Archive for the ‘engineering’ Category

Wheel hoe from junk bikes

September 22, 2019

We have a good-sized garden in Gorham (about 4,000 square feet) and particularly in midsummer there’s a lot of weeding to do.  We’ve tried mulching the aisles between the beds with wood chips; the driveway ends on a very busy main road, and I put up a sign asking for chips that resulted in over 100 cubic yards arriving one day.  The chips work well if we put down a thick layer, but if we don’t go thick enough or skip a year the weeds come right up through, and hauling the chips is hard work.

We have a medium-sized rototiller, but the engine is old and finicky, and using a particularly nasty old fossil-fueled engine for routine cultivation seems like the wrong move.  An ordinary garden hoe is an acceptable solution, but it’s not such enjoyable work that it gets done frequently enough to keep things tidy, and in past years at some point in the summer the garden gets away from us, and the weeds mingle freely with the vegetables.

The old timers had a nice solution, the wheel-hoe.  One large metal wheel in front, some sort of cultivation tool behind the wheel at ground level, and a pair of handles sweeping up and back to a comfortable working height.  Somewhere online I read an article about making a wheel hoe out of bike parts, and this spring I gave it a shot.  I’m very happy with the result, and think there is a lot of potential in general for bike-hacking to build small-scale agricultural equipment.

wheel hoe wide

I put in a request with Dave and Emily for some dump bikes, and they quickly came up with four kid-sized BMX bikes in various states of disrepair.  I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted, so I designed the tool to take advantage of all the degrees of freedom the bike parts could offer.  The basic concept was to use the rear wheel and rear triangle of the bike frame as the main structure, with the seat tube opening pointed down and a modified seat as the basis for the tool.  I hacked the plastic off a seat, leaving the curved, roughly V-shaped steel seat support to weld an implement onto.  I took advantage of the linear and angular adjustability of the bike seat to enable adjustment of the depth and angle of attack of the implement.

wheel hoe oscillating

The first implement I built was an oscillating stirrup hoe – modeled after commercially available products like this one from Johnny’s.  I used the steel blade of an old handheld swinging weed cutter for the double-sided blade, and hacked up some light steel plate, angle, coupler nuts, and small bolts to create the frame and adjustable oscillating swing.  The oscillating action allows the stirrup to cut in both directions, with the drag of the soil swinging the blade to create an angle of attack that lifts the soil and cuts the roots of the weeds.

wheel hoe adjustable

I wanted to use the handlebars of the bike for the handles of the wheelhoe, but I wasn’t sure about the angle or length, so I hit on what I think is a pretty clever hack.  I use the handlebar/fork assembly of a bike as received, but welded the fork end to the end of one of the crank arms, using a piece of 1/8×2″ strap steel as an adapter.  Of course, the crank arm on the other side of the bottom bracket points the opposite direction, so I cut it and scabbed in another piece of plate steel to complete the structure.  The handle was then in place (with the headset height and handlebar adjustments still viable), but swinging freely on the rusty bearings of the bottom bracket.  I could have just welded the bottom bracket into a solid mass, but to retain adjustability I welded a 3/8″ coupler nut to the kickstand mount on the bike frame, positioned such that a bolt tightened down on it would fit exactly in one of the teeth of the front chainring, such that the angle of the handlebar assembly could be adjusted in increments of one sprocket pitch.  I jammed a bolt down tightly to clamp the chainring to the coupler nut and fix the handlebars rigidly in place.

All of the stick welding I’ve done has been on fairly heavy metal, but for this project I bought some very small rod and got some practice welding at minimum current on bike frame tube and other light metal.  If I were going to get into this in a serious way I’d want a wirefeed welder and maybe a TIG.

Once I got the basic unit built and saw that it worked well, I went all out and cut another seat tube off a different bike, welding the bottom brackets together such that the hoe could have two different implements that could be alternated by flipping the hoe 180 degrees about its long axis.  I then made a dual toolbar out of another bike seat and some 3/4″ square tube, and attempted a spring-tooth harrow using beam clamps to attach to the square tube and curved 3/8″ rod for the teeth.  But the teeth seemed too springy, and jamming nuts against the threaded holes in the beam clamp was not sufficient to prevent the teeth rotating out of the vertical plane.  I’m pretty sure that by fabricating some thinner, sharper teeth out of plate I could make a workable tool, but I used it enough to tell that it was going to be much harder work than the stirrup hoe, so I gave up on that for the season, relying on the broadfork I bought from Johnny’s to do any heavier cultivation.

All of this fabrication happened in the spring, much of it with hand tools in the basement in the early morning, with Z on my front in a Moby baby sling, and grabbing free moments to do the welding and grinding.  In many cases this type of project is fun to execute, but then sits collecting dust, but in this case I’m pleased to report that I continued using the tool all summer, that I found it consistently enjoyable, and that the garden was markedly less weedy as a result.  I am very happy with the outcome of the project, and I plan to make at least one more, to give to my parents for their farmstand garden.   I can’t say anything about particular commercial models, but in general I’d say a wheelhoe is a great tool for serious home gardeners.

If/when I make another one, one worthwhile change would be to add a couple inches to the vertical arms of the oscillating stirrup, because the current clearance tends to clog up and plow a pile when cultivating thicker weeds or mulchy soil.  It’s not a big deal, I just reverse direction to clear it, but I think the problem could be easily alleviated.

Another possible change would be to add one or more sweeps behind the stirrup, to push the loosened soil to the side.  Kelsey noticed that the edges of the slightly raised beds would get eroded over time, and having the ability to mound the soil up (whether in the same pass, or on a subsequent pass using a different implement in the other seat tube) would help with that.  However, with our sandy well-drained soil I don’t think we actually need the beds to be raised; if they were slightly depressed that would help with the watering, though I think they naturally end up raised from compost etc.

If we ever got into more serious row crops, people have made some pretty sophisticated wheelhoes, including with two wheels and a high arch to pass on either side of a row of corn, miniature disk harrows for hilling, etc.  And perhaps the ultimate solution would be a pedal/electric hybrid tractor, with a solar panel canopy and two pedaling positions, one to propel the unit and the other to run an implement.  That would require a lot more space and broad areas at the end of each row for turning.

Remembering Ummy

September 13, 2019

This weekend family and friends will gather to celebrate the lives of my grandparents, Bill (Poppy) and Emily (Ummy) Herman, following Ummy’s peaceful death on July 4th of this year, just past her 100th birthday.  (I wrote about my memories of Poppy on this blog in 2016.)  Ummy’s life overlapped with Z for just over 2 months.

Because she lived without her memory for the last several years, it seemed she slipped away long ago, though until close to the end she could sometimes manage a few words hinting at her long, full life.  Ummy grew up in Boston; her father was a chemical company executive and an obsessive old-school sportsman. He hunted and fished throughout the world, but with a special love for Maine, where he built a rustic cabin on an island in Cundy’s Harbor.  There he introduced Ummy and her four younger siblings to a range of outdoor pursuits, and it’s with her family that I most closely associate my love of the water and sailing, perhaps inspired by early bedtime readings of the Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazons series.

My first memories of my grandparents date to holiday visits to the large red farmhouse where they lived in Lincoln, MA. It seemed ancient and stately, with creaky stairwells, a booming grandfather clock, and a secret room that my cousins and I searched for in vain.  They made occasional appearances on the land in Maine where I grew up, vacationing in small cabins they had built, and became a central part of our lives when they retired to the land in 1983.

I grew up thinking of my grandmother as the picture of refinement and class, in stark contrast to our rough-sawn, whole-grain existence half a mile away.  Ummy studied at Smith College, still knew some Latin, and set her table with monogrammed silverware and napkin rings. She even kept a spiral notebook to record details of her entertaining, to ensure she never served guests the same meal twice.  On the other hand, her own family kept to a set schedule, with the same breakfast consistently on each of seven days of the week (boiled eggs Monday, poached eggs Tuesday, pancakes Wednesday, scrambled eggs Thursday, cereal Friday, fried eggs Saturday, French toast Sunday).  She put on extravagant feasts at the holidays, including Yorkshire pudding at Christmas, and always kept a full cookie jar (to the delight of me and my cousins).

While my grandfather dabbled at oil painting, Ummy was a serious amateur photographer; she always had a giant Nikon, and she volunteered at the Maine Maritime Museum Apprenticeshop, documenting the wooden boats that were built there.  She had a darkroom upstairs in their house to develop her photos when they moved to Maine, and when I was young she gave me a small camera and showed me how to develop film and make prints.  I later graduated to a cast-off Pentax, and while I never got too serious about it, that darkroom experience was a special way to spend time with my grandmother, and my first of many ‘exposures’ to a detailed technical practice.

And while my grandfather was not known to raise his voice, Ummy was more volatile. She was opinionated (particularly about beards and long hair on men) and fiercely competitive – both vicariously, as a lifelong frustrated fan of the Red Sox, who until 2004 had last won the World Series in 1918 (the year before she was born), and in the flesh.  Her family had a tradition of whittling small wooden boats with leaf sails (‘chipboats’, originally from the chips left over from building the cabin in Cundy’s Harbor), and racing them in coves and tidepools, and her prize possession was a particularly speedy hull, ‘the Umiak’, that won several years in a running rivalry with her flamboyant younger brother Jack and his ‘Born Winner’.  The chipboat race evolved into a Labor Day lobster picnic tradition that attracted aunts and uncles and cousins from afar, with the race run in multiple heats for the prize of a coffee mug full of peanut M&Ms.  Raised in an organic household far from other families, both the fame and the candy appealed to me, and during the summers of my childhood I took the design and construction of chipboats to ever more complex technical heights.  In what proved to be a sign of things to come, I experimented with radical rudder designs, evolved my hulls to paper-thin wooden shells slicked with beeswax, and developed an elaborate system of birch bark sails, leading to a string of wins.

In addition to her photography, Ummy kept a beautiful flower garden, which she tended while listening to the Red Sox on a small transistor radio. She also knit steadily (including everyone’s Christmas stockings, mittens, and sweaters for babies), and volunteered for the Georgetown Working League, which sewed and raffled off a beautiful quilt every year to fund scholarships for island students.  In the fall my sister and I would help my grandparents gather apples from the trees in the yard, and grind and press them using her father’s antique cast iron press, setting the stage for future adventures in cider.

On into her eighties Ummy got gradually more forgetful, losing names, repeating questions, and slowing down, and despite their traditional roles Poppy took up household activities to a heartening degree.  Things got tougher when he had a minor stroke, and my parents started helping out increasingly, until eventually they both moved to the same nursing home in Bath.  Ummy’s 100 years started in an age when horse-drawn wagons still delivered milk and ice, and she lived to use email.  She brought refinement, art, and zest to a childhood where my companions were mostly goats and chickens, and I’m grateful for that.

Holly’s Cider Year 13 writeup

November 9, 2017

Holly did a super nice writeup of the recent Cider Weekend at his blog – see here:

http://tooling-up.blogspot.com/2017/11/cider-13-2017.html

Cider Weekend 2017: The Fruit Of Our Labor

October 30, 2017

2017 cider corn shellerLast weekend we gathered with friends and family for the thirteenth year running to make cider using bicycle-powered equipment, and for the first time, the majority of the apples came from our orchard – a major milestone in a project that began in 2006, with the first trees planted out in the orchard in the spring of 2008.  It’s been a long time coming, and in the years since the Cider weekend has evolved and grown significantly.

The weather was amazing, sunny and mild, and we had a good crew to help.  In total we pressed 275 gallons on Saturday, with a yield of approximately 69%.  100 gallons went into glass between our root cellar and Holly’s basement, and the balance went into freezers and refrigerators across New England and beyond.  The equipment behaved fairly well, and we also made significant advances in both growing and processing grain.

2017 cider pressing

Friday night we gathered as usual by the cove for a picnic and campfire, then Alexis, Holly, Steven, Eerik, and I worked for a few hours in the barn on last-minute details.  By prior arrangement Eerik brought some linear guide assemblies made from rollerblade parts and T-slot extrusion to significantly improve the action of the dual counterpressure bottle-filling apparatus, and while he was assembling it I improvised a foot-pedal-operated mechanism out of scrap wood.  Previously the filling head assembly was supported on janky linear guides made from copper pipe with wooden bearings, and a hand-operated screw was needed to clamp the head in position so the pressure of the CO2 wouldn’t blow it out of the bottle in a volcano of carbonated cider.  Now the filling heads moved smoothly up and down, and a heavy counterweight reacted the pressure until it was released by stepping on the pedal, and it all worked brilliantly.  We contemplated how it could be further improved by automation driven by bicycle-compressed air; we’ll see if we get anywhere with that next year.

Meanwhile, Holly fit an antique cast-iron corn sheller to the bike-powered stand that also ran the cider press and the high-quality grain mill we added last year.  As usual he did an amazing job of cleaning up and restoring the cast iron, and he fit a crummy aluminum pulley to the shaft by manually matching the square taper of the handle.  The sheller worked amazingly well on the wheelbarrow-load of corn we had previously harvested from the patch of newground by the Upper Cabin.  It has an amazingly clever and hilarious mechanism whereby the spent cob is ejected upward diagonally so that it doesn’t fall into the bin of shelled grain.  The only issue was that kernels went everywhere; we solved that problem by sacrificing a plastic storage bin to confine the flying grain.

With the equipment in good order, we turned in, returning at dawn to get things spun up.  No matter the preparation, it always seems to take a couple of hours to get everything ready to go (and a pause for Kelsey and Beth’s delicious breakfast burritos), but by shortly after nine we were in operation.  As usual, the first stage of the process is washing the apples; we resurrected the pedal-powered, astroturf-lined rotary wash drum from last year, with the addition of a couple of finely-balanced soft-bristle brushes that may or may not have actually made much difference.  The crew sorted apples on the way into the drum washer, composting the bad apples and cutting out bad spots; this attention to detail is probably a big part of why our cider tastes so good.

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Tubs of washed apples were hand-carried to the grinder, where two folks pedaled while one more fed apples in, two at a time, and a fourth forced them into the grinding drum with a wooden plunger.  With vigorous pedaling the chains and forks popped off now and then; a more rigid assembly with less wood in the compressive path would probably eliminate these issues, but in any case the freewheels on the driveshaft prevented injury or damage.  I did get the sense that when the process was running smoothly, the grinder did seem to be the bottleneck, indicating that a third pedaler might be in order (or perhaps Eerik will come through with a rowing machine as promised for next year).

2017 apple wash and grind

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From the grinder, tubs of fine, soupy pulp were carried or dragged to the other side of the barn, where they were baled into cloth-lined forms, folded into cheeses, and fed into the pedal-hydraulic press.  Holly did buy new press-cloth this year, but it seemed to be too impermeable, leading the stack of cheeses to get squirrelly, to the point where some of the wooden grates suffered damage.  He says it’s the same stuff per the internet fabric site where he ordered it; next year we will need to try some different fabric.  In any case, we reverted to the old cloths, and the press settled down to its work.

2017 cider pressing

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All the while, the same hacked Schwinn exercise bike that ran the hydraulic pump was also grinding corn and rye (both grown in the orchard this year) for dinner; it was relatively simple to pulse the valve on the hydraulic pump to get the desired flowrate of cider while pedaling steadily for the grain grinder.  All in all the new multipurpose pedal hydraulic stand we built was a great success.

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Increasingly in recent years the overnight crew has been reinforced during the day on Saturday by a surge of day-trippers, including lots of locals, family friends, and this year a delegation from the Rand family. Many hands make light work, and despite a leisurely lunchbreak (complete with Nebraska Cream Can Dinner) and a near record supply of apples, we were done in time for dinner; we hoisted the gear into the loft of the barn, set up tables and benches, and served Holly and Becky’s amazing feast of chili, cornbread, and apple crisp, baked in the barn using a used electric range secured from Craigslist.  We also had a temporary sink with hot running water from a Craigslist hot water heater, and even an improvised outdoor shower so folks could rinse off the sticky apple mist.  Folks with kids retired to various cabins and tents after dinner; others hung out by the fire in the mild evening.

Sunday morning another beautiful day; pancakes, homefries from Stroudwater garden potatoes; more cleanup as well as orchard tours, and playing by/on the cove.  Ela even conspired to get Holly and me to break out our fiddles and play in the sun, a reminder of times when somehow there seemed to be time for music.  Leftover lunch, and goodbyes capped a fantastic year, with great people, great food, and delicious cider.  Thanks to everyone who pitched in, and thanks to Eerik and Terran for the photos in this post. Here’s a link to Eerik’s photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/P75i6RIaVTHwCzbt1 if you have others in a world-readable place, please put a link in a comment – thanks again!

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2016 pruning, remembering Poppy

March 12, 2016

Today was the day for the annual spring pruning, and it was a great occasion to remember my grandfather, who died peacefully earlier this week at the age of 95.  William F. Herman (‘Bill’ around town, ‘Poppy’ in the family) was a big part of my life as a kid, and his love of growing things inspired me to plant the orchard when we moved back east over 10 years ago.

Pops and my grandmother, ‘Ummy’ grew up and lived their professional lives in eastern Massachusetts, but spent a lot of time in Maine – her father was an avid rod-and-gun sportsman. In the sixties they bought a slice of land on a remote island in the midcoast, two miles beyond the end of the electric power lines near the village of Five Islands.  When my parents decided to settle down after some years of teaching mountain-climbing in the mountains out west, Um and Pops invited them to homestead on the land in Five Islands, and I grew up off the grid, surrounded by the natural wonders of the Maine coast.

In 1983, Pops retired from a 25-year career at Polaroid, and my grandparents joined us in Maine.  By then electricity had come to the North End, and my father built them a passive solar home.  Though rocky and overgrown, the land had been a farm until early in the 20th century, with stone walls, foundation holes, and odd bits of pottery and rusted iron in evidence. Over the years the family cleared land and planted gardens, berries, and apple trees, and some of my earliest memories of my grandfather relate to agriculture.  He kept a very neat vegetable garden, which he would weed in khaki pants and a button-up shirt (he’d shower and put on a jacket and tie for dinner every night until he was far along in years). He grew masses of vegetables – great sweet corn, bowls and bowls of shell peas, and so many cucumbers and tomatoes that he put a wooden box at the end of the driveway and wrote ‘Help Yourself’, to the joy of the neighbors.

The garden was surrounded by semi-dwarf apples – Cortland, Winesap, Rhode Island Greening, Red Delicious, and he showed me how to prune the trees.  There was also a big wild tree behind their house that was saved in the construction, and it gave great green apples that were my favorite kind when I was a kid. In the fall we would collect the fruit in bags, and Poppy, Ummy, Joanna, and I would press them using a hand-crank cast iron press that had belonged to my great grandfather – the same press that Alexis, Holly, Becky, and I used back in Cider Year 1.  I think he tried to ferment some a couple times, but it was a casual attempt in a plastic milk jug and I don’t remember anyone thinking it tasted good.

In all the years of living and romping around as a kid, I can’t remember Poppy ever raising his voice.  He became a respected character around town, serving as selectman and sometimes as moderator at the old-fashioned town meeting. An engineer by training, he loved to keep careful records – of the amount of firewood he burned each month of each winter down to the tenth of a cord, of the number of quarts of blueberries his waterfront bushes produced, and of gallons of maple sap we collected each spring.  He taught himself to play ragtime piano by ear, and made some pretty nice oil paintings in an engineer’s realistic style – I think he said Norman Rockwell was his favorite artist.

If I drank another pint of this 2014 cider I could probably go on all night, remembering Poppy teaching me how to build kites and drive a tractor, and ‘messing about in boats’, fishing for mackerel in the Sheepscot river out of a 13′ Boston Whaler – he loved the water though he famously would never swim no matter how hot the summer. As the years went by, Poppy’s world gradually compressed; the boat trips shorter and the garden smaller and weedier, but he stubbornly kept at it. I remember a couple years ago when I was working in the orchard, I looked back toward the house and saw him at the edge of the field, using his old-fashioned scythe instead of a cane – he’d take a couple of swipes at the overgrown brush, then lean on the tool to catch his breath.

As Poppy slowed down my parents increasingly picked up the slack, mulching and pruning the berries, planting the corn, and splitting the firewood. And in 2006 I asked him if I could clear some land off to the the south to start a new orchard for cider apples, and he was happy to let me get started. For as long as he could walk, he’d totter up the woods road to the orchard gate to see what I was up to, and we’d talk about trees and plans.  I’m grateful to my grandparents for the opportunity to grow up in a unique and beautiful part of the world, and for the sense that tending and caring for the land is a project that can last more than a lifetime, and build connections across generations.

 

 

Pedal-Powered Cider in Cascadia

October 22, 2014

A fellow named Steve Haeseker in Vancouver WA sent me a note mentioning his very cool experiments with pedal cider equipment, and sending a link to his video:

The craftsmanship looks really nice. They use a small wood chipper coupled to a bike to grind the apples, and a pedal-hydraulic press made from a log splitter to do the pressing.  Then they feed the pomace to some cows.  The chipper is a neat idea, though the grind looks a little coarse (similar to our first-year results with the antique cast iron press).  I bet it could be modified to make a finer grind by grinding down the cutters and then tightening up the gap. But, given that a lot of apple grinding equipment (including ours) isn’t self-feeding, he may be on to something with the wood chipper concept, and I can see how fabricating a flat disk and mounting cutters to it could be a lot simpler than the multi-step machining process we used to make our cutter drum.

The press is made out of thick hard maple recovered from a bowling alley – major style points for that.  Unlike our press, they count on the wooden uprights to take the full tension of the press; it looks like they use a smaller cylinder (maybe 2.5″?) so the load will be less, but they still get good pressure by using a smaller cheese.  In watching the video it’s not clear why they need their cheese frame, since they aren’t really packing the cheeses full.  We have some instability in our cheeses that sometimes requires re-stacking the press; I wonder if we could do better by cutting the cheese frame down to 3″ from 3.5″ thick.  Alternatively we could make some shims that enforce a certain minimum cheese thickness until the stack is down to ~1/2 thickness; by that point the viscosity of the pulp will be much higher, and I’d think the stack would be less squirrelly.

Anyway, hats off to Steve for joining the ranks of pedal-cider enthusiasts!

Another reason we need wind, solar, electric vehicles, and heat pumps

June 15, 2014

A semi hauling diesel and kerosene tipped over in a rotary less than a mile upriver from us on Wednesday.  The image below is from the Portland Press Herald:

gorham stroudwater fuel truck crash

The article said that 6000 gallons were recovered and “Emergency crews were able to prevent the spill from entering the Stroudwater River”.  However the crash was only 1/2 mile north of the river, and  it rained heavily on Friday.  By Saturday morning the river smelled strongly of petroleum.

Modern life requires energy to power our transportation and heat our homes, but we can (and must) do better than dirty, unsustainable, de-stabilizing liquid fossil fuels.  We need to accelerate the development of efficient technology that uses less energy to get things done, and cost-effective renewable sources to meet the remaining demand.

 

19th century clean energy technology in Maine

November 10, 2013

As some readers know, we are fortunate to inhabit a beautiful spot on a small river in southern Maine, which was long ago the site of a water-powered mill.  One of the enigmatic relics of the ruined works was a 3″ diameter steel shaft sticking out of the muck in the riverbed, with a Lovejoy coupling on the upper end the size of a dinner plate.  Soon after we arrived, we made a preliminary effort to unbury it one spring afternoon, but if I remember it was hot and buggy, and we ran out of steam after digging down and finding the runner pinned under some chunks of broken metal.

runner in hole

18 months intervened, and I had basically given up the thought of finishing the job before winter, but Saturday dawned pleasant for working, so I took some buckets, a shovel, and a digging bar down to the site and was soon hip-deep in a mucky hole.  By a combination of bailing, digging, and pitching out rocks, I was soon able to get back to where we had previously stopped, and was able to rock the runner. With a bit more excavation I could see what I was up against – about half the circumference was trapped under a semi-circular cast iron ring, which had clearly been some sort of inflow nozzle that directed the flow downward onto the axial-flow runner.  The cast iron parts were not going to move, since they were bolted down to some structure buried even deeper in the mud, but I was pretty sure if I could pull the one main chunk off (to the right in the photo above), I could lift the runner clear.

At this point I was pretty confident of victory, so I texted Tony and invited him to join the fun.  Together we toted our light oxy-acetylene cutting rig down into the riverbed, and without too much effort we were able to burn off 3 nuts (or bolt heads; hard to tell with that much rust):

torching off nutsfire in the hole

The old metal was wet and covered with mud, so the cutting was pretty mangy, but I got them burned off and then knocked the slag away with the digging bar.  I lifted off the iron chunk, and then we had a pretty good view of the runner.  it appeared to be about 3′ in diameter, with 10 graceful sweeping vanes.

The runner was free, but it was way too heavy to lift.  However, we were fortunate to have two good-sized forked trees in line with it on either side; an ash on the manmade island between the main watercourse and the ruined spillway, and a pine on the high ground,directly beyond a steep  cliff that rose about 15′ above the riverbed.  We rigged a chain in the ash, a snatch block on the runner, and a second snatch block in the pine, and used our trusty orange worm-drive hand winch to take up the strain, with the red Ford as an anchor.  Once we levered it clear of the remaining bits of metal in the hole, it rose smartly thanks to Tony’s efforts on the winch:

starting to rise

coming out of the hole2013-11-09 14.51.14

We were about out of winch by the time the runner was clear of the hole, so I guided it over onto the riverbed and Tony set it down.  We lowered the attachment sling to just above the balance point, re-rigged to pull directly with the truck, and tied on a rope-a-long that was hitched to the south shore.  Then with the truck we quickly raised it until it was even with the cliff edge above:

runner suspended

We then winched it south with the rope-a-long while gently lowering it with the truck, to arrive at its new resting place on high ground:

closeup of runner up top

All in all a fun project, and a neat piece of Maine renewable energy history – I’m curious now to learn more about the mill that was at this site, and more generally about this type of small water mill.  My first impression is that this runner seems much bigger than appropriate for the flow of the river (which can be judged from the photo above, which shows the outlet of the millpond, roughly at the location of the ruined dam) – at least during typical summer and early fall flows.  Of course there are times in November and early spring when the entire valley fills with a raging torrent (see canoeing pictures from earlier this year) but I wouldn’t think you would build a larger-than-needed mill just to run on those few days or weeks of the year.  Maybe the process (sawing wood or what-have-you) had a relatively low duty cycle, and they’d let the millpond fill up between cuts, then open the floodgates to get more power when they needed it.

Cider year nine – roundup

October 26, 2013

After nine years, thanks to the accumulated contributions of ideas, time, and equipment-building effort, and especially to the wonderfully useful and flexible barn that my folks built, the cider operation is getting to where it runs in a well-worn groove.  And it’s a good thing, since the great majority of my attention has been devoted to Pika Energy, and building affordable, high-quality home wind turbines.  

truckload of apples

Two weeks ago I visited Autumn Hills Orchard in Groton, MA, and picked up two 600lb  bins of mixed cider apples – Kendall, Spencer, and Cox Orange among them.  The owner, Ann Harris, also kindly let me do some sanitation and gather a few hundred pounds of RI Greening drops, so the truck was quite heavily loaded down with apples for the ride home.  The going rate for cider apples this year is apparently $50/bin – illustrating the importance of top-quality fruit and value-added products to the economics of small orchard operations.  That same weekend I also needed to build and test a new wind turbine tower, as well as moving some cidering equipment up to Five Islands, so by the time I was fully loaded with dogs and bikes etc., the rig looked like some kind of Tom Joad/Johnny Appleseed chimera:

2013 big load of turbines and tower parts

 

The tower test was successful, and my folks and I unloaded the bins using a four-fall block-and-tackle that my dad inherited from a local gentleman, Don Spurr.  Don lives on in our memories every time one of his carefully-maintained tools proves to be just the ticket for solving some mechanical challenge:

emily lowers apples

The following Wednesday afternoon, Dave, Alexis, and I made the annual pilgrimage to Poverty Lane Orchard/Farnum Hill for cider apples.  I called ahead a couple of weeks, but for the first time in several years, we were disappointed that they couldn’t sell us a bin of bittersweets – they were too booked up with demand for cider fruit from as far away as Michigan and Oregon.  Brenda made it up to us by giving us a nice discount on the ~700lb or so of mixed cider fruit we collected.  We hauled the load with Alexis’ little Suzuki wagon, and it really drank the gas on the way home, but still burned far less than it would have taken to drive the big red monster all the way to the other side of NH.  When we got home, Fern got right into the action:

fern munches an apple

I managed to get up to Five Islands by mid-day on Friday, and on the way up I picked up the only big innovation in on the equipment front this year.  I bought a 100 gallon HDPE bulk tank from US Plastics, together with a hand-operated diaphragm pump rated for 15gpm.  Together, these made a huge difference in the management of finished cider during the big event.  Dave whipped up a wooden stand for the metal stand that I bought to go with the tank, so we could gravity feed into bottles and carboys.  Working the pump was a big hit with the kids:

Kate pumps the cider

 

Compared to commercial operations, we keep a very high standard for fruit quality going into the grinder; since we have plenty of labor and it’s a sociable activity, each apple is washed and inspected by hand, and any brown spots or other flaws are cut out.  But washing has always been an afterthought from a process standpoint, and in past years (especially when it’s cold) the washing itself hasn’t always been super-pleasant.  This year I grabbed some plastic bristle brushes at the Despot, and Holly and Ben whipped up a much more ergonomic washing station using an old washtub my dad found at the Georgetown Mall:

washing station

 

We started the festivities Friday evening with pot-luck Mexican at the shore cabin, followed by a black-powder demonstration (no bullets) by Jake, and revival of an old tradition, Viking Funeral Ships – in which small barges made of wood planks piled high with birch bark, pinecones, and kindling are set afloat after dark, and rocks are thrown from on shore at a sporting distance to smash them – if anybody has a photo of this, I’d love to post it.  

Breakfast Saturday was amazing as usual, with with Kelsey and Beth’s breakfast burritos and assorted pastry.  Cidering got fired up between 9 and 10AM, and continued on with a brief intermission for lunch, which was headlined by my folks with ‘Nebraska Cream Can Dinner’, a tradition they picked up out west.  As usual, we also fired up the bottling operation, kegging, carbonating, and bottling about 5 kegs worth of cider (minus ‘operational losses’ in the bottling step).  Here Tony and Rita prepare Cornelius kegs for transfer:

sanitizing kegs

 

Holly, Becky, and Heli took the lead on dinner, producing soups and amazing fresh baguettes. Here’s Holly working the dough:

holly makes bread

 

Dinner for 30-40 people was served in the barn this year, followed by Holly’s usual transcendent apple pies.  MomJones couldn’t make it to cider this year, but she sent us four large folding tables that made for a very convivial setup.  All told we produced approximately 207 gallons of cider, per the tally sheet, with an estimated yield of 69-70%:

2013 cider tally

Thanks again to everyone who participated this year. Next year is the 10th anniversary – I don’t know what we’re going to do, but it’s going to be big!

 

 

Debugging a Troy-Bilt sicklebar mower

June 23, 2013

With the Jari on the disabled list (burned up motor, leftside wheel, and shroud), I set to rehabilitating the 42″ Troy-Bilt sickle mower I bought last weekend.  It started right up when I bought it, but it had a damaged belt, which I thought was the reason it jumped off the pulley when I engaged the sickle bar.  So I bought a new belt (1/2″x35″, for future reference), put it on, and it fired up the cutterbar, but it too jumped the pulley as soon as I put it under load.  There were two little bent steel ‘keepers’ on either side that seemed designed to keep the belt on, but they only extended halfway down the axial depth of the pulley, so I thought maybe they were insufficient, and I made better ones out of scrap aluminum.  However, as soon as I started to cut grass, the belt jumped the pulley again, and my new keepers very effectively ripped the belt in two.

mower broken belt

 

At that point I suspected something more fundamental, and in looking carefully I noticed that the motor pulley was axially mis-aligned with the cutterbar pulley by about 3/8″.  Joshua and I puzzled on it for a bit, and we noticed that the pulley was held on the end of the shaft with a suspiciously non-factory-looking bolt and stack of washers.  To my surprise, the pulley was not frozen to the shaft, but rather moved easily once the set screws were released.  I tapped it up into alignment:

mower shaft

 

Given the retrofit bolt arrangement, I didn’t judge that the set screws were capable of holding the pulley in place, so I whipped out a spacer on the Bridgeport – didn’t have round tubing the right size, but 1″ thin-wall aluminum square tube fit over with a bit of encouragement (must be a 7/8″ shaft):

mower shaft with spacer

 

I Secured the pulley with the bolt and washer stack, reassembled using the old belt (not about to blow another brand-new $14 belt on this mower), fired up, and it cut nicely for about 100 yards.  It was too hot in the middle of the day to really put it through its paces, but I think we’re provisionally back in the sickle-bar mowing business.

The Troy-Bilt seems a little slower than the Jari, but has 10″ of extra width, so they probably will work at about the same rate.  It’s a wider, heavier machine with janky plastic catches on the levers for the tank-style independent steering clutches, and at first go I don’t like it quite as much, but I suspect I’ll get accustomed to it.  Still, since I think I have a spare engine that will fit the Jari in place of the burned-up unit, I think I’ll order a replacement wheel and try to put it back in service eventually, as limited spare time permits…