Archive for the ‘Low Tech’ Category

Gardeners wanted!

Friday, February 15th, 2013

I’ve recently moved to a new place further out from Portland, and with the new spread came some existing farm fields. The previous owners had used them for vegetables, for a farmers market.  Tomatoes, squash, and asparagus were the primary crops, and the soil looks great.  I’m not able to invest the time and energy into the fields that they need, so I’m looking for someone to rent the fields from me for this growing season.  It seems a huge waste to let them go to weed again when I know they can be so productive. Location: Marquam, OR (midway between Molalla and Silverton) which is 50 minutes from downtown Portland.


  • 1.5 acres of fields (upper field=1 acre, lower field=.5 acres) Click here for a visualization of the location.
  • deer-fenced
  • irrigation available
  • fantastic looking soils – black, rich
  • organic methods in prior years, but not certified
  • mostly southern exposure
  • semi-remote area, quiet, away from cars – a nice place to spend afternoons in the summer

Costs: $150/month for both fields, plus any electric costs for irrigation pump (separate meter)

Details: The deer fencing is in decent shape, but will probably need some upkeep. One corner (15’x15′) of the lower field has been removed for some road work, and  you’d need to re-fence that section.  The piping for the irrigation gets water to the hose bibs, but you’d need to figure out how to distribute to the crops. Payment in advance would be required for each month.  Only vegetable crops, please – no animals or smoke-able products – I am looking for low-headache tenancy. I have a tractor with a tiller, and could possibly till these for you when it is a bit less rainy, but that would be at an extra cost. No covered storage area available, though you could bring your own temporary storage shed if you wanted. Sorry, but no camping or residing on the property is offered with the arrangement – this is a “commuter” field.

Contact: I’m only taking email at the moment – will reach me.  If you’d include your number and a time that works, I can certainly give you a call.

Pictures: Click here for a short photo montage of the fields

Videos of the fields:

Lower field

Upper Field


Coot in a box

Friday, April 15th, 2011

In my “spare” time, I am somewhat of an inventor.  Perhaps that’s too strong a term – I’m a “maker”, and a “fixer”, and a “customizer.”  Things that I buy (physical things – objects, machines, cars, components) are often not quite good enough, and my own version of them seems like it would be a better fit.  One of the most frustrating things I experience is seeing a new design in my head for SOMETHING and knowing that I’ll never have time to really work on that concept and bring it to reality.  This happens when I see things like lamps, car doors, sleds, trailer hitches, shooting benches, etc. etc. etc.  – almost everything could be made a little better, or at least changed to more appropriately suit me instead of the general model that the mass market demands.  Sometimes, I have a serious requirement to make things, or change them, and I like being able to do it.  I’ve also created a few larger projects out of thin air – a generator subsystem a few years back (complete but unassembled due to space issues) and a truck crane I’m in the middle of thinking about at the moment.

This isn’t dissimilar to the work I do with computers – it’s just a different (and more difficult, sometimes) angle on things.  Programs are just tools to move information around, and in some cases, create it.  Machines are just things to move energy around, and I find that my brain sees the design and implementation of each sphere – machines and information – as being fairly similar.

This push to work with metal started at a young age (not coincidentally at the same point as my interest in computers) with my habit of taking apart computers and equipment that my father would bring home.  When I hit 16, I dove into cars headfirst, and spent many hours (days, weeks, months) customizing my Jeeps and other vehicles – V8 conversions, roll cages, urban theftproofing, painting, repair – everything.  I never had enough tools to do everything I needed to, but I made a significant effort to buy good tools when I could afford them – I dislike having to stop my work to go out and borrow resources (though I did plenty of that) or worse, not complete a job or have to re-engineer something because I am unable to do what I need with the tools at hand.  So the steady but certain trickle of buying has left me with a fairly large tool collection  that I’ve amassed over the years, and for nearly any problem that presents itself I am able to find the appropriate drawer in which an implement resides to build or disassemble to reach a solution.

This all changed a number of years ago.  I purchased a CNC 3-in-1 mill/drill/lathe.  Suddenly, I had nothing that worked.  The specialized bits and pieces for working with metal or plastic in a very controlled, precise environment are very fussy, expensive, and often difficult to find.  You can’t just “fake it” with machine tools – there is no bending and fudging.  And there is no “machinist’s beginner pack” that you can buy at Sears.  I will admit that I’m not looking to become a master machinist – it’s a means to an end.  I need holes cut, edges milled, slots made, notches created, burrs removed, parts cut off.  I am not building spacecraft, race engines, or surgical tools – I’m just trying to turn ideas into reality, and the machining process is usually just a small (but vital) part of a larger plan on which I’m working.  So my frustration has been building as I have seen the potential of this great mill/drill/lathe that I own, but it has gone generally unused since even looking at it makes me realize how few accessories I have to get meaningful and accurate results using the machine.

Over the last few years, I’ve purchased parts as I’ve needed them – end mills, lathe bits, clamps, measurement tools… but it’s been very slow going, and every single project seemed to require some new tool that I would have to wait days to receive from McMaster-Carr, or that I would have to go to the local machinist supply shop and bore the guys behind the counter with my newbie questions.  (Machinists are not exactly “open source” or enthusiastic people in general, so getting information consists of asking very exact questions and getting very exact and often unhelpful answers.)  I had acquired enough stuff for specific results, but the specialized nature of the tooling meant that getting a “full” collection was going to either a) cost a HUGE chunk of money, or b) take the rest of my life in a tedious, one-by-one bang-my-head-against-the-wall fashion.

Every once in a while, I would look at eBay or Craigslist for collections of machinist tools, so that at one shot I could buy a whole block of useful stuff that would for the most part enable me to just “walk into” a useful collection.  Yesterday was my lucky day.  I saw an ad, fairly vaguely worded, for “Machinist retiring”.  No picture.  No list of tools.  Just a comment that “there are lots of tools here, come by and take a look.”  OK, I’ll bite.  The most vague ads often are the best ones to pursue, since everyone else just doesn’t look at it or dismisses it when there are more detailed photographs and catchy phrases to see just a click away.  But I called anyway, and arranged a look day before yesterday.  I drove over to the house, and had a very good chat with a recently retired machinist who is trying to get rid of the tools that he’ll no longer need.  The collection consisted of a big Kennedy tool chest (upper and lower and middle) which was FULL of tools.


Kennedy Tool Chest

600 pounds of metallic capability

I knew after opening the first drawer that this was the cache I’d been looking for.  The chest was completely full of tooling – it happens that the first drawer that I opened was one of the “thin” drawers at  the top of the cabinet, which happens to be the heaviest – it’s almost solid tool steel, with hundreds of pieces of lathe and mill tooling neatly tucked into the rectangle of the drawer, making it in essence a solid sheet of steel about 1 inch thick.


Drawer full of end mills, etc.

Jackpot! Machine tool treasure drawer.

Every bit I picked up was in good condition – no chips, most without any surface rust, edges looked sharp and clean.  I quickly made the decision to buy it after a little price negotiation- not often is there a whole lifetime’s worth of tooling and instruments and “tricks” available in one, compact cabinet.  So I happily packed it all up (which was quite a chore getting it in the truck – I’m guessing all told it’s about 600 pounds) and I’ve installed it in its new home next to my mill/lathe.  My partner heard about it (“I thought we were trying to REDUCE the number of things in the basement!”) and called it “Coot-in-a-box” as a kind of strange twist on products that claim to be all-in-one solutions by putting the name “-in-a-box” at the end of the product.  If I’m headed in the direction of coot-ness, then I suppose this is one of those warning signs.  Next up: coveralls and a ZZ-Top beard.  (Uh… no.)

I’m still going through it all, but here is what I can remember after doing a few more once-overs – I’m sure I’ll find much more as I dig through layers:

  • end mills (60? 100?)
  • boring bars (20? 30?)
  • micrometers (10 or more, varying styles)
  • pin gauge sets (3, 1 small, two huge, up to .25)
  • drills (50? 100?)
  • taps (40? 50?)
  • reamers (40?)
  • v-blocks
  • clamps
  • parallels
  • center finders
  • flap grinders
  • collets
  • chucks
  • surface plates
  • measurement tools of all types (mostly Starrett)
  • files, punches, drifts, hammers, pliers, allen wrenches,…


..and more...

More tools

The list is actually much longer than this – huge. There are something like 20 drawers full.  I can’t even start to count all the things in there, and I probably never will.  I’ll clean everything up, get things organized a bit, and just start using it.  I don’t think I’m going to obsess over organizing it too much other than trying to put all the similar tools in with each other.  This is like the magic grab-bag of resources – either the right tool or a set of tools which can be used is in this box for nearly any metal-related task I have at hand.

One of the first instruments I took out of the box was a three-piece Starrett square, which is basically a very precise ruler which can also measure angles.  Forged steel, a very nice implement.  A quick search of McMaster-Carr – $202 current price.  Woo-hoo!  The price for the whole kit was… well, I won’t say, but suffice that to say I’ve paid way more (double?) for disk drives in the past that are now worth around a dollar.  If I sold just a few things out of the box (even at eBay prices) I’d make up the cost, so I’m going to see if there are any huge numbers of duplicates and maybe this will be a wash.  But otherwise I plan to keep everything.

The tool box came with the factory wheels on it ,which were soft.  During it’s previous life on the shop floor, they had rolled over countless little bits of metal spirals, embedding them into the soft plastic.  I didn’t want to roll a 600 pound cabinet onto the basement tile with metal cleats on, so I replaced the wheels with some that I had laying around with the same bolt pattern.  But the wheels are really interesting-looking – like some sort of accidental art.


Wheels with embedded metal fragments

Soft wheels + machine room floor = masterpiece



Friday, December 24th, 2010

Over the years, I have collected a fairly large set of tools in order to perform most ordinary (and quite a few out-of-the-ordinary) tasks involving vehicles or metalworking or general repair.  I like being able to solve problems and having the right tools really makes the difference between frustration and success, and I’d always rather pay a few dollars more to buy the right tool rather than do it the wrong way for cheaper.  This collection of tools (and parts, and raw materials, etc.) I consider a collection not of items, but a collection of “capabilities”.  This allows me to call upon one of these varied capabilities when some problem presents itself, and quickly complete the task in order to get back to what I was doing – typically, some larger project.

There is a pleasure in being able to do things myself, and I am finding it more and more rare that I have the time to put into practice some of the capabilities and skills that I’ve been stockpiling.  In recent years, I have found myself pressed for time, unable to accomplish even the most trivial of tasks without deferring to someone else’s expertise – I don’t even change my own oil these days, since disposal is a pain and frankly I don’t have the time.  I used to think that concept was absurd – how could I not have the time to change my own oil?  But it’s true – I find myself doing too much, with too few hours in the day, and I’m substituting dollars for minutes.  I look for phone numbers instead of part numbers.

But every once in a while, it does feel good to get back to the way I once was (and someday will be again) where I’m able to handle almost any repair, fabrication task, or creative solution.  Often this is due not to my desire to spend hours on a project, but by the fact that there is no expert or pre-made solution to my problem, which forces me to downshift from thinking about conservation of time and start thinking about steps to completion that I must take myself.  Today was one of those days, and it made me happy to have to plan and then accomplish what seems like a small but otherwise impossible task with a few of the capabilities that have long sat dusty on the shelves.

In an extremely long chain of interlocking requirements, I needed to shift some stuff around in my basement.   Think of one of those little finger puzzles with the numbers that slide around, with one block that’s empty – remember those from your childhood?  My life is like that, it seems.  But heavier.  So the empty slot this evening was the double-door safe I have in the basement (pre-WWII safe labelled “US Army Department of the Air Force”) which is destined to be the locker for all of the dead weight paperwork in the house that I would want to have preserved in a fire-proof box.  The lock on the safe was getting very touchy, and was close to failing.  After some number of years, I finally found a replacement lock for it (that’s a whole story in itself) and then spent the hours getting the old lock off (another story, a minor success due to having the right tools.)   But I had to saw some old bolts off, and as it happened, they were custom screw/bolts which were made exclusively for these safe lock mechanisms.  Foiled again.  Nobody makes screws like this, so I was again floating in the land of  “can’t-complete-the-task”.  A tiny thing like a single screw was preventing the lock from working, which held up a large number of other dominoes that I was trying to push over.

But… wait!  I have a lathe.  And a mill.  Two items that most people don’t possess, but I determined were part of my “capabilities” toolkit some years ago.  I purchased some bolts that had the same thread, and after about 20 minutes of work on the lathe and mill… presto!  Replacement screw.  It’s so rare these days that I am able to recognize an immediate accomplishment or success – everything seems so long-term, so ethereal.  Having a result that is tangible is a nice change of pace.

This would have cost me at least $100 or more at a machine shop, and that would be after quite a bit of drawing and explaining and driving and phone calls.  Compared to 20 minutes of eyeballing it on the lathe and mill at 10:00 at night.   Everyone should have a decent array of capabilities at their fingertips – even if it’s not quite as dense as mine.  Being able to master or at least battle the problems of the physical world oneself is just as important as knowing the right phone number.

New bolt/old bolt

New bolt/old bolt

Diamonds are forever, but this has a 2B year head start

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

Short story: I’m selling jewelry – really cool jewelry for geek women who would appreciate style with a secret, impressive history.  Read on.

Long story: A few years back, for reasons I won’t go into at the moment (let’s just say “my eccentrism”) I found myself searching for the oldest possible terrestrial thing I could put my hands on for some experimentation and also as a touchpiece for discussion on long-term thinking.  I was looking not for something merely ancient like dinosaurs, but something fantastically old, back as far as I could reach, to the days when the planet was first cooling and solid rocks were forming.

After quite a bit of research I found that the oldest rocks in the world that were single masses were from a shield formation of rock in upper Canada called the “Acasta complex” (or “Slave craton” depending on what book  you’re looking at) and the rocks themselves were a gneiss called “Acasta gneiss”.  The rock is 4.03 billion years old.  The Earth is around 4.54 billion years, so this is some pretty old stuff.

Can you comprehend a hundred years?  It’s hard; it’s more than most people’s lifetimes.  A thousand years is even tougher.  Ten thousand years is far past the dawn of written history.  A hundred thousand is as inconceivable as a million, ten million, a hundred million, a billion… four billion.  It truly is difficult to contemplate – probably impossible.  But that’s how old these rocks are.  Dinosaurs are 300 million years old, at the most – this is more than ten times older.  Diamonds are typically 1 to 3.3 billion years old.  Acasta gneiss is probably the oldest thing you will ever touch that has remained as a consistent “thing”, measurable even against the age of the universe (~13 billion years.)

This rock field is found north of the Slave Lake in Canada, far past the reaches of roads, and is about as remote as you could possibly hope to be – perfect for such an unbelievably old and undisturbed layer of material.  There were older zircons that had been found in Australia, but they were small flecks in younger rock layers.  The Acasta gneiss rock formation was the oldest rock that had been found which could be said to be a consistent age throughout.

So, now that I’d found out what the oldest rock WAS, how do I get some?  This proved to be more difficult than I had first imagined.  I found that there were samples at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC and that several scientists had done experiments on fairly small pieces.  I found someone selling a few grams for close to $100 for research purposes, but a few grams was not what I was looking for.  If anything, I am persistent, and after a few weeks of rummaging around various articles and journals, I finally found the owner of the property from which most of the samples had been taken, and via a very circuitous route finally managed to contact him.  After some discussion (“Oh, I can’t get any new rock until the lake is thawed since I have to fly up in the spring – why do you want this, again?”) and quite a bit of delay, I received my chunk of rock in a beat-up brown box in the mail from Canada.

The rock then saw quite a few miles as a conversation item, something to make myself and others think.  I enjoy unusual items that cause people to pause, especially myself – the firebrick-sized block of titanium on my desk, the ferrofluid, the altimeter, the ship’s telescope – odd objects, each with a story.  The Acasta gneiss was a favorite, though – nothing else could touch the impossibly deep concept that it embodied – “All of history.”

One year I was in dire straits for a Christmas gift.  What can I give?  I was drawing a blank on typical ideas, until I saw the rock sitting on my shelf.  Hmm… maybe I’ll just cut a slice off of that, and make some jewelry out of it.  I contacted a local lapidary here in Portland whose work with semi-precious stones I had seen and liked, and gave him the rock to take some cuts.  His skilled work turned out well – the rock took a great polish, and his wife is a superbly skilled silver-wrap specialist who fitted the pieces into pendant and earring settings.  Anyway, needless to say, the jewelry was well-received and is a conversation piece no matter where it’s worn.

The lapidary had a few pieces left over from the cutting, and asked if I wanted them back.  I told him to see if he could make a few simple “dangle” earrings out of the shards that I could give out as presents to others who might find the story interesting.  As it so happened, at the office I told the story about what the rock was, and how I had the jewelry made, and there was such an interest in the pieces that the earrings I had in my bag as rainy-day emergency gifts ended up being sold on the spot.   The desire to contemplate such age is apparently more wide-spread than I thought, and I had the lapidary make some additional pieces from the leftover stone.  But I have a fairly limited supply, since this was a year or so ago and both my schedule and the jeweler’s schedule work on (pun intended) geologic timescales as far as sideline projects like this.  However, I just received the last batch of silver-wrapped pendants and earrings, and I still have some “dangle” earrings as well.

This is truly a unique gift.  There are no others like this in the world, and the community of ownership I suspect will remain as a tiny group of people who contact me directly.  Getting this rock is difficult; damn near impossible.  The stone is hard (gneiss is a 7 on the Rockwell scale, roughly equivalent to quartz) and takes a polish well but takes time to get shining.  The settings are elegant and professional.  This is a stone far more rarely owned than gold, diamonds, or opals, but even the rarity is not what makes it interesting – the appeal is the age.  This is a piece that women love to own and talk about  – nobody else at the table will have a piece of the Earth from the beginning of time.

What I’m selling

The silver-wrapped pendants (will not match the pictures, but will be roughly the same size but may be differently shaped) or silver-wrapped earrings are $400 for either item, or $700 for a set of earrings and pendant.  If you buy a set, the pendant shape will match the earring shape and the grain will be the same on all the pieces.  The dangle earrings are $150.  Prices include shipping to the US and Canada, though overnight is extra for you last minute buyers.  Pendant includes 16″ or 18″ silver chain – please specify.  PayPal is preferred – contact me for details at

Sorry for the crummy photos – I’m not a pro with macro yet.  You can see some of the quartz and red flecks in some of the shots – the stone is actually quite pretty and “deep” looking when seen in a good light.  The silver settings are quite interesting in and of themselves – they’re tension-based, and typically made of just one or two pieces of wrap.

Acasta gneiss pendant/earrings

Acasta gneiss pendant/earrings

Acasta gneiss pendant - close up

Acasta gneiss pendant - close up

Acasta gneiss earrings

Acasta gneiss wrapped silver earrings

Acasta gneiss dangle earrings

Acasta gneiss dangle earrings

Onwards, to the past! Steam engine uncrating day

Friday, November 5th, 2010
TinyTech steam engine

It's blue, it's crude, it runs on steam.

So I’ve finally received my steam engine, after… let me think… 3 months.  I ordered it on August 3, and I finally took possession late this afternoon and uncrated it before dark.  The customs process for pickup was surprisingly painless – get the bill of lading from the transfer/holding company, take it to the customs desk, pay $9, get the stamp, take papers back to the transfer/holding company, pay storage and loading fee ($111, higher than normal since it’s been waiting for me for a while), load box in truck.  That is not to say the process of getting here has been painless or cheap – it’s been nickel-dime the whole way here – $35 x-ray fee, $200 trans-shipment fee, wrong bill of lading numbers, three conflicting tracking sets of data (Singapore… no, New York… No, Los Angeles… No, Seattle.  No, Snake River.  What?)  No simple process.

It’s from a firm in India that makes small steam engines, along with a number of other small-scale industrial tools for self-sufficiency or village-sufficiency.  They were the only makers of new steam engines that I could find that were meant for production grunt work, versus steam engines made for antique boat propulsion or Mike Brown’s very nice engines which were priced outside of my range and seem a bit too… precision-crafted for what I had in mind.

I know most of you are familiar with me being more at home with high-tech gear, and this perhaps will come as some surprise that I’m dealing with technology from 150 years ago.  However, I have a soft spot in my heart for things I can actually fix or even build by myself.  Computers do not fall into that category.  So you’ll see quite a bit of metal here on these pages in the future that doesn’t look like it belongs in the space program, or even in a server room.  I still love all that is digital, but I also am very aware of the fact that it’s easy to get a 100 year old engine started but nearly impossible to get a 20 year old computer started, and that is an important factor to consider when contemplating how engineering effects the world.

Anyway, my goal is to get a steam engine with reasonable horsepower that can run a DC generator for charging batteries.  I’ll ignore the issue of the boiler for now; that’s a whole different story.  The initial investigation was to import these for resale on a small scale, but I’m thinking that this is really a lost cause using this engine.  I’d have to deconstruct the whole engine and base, sandblast, measure, re-machine, re-paint, and re-assemble before they’d even be close to acceptable for the North American market.  And I haven’t even run it yet – I’m anticipating some catastrophic failure in alloy strength or in the bearings or something, given my first impressions after opening the crate.  Maybe I’ll be more pleased when I start running it.

The good news:

  1. The crate was intended to stay solid during a fall off a 25-floor building.  It took me an hour to pry, smash, bend, and kick it apart.  Three cheers for the titanium crowbar and sledgehammer!
  2. It’s not unreasonably heavy.  Not exactly lightweight, but I can see how I’d move it around by myself if I needed to.
  3. Complexity is LOW.  There are no mysteries here, and I suspect anything that goes wrong with this engine I would be able to repair myself with a lathe and some basic hand tools.  That’s exactly what I wanted.
  4. Comes complete with high-pressure water pump.  This seems to be made by some other firm, since it looks marginally well-built and isn’t coated with finger paint.  This is what takes a cold water supply and replenishes the boiler (under pressure) as water turns to steam and is used by the engine.
  5. Comes with hand-pump for steam oil.  Every few minutes, a little shot of oil needs to be added to the incoming steam to keep the cylinder lubricated.  Steam engine operation is a very manual kind of thing – no walking away from the rig once it’s started, which is typical of steam operations.  (Boilers can’t be left to their own devices, otherwise they get angry and tend to explode in spectacular style.)
  6. It seems to spin smoothly, and with little friction.

The bad news:

  1. Paint was done by someone using their fingers. Paint is everywhere; on the belt, on the bearings, over the grease fittings, on the threads… It’s as if a person was told “Make this look like a 3-year old was given the task to paint this engine.”  I’m astonished at how bad the paint job is; a rational person would assume it was intentionally botched.
  2. The engine was tested before shipment (yay!) but then the water was not drained out.  WHAT?! That’s right – there was water in the outlet pipe, enough to fill perhaps a shot glass.  The engine thankfully turned over – it had not seized up, but I’m sure when I open the cylinder I’ll find lots of rusty nasties.  In the meantime, I’ll pour some oil in it and keep rotating it until things dry out.  I pity the person who buys one of these and puts it in storage before opening it up – that engine will be solid as a rock when they finally get around to opening it.
  3. No markings or instructions on the engine other than things written by markers (visible in photos.)  Seriously?  Written on the paint?
  4. No “Made In India” markings.  This is actually a legal requirement for importation into the United States, but nobody was going to open that crate to inspect it.  Glad they didn’t.  No markings of any kind, actually.
  5. Engine was shipped on its side, not upright.  No big deal, since the crate was pretty well made. Nothing appears to be bent.  No “This Side Up” stickers or indications on the box lets the shipping company treat it poorly.

Now, before anyone says it – yes, I know, I get what I paid for.  I’m not really complaining that much (other than the water in the engine, which could have been “fatal” to the device) because it was cheaply made and cheaply purchased.  But after owning several Indian-made Lister-type (aka: Listeroid) diesel engines and now looking at this, I am starting to get an idea of why India has never become the world power that it had the potential to become.  The Chinese have a huge leadership position in the manufacture of durable goods; I doubt India will ever be able to catch up with quality this poor.

Steam engine front view

Steam engine front view

Steam engine detail

Steam engine detail

And a video of the first run:

UPDATE 2011-03-16:
I’ve got a huge number of projects going, way more than I should.  I’ve decided that I’m not going to keep this engine, or at least I’ll put it up for sale and if the right person sees it they can buy it before I get the time to dig back into this endeavor.  If you are interested and can give me $1900 for it, it’s yours.  It’s still in great running shape, never had steam through it.  It can go right into production if you have a boiler.  Contact me at for details – I will help you load it onto a truck here in Portland OR, but anything more complex than that will require you to pay for a crater to come out and pack it up for shipment.