Displaying items by tag: problems

    Friday, 24 September 2021 09:24

    Bread baking improvisation.

    Imagine, if you will... that you got up really early to bake some bread. By some... I mean three different types, in three very large loaves. You mix, you tweak, knead, proof, and shape your doughs. Everything is going to plan. You heat up the oven until it's ripping hot. The cast iron pot (or "Dutch oven" if you prefer) is fully hot and ready for the first dough to go in.

    As you place the dough in the hot pot, you hear the click of the oven heating element ramping up the temperature again. You think nothing of it, after all, you've basically cranked the oven all the way up, and it has to work hard to reach that elusive 270oC (Or 518oF... if you're so inclined).

    You hit your dough with your slashing weapon of choice... lame, knife, etc, give the dough a light flouring, and place it in the oven. You lower the temperature a little, and set the timer for about 25-30 minutes. After several plaintive spates of feline mewling, and a round of feeding to appease the feline overlords, the timer hits zero and the call to action is sounded.

    No worries, you just have to remove the lid on the pot to brown the crust, for another 20-30 minutes. You remove the lid, and it's risen... only there's a problem. That heating light has never gone off. The set temperature hasn't been reached in quite some time, and the temperature in the oven is less than half what it should be.

    Yes, dear reader, the oven was no longer heating, and I had one half-cooked loaf, and two more ready to go on the bench. Not good!

    Using what little heat remained in the iron pot, and oven, I slow cooked the bread into a mostly-baked but disturbingly pale loaf... while I thought of some options.

    I could have:

    1. Fired up my charcoal barbecue... time to get it ready, heated, and going.. probably about 2 hours. The problem with this, is that it is spring here, so this is the windiest time of the year. Regulating heat with winds over 40Km/h (25 Mph) would be challenging at best.
    2. Take it to a neighbour's place.. but we're in Covid-induced "lockdown" here. Not exactly going to win me any favours.
    3. Stove + Iron pot = hot... but this won't brown the crust properly, and regulating the heat will be a little troublesome. So....
    4. DIY Ham solution....  keep it hot in the pot on the stove, but brown the top with.... a DeWalt heat gun. That's right, if it strips paint with hot air, and it can belt out 430oC+ (800oF) air, I can brown some crust. :-)

    So needless to say I went with option 4.

    The results?

    Firstly, the hot pot worked very well. In fact, if I wasn't so distracted trying to hair-dry my bread into the most luscious brown I've ever seen in a bread, I might have noticed that the bottom of my loaf was indeed... burning. Using a smaller burner on the stove in 5 minute bursts would have been able avoid this issue. However, the top was gorgeous. Which isn't really surprising as I was literally painting my crust with hot air wherever it looked a little pale with heat.

    Unfortunately, since the bottom burned to a charred-fruit-toast tar, I had to cut the entire bottom off, and this crushed the top of my loaf that I had browned to perfection. A sign that the bread wasn't actually fully cooked inside, so the crumb was still very soft.

    So it's not as pretty as it might have been. I wish I took a photo before it was messed up.

    So was it tasty?

    Yes, yet it was, and it will keep the matriarch happy for few days... maybe... if I'm lucky.

    A real solution...

    With lock down continuing for another few weeks at least, and our heavy reliance on our oven for many cooking tasks, appeasing the matriarch would likely involve... fixing the oven. Now I could have adapted what I'd learned about option 4 in "improvised bread baking" for large loaves 2 and 3. I'd probably have gotten a nice result, but it would have taken me ages. That's not ideal when the dough is over-proofing.

    Diagnosing the oven fault:

    Every oven is a little bit different. Our nearly 20 year old electric "Chef" branded oven might finally have "given up the ghost". I'd replaced the heating element a few times before (it seems to be a roughly annual event) but it wasn't like the other times. Ok, so in my experience, when the oven element blows... it's quite spectacular. A bright flash, and the oven's circuit breaker trips and the oven turns off... as it's supposed to. This time, the fans, the clock, and the heating lights still continued in their happily powered roles... only no heat was to be had. So I wasn't sure that I'd be able to fix the oven this time.

    Testing the heating element:

    So I turned off the power (as it was still trying to run afterall), turned it off at the breaker too for safety, and removed the element. In previous element deaths, it was split or burst (and burned) at some point along the element. This time, no visible damage was to be seen.Uh oh... she might be really dead now! So for confirmation, I grabbed my multimeter, and tested the element for electrical resistance. Since power has to flow through the unit to work, connecting the probes to each terminal of the element will tell me if power can flow through it. I ran the test, and found, "Max resistance" in short, power couldn't flow through it, this the element was dead.Sort of a relief... but I was somewhat sad too because I can't justify a new oven. Our bread baking takes the oven right to it's limit, and I bake bread twice a week at a minimum. Some extra good news: A little-known fact is that when you get a replacement oven element (at least from reputable sources in Australia), you get a 12 month warranty. I had bought mine in November last year, and since we're only at September... say hello to a free replacement. If I still had the receipt. Which was still stuck to our fridge (next to the oven) with a magnet.. That was surprisingly convenient!

    But.... aren't I forgetting that pesky "lock down" thing. Will the spare parts shop still be open?

    That I had to call about. Also, while many shops offer "Click and collect"... this was a warranty claim, so it wasn't as though I was going to buy another one online, only to ask if they'd give it to me for free. I needed to talk to an actual human. I eventually got through, and they said "as long as you bring the old element in, with the receipt, we can swap that for you".

    So I did so. But the shop is a half-hour drive each way... my dough was now over-proofing by an hour.. by the time I did the return trip, installed the new element, heated the oven right up to the limit (that takes a while) we're talking at least another 2 hours. The dough was supposed to be baked and cooled by then. But it was in large bowls covered by plates... and we're early spring in Canberra... we might hit 20oC (58oF) if we're very lucky. That'll buy me some time... maybe.

    Wow had the dough risen when it was time to bake!... To the point that the plates were well and truly attached to the lids covering it. Getting the dough into the hot pot deflated it considerably. So I didn't get the amount of rising I hoped. However, the long and the short of it is:

    • A little creativity can overcome unexpected problems. Although in true life lessons, those improvisations bring issues of their own.
    • I'm actually tempted to bake my breads at slightly lower temperatures for longer to cook the crumb, and then use the heat gun to brown crusts to perfection.
    • Fruit bread really can handle large amounts of dried fruit. I'm now putting 50% of the flour weight worth of fruit... and more... (I think I put nearly 70% fruit ) and it just get sweeter and tastier. I like mixing the fruits up. Diced dates, dried cranberries, raisins, sultanas, and even dried apricots work well. Crispy-baked, shredded beetroot is also delicious, and adds interesting colour.
    • Sometimes, over-proofing can create massive holes in your breads, but if you pop larger bubbles when you see them before baking, the crumb doesn't suffer much at all.
    • Having fixed an oven... for next-to-free (aside from travel costs) justified my record-keeping OCD. Also, it's one of the ways that supporting local businesses can actually reward you. Ordering online has numerous avoidable down-sides that I think people aren't fully aware of (or are resigned to) while so many stores are closed.
    • Bread, even when things go pretty horribly wrong.. is still more delicious than most commercial offerings... and what else was I going to do while stuck at home? Build a CNC router? Oh wait.. yes I am... ironically.. whenever my parts arrive... but I don't have the luxury of local stores for that stuff. That I am resigned to.

    Hope you're all well out there. "Keep calm and try baking more bread... even with a heat gun". I bet you never saw that slogan!


    Published in Bread making
    Wednesday, 06 March 2019 12:22

    When things go wrong in wood working.

    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.


    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.

    Published in Wood Working
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