to self study and are almost always aimed at an intermediate level. Partly because it's hard to get beginners to fork over money for skills they're not even sure they want yet, and even harder to get "know it all" expert photographers to admit they don't know everything. Pros are often time poor, and have their own projects too, so it's not overly surprising that some find spending time with the newbies a bit harder to justify. (Hey, no judgements here).

    An incredibly artistic, skilled, and wonderfully humble friend works for an art gallery in rural NSW. He invited Wren and this wayward Ham to a weekend workshop on landscape photography that his gallery was hosting. Being in the middle of nowhere, it's surprisingly hard to get the numbers to run a workshop like this, and I needed a weekend away, so off we went. Wren and I were two of just seven attendees. My friend made a third. He's an amazingly experienced photographer, having photographed many challenging, highly reflective works of pottery made by members of his family (including himself), and many of his pictures are featured in artistic magazines, gallery "coffee table" books, and so on.

    Back to me though, because I'm the only topic I'm really qualified to talk about. :-)

    Signing up for the workshop was interesting, and surprisingly haphazard. However, I was asked to answer the usual questions about things like:

    • How experienced are you with the technical aspects of photography?
    • What  is your primary camera?
    • Have you done landscape photography before?
    • What do you hope to get out of this workshop?

    The first three questions, when I answered them on behalf of myself and Wren, re-reading my response made me pause.

    Wren and I have been shooting pics for years, in numerous countries, and varied subjects. Even though we have shot together for so long and have learned from each other, we still have very different styles of shooting. Wren is more "in the moment" and intuitive, but hugely technical with her post processing. Whereas I am more technical in shooting (certainly not post processing) and often use preconceived ideas, planning, and strategic execution. We can shoot the same thing and come with wildly divergent shots. Nonetheless when you have to articulate how good someone is (you or others) it's often surprising how far we've both come.

    My last answer, seemed to resonate a bit with the Bill Green, the guy running the workshop. When I arrived, he asked me if he could use my final answer in the class itself. Of course, days had passed since I submitted it, and I was wracking my brains trying to recall what (if any) profundity had been instilled into a bureaucratic process like filling out a form. If you're interested, here's my response:

    I think life has gotten in the way of our recreational photography. We're both looking for inspiration and 
    it's always interesting to see how others approach their photography. Everyone has something to teach us,
    and we understand that. I also find that beginners have interesting ways of asking questions, which helps
    to refine my own understanding, and allows me to teach others more effectively down the track.

    Landscape workshops often have a class component, and a "go out and shoot" component. Whether the class is actually in a classroom or outdoors is entirely up to the person running the show... and the outdoor component is often subject to the vagaries of weather, transport, locations to shoot, and of course, the people in the class. The class will cover basics of equipment, exposure and composition. This usually involves examples (often poorly) projected onto a screen.

    I think it's good to see kindred spirits on the "photographic journey", whether they're just starting out, beaten up with hard-won experience, and/or beaten down with old age. It's funny, some beginners run with far newer and better gear than I own. Most of mine is showing signs of age. I've upgraded my Canon DSLR rig a few times in the last decade or so, but I seem reluctant to part with any of it, so I re-purpose my old cameras to backup bodies, or in one case, converted it to infrared.

    Now, think about this, if you're going out to the same location, to take photos of the landscape, the odds are people are going to shoot the same thing, perhaps with differing exposures, and perhaps with slightly, or not-so-slightly differing angles but at the end of the day, I think it's important to differentiate yourself from everyone else. Whether that's a choice to shoot a tree on the other side of a steep hill, come back, realise that you left your entire camera bag back up the hill, and have to run back and get it... like.. <cue bashful muttering here> I did.

    Or just forgo the visible spectrum and shoot with a camera few people are likely to have. In my case, it's a circa 2008 model Canon 40D permanently modified to shoot only in the colour-tinged areas infrared. Of course, that camera was calibrated to a focal length.. <again cue bashful muttering> that I've completely forgotten what I told the conversion team to calibrate the focus system to.... yes, I know.

    So my solution? Magnified live view + Tripod + Timer Release = Focused images! (See I showed my working and got the right answer). Note that I said focused, not necessarily sharp. Infrared is a much wider range of the spectrum than the visible part, and as such, there's going to be an inherent level of "softness" to the image. Great for smoothing skin in portraits.. just a shame about the pasty complexions. 

    Back to the workshop...

    After doing a full day, then a sunset shoot, then back to my friends place for dinner, then I had to get up in the dark to do a sunrise shoot, most of an hour's drive away, then do that shoot, then back to the classroom, I started to look at my images, only to find...

    That my memory card had failed. <Aaaaaargh>

    <cue my relief that I'm an I.T. guy>

    So I spent most of Sunday afternoon, using data recovery software to get my hard-earned infrared pics back. So here are some of them:

     

    I call the pic above, "Photographers, chasing the light". I guess that means I was shooting from the shadows. That "slightly pink, but we'll call that white" hill was covered in grass (not snow). See how sunlit grass appears white, while shadows are almost pitch black? That's infrared for you! That tree to the left of this shot is the same one as above.

     You know that tree on the other side of a steep hill I was talking about, this is the one!

     

    Anyway, I wasn't the only one who earned some hard-won experience. One of the women dropped their lens, and broke their lens hood and filter. But it was just the filter and lens hood. eBay will be her next best friend.

    Then Wren and I had to drive the multiple hours back to Canberra... that was a long, long day for me.

    Conclusion:

    So there you have it, weekend photography workshop isn't always for the "faint of heart" but you get some real opportunities to refresh your knowledge, get some motivation to get out there and take pics, and of course, maybe teach some newbies a thing or two about what is possible, and maybe give them some inspiration.

    Bill came up to us "advanced" shooters at the end on Sunday afternoon and said that he felt sorry that he couldn't help us as much as he would like. However, I don't really feel that I had the time to shoot the location and do the "hey how would you shoot this scene?". He had others to sort out and I'm relatively self sufficient.

    Anyway, I hope this doesn't scare you from doing workshops. Some come in the form of a single day, others go for weeks as part of major hikes or tours. It's really a matter of how intensely you want to do something. Personally, I think learning is best done at a relaxed pace. It gives you a chance to absorb the info and tinker around.

    Go out there and take some pics with whatever camera you have!

    Ham.

     

    Thursday, 27 June 2019 02:13

    I do like my better quality tools, but until recently, I'd always balked at the cost of Festool because I honestly doubted that the finished result would be two, three, or even five times better than a commensurately cheaper brand of sander. I mean, the wood is still ground against some sand-like grit glued to some paper. The engine isn't noticeably more powerful, nor is the overall shape different to my old Bosch GEX-125-150 random orbit sander (ROS). However, my Bosch had problems, and while it was getting repaired under warranty, I needed something "that just worked, right then, and right there". So I bought the now somewhat out-moded ETS-150/3 since it was on sale.

    I have to say, that while you do not need to buy the most expensive tools on the planet to do some really nice work. I have been very pleasantly surprised by the combination of things which does make using the Festool easier on the user, and it would have the most benefit for those who use it every day. If you're a professional wood worker of any type, then you can not only save money in time, but also in consumables as well. If you're a light DIY-er using a sander once or twice a year.. then this is not the sander for you.

    The ETS-150/3 is a dedicated 150mm ROS, as opposed to the Bosch, which is a 125mm sander that can take a bigger sanding pad. I honestly believe that this Bosch model only has problems when pushed to the 150mm for long periods of time. Both are great tools, it's just that they are built to different price points. While the Bosch is also a higher-end model, it is priced at half the cost of the Festool.

    What do you get for another $300 on a sander?

    Options... lots of options... some only at the time of purchase though:

    More specifically, there are different models of Festool sander with specific orbits which vibrate either 3mm or 5mm as the pad rotates. I opted for the 3mm model so I could get into corners more easily. However the 5mm model is a bit faster/aggressive. There are also models with fixed or for a little extra cost, detachable cables, which is nice if you damage your cables. You can also use backing pads of varying softness/hardness (purchased separately). So you can choose a pad with an appropriate "firmness" for the task. Many other sanders have only one size or hardness available in Australia.

    Warranty:

    There's a three year warranty but the best part is a 10 year guarantee that parts will be available after the model ceases production. You've spent $600 on a sander, it's nice to know that you can get the $10 part to fix it, right? Festool also offers pickup and free postage of faulty tools from your workplace/home... so no more taking it to the shop, and waiting for middle men/womenfolk to get around to it

    Performance:

    This is the big one for me. Most sanders have 6-10 holes in the disk so that dust can be sucked up to the bag/dust extractor. The Festool's has a LOT of holes of varying sizes more evenly throughout the backing pad and paper, and the engine blows air through some, while the dust extraction sucks through others. By doing this push/pull combination, the amount of grit and gunk that clogs up the sandpaper is substantially reduced. This means that you can sand for longer without having to clean up your sandpaper. It also means the paper doesn't get "cooked" by friction heat when it's clogged, which makes it last even longer.

    The Festool branded sandpaper is also better than the stuff I typically get in Bunnings. Being designed for the hole-ridden Festool pads, the sheets have the matching holes, to facilitate the extra airflow. Despite having less sanding area overall, Festool sheets clog less often than cheaper brands. Furthermore, while Festool sheets cost about 30% more, I've used the same three (different grits) sheets of Festool sandpaper for the same amount of time I'd go through an entire 10 sheet packet on cheaper sanders. Of course, your mileage may vary, especially if you are stripping paint/glues/plastics more than the unvarnished, aged, low-resin hard wood that I've been sanding.

    A piece of advice:

    Everyone gets bored of sanding. However, like most sanders, this sander works far faster (and better) when you have a relatively light touch. Pushing it down may seem like a way to remove more material, but this also restricts airflow, puts more wear and tear on your sander's motor, and undermines this rather expensive sander's features that keeps the abrasive surfaces, abrasive. So don't be tempted to undermine yourself and the longevity of your tools with impatience. Even with the Bosch and other cheaper models, avoiding unnecessary pressure is recommended.

    Conclusion:

    Buying tools can be a very slippery slope. Who doesn't want to be able make/fix/adjust more while doing it more easily? However, keeping yourself grounded, and your expectations about what you're actually doing realistic, is important when deciding what to buy and how much to spend.

    If you're doing a lot of work, go and ask for a demonstration of Festool equipment at your local retailer. Then do some research, and decide if the extra (yes it's an optional extra) cost is worth the benefits. I can only attest to this sander, but Festool have impressed me with a tool that seems, at first glance, hard to differentiate from other brands.

    I'd like to finish up with an update on the Bosch. It turned out that the orbital gearing was slightly "imbalanced" which caused enough vibration when working to break the bolt attaching the pad to the motor on several occasions. That has been fixed, I also replaced the Bosch pad with one that wasn't damaged (by being thrown off a broken bolt) for $21.95, and then I went to my local "Specialty Fasteners" shop and bought the strongest "high tensile" bolt to replace the broken one, and it cost me a princely sum of $1.00 (Australian). Now it works well.. and without any problems. However, even though it doesn't have all the clogging reduction of the Festool, I just use a standard "abrasive cleaner' stick on my sandpaper when needed. I don't want you to think that the Bosch, or other brands can't deliver an amazing result, and I have used ancient, cheap, and hard-used tools to make beautifully smooth surfaces. You can get similar results with any brand of tool and careful use! It just isn't quite as easy, or necessarily comfortable. Ultimately, if I find myself using the old Bosch rarely, I'll either sell it on Gumtree or give it to a family member.

    I hope this helps you with your tool purchasing decisions, whether for or against. Just remember, it's not the tools you own that make you a better wood worker (although they can certainly help) but the skills you learn from using them. The more you do, the more you will improve, so go have fun making sawdust, shavings, and whatever you leave behind must be your finished project. :-)

    Have fun, and stay safe!

    Ham.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Thursday, 27 June 2019 00:17

    Work is slow when you're short-handed... or short one arm for that matter!

    Ok, so after my close call with falling off a ladder, I actually did fall off while assisting the electrician run some wiring, and fractured my shoulder. Well... more specifically, the part of the humerus in the shoulder joint. Needless to say that involved  hospitals, doctors, X-rays, specialist advice and medical "procedures", waiting rooms, slings, with a note of interstate travel and copious amounts of pain with a side of sleep deprivation. I managed to do two job interviews in my pained-yet-manageable state. Then things got a bit interesting when it seemed things weren't healing like it should.

    So after too many weeks of being in a sling, I'm finally allowed to get rid of it. However, there's still a lot of work to do both in the garage, and in healing my arm. The bone is stable, but not fully healed, and muscles... (what's left of them) need a lot of work. But that doesn't mean I have been idle.

    Tidying up makes a much needed space to do more tidying....

    Even a one-armed lunatic such as myself isn't completely useless. I managed to pull out some frost covers for the garden, use up the bags of potting mix strewn around the garage, I also threw some boxes of long-forgotten stuff out, tidied up the wood stock, and put the finishing touches on my vacuum silencing box. Speaking of the silencing box, wow has that made a difference! I had a vacuum that screamed louder than most of my tools, and now I hear a dull hum, where most of the noise is the sound of the air rushing into the vacuum hose. Unfortunately, I still haven't integrated the cyclonic separator on a 44 gallon drum yet, but I have attached the separator to the lid, and spray painted some parts of it.

    When you can't do the work yourself, enlist helpers and professionals... to do almost anything but work on the garage.

    Apparently, Wren's fear the cold may exacerbate my shoulder pain has overcome her long-standing inertia about making the house more energy efficient. I guess there's a silver lining... of sorts.

    When Wren asked my opinion about this, my argument for this house upgrade had nothing to do with my shoulder, but more of where to put some of our hard-saved cash. We dabble in investments but in the end, we're just middle class professionals trying to get by while developing as few grey hairs as possible.

    A side note about investing:

    Investing is a very personal thing, and I am not giving you financial advice because I am not qualified to do so. If you need help, go see an accountant. Do not ever go to a financial planner that works for a bank. You do not want a "commission based" advisor, (who charges you a percentage of your investment, even when it loses money). Commission based advisors may not be bad, but there are some who get "kick backs" or benefits for encouraging people to invest in particular funds/companies, which is clearly a conflict of interest because that is not necessarily the best place to put your money.  What you do want, is a financial planner/accountant that charges by the hour. This is called "fee for service" in Australia. Arrange to meet them once a year, and if things are going well, you'll want to come back to them so adjustments can be made as needed. If things aren't going well, then you talk to them about why things aren't going so well, and if they can't fix it, you can choose to take your business elsewhere. Remember: It's your money, and you ultimately take the risk and reward. You are shopping for advice, and nothing more. You are not putting them in control (and should not, either). If you aren't comfortable, or don't understand absolutely everything, don't invest! Just walk away. If you aren't confident, or shy, or have trouble speaking for yourself, find someone you trust to consult, or even come with you. In the end, don't sign anything without getting a second opinion, or shopping around.

    Back to my rationale for upgrading the house....

    However, at the time of writing (June 2019) with record high share prices overseas, the growing concerns about recessions, even possible "corrections", give me pause on investing "large" sums  (well, large to us at least) in the current share market. Holding some back for potential opportunities coming up is something I'd recommend if you can. The down side to this level of errr... "restraint?" is the ever-lowering interest rates environment make bank accounts an-often negative return after tax and inflation. Also, after assessing our costs, we found that rising prices of gas and electricity are a major expense for us here in Canberra. Finally, considering the fact that property prices in our area is on the rise again, makes the sale price for our home a possible future consideration. Modest upgrades to the house, (especially double glazing) can yield property price increases of 150-200% of the upgrade , and have ongoing cost reduction benefits.

    So, using these rationalizations, Wren has approved upgrading the place, and I'm and dealing with the admin given my lack of work, I will be here when the work is done.

    Update: So where are we at now?

    After a day and a half of work for two nice labourers, have done as much as they can while politely rebuffing all my attempts to offer them tea. The double glazing is partially installed, but we're awaiting delivery of the custom cut panels to complete the remaining windows and doors. The biggest heat leaking window at the top of our light well (roughly 5.5 metres from the ground) has been completed and I must say, it hasn't looked this clean in years.

    The doors have had new seals placed around the frame work, and I am hoping that the panels come in sometime in the next few days.

    As for the insulation, our current R2.0 insulation will have the gaps filled, then R4.0 batts will be layered on top, effectively tripling our existing insulation. That's all scheduled for early next week.

    How about that garage?  It is the entire point of this post... isn't it?

    You might be wondering... "How did we get here? Isn't this supposed to be about getting the garage on track?". Yes dear reader, the point is that the garage was delayed by my injury, and it is part of our household's greater levels of rationalized insanity. We all do what we can, but never fear, I plan to build more storage for the garage, reinforce and store stuff in the garage's ceiling, oh and I'm avidly waiting the delivery of a shiny new toy for the workshop.... a bandsaw! I'll be making an industrial grade trolley for that beast.. but I have to get my welder back from my friend first.

    Then I'll not only have to start up, but catch up with my garage stuff. I sense a busy time may be coming.

    I hope you're all well, and having fun!

    Ham.

     

    Monday, 20 May 2019 13:45

    I seem to have injured myself, so my progress has come to a grinding halt. As such, the garage is very much "A work in progress". Highlights of the achievements so far include:

    • The ceiling has been entirely removed.
    • Battens formerly used for the ceiling have been removed in places. A few have been left for structural support while some minor frame repairs are underway.
    • The Gyprock has been properly disposed of. (Much more work than anticipated).
    • Electrician has been hired to:
      • Remove/move existing cabling in the ceiling to allow easier access to the roof cavity for storage.
      • Move the two existing lights to the roof cavity space.
      • Install 4 new independently switched light sockets.
      • Install 5x double power sockets on the walls
      • Install 2x drop-down power sockets from the ceiling.
      • Put the garage on an 15A independent circuit.
      • Add safety switch (RCD) to the garage circuit.
      • Re-wire a few pieces of existing circuitry (external lights and power points)
    • I have also purchased 4 LED panels, which is an article all to itself. Each panel is 40W, producing a rather large 3800 Lumens. (That's almost the equivalent of 300W of incandescent bulbs).
    • The lumber has been used to build/stored into, a lumber storage trolley.
    • Dust extractor noise was too loud, so I built a vacuum silencing box. Planning to install an oversized cyclone separator.
    • 2 chests of drawers were constructed.

    Yep, I still have plenty to do, but I'm forbidden doing anything until the risk of further injury has subsided.

    Take care everyone!

    Ham.

     

    Monday, 25 March 2019 11:14

    Do you dream of having a place to park your car, shockingly enough, inside the garage?

    Do you find that the garage has become a dumping ground for all the things you not only haven't used in years, but forgotten that you even have?

    Have you, by any chance moved in with someone else, and they also have an entire household of stuff which takes up all the space available and then some?

    Have you misplaced entire work benches under the pile of accumulated clutter?

    Are you unsure about what colour your garage floor is supposed to be?

    Are you filled with dread about the idea of trying to find anything "in that forsaken rats nest?"

    Have you ever discovered that the garage itself is dropping stuff everywhere... nothing important.. just the ceiling, and the stuff above it.

    Then you've come to the same situation I've found myself in! Join Ham's Garage Liberation Army, and it really is true.... I could do with some help.

    Ok, Wren and I have a two car garage... well... ostensibly two cars, but no car has been in it for the better part of a year. I've been trying to rebuild a workshop inside there, organise the clutter, and fix the failing glue on our gyprock ceiling. However, after making some repairs on roughly 1/3 of the failing ceiling, the remaining two thirds has started to fail too. Our home is part of a larger development, and other garages have ceilings that are also failing. (Nice to know it's not my fault). Since Wren is the all-high matriarch (and token female) of the household she has wielded her power and decided to pull the plug on our ailing ceiling, I've been tasked with the removal.

    How to remove a ceiling, the safe way....

    Gyprock is a very messy material to remove. It has the dirt accumulated on top, and readily produces clouds of white dust when broken, dropped, cut, or roughly handled. It is advisable to use safety goggles over glasses, and a heavy-duty dust mask at the very minimum. Seriously, use them, and if you don't have them, get them AND use them.

    A plan of attack:

    The ceiling had a "man hole" which I used as a starting point (or poked my upper torso through) using a stepladder. Armed with a lamp and a reciprocating saw, I carefully cut out a section of the ceiling nearest the "man hole" around electrical wires and optic fibre cables. I chose to cut from the top, knowing that there were numerous wires up there to power the garage door opener, connect the ceiling lights, and run other utilities like the internet connection. All of which needed to be avoided, and I couldn't do that from the under side. If you aren't sure where cables and other stuff run up there, I'd strongly suggest you do it from the "top side". In a very real way, cutting the panels nearest the man hole is a lot like the minesweeper game. Start in one grid space. Clear out and mark the surrounds, then use that access to do the adjoining sections.

    Cutting the ceiling into sections ensures that the pieces aren't "too unwieldy" or heavy to manage once cut. It's better to have someone to hand the pieces down to, but if you're sure you're alone (include all animals, children, friends who routinely fail to call before they visit), then dropping it onto a cleared area of floor is also ok. Each section I cut open brightened the ceiling cavity. Soon, I didn't need the lamp.

    How not to remove a ceiling, the safe way...

    I wish I could tell you that everything I do is perfect. Alas, that will never be true. My partner's step ladder was bought "recycled" from the tip for $5 many, many moons ago. However, it seems that metal fatigue has started to affect the legs and it is now apparent to me, that it is no longer as stable as it once was. I nearly fell off, and if it wasn't held up by the ceiling trusses, I would have fallen. Unfortunately, during this unexpected drop, my saw drifted too close to an electrical socket and tripped the breaker (we have one of those safety switches which cuts the power in 1/20000th of a second) so I'm ok. But I'd like to replace everything there in that part of the circuit with something safer, just in case I've damaged something.

    Also, you may have noticed that I said that the ceiling was falling. Cutting away pieces of it certainly lightened the load in some places, but compromised integrity elsewhere as loads were shifted. Let's just say a large chunk of the ceiling, the cornice, and some broken timber fell all at once. Sure it made me feel productive, but the cloud of gypsum dust, accumulated dirt, and sawdust that bellowed up from the fall was impressive. I was wearing goggles, an industrial dust mask and ear protection, but the passing people weren't so lucky, yet I am pleased to report that they were unaffected since they walked outside of the cloud very promptly.

    So far, I've managed to remove roughly 40% of the ceiling. I'm hindered now by the fact that the communal bin is too full to clear the waste created so far. It's emptied the day after tomorrow. So I'll keep you posted.

    Have a great night!

    Ham.

     

     

    Friday, 22 March 2019 09:34

    I've been using power tools for a while. I don't have any particular brand loyalty, but I appreciate the quality of better-made tools. So I have a range of Hitachi, Bosch, Makita, DeWalt, Ryobi, and Stanley power tools that I've collected over the years. It never really occurred to me that I might know more than some, even though they've been doing wood working far longer than I had. This isn't really what I've been aiming for on my site here. So let me regale you with my tale of two days ago... :-)

    An old friend of mine asked me a few days ago. "Are you happy with your table saw?". Since I've beaten my DeWalt DWE-7491-XE contractor-style/portable table saw on a lot of stuff ranging from extremely hard wood sleepers, all the way down to pine and even balsa wood, it truly forms the beating heart of my workshop. I pondered this for a moment, and since I couldn't make any complaints about it, I surprised myself in how happy I was to say "yes".

    My friend lives on a farm, and he has an amazing range of tools, (or access to them). So he surprised me when he mentioned that he didn't have a table saw. I mean, he's a farmer, he's got many other saws, I just assumed he'd have a table saw laying about the place somewhere. He had a small mitre saw, but no table saw. This struck me as odd, but then I realised, I got my mitre saw first too! (and while it suited my needs at the time, it's not necessarily the order I'd recommend).

    My friend surprised me further, stating that he wasn't sure if he should get a track saw or a table saw. He'd been considering both, and asked my thoughts on the matter. It really comes down to moving the "lightest/smallest" items necessary to make the cut. In some cases, it's the wood, in others, it's the saw.

    Let's start with the track saw....

    Track Saw: (the saw goes to the wood)

    The track saw is (to put it crudely) a glorified circular saw with a straight edge (or track). Track saws are particularly handy when you want to make long straight cuts on large sheets of wood like ply, particle board, or MDF, particularly at unusual angles. Similarly they're great at cutting into decks, flooring, or even plaster walls in a pinch. Track saws can also include dust extraction ports (no circular saw I've ever seen has it), and the ability to cut extremely cleanly with a finer blade than any circular or table saw. In short, you take both the track and the saw to the wood, clamp the track in the right spot on your lumber, and make your cut. Easy, right?! These are best used when handling the wood itself is too difficult to be safe/accurate to move and manipulate while cutting.

    The down side for a track saw is they're often more cumbersome to use than a table saw, and particularly long tracks are irritating enough to move around, assemble, use, and constantly adjust, pack up and store. Track saws are also a more specialised too, used mostly for cutting sheet stock. You're not going to use a track saw for small cuts, or precise dimensions unless you have a lot of time on your hands. Track saws often have less-deep cutting options to table saws, and the motors are often considerably less powerful and/or durable. They're designed for intermittent use, not regular use like many table saws.

    In short, most wood workers use track saws to break down large sheet stock, then use the table saw on the more manageable pieces for precision dimensions and squaring. Frankly, because I am stingy (or value oriented) I just use a straight edge, clamps and a circular saw to roughly cut my sheet stock, and tidy up on the table saw. However, your needs may well differ wildly from my own. But before you ignore my opinion, let me tell you why I prefer the table saw.

    Table Saw: (the wood comes to the saw)

    I have both western and Japanese-styled hand saws, jig saws, circular saws, mitre saw, reciprocating saw, oscillating saw, and scroll saw. None get used as often as my table saw. It's the sheer simplicity of use of a precise parallel fence, the ability to angle my blade and use mitres to form compound angles. I like the dual dust extraction ports on my mere contractor style table saw, the ability to rip up to 830mm wide, the ability to resaw deep cuts into wood, and use dado blades to rebate/rabet/groove/lap joint/box joint/even dove tail on it (with jigs of course). If you're cutting anything other than unwieldy pieces of wood, then the table saw is a much better solution for the average wood worker's daily needs. Repeatability is perhaps the biggest benefit to a table saw, because once set, you can repeat a cut over and over again. If you make a cut with a track saw, the track must be moved for each cut.

    So do I like my table saw?

    Absolutely. However, you should always do your homework and choose a model based on your needs and constraints. My constraint was space, yours might be your partner's approval, or cost, or the fact you want to cut huge pieces on a regular basis... then you might want a track saw, or even a panel saw. Don't get me wrong, I'd like a track saw too, but in terms of sheer practicality of my everyday use, a table saw is an easy choice to make for my needs.

     

    I hope this helps!

    Ham.

    Sunday, 10 March 2019 10:41

    I went to an "artists and/or craftspeople cooperative" today. As you'd expect, the inside was adorned with pottery, sculptures, cards, metal and wood pieces, some mosaics, as well as the ever-present paintings found in places like this. Two people were looking after the store for the "morning shift", a woman whose name has completely escaped me (sorry) doing some knitting, and somewhat unusually, a man named Ted who was spinning wool.

    While Wren was busy elsewhere, I decided to sit down and chat with Ted as he spun his wool. Ted was many things, not just a wool spinner, but a carpenter who made and restored spinning wheels. He also made some lovely small turned wooden items found in the store. We chatted on many topics, but the discussion on wood working was particularly interesting.

    As a relatively new wood worker, (a novice in comparison to Ted who has decade(s) on me, and likely, a more spacious and efficient workshop than I do, living on a farm) he made some really interesting comments on the way wood working has gone in his time. We discussed the quality of wood, which unless you have your own forest and milling equipment, has decreased significantly over the last 50 years. Fast-growth plantation based timbers, disposable wood-based products, logging of old forests, and a global population growing out of proportion to the supply of timber, means we're using lower and lower grades of wood (and many other resources) as they become increasingly scarce.

    Now, I'm proud of my tea shelf made with pallet wood. However, when I showed Ted a photo of it on my phone, he pointed out the flaws in my spotty pine panels, and explained how that is a sign of low quality wood. Thinking on how wide-spread pallets are, and the ever-shortening life expectancy of modern pallets, I can't help but wonder about the future of pallets and wood in general.

    Later, I pondered another comment made by a former antique store owner to me several months ago,  that "you can't sell old furniture for love or money, since younger generations with massive mortgages, and ever smaller dwellings aren't exactly rushing off for a bit of "antiquing". As a person still in their "accumulation phase" of life, I can safely say that I see a lot of antique shops which are starting to include all sorts of paraphernalia, dust collectors, and even electrical appliances of bygone eras as less "antique", and more "hoarder dens of stuff your grandparents chucked out when they downsized". I'm sure the "hipsters" love it, but they're perhaps the only ones taking advantage of this situation.

    Antique furniture restoration is another topic Ted and I discussed. He recalled his difficulties when to restore a spinning wheel made in the 19th century in the US from wood that had beautiful grains, burls, and natural beauty that is so rare or prohibitively expensive, it might as well be completely unavailable today. Going further, Ted said:

    "The only way I can restore it is to completely hide my repairs as best as I can". Now, that left me wondering: "How on Earth do you hide a repair on a spinning wheel? They're not exactly known for their "nooks and crannies" to hide stuff in. It's a peddle, a spoke wheel, a spindle, and a stand! With so many moving parts, there isn't really much room for "hiding it in an obscure place" like many stain instructions tell you to do when first trying it out. I'm sure modern stains are great, but they simply cannot do the complexity of high quality timber, no matter how you slice it.

    Frankly, I didn't get a chance to discuss everything, but it's rare for someone like me to be able to chat and see things from a much better wood worker's perspective. I'm just trying to do what I can, and I'm sure I'll make a lot of mistakes along the way. At least I've got some ideas on how to identify some nicer timber. Thanks Ted!

    To everyone else, good night and keep doing whatever it is you need to do to have fun, stay safe, and make something awesome.

    Ham.

     

     

    Wednesday, 06 March 2019 12:22

    It's inevitable. You're going to make mistakes. Regardless of whether you're doing wood working, or sometimes (if you're like me) get up in the morning using only the most uncoordinated and painful of manners. There's the temptation to give up, and perhaps go back to bed.

    I once read somewhere, that "courage is not the absence of fear, but the strength to carry on regardless". However, in a surprisingly similar statement, that a great wood worker isn't defined by the absence of mistakes, but the quality of their solutions to fix them. I wonder how many similar sayings are out there for other interests and topics?

    I've spent the last few days between job interviews, re-purposing my old planing jig, several planks of wood, and more than a few 90x45mm boards to build.... a trolley. Not just any trolley, but a lumber storage trolley. So admittedly, it's not going to be a piece of fine furniture, but it is shaping up to be very, very sturdy. The base is an old 1800mm x 600mm x 18mm sheet of pine, reinforced with over 12 metres of thick struts of wood. Every piece is glued with maximum coverage, and reinforced with screws as long as 125mm. Then I really went to work, and added three full sheets of 18mm plywood to reinforce the base with a fancy torsion box which also doubles as shelving and storage bins for my timber.

    While I've made a lot of progress, I've been much slower than I'd have originally thought possible. I've made many mistakes. Some of them as simple as not accounting for imperfections in my wood. Some of them as complex as putting parts in the wrong place and leaving it until the glue has well and truly dried. The worst is one that is both utterly avoidable, and yet... not. My worst mistake, was going into this with an idea, but not a plan. Needless to say, I've had a few lessons learned (or perhaps "earned" ) along the way. That's life isn't it? You get punished first, then it's up to you to learn from your mistakes.

    My goals were simple. Copy a well-thought-out design for a lumber trolley, and make it smaller to fit in my workspace.... using as much stuff laying around as I could. This not only fixes my "lumber seems to be everywhere" problem by using up the aforementioned lumber in the construction itself, but also creates a place to put all of the remainder using a smaller footprint that what it does now. Hello to some much needed shop space!

    The first mistake, measure twice, cut once.

    Ok, strictly speaking, I actually did that. I measured the pine sheet used in my planing jig twice. When they didn't correspond between measurements, I thought I'd merely done the first attempt wrongly. It turns out, that the rivet holding the clip at the end of my tape measure failed between attempts, resulting in a shift of nearly 10mm. Having also worked with pallet wood so much of late, I just assumed upon checking the second measurement, that the board was indeed less wide at one end compared to another. So I cut my support struts accordingly.... and wrongly. Repairing this involved shimming the short end, then reinforcing with a dance I call the "glue and screw two-step".

    The second mistake: Flat does not necessarily apply to all faces.

    I built the base, upside down on my work bench. While I freely admit that my bench isn't precision-ground to within 1/1000th of a millimetre, it's more than flat enough to ensure a decent level of accuracy of properly thicknessed and jointed wood. (For example, wood that indeed has gone through a thickness planer and jointer). However, as I mentioned, I've been re-purposing the vast bulk of the wood in my trolley, with previous stresses and abuse from previous roles all too often evident. Despite picking the best parts, there's every wood-bourne problem present (outside of rot and liquid exposure makes). Cupping, warping, crooking, bowing, non-parallel faces, splits, not to mention the holes left by nails and screws.

    It turned out that after I attached four industrial-grade castors to the base (I splurged here because wood gets heavy very fast), that despite the top of my base being flat, it was not flat when rolling on the wheels. So some creative planing and building up of certain wheels needed to be done.

    The third mistake: context is important!

    Hindsight may be perfect, but you can only work with the best information that you have at the time. As I have mentioned, I was using pocket holes to put this together quickly. The speed of construction allowed me to start construction even before I had finalized the plan, and because of that, I changed the design mid-way through construction. This resulted in severe delays while dismantling occurred, and even some deprecated construction choices that ultimately ended with less-than-ideal aesthetics, and even some minor weakening in the joints. My solution to this was to fix up what I can on the aesthetics, and reinforce the joints where needed. Alas, even more time was lost. Speed of method, is not necessarily speed of result.

    But are all mistakes, actually mistakes? Or are they merely trade-offs for the choices we make. Find the way that's right for you. To do that, you have to stray from your known path.

    Making something is a journey. Even if you do make irretrievable mistakes, you'll hopefully know what not to do next time. Assuming you don't do any damage to yourself, at the very worst, you can always start again, or replace a part, or cut out a broken piece, shape and attach a replacement. Your creativity and careful execution is all important here, and while I'd love to say you are limited by your imagination, those of us working in the real world are limited in time, access to certain tools, perhaps knowledge of better methods, or simply money. Those who are constrained in one way or another, are forced to come up with more creative solutions.

    Assembly order also has an impact on your end result. It certainly had some on mine! In construction, pieces often need to be assembled in a particular order if you do things logically. However, delaying some assembly steps can make your life a lot easier in some ways, and not in others. I chose to build to trolley from base up, and the front bins toward the back (without the front panel). This meant I could use the sides of the bins to reinforce the back of the bins (which is also the vertical side of my A frame in the middle. Then using pocket hole joinery and spacers cut from scrap, add the shelves to the vertical on the other side, and reinforce them with support rods. Then once that was all dry and lined up, glue and screw the final sloped part of my A frame. (The side to hold the sheeting) to the base and each shelf. Then all that remained was attaching the front and rear-most panels.

    Some may have made the entire A frame shelving first as it's located in the middle. I'd highly recommend it if you knew your wood was reliably straight, even and true. However, I would never have been able to deal with the warp caused by the base so easily if there was a giant torsion box attached.

    Doing it my way kept my options open. By not attaching the wood at the very front and back, I could access many of the areas I might have needed to. Adding the sides and back of the bins perpendicular to one another immediately started to straighten each other out which made lining everything else up much easier. Working from the base up ensured that I could make the most of the strength already built into the base and use it stabilize everything else.

    However, it was very difficult to design and build each shelf to the right dimension and required a surprising number of clamps to hold it into position. The sides of the bins made attaching some shelves quite a bit more cumbersome, and the spacing of the shelves limited the type and size of clamps I could use. So there's no ideal way after all.

    Conclusion:

    A lot of my fellow self-taught and beginner wood workers have pieces that didn't go to plan. However, you're doing really well to finish a project. Even if it doesn't work out as well as you hoped, you will definitely improve as you continue to practice.

    Monday, 18 February 2019 11:40

    Pocket hole joinery is a surprisingly strong and very fast construction method that is most often used in cabinetry. However, it is not without it draw backs, nor is it short of criticism in the wood working community. Whether you love it or hate it, depends on many factors, but I'll talk about my first use, and what I found.

    Introduction:

    It makes no sense for me to make a video when so many are out there on YouTube. So here's a good starting video if you're so inclined:

    Getting Started: Buying a Jig.

    There are many jigs out there. Some people even opt to make their own. Given the disappointing options at my local Bunnings, I had to drive across town to my local Total Tools store, and pick up a few things.

    • Kreg K4 Pocket Hole Jig Kit.
    • Kreg Doweling Jig.
    • Kreg Pocket Screws of varying sizes.
    • Kreg Corner Clamp (x2)

    What? Is this some sort of promotion for Kreg Products? No, it's just what this store happened to have. I also stuck with the brand to ensure compatibility. What I can tell you, is that the screw sizes you need are determined by the thickness of your material. So if you're unsure, or if you're using some wood 36mm thick like I was, you're going to need a 51mm (2") screw.

    The Kreg jig is mostly plastic, with metal reinforcement in the holes to stop the bit from eating your jig. You're given a specialist bit, with an adjustable stop collar, (complete with small hex key to lock it in place). Also in my kit was a vacuum attachment, some adjustment screws, a clamp to hold the jig down/face clamp my work piece. The instructions are important, so keep those handy!

    Using the Jig, (or should that be "Doing the jig?")

    Using the jig itself is easy. Adjust your drill bit stop collar using the jig's guide in the base. Adjust the depth of the jig itself, based on the thickness of your wood, clamp your work piece to the jig using the inbuilt clamp, and then start drilling. For more information, see the above video.

    My initial impressions from using the Kreg K4 jig.

    Firstly, it does work as advertised, but I feel that the base of the jig itself is very narrow, so when doing wider panels, it might be best to add support to either side for easier work piece clamping. I believe the K5 model has this wider base, but I haven't used it.

    I also found that the stop collar for the drill bit needs to be tightened up quite a lot to prevent slipping the first time. The locking screw actually dragged and gouged a line into the drill bit itself making the stop collar jam. I had to hammer out the bit using a mechanic's vice and a hammer to get it out, then file the ridges down on the bit, and then inside of the stop collar. Now it works beautifully.

    Joining the pocketed work pieces.

    Pocket holes require the correct pocket-hole type (and length) screws. In the manual, the instructions are reasonably clear about what length of screw you need for a given thickness of wood. However, in true "wayward" style, my first joint involved two pieces of wood, and of course, they were of different thicknesses... not much... only 18mm (3/4") different. There is no information whatsoever about multiple thickness situations at all in the manual, believe me, I looked! If in doubt, I suggest that you use the thinner piece's thickness to configure the jig, and determine the correct type of screw to use. I can assure you, that worked for me.

    Direction matters!

    Pocket holes are large oval-shaped holes which many people think are ugly. It might be tempting to put your pocket holes on the inside of corner joints to hide the holes, but this actually reduces the amount of wood available to drill into, and thus weakens the joint considerably. Many kitchen cabinets made with pocket hole joinery are installed against walls and against the sides of other cabinets, so holes on the outside are hidden from view. If you're work piece is not going to have it's sides hidden, then you can fill the hole with dowel and sand it flush to the surface. But you'll still get oval-shaped interruptions the wood grain, even if the colour matches. Alternatively, you could veneer the entire side if needed.

    Clamping is not optional. Clamp it well!

    Pocket holes are diagonal holes. As the screw tightens, the diagonal direction will shift the wood parts out of alignment. To stop this, you need to ensure that there is no movement whatsoever by clamping the pieces firmly before you screw the joint together. In fact, glue the pieces, clamp them together, wait for the glue to dry, and then screw the pieces together to avoid drifting.

    Right-angled clamping.

    Kreg's corner clamps involve a clamp shaped to use one of the pocket holes on one side, with an adjustable flat pad to lock right-angled joints together before screwing. Of course, this assumes that you have put your pocket holes on the outside of your right angled joint. This is the strongest orientation.

    Ok, so what was the result?

    How strong is it, really?

    I've done a lot of simple and small projects using screws going into the end grain of my timber. However drilling into the end is a very weak joint unless you add glue, and better yet, glue with some sort of surface-increasing jointing method. However, using the pocket screws alone, going in the correct direction makes a surprisingly strong joint. I used 6 pocket screws on every right-angled joint and I could easily stand on the completed dry assembly of my router cabinet with minimal movement or sagging. Gluing everything eliminated noticeable movement and sagging altogether.

    Drifting is an issue:

    It is extremely difficult to get everything aligned on right-angled joints the first time. However, the worst drift I had was only 3mm or so. Clamping and waiting for the glue to dry first, eliminated the drift problem entirely. However, I feel this does diminish the quick assembly times that pocket hole joinery is renowned for.

    Is it as ugly as they say?

    Ok, so there's a lot of strong opinions about pocket hole joinery. It's extremely fast (if you have the clamps and use them well). However, when you cut circular holes at a diagonal to your wood face, you get an elongated oval hole that is an inch long. If you want continuous burls, or beautiful uninterrupted grain, then this is not the method for you. I think this is great if you're using cheap wood, ply or MDF.... but I certainly wouldn't use this on your expensive wood. So it has it's place, if you work like that.

    Dealing with the holes....

    You have a few options:

    1. The easiest option is to fill in the holes with wooden or plastic plugs that are commercially available. Remember, that when you're gluing the plugs in, you need to leave the plugs a little proud of the hole so you can sand them back.
    2. You can make your own plugs using the doweling jig. If you make the dowels out of scrap pieces of the wood you're using. You can get a much closer match to colour than you might otherwise get.
    3. For projects that are ultimately getting painted... you could just fill the holes with your filler of choice, leave it proud, sand it down, then paint it.
    4. Veneer the entire project. I particularly like this for speaker building, but I've used it when I had some nice thin wood to work with.

    While I opted to buy the doweling jig so I can make the plugs from the scraps of matching wood, I chose not to use it the first time. Since I am building a mobile stand for my router table, there weren't any hidden sides on the outside (except maybe the bottom?), and because I was using ply, I actually chose to veneer the entire hole-ridden exterior with another thin sheet of marine-grade ply. I think it looks nicer this way, and makes the cabinet stronger still. Of course, this also takes more time.

    Conclusion:

    Honestly, I could probably have done this in the same time using other methods. However, for a first go, I can say I've learned a few things. I'm sure I'll get faster at it once I'm more experience. I can see why it is popular in commercial cabinetry and there's certainly a lot of potential to "get things done". I just think I need to be more careful with my clamping and.. perhaps getting a couple more clamps might actually help as well.

    I'll post some pics when I get a chance.

     

    As always, have fun and be safe!

    Ham.

     

     

     

     

    Saturday, 02 February 2019 05:39

    It may seem like a strange question to ask. To some it seems obvious, to others... it's as clear as mud.

    I think upgrading has a lot to do with issues like safety, intended purposes, design, ease of use, cost, space, approval from your better half, and frankly the list goes on and on from there.

    One aspect that probably isn't mentioned anywhere is confidence. No only to learn and use tools, but to recognize where you're heading with your hobby and to a lesser extent... when you probably shouldn't be using your existing equipment. Trust me, I get it when people use what they have. However there's a point when it becomes a hinderance more than a benefit. I think this also happens when people get stuck in a rut, not knowing that things could be done much better, or just haven't expanded their horizons in a while, so people keep doing what you've always done.

    Like everyone, I started with a very rudimentary tool kit. As my goals, skills, knowledge and confidence increased, my original tool box, then workshop has changed quite considerably over the intervening years. I have a home that needs repairs, and I've worked on everything from gyprock ceilings, building furniture, repairing bicycles, minor plumbing, electronic diagnostics, PC repairs, building ponds, repairing cars, and trust me.. each activity brings a whole range of specialized tools that you could buy. Whether you're just starting out, or upgrading a long held kit... the question is: How far down that rabbit hole, do you want (or more importantly, need) to go?

    Starting a workshop vs upgrading one:

    Getting Started...

    Starting a tool box, or workshop is one thing that many sites love to talk about. (Everyone has a different idea of "what is essential") Some of the more helpful sites outline suggested tool combinations for a variety of different budgets. I think this is very handy, because you can understand what you can get for $250, $500, $1000, or even $5000, and why things get added, upgraded or even swapped out entirely for different equipment as you go up in budget. Also important is setting realistic expectations for each kit. For $250, you can get some serviceable hand tools, and maybe a cheap electric drill, which is a basic but really handy kit! However, you won't be doing anything that requires large-scale or specialist tools.

    Please bear in mind that your goals are important here, as are your expectations and intended use. Obviously, as you go up in budget, your toolbox/workshop should become more capable, easier to use, and generally more versatile. However, the storage and work space, knowledge and skills required also go up. I should warn you that it is indeed a very slippery slope between wants and needs. Especially for one-off jobs where renting might well be a better solution. For example, jobs like tiling a bathroom isn't something the average DIY-er does on a regular basis. As such, renting a tile cutter is often a good choice. However, for the very basic tools like a saw, mitre box, pliers, hammer, chisels, screwdrivers, clamps, measuring tape, duct tape, some different glues, some rasps/files and a tool box to put it in... you'll find yourself coming back to them, over and over!

    Upgrading...

    Upgrading your toolbox or workshop is a similar process to starting it in some ways, but is often more involved for a variety of reasons. Aside from the questions about whether to upgrade, what to upgrade to, and how much benefit there is, there's the old tool(s) to consider as well. "What to do with my old stuff?" is a question with many potential answers... which may involve repairing, re-purposing, gifting, or in worst case, tossing your old equipment. Lets not forget that not all new shiny tools are actually beneficial for you... especially if you use them intermittently or even rarely, or don't have the skills to use them wisely.

    Deciding to upgrade:

    Where worketh doth happen, breaketh doth follow

    Upgrading can be an expensive and wasteful experience if done poorly, or more commonly, for the wrong reasons. There are many good reasons to upgrade. Some people find that their equipment breaks and cannot be fixed. Others find that their tools are simply not as safe to use as they should be. While a different band of people may find that their equipment still works perfectly well, but no longer has the ability to keep up with projects that they regularly do. Another common reason is that the tools in question just make the process of making stuff harder than it ought to be. Let's face it, loose components, bluntness, calibration drifting, and the classic problem of being "jammed up" not only makes things much more dangerous, it adds the downward spiral of frustration and disappointing results which just sucks the fun out of the experience. Frustration can lead to mistakes and safety issues as much as poorly maintained/used tools.

    My rationale for upgrading my old router table (a.k.a. justifying shiny new toys):

    Last year, I bought a very cheap second-hand portable router table, just to see if I would use it as much as I thought I would, and to learn the pros and cons of using the tool itself. Wow did I use it! But... it was far from ideal in places.

    I attached my router, and used it heavily for a few relatively major projects. However my router didn't fit perfectly into the mount, which meant that the controls were hard to reach, I found myself struggling to raise and lower the router depths, and changing the bits. The top of the table flexed under heavy loads, so my routed edges were occasionally out of alignment, and at other times, the work pieces "caught" on minor imperfections of the surface, which lead to issues with the finished project as well. When you need to constantly adjust things, and straighten unintentional curves out, your time gets completely sucked up into avoidable repairs that just really slow your progress down.

    Fundamentally, I think my old router table is a great piece of kit for lighter projects, but I just keep using heavy or large pieces of timber, and then the weight of a very powerful router makes the work surface flex even more.  Consequently, things just keep going awry. On the plus side, since I bought the kit second hand, it's entirely possible that I'll sell the old table for the same amount that I paid for it. So I've lost nothing by deciding to upgrade.

    Requirements for the new and improved table:

    My requirements shouldn't be all that surprising, basically that it does what the old one did and addresses the issues I've found with the old one. So my desirable features are:

    • Much more sturdy table top. (Cast iron/thick coated wood is a good choice)
    • Easier adjustments (in my case, a router lift, which needs to fit into the the router table top).
    • Dust resistant motor (in this case, a water-cooled CNC spindle, again, ensure that your router DOES fit into your table and/or lift as appropriate)
    • Easier to reach controls (in this case a conveniently placed height, switch and throttle control)
    • More efficient use of space (I've chosen to go with a table-top router table configuration, to be built on a custom chest of drawers so the exact height of the table matches my workbench (for in feed/out feed purposes).
    • Better dust collection options
    • T-Tracks for mitres and fence stops.

    Side benefits of this upgrade are:

    • Learning to install and use a CNC spindle with VFD (Variable Frequency Driver.. or speed controller) is a step closer to me building a full CNC router table when I get more space.
    • Safer, easier, more and accurate routing.
    • Better air quality.
    • Gain space by building storage underneath.
    • Maximize workshop flexibility by combining the existing workshop furniture for a variety of tasks.
    • Tidier looking garage overall! (Important for appeasing the all-important Wren).
    • Get jobs done faster! Increasing woodworking enjoyment and sense of accomplishment.

    Cons of the upgrade:

    • Obviously the cost. I've chosen to go with a matching brand of table, router lift, and CNC Mill kit to ensure compatibility. The CNC spindle (or router motor) is an industrial-grade solution with a expected lifespan of 10,000 hours (as opposed to 1000 hours of continual use offered by even high quality routers). After much thought, my decision came down to: Could I build it myself? Sure, but time is a factor and I could not build it with the accuracy of a properly machined kit.
    • Additional costs for water cooling equipment, materials for the custom chest of drawers, time to build (If you don't consider your time as "free").
    • A professional grade router table (complete with spindle, lift, etc, etc) that's pre-made can run for $3000-7000 easily. I expect my space saving option of similar quality, will last me for my life time and probably come in at under $3000.

    A quick side note for context:

    I live in town at the moment, but I'm planning to start a small scale farm once I can sort out my new business. As such, aiming for reasonable value while getting industrial grade equipment seems to be appropriate for the longer term requirements of a farm.

    Conclusion:

    This was just a basic outline of my thought process, and why my choices suited me. However, your needs will likely differ from my own, but if you have good reasons to upgrade something, you should do so with the most appropriate, safe, and reliable equipment you can get.

    I hope this helps! Happy wood working!

    Ham.

    Tuesday, 15 January 2019 20:48

    It all started with an idea... ironically... from Ikea.

    After our Christmas-time binge on Ikea, and having looked at the joinery and materials of Ikea's range, my inner DIY goblin went "Pffff, I can do that!". The road was long and melamine-coated chipboard dust went everywhere, but it's done.

    If you've read the cheese making parts of my web site, you know I like making cheese. However, when you have large, larger, and huge polycarbonate tubs, filled with moulds, hoops, pressing plates, followers, presses, thermometers, curd cutters, etc, etc... most kitchens don't really have the spare cabinetry space to store all that. So in our chaotic "stick it wherever it fits" mentality, we naturally put it on top of our piano. It all sat there like that in an unstable and heavy tower for say... six months, interspersed with cheese making use of course. But it looked ugly.

    Setting up the goals... Ikea was never going to achieve this:

    The goals were simple, but heavier-duty than Ikea's gear would allow, and they included:

    • The ability to hold upwards of 50Kg of cheese equipment.
    • Must hang on the wall stably.
    • Must house the cheese equipment with room for other stuff.
    • Must have shelves to hold the two rear speakers of the home theatre system.
    • Must allow for cabling for speakers.
    • Must be adjustable.
    • Must fit above the piano, between two shelves.

    Ok, so in the end, I designed a 0.8m (800mm) high, 1.7m (1700mm) wide set of cabinetry, made in three parts.

    1. The left speaker shelf,(300mm wide)
    2. The central cabinet with doors (1100mm wide)
    3. the right speaker shelf. (300mm wide)

    Because there's a piano underneath, I chose to use 595mm wide (16mm thick) white melamine boards (for a deeper cabinet) from the local hardware shop. I bought it in three very large sheets (3m x 0.595m) and got them cut down to transportable sizes which minimized cutting for my design.

    Shaping pieces.

    Assembling each of the three components separately, I cut a groove into the sides, top and bottom for the backboard. Then used a biscuit joiner for alignment of the remaining pieces. Once I'd done a "dry fit" (without glue) I'd separate the parts, apply melamine edging to cut surfaces.

    Adjustable shelf holes were added while the pieces are apart. I used a commercially-made Kreg jig to do this. However, remember that you need to ensure that the holes are level on both sides. so arranging the pieces side by side in a mirror image helps to ensure this works!

    Assembly.

    Then assemble, gluing and clamping the pieces together, ensuring (with some mixed success) that they were square before it dried. Then I just screwed it together for good measure. In an ideal world, I would have trimmed any excess with a flush bit on my router, but it was 41 degrees, and I'd loaned my flush-cut bit to a friend, and more importantly, Wren wanted her garage back, so I had to obey the matriarch for fear of being pecked to death. :-)

    Adding the doors using your typical kitchen cabinet hinges uses another jig, a 35mm forstner bit, a few screws. Kitchen styled concealed hinges come in three types.

    1. Inset (meaning the wood of the cabinet surrounds the door when closed)
    2. Partial overlay (meaning the door sits in front of the cabinet, but doesn't cover it all the way to the edge.
    3. Full overlay (you can't see any of the cabinet because the door covers it all).

    I found that someone had dropped a hinge in the wrong part of the shelf at the hardware store, and didn't read the labels carefully, so I ended up with two different types. Not good. Also, consider the hinge's angle of travel. If you need to run drawers, you should ensure that the hinges don't obscure the function of the drawer opening and closing.

    Read the hinge instructions, and ensure you're putting holes where you should be! Once the doors are aligned, THEN put in your handles (if you have any).

    Wall mounting

    I used a split-cleat system (Americans call it a "French cleat" for reasons unknown to me) to create a nice detachable system... although I hope I don't have to detach anything soon. You can look that up. However, I found it is easiest to locate and mount by:

    1. Mount the top cleat to your cabinet, (obviously avoid screwing anything into the sloped parts of your cleat)
    2. Measure your bottom (wall) cleat's dimensions while pushed up underneath the newly mounted cleat on the cabinet. Note how far down, the bottom edge of your wall cleat, is from the top of the cabinet. Also, mark on the inside of the back wall, where the wall cleat will be for locking screws later (step 7),
    3. Mark the leveled horizontal line on your wall where the top of the cabinet must go. (Use a level, this is not optional).
    4. Using your measurement from step two, mark another level the line where the bottom of the wall cleat should go.
    5. Considering any side edges of your cabinet, screw the wall cleat into place, using appropriate anchors. (Use a stud finder or masonry anchors.. just make sure it can handle the future load).
    6. If it's a little too low, you can add tape to the cleat surfaces, or if it's a bit further off, I've been known to place a thin slice of wood to shim it up.
    7. I usually put a locking screw into the back of the cabinet, into the wall cleat... which should be in a known location. This stops the cabinet from being unhooked from the wall cleat. One or two screws is usually enough.

    What could I have done better?

    • Ensured I had the right hinges. I thought I'd installed it incorrectly.... and it wasn't lining up.
    • Made the central cabinet a little more square. It's slightly off.
    • Used a cleaner iron when "ironing on the melamine edging".
    • Asked for help to mount the middle cabinet to the wall... It was very hard alone.
    • When drilling the holes for adjustable shelves, I was running on a low battery which slowed my drill. This meant that the melamine flaked off, instead of ground down.. which needed repair. So when drilling into melamine coated boards, start with a high speed, and light downward pressure. Take your time.
    • Bought better masonry anchors. I destroyed a couple when I hit something hard that the stud finder didn't indicate.
    • The 1100mm wide cabinet has only the bottom, and one shelf.  With the load and distance between supports, this is likely to sag a little over time, so I'll probably reinforce it along the bottom.
    • Put handles on doors after re-adjusting the height of the right-hand door. That was silly.

     

    Conclusion:

    Ok for my first melamine-coated kitchen cabinet, it will do all the tasks I designed it for. Obviously, I'm not a professional, but I've seen far worse-looking assembly jobs of Ikea kits. I'm still kinda proud.

    All the best!

    Ham.

     

     

     

     

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