The life of a bearing

I used a wooden framed, foot operated, treadle, potter wheel. It’s a very old ‘Leach style’ potters kick wheel. Designed by Bernard Leach, way back, early in the last century. That’s almost a hundred years ago, coming up sometime soon. This actual wheel was handmade in Australia under licence sometime in the 1970s. That makes it almost 50 years old.

When I started to learn about hand made pottery in 1969 I bought a 2nd hand ‘Leach’ kick wheel to get me started. I loved it so much, that I have used them ever since. I have tried other pottery wheels, but keep on coming back to this energy efficient, human powered potters wheel. Tragically that first wheel was lost in one of the two fires that have devastated our pottery workshops over the 50 years of my career as a potter.

The other day I was throwing a large pot of 3 kgs of clay. Not so big compared to what other younger potters can throw on an electric powered potters wheel. But about as big as I like to go on this old wooden treadle wheel. Well, I was pushing hard to get the mass of clay onto the centre, when ‘CRACK’ ! That was the end of my throwing session. I had busted the leather bearing that connects the foot treadle bar to the steel crank shaft. It was reminiscent of peddling your bike when the chain suddenly comes off the derailleur gears. Everything sins free and there is no response to the effort of peddling.

Now it just so happens that only last weekend I was at a ‘Lost Trades’ weekend market and exhibition and my good friend Warren, the guy who can do anything. Warren decided to buy a hand made leather belt. But his plastic card wouldn’t work on the ancient, lost trade, candle powered, banking machine that was available on the site, so I lent him some money to pay in old fashioned cash. The Lost Trades traders still have the ability to take cash! That is a skill that isn’t lost!

I asked the leather worker if I could have the excess leather from the very long blank belt was was being custom fitted to my friend. I got 300 mm of leather belt material. The leather worker, who I knew, knows that I am a potter, and I have bought my belts from him in the past. He asked me what I wanted the leather for. I told him about my very old potters wheel and its antiquated leather bearing. How amazing that the very same piece of leather bearing would snap just a week later. I am so lucky!

.As good as new – well almost

So I had to stop work and do a running repair. I was prepared. In less than an hour I was up and running again. I bought this potters wheel 2nd hand, after the last fire in 1983. The old leather strap had lasted 36 years! Not too bad for a thin leather strap.

I’m wondering how long this new one will last? I only used half of the piece of leather for the repair, so I still have another piece in reserve for 2055.

I’ll be over a hundred years old by then, so it probably won’t be my problem.

Back home to Spring in the garden

I’ve been away for a while travelling and researching in China. It was a very interesting trip and I will have some stories and images to write about here in the next few days and weeks, as soon as I can get around to it. I have been very busy these last few days, since returning home, doing a number of things. All of which needed doing all at once as soon as I was back.

We had some terrible storms and gales while I was away, so there were a couple of days welding the chain saw, wheel barrow and rake, getting the driveway clear and the various fallen limbs off the fences etc.

We had one really big she-oak snap in half and fall, but not quite to the ground, so it was left hanging precariously until I got home. A definite no-go zone for all and sundry, until I could get in there and cut it down to make it safe. Janine and I then cut it up into fire wood sized small pieces to clear the space again. A big job and I’m always relieved when events like this are resolved without damage to property or me while I’m in there and under the branches cutting the wedge out to encourage it to fall into a safe place.

It all went well, but it makes me realise that I’m getting a bit older now and I have think these things through property before I start. It’s probably called risk analysis or some other clever name these days, but it’s what I have always done. Pace it out, measure the space, asses the weight and any bias in the load on the trunk. I want to do this safely.

Sometimes I put a 13mm. steel cable around the tree and winch it over in the right direction using my slow and steady ‘come-along’ hand winch. This tree wasn’t so tall any more, so I just used the tractor to winch it along with a suitably heave load chain. Needless to say, that with a wedge cut out, a slice in the rear and the tractor pulling it along, it fell precisely in the right spot.

I insist on working alone when I’m doing dangerous jobs like this. Any other person on the site is one more risk. The chickens always come running when they hear the chainsaw start up, so luckily for me and particularly for them, they didn’t get to where I was working before I had it felled.

So now all that heavy work is doneAll the wood cut and stacked in the wood shed, it is time to give the vegetable garden a bit of a work over with plantings of spring vegetables, seeds and seedlings to get it all ready for the summer. The soil temperature is almost up to 15oC, so a good time to get started. The asparagus is up and we have had a few meals already. That’s a good sign that spring has sprung.

I have been pulling out wheelbarrow loads of red ‘Flanders’ poppies. The come up wild, like weeds everywhere that the soil is disturbed. I love them, they are so delicate, beautiful and very short lived. Each flower wilts the day it is picked. They are only good for one day in a vase. However, they come up absolutely anywhere and everywhere that I have gardened or worked the soil the previous year. Of course that usually means in the garden beds. We like them so much that we usually have a lot of them overwintering in the fallow beds.

Well, the time has come to thin them out. I remove them from each part of the garden as I need the space to plant out the new vegetables. I leave as many as I can along the edges and in the paths. They will flower all through the spring into early summer and set seed in the autumn to replenish themselves again for next year.

Beauty and frugal practicality in balence. The cycle will go on, as long as we’re here to keep tilling the soil and creating that fertile environment.

The 1 to 10 of Orchard Pruning

We have spent this winter weekend pruning the fruit trees in the orchards.

I had my good friend Warren over to help me. Warren is the man who a can do almost anything at all, and do it well — with a smile. He is so good to have around.
We started by shovelling up all the ash from the past burn piles of garden prunings over the recent season of garden clean-ups. These piles of vegetation grow during the hot months as we slowly accumulate material. Finally when the cool weather arrives and there are no more fire bans we are able to burn the accumulated bushy piles. The amount of ash is amazing. We are able to fill two wheel barrows to the brim. All this ash gets put back into the garden and orchards. Sprinkled around the fruit trees as fertiliser. Ash contains all the nutrients that a plant needs to grow. We don’t use commercial synthetic fertilisers in our gardens and orchards. We are fully committed to growing organically. We only use chicken manure and ashes from our fire place and stove, plus once a year like this, the ash from the burn piles.
The ash is spread around each of the trees at the drip line and will get watered in when it rains. Ash has sodium and potassium, calcium and magnesium, alumina and silica, plus iron and titanium, all in various proportions depending on the plant material that was burnt.
I also throw the beef marrow bones that are left over after making stock in the kitchen. After roasting and boiling the bones with a vegetable stock, the bones are given to the chooks for a day or two to pick over, then they end up on the burn pile. I fish the fragile, brittle, burnt, calcined bone remnants out of the ashes and crush them up to add back to the garden. Calcined bones contain phosphorous, which is severely lacking in our ancient, depleted, Australian soils. Bone ash is a great addition to an organic garden.
The winter pruning weekend has a kind of old English folk tale, come nursery rhyme sort of feel to the work. It’s a very ancient activity to get involved in at this time of year. It’s a must-do occupation if you want healthy trees and more fruit next year. It has to be done and it can’t be put off. It has to be done NOW! Janine and I have been doing this for over 40 years.
We gave it the old one-two. We started by putting on our work boots. Unfortunately no buckles involved on this occasion  just velcro, laughing sided elastic boots and lace-ups.
Then it was three four. Open the gate to the orchard. It doesn’t rhyme, like ‘door’ would  but it allowed us to come and go at will, while we pruned the fruit trees back into shape for the coming spring time flush of growth. The chooks take the opportunity of the open gate to come on in and help us work, by getting in under our feet. They come in here about every second day, but only stay for an hour or so before wandering off to look for something more interesting to do. Because we are in here working all day, they stay and work all day too! They just love a bit of human company.
Pruning takes a lot of effort and a lot of thinking and planning too. It’s not mindless. It isn’t just chopping off branches willy nilly. We are constantly conscious that neither willy gets chopped off. Especially since we are using a combination of mini chain saw, pole pruner, secateurs and various lengths of garden loppers. We both drew blood on several occasions from the large spikes on the branches of the yellow plum tree, and other spiky objects and sharpe tools. Luckily our willies and nillies survived intact. We have to treat each tree slightly differently depending on its shape and age, but also its individual habit. As well as considering that each variety of fruit tree fruits and flowers on different wood. Some only on old established fruiting spurs, like cherries, apples and pears, but others on 2nd year growth wood only, so old 3rd year wood is removed after fruiting, 2nd year wood is retained for this years crop and new growth is encouraged for next years fruit.
Probably the most important thing is to remove any dead and decayed wood to minimise disease and this all needs to be picked up, carted off and burnt.
Next it was five six, and we spent a lot of time picking up all our prunings and carting them all down to the burn pile at the back of our block. There are 30 trees in the stone-fruit orchard, a dozen cherry trees in the Chekov orchard, a dozen almonds in the veggie garden, a dozen citrus in the orange grove and a dozen hazel nuts in the old olive grove.  We have over 100 fruit, nut and food bearing trees in total. The picking up of sticks actually takes longer than the climbing up and down the ladder and into the branches of the trees to do the cutting and sawing.
The pruning went pretty well, we are getting better at it these days. However, we totally failed on the next part of seven and eight. Try as we might the burn pile of sticks wouldn’t stay straight. The off-cuts of fruit tree branches are just too forky and twisty to lay straight.
We did however have the constant help and supervision of the ’Spice Girls’ at all times. The big brown hens love a bit of garden activity and are keen to be right in the middle of it scratching and pecking, so nine ten was no problem.
Pruning is one of those jobs that it is really good to finish. See you again next year. Same place, Same time of year. I have a new trimming attachment for my whipper/snipper thing. It goes all the way up to 11!

Winter Solstice

I can hear Janine talking to someone outside, I can’t quite make out what she is saying, but it is an animated converstion with highs and lows in the flow and sometimes torrent of words. There must be a visitor? I can’t hear the replies to her raised intonation questioning, or the questions that generate her responses. In the end I have to get up from my chair here typing, and go and see who she is talking to.
It’s not a visitor at all, it’s her ‘Spice Girls’. She is talking to Ginger, Maltie and Koko. The chooks!. What is so interesting to me is that they are replying to her with gentle cooing and soft clucking, looking up at her apreciatively and expectantly. She is talking to them as she drops little tit-bits from our kitchen left-overs. She is quite animated in her talk and they are attentive. Of course it isn’t a conversation by any stretch of the imagination, but there is a definite exchange. It’s all about food for them. That’s just about all they seem to think about. If you can call it thinking? However, I’m mindfull that chickens are not just egg layers, they make good pets. They come when they are called and follow us everywhere when we are outside working. They are also very entertaining. So I can appreciate Janine’s engagement with them this sunny morning. I love to hear the lilting rise and fall of her voice drifting into my peripheral hearing.

I’m sitting in the kitchen writing this, it’s a sunny morning and the sun is streaming in through the northern windows flooding the kitchen with bright colour and light. So bright in fact that I can’t see the screen properly. I have to move my chair, so that I’m positioned in the shadow of one of the window pillars, otherwise the light in my face makes me squint and makes typing very unpleasant. I could move to another room, but I love the sunshine on this winter solstice morning. I can look forward to the nights getting shorter and the days longer from now on. Not that it will make any difference in the short term as it always gets colder after the solstice, just as the hottest days are after the summer solstice. It’s more of a mental recognition that things are on the change that is reassuring.

I’m sitting here wearing a woollen jumper, substantial hemp shirt, tee shirt and a merino thermal. I’m comfortable, but all this clothing is essential here at this time of year. We don’t heat our house, this is a conscious choice, specifically to minimise our lifestyle effects on global heating and the climate crisis. Instead, we just rug up. It’s just reaching 12 oC here in the kitchen now that the sun is coming in. It rises from behind the eucalypts down below the big water tanks in the North-East and progresses at a low angle across the northern sky. The angle is so low that it casts its light right across the kitchen at lunchtime reaching 6 metres into the room at its peak.
I’ve been thinking about getting under the floor of the kitchen and insulating the wooden floor boards to help retain this solar heat for longer in the day. We have a wood fired kitchen stove that we cook on in the cooler months. For many years, it was our only form of cooking. It’s a really great piece of equipment. It uses all our tree falls from our 7 acres of native forest as fuel. This means that we are not adding to the carbon load in the atmosphere, as our forest has grown and thickened over the 40 years of our stuardship. This block of land was all cleared when it was a public school in its past life. We have established gardens, orchards and dams for water storage and this increased the bird life from just a few kookaburras and magpies, to what it is now. A thriving environment crowded with all manner of bird life in all sizes from the powerful owl down to the smallest wrens.
Our lovely old enamelled, cast iron, kitchen stove, which we bought for a couple of hundred dollars, 2nd hand, back in 1978, is a beautiful, well thought out, piece of engineering. I have been repairing and maintaining it all these years. It’s beautiful for many reasons, but principally because it is repairable. It’s a very solid thing with a substantial cast iron metal frame that I can work on and make slight changes to, to keep it going and working perfectly for over 40 years now. I looked up the cost of a new one on the web and a new one costs between $15,000 and $22,000!!!!
We can’t buy a new model of our stove. It’s too old now and the company was bought out by AGA. A new Aga is now $22,000 and the cheaper version called Rayburn is now $15,000. That’s the same price that we paid for our Mitsubishi Colt car! It’s hard to believe that a kitchen stove could cost that much, but it does. Such is the modern world. It’s a very good reason to keep the old stove going. It not only cooks our dinner, it heats the room and it also heats the hot water, a job shared with the solar panels. The solar panels work best in summer and the stove is better at heating the water in winter, but they both work together all the time. I set the system up so that they are both connected in parallel.
We only light the stove in the evening. It’s a slow combustion stove, so it is capable of staying alight all day and all night, week in and week out, but we don’t use it that way, because when you turn down the air on a slow combustion fire, it makes it burn very dirty and smokey. This is really bad for the environment and air quality. What we have always done in response to this dilemma, is to light the stove in the evening with full air open and crank the heat up to full, do our cooking for dinner, then do whatever baking, preserving and slow simmering that might be needed. After that, if we need the water to be heated more, then we keep stoking the firebox, but only lightly, still with plenty of air. We try and avoid any smoke, when we are finished, or go to bed, we just let the stove burn down and go out.
This minimises the smoke and air pollution. It satisfies our need to minimise our carbon foot-print and achieves all that we want from a kitchen and a life. It is a very comforting feeling to come inside on a cold evening, into a kitchen that is warm and friendly. Comforting in all its senses, not just the heat. The smell of real food slowly simmering, the kettle quietly rattling and bubbling, the smell of the freshly split firewood. The knowledge that this is a happy home. It’s the kitchen that I wish that I had grown up in. I’ve built my own small creative environment here. A hand made house, with home grown, hand made furniture, the dull gleam of polished copper pans, that I clean with our own lemons and a little salt. Washed under our own wood-heated hot water. It’s a very pleasant idyl, but it has taken and still requires a lot of effort to create and maintain.
It’s no accident that we have ended up living like this. Everything that we have done, every effort, every creative decision in the past 45 years has been edging us towards this point.
Cutting, carting and stacking wood is of course a constant job, but it needs to be done to clear up all the wind fall branches and fallen dead trees that are constantly coming down in the big winds each year. We also have a wood fired kiln that fires on mostly our own timber from our land here, but once people know that you use wood, they are often offering us fallen trees that they would like cleared away for free. The fact that we are creating some particulate matter in the air from burning our wood is a concern for me. I can only console myself that we are not burning fossil fuels. The fact that we are now driving on sunshine, salves my conscience a bit. One very important step for us was to finally get around to building a wood storage shed for the dry fire wood, after it is all split and stacked ready for use. It only took us 15 years to get around to it, then another 15 years to get around to building the same thing for the kiln wood. Everything gets done eventually, in its own time.
On a different note, I wrote a piece a while back about the crappy plastic dust pans and brooms that are the only choice at the local hardware shop. They are so flimsy, poorly designed and made, that I am embarrassed to own them, but that was all there was in our local shop. In response to that whinge, I got a parcel in the mail from our lovely friend Janna who found a couple of natural bristle, wooden handled, hand brooms in her local hardware shop and posted them to me. Thank you Janna! I was chuffed to say the least. But then I was in the health food shop complaining about the plastic junk that we are forced to choose between at every turn, and the next thing I see is that they now stock wooden handled, coconut fibre bristled ‘fair trade’ brooms from Sri Lanka. So I now have 3 new natural bristled, wooden handled, hand brooms. That should keep us going for a while. However, in the meantime, I had made a stainless steel dust pan from old kiln off-cuts, that I folded up on the pan break and spot welded together. That should last us 100 years, if not more. Next, I re-invented and converted the old broken plastic piece of crap broom back into a functioning item again, by making a new wooden handle for the broken bristle head. By simply drilling a couple of holes in the old head and screwing it too the new handle. It works quite nicely thank you.
Where there’s a way.
Best wishes
from the re-imagined, re-used and resourceful sweeper upperer.

After the Hail Storm

A month ago we had a hail storm. Not too bad as hail storms go, but bad enough. There wasn’t a lot of rain with it, – a pity.

A few weeks later we had a lot of rain in an hour. Quite a storm all told. We found to our surprise that we had a number of leaks appear in our old school classroom. We had to find buckets for the drips on the carpet, the computer table and other various places around the house. Having drips of water dropping onto the carpet in what is our lounge room, really concentrates your attention.

I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wandering!

We don’t usually have leaks like this, so I had to investigate. However, I needed to wait for it to stop raining, then to stop blowing, waiting for a day when there was no gusty wind. I once went up on the roof on a windy day and the ladder blew away, leaving me stranded up there until Janine came looking for me, replaced the ladder and let me come down. She must love me!

I finally found a day that wasn’t too windy, glarey or wet and slippery. I got up onto the top roof of the old classroom of the school. I found that the hail storm had pummelled the 130 year old corrugated galvanised iron roofing. Where there was an over-lap of the old sheets the iron had rusted to a very thin state because of the condensation in the over-lap, creating a few quite large holes.

A hundred years ago, corrugated iron roofing could only be manufactured in short lengths, as it was rotary folded across the sheets to make the corrugations. This meant that to cover a long-span, a number of shorter sheets needed to be used and this required overlapping to stop leaks. All old iron roofs suffer from this same problem of rusting out on the overlaps. We are lucky to have a roof that has survived for so long without too much trouble. We live in quite a relatively dry environment with about 500mm of rain each year.

I worked across the roof systematically siliconing every split, crack and thin rusty patch. The overlaps needed special attention. In one place I had to cut a small piece of rustic, but structurally very sound, old roofing iron into a small square. I glued this patch over the worst section, that was too big to close with just silicon alone.

The big issue turned out to be the ridge capping. This is 130 year old lead! I wanted to replace it 35 years ago, when I was much younger, able-bodied and building the extensions on to the Old School Classroom. I didn’t want any lead on my roof. Unfortunately I struck one massive problem that stopped me in my tracks. The old lead was about 600 mm wide and the old wooden roofing battons were well spaced accordingly. Modern galvanised ridge capping is only about 460mm wide. Not wide enough to reach the old battons. This meant removing all the old sheets of iron and screwing on new battons, then replacing the roofing, then screwing down the new narrow ridge capping. A massive job. Not one that I could complete easily in a day.

Being basically lazy, I decided that I had enough to do with building the new extensions onto the Old School classroom to make it into a house, so I left the old flashing up there. It was just easier to ignore it and hope for the best. The old lead capping has developed cracks and splits here and there along its length over the years. I siliconed these splits and cracks 30 years ago, and 20 years ago and then 10 years ago, Now the cracks are just too big and too long for silicon.

Now my lead flashing chickens are coming home to roost. I will need to re-roof the whole school roof eventually. I hope that I can make it last long enough, so that it isn’t my job to do. I couldn’t do it by myself now. I’d need to employ someone to help me these days.

My creative solution was to lift the old lead flashing and slide in new sections of shiny galvanised ridge capping in underneath the old lead. Then I screwed the old lead down over the new galvanised ridge capping, through into the old galvanised roofing. A cunning plan!

From a distance, no-one can tell that I did anything at all. It looks exactly as it did before I fixed it, and that’s the way I like it.

One Thing Leads to Another

I’ve only just finished repairing the slow combustion heater in the Old School classroom in preparation for the coming winter, when Janine points out that the fire brick in the wall of the wood fired kitchen slow combustion stove is all cracked and spalled away. The metal casing of the cabinet is showing through. We can’t light it again like this. Being over 40 years old, there are no spare parts available. I will have to improvise – as usual.

I have no real options here. I don’t want to take the stove apart completely to re fit a new home-made fire brick into the wall, so I do a patch job. I use some of my homemade ceramic fibre glue and fill up all the cracks and spalls with ceramic fibre high temperature insulation.

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This will have no chance of surviving the intense battering of logs thrown into the fire box. But I have a cunning plan. I find an old piece of kiln shelf down in the pottery that is just about the correct size. So I cut it and shape it with the angle grinder until it fits the bill.

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I wedge it into place with a few off-cuts of similar ceramic kiln shelf material and it all locks into place. Only time will tell how long it will last? However, I am confident that it will protect the fibre insulation stuffed in behind until it cracks or breaks.

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On close examination, I see that he curved fire brick just inside the stoke-hole door is cracked in half. This is a home-made, hand-built, custom-shaped fire brick which we made from a hand-made mould that we cast back in the 70’s.  I made 3 spares at the time.  I can see that I will have to make a few more now, as we have used them all up over the 40 years of constant use. It needs to be special shape, with recessed corners that interlock with the other fire bricks, so that it can just slide into place and be held securely, but not too tight, to allow for expansion.

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Janine finds the mould after almost 25 years, stored away in the third chamber of the climbing kiln that we don’t use anymore. I knock one out with a rubber mallet to get good compression. One down two more to go. The first three that I made lasted 25 years or so. So this lot should last me until 2045! I’ll be well into my 90’s and won’t be cutting too much fire wood by then.

Last year I repaired the other side of the fire-box, the heat shield that protects the oven from getting too hot. That cast iron plate had completely disintegrated. I replaced it with a home-made kiln shelf that we made in 1976. We still have a lot of them left. I didn’t think that it would last very long, but gave it a go. It has one crack in it after 18 months of use and still going strong. Very pleased, but.

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

The Old Wood Heater

As the cooler weather and winter approaches, it is time to have a good look at the slow-combustion wood heater in our Old School Classroom. This is the only source of heating in the Old School. We also have a wood fired stove for cooking in the kitchen, it cooks all our meals, warms the kitchen and heats our hot water over the winter months when the solar hot water panels are less efficient.

We have owned this old heater for around 25 years, This is the 3rd time that I have had to replace the fire brick lining in the firebox. This time however, I am in for a big overhaul, 25 years is a long time, the stainless steel flue has rusted out. I can see that it has splits and cracks in it where it leaves the heater. It takes a long time and a lot of heat to rust out a stainless steel flue. The stainless steel flue pipes that I use are pretty long lasting. I use them on my kilns as well. It’s the first time that I have ever seen one this badly deteriorated, just rusted away like this.

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While I’m at it, I replace the latest flue baffle too. The metal plates are prone to rust out like this with constant use. I’m not surprised though. This heater is used 6 months of the year constantly. That’s over 12 years of constant heating. So the fire bricks ate all spalled and cracked, the flue pipe rusted out, and the flame baffle has a huge hole rusted through it. It’s long over due for a bit of maintenance.

I replace the melted flue baffle with a used and recycled ceramic kiln shelf. The crumbled fire brick lining with new bricks. I regret that the original ones were Australian made, but there isn’t an Australian alternative available any more. I bought new ones made in China. They are a simple plain brick, so a replacement is easy to find.

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The kitchen cooking stove is another matter entirely. It was made in Scotland last century and was already out of production when bought it 2nd hand in 1977. No parts were ever available, so I have kept it going for the past 42 years by making all our own, specially shaped, fire brick replacement parts.  I have also made a new fire box door. new fire box door locking device, new fire box heat baffle and several new cast iron grates for the ash pit. These I cut down from cast iron gratings that were readily available in the hardware store. These days they are all made of aluminium, which is useless for a fire box. Luckily, I bought half a dozen spares before they disappeared off the market. I’m pretty sure that I have the skills needed to keep this cooker going for the rest of my life.

See older post on repairing this stove;

Zen and the Art of Maintenance – Theres a catch to it

Posted on 04/12/2013

A couple of hours of work, a little bit of tinkering and the stove is good for another few years of faithfuls service. It might even see me out. I hate to throw anything out that isn’t really worn out and past repair. Re-use, re-cycle, re-purpose, and re-pair.

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The same old stove, but with its new stainless steel flue and a completely renewed lining inside. It’s not perfect, but it will do.

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