Monday, March 18, 2019

Springing Spring has Sprung in Northern California... I need tips on keeping the mosquitos away!

Our lovely garden, with decorative dog-repelling wire fence material to make it look ugly, but keep the idiot dog out.
 Well, here in the Northern end of the Great Central Valley, Spring is upon us.  You can tell it's Spring if you live on the edge of the Delta because the mustard begins to bloom.  We have a flower just about all through Winter -- sourgrass, or oxalis -- but when the wild mustard (which is everywhere here, along with bull mallow) blooms, we are at Spring.  Soon after, the wild radish will bloom alongside it.

Last year, in preparation for the big shed and house projects we were expecting, I moved a few plants that would have been destroyed.  I've done very little transplanting in my life, and I'm always scared, so I did some Googling and YouTube video-watching to get tips and tricks... but without the confidence that comes from experience, I'm always a nervous wreck.

The plants were a calla lily, a couple of roses, and a Japanese maple.  I know all three are hardy plants, and I shouldn't have been so concerned with the outcome.  Still, the roses have been wonderful -- they were on the property when we moved here, and are huge (one of them had grown well over ten feet tall) -- and the Japanese maple was a Mother's Day present the kids and I had bought my wife a few years ago. These have history, and I didn't want to lose them.

After transplanting, the calla never stopped looking alive, and the roses shot new growth almost immediately.  But the maple didn't do anything for weeks.

These leaves emerged almost immediately after transplanting back in November.  We've got a happy rose under our bedroom window.

Last week, however, the maple began showing tiny signs of life:

Success!  Tiny new growth emerging from the tips of the maple tree.
Since I was successful at transplanting four established plants, I'm now an expert here on the interwebs.  So here's my process:

1) Dig a big hole;
2) Pour some kind of plant transplanting help juice/water mix into the dirt left from the hole;
3) Dig out your plant, sweating and nervously chuckling at the horrible crunching and cracking sounds;
4) Put the plant into the first hole (not the second hole, that was made where you took it out, remember?);
5) Fill around the new plant with the dirt/transplanting help juice/water mix;
6) Pray and be nervous for 6-8 weeks.

I hope you gain something from my now publishable experience and expertise.

Something else that pops up in Spring is my archery class here in West Sacramento:

My backstop could use a dye job.

Sadly, we also get to deal with the perennial invasion of many, many mosquitoes.  My son gets especially large welts from some of them, but they are no fun for the rest of us, either.  What I need are tips for reducing/eliminating/fending off mosquitoes that don't involve bug spray directly on us, nor massive amounts of pesticide or pyrethrum or its chemical equivalent.  I know we'll never get rid of them, but the numbers are pretty amazing in my back yard.  (Yes, I know to remove standing water.)

Anyhoo, give me your tricks for getting rid of mosquitoes if you've got 'em.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Shotgun sling, and getting on the stitching pony

©2019 Joshua Stark

One crazy discovery I've found from my time working with leather is that I really, really enjoy stitching and lacing by hand.  The stitch I perform most often is the saddle stitch, which involves two needles on either end of a six-foot thread, through a project that is clamped down in a contraption known as the stitching pony.

A rifle sling in the stitching pony, about to have a deer skin pad stitched to it.

Of course, my stitching pony is an example of my "useful" handiwork -- a perfectly practical, hideous creation that works a little bit less than a store-bought version, but which cost pennies.

Stitching appears to be a very boring endeavor, but in reality, the subtle steps to get it right take a lot of time to learn, while improvements and a job done right are nearly immediate in their reward.  I get great joy just from hand stitching a straight line.  Also, the saddle stitch is nearly indestructible, and easily repaired.

These pictures do not convey the satisfaction of getting it right.

But it is also one of those skills that goes completely unused if there is no motivation to begin.  The steps are many, and they have one purpose -- to put a thread into a material.

It's a type of work that goes well with a radio -- usually NPR, in my case, or music.  I can also talk some, though I can't really lose my focus, or else the lines start to sway.

For the past month, I've been coming back to a project that put me back on the pony: a shotgun sling for a friend of mine.

A shotgun sling differs from other slings in that it is not strapped into hardware directly on the gun.  Rather, leather straps are slipped over the gun, as in the picture below:

I'm not a photographer
 Although you can shoot with the sling on, it is really meant to help for long treks without shooting -- say, to a duck blind -- where it is then removed during the hunt.

It was a riot to make, since I had to research and test parts, get the buckle on right, and tool a new head for me, a Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata).  These are wonderful birds, picked on by many waterfowlers who don't know how to cook them right, but appreciated for their comical bill and striking colors.

I also tried to tool silhouettes of canada geese, which came out alright, but definitely not as good as I'd have liked.  More practice is needed, for sure.

Since duck hunting is so wet, I decided not to put a deerskin pad on it, but rather, some neoprene.  I looked all over for swimsuit-type stuff but couldn't find it in anything but really large amounts, so I went to the local Big Box and looked around.  I found some light neoprene in the form of pads for truck tool boxes, and I cut the piece from one (after I bought it, of course).

A neoprene pad, hand-stitched.
It seems to have come out pretty well.

If you are interested in a piece of leather work, check out my Etsy page here:

Also, if you have suggestions, let me know!

Saturday, February 23, 2019

A couple of (kinda) cheap shop ideas put to use

As our new shed was being built, I was tickled pink with anticipation (a strange sight, indeed), and since I am a huge fan of Pinterest, I incessantly poked around there for shop ideas.

Being as absolutely cheap-skate as I am, I particularly focused on things I could make or repurpose from what I've already got, or from dirt-cheap basic materials.  One idea I'd had in mind was using cedar fence boards for wood paneling, cupboards, and the like.  I already had a jug of boiled linseed oil and some paints, and I went to town.

I'd seen some pretty cool leather workshops put together with tools hung on wood panels.  I didn't want the dark painted wood I'd seen, but I figured that if I sanded down some cedar boards and treated them, they'd look quite nice.  And at $2.50 per five-foot board, the price would be something I could live with.

The result:

My leather workshop corner made from cedar fence boards treated with boiled linseed oil.

The cedar boards worked like a charm.  Cedar is easy to work with, cheap, and took on a pretty honey look with the linseed oil.  The odor was quite strong, both from the wood and from the oil, so if you are sensitive to that kind of stuff, I'd go with something less volatile.  I love the smell of those things, and after a few days (even in the fairly cold Winter), it had dissipated. 

One great, cheap trick I discovered was the variety of uses of brass mug hooks.  I used them to hang tools, bending them to the shape I needed for weird-shaped ones like this leather stitching punch:

I also used them to hang my electrical cords, and of course, some of my leather projects.

As a person who rarely paints or stains anything, I've always been flummoxed by people's ability to dry their project without leaning it against something and making a mess and leaving unsightly marks.  Well, it dawned on me that I could temporarily screw in the mug hooks to the project I was drying, and voila!  No visible marks, and nice, even application:

One project I discovered down the Pinterest rabbit-hole was a DIY cyclone shop-vac.  Now, I'd been given a gift card by my lovely wife to the local Big Box store, and I'd purchased a vacuum cleaner... I know, it sounds stupid, until I call it a Shop-Vac -- then, it sounds manly and cool.  I'm dumber than I thought.

Anyhow, I'd seen folks do some elaborate woodworking, gluing, drilling with fancy bits, etc., to make a "cheap" cyclone vacuum.  A cyclone vacuum will separate the bigger chunks and thicker wood dust, allowing your bags and filters to last a lot longer.  But, cyclones are expensive, and I'm not.

After thinking that the amount of time it would take to make one would make it more expensive than just buying one, I found a guy who said, basically, to just cut a hole in a bucket at an angle, glue in a hose, cut another hole in the lid, jam a pvc pipe into it so that it drops a bit below the bucket-hole, and jam the hose to your vacuum into that pvc.

I found out that you don't even have to glue it, you can... what's the term? Ah!  "Pressure-fit".  I just cut the holes a little bit smaller than I was supposed to (don't ask if I did that on purpose, just go with it), and jammed the fittings in out of sheer frustratio... genius.

The result:
Behold the considerably cheaper, but still not cheap, cyclone vacuum.
One word of caution to the truly cheap-skates among us.  The dad-gum extra hose was twenty bucks!  I don't know about you, but if my project runs into double digits, then it can't really be "cheap."

Anyway, the thing works like a charm, and I expect my filter and bag will last quite a while.  It was worth it.

If you have any cheap shop ideas, do tell!

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Small business musings

A purse made from Wickett & Craig bridle leather.  I'm happy how it turned out.
     Since I last posted in 2017, I have continued with my leather working enterprise.  I typically sell between one and two items per month, and take in about a hundred bucks.  Thank goodness I have an amazing day job!  Really, though, I'd never thought of this as anything more than a hobby that would help offset my hunting and fishing, especially as my kids get older and show an interest in those same, bank-account ravaging pastimes.

There are, of course, upsides and downsides to running a hobby as a small business.  In my case:

  • I am forced to the workbench if I have an order, even if I'm not feelin' it.  Fear of being late to finish (or start!) a project that somebody already paid good money to receive is a pretty effective motivator.  And when I get to the bench, I remember in a visceral way just how much I love doing the work.
  • I am forced to repeat processes and techniques.  This sounds boring, but if you love the work and love getting it just a little bit better each time, it is a remarkably satisfying experience.  Also, repetition of proper technique in handcrafts is essential to creating good, high-quality work.
  • I have a reason to buy decent quality, and proper, tools and leather.  This is a big deal, because it really helped me get off the ground.  Let's be honest here -- when it comes to buying stuff for me, I squeak when I walk.  They greet me by name at Harbor Freight.  But when I started making nice stuff, I realized that I'd need decent tools to get the job done.  A bonus is that I deduct the cost of this stuff, and that really helped me to get started, for sure.
  • I get to go off by myself and do something that I love.  My family is super-supportive, but I still carry with me some internal guilt whenever I go off to do something alone... that's natural, and a good check on complete hedonism.  But sometimes it gets out of hand, and so it's nice to have a little mental crutch ("yikes!  I have to get that order in!").
There are, of course

  • It is, indeed, a business -- which brings a number of headaches, like keeping receipts, and tax time.  And state and federal and regional and local taxes don't always match up chronologically.  And fees can bite you in the butt, big-time.
  • I have less time for new ideas.  If you have to get the same five things out that you know you are good at getting out, then you have less time in your life for experimenting with new styles or products.  I haven't hand-stitched nearly as often lately, for example, nor laced up anything like that purse in quite a while.
  • I'm stressed!  I do stress about getting a product out on time, and that carries its own baggage, even if it ultimately results in a good outcome for me.  Adding hobby stress to my work stress is not always the best idea.
  • This hobby takes precedence if an order is in.  Since it is in my, "me" time, it sometimes takes time away from other things I'd like to do -- like fishing and hunting or gardening.

I also teach archery as another hobby/business, and much of these apply to that work, too.

Do you run a hobby as a business?  Have you taken it up to become your primary income, or kept it small?  Are you happy with it, either way?  I'd love to hear from you, especially any tips and tricks you might want to share.

Of course, everybody is welcome to leave a comment here if you like!  Let me know what you think.

Also, I am looking for ideas for leather work, so let me know if you have any.

Monday, February 11, 2019

What am I doing back here?! We'll see... maybe nothing

© Joshua Stark 2019
In our newest addition -- an honest-to-goodness workshop... also, just an obligatory picture

I've been away from the blogosphere for quite some time, spending most of my days in the Facebook.  There's something really great about that space, namely, I've found many long-lost (even somewhat forgotten, at times) friends and family, and I get to read about their goings-on quite regularly... well, the ones who use Facebook, that is.

But I have noticed that lately I'm having a difficult time focusing on longer pieces.  I can't seem to stop and think, linger, contemplate the nuances.  Rather, I'm constantly looking for a photo, or for the "next" update.  Part of this is probably just the digital medium, more broadly.  It is very picture-oriented, and it is very, very fast.  Pictures are now, perhaps for the first time in history, cheaper than words to take, to make, to print and disseminate.

That's not to say that good words or good pictures are cheap.  Good words and good pictures still require skills, and most people just don't take the time to develop these skills.  For example, keep reading this blog, and then go read something from Faulkner.  You'll see. 

But the relative price of written words has dropped to near zero.  Once, we had to carve out writing space and time, and have the tools of pen, pencil, paper.  And photography was even more expensive, requiring actual gear and usually the ability to travel, and also the purchase of film and processing, and the time it took to see what picture you actually took.  The very physical nature of all of these things was limiting, too; just imagine storing as many pictures as you have on your phone in albums.

Back when words were more expensive, people didn't write so much.  Rather, we prioritized, writing to our dearest loved ones, or writing to our superiors, our government officials, our teachers.  Most of us didn't write as much because writing is hard.  It took time and effort, it took a part of our brains we didn't exercise nearly enough in our day-to-day affairs.  But, some of us obsessed over writing: the skill, the dedication, the drive to draft perfect sentences that uncover deep, universal emotions and truths about our world and the human condition.  Some took it up as a professional craft, either by stumbling into it, or driven by dreams of wealth -- using the written word to convince, to titillate, to shock, all with the end goal of making a buck.  Most of us just stayed away as much as we could.

(Some of you can take this quick quiz to discover if you are in the camp of writing as a profession/dedication, or if you don't care so much:  have you been either bemoaning or smiling contentedly at my use of two spaces to separate sentences?  If so, I daresay you work in writing quite a bit.)

Back when pictures were expensive, people didn't take so many, either.  We prioritized, taking pictures of loved ones, great and beautiful places, tragedies, and the like.  Again like writing, some dove into film and photography as a passionate desire, a discipline, and/or a profession.  But for most, photography happened at birthday parties and the Grand Canyon.  For those of you of a certain age: how many selfies did you take before digital formats became as high-quality as those of film?  I certainly did not think of myself as photogenic enough to waste expensive rolls and the time it would take to send off to get developed.  I could just look in the mirror and see all my flaws -- no need to preserve those for posterity at ten bucks a pop!

Our now-ubiquitous tiny, portable computers, and our connected social media platforms, changed all of that.  Though good words and photos still are not cheap, there are so many more cheap words and photos out there in the ether.  We don't need to pick and choose, or rather, many of us find it so difficult to find the good stuff because of the proliferation of the bad.  And the sheer number of words and pictures has driven down the price for all of them so much that many good folks in the written and photographic professions find it really hard to scrape together a living.

And pictures are now even cheaper than words.  People have taken that whole, "a picture is worth a thousand words" to heart, thinking that just by snapping a shot, they don't have to explain nearly so much.  I mean, it's right there, right?  In technicolor?

But there is something even more ephemeral about this current medium.  We've thrown up so much out into it that finding good stuff is so much more difficult.  Just last week, I began moving some of my pictures from my phone to my computer.  When I first bought the phone, I was impressed at the amount of memory it can store.  Now, it's just annoying; finding a decent picture buried in a sheer mountain of crap is the same as not ever having taken it at all.  The scrolling nature of personal, political, local and global news and economic updates is similar; there may be good words strung together out there, but finding them is purnt-near impossible.

I think there is a happy medium still out there, between the tremendous scarcity and elitism of the "old" ways and the utter anarchy of the new... it isn't nearly as popular as it was in the last decade, but it is still around.  I'm talking about the blog.

I loved blogs, and I pored through them until I found some that inspired me.  I learned how to do so many things -- little things, like make yogurt or prune a pomegranate or wax a duck, but still life-changing skills.  Unlike books, where I have also learned so much, blogs allowed me to reach out directly to authors, and from it I also made dear, lifelong friends.  I also felt a connection to a group of people I had cobbled together, even though they didn't, and may never, know of each other.  I brought them together into my world because of what they said and how they said it.

When I jumped onto Facebook, it was for a completely different reason.  I saw a friend who was on there, and it occurred to me that I could find friends and family who were physically distant from me, and I could communicate more regularly with them.  It wasn't because of what they thought, but simply of who they were -- people who'd been in my life, from my small community or from my large extended family.  I read their posts out of love.

Slowly, I lost the threads to bloggers.  Many disappeared, never to be heard from again... something that bothers me from time to time.  Being a fatalistic Okie, I wonder if they've died, though probably like me, they just stopped putting their best ideas down on a blog for free.  Others also moved to Facebook, where they mostly lurk. Still others may reside on social media places I haven't tried.

And it very well be that blogs were the downfall of good writing, since they lowered the price for valuable information to near zero.

Over time, I lost the desire to sit down and think through ideas to put on my blogs.  I have three that I regularly posted in the past, but the world started moving so fast, it felt, that I didn't have much desire to come back and post... also, I never was really good at it.  So it's been two years since I've posted something to one of my blogs.

But I come back here and read them myself occasionally, or link to an old piece I wrote when I see it may relate to something in the news that a friend might find useful or illuminating, or silly.  Mostly silly.  I also look up old recipes I developed for woodworking, cooking, gardening.  This blog, in particular, was originally meant to be a placeholder for useful yard and garden things, leatherworking, cooking, duck-rearing, etc.

Now, I'm back.

I don't know if I'll keep it up this time, but I want to try.  I enjoy writing, I don't do it well enough to get paid for it, and I like coming back to read ideas that I'd discovered from great places around the internet and noted here.  I also enjoy doing the things I write about here: gardening, hunting, fishing, foraging, and this place helps spur me when I can more easily do other things that don't give me the same pleasure, like perusing Facebook.

So, on to updates.

There are so many!  In the past year, we started upgrading our house to make room for our growing family.  No, we didn't have more kids... but, if you didn't know this, then beware:  when you have children, they literally grow.  You have to feed them more and more, and you have to make room for them.  It's crazy, and wasn't in the manual when we first looked it up.

So, we are having an extra bedroom built for our daughter, because we don't want her to kill us at some point.

We've also put in a shed that is big enough to house all our outdoor things, plus have room for storage AND a workshop!  It's been wonderful, simply wonderful.  I've also got a barrel smoker I rescued and fixed up for about $30, and I hope to build out a cheap cook-out space in the yard for it.  I'll try to update with all of these things at some point, including how I'm organizing the shed, prepping and planting the garden, and getting back into leather work.

If you've taken a moment to read my little rant here, leave me a message.  And have a great day.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Wood and water and moving earth.

© 2017 Joshua Stark

I didn't grow up with a fireplace, nor a fire pit.  When I was a kid, we burned some of our trash in the back yard like good people did then, but that was it.

When camping, of course we built a fire.  But at home, we didn't have a woodpile, or anything of the sort.

Now, I've decided that I want a fire pit in our back yard (for days when we are allowed to burn, of course -- like good people do today).  We've collected some river rocks from Craigslist, and have a decent little camp-like pit.  We also have a small rock garden next to it, and I moved one of our raised beds to make some room (pics when it looks better).

We are also getting plenty of wood from downed branches off of our walnut, redwood and cedar trees, and I do not plan to buy wood to burn.

However, since everything is wet, we are having quite a time getting something to burn...

In my search for how people put up wood, I did stumble upon this little stand idea on Pinterest, and put it to use:

It's very simple:  a cinder block, two 2x4's, and  firewood.  No glue, no nails.  It ain't pretty, but form follows function, right?

Around the neighborhood, fruit trees are in bloom.  It feels early, because it is (climate change is real, folks).  The rains have been, until today, relentless -- for the first time, I had to cut a channel around one side of the house, to drain away some water.

Today, there's some wind, and a little chill (say, forty degrees), but there's also sun!  I think we get a couple days of respite before the next storm rolls in this weekend.

And speaking of wind and storms (because, let's face it, I live in California):

Queue ominous music...
Somewhere, in that tangle, thirty to fifty feet up, sits a widowmaker.  On the other side, about ten feel lower, is another one.

A widowmaker, for those who don't know, is a large, broken branch.  My redwood here is over 100 feet tall, and so the perspective is lost in a photo -- but for scale, consider that each of those larger branches is, effectively, a small tree, hanging horizontally and sixty feet up.

There is a general understanding that redwoods are light weight woods, and this is true up to a point.  However, none of those branches up there are dried out -- they are all filled with water, which makes them still pretty danged heavy, and some of them have got to be thirty feet long.  And since F=MA, we've had our troubles over the years with this tree, including roof, car, and fence damage.

Widowmakers are one of those wild, foreboding natural phenomena... especially if you are a logger. But, not exclusively.  Back when I was a State Park Interpreter, my docents told me a story of a fifth grade class visiting the Forest of Nisene Marks in the Santa Cruz mountains. 

This forest is a patch of second-growth redwood, and also the infamous epicenter of the Loma Prieta quake way back in the 20th Century.  My visitor center, tasked with interpreting the Forest, would lead groups of fifth graders on a nature and history walk on one of its amazing, dark trails, talking about fairy rings and cathedral stands, banana slugs and eucalyptus.  And Loma Prieta and widowmakers.

During one such walk, after the earthquake/widowmaker talk, the class was gifted with a particularly pointed lesson: a 5 or so scale earthquake and a gigantic branch that fell among them.  Thankfully, nobody was hurt.  But, it's outdoor education like these that shape and mold young minds...

I'll be getting out the ladder later today or tomorrow, getting a rope onto these branches, and yanking them down if I can.  Of the four seasons in California, we are on the back-side of Flood, which means we've gone through three of them.  Only one left.

(Bonus points for knowing the four seasons of California.)

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sapping, spaetzle, and an infestation

© 2017 Joshua Stark

The fun with the stand mixer continues!  I've whipped up egg whites for home-made Belgian waffles, and made a gingerbread (from James Beard's recipe) with the paddle.  I've also tried the dough hook twice -- for a soda bread, and yesterday, for spaetzle dough.  I'm still getting the hang of it, but it is coming along.

If you've never made spaetzle, the recipe is super easy: 3 cups flour, four eggs, a teaspoon salt and another of nutmeg, and about 1/2 cup of water.  After mixing the dry ingredients together, mix the eggs in the middle with half the water, and then beat in the rest of the water until it's a smooth, elastic and fairly sticky consistency.  The dough hook worked for this part really well, and let me do other things while it worked.

Now, the hard part (for spaetzle):  I don't own a spaetzle press.  I do it the old fashioned way, by cutting it on a board... something like what this absolutely amazing woman does.

Please, take a moment to watch that video, because that woman flat-out rocks!  

Anyway... I'm actually nothing like that woman.  First, I don't have a board with a handle.  Second, the board I do have is too wide to fit into my pot. I also don't have a knife that flat -- my knife is too sharp and kept getting caught on the board. What I got was a quick whipping up of the dough, followed by an hour or so of wrestling with a very sticky, gooey mess.  

I finally was able to cook up a bunch (it kept growing and growing!), served alongside garden chard and elk meatballs. The kids liked it alright.  The wife absolutely LOVED it!

That latter fact bodes ill for my future.  

Now, for the infestation:

Not the best pictures, but they clearly show what was a short-lived infestation of maybe twenty or so Meleagris gallopavo.  They were first heard jumping from our roof to our neighbor's roof -- I wasn't quite sure what they were, then hey!  There's a jenny staring at me through the window!

I called a couple of times, since a jake was keen on struttin' his stuff, and then I hooted like an owl a couple of times and three or four of 'em immediately gobbled back.  It was great.

I don't know if they were roosting in one of our gigantic trees, but we'll be looking for them tonight (update: no return of the flock).

These are city-folk, and we won't be hunting this particular flock come Spring.  However, I have been very pleased with the efforts of our first bird last year

Speaking of trees, I just this morning discovered that people tap walnut trees for sap.  I have a monster English walnut in my back yard (it could easily accommodate three taps), but I have a sneaking feeling that our temperatures rarely get cold enough for a good flow.

Has anybody out there tapped trees in California?  Have you tapped trees where you maybe get three weeks, total, of below freezing temps?