Welcome to my blog, where a 30-something couple from the UK renovate and extend an old cottage, build some outbuildings, raise some hens and grow firewood trees and vegetables on our Acre in Hampshire. It's a bit like a smallholding but without too many animals, so we call it a homestead - living within our means, relying on ourselves and having a wonderful life!


Saturday, 17 May 2014

Moving the Workshop.... Day (err) Three?

Not really the third day that we've been at this job, but it's the third blog entry about it - so Day Three seems to fit well enough!

An early start as the forecast was HOT - 24 degrees - which is a bit warmer than ideal for concrete to set. We started by finishing the concrete pad for the oil tank. This mix was different from previous batches as I'd ordered gravel and sand on separate 850kg bags so we could use the remaining material on other projects. It mixed well enough in the cement mixer, and the over-engineered shuttering made the job much easier. We rigged a cover for the concrete to shade it from the strong sun, in the hope that it would slow the cure and prevent cracking.

The odd pipe on the right is actually a mould for the oil line - I plan to tuck the line in the dent that will be left when this pipe is removed, protecting it from the strimmer! I also had to re-route the water feed that fills our water trough - temporary pipe on the left.

We were about to start laying blocks for the workshop when a head appeared over the fence - it was our neighbour Charlie inviting us for a barbecue lunch. As you can imagine, we were delighted - they had also invited some old neighbours from their old village, who bought their dog (another Monty...) who was a lovely little chap. We ate wonderful sausages, lamb skewers and burgers under the midday sun, and the dogs chased each other and ran about like mad things.

This is (the visiting) Monty...

Lunch ran on - simply because it was a wonderful afternoon and we didn't want to go back to work! Still, we pressed on eventually - Kristy was mixing mortar and I was laying blocks. We finished shortly before 8pm, very pleased with the progress.

We managed to summon the strength to tidy up before showers and supper - and as we moved the temporary shade from the oil tank base, we saw that someone couldn't wait to check the cure! 

In other news, we have a new car - my parents bought a new highly-specced VW Golf, and we have had their old machine - a slightly older VW Golf! It is a lovely car with very low mileage - I'm sure it will last us a good number of years. Kristy's brother is buying our VW Passat estate which will suit his two children and all their bikes, dinghies and kit very well.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Green Oak Framing Course

Most of our recent work has been preparing for our biggest project yet - namely, to pour the concrete slab for our oak framed garage-cum-workshop-cum-summerhouse. I've wanted to have an oak framed building for as long as I can remember - I love their traditional appearance, sustainable material and flexible design - you can have any shape or style you like! This barn was going to be a bit special though - we plan to have it as an open building to use as the venue for our wedding reception next year, and then convert it into covered parking,  workshop and summer house.

The plan was always to commission the design, build and erection an oak frame, and then I planned to clad and roof the barn. We had various quotes which ranged from £14k to £38k. All well and good, I hear you say - until I found a supplier of green oak, and calculated the cost of the oak as about £4,000. Let's (conservatively) assume it would take a fortnight to build and erect the frame - we would be paying someone £1000 per day for making the frame - that wouldn't do at all!

A few weeks of research, watching videos on YouTube, browsing forums and chatting the project through with Kristy and the decision was made - I'd build the barn myself, saving a whole load of money, learning a great skill and having a fun story to tell our wedding guests next year. 

So, a training course was needed - there are a few providers about the place, but I kept coming back to Oak Heath in Shropshire. Their website was great, they offered everything I needed to know for my build, and they offered free camping - bonus! I sent my deposit cheque and started counting down the days.

Oak Heath was a three hour drive away, and I arrived in heavy rain to meet the other lads who were staying for the course - Steven (a bushcraft instructor) and Matt (a tree surgeon). A quick beer and a dashed tent erection in the pouring rain, and it was time for bed.

The course was really comprehensive, and our instructor Adam was a great mentor as well as being a lovely bloke. The group dynamic was polite and quiet for the first morning, but soon settled down into the familiar banter and mick-taking reserved for a group of people with much in common enjoying themselves in a great environment. 

Day One was an introduction to the tools-of-the-trade, a look at some of the common joints used in oak framing, how to buy oak, select the best timbers for various parts of a building, identify sapwood and choose a face edge best suited to exposure to wind and raid. Suitably buoyed, we cracked on with the basic mortise and tenon joint, draw pegging to pull the wood together. This was all done with hand tools - a useful refresher in using chisels and planes, as the last time I'd been instructed in their use was at prep school.

Next day, we started on the first of two big projects we would complete during the week - a front wall for a small stable that Adam was building. Using a simple 2D drawing that Adam had produced, we set about measuring, measuring and measuring again, before marking mortises and starting work. The mortises were marked and drilled with an auger bit before the excess was chiselled and cleaned away. The closer you could drill to the marked lines, the less chiselling was needed! This mortice was about 50mm wide by 150mm long...

In the evenings we had a chance to relax, swap notes, drink beer, hone the designs for our own projects on Sketchup and take inspiration from the numerous oak framed buildings that Adam has completed at his workshop - a converted station yard building. He lives in the apartment upstairs with his family.

I also took significant inspiration from Steven, who had bought his canoe tent (complete with wood burning stove) and his Crimean War era folding bed. I was (and remain) highly jealous...

Anyway, back to the carpentry. Day three involved more work on the stable, and covered an important area - curved braces. These lock the 90 degree joints together, and add a massive strength to the frame - there are four pegs per brace, all drawn (i.e the holes are drilled slightly offset, making the joint pull tightly together as the pegs are knocked in). I had struggled to visualise making these braces, and I have 16 to make for the barn, so I needed to understand them! As you can see, I soon got the hang of it - all done by hand.

Day Four and we were on to power tools! The chain mortiser is a great tool, working like a vertical chainsaw with a very wide bar. It clamps onto the wood and drives vertically down, cutting a mortise that would take an hour by hand in about three minutes. 

Having finished the stable front in record time, we then set-to making a truss that would form part of a kitchen extension. Again, we used a 2D drawing and were very skeptical when Adam insisted that we take the angles for the rafter cuts from the drawing. Well, to our amazement it worked! We also used some of the larger circular saws (larger blade than my table saw!) to cut the taper along the tie beam at the bottom of the truss. We also prepared this part for glazing, and were shown at length how best to waterproof and secure a double glazed unit into an oak frame, and how to drill weep holes into mortises to prevent rot. We were very pleased with the end result...

From Left to right - Adam (instructor), Self, Jack (self builder), Matt (tree surgeon), Nigel (also a tree surgeon, planning a hexagonal summer house) and Steve (bushcraft instructor, yurt dweller and self builder).

Just to keep our feet on the ground, Adam took us to a local listed building he was working on. For scale, the horizontal beams are 12 inches square...

Day Five finally came - all too soon, as we were having a great time. A fun morning was spent erecting the stable front we had made earlier in the week, followed by a mop-up session for any things we wanted to cover in more detail. We also each made an oak mallet to take home - much heavier and more suitable than the lighter versions available commercially.

Should anyone be thinking of booking a green oak framing course, I can highly recommend Oak Heath - our hosts Adam and Rachel couldn't have been kinder - the food was sublime, facilities great and I learnt SO much. The course taught me everything I need to know (and more) - even if I hadn't been building a barn it would have been a great fun week away. 

No excuses now - I'd better get building!

A very busy fortnight

It has been fairly manic here over the last fortnight - and not just because the grass needs mowing every five minutes!

Shortly after we had poured the foundations for the relocated shed, we hitched up the trailer and headed off to Owlsmoor to collect our latest eBay purchase - a load of 70 concrete blocks. The idea is that I will build an exact replica of the dwarf wall that the shed currently sits on, so that when the time comes we can strip the shed and move it across the garden - and straight onto the new wall without any extra work. These blocks are about £1.50 each in Wickes (I'm sure other places are cheaper, but I hate having to phone Jewson and Travis Perkins every time for a price...) so getting 70 reclaimed blocks for £40 was a nice saving.

They are pretty heavy though - I reckon about 12kg each, which put the trailer right up at it's load carrying limit. The 110 was pretty hairy to drive back!

Fortunately, the hard ground meant I could reverse some way into the top of our garden without the trailer sinking. It was still a real ordeal carrying all the blocks for the second time in one day!

No sooner than the blocks had been collected, it was back to the day job for three long day shifts - I finished at 5pm on the Sunday, and immediately jumped in the 110 and drove for three hours to Shropshire for a week long green oak framing course - but more of that in the next instalment!