The 57 acres that comprise Cedar Ridge Farm are located in the beautiful rolling hills of South Central Kentucky. My wife, our four children, and I are on a homesteading adventure as we work toward increased self-sufficiency. We grow much of our own food and enjoy being in touch with the agrarian roots of our lives.

One of the major projects we have undertaken is the building of our own home. The house we're building has three major distinguishing features: 1. we're building it without incurring any debt; 2. it is a timber frame structure; and 3. the exterior walls will be plastered straw bales. We live debt and mortgage free, and building our house with that approach makes perfect sense. Large timbers in a home possess a beauty and project a sense of strength, stability, and warmth that we want in our home. Straw bale walls provide insulation and make ecological sense. This blog is a record of our home-building project.

Friday, July 27, 2012

A little finish coat and some photos

On Wednesday this week, we decided to put the finish coat of plaster on the walls above the open, center section of the house. I wanted to get the scaffolding out, and we needed it for doing these walls.

I purchased some wheat paste from Natural Craft Supply the previous week which arrived this week. I can make my own wheat paste for less money using high-gluten white flour, but the product I bought is easy to use and works well. The idea with the wheat paste is that it works as a binder in the plaster. Basically, it’s a glue made out of flour (traditionally, it’s been used to glue wall paper to the wall). It helps to hold the plaster together more strongly and keeps the surface from dusting off when it’s dry. It works, too.

Our recipe for the finish plaster was to screen 5 gallons of sand through a window screen (it is amazing how many rocks can be screened out of sand). Then, we mixed in 3.25 gallons of dry, powdered, white kaolin clay by hand. 013Once that was mixed, we mixed in 1.5 pounds of wheat paste (about 3 cups of dry powder). The next step was to add water and mix thoroughly. It’s amazing how much water it can absorb – about 4 gallons.

We found that it is easiest to smear the plaster on with your hands after dampening the wall (we use a garden sprayer) and then trowel it as smooth as possible, adding or removing material as necessary. After the plaster has begun to set up a little as it begins to dry, I came back over it with a pool trowel to take out trowel marks from the previous step. I tried buffing it with a yogurt container lid, but I liked the trowel better.


The plaster looks gray when it’s wet, but it dries to a white color. Later, I will mix up an alis to paint the walls with. An alis is a clay-based paint (clay, fine silica sand, wheat paste, and water). This will help even out the color (white because we’re using white clay – I’m not intending to put in any pigments) and seal up the finish coat a little more.

Yesterday, the boys and I straightened things up in the house and swept the floors. We also removed the scaffolding from the center of the house. I took a few photos to share.











The photo below is one from three that my camera stitched together – the beams are not really curved like that.


July 24: First coat of interior plaster DONE!

We finished the first coat of plaster on the interior walls on Tuesday of this week. We’ve been working on this goal for the last month. It took 59 batches of plaster to get the first coat done – about 6 tons of dry material.

We finished the upstairs rooms on Monday, leaving the pantry and a couple of miscellaneous spots to be plastered on Tuesday. It was nice to finish this step.

Next, we’ll be put the second coat on the straw bale walls. This should go easier because it won’t be necessary to work the plaster into the bales.

Mud on the walls in the upstairs bedrooms

When we finished plastering the kitchen walls, the only thing left to do downstairs was the pantry.004 We decided to save it until after we finished the first coat upstairs. I mixed up a batch of plaster and got the boys busy putting it on the walls while I worked around the windows.

I was thinking of putting boards above the windows upstairs because of their location. It turned out that I could plaster above the windows on the ends upstairs, though. 008So, I had to take down the support boards I had under the bales and put up chicken wire. The bales were actually wedged in very well and didn’t move without the boards to support them.

Then, I had to prepare some oak boards for above the windows on the rear of the house upstairs. 007I planed some boards from some trees we had cut and milled about 8 years ago. Then, I edged them, cut lap joints, and cut them to the proper length before nailing them in place. They turned out really nice and finish 011out the windows well.



Plaster, studs in the kitchen, & underlayment

Last week we were able to get back to plastering the interior walls full time. We finished the small section in the master bathroom that needed done and moved on to the upstairs walls in the center, open part of the house. We also plastered the wall and around the window in on the landing upstairs.


Another project was to install 2x2 framing on the kitchen walls. I’m going to build in the cabinets and wanted a smooth surface against which to build them. We’re also going to have tile backsplash above the counter and below the upper cabinets. There needs to be something to attach the cabinets to, also. I’m going to put up green board (moisture-resistant drywall) on the kitchen walls. The straw bale walls will be plastered behind the drywall to make sure they are well sealed.

So, once I finished the studding, we plastered the kitchen walls with the first coat. Around the windows and the door, the plaster will be shaped to meld with the surfae of the drywall.


One other project we completed last week was to put down 1/2 inch plywood underlayment upstairs. We have hard wood (oak, maple, and hickory) boards for a subfloor 008upstairs which also makes the ceiling downstairs. The underlayment will provide a more even surface for installing the finished hardwood floor on later. It will also serve to keep some of the dirt and mess from plastering from sifting through the cracks. Actually, we’ve already had a fair bit of dirt work its way through the cracks and fall from the ceiling downstairs. So, before we could put the underlayment down, we had to clean out as much of the dirt as we could. We used the air compressor with an air nozzle and a vacuum to get as much as we could. We also put down red rosin paper before the plywood. We’ll have another layer of the rosin paper under the finished hardwood.

Mud in June

I’ve let a few weeks pass without posting, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t been working. Actually, there were two weeks that we took off from work on the house (not completely, but mostly) for a variety of reasons, including 005Anne and I celebrating our 22nd anniversary and my finishing up my summer classes.

We continued from where were left off in the last post by finishing in the hallway outside of the guest room and also plastering the walls in the main bathroom. Smearing mud plaster on the walls is not difficult. We just make sure that on raw bales or packed walls that the plaster is worked into the straw well. This first coat provides the foundation for the rest of the plaster, making it important that it is keyed into the straw well. Around the windows, this involves pressing the mud into the straw through the chicken wire used to curve the edges. The straw in these areas is mostly parallel with the surface. 007On the regular edges of the straw bales the ends of the straws are oriented toward the surface which is much easier to work the plaster into.

One difficulty revealed itself above the back door. Above the windows and the other doors, I used chicken wire to hold the straw in the right shape, but above the back door there was no where convenient to attach the wire at the top above the door. So, I didn’t use any wire and instead just shaped the edge of the bales. This part was fine. The problem was the board that I used to support the bales above the door – 011the plaster didn’t stick to it once it dried. I’ll have to remedy this later.

Once we finished the bathroom, we moved on to the master bedroom. We plastered in the closet, the walls in the bedroom, and in the master bathroom. We had all the walls except for a small section in the bathroom finished before we ended up taking off the two weeks.