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, April 20, 2007

Tools for Framing

Tools to do the job are important. After making the decision to build a timber frame house in which I would be doing all of the framing, I knew I would need some tools. One of the first things I could think of that was needed was a chisel. Well, actually, more than one chisel. I would need at least two: a 2" framing chisel and a 1.5" framing chisel. I also thought it would be nice to have a corner chisel. If you are unaware of the prices for good framing chisels, you ought to look sometime. These aren't your hardware or building supply store chisels. They not only have a much wider edge than regular wood chisels, they are much longer overall. They are also built heavier. They are made to do a big job.

My desire for good tools had to be tempered with the amount of money I was spending. There is no loan or credit card money fueling any of this project. I wanted good tools, and I wanted to keep it affordable (a loosely defined term associated with my aversion to spending money). So, I did what anyone familiar with the internet would do: I searched for chisels on Ebay! And, I found what I was looking for.

I bought three chisels: a 2", a 1.5", and a 1" corner chisel. There were a lot offered on Ebay, and I chose these three for a variety of reasons, all of which I don't remember now. The 2" chisel was listed as a slick. It's a Robert Sorby non-beveled edge chisel. It's the one I use the most. It has a nice length and nice weight to it. It's very well built, as far as I'm concerned. I use it with a mallet (like the one in the photo) or as a slick without the mallet. I have no idea about the maker of the corner chisel. It is nice for cleaning up the corners of a mortise. The 1.5" chisel is a Keen Cutter, about 13 inches long. Or, rather, it was about 13 inches long until Wednesday of this week. It suffered a major catastrophe, as the picture to the left shows. I don't know the age of this chisel or what its life experiences have been, but other than a little pitting in a few places, it seemed to be in good shape. It snapped cleanly about two inches from the cutting edge while I was using it to clean out a mortise. It didn't seem to be under any great stress, but it's broken now, nonetheless. I've already purchased another 1.5" chisel off of Ebay that ought to arrive next week sometime.

All of my chisels needed sharpened when I received them. They also occasionally need the edge touched up as I use them. I bought a sharpening jig into which the chisel can be locked that allows it to be held at the appropriate angle when sharpening it. I suppose I could sharpen them freehand, but it is a lot more consistent with the jig holding them at the correct angle. I sharpen them on wet/dry automotive sandpaper on a flat surface. I start with 180 grit, move to 300 grit, then 600, then 1200, and finish on 2500 grit. This sharpening applies to the flat chisels, not the corner chisel. I sharpened it once after I received it, taking out the angle on the edge to which it had been honed. I used a bastard mill file to sharpen it. It's much more of a challenge getting the two bevels on it clear into the corner.

In order to cut the beams accurately, I needed a dependable saw. I have an old circular saw that I've used for cutting wood, metal, and masonry materials during the last 16 years, but it has enough wobble in the blade that I didn't want to use it for the framing work I had to do. I wanted something accurate. Sure, a Beam Boss or another circular saw that could cut deeper than a regular 7-1/4" one would be nice, but money was a deterrent once again. So, I ended up buying a new Makita Hypoid saw. It has 15 amps and has done everything I've asked it to do. I just don't expect to cut all the way through an 8x8 or 6x8 or 4x6 in one cut.

Pictured with the saw is a high torque right angle drill. This is a Harbor Freight knock-off of the Milwaukee Hole Hawg. I didn't buy it from Harbor Freight -- I saved money by buying it from a place that sells Harbor Freight returns. It has one thing wrong with it -- the high speed doesn't work. That doesn't matter to me, because I bought it to use it's low speed, high torque setting. I use it for boring 2" and 1.5" holes with the Dewalt self-feed bits I purchased. These bits have been great because they remove a lot of material, but they put a lot of strain on the drill being used, especially the 2" bit. Before I bought the high-torque drill, I used a 9 amp Hitachi. It had a difficult time, and I had to keep giving it time to cool off between uses. I did end up burning out the brake on it. The drill I use for boring now powers on through knots and dry oak as long as the bits are sharp.

Here is an example of how I use the 2" bit to bore out material for a dovetail mortise. It removes a lot of wood. I then clean out the mortise with a chisel.

Since my hypoid saw is unable to cut all the way through one of the timbers, I have to finish cuts with a hand saw. If it's an end that needs squared up, I cut on all four sides with the Makita and then finish it with a crosscut saw I bought for $5 at a yard sale a few years ago. It's kerf is wider than the carbide-tipped blade in the circular saw, so I have to cut twice so that the crosscut saw won't get caught in the thinner kerf.

The smaller saw in this picture is a rip saw that belonged to my grandfather. I use it occasionally, but I've found ripping to be terribly slow. I think the crosscut saw rips faster than the rip saw.

When I started the joinery on the first timber in March of 2005, I attempted to plane it to furniture smoothness. That took a lot of planing. I bought a small 3.25" planer to help in this regard, but it has to move a lot of material to get rid of all the saw marks from when the timbers were milled. My wife and I decided that having the saw marks in the timbers doesn't detract from their looks. I still plane to smooth the timbers and take out a good bit of the saw marks. I've done a lot of the planing just with the two hand planes pictured here.

The other tools that I am using for this project are a 25' tape measure, a combination square, and a framing square. I've also made templates for some of the joints that are cut more than a couple of times. Pictured are templates for the scarf joints on the tie beams, templates for the rafter angles (8:12 and 3:12 -- the smallest one is 3:12), and the template for the dovetail joints. One other tool I use is a pencil. I've been using colored pencils that I've had in a zip lock bag for years and haven't used for anything else. The darker colors work best.

You can buy and use many different expensive tools for timber framing. You don't have to. You don't even have to use the tools I'm using. How many frames have been completed over the years without any power tools whatsoever? More than have been completed with the help of power tools, I bet. A chain mortiser or a Beam Boss or some other 'expensive' (this is a relative term, of course) tools would be nice, but I can't justify the expense of them for this project. One of the objects, afterall, is to pay for everything without going into debt.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

My Sawmill

There is something appealing about being able to slice trees into lumber. Maybe it's just operating the machinery that does the job. I don't know, but I thought it would be cool to have my own sawmill. I thought this before we ever moved to Kentucky in 2003. I had looked at the ads and thought about the different options. Of course, when you seek to limit the amount of financial outlay as much as possible, you can only dream big.

While doing some searching online, I came across Procut Mobile Sawmills. The Procut is a chainsaw powered mill that you build yourself. The information about it on the website and what reviews I could find made it sound like a nice unit. Perhaps, what I liked the best about the description were the estimates about how much it would cost to build. I didn't have any welding experience, but I figured I could learn enough to be able to build a Procut.

So, in the summer of 2003, I ordered plans for the mill. I studied them, and they seemed pretty straight forward and clear. I bought a used arc welder and some welding supplies. Then, I bought the steel I needed from Sandusky Sales in Columbia, Kentucky. I began building the mill in August of 2003, after putting a concrete floor in the garage (a 24' x 40' area). I cut all of the steel using an aluminum oxide metal cutting blade on my circular saw. My welding wasn't perfect, but I figured out how to make it work.

I don't remember how many hours I spent working on the mill, but we tried it out for the first time in October of 2003. I had a small cherry log and a cedar log. It was a pretty neat experience to mill a couple of boards for the first time. I hadn't painted the mill yet and still had it in the garage. Talk about dust! I don't recomend milling inside a closed space like that.

The picture to the right is of the mill taken when I was milling some beech logs during late fall 2004. After I finished building the mill, I painted it with some blue automotive paint that had been left in my garage by the previous owner (he left a lot of things, most of it hauled off as junk). I painted the saw carriage gray, also with auto paint that was in the garage.

I bought a new Husqvarna 3120xp to be the mill's powerhead. It has a 36" bar for use on the mill and a 24" bar for using off of the mill. It takes about 5 minutes to remove the saw from the mill in order to use it elsewhere. It makes felling trees or bucking logs really nice -- like a hot knife through butter. It is kind of heavy, though.

In the fall of 2004 when I started milling some of the white oak and beech logs I had collected, I discovered that a chainsaw mill doesn't cut very fast. It takes a fair amount of patience to slice up a 20" white oak log. I cut a few hundred board feet of 1x6 lumber out of these logs before a friend brought over his WoodMizer LT-40 Super Hydraulic and finished up the rest of them. I have 3,000 board feet of 1x6 lumber that we cut from white oak, red oak, poplar, beech, and sycamore logs. I've cut several pine, poplar, and cedar 2xs with my mill since then. I've also cut a few beams, but most of the ones for the house I purchased from a local Amish sawmill.

One thing about the Procut that needed changing was the dogs for clamping the logs/cants on the saw. You can see one of them in the second photo. I spent nearly as much time setting the dogs to hold the logs as I did milling. Even then, they didn't hold things firmly enough. I needed to change this part of the mill. So, I gave it some thought.

What I came up with involved welding two rows of 5 inch pieces of 1" diameter metal pipe together. I welded these to the middle of the sawmill frame. I then welded two pieces of 2" box steel on the side of the mill near the two center log bunks. These pieces of box have a hole drilled in them and a nut welded on so that a bolt can be threaded in. This bolt holds a smaller piece of box inside the 2" box, allowing it to be adjusted up or down and locked into place. I welded small pieces across the heads of the bolts so that these can be locked in place by hand. These two dogs are perpendicular to the log bed to ensure squareness when cutting.

In the picture to the right, laying on top of the pipes is the heart of the clamping system. I took a 1" metal rod that fits inside the pipes (my rod actually was a 1" threaded rod on which I filed down the threads a bit) and welded a three inch piece of 2" pipe at one end. When a log is put on the mill, the dogs are set on the side, the log is pushed over against them, and then the clamp is inserted in the nearest pipe to the log that it will fit in. It is dropped down to the desired level and then, using the rod pictured here with it, it is turned so that the 2" pipe at the top presses against the log. The cam action of this clamp exerts a lot of pressure, holding the log in place. The clamp can be set to hold the middle of a log or the bottom of a cant, whatever is desired or needed. It works great and saves a lot of time.

Here's another view of the clamp. Definitely an improvement over the original design in the plans for the mill. I needed something that would work and that would be affordable. The only money I spent on it was for the 1" pipe. The rest of the system was constructed with scraps of metal that I already had. The time it takes to secure a log in position or hold a cant has been drastically reduced.

My sawmill isn't top of the line. But, I didn't have thousands of dollars to spend on a sawmill. By building this mill myself, even with buying new steel and a brand new saw, I still have less than $2,000 in it. All in all, I'm pretty happy with it.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Flashback: Designing our Home

The evolution of our house plan

When we moved to Kentucky in 2003, we already had intentions to build a house. I had in mind to build a strawbale home for at least three reasons: the insulation value (heating and cooling benefits), the ‘simplicity’ of strawbales for a do-it-yourself project, and the affordability of it. Our idea was to build a nice home ourselves without acquiring a mortgage – a pay-as-you-go project. After spending four years paying off our debts, we were entirely debt-free on May 1, 2003, including no mortgage, and we owned 57 acres of beautiful Kentucky land. It was and is a great feeling!

We moved to our homestead on May 16, 2003. Thankfully, a 1970s-vintage mobile home was already on the property. It was in livable condition, although it needed a thorough cleaning. So, we didn’t have to live in a tent and rush to get more permanent housing erected. Having this home has given us the freedom to develop our home plans to suit our needs. In fact, it’s given us the opportunity to design and redesign several times.

We originally planned our home with load-bearing strawbale walls on the exterior. In this approach, the bales have either concrete- or lime-based plaster on both sides which form stress skins that provide rigidity to the walls. This type of strawbale construction is not uncommon (it has a long history), but it may well be more appropriate for a drier climate than what we experience here in southern Kentucky.

We approached our house design with criteria important to us: affordability, size, and functionality. The house had to be doable on our limited income since we weren't going to borrow money to build it. A large home means more to clean and may not foster the family connections we desire and are building with our children. Any design we came up with had to work for the way we live our lives. Open and connected living areas were important as well as room for storage, including a pantry.

The first floorplan we created was a one-story structure with a great room, four bedrooms, and one bathroom. We modified our first plan to add another bathroom and reorganize the pantry area

After talking with our friends Scott and Jean who homestead about 30 miles from here, I did some more research on strawbale construction. I purchased Serious Straw Bale: A Home Construction Guide for All Climates by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron. Scott and Jean’s concern had to do with the humidity/moisture levels in Kentucky and the effect that would have on a strawbale home. After more research, we decided that it would be a good idea to move away from load-bearing strawbale walls. A non-bale structure supporting the roof has at least two advantages: the bales can be installed and plastered after the roof is on, protecting them from rain, and if there ever was a problem with moisture in the walls, correcting the problem wouldn’t be as problematic as it would be if the bales were supporting the roof.

I’ve always liked wood and have been drawn to timber frame construction. The large timbers give a sense of strength, and the wood creates a sense of warmth. A timber frame seemed ideal for our home. We have a large number of eastern red cedars on our property, some of them of nice size. We believed that we could harvest enough of these, mill them into timbers of the appropriate size, and construct a frame with them. Cedar is a beautiful wood and would’ve been relatively easy to work with, but we eventually abandoned the idea of a cedar frame (more on this later).

Our first floor plan with a timber frame in mind was a two-story design. The first floor had a great room, a bedroom, a full bath, and a pantry. The second floor had three bedrooms, a full bath, and was open to the great room. This plan was based around a 24’ x 36’ timber frame – four three-post bents with 12’ bays.

We redesigned again, seeking to refine our needs and desires. This frame was 32’ x 28’ – four bents with three posts on 14’ centers, two 12’ bays, and an 8’ bay in the center of the house. It was also a two-story design with the first floor having a great room, bedroom, full bath, and pantry. The second floor had two bedrooms and a full bath and was open to the great room.

Once again, we submitted our plans to redesign. There always seemed to be something else we wanted to capture in our plans. Again, this was a two-story design. The timber frame was to be 32’ x 26’ – we’d changed the bents to have a 12’ side and a 14’ side, rather than two 14’ beams. The first floor no longer had a bedroom, rather it had a large utility room and a half-bath off of the hallway near the back door. The rest of the first floor was an L-shaped great room with the kitchen toward the back of the house. The second floor had three bedrooms and two full baths. It was open to the first floor above the front door in the middle bay. We also planned to incorporate a small loft above the two smaller bedrooms. We also talked about having a walk-out basement as our house site seemed ideal for such.

At this point it seemed that we had finalized our design enough that I could begin to calculate our timber needs. I computed design values based upon load on the beams, considering fiber stress, shear, and deflection. These calculations determine the sizes needed for the timbers. I also began making a list of the number of timbers needed. At this point, I began to realize that building the house would take most of my big cedars. I didn’t relish the idea of cutting down so many of our trees, not to mention the difficulty I would have skidding many of them out of the woods because of the inaccessibility of their location (inaccessible for my tractor, anyway). So, I began to explore options. We eventually decided to purchase our timbers from a local (an hour away) Amish sawmill, Cub Run Hardwoods. I’d bought lumber from them before, and they are great to work with. Other mills were unwilling to cut what I wanted (16’, 14’, and 12’ lengths of 8”x8” oak). Cub Run Hardwoods was more than willing to mill white oak timbers for me in the dimensions I requested. So, in February of 2005, I ordered what I calculated I needed to build the frame.

Even after I began working on the frame’s joints in March of 2005, we changed our plans again. We decided that we didn’t need as big a house as we were planning. If we made it smaller, would we be able to finish it sooner? It had already been two years since we moved, and we anxiously wanted to have our home. (We still want it, but we are getting closer.) The site we chose for our house is beautiful. In this photo, our house site is below the walnut tree that is on the left, slightly lower on the hill past the little cedars. This photo was taken in the late afternoon earlier this year as the sun was shining on the tree tops in the distance. It will be nice to have this view out of our house!

We modified what we had already designed into a one story design with two bedrooms. It wouldn’t hurt the children to share a bedroom – it would actually be good for them. We live in a culture that separates families too much. The design would also have a loft above one end of the great room and storage under the eaves above the bedrooms. We changed the frame from 32’ x 26’ to 36’ x 26’, widening the center bay from 8’ to 12’.

Then, we again redesigned our plan and made the house a story and a half with two bedrooms upstairs. We did this in order to have a second full bath and because we decided having two children's rooms (one for our two daughters and one for our two sons) would be nicer for them in some ways. I changed the frame (mainly the rafters) to transfer roof loads more appropriately. We have ended up with a saltbox design having two bedrooms and some storage upstairs. The first floor has a great room, two full baths, a master bedroom, a small study/sewing room, and a stick framed addition on the side for a mudroom and a pantry. The upstairs has two bedrooms and storage areas and is open to the great room.

The timber frame bents still have 12’ beams on the back side and 14’ beams on the front. The upstairs allows for two bedrooms, one on either end. I used Google’s free SketchUp to create a render of what the house will look like.

After purchasing the timbers and beginning to work on the joints in the frame, changes to our design had to leave alone that which was already done. In other words, once I completed the joinery on the tie beams (a 12' and 14' beam with a stop splayed scarf joint connecting them and establishing the depth of the house at 26'), the aspects of the frame they dictated weren't going to change. Similarly, once we poured the footers and piers for the frame's foundation, changes were limited. We've still found ways to creatively include the things we want without compromising the strength and asthetics of the frame.