A Deer Fence

A month or so ago, Our neighbour saw two deer crossing our road and entering our land.

We have never fenced our land. I rather liked the concept that all the local wild life could come in and graze on our grass and drink at the dam quite freely.

After-all, the wallabies, kangaroos and wombats were all here before us.

However, feral deer are another matter. They have been breeding up in extreme numbers out in the Buragorang Valley National Park for years, so now they have reached Balmoral Village.

We live in a small hamlet or village, on a very old road and disused railway line that is situated between two National Parks. 

Whether the deer got here from either the East or the West side parks, doesn’t matter. The big problem is that they are here now.

We have been so lucky to have had 46 years of living here without this problem, but now we have to deal with it.

Luckily for us, There is this guy I know who does fencing all summer and sells firewood all winter. His family have lived and worked here since 1906. AND, he’s a really nice guy to boot.

I had been talking to him about getting some help with a fence along the back lane, as some kids had been coming in and yahooing about down the back there.

We have already put a fire-proof steel and stone ‘gabion’ fence along our front boundary as a kind of heat shield for the ground fire in the next big bush fire event, whenever that comes.

We asked our neighbours on the South side if they wanted a fence 30 years ago. They didn’t. So no fence was ever built. We got on really well together as neighbours, so didn’t need one.

Those neighbours were burnt out in the last big fire, and wont be rebuilding or returning to live here.

So now we have deer in the back orchard eating our fruit trees. They particularly like cherry tree leaves. They leave their turds on the grass around the trees as they nibble, and their hoof prints in the soft muddy soil around the edge of the dam where we were clearing out the dead trees and undergrowth from the water yesterday.

 Mother turds,    

and Baby turds, so there are at least two of them eating our trees.

Monday the 16th of January, is the first day back at work for most tradies and small businesses around here. So Phil turned up with his two sons to get a bit of a start on our fance.

A lot has changed since I spoke to him in late October last year. The fence now needs to be twice as long, to seal off the property, and twice as high with the arrival of the feral deer, as they can jump very high. We originally discussed a wire mesh fence 1200 mm. high with 3 strands of barbed wire on top. This is apparently the basic, standard rural fence these days around here. I wouldn’t know. I’ve lived here for 46 years and never spoken to a fencer before. I have done all my own internal fences around the gardens and orchards over the years, cut my own fence posts, crow-barred and shovelled my own holes. Rammed my own posts solid in the ground. But now I am a bit too old for all that hard work these days, as the fence will end up having to be 250 metres long to keep the deer out. I’m learning to relax and to compromise my standards by letting someone else do some of the hard yakka this time. Basically, I trust Phil to do a thorough job.

The new deer fence will now be 1800mm high, at a greater extra expense and a very dear fence it will be.

We cleared a track through the bush that had never been cleared before. I tried to keep as many trees a possible, allowing the fence to wander a bit to find the line of least destruction of the bigger trees. The first thing that Phil said after walking the fence line, was that some more trees will have to go. It needs to be straight, otherwise you’ll be up for the added expense of extra strainer posts and stays.

All the trees in question are already dead. Standing blackened, leafless and burnt dead. Victims of the catastrophic bush fire that raged through here 3 years ago. I have no idea why I wanted to ’save’ them. Just habit I guess? So out they come and the line of the fence is straightened. They drag the trunks out of the way and into the clearing where we stack our fire wood. A place well away from the house. I spend a day chain-sawing. I stop regularly to refuel, re-oil and sharpen each of the three chainsaws. Large, medium and small. I spend all day at it, but can’t keep up with the delivery rate that the fences are dragging the dead wood out.

I cut them up into usable sizes for the pottery oven/heater, the kitchen stove and the lounge room heater. The trees with the largest diameter butts are cut into just 150 mm. long slabs. This is to make them lighter, and easier to lift and stack them, and eventually move them to the hydraulic splitter. Large diameter hardwood logs can be very heavy. The skinny logs and tapered top branches, anything less than 150 mm. dia. are cut to the longer lengths, as their weight doesn’t matter at that size. All the intermediates are cut to 300 mm long. It all works out quite well, but the site looks like a bomb site with timber and branches everywhere. 

Phil and the boys have already got most of the iron bark timber posts in the ground by the end of day one. Phil acknowledges that I have worked all day on the saws cutting up the 14 trees that he has dragged out this morning. There a still more to come. He asks if I ever want a job, he’ll give me one as a fencer. He tells me that he has watched me work and says that I work harder than most of the young fellas half my age that he has employed!

They have an antique tractor, fitted with an antique post hole drill and fence post rammer. They drive the iron bark posts 900 mm. into the ground. The gear may be a bit old, but they work fast and efficiently.

Tuesday, the fencers don’t turn up. They have told me already that they need to finish off another job from last year that was waiting for some more parts to be delivered. They are keen to get it finished and get paid. I was pretty tired and achey after working on the chainsaws all day yesterday. So in the morning I weeded some of the garden beds in the veggie garden, then picked just over 3 kgs of blue berries. I sharpen and service the saws from yesterday, then after lunch, I’m back into it, collecting up all the short cut billets of wood and taking them around to the new firewood stack. Once I’ve cleared away all the cut wood from yesterday, I start the cutting again. I want to get at least one side of the site cleared of tree trunks, branches and twigs ready for tomorrows task of doing it all over again, cutting, carting, stacking and splitting. 

The wood is stacked more or less 20 billets wide x 6 or 7 billets high x 7 stacks deep.

We have several tonnes, possibly 10 tonnes, of wood cut and stacked, with just 4 more trees to work on tomorrow. I’m trying to get all the logs and timber detritus out of the way of the fencers, so that they can work efficiently and un-interrupted tomorrow. I also get a lot of satisfaction in seeing it all cleared away and neatly stacked.

I’m assuming that the fencers would normally like to take all these trees away with them each day and sell the wood as fire wood over the coming winter? However, we have a need for it, so I’ve kept it for our own winter needs.

We celebrate with an eye fillet mini roast, just for the two of us. Janine makes a traditional Yorkshire pudding with the left over meat juices in the little roasting pan.

It’s one of the best that she has ever made. It’s a beauty!

Their big old tractor almost gets bogged in the low spot where the dam over-flow water seeps down to the back lane. It was almost dry enough to drive over, but we had 30 mm. of rain overnight and on their last pass over the soggy bit, they sank in.

Wednesday morning we spent a few hours loading barrows with broken bricks , left over from the brickwork on the facade of the new pottery building. I knew that all those broken bricks would come in handy one day. I fill the deep muddy tyre gouged trenches with the brickbats and stomp them down into the mud. This may not be enough, but I’ve filled the deep trenches, so we’ll see how the tractor goes over this lot before I barrow another 20 loads down there. I’ll try and finish off with all the smaller pieces and mortar sand and gravel when this is all over.

Enough for now.

The first layer of mesh is tied onto the strained high tensile wire. There will be another 600 mm. of barbed wire on post extensions that fit on top of the steel posts to make the fence more Deer resistant. The extensions are not often called for, so are not in stock and will have to be ordered in. 

A very Dear fence indeed.

Phil and his sons have done a very nice job of staying the strainer posts with a mortice and tenon joint in the iron bark posts and a huge flat stone embedded into the soil to buttress the other end of the stay. A very impressive and thorough job.

Thursday morning sees more rain, so I’m putting off doing the last of the wood carting and stacking till later in the day, when the weather is forecast to clear. I’ll spend the morning writing. While Janine is sorting the hazel nuts.

I wasn’t planning on spending my first week back at work after the summer break on chainsawing and wood stacking. I imagined that I was going to be making new batches of clay bodies for the coming year. That will be next week now. The fencers can fit me in just now, between other jobs, so that is what we will be doing. We are lucky to get them. 

John Lennon said that life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans. So true.

Life goes on. As my friend Anne says; “How we spend our days, is how we spend our lives”.

In my case, that appears to be lurching form one crisis to another.

Nothing is ever finished, nothing is perfect and nothing lasts.

Life is good!

Weekend Clean-up

This weekend we spent Saturday over at the Village Hall, helping out with the clean-up, maintenance and garden building.

Janine did a lot of pruning and mulching of the existing garden beds, while I helped with the wheel barrowing of several tonnes of road base , then gravel to create new paths, followed by filling the new garden beds with another few tones of topsoil and mulch. The final part , was to plant out all the donated plants to fill the new beds.

A terrific effort from a lot of the Village residents.

Janine shovelling mulch

Road base spread to level out under the gravel paths along the tennis court.

Next we filled the garden beds with top soil and then covered it with a thick layer of mulch before planting out the flowers and shrubs.

Janine watering in the new plantings. It’s a lovely feeling to be part of a communal group activity.

We finished up with a BBQ. A great day of work, that wasn’t too onerous, because everyone turned up and got stuck in.

Many hands = light work.

Today, Sunday morning,  Janine and I spent time communing with nature.

Janine engaged deeply with nature by walking into the muddy dam fully clothed to hook some very heavy load chain around the dead tea trees bushes that were killed by the fire, and have been sitting in the water, standing dead and ugly for 3 years now.

We decided that today was the day to snig out as many of them as we could reach safely, and drag them out of the water and up onto dry land, then cut them up for fire wood for next winter.

It has been raining so much for the past few years since the big fire, that we couldn’t even get close to the dam bank without getting bogged. This has been our first opportunity to get this long-term job started.

We have cut about half of the wood that we will need for the next winter so far. Cutting and splitting fire wood is an on-going job all year.

We have achieved as much as we can at this stage. We will come back to it when and if the dry weather continues, so that we can walk further into the dam safely to get to more of the branches.

This small dam used to be our most reliable swimming dam in summer, because it was the deepest, and therefore held water the longest. The largest dam is beautiful to swim in, but only when it is full, as it is quite shallow and the water soon seeps and evaporates down to a waddling level.

Once the dam dries out once more, we will get all the dead tree branches out of the small dam, we will clean it out, so that we can swim in it safely on the hottest summer days once again.

Everything worth doing takes time. This is a long term plan.

A change is as good as a holiday

Over the solstice break, I’ve been having a bit of time off.

A change is as good as a holiday I’m told. So I took some time out to weld up a steel frame to make a fume extraction hood to go over all the electric kilns.

I have been ‘making-do’ with a bathroom exhaust fan set into the kiln room window, but it doesn’t catch all the fumes.

So we now have a ‘proper’ hood that covers all 3 kilns and there is room for a 4th kiln at the end, if I ever get round to building it.

The frame is welded out of 20 x 20 RHS sq. section tube and then primed, undercoated and top coated with a strong yellow industrial grade paint. Something resembling ‘CAT’ Yellow, just to give it that heavy duty industrial look. Actually, I was thinking of the sort of colour that big factories have to paint over-head cranes, gantries and such.

It has turned out to be a massive edifice measuring 4.5 metres long by 1.5 m wide and 500 mm. high.

I had to build a special little trolley to manoeuvre it out of the welding area and into the court yard, where I could rotate it so as to allow me to screw in the poly carbonate lining.

I decided to use light weight RHS construction and poly carb sheeting because of the weight factor. I have to lift it up into the ceiling. But I also noticed after the fire, that poly carb doesn’t burn. It just melts, even at really high temperatures. So I thought that I’d give it a try as a fume hood lining. It wont get too hot, so shouldn’t melt. It is very light weight. It lets the light through, adding to the ambiance of the kiln room. It is cheap compared to any other sheeting. BUT most important of all, it doesn’t rust. The big killer of overhead hoods is the condensation of acid gasses and the rust that they create. This could be a solution?

Time will tell.

My son Geordie and my friend Warren came over for our Solstice lunch get-together, so before we ate, we did the install. It took all of 5 minutes, because I had every thing planned out and ready.

Now, the bathroom fan will be more effective at removing all the fumes from the kilns, and there is room for expansion.

Hopefully, a cheap and effective solution to the kiln vent fume problem.

While we had both Geordie and Warren here, I got them to help us move an exquisite old Japanese cupboard into our bedroom.

We were given this gorgeous old Japanese cupboard by my lovely friend Anne, who I have known for a very long time, getting on for 58 years in fact. Where does the time go?

Thank you Anne!

Somewhat disappointingly, we had another flood in the new pottery shed this week. Each time it happens, I look at the causes and find a solution and fix it. This time we had a brief, but severe storm of just 25 mins, but we got 25 mm of rain come down in that short time. It caused the gutters to over flow into the court yard around the kiln. However this time the rain all came it, not from the open wall leading into the courtyard, but deep in the enclosure against the kiln room wall from the gutters that couldn’t cope with the intense volume of water.

It has become apparent that the builders were pretty sloppy with their levels, such that the concrete slab is high at the edges and low in the middle of the kiln/glazing rooms. The result was that all the water flowed in under the gal iron wall and pooled in the centre of the kiln room, with some seeping into the glaze room.

There is absolutely nothing that I can do to change to the contour of the slab to stop this happening again. So my only option is the make a drain that can intercept the water before it reaches the wall and enters the building.

To this end, This morning I used a diamond saw blade to cut two 8 metre long slices through the 115 mm thick concrete slab down to the substrate of compacted rock dust and gravel. It was one of those nightmare jobs that nobody would ever want to do. But someone has to. Meet muggins.

You can see in this image, where I had initially tried (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to create a small diversion channel around the wall using a circular saw and a friction disc. This wasn’t deep enough to cope with the flood of water from this last storm. I realised that the drain needed to be substantially larger and deeper.

Then, I hired a jack hammer to break up the concrete into rubble. That was another big job.

Finally, I removed the broken ‘rio’ bars and the strip of black plastic waterproofing membrane, and then shovelled out all the larger pieces of crushed concrete and re-installed all the finer gravel.

This allowed me to then lay pavers over the rubble to make an ‘agg’ drain.

With my remaining energy, I completed the job by laying a line of terracotta pavers to cover the scar, but leaving a gap all along the trench to allow any future flood water to flow down into the rubble drain and seep out along the alley way between the two sheds. Hopefully a simple and effective solution to yet another problem left by our slack and seemingly incompetent builders. ( who have now gone out of business I’m told). I have noticed that any rain that is driven into the courtyard by the storm, just sinks into the porous pavers and their gravel bed. That paved part of the kiln shed/courtyard never holds any water. It’s just a total bummer that the slack builders cast the slab with the fall in the wrong direction.

It’s been a hard day. I’m pretty worn out from the effort of jack hammering, crow-barring and wheel barrowing all the broken-up concrete out of the trench, but very happy with the out come, now that it’s done!

I’m hoping that it will work.  I’m getting too old for all this strenuous high energy stuff.

I need to lay down.

More Mottainai

There is such a beautiful optimism about spring. The weather is warming up. We even have clear, bright, warm days when we take our jumpers off! My brown work jumper that I wear when I’m welding and/or firing the wood kiln has had a lot of holes burnt into it over the past 15 years. I have been slowly working on it over that time repairing the holes by darning colourful threads over the gaps. It has started to become something more than just an old, repaired, work jumper now, it’s becoming a work of art in itself. I’ve spent this last week of evenings in front of the wood fire fixing it up for another year of hard work. It’s become something more than just a jumper. It’s becoming a treasured item, embodied with effort and work. Not just the work that resulted in all the holes and burn marks, but the extra effort in its recovery and repair. It’s a bit like doing a kintsugi repair on a treasured pot that got broken. I do that too.

I also have a better, but also quite old woollen jumper that I used to keep ‘for best’. ie. for going out in.  I keep it in a plastic bag over the summer months, filled with herbs and lavender, to keep the moths out. But over the years, the little tenacious critters seem to have found their way in every now and then and now this jumper too has a few holes in it. So after I ‘finished’ the brown jumper. I started on the next one. It only has a few small moth holes, so it was a quick ‘two-nighter’ job. Done sitting in front of the wood fire, keeping warm and getting next years woollens up to speed for the next winter, before I put them away for the summer. Back into the fragrant herb lined plastic bag.

This series of repair sessions that began 13 years ago trying to extend the life of a good quality piece of clothing, slowly took on a life of its own. I think that I may have made this old brown jumper a bit too special for welding and firing now. It’s become rather special in its lovingly repaired old age. 

The Japanese have a single word that sums up this concept. Mottainai!

As for the concept of kintsugi that I mentioned above. I have been slowly working my way through a number of special pots that survived the fire. They are all broken, but still rather lovely in their own special broken and shattered way. I have re-built all the broken and missing sections of the bowls using my own home-made epoxy-based filler which I hand-build in small sections,  layer upon layer, grinding back and sanding each layer, then adding on another little section, slowly building the missing section back up to where it once was.

The really beautiful thing about something that you have done yourself, by your own hand, is rather special. These repaired items are more valuable and unique than they were beforehand, not in a financial way, but something more cerebral and emotional. The loving workmanship has transformed them up to another level of complex value. And, in the final analysis, probably also some sort of increase in monetary value, but this is hard to quantify, as such special personal items rarely ever really come onto the commercial market. 

Bummer

I thought that everything was going so well.

Well, I thought it was. With 2 pug mills apparently fixed. I decided to make up a few batches of clay in the repaired ‘phoenix’ dough mixer. We had run out of the last quarter tonne batch of clay. All we had in the clay box were several bags of recycled turnings that really needed wedging thoroughly, or pugging. We opted to mix all the re-cycled turnings in with the new batches of clay and pug it all together. All well and good. It should have been so easy.

The dough mixer worked perfectly and I soon had a batch of plastic clay on the clay trolley and out to the rebuilt pug mill. Janine started pugging the clay while I mixed a second batch. Each batch is comprised of 100kgs of dry powdered clay, felspar and silica. These powders are all mixed together dry,  then I add 24.5 kgs of water to the batch and the mixer stirs it all together into a stiff plastic, sticky mass. It then has to be hauled out of the mixing bowl,  bit by bit and stacked onto the clay trolley to be wheeled out to the pug mill.

I could hear the big pug motor ‘whirring’, the gear box grinding, and the vacuum pump making its ‘phut’, ‘phut’, ‘phut’, noise. as I worked in the clay mixer room. Then nothing. When I came out to get the clay trolley to reload it with the 2nd batch. Janine was standing there looking a bit puzzled. The pug mill had stopped. The motor was working when I rebuilt it, but that was without any load on the motor, just ‘free-wheeling’ . As soon as the clay went in, the load on the motor increased and it just stopped. The over load switch clicked in and it wouldn’t restart.

Bummer! We now had 2 loads of clay needing pugging and a machine full of clay, but no action. I couldn’t do anything about it right there and then. The machine will need to be stripped down again at some stage. But right now I need to pug this clay. The only option was to wheel ‘Pugsly’ out. I was hoping to keep it clean and ready to pug the first batch of porcelain clay. That’s now a pipe dream. We start pugging the white stoneware through Pugsly. It starts well enough, but then I realise that the vacuum pump isn’t working. It’s making the right noises, but the clay is coming through with air bubbles in it. I can lift the lid off the vacuum chamber white it is working. This lid should be severely locked down tight by the vacuum pressure. Again, I can’t do anything about it immediately, I’ll have to figure it out later. I need to get the clay made, bagged and into the clay box, before it dries out.

I just spent a month of all my spare time re-building these two machines. One doesn’t work at all and the other doesn’t work a very well. I’m a complete failure as a mechanic. This is a real lesson in humility. When all the clay is finally pugged. Tonights dinner will be humble pie for me.  One small up-lifting part of this whole disappointing exercise is that the paint work was a success. It’s bright, colourful and cheering. That’s a small reward.

We spend two days processing all 400 kgs of clay and putting through the pug mill twice. Each batch is pugged and laid out on the clay table in rows and layers of sausages. Because there is the possibility that I could have made an error while weighing out the dry ingredients, or that there might be slight variations in the materials as delivered in the various bags. We pug all 4 batches of clay, then chop the ends off every sausage and re-pug the clay to make sure that every sausage that come s out of the 2nd process has all the same consistency. This is then bagged and stored in the clay box. It’s a bit of teamwork to get it all done efficiently and as quickly as possible, with as little mess as possible. However, inevitably, There will be some clay that gets dropped on the floor.

Once all 400 kgs of the clay is pugged, bagged and in the clay box, a very slow process, as the 3” pug is so much slower than the bigger 4” one. We have to clean up the floor to control the dust. A very small successful part of this protracted failure is that I built all the clay tables and trolleys on wheels, plus I mounted both pug mills on castors. We mop the floor all around the pug mills. Then wheel everything out of the way, and clean the floor under where the pugs were. It’s all quick and easy, and every part of the process of cleaning up is a success. It’s soon time to roll everything back into place. Ready to start pulling both machines to bits and finding out the problems involved, then sorting it all out.

Jane’s big pug has a motor problem. It wants to start, but can’t get going. It must be the starter windings or the starter capacitor. I pull the motor off and take it into town to find someone who knows about such things, to get the parts that I need to get it going again – hopefully. I’m told that it is most likely the starter solenoid. There isn’t one to be had in Mittagong at either of the electrical workshops, so I order one. It should be in next week. Watch this space.

Now for Pugsly’s vacuum pump. I think that it is something to do with the valve, hose and filter, vacuum air line. I disconnect the plastic hose, turn on the vacuum pump and put my finger over the end of the hose and it has hardly any suction at all, but there was some, just a tiny bit. I pulled it all to bits and found a few things out. The first was that the filter had been installed back to front at some stage in the past. Someone has had it to bits at some stage in the past and put it back together back to front. I hadn’t thought to check that when I started work on it. I’m totally hopeless as a fitter and mechanic.

When I got it off. I also discovered that it was chocker block full of white clay – on the pump side, not the pug side of the line. This is theoretically impossible, so that was a bit distressing. As I continued to dis-assemble it all, I also found that the sump of the pump had white clay mixed in with the oil! That would have ground out the bearings! I drain the oil out and replaced it with fresh oil. Ran it for a short time to rinse out all the old oil from the crevices, then drained it again and refilled it with new oil again. After reassembly, I test it and it has quite good suction. So not such a bad outcome. 

I decide to have a look at the vacuum pump on the big pugmill. I discover that it has been over filled to the brim with oil. I drain 2/3s of it out until it is back down to the indicated upper level in the sight gauge. Everything else seems to be in order. However, because I’m such a hopeless mechanic, there could still be more issues to deal with the next time that we get to test these machines out.  

It would have been so much easier to buy new machines from the start and I wanted to. I even had the money for them set aside to pay for them. But ‘Venco’, the pug mill manufacture here in Australia closed down a few years ago, when Geoff Hill, the proprietor died. The company has re-started under the new ownership of his grand son, but only in a very small and intermittent way. They have no plans to produce the 4” pug mills for some time yet. So far they have only made 2” pug mills, with the first batch of 3” pugs coming through now.

So I am stuck with my ineptitude to muddle things through.  I will get it all done, but it is frustrating and very, very slow.

Running Repairs and Fixing Old Stuff

This last few weeks has seen us making pots, but also getting into some serious repairs and maintenance.

I was outside digging over the ‘cottage garden’ preparing the soil for sowing seeds of a spring/summer flower garden show of colour. I know that now is the time to plant out seeds for spring in this flower garden, as in the veggie garden, where we go almost everyday to harvest food for dinner, do a little bit of weeding and plant out successive sowings of vegetable seeds. I see that the red ‘Flanders’ poppies are germinating in the freshly dug soil where I have recently planted garlic cloves. Poppies decide when the time is right to germinate, but they will only germinate in freshly turned soil. So now is the time to dig over the cottage garden site.

I whipper snipped all the old foliage into mulch, raked it all up and onto the compost, or used it as mulch in other places in the yard. 

I took what I thought was the easy alternative of using the cultivator. Not so! I only got 1/4 of the way round and the fuel line blocked up. This machine is a little beauty. I bought it 45 years ago, second hand for $50. It has just gone and gone and gone on working. I only use it a few times a year, but it is so much quicker and easier than hand digging with a garden fork if there is a lot to do. I tweaked the old rubber fuel line and it just snapped clean off in my hand, trailing petrol straight down onto the soil until the small petrol tank was emptied. I walked to the shed and got a pair of pliers to remove the stub end of the fuel line. It was very brittle as its quite old. I have replaced the fuel line a couple of times over the 45 years that I have owned it. The remaining length of line is too short to re-join for a temporary fix, so its another long walk to get some more fresh fuel line from the maintenance shed. With repairs completed, another walk to the fuel shed to get some more petrol and I’m back in business, just a half hour later.

I love this old cultivator. It’s just like me. Out of date and long past its use-by date, but it just seems to be able to keep on going, and going. So solid, reliable and old fashioned. Not very complicated. A good worker. I’m happy to spend time maintaining it to keep it working. It’s a pleasure to be able to own and use such a lovely old Australian made, solid machine that works so simply and so well.

I completed what I set out to do with no more interruptions. Luckily, I had all the parts that I needed on hand, so the job was started and finished on the same day. It’s not always so.

We borrowed Sandy Lockwood’s small pug mill over Xmas and January, as she wasn’t using it over the break and was happy to lend it to us. My wrists weren’t up to wedging another quarter tonne of clay again, so It worked out very well for us both, because after we had finished pugging the new batch of clay and also working through all our stored up re-cycled and bagged turnings and throwing slip. I pulled the pug mill to bits and cleaned it right out. I even saw that the chassis was getting a bit rusted in places, so I cleaned it back, rust converted it and painted it black again. Good as new when we returned it. This pug mill has never been in such good condition since it was built.

That batch of clay is now all used up, so we need to be getting on with getting another pug mill working. 

In the old pottery, before the fire, we had two 4” or 100mm dia. Venco vacuum pug mills. One for white clay and one for dark clay. I also had a 3” or a 75mm dia. stainless steel pug mill just for porcelain clay and finally we had a very small 2” or 50mm dia. stainless steel pug for small batches of test bodies and recycling of turnings. That was such a good position to be in. Luxury really. It took me over 40 years to get to that position.

At the beginning of the year, we were given a pug mill from our friend Toni Warburton. It hadn’t been used for a long time. Perhaps 20 or more years? It had been stored in her back shed for time out of mind and was full of dried out clay. That’s not such a problem. What was a problem, was that it had never been taken apart. so all the bolts holding the 2 halves of the pug mill barrel together were rusted and swollen up in their sockets. They couldn’t be removed or even rotated. I could have snapped off the heads trying to get them loose, but then the shattered off ends would have made them very difficult to drill out accurately. So I decided to just drill them all out straight from scratch. A very long and difficult job.

Drilling out all 8 of the bolts took some time. They were all 90mm long, so I started off with a 3mm pilot hole, then increasing from 5 to 7, and then 9mm drill bits, until the bolt was completely hollowed out and could be removed.

I was wondering if I would get away with it, but I didn’t snap off any drill bits, especially the first 3mm drill bit. That would have certainly put an end to it.

Once I got the barrel apart, I could clean out the dry clay and start to clean it up. The pug mill had previously been used to prepare dark iron bearing terracotta clay. However, I want to use it for white stoneware, so It had to be cleaned out very well. scrupulously well. I made a thorough job of it, starting out with a paint scraper and generally progressing from hand held wire brush, through to a circular wire brush in an electric drill and finishing off with an angle grinder for the most stubborn bits. 

I set about removing every trace of terracotta from both the barrel castings and the stainless steel blades and shaft. They cleaned up pretty well. I ground the barrel back to bare metal and gave it a good coat of etch primer to seal it. This wont last in the places of heaviest wear, like in front of the shredding screens and in the reduction cone of the barrel, but elsewhere it will help minimise the ‘salt’ corrosion caused by the alkalis in the clay reacting with the bare aluminium metal under very wet and humid conditions. The barrel is cast out of marine aluminium, but eventually it still corrodes. In the last pottery, I replaced the oldest barrel that I had on my oldest ’70’s ‘Venco’ pug mill in 1984. It was starting to get corrosion patches breaking through the barrel after 35 years! I kept sealing them with ‘LockTite’ ‘wick-in’ each time I took it to bits and serviced it. The Locktite seeps into the crevices and then ‘gels’ to seal off the void.  Very cleaver. If this barrel lasts that long, it wont be my problem! Someone else will have to deal with it.

Toni had christened this pub mill ‘Pugsly’, so that is its name now and forever. However, I gave Pugsly a bit of a spruce-up and a new coat of paint. 

Bright and cheerful and ready for work. I mounted the vac pump underneath to keep them both close coupled and easy to move around on the one solid castor unit.

This will be our old, but new, porcelain pug mill.

Last year our good friend Jane Sawyer offered us her old Venco pug. She had bought it 2nd hand in the 90’s. She offered it to us as she wasn’t using it anymore. She has another one at ’SlowClay’. This pugmill had stopped working at some stage and was surplus to her needs. We had tried to get it trucked up to Sydney, but no taxi truck company wanted to take on the job of delivering it to the trucking depot for transfer to Sydney. The only quotes I could get were approaching upwards of $1,000. Way too much! So at the start of April. Janine and I made a lightning trip down to Melbourne to collect it. We drove down in the ute, as it has a crane on the back, built for lifting such heavy gear as this. We had 3 days with Jane and took a day of rest to walk into and around Melbourne. The 10 hour drive each way was a bit boring. We changed drivers every 2 hours. It has been a very long time since I drove to Melbourne. The road is all dual carriage way now and a very comfortable drive. The truck is not particularly fuel efficient, so the 20 hour drive cost us $300 in petrol. 1/3 the cost of getting it trucked. But at least we now have it! The best part was that we got to spend a few days with Jane. And, It arrived home safely without being damaged in transit!

This image by Jane Sawyer.

Once home I started to get the pug mill to bits to clean it out. It had also been used for terracotta, so a lot of cleaning was needed. The motor still made a noise when switched on, but instantly went into overload, shut down and stopped humming. It appeared that either the gear box was broken, jammed or a bearing was seized. The only way to find out was to strip it all down to basics. This was easier said than done.

The bottom half of the barrel had seized bolts. I snapped off one of them trying to get it loose, so decided to drill out the other. Once the barrel was off, I tried to remove the collar connecting the gearbox to the barrel. This is where the problem lay. Once I got the bolts out the collar and shaft could only rotate together when I switched on the motor. I eventually got the shaft away from the gearbox, but the collar was very firmly jammed onto the shaft.

I spent a week heating, quenching, oiling, and tapping, several times a day. Whenever I went past. I eventually put the collar in the vice and hit the shaft with a sledge hammer. Gently at first, using a hardwood block to cushion the blow. Nothing happened, so I hit it harder, still nothing. Then I hit it really hard and split the wooden block! But there was possibly a little bit of movement – but only possibly. Was I imagining it? Another hard wood block, and another blow from the sledge hammer saw it definitely move 1 mm.! I dosed it quite liberally with RP7 and left it over night. Several days and 3 hard wood blocks later, the shaft was free.

I discovered that the grease cap on the collar was blocked, so the collar was badly corroded and had swollen up and jammed onto the shaft. The lubricating tube was so badly blocked I couldn’t clear it out. I decided that it was easier to drill out a new greasing tube through the collar to be able to lubricate the shaft into the future.

I welded up a new steel pug mill table/trolley on castors, so that I can move the very heavy pug mill around in the future. I made an under carriage to carry the vacuum pump together with the pug, so that I don’t have to move the vacuum pump separately. This will be our new/old white stoneware pug mill. I’m still waiting to get my hands on another 4” Venco vacuum pug mill for the buff/brown stoneware wood fire clay body. It’ll happen. I just need to be patient.

Bit by bit, slowly, slowly. We are getting everything back to where we were before the fire.

There is a huge sense of satisfaction in being able to take other peoples unused and non-functional pieces of equipment and bring them back into productive use for very little money, by more or less only using my own labour, ingenuity and time. I’ve never done this kind of thing before, so it’s all new to me. I’m just making it up as I go along. There isn’t anything in life that teaches you how to disassemble a pugmill with a seized shaft. I’m lucky. It all worked out well.

It’s an honour and a privilege to own and use these personal links and connections to my friends. There is so much embedded energy in these machines, it’s important to keep them going and avoid waste. it is a delight to see them working properly and being productive again.

We are so lucky to have such Generous, helpful and supportive friends.

Nothing is perfect, nothing is ever finished and nothing lasts.

The Strange Pleasure of Self-imposed over-work

This last week I finally got around to replacing our very old roof on the Old School classroom. 129 years old in fact.

I have had it on my ‘to-do’ list for some years now, but I have always been too busy.

However, as I have been getting older and less virile, I realised that I needed to get on with it without too much delay.

We were getting a few drips in during heavy weather, but not too bad. Just enough to warn me that this needed to be treated as a priority.

Then the fire came and I suddenly realised that the roof was the weakest part of my bush fire protection. 

The old iron sheeting was coming loose from its screws and gaps were appearing in-between the over laps of the joints. This was also adding to the rusting and leaking.

Since the fire, I have been so completely focussed on re-building and getting back to my proper work of making beautiful things, that I had to ignore the pressing need to replace the roof.

Then the floods. We had more and larger leaks in the lounge room during the recent torrential rain events, so the roof had to be dealt with.

I had asked my friend Andy, who is a very skilful builder, to give me hand to replace the roof, as I wasn’t at all confident to be up on the 6 metre scaffold and then onto the 30 degree pitch of the roof.

Just a few months before the fire I had single handedly replaced the north face of the old pottery roof over 2 days, replacing the roofing batons and the insulation as well.

But that was then. I have lost a bit of confidence up on roofs and ladders since then with all that I have been through. It’s shaken my self confidence. I think that the experience of the fire has aged me.

Particularly the episode of climbing into the big pine tree up 7 or 8 metres to chain saw off the burning branches over hanging the house during the fire.

I haven’t been the same man since. It took something out of me that day and I haven’t been able to recover it.

Anyway, Andy said that he would help me out, but not during the summer, when it would be too hot for roof work, so last week was the time. He had a few days free. 

I had ordered all the materials a few weeks beforehand, and I also asked my neighbour Larry to give us a hand, as it is good to have someone on the ground to pass things up when the ladder is 6 metres up and down. Over the years I have had Larry over here occasionally. I taught him to Mig weld and on several occasions he has brought sheet metal jobs over here for me to cut up in the guillotine and bend in the pan break etc. We have developed a barter system of swapping labour on jobs that we can’t do alone.

Over 3 days from Monday to Wednesday, we built the scaffolding, stripped the old roof in sections, insulated the ceiling with more insuwool batts, Checked the old roofing timbers and structural joints. Which turned out to be amazingly sound and better quality than any modern-day, fresh hardwood available for sale locally. I was really thrilled. It was such a solid build.

I had expected to have to replace the batons at least. We improved the structure by bolting the timber roof batons onto the rafters as a safety precaution, as those 129 year old nails were starting to look a little rusty.

We ceiled the roof cavity with ‘anticon’ sheeting and fibreglass insulation, to bring the structure up to the current ‘BAL40’ Australian Standard bushfire fire-proofing. 

Then fixed new single length gal iron roof sheeting back onto the roof. By doing it in sections, the whole roof was never exposed all in one go. This was a precaution against any possible sudden change in the weather.

We were lucky. It didn’t really rain very much and the days were not too hot or too windy, so we finished most of the job in 3 days. 

There is still a lot more to do, but this was the most pressing and difficult part.

After climbing the 6m ladder 20 to 30 times a day carrying up all the materials and tools etc. My thigh muscles were screaming from over use, and it didn’t get any easier by day 3, but then we had Thursday off, as Andy had another appointment, so on the Friday as we did the flashing, the front ladder was so much lower to get onto the front verandah. That meant less ladder climbing, so my legs and knees were coping much better.

I fell into bed each night with a sense of relief, but also a hovering feeling of extreme tiredness bordering on exhaustion. All self inflicted and well earned. 

The trade-off for this minor pain is that I now have a roof that doesn’t leak in heavy rain, but most importantly, a roof that is better designed to survive the next catastrophic bush fire.

That’s a relief! I’m really too old for all this kind of ladder and roof work, but it just needs to be done.

The new roof has cost me about $5,000 in materials. I’m pretty sure that it would have cost me 4 times that much if I had got a roofing company to do it. Self-reliance has its strange pleasures.

The next job is to fire proof the timber end gables and under the eves to stop ember attack. 

But first I need a good rest. I have some big porcelain bowls in the damp cupboard that need turning. A change is as good as a holiday I’m told.

Waterproofing the leaking pottery windows

We are in our own very small and insignificant flood recovery mode

Now that the rain has eased. I can get out and start to repair the leaks that have become apparent in the pottery.

The tin shed builders were pretty basic, almost sub-prime. We have had so many leaks in this building.

The builders chose to use metal sheeting screws without any rubber seals. This must have saved them $10 bucks! So all the walls leaked in the first rain months ago.

I had to go around the whole building and seal all the screws. I had a few options. Firstly I could go around and take out every screw and replace it with the correct type 17 climaseal screws.

Or, I could go around and take out every one of the 3,000 screws, add a small rubber ‘O’ ring washer, then replace the screw. In the end I took the quicker and cheaper option of going around and siliconing the head of every screw. This turned out to be quicker and cheaper. But it still took me days to go around and seal every one to water proof it.

During this prolonged rain event we’ve had a lot of rain compared to our normal. At one point we had over 300mm in 2 days. I know that this is nothing compared to what other places have had to deal with, but it is more than our annual rain fall during the drought years. It became apparent that a couple of the windows were not installed correctly, so that water was leaking in around them. The builders must have been very sloppy with the flashing.

Rather than take the shed to bits to find and seal the problem. I decided to put an awning over the problem windows to keep the rain from getting in behind them.

I had to custom cut and fold some fancy flashing to fit the corrugations and keep the water out.

I cut them by hand using old fashioned ‘curved’ tin snips. Once screwed to the wall above the window and sealed with silicon, they look pretty neat. I’m hoping that this will solve the issue?

Paving Tiles and Wood Heater Repairs

We were busy last weekend with a bunch of friends paving the court yard area around the new, almost finished, wood fired kiln.

I still need to finish laying the last of the floor bricks in the chamber, I would have finished this small job a couple of weeks ago, but when the court yard flooded with 70mm of water sloshing around in there. It wasn’t very appealing to be kneeling done and doing the bricklaying. Then all that water was sucked up into the floor bricks like a wick and they became saturated so that any new mortar wouldn’t stick in place. Finally, they have now turned green with algae. I’m sure that they will dry out – eventually!

This severe weather event, although not life or property threatening for us, like it has been for our friends and relatives up on the North Coast. It has been a good warning and trial run for what we can expect in the future as Global Heating increases unchecked. No one in government seems to be taking this seriously, so what can we expect for the future? Well my guess is more of the same, only much worse. We’ve been warned.

So this extreme weather event has been a great warning to us as to what we can expect in the future. I have learned from it and and I’m taking actions now to limit the sort of damage that very heavy rain fall can cause. To start with we have paved the kiln area with a significant fall away from the kiln and out into the open. I have also ordered some more steel batons and some more poly carbonate roofing sheets to wall in half of the courtyard directly behind the kiln. With contour drainage to take the water to the edge of the retaining wall. Although the pottery didn’t flood, it has become obvious that we need to create a dish drain around the front of the building to carry all the excess ground water away from the front of the building, because another event will eventually be worse. 

This is a start

Back at the kiln, I also need to fabricate a stainless steel firebox lid and a stainless steel chimney flame tube incorporating a spark arrester. I planned to have started this job already, and 3 weeks ago, I ordered the Stainless steel sheets and some Stainless steel wire mesh for the spark arrester. The sheeting is here, but the couriers have lost the SS mesh. The supplier won’t replace it until he knows what has happened to the first order. The courier company won’t pay out to replace it until they know what has happened to it. So I’m stuck in a catch 22 situation. I can choose to wait it out until the original order is found and delivered, or buy a second sheet of stainless steel mesh and get on with it, but it’s not cheap stuff, so I’m waiting and continuing to write emails of enquiry.

We had a great weekend with our friends laying the paving tiles. We also met two new people who volunteered and turned up all the way from Newcastle, who will surely become friends now. They were a great addition to the group. The stayed over night with us and we got to know each other over a home grown meal from the garden. I had previously made a big pot of tomato passata from the last of our tomatoes, so we had an easy meal of pasta. Dan and James are environmental campaigners and organisers, so we shared a lot in common. James took this image of Dan, Janine and me standing on the new paving.

Dan, Steve and Janine. image by James Whelan

  

This is all great progress and I’m really happy to see so much getting done.

Janine and I started the levelling and paving earlier in the week. As a trial run, to make sure that everything would work out the way that I planned. As we haven’t done any paving since we built the last pottery shed in 1983, I’d completely forgotten what to do and had to re-educate myself and get my skills back up to date. It’s not rocket science, but does need concentration and quite a bit of back bending work. I decided that at my delicate age, I should not do so much bending and instead get the knee pads on and work down on my knees to keep my back straighter. This worked out much better. But then getting up became a bit of an issue.

Starting the paving, getting our levels sorted out and learning how to space the pavers to allow for all the different sizes to fit together evenly.
the courtyard paving complete

As we are in Autumn now and the weather is getting cooler and the days shorter, we have thought that we may need to light the fires in the kitchen and lounge room soon. The slow combustion heater in the lounge has started to wear through and rust out in the top fire box steel sheet. A crack started to appear at the end of last season, so I made a mental note to repair it once it cooled down, during the off-season, well that time is running out now, so it has to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. I decided to attack the problem by fabricating and new roof for the firebox out of a scrap piece of 2mm thick stainless steel sheet.

The new Stainless steel fire box roof sheet ready to install
The new firebox top bolted in place

Rather than try and weld it in place, which wouldn’t really work very well , as stainless and mild steel have different rates of expansion and contraction. I decided to bolt it in place with stainless steel bolts through over size holes and oversize washers. This should allow for the differences in expansion. The 2mm thick stainless roof should last as long as the 4 mm mild steel walls and whats left of the old top sheet. Time will tell. The stove is about 30 years old, so it has proved it’s worth. I’ll continue to work on it and preserve its life for as long as I can. We bought our slow combustion kitchen cooker over 40 years ago now and it was 2nd hand then. I’ve managed to keep it going all this time with home made adaptations and ingenious improvised repairs. I’m proud of that achievement and I’m hoping to extend it to 50 years if I can.

While I was at it, working on the lounge room heater. I also made a new front door frame seal. Afterwards, we went out into the paddock and spent an hour together with chainsaws cutting bushfire devastated and blackened logs. We cut them to stove lengths and stacked them in the wood shed ready for splitting. This will be about 1/4 to 1/3rd of the fire wood that we will get through the coming winter months.

My 11th book published

This week I received a box in the mail from Korea. It contained copies of my latest book translated into Korean.

I was such a poor student of English at school. I’m somewhat surprised that I have become a published author of multiple books in 3 languages!

Even my English teacher from High School was surprised, to the extent that when I met him 10 years after leaving school, at a reunion, he didn’t believe me when I told him.

I don’t blame him.

My work building our wood fired kiln continues. This last week I have finished the chamber arches with Janine’s help. 

Adding their second layer of insulation bricks and welding on the steel bracing.

I also started work on the chimney with the help of my good friend Warren on the weekend.

The chimney is almost at the height that I can’t build anymore courses until I cut a hole in the roof to allow it to go through. 

This will involve fabricating some specialised pieces of galvanised sheet metal ‘flashing’, custom fitted to the brick courses just above the tin roof to keep the rain out.

I hope to complete the chimney this week. More ladder work! 

I have declared myself an honorary 59 year old for the past week to allow me to keep climbing ladders 🙂

We have now picked nearly all the apples and I cooked another apple and almond flan tartin for our weekend guests. 

I also made the first batch of baked quinces, as the birds had decided that it was time to start eating them, dropping a lot of them onto the ground with just a few holes pecked into them.

They need to be dealt with pronto, or the damage soon spreads and they go bad quickly. I wouldn’t mind so much if they ate the whole thing, but they just peck a hole into the fruit to get to the seeds inside. If the fruit drops, they just watch it fall and start on another. At least the rabbits eat some of the fallen fruit. Quince fed rabbit sounds pretty good!

I wash the fluff off the skin, then peel and core, chop into 4 pieces for small fruit, or 8 pieces for the larger ones. I simmer them for 20 mins in a sugar syrup of 120 grams of sugar per litre of water. This syrup is less than half strength of the recipe ! Use enough water to cover the volume of fruit. Add a few cloves, star anise, a cinnamon stick, and half a small bottle of maple syrup. Once softened a little, transfer to a large baking dish and bake for 2 hours in a low oven at 160oC until nearly all the liquid has evaporated. Remove the aromatics and bottle in sterile jars while hot from the oven. I think that they are ready when they start to catch just a little on the tips and have turned a beautiful reddy/orange colour.

The fragrance is spectacular and the taste is amazing. Can be eaten just like this, or can be enhanced a little with the addition of some pouring cream, plain yoghurt or ice cream.

I also managed to find just enough zucchini and squash flowers, both male and female to make up the numbers, so that I could make stuffed zucchini flowers for dinner. I wasn’t expecting to find so many suitable flowers this late in the season, so wasn’t prepared with suitable quantities of cottage or other suitable cheeses. Instead I used a tub of left over risotto from the fridge. extended with some boiled lentils and a few olives. It made up the distance.

This last week also brought a little bit of excitement into our dull, plodding, Post Modern Peasant lives. The State Government Funded green waste clean-up program commenced, for all the dead and damaged trees in people yards that were created by the 2019 Black Summer catastrophic bush fires here in the Southern Highlands.

We had a team of half a dozen blokes here for two days, lopping, topping and chopping dead trees. Some were completely removed and the stumps ground out, but most were pruned back to make safe habitat trees for wild life.

They shortened and made safe 15 trees and took down 3 or 4 smaller ones in the immediate vicinity of our back yard orchards, where we work and mow.

The purpose of the exercise is to get most of the smaller dead branches down out of the canopy so that it is safe to walk around underneath them in our garden. We had already dealt with the most pressing and difficult problem trees in our front garden 2 years ago at our own expense. I wasn’t prepared to survive the fire and then be killed by a falling branch.

It’s only taken 26 months for the State Government to implement this emergency safety solution into place. I wonder how long it takes them when they take their time 🙂

We still have 3 acres, or one and a bit hectares of dead forrest that is continually dropping dead branches. We just don’t go there, and if I have to, I wear a hard hat. 

It’ll be unsafe for the next couple of decades as the dead branches slowly rot and fall. But what can you do? It’ll cost many thousands of dollars to get them all pruned safely.

We’ll just have to live with it.