Tag Archives: cob

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.

The Seed House

 100_1968 After 4 long years, the end is in sight.

It’s been a long road and a long time coming since we (I) decided that there needed to be a little building with a greenhouse attached to it up on the top of the hill, maybe around that weird old cracked slab that is there.

Just a little bit ago, I was infused with a golden burst of radiant energy that i was able to channel into the finishing of the inside of the seed house.


actually it was Leah asking me if we would be able to get the Seedhouse finished before winter.

So we did it.

the final layer actually uses a couple handfuls of cat tail fluff with 50% blue clay (that had been gathered nearby from an extremely clean vein), screened through 1/8″ window screen and 50% white “mason sand” from a local supplier. i had some trouble getting the cat tail fluff to break up into the water using only my hands but have since gotten a large paddle mixer and D-handled slow speed drill.

a story i heard once is that cat tail fluff was used in WWII as life preserver flotation filling for US pilots (maybe others too), because it floats. I dare you to submerge a handful of it. Only once it gets mixed with the clay and sand it gets “wet”? and turns to cob into a sludgy mass that reminded me of the goo in the bottom of the giant grease trap in the floor of the washroom where i washed dishes for a buffet restaurant when i was 16, only it didn’t smell nearly as bad.

i skimmed the bench top with a wide plaster knife.

it was truly amazing to see the almost glass smooth surface appear behind the knife.

till this point we had only been using our hands on the final layer, which leaves a flat but textured surface. it reminds me of old worn crumbling sandstone.


the picture clarity isn’t great, sorry. the darker areas are the 3rd coating of boiled linseed oil which is being increasingly cut with turpentine. it is generally used on floors and is said to “tighten” the surface so that someone wearing stiletto heels can walk on it and not leave marks. Not that anyone should be doing that any time soon.

Even with only 3 of the 5 coats planned, the surface is wonderful to sit on, especially when it’s warm.


the west door has been plaguing my mind for months now, years really. not knowing exactly how thick the final layers of cob would be had an effect upon how the door trim went on. I had all these drawings for milling up this crooked ass piece of tulip poplar that bounced around in the back of the carpentry trailer I worked out of for the 3 months I was with a roofing company. I could never see how it would fit sweetly and simply together. Once the final layer was on the walls, I had no more excuses and not having an adequate table saw to mill something, I just went with the boards as what they were. the golden and dark brown boards are 2×6″ tongue and groove floor boards salvaged from an old farm house in town years ago. The trim floats above wall itself. linear meets mud. across the top, I slapped this curved 1/4″ slice of aspen that came out of a curved log that will be braces in THE HOUSE. I went over the door and the floor boards with the linseed soaked sponge and the colors seemed to really pop out of the wood.

when i get the camera worked out and it stops raining, i’ll get better pictures and post them onto the flickr


the bench is born

still grinding away at things here.

this week we have a house guest who is more than a little willing to get his hands (and feet) dirty for the cause.

with his help, we have gotten the base layer of the Rocket Stove with Thermal Mass Bench started.

it’s coming along well

we’ve mixed up our very first batch of cob.

(he mixed it with his bare feet!!)

more to come

check out the flicker page for images

detail greenhouse view 3