Tag Archives: Alternative

Stink mouthed Dragon no more

The previous story was just sitting here waiting for me to publish and the world had already moved on. Yesterday afforded me time to sit with the stove and see what I could make happen. It had been suggested to point a small fan into the feed box in order to increase the draft. If it did increase it, I couldn’t really tell. All that seemed to happen was that the smoke just got pushed into the room faster. Another suggestion I had seen in the Rocket Stove book was to choke down the feed box by adding a brick at the back of the box. Well hot Diggity ding dong dang if it didn’t work. I’ve lost a bit of space for fuel but it works. In fact, after running the rocket most of the day in an attempt to dry it and the mass in the thermal battery, I did an experiment and removed the brick I had added. And, yeah, instant smoke fest. So there ya go. I put the brick back and it went smoke free. Just the cutest little roar. If you want to hear it purr, come on by.

If you want to direct message me, I’m at Charles@trilliumcenter.org


Mud floor gets a leg up

coop floor surveyours mark

Tuesday was a big big day. There were 6 people, a dog, 2 goats and most every single chicken at some point helping out. The 4 leggers and the birds mostly just crapped on things and knocked stuff over. Like normal.

My hat in hand, I must thank Stephanie and John from Red Beet Row, Gretchen from Cherry Valley Ecological Farm and Patrick from Octagon Acres. This floor has been staring me in the face for months now. Not doing much of anything but drying out and getting burrowed into by the chickens in their eternal quest for the perfect dust bath. And what have the goats managed to hurl to the floor and smash now? With all these people coming to get the floor done, I no longer had any excuse to put it off, so we did it. Half of the floor the first day any how. It went down quite well. We could mix the cob a bit wetter than I would like to for walls. It didn’t really need to stand up to anything. And this is just the first goat anyways. coop goat prints

With having just finished the first layers on the Syrup Cooker and Mary’s Grotto (later), I’ve found some success with increased durability to the elements by adding a couple of scoops of hydrated mason’s lime, NOT farm lime. This is the same stuff that I used on the outside of the Seedhouse. Only there, the mix with only lime and clean white sand. Here the mix was 50% yellow clay 50% bank sand (both thru a 1/2″ screen) 2 scoops of lime, and a flake of last year’s moldy hay because I don’t have any straw at the moment. I found that not only does the lime harden the clay enough to shed water, the mycelium grows through the clay as it dries, binding everything together in one final explosive embrace. I haven’t actually read too much about what people use in their earthen floors, beyond using elephant dung which is polishable and antiseptic. Who knew? I have lime. So I’m throwing it in everything. I just imagine how the chicken poo will soak into the cob. The smell will be in the floor no matter what. The hope is that the lime will keep the floor together longer with all the shoveling and scraping that will happen in there. It’s not cement. I accept that. I also accept that I can’t grow more lime. The closest mine is in Genoa, Ohio. Closest supplier is in East Cleveland. What will happen in 5 years? Dunno. 50? Beats me. It’s a floor. It’s a dirt floor. In a chicken coop. Whatever happens to it will be WAY worse than anything that will happen to a floor made of the same recipe in my house. I want to see what it does with 50 chickens living on it. Just to see. Same with the Rocket stove. I just want to see what I can do with one in a building that I go into at least twice a day, every day. Or someone does. I got a warning about lighting the stove at -20 F. They apparently hammer out every bit of moisture in them at once and lock the system up after about 30 minutes. It makes sense. 2 different barns. 2 different builders. It’s only set in dirt at this point. coop rocket

As you can see in the above image, I went back out to the barn the next day and finished off the rest of the floor. I had to go back across the street for another load of sand, but by the time I got to the doorway, I had used up all of the clay and sand that we had brought over.coop floor dust box

This is the SW rounded corner of the room. The Phragmites bundles are shown as the basis for future earthen plaster work. I left a corner of the floor exposed to the tamped dirt with a treated 2×4″ frame is set flush with the floor surface so that more dirt can be added as they throw it around all winter. If I hadn’t put this dust box in, I wouldn’t have had enough cob to get the floor as close to the opening as I eventually did. The floor is within 3 or 4 inches of the doorsill, whenever that gets figured out. In addition to filling in the thermal battery and around the firebox on the rocket, I’ll need to go over the entire floor with a finish layer. This will mean I need at least 1 more load of clay and 1 of sand, so I figure there will be enough to get the floor out as far as I need it to be. I figure to set bricks in the cob under the door. Between them and the lime in the clay, I hope to discourage diggers.

Another deterrent to diggers and chicken killers is the mesh that I put up over all 4 barn windows today. This has allowed me to remove the windows from their sashes and allow even more air to move through the barn. There is an actual breeze through the barn now. And I’m content knowing that the varmints can’t get to my birds. And the 6 chicks that hatched 3 days ago. It’s nice having broody hens. She seems to know what she’s doing. There is food and water just out of the frame, and the box has some extremely expensive chopped straw that I paid way too much for at the BIG BOX FARMY STORE. I can make myself feel better by saying that it’s a business expense and I can write it off.


Baby barb in Bubba's Shrine

Here is Mary’s Grotto as it appeared in my Mother’s parent’s front yard in the spring of 1967. The child is not me as I wasn’t born yet. My folks were dating, but weren’t married till later that year. The brown sticks to the left of the image are/were beautiful roses that surrounded the Grotto by the time I came along. I am currently wearing the belt of the man who is taking the picture. He passed away last year. This is my Uncle Mike taking picture of his first child. A little girl, Barb. It’s a good belt.

Mary's Grotto

The intervening 50 years were harder on the grotto than they were on Mary. It was the roses and the rose light filtering down on her all those decades. The bottom of the Grotto crumbled to pieces as I picked up, leaving 2 bent sections of rebar hooked out the bottom of the long cement curve. These I torched and bent straight. The cement chunks are left over from the patio/sidewalk/driveway job. I drilled a hole in each of the 2 front slabs of cement and filled in around the rest of it with lime cob. I made the small bowl out of what was left.

Once everything has a chance to cure a bit, I’ll go back and apply a final coat. Depending on how froggy I get to feeling that is. I just never know what I’ll be doing next. Oh yeah. Just so you don’t think Viann didn’t get in on the action. Here is her contribution.

coop floor no good deed

Never one to let a good turn go unpunished, she must have had a great time once she found the bag sitting there uncovered this morning. She beat that thing into submission. I don’t think all that much got wasted as there was a half a bag there when she found it. When Leah saw it this morning she just asked, “what did you think would happen?” No answer. I knew that she did it because of the white powder coating her horns and powdered down her neck, to her shoulders. Every error, every misstep. Goats, they find them.

Syrupocalypse be damned

While I am the one fully responsible for this spring’s volcanic eruption https://trilliumcenter.org/2016/03/04/syrupocalypse/

I feel like I’m making up for it this week.


I ran the soil through the 1/4″ screen this time. Luckily I had Leah helping pound the stuff into smaller chunks. That took a minute, let me tell you. Hanging in Yaz’s timber framing shop is a quote that makes too much sense.  I’ll butcher it from memory. “Love of a craft is measured by one’s ability to revel in it’s tedium.” I see that and my back aches. I know it’s true. I am objective enough to know just how much I’m able to revel in that tedium on any given day. Luckily, the last 2 days have been one’s where the tedium is well worth it. Even shed a bit of blood.

The mix is the same proportions as before with an addition. 50% local yellow clay/ 50%sand, 2 fat flakes of hay and 2 heaping scoops of lime plaster. The plaster is to start “tightening ” the cob. Or that’s what I’m telling myself. I forced the hay through the 1/2″ screen and discarded the vast majority of the longer and thicker stems. The cob went over the bumpy scratch coat pretty easily. I left the mix a bit on the dry side. The scratch coat was fairly rough so it had plenty to grab onto. Of course the first layer was only on there a day so it hasn’t really had enough time to start drying (read shrinking) Either way, it grabbed on and hasn’t let go yet. The ‘bowties’ seem to be doing their jobs.

The top is made of regular metal roofing that I backfilled under the ribs and secured to the brick with more masonry screws. Not only is it there to hold the pot away from the riser opening, it’s acting as a rain shield for the top of the thing. Not just that, this top is also a chest level razor blade. Or head level for kids. I’m looking for some way to address the sharp horizontal edges. Hopefully the final layer of plaster will be tight enough to serve and I will be able to trim this stationary horizontal guillotine back to a reasonable length.

All the irregularity is gone, replaced with long gently swooping curves. Not so terribly simple as I thought it was. OK, to be fair, I didn’t think curve would be easy. I’ve wrecked enough drywall trying to finish it to know that this stuff is not going to give me any breaks in terms of final surface. That, and gouging the tool into the already smoothed-out cob just past the transition. That’s pretty depressing actually. Feeling the tool turn just a little too much past effective and catching the curve. Digging in just far enough to expose the pebbles and fibers just below the nearly burnished surface. Leaving a hole that it takes 15 or 20 passes to refill with finer materials and leaving no scar. I must have gone around this thing 8x, re-surfaceing again and again. Needless to say, I was dripping with sweat by the end. With all that, the weather reports (and the not so distant booming of lots of thunder) calling for thunderstorms that never unleashed here. Plastic sheet on, plastic sheet off. More disruption of the smooth surface. More strokes.

cooker decoration

Leah graciously agreed to decorate the cooker. She complained that this was only the second time 2nd time she has sculpted like this. The first time being the spiral in the Seedhouse. The question arose as to whether she should build up or cut away. The only caution I saw with cutting in too much was exposing the longer, tougher stems in the scratch coat. She said that she did a little of both. I think it’s quite fabulous. And if this is her 2nd time, I can hardly wait to see what she can do after a few more projects.

cooker with pot

This isn’t the final layer. I still need to put a thin coat of very refined clay and not fiber and a lot more lime plaster and skim it one more time. None of this will be any time soon of course. This stuff dries really slowly here. 87% humidity right now and it never did rain here. The cob, that I used to seal around the bottom of the kiln, is only just now starting to dry out. I probably should have waited for the scratch layer to dry more. Let it crack and deal with the fact that the inner bricks are a single contiguous mass that isn’t going to be shrinking at all thank you very much. The cob is already cracking horizontally, above the firebox. I kind of figured that it would crack there. With the steep transition, I was unable to apply anywhere near as much pressure at that joint. Me thinks, ‘less compression at a really thick spot floating over a 90 deg corner, let’s see what happens.’ Like the adage I picked up the other day, ‘build your barn first!’ Chickens could care less if they are living in a prototype or a finished product. {That’s WAY too abstract for their tiny little brains.} I got the message though. Actually, what I heard, way back in the once ago, was to build the SAUNA first. Instead of last like most folks do. It was 2nd and it’s 3rd incarnation only burned the barn a little bit. Lessons learned. Failure breeds innovation? So yeah, make the worst and most obvious mistakes on things that aren’t quite as important as survival.

My entire life feels like a prototype. I don’t know at what point it will start feeling like I’ve got a handle on things. Leaving public safety constituted my mid-life crisis. I never did pick up my red convertible. Had one all picked out too. Not really.

“She thinks I’m rash”

cooker mixing cob

This afternoon I went out back and cleaned up some fire wood we didn’t burn making syrup this year and ended up putting a scratch coat of cob on the cooker. Leah noted this evening that it’s almost impossible to get anyone to help with things around here if I don’t let anyone else know what I’m thinking of doing, especially myself, until moments before I do it.  I didn’t have a clue that I would be mixing cob today. Well, mix it I did.  I don’t have any straw right now so I just used a bale of last year’s hay. Not ideal with seeds in it and all. Another experiment. Here’s the thing though. This thing is tiny. More than 2 people would have been standing around watching.

Since I had the chance, I modified the firebox. Leah can work the stove without compulsively stuffing as much wood in the hole as possible (like me), so the tunnel didn’t overfill and plug up with coals when she fired it. This was not my reality. From the eyeballing I’ve been doing of the Haiti stoves that J Anderson has been around, I’ve wondered about shortening the burn tunnel. The fire really just needs to be under the riser, not necessarily pulled back away. I think moving the pile of fire into the stove and allowing the unburned wood to have a spot to sit, away from the fire, will help with efficiency. There’s just that much less to heat up. More over, it will remind me to not jamb so much wood in. I’m not going for cone 10 here or anything.

I tried something different with cobbing onto bricks this time. I noticed that when we cobbed around the rocket stove in the Seedhouse, the cob slumped away from the sides of the brick wall fairly relentlessly. This time I made “bowties” out of some scrap 1/4″ hardware fabric and attached them with masonry screws directly into the brick. This gave us a place to wrap the longer stems of hay. And the cob could squish into the mesh. They are scattered around the upper lip and down the back wall fairly liberally.

The mixture was a bit rough to prepare. The clay is fairly dry so mashing it though the 1/2″ screen is work. 50% clay 50% sand covered with a thick flake of hay and way more water than I expected. I had to break up some of the more stubborn clumps of hay but once everything is wet and mushy, it’s just a dream to put up. Scooping up a full double handful and mashing it around a corner and up to one of the bowties was amazing. Because it was so moist, it stuck to the brick. The long hay snaked into and around the bowties and it all hang in place. Leah worked out the staired firebox. Very referential to burnt offerings and spiraling smoke. There is a bit of shaping to do tomorrow. And I need to set some metal into the top as a rain cap/pot riser. Regardless, the final layers will have lime plaster in them. this will tighten up the surface. Time will tell of course.

as a side note, I’ve cut the holes and manufactured chimneys for the wood kiln. I’m looking for 5 and 13 quart bowls, just the right ones, to be my cooker top. Once I find the bowls, I can fill the kiln. It’s all a complicatedly simple process I’ve been using for years.

Accidents Happen

Photo on 7-9-16 at 1.56 PM #2

My new (to me) inexpensive electric kiln was unable to get to temperature for the second time, in spite of having taken the electrical system completely apart, replacing a cooked switch and putting it back together. Which is just as well. The coils were spent. I didn’t buy the kiln (and a spare) for their coils. I wanted the bricks and the steel wrap and kiln furniture. I got a whole lot more than that. To be sure. But it was always about the bricks. Being able to fire the thing as many times as I did was a wholesale boon. But I need a kiln to fire work. It’s that simple. So Thursday morning(7/7), over coffee and the news it became terribly obvious to me that building a wood kiln to fire earthenware was going to be an awful lot of work and that it would never get done if I didn’t go do it. So I did.


The sad part is that I just moved all of the bricks I used, all the shelves, even the kilns, across the street and either into the shop, or behind it in the woods.

Now it’s all sitting in the back yard in a pile. A very orderly pile to be sure. The 2 kilns are largely unchanged besides having their bottoms removed. The 3rd kiln was completely disassembled. I used a portion of the brick creating the sprung arch of the firebox. The 2 solid cement blocks (on each side) are butters for that arch. These soft brick are then covered with a layer of clay brick that were piled in the woods long long ago before any of us were born. The remainder of the soft brick are under each of the kiln bodies. Because the firebox is stepped down from the kiln floor, I only had to set the kiln bodies on 2 courses of brick to make a pass through underneath them. Set in that bottom 2 courses, I left port holes that will be used to stoke each kiln to exact temperature.  Controlling two tubes from a single distant firebox isn’t feasible if I expect any sort of regularity in temperature throughout such a divided kiln. As it turns out, one of the kilns I used (intact) is about 1″ wider than other. Different make and model I guess. So the 2 courses beneath it don’t quite match up. This leaves a lot of air gaps. Rather than try and fill these gaps with more spun silica blanket that I only have a little bit of (thanks Josh) I decided to make a cob mixture and plaster everything in place. I guess it is more of an earthen plaster than cob. There is no organic material in it. Not at this point anyway. Everything is sealed up between the firebox and the 2 kilns. The tiny-ish gaps between some of the bricks will expose the clay/sand to the inside of the kiln. But only a bit. I’m hoping it’s not too much of a problem. Not a terribly big deal as it’s only clay and sand.

When firing wood kilns to higher temperatures than I am going (stone ware/porcelain is a few hundred degrees hotter F than earthenware) every single crack and seam pukes smoke and flames when wood is added and the kiln is plunged into a high carbon, reduction atmosphere.

I toyed around with the idea of taking all the kilns apart and turning them into a dog biscuit shaped cross-draft thingy. That was way way too much more work. And I can still do it if I want. they are intact at this point. I have yet to cut holes in the kiln lids. I don’t have the right materials yet to make both chimneys. I cut the 2 bottoms which were  cracked into something resembling blocks. At this point, 1 chimney is built. I sheathed these brittle cast chunks of spun silica in half of the original steel wrap from part of the kiln that was broken apart.

I have been exchanging emails with the person who’s kiln is my inspiration (at rootedclay.com ) and am amending my chimney plan. The additional weight around a hole, which isn’t meant to be there, causes the lid to weaken, crumble and if left unchecked, collapse into the kiln while it is hot. While the visual image of smoke and fire erupting from the shattered shelves and cups is beautiful in a powerful Oh Bother sort of way, it’s not something I would like to do more than imagine. There are a million million ways to wreck a pot. I’ve found a few of them. Many more will come to light.

As it turns out, this farm seems to be some sort of bed-magnet. I’ve had more beds in this house that I have either never slept on or only slept on for a little while. And I’m not talking about just mattresses. Several of the frames here were just frames when they got here. Futon frames are great for shelving. Frames, in general, are made of metal. At least the long side rails. These are usually angle iron of at least a large enough size to support a chimney make of a little refractory material and steel.

I’m pretty busy for the next little while so it could be a while before I actually get to this. A couple weeks at most I hope. I put  a few pieces of metal roofing on top of the kiln with a bunch of bricks on it to keep the water from hitting the clay/sand. We’ve had a few pretty good downpours the last few days and it’s stayed put. If the wind gusts get too bad, the metal will become airborne guillotines. Not great but there are an awful lot of bricks on there.Photo on 7-9-16 at 1.56 PM

What a day.


Of late, there have been a few more visitors coming with the intention to help me move things along. John came by today and spent a good handful of hours helping me get the barn’s new rocket stove to a place where it could rest while I finish the rest of the floor.

What we did was to first go over the riser’s soft brick with a rasp to take off any of the higher edges left over. Then we mixed a batch of the earth mortar (same 1 clay/4 sand ratio) and covered the entire outside of the riser with a thin layer as well as mashing it into the gaps between the bricks. I figure this will aid the smoke as it heads through the system. The less sharp edges and harsh bends the better. There is around 1 1/2″ to 1 3/4″ between the barrel and the riser all the way around and supposedly 2″ on top. After we got it all mortared in, we assembled a gathering chamber where the smoke will go into the ducting system. this sort also has to have a clean out. For this, a 4″ solid cement block is placed over the box. This block will stick above the floor surface. We mixed up a quick batch of cob (50% bank sand 50% native clay pushed through a 1/2″ screen and some grass/hay). This was used to fill in all the nooks and crannies around cleanup box and where the 55 gallon barrels sits onto the stove itself.

I wasn’t all that pleased with the meager draft we were able to achieve with only one section of duct just jammed onto the back of the stove. Over the next little while, I’ll be getting the rest of the horizontal and vertical ducting. With the 6″ diameter in the ducting, I think I can run 35-40′ of almost horizontal duct before it needs to either rise in a chimney or vent outside.

The work goes on though. I’ve been wrenching on the MULE a bunch lately and with any fortune, it will be up to the challenge of the barn floor.

Till next time


Spring Events

Although we still have cold temperatures ahead, it’s clear that spring is upon us. I have seen turkey vultures, geese, bald eagles, and robins. I have seen the tips of crocuses poking through the snow. The maple sap is running slowly but surely. What signs of spring have you seen? Please join us as we celebrate spring with classes on plants and trees.

Work Exchange Program
We are so close to having work parties to finish the Seed House, our straw bale sunroom and greenhouse – we just need the freezing temperatures to vanish so we can start getting our hands dirty making cobb for the walls and the bench rocket stove. But don’t let that stop you from contacting us to start banking work hours in our Work Exchange Program – we need help getting seeds started, planting the green house, preparing seed beds, making trails, and more. Write to trilliumctr@gmail.com to schedule your visit.

Volunteer Program
For those who’d like to get involved and volunteer, there is no requirement to participate in the Work Exchange Program. If you simply want some time out in the woods and have a strong back or some busy hands, let us know. We always have things to do!


Monthly Plant Walk and Making Maple Syrup
March 22 – 1 PM-2:30 PM

Join us for the second plant walk of the year, which is actually a tree walk. We will be identifying trees that have medicinal and edible properties.  We will also demonstrate our process for making maple syrup. Plant walks are $10 – all funds go to the Seed Fund for the Trillium Center. Send an email to trilliumctr@gmail.com to sign up.

Serpentine Project Plant Study Group
March 22- 3 PM -5 PM

The Serpentine Project is a monthly experiential study project that allows participants to learn about plants directly from the plants. Read more about the study groups at: http://serpentine-project.org/. The cost is $10 and includes a 2-hour workshop and a sample of the plant medicine to take home. Space is limited, so please send us an email to reserve a seat at trilliumctr@gmail.com.

Community Herbal Intensive
March 29 – 10 AM-6 PM

Monthly series that includes basic identification of wild edible and medicinal plants, herbal medicine making, basic anatomy and physiology, frameworks for developing community projects. Cost per workshop is $75, but early birds get a special price. Full description is on our Programs page.


Plant Walk
April 5 – 1 -2:30 PM

Ever wonder what that weed is growing in your back yard, or that flower that blooms deep in the woods in the spring? Learn to identify plants and trees at the monthly plant walk led by herbalist and community health educator, Leah Wolfe, MPH. She will point out wild edible plants, plants that have a history of being used medicinally, along with folklore and some of the latest science on the wild things growing around us. Cost $10. Dress for outdoors.

Cleveland Museum of Natural History: Field Trip to the Trillium Center
April 12 – 10 AM-1 PM

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History will be bringing a van from Cleveland to the Trillium Center for a tour and plant walk. Come learn about seasonal medicinal and edible plants. In early April, we expect to see the spring ephemerals, the forest dwellers that begin to emerge before the canopy fills with shady leaves. Register at http://cmnh.org/site/ClassesandPrograms/AdultFieldTrips.aspx

Plant Walk
April 12 – 1 -2:30 PM

Ever wonder what that weed is growing in your back yard, or that flower that blooms deep in the woods in the spring? Learn to identify plants and trees at the monthly plant walk led by herbalist and community health educator, Leah Wolfe, MPH. She will point out wild edible plants, plants that have a history of being used medicinally, along with folklore and some of the latest science on the wild things growing around us. Cost $10. Dress for outdoors.

Serpentine Project Plant Study Group
April 12, 3-5 PM

The Serpentine Project is a monthly study group that allows participants to learn about plants directly by using their senses, such as taste and smell. Cost $10 – includes a sample of the plant medicine to take home. Read more about the study groups at: serpentine-project.org.

Community Herbal Intensive
April 26 – 10 AM-6 PM

Monthly series that includes basic identification of wild edible and medicinal plants, herbal medicine making, basic anatomy and physiology, frameworks for developing community projects.  This series is closed for 2014, please send us an email if you’re interested in attending in 2015.