Navvie, Hoddie, and Gaffer’s Best Boy

It has been a busy week, with 3 of the 5 sparkies turning up early on Monday morning. I also had my friend Ross turn up to help strip down some of my burnt bits and pieces, to see if we could salvage any of it. It was all put aside and wrapped up under a big plastic tarp to help preserve what was left of it.That kept me busy all day, running between the gaffers doing the electrics and Ross pulling gear boxes apart. Ross is a pretty impressive guy, he seems to know an awful lot about all sorts of things. He started out as a Telecom technician, but quickly moved into electronics and then heavy earth moving equipment. It was Ross who turned up just after the curfew was lifted here post fire, last December ‘19. He brought me his bob cat to borrow for a few weeks to help me in the cleaning up. That made me cry! It was invaluable to me and got me started well on my way to recovery. Being able to shift burnt trees and building materials around to clean up the huge mess gave me hope.
I would look at a blackened piece of twisted metal and see trouble and difficulty. Ross would look and see possibilities. “We can straighten that, get the oxy torch”. and “I have an old 3 phase motor about that size that will fit in there” etc. “I can take that bent shaft home and straighten it in the hydraulic press on ‘V’ blocks”. I started to feel a little confident that some things are recoverable and not just scrap.


I had to split my time between the two sets of action, being best boy to the Gaffer. A gaffer is an electrician, and the Best Boy is his main assistant. I was asked to make large metal brackets for the 40mm conduits going up the outside wall. Cutting, folding and spot welding sheet metal cable covers to protect the exposed conduits towards ground level. I was busy all day. 
On Tuesday Ross worked at home and only two sparkies turned up. I spent the day hoisting 3 phase cables through the upper portals and ‘tophats’ to get the power around the building. That involved geting up and down the tall 3 metre step ladders all day. A good work-out.
Wednesday I had my friend Len here to help me clean bricks. Janine finished all the full sized bricks on Monday with our friends Rai and Fran. I had to miss that last bit of brick cleaning, doing the last 80 bricks. Len and I started on the 1,000 broken bricks that I will use for the ‘fake’ headers and queen closers in the Sussex wall bond veneer. If I can use the broken bricks to cut up for all the small pieces needed to fill the bond pattern, then I will have enough full bricks to do the job.


As well as Len, I had one lone sparkie here, I was needed to help him pass the heavy copper cables through the wall cavity from room to room. When I wasn’t needed inside, I helped Len outside the verandah chipping the bricks. My main job in the afternoon was to fit 25mm conduit down the portals and pass the power cables down through it to where the power points will be. I had to try and stay one step ahead of Ian the sparkie, I’m saddled with the job of fitting the wiring in place in the conduits and securing it all with saddles, as Ian came behind screwing on the fittings and connecting all the wires up.



After lunch, a brickie turned up to see our job. He was recommended by a friend. Gordon is a semi-retired ‘heritage’ brick layer. Perfect!He looked at our bricks and at the job as I explained what we want. We looked at the old school classroom, then the 1980’s addition that we did. Gordon understood exactly what I was saying and offered pertinent comments as we went about the particular bond and the quality of the mortar. Do we want it pointed, raked, or struck flush? He agreed to come and do our job, and even said that he could start on Monday! We are happy about that. He even has a brother, also a brickie, who will come and help out on the 2nd week.
I now need to get 4 tonnes of off-white brickie’s loam, 6 bags of lime and 12 of off-white cement to make lime-compo mortar. I also have only 3 days to cut and shape the 7 sandstone window sills. particularly the two large ones that are needed under the big arch window for the first course. No pressure!I won’t have much time to do this while I’m being the brickies labourer or donkey. Every trade has a nick-name. Sparkie, Brickie and Donkey or Hoddie, even Navvie, But there are also Carpenters as Chippies and painters are apparently called Smudgers.
So starting next week, I’ll be a Navvie or Hoddie for two weeks as well as the Gaffers Best Boy!That is – if it all goes to plan. This is the 5th brickie to check out our job. We’ll see on Monday morning at 7.00 am!

8,000 bricks

We have been working pretty consistently on the brick cleaning job for four weeks now, chipping, scraping and scutching away at our pile of sandstock bricks. We want to get the job done as soon as possible, but we don’t want to ruin our health in the process. We have had 3 brick layers say that they were interested, but then pull out when they realised that the job was a bit demanding of their skills.
The old School building where we live was built in 1893, when Queen Victoria was on the throne. Janine came across the the contract to build our school in the government’s Department of Education archives. One of the interesting things that she found was that the contract called for the brickwork to be laid in ‘Flemish Bond’. Flemish bond is a style or pattern of brick laying that was used for public buildings at the time and is quite distinctive. It produces a wall that is double brick thickness and incorporates a lot of ‘header’ bricks to tie the two parallel courses of ‘stretchers’ together. 
A header brick is laid at right angles to the normal two rows of parallel ‘stretcher’ bricks, across the the two to link them, and because you only see the skinny end of the brick, or the ‘head’ of the brick, it is called a ‘header’. Whereas the bricks laid so that you can see the long edge exposed is called a stretcher for obvious reasons. There are also ‘queen closers’ used at the end of each course and a repeating, but alternating pattern of bricks of stretchers and headers in the order of two stretches to one header. A queen closer is laid as the ‘pen-ult’ or in this instance, the ‘brick-ult’ piece , second from the end of the course, such that you only see one quarter of a brick. This off-sets the pattern by a quarter for each course.

Got that?

There’ll be a test later!

It’s a little bit complicated, but once you get your head around it, it’s dead easy. To complicate things a little bit more. When we wanted to add a house onto the derelict single room Old School classroom that we bought. We were forced to do the addition in single skin brick veneer construction, because the local council wouldn’t allow double brick construction. This was due to the fact that the village was affected by the near-by coal mine, and therefore mine subsidence. Double brick was deemed to be too heavy and fragile for a mining subsidence area. It would probably crack.
‘Mining subsidence’ is when the coal mine goes under ground and takes out 4 to 6 metres of coal from under everything. All the land on top slowly drops down by that amount to fill in the gap underneath, this is called subsidence. It causes buildings to crack as the ground shifts, stretches, cracks, drops and deforms in an unpredictable way. Double brick buildings are the most vulnerable.
The mining industry has convinced the government that mining is so good for the economy, that to protect the coal mining industry, the owners of buildings like ours should have to insure the mining company against being sued if their mining effort causes our building to crack due to subsidence. They do this by insisting that no building that is likely to crack is allowed to be built, so no double brick buildings, no two story buildings etc. If you do want to add on an extension to a building like ours, then it can only be in single brick veneer. They also insist that we had to get a massive engineered concrete slab and/or footings done at our own expense to protect them. We had to pay to insure the coal mine again loss. while they creamed off all the profits to the overseas owners, ruined the environment, drained the local lake of all its water through subsidence cracking and added untold carbon into the atmosphere!
The outcome of all this was that we added on to the Old School building in brick veneer construction, so we had to ‘fake’ the look of Flemish bond pattern brickwork using half bricks instead of headers and quarter bricks instead of queen closers. It worked and we did it that way. No un-informed person knows the difference at a quick glance. To do this extension of our house, we needed a lot of similar sandstock bricks.
We acquired these bricks back in the 70’s when we bought the old Mittagong Railway station. We saw that the 2nd railway building. The southern one, it was being demolished by a big excavator. This had been the dormitory for the change of shift for the steam train crews. As there are no more steam trains. This two story building was now superfluous to requirements. I don’t think that it could happen today, as there would probably be a heritage order on it.
We saw it being demolished and approached the Station Master to ask what was going to happen to all the bricks. He told us that they were all going to the tip! The site had to be cleared by Wednesday for the track crew to come in and start to widen and raise the platform to be ready for the introduction of the new XPT trains.
I said that we would finish the demolition and remove all the bricks and other building rubbish for them for no cost. He told me that there was no time, and any way, there would have to be a contract and money would have to change hands to make it all legal, and as it was already Friday and the paper work/contract couldn’t be organised in that time frame, there was no chance.
I countered that I would pay him a deposit now in cash and that the contract could follow. He countered that he couldn’t touch money. He was a Station Master, not an accountant. It would all have to go through head office in Goulburn, and that would take time.
I responded that If I drew a bank cheque from the commonwealth Bank in favour of ‘State Rail’, and put it in the mail here in Mittagong, the Manager of State Rail business in Goulburn could open the mail on Monday morning at 9.00 am. and have the equivalent of cash in hand, there and then, so we could start work and the contract could follow.
If I defaulted, then nothing lost, the bricks could still go to the tip on Wednesday. I could see him wavering. I was winning him over. He replied that we hadn’t agreed on a figure for this fine heritage quality, 2 story, brick building yet.
I said OK, let’s haggle. I offered $10… he was shocked. It put him back a bit. He explained to me that a fine 2 story sand stock building like this, made with heritage, hand-made bricks was worth a lot more than that, and what did I take him for? He said try again.
OK I said, then I will offer $100! 
He said done! 
He put out his hand to shake on the deal. It was as good as ours. All we had to do was finish demolishing the building, roughly clean the 8,000 bricks, then find 20 pallets, stack them on those pallets, then put together a team of workers and find a brick truck to move them to our place in 2 days!
We rushed to the bank and then posted the cheque with just minutes to spare, as the bank closed at 3pm on Fridays in those days. Then the real work began. I had to ring around and call in on friends, to get half a dozen blokes to help me. I got two friends who were very handy on the tools and available, then a young local ‘out-of-worker’ guy and his mate that I didn’t know, and that was it. The best I could do at short notice!
Janine was a bit conflicted, as Geordie has just been born and she was a nursing mother. Luckily we had some older friends. One of them was the local plumber, Joe. He had employed me when we first arrived here in the village. He sometimes needed a labourer, digging trenches, ladder work and under floor work, all the things that he was starting to find difficult at his age of possible 60+? I’m guessing, he was recently retired at 60. But he had come out of retirement to take on his son-in-law, Rob, as an apprentice, to give Rob a trade. The things fathers do!
Joe offered us the services of Rob for the next week to help out. Joe would pay Rob’s wage as usual. The things neighbours do! We knew Rob and his wife well, as they also lived in the village and I had helped Joe to build Rob’s house, digging footings, casting the concrete slab, doing roofing and plumbing etc.
We also had a friend in the owner of the local Saw Mill in Mittagong, Mr Blatch. He was very supportive. He said that I could ‘borrow’ a dozen of his pallets to stack the bricks on each day as we worked. That would make them easier to move back to our house on the brick truck.
The next big challenge was to find someone to move the bricks for us. I asked around and was tipped off about a driver of a brick truck from Bowral Brickworks. As a contractor, he owned his own crane truck and was used to moving pallets of bricks with his ‘HiAb’ crane. I called in at his house on the Sunday. He wasn’t too keen, but as it was a Sunday, his wife was there and over-heard my spiel, talking to him at the front door. She stepped in and told me that her husband would be happy to come each afternoon and collect whatever bricks we had stacked on the pallets that day, then drive them to Balmoral and unload the pallets in our drive way, after work. This was great news. He wasn’t cheap, in-fact, that was the most expensive part of the process. I got the feeling that she not only wore the pants, but also had her hands firmly in the pockets, as she did the accounts.
We were all set, with the bricks removed every afternoon, we didn’t have to worry about someone stealing all the bricks overnight. It does happen! One of my pottery students from years ago, told me that he called them ‘Midnight-spares’. That was how he built his pottery shed! Or so he told me.
Rob, Col, Willie and the others turned up on Monday morning. Mr Blatch sent one of his men up with the first half dozen pallets. We called out to the Station Master in his office and he stuck his head out and gave us the thumbs-up. We started levering the bricks loose from the walls, carrying them over to the side of the road and stacking them on the pallets.

Rob helped us with the demolition on the first day, but after that he stayed at our house each day to unload the pallets and re-stack the bricks along the drive way with Janine. It all went pretty smoothly for 2 days, until the 2 lazy young guys I had hired got into an unprovoked argument with some of the railway track workers. I had to step in and break up the fight. I sacked them. I didn’t need that problem at all and they were the laziest workers. At 20+ years old, they were still kids. At 32 myself, I was only just becoming adult.
So the 3 of us finished the demolition. Wednesday came and went and no railway people showed up to take the remaining bricks to the tip. So we kept on working. By Friday we had all the bricks removed along with all the bearers and joists, even the huge stone footings, we prised them all out. All that was left were the broken bricks and rubble.
I went on the Saturday morning to return the pallets to the saw mill and asked Mr Blatch if I could hire his two 3 tonne tip trucks for the day to collect all the broken bricks as well. I knew that as I would have to build in brick veneer, I would be needing a lot of halves and quarters to make the fake ‘Flemish bond’ pattern, and it would be a waste to cut up full bricks when here were all these broken bricks for the taking.
Mr Blatch agreed, he even sent one of his workers up with the other truck to help throw the broken bricks into the other truck. We worked at it for the next 4 hours and got both trucks full of the rubble by just after closing time at the mill. Mr Blatch and his off-sider, drove the trucks to our house and tipped out the two loads. The off-sider drove home, but Mr Blatch stayed on, he wanted to get a pot for his wife. 
We showed him around the show room in the pottery, he chose a big expensive bowl. I said, please take it as a gift for all your support, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He insisted in paying for it. He said that it was really gratifying for him to see a young couple get off their arse and show some initiative. He wanted to support us in our endeavour. So not only couldn’t we pay for the use of the pallets, the use of his worker on Saturday, the use of the two trucks, but was was going to buy the most expensive pot in the showroom. Before he left, he gave Geordie one of the brand new and shiny golden dollar coins. He was a beautiful amazing man!
So this is how we came by 8,000 hand made sandstock bricks and 2,000 halves. All we needed now was a brickie that knew how to lay a veneer version of Flemish bond. It turned out to be much harder than we thought.

When it came to building our home back in 1984, I asked every bricklayer that I came across if they could lay Flemish bond, every one of them said yes, no problem. $500 dollars a thousand! But when I quizzed them on how they would do it, it became obvious that they had no idea what was involved. They were just going to lay old fashioned, Humpty-Dumpty, cartoon-style, stretcher bond. They didn’t even know what I was talking about. Every young guy was the same.
One day, a lady came to the pottery to buy some pots and her husband soon lost interest and wandered off to look at the Old School, I saw him looking with some interest at the brickwork and I asked him what he was looking at. I told him that this was built in 1893 and that it was Flemish bond, a little known old fashioned style of brickwork. He told me that it wasn’t Flemish bond at all, that he was a retired brickie and that this was a little bit different from standard Flemish. 
He seemed very well informed, so I asked him what he would charge to build our house in a replica ‘not-quite-Flemish’ veneer bond? He replied straight away that he couldn’t quote on a job like this as it was very fiddly work, and it would have to be priced by the hour as it would be slow work to get a good result.  I replied. “That is the correct answer! I want you to do the job, as you clearly understand what is involved.”
The brickie’s name was Denis, he was an Englishman and told me that he was semi retired and only did little jobs these days, BBQ’s, small retaining walls, back door steps, etc. I told him my predicament in not being able to find a skilled brickie who knew Flemish bond. If he was semi-retired, I was prepared to have him come just a few days a week, just a few hours a day if necessary, whatever it took to get him to come and do the job. I would be his labourer, mixing the mortar and passing the bricks etc. he eventually agreed and we started the job. 
Denis explained to me that our brick work wasn’t true Flemish bond, there were subtle differences. He would copy the brick bond pattern exactly as we had it, but in single skin veneer. I looked into brick bond patterns and educated myself in the history of brickwork. I went to the State library and read a very old book from England about the influences on British brickwork from Holland. I think that it was called “Des Brykes”. I also found a very old book on brickwork in a 2nd hand bookshop called simply “brickwork’, tragically, I have since lent it to someone and never got it back. These books explained to me the subtle differences and developments in brickwork bonds. i learnt that our bond pattern is called ‘Sussex garden wall bond’. As the original contract to build the Old School specified ‘Flemish bond’, I assume that the local brickie that won the tender for our school, back in 1893, came from Sussex, or was trained by someone who came from from there!
Denis was a really nice old guy, 60-ish (that somehow sounds quite young to me now!) and very careful and highly skilled. He took his time, we worked from 9 to 3 with half an hour off for lunch, just 3 days a week. It took a few months to get up to window sill height all around the house. I had done most of the preparatory brickwork from the below ground level, up to floor level, with the help of my brother-in-law, John. He showed me all the basics and got me started, setting up the levels and squaring the site. I would have been lost without John’s experience, guidance and knowledge.
We had to stop at window height, as I had to make all the windows and make all the sandstone window sills, but first I had to learn a bit about blacksmithing, to make all the tools to cut and shape the stones for the sills. Stone masons tools were very hard to come by in those days before the internet and had to be posted out from England from a specialist supplier, and the cost was astronomical  There was no Bunnings in those days! Come to think of it, Bumings still don’t carry stone masons tools! So I made my own. I needed a pitching tool, a broad chisel and a set of gads. I though that this would be the minimum set, as I already had a couple of small cold chisels, a bolster and a heavy hammer. Not a complete or proper set, but it would do. I forged out the tools from some heavy, left over, concrete ‘rio bar, that was from the footings of the house.
Years ago, I worked at the National Arts School with a lovely old guy – another 60 year old, called Alan. He had been a stonemason amongst other things in his life. I met him when he was the Ceramics Dept, Technical officer at the old East Sydney Tech, now the National Art School, when I was a student there in 1971/2. Alan agreed to come and give me a lesson on how to cut stone and I invited a few friends along who were also interested.
As I’m completely untrained and had virtually no idea of how to go about blacksmithing. I got a few books on the subject, some had to be posted out from England, and I taught myself by reading and trial and error – mostly error. I eventually got a set of stone sills carved out. I cut and shaped 17 window sills in a few months, and then made all the windows for the house over the rest of the year. We also had to clean the rest of the sandstock bricks. It took quite a while. Fortunately we had some friends visiting from the Wales. Sally Seymour and her daughter Annie, plus her two children. We all got stuck in and made a good dent on the pile. They were fabulously hard working visitors!
When I rang Dennis the brickie again after a years break, he told me that he was even older now, a year on, and that he wasn’t that keen on doing all the rest of the job on scaffolding at height. He didn’t own any scaffolding and I would have to hire some. That was another expense that I wasn’t prepared for. If the first third of the house took 6 months working on the ground, then I could image that the upper 2/3 would take a year. I decided to look for some 2nd hand scaffolding.
Before the internet, the way to find things that were for sale was through ‘The Trading Post’ paper. It wasn’t a newspaper. It only carried adds for 2nd hand stuff. I found some used scaffolding from a guy who had bought the scaffolding from another guy who had bought it 2nd hand from ….. It was well loved, and a bit bent! I paid a few hundred dollars for it, and this was a fraction of what it would have cost to rent for a year.
Dennis returned to see what I had done, but suggested that he couldn’t do it all himself. He asked if I minded if he brought in a friend, another local brickie, Theo, to help him get the job done. I was delighted, if it meant the job would be completed sooner. Then I could get on with other things. It just so happened that they came back during the Art School vacation, so I could dedicate myself to full time brickie’s labourer. It took a massive amount of energy to labour for two brickies up on scaffolding. 
I had to cart the bricks around the site in a wheel barrow and pass them up onto the scaffolding and stack them at their feet, two stacks, one at each end, then mix the mortar in a barrow with a ‘larry’- like tool that I made from a garden hoe. I then had to shovel it up above my head onto mortar boards at their feet. I was exhausted at the end of each day, but the job went very quickly and they were finished by the end of the month. I was so pleased and they did a beautiful job.
I now know what is involved in laying pseudo Flemish bond brick work. Actually, Sussex garden wall bond veneer brickwork. So now I’m looking for a brickie who knows a little about other bonding patterns other than straight stretcher bond. Someone who is inquisitive and creative. Someone who is prepared to do something different. It is turning out to be rather hard. All the young guys just want to lay straight long walls with no gaps, no window or doors, and all at ground level. Fast easy money.
I was given the number of a guy by the concreters who cast our slab. His mate is a brickie and he assured me that he knew all about Flemish bond. I rang him and he told me he was an ‘master’ brick layer. I sent him a photo of our Old School to see the brickwork pattern involved and a copy of the plans for the new pottery.He called be back almost straight away. He asked me if that is an arch in the end wall? I told him, yes it is. He said forget it I don’t do arches! What sort of ‘Master brickie’ can’t lay and arch?
The next chance was with an old Scottish guy who even came out here to look at the job. He was positive and very nice and helpful. He asked me to ring him once I had all the bricks cleaned. I rang him a couple of weeks ago and told him we were approaching the end of the brick cleaning. He didn’t reply. I texted him again a week later. Still no answer. Finally on my 3rd attempt, he replied that he couldn’t be doing our job.
The third brickie was working on a job in the north end of our village. I stopped and asked him if he could do our job, and did he know Flemish bond? He told me that he did and that he couldn’t quote on it. It would have to be piece work @ $1.70 per brick. I agreed, and he told me that he was currently working on a big job and would do ours next, in two months time. Great! But then an email came last week to say he didn’t want to leave it till near the time to let us down, so he was telling me now that he wouldn’t be coming.
The fourth brickie I contacted said he knew Flemish and understood what I meant by pseudo Flemish veneer, made with halves and quarters to mimic the style. I sent him the photos and plans and he said yes! He could do the job in two weeks. He said that it would have to be done on piece work – a good sign that the knew what was involved, and that he would charge $1.70 per piece plus 10%GST, or $1.87 per brick or part there of! A bit pricey, but I agreed, as I’m running out of options. 
So now we have to wait and see if he shows up or pulls out like all the rest. Every tradie that I talk to is flat-out busy, sparkies, brickies, plumbers and chippies. We appear to be in a building boom here, so no one wants to do a small or slightly difficult or unusual job, and they want $100+ per hour. That’s approaching the quarter of a million dollars a year! I’m in the wrong trade. Our sparkies are starting work at 4.00 am in the morning and working through until 8.00 pm at night on a big factory job. I can only get them intermittently on occasional days. Wrong trade indeed!
If I can’t get a brickie to turn up. I’ll just do it myself, but the brickwork will have to wait for a few years, until I get the pottery up and running and get the PowerHouse commission finished. The brick veneer face is not essential. It’s just that we have all the bricks on site and need to use them up. They are the perfect match with the other half of the bricks used on the house and a brick face on the west will be very heat resistant in the next fire. The building is clad in corrugated iron already and is sealed and weather proof, so the brick work can wait if needs be. Sussex garden wall bond veneer, is an aesthetic luxury, but one I want to ‘finish’ off the project.

Eventually!

The Old Feed Mill striped bare

I returned to the old feed mill today to finish stripping all of the old grey weathered galvanised iron sheeting off the sheds. I was joined by my son Geordie and we finished the job of taking the walls off in intermittent rain. I’m so glad that Andy and I took the roof off yesterday when it was mostly dry. I wouldn’t have gone up there today. Far too slippery in the wet.

We loaded the truck with another full load that flattened the springs. Another good tonne of steel. This load was mostly all the long 5.3 metre long sheets. Altogether we collected over 150 sheets of old corrugated iron, totalling over 530 linear metres of roofing.

Not too bad for 2 days work! I shudder to think what this would cost new. of course I couldn’t be buying any of it new! I’d find something different to scrounge and re-cycle, or up-cycle, as it’s so trendy to say these days.

I’m very lucky to find such lovely old weathered, matt grey and slightly rusty material. It’s just what I really like. Most of these sheets will line the walls of my metal working workshop, which is over 4 metres tall, just right. Some of the other rooms will benefit also with the kiln room and the gallery getting a wall or two also. I’ll have to wait and see how far it all goes, as there are always losses in cutting the sheets to fit the size of spaces required.

It’s important to me to use these old recycled materials in this new shed. It would look awful if it was all shiny and ‘off-the-shelf’ new. This shed needs the sabi wabi feeling that this weathered old iron will give it. It needs softening and ageing in this way to make it ‘fit’ in this creative and sustainable environment that we envisage for ourselves here in our new post-fire future.

In the evening Janine makes a fabulous dinner of garden veg with a little bit of feta. She was watching A TV show about cheese making and the presenter explained that this was a local recipe from Greece. She thought that it sounded interesting, so wrote down what she remembered after the show. So there is immediately a little bit of interpretation and creative adjustment going on. Whatever was originally intended doesn’t really matter, as this works aa treat.

Spinach, capsicum, zucchini, onion, garlic, and potato slices baked in the oven in a tomato passata sauce. We just happen to have all these ingredients in the garden and a bottle of home made passata in the fridge just now. The only thing that is purchased is the feta cheese.

It was totally yummy, and absolutely local with the exception of the feta cheese, mostly zero kilometres of carbon debt, just 30 metres of travel carbon debt, expended on foot.

Janine also made red grape jelly jam.

And we picked our first apple from the the new trees in the new orchard. It’s a beauty!

A busy day of getting on with all this self reliance stuff.

The Old Feed Mill Factory

Today I spent the day demolishing the old feed Mill factory sheds in Moss Vale. I had known about the sheds needing to be demolished to make way for a new steel fabrication factory. The owner had offered me all the roofing iron for free if I took it all apart. I looked at the site a month ago, but wasn’t ready for the iron until now. The Old Feed Mill has been on that site for a very long time. I was told by one person that their father went there as a kid with his father and his father is now over 80! The original feed mill was built and run by the Hirsh family. This shed appears to be a more modern building. It doesn’t look to be 80 years old, possibly dating back to the 50’s or 60’s. The current owners, who bought the company in 1992, finally closed up in 2017. I know this because the last message was still scrawled up on the black board at the entrance.


The pottery rebuild has got close to the stage of lining the sheds. The electricians have started wiring the building, but will still be another few weeks before they finish, as they are doing my job in their ‘spare’ time in between doing a huge factory installation in Mittagong. so I only get them when they have ‘spare’ days.Once the electricians have all the wiring installed in the walls, I can then start to put the insulation batts in the wall cavity and then line the buildings. The iron from the old feed mill will do nicely as a fire proof lining material. The shed will be steel framed, steel lined and steel clad, with fibreglass insulation. Not too much to burn there.I would have left it for another couple of weeks until the electrics were done, but I got a call asking me if I still wanted the metal, because if I didn’t, there are plenty of others who do. So I had to move now.


I asked my friend Andy to help me on this one, as I thought that it was just a bit too big for me alone. also, working on ladders at heights and on high roofs, it’s best to have a friend there just in case. I’m a decade past the age when I should have stopped doing this kind of work, but nobody told the bush fire that.


We started at 8.00am and hammered, ground, levered, screwed and bludgeoned our way across the two roofs prising off the old rusted nails and screws, then throwing down the liberated sheeting to the ground in a rather messy pile. It all went to plan – almost, except for the rather strong gusty winds that picked up, just after we started, we had to time the picking up and carry the loose sheets to the edge of the roof and throwing them off to coincide with lulls in the gusts. It could have ended badly if a severe gust of wind hit me with a full sheet in my hands at that height. Long sheets of iron act like a sail or even spinnaker.


We finished taking the roof off by 2.30 and then spent an hour cleaning up the mess on the ground and loading some of the iron onto the ute. We got about half of it on. 104 sheets on the ute, which was a really full load for the one tonne ute, but I made it home OK with out being booked. Andy had more sheets on his trailer. We stacked them all in a corner of the new workshop. They can wait there until the sparkies are finished.



We finished stacking the first load of 100 sheets in the shed around 5 pm. A big day for an old guy.
I’ll be going back tomorrow to take the walls off and bring the 2nd half of the load back home. That’ll keep me off the streets for a while. I’ll certainly sleep well tonight.
I know that I shouldn’t really be doing all this ladder work and roof work at my age, but I gave the Work Fairy a month to get it done for me, and she never showed up. Fictional and imaginary friends are just So unreliable! There is nothing much that a passionate and committed human can’t do – given time.

All this self reliance is hard work!

Still on the tools

We have been working on the tools, brick cleaning for the past 3 weeks now. Last week, my wrists began to ache, so I stopped and had a 3 day break to let them rest. Our friends Rei and Fran called in on Monday to give us a hand and I did my share, but that night my wrists swelled up and ached, so I realise that I have reached my limit on brick cleaning. I’ll need to have a few weeks off now to let them recover. We got 2,200 bricks cleaned, so we are about 2/3 of the way through the job, an average of around 100 bricks a day. Not too bad, but obviously too much for my ageing body – at this time of great anxiety and stress.

Instead of brick cleaning, I finished off the claywater/greywater drainage system, digging the trench from the pottery studio to the seepage trench by hand using a crow bar and shovel. Interestingly, this didn’t hurt my wrists the way that chipping away at lime mortar does?


Once the sewerage line was completed, I turned my attention to the LP Gas line. We hadn’t fired our LP gas kiln for the past decade, as we were trying to minimise our use of fossil fuels. But the gas bottles still have gas in them and I’m planning to build another solar electric kiln using gas reduction at stone ware temps.
There are so many services that need to be buried all around the building, I’m trying to get these done, I’ve finished the storm water and guttering, so all that remains to be dug in and buried is the fresh tank water supply to the sink. This has to come all the way around the building from the 2 big rain water tanks next to the barn. I want to get all this done so that I can finish the ground works around the building and start to clean up the site. 
The LP Gas line comes from the 2 big gas bottles past the studio and around into the court yard then up and over the verandah and into the kiln room. I’m really proud that I have been able to achieve this complex installation using only two tools, a coil bender and an expander.

With this minimal tool set, I have been able to make all the elbows and joiner parts necessary for the job from simple copper pipe. I’m using thick class B pipe and 5% silver solder for all the welds, as required by the Australian Standards. The only parts that I will need to buy are the 2 end threads to screw on the LP Gas connection fittings. 
Miraculously, my ancient 1950’s oxy set and the 2 gas bottles survived the fire because I wheeled them out side into the paddock and wrapped them in a piece of 1/2” ceramic fibre blanket. The fire raged past and over them and didn’t even melt the plastic hoses, such is the insulating value of ceramic fibre in the short term. It saved me too!


I’m not real fast, It has taken me 2 days for this job, but I don’t charge myself anything for my time. One of our past pottery students is a plumber and he has agreed to come and test my line and certify it if it passes, then connect the kiln for us. I saved myself a lot of digging by using the existing stormwater trenching for nearly all of the underground work.
Another of our past students, Tony, a retired builder came and installed the glass french doors. These were donated to us by another ex-student Geoffrey and his wife Sue. They bought the doors 2nd hand and Geoffrey cleaned them back, reglazed and puttied them, then undercoated them. Only to realise that they didn’t really suit what they had in mind and found them to be excess to their requirements, so donated them to us. Tony did a wonderful job of installing them, which required moving one of the studs and me making a new steel header beam and then some new steel door jambs out of 3mm thick gal steel plate, so as to save using a wooden door jamb to save the extra space. This was the only way we could fit them in. They look great and let lots of light into the building. We are really pleased!


I also finished the back verandah with the help of my friend Warren last Sunday. I had made up all the parts to make a new ‘portal frame’ to finish the job that the builders said couldn’t be done. I used the off cuts from the 3mm thick gal steel plate that bought for the french door jambs, and cut out and folded the parts for the frame myself, using the guillotine and pan break, watched over by the always attentive chickens, Gladys and Edna. 


The back verandah is now complete and weather proof.
The brickie that we originally had come out ond look at the job, has now said that he can’t do it. A shame, but I have been in touch with a couple of younger guys who are interested. One says that he can start in 4 weeks, so the pressure is on to get the last 1200 bricks cleaned in 4 weeks! We’ll see what we can do. That’s 50 a day, 25 bricks each. It may be possible? 10 before breakfast, 10 before lunch, and 5 before dinner. We have a few weekend working bee’s organised, so that will take some of the load off our wrists.

A Day Off.

Today I didn’t clean any bricks. We had an almost full day yesterday when 2 friends came and gave us a hand for most of the day. Janine and I did our ‘normal’ shift from 6.30am till 9.30, then our friends came at 11.00 am and left at almost 7.00 pm.

We did have a long lunch, but it was still a big day on the tools. So today is a designated day off from brick cleaning. Our first

The electricians turned up, so that was good. It’s nice to see some progress. I spent the morning helping them by digging out the old pottery 3 phase cables down to 750mm. deep and exposing the horizontal run of the orange conduit. The sparkies then joined on a longer section of cable and ran it up the outside wall of the Gallery room, and then along to the new main sub-board inside.

My next job was then to fill it all back in again, after laying a sheet of orange ‘warning-electrical cables’ plastic safety strip along the trench, half way up. By doing these mindless labouring jobs myself, it saves paying the high hourly rate to the sparkies, for something so dull and time consuming and saving me some money.

I will need to make some new corner flashing out of gal steel sheet to cover this conduit and make it safe and weatherproof.

The sparkies continued on inside wiring the rest of the building.

Progress in fits and starts. I’m grateful for every little bit of it.

10 Days on the tools – We’re half way.

We have been working consistently on the brick cleaning, with have had a couple of friends come and give us a hand during the week and that has sped things up quite a bit. Janine and I have been at it every morning for a few hours from 6.30 to 9 or 9.30. We regularly clean our quota of 100 bricks to stay on target of finishing by the end of the month. With the little bit of help from our friends, we are now well ahead of our target. We had 3 friends here yesterday, so knocked off 300 bricks before lunch.This has brought us to about half way through the cleaning job. Ahead of schedule is a good place to be.

On the other days, we only had Gladys and Edna to help us.


We came across a really lovely example of the blue mould on one brick, with some green moss. I sent a photo of it to my friend Warren. He sent back an image of a pile of his bricks that are a stunning example of both the blue mould and bright green moss.

On The Tools – brick cleaning, day 6

The weather has turned cooler now with a southerly change coming through yesterday. We were out there cleaning bricks again today and we managed to put in 3 hours from 6.30 to 9.30 simply because it is not too hot. We got over 150 bricks done, plus a number of broken bricks, shorter ones, skinny ones, plus the usual halves and quarters.

We have now cleaned up to around 1,000 bricks in all categories. I have separate piles for 1/4’s, 1/2’s, 3/4’s. Then other piles for bricks that were cut to special tapered shape for use over the window arches. There is a whole category of smaller bricks that we excavated from the footings of the old Mittagong Railway Station. These make up about 10% of the total. I stack them separately, because 33 years ago when we were building our extensions onto the Old School building here in Balmoral, The brick layers would often call out for me to find a taper brick, or a small brick, to fit a particular spot in the bond.

The long original pile of bricks that used to continue all along our drive way, is now significantly shorter. We keep moving the bench up to the pile and then, the next day, the pile has receded back further again, as we clean the bricks and stack them at the other end of the driveway. This stack advances, as the old stack recedes.

You can see where we started on the brick pile on the far right of this picture after the red wheel barrow, there is a patch of green grass surrounded by a ring of white lime mortar. This was where the bench was when we started. When I start again, later today, we will move the bench again up closer to the brick pile.

The cleaned brick pile is looking very healthy.

We are so far ahead of my hoped for estimate of 100 bricks a day for 33 days. Getting close to 1000 bricks in 6 days. We are wearing our way through the stock of Scutch combs.

It’s a small but significant measure of our progress.

The other big achievement of yesterday, was the completion of the big arched window. I had the glass delivered just before Xmas, when the glass shop closed for Xmas break. Unfortunately, I had miss-measures one sheet, very slightly over size. It was one of the triangular sheets at the very top. I thought about trying to cut the curved arch end back by 10mm., but decided against it. The glass shop didn’t open again till yesterday, having had 6 weeks off. So I rushed down to Mittagong and got them to cut 1cm. off the curve for me and then brought it home and fitted it.

The window is now complete. An intermittent job that has taken me 11 weeks, but 6 of them waiting for the glass. I’m quite pleased with it, and in particular the fact that I could do it all myself for about $1,000. A massive saving on the cost of having one made. I’m lucky that I have all the skills necessary to be able to do this detailed work for myself. There is a local factory that makes custom made steel framed windows for architects. I was told that the window would be in the region of $20 to 25,000 to have specially commissioned.

I can finally take the scaffolding down now.

I’m really looking forward to seeing this wall bricked up!

On the Tools – Day 4

We work for a couple of hours every morning from 6 or 6.30 until 8 or 8.30, depending on when we wake up.

We do at least 100 bricks before breakfast. Our brick cleaning tally stands at 600 bricks now. I was thinking at the beginning of this little project that I had over 3,000 bricks to get done. I’m an ageing old man, maybe 100 per day would get them all done in a month. Achievable, without doing myself an injury. So, all in all, I think that we are doing pretty well.

There is a gap between the bench and the brick pile now. That’s progress made tangible.

We were joined this morning, very early on by half a dozen wood ducks, they came wandering past grazing on the grass and made their way up to the front of our land where I planted a patch of clover.

Janine wets the bricks down with some water every now and then to suppress the dust.

Yesterday, I started the day with a new set of scutch combs in the hammers and by the evening they were reduced to being pretty blunt, so I reversed them to get another day out of the the other edge.

Slowly but surely, we will get it all done. The 42 oC temperatures haven’t helped, but we are in for a cool damp change tomorrow, so I might be swapping my home-made Legionaires style, adapted sun hat for a rain coat. At least it will keep the dust down and be so much cooler.

I improvised it by fixing part of an old T shirt to my straw hat with some of Geordie’s old nappy safety pins. Needs will, as needs must.

On The Tools, Day 3

Janine and I have been getting up early and going out to the brick cleaning bench each day now at around 6-ish. We chip, scrape and clean until we have have 100 done, that takes us about 2 hours. The first day it took us 2 1/2 hours, but we are getting better at it now, so we have knocked half an hour off. We don’t try and do more in the extra time, we just knock off once our quota is filled and then rest our arms and wrists.

We are usually quite hungry after 2 hours of work, so we enjoy our breakfast.

Stopping is good. We don’t want to over-do it early on. After breakfast today Geordie called in with some stuff from a restaurant that he was given and wanted stored. it is starting to look a bit crowded in the new shed already and we haven’t even finished building it yet!

Later in the morning after Geordie left, Janine had a little snooze. The extreme heat makes you tired at our age. I didn’t feel like it so went back out and work for another hour, which was OK after a couple of hours rest. I put up the shade cover thing and did another 100 bricks in just one and a half hours. Maybe I’m getting better at it? Or, maybe I was just working through a pile of bricks that had less lime mortar on them?

When I come to the ones that have cement on them, well, that really slows me down. I have a bit of a go at them, but really, it isn’t worth buggering up my arm muscles on these. I put them aside and I will come back to these in a few days time when there is pile of them built up, and I will get out the diamond saw and just cut the brick, just inside the cement coating, and clean it that way.

Some of the bricks are really pretty.There are a range of colours from red, through orange to yellow, with a few maroon and grey variations. There are also a ring of textures as well. Sandstock bricks have this hand made natural variation in deeply inherent in there making and firing technique.

I found one lovely one that had a blue kind of mossy mould growing on the lime in the mortar. It was quite a pretty blue and a lot of the bricks in one part of the pile had just the right conditions for its to grow. The red brick contrasted well against the blue haze of the mould?, with the rest of the brick having a sooty grey black mould on it.

We only found this in one part of the stack. It obviously had very specific growth conditions.