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A Treefort Grows In Woodbury – Part 2

So now, three months after kickoff, with a backache and a handful of splinters later, and the treehouse is almost usable (as long as we keep our balance) :)

I picked up where I left off, laying 2×6 boards across the top of the bolted 2×8 boards. Hardware was a big component, as I felt that the nails and bolts could only hold it together so much, without attaching it properly.  I went back and forth to Home Depot and grabbed some 90 degree plates that could hold the boards upright so they wouldn’t tip side to side.

For the underside there were some 6 inch metal twists, called Hurricane Ties, that also provided further vertical support, and kept the beams from moving off the foundation.

I know that the recommended spacing for beams is 16″ inches on center, but due to the trees getting in the way I adjusted this (smaller and larger) to accommodate the three, as well as the opening for them to come up on the ladder.  Finally it got to a point where I could lay some temp flooring on top, and the boys lent a hand (mostly decorating the boards.)

They say you can dangle the decking as far as 3 ft off the side without a problem, but I was over that, as you can see in the picture.  This was mainly due to the shape of the foundation, so only the corners protruded, but I was a little worried about stability.  Back to the Depot!

After some more discussion with a surprisingly helpful guy there, I opted to install a support beam running the whole length, with columns underneath. This was a bit involved.  I had to dig a set of holes nearly 4 feet deep, fill the bottom with gravel, place the posts in and attempt to get them as level as I could with temporary boards attached.  AND THEN, I had to make sure the posts were aligned the same way so they were parallel to each other.  Whew!  Being a one man job this took time, but I got them in and filled the hole with some concrete.  The boys did their part again here, mixing and scooping with joy as the stuff slorped and plopped its way into place.

All was going along, and then tragedy nearly struck.   We had a crazy storm blow through, and the trees, having been already weakened by prior severe storms, waved frantically about until the top fork on one of the trees snapped off.  We were amazingly fortunate in that it missed the structure by inches, so I set to it with a chainsaw, and the boys lent a hand once more cutting the branches down to size and pitching them over the side of the nearby fence into the woods.  My hope is that we can incorporate some of them into the railings when the time comes.  Bonus!

Each step took time, and I was really only able to work on this, on those weekends when we were not running around somewhere else, and not trying to wind down too much :)  But in the end, I was able to get to the wonderful step of removing the temporary flooring, pickup some additional boards, and begin placing them in, making the finished size just over 8×12 feet.

The idea of a treehouse to me, always meant using whatever you had on hand, and making do.  Most of the grainy pictures you see in movies all look like some hackneyed attempt, that is barely holding together, yet lovingly adored and revered by the kids.  With that in mind, I rummaged through what we had in the garage, and combined the old (cut to size) and new 1×6 boards.  I realize the older boards are not pressure treated, and will have a much shorter life span, but the finished look is so much better for it with an unintended zebra effect.

I have a few tips for placing the boards and spacing them, as well as accommodating the curves around the trees – but I’ll save that for another post.

In the meantime we all get to enjoy the fruits of our labor, and plan out the railing and roofing to go in.  Though if the boys had their way I’d be figuring out secret passages, one button trap doors, and a zip line entrance.  What a great time :)

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A Treefort Grows In Woodbury – Part 1

So this year, after much procrastination, we’ve decided to finally build a tree fort for the boys.

Now, I never had a tree fort growing up.  It was the kind of thing every kid dreamed up, but few ended up with.  We would climb around in trees all the time, and made forts consisting of branches and old blankets down on the ground.  But nothing as formal or engineered as one with planks, turrets, and a spyglass.

I began this project, in the same way I begin most of the unknown – I Googled it.

This turned up a number of sites, but most were plans to purchase, with few tips.  I flipped through a book at home called The Dangerous Book For Boys and found some helpful hints there to mount the boards onto the tree, and lay them at 90 degrees to form a subbase.   After that it was your typical construction.

So a jot later with a basic plan, and we headed out to the local Lowe’s hardware store.

After finding the bolts we needed, we grabbed a friendly salesman who seemed to have some semblance of knowing what he was doing, and got some advice.  2x8s for the frame base attached to the tree, and 2x6s for the flooring base on top of it, with planks on top of that.

I figured we’d build a base, and sort out the top (covered roof, railing, etc…) later on.

So we got home, unloaded and began to work.

Step 1- bolt the base to the trees.  If you look at our “plan” you see three circles representing each of the trees we’ll be using.  I put one in using a single 1/2×6 inch bolt, then attached the other side with a lot of up & down to make sure it was as level as I could get it.

I quickly found the leveling part was the tough one, as these boards were heavy, and lifting them solo 10 feet above the ground wasn’t easy.  After some quick thinking I placed some 4 inch screws just below where the boards will be attached.  This way I can lift them up slightly to drill it out and bolt it into place, while the other end is resting on the screw.

Then I go back to that end and attach it too.  Repeat this to wind up with 3 bolts at each point where the boards meet the trees.  Needless to say I now have the boards up, but still need to put 3 bolts through at each spot. The bolts themselves are very hard to get in, and I’m using just a hand ratchet, not an air gun like some folks have for their Indy car racing.

It will take some time, but we’re off to a good start. Next step is to finish off the bolts, then the 2×6 boards go on top roughly perpendicular.

In the end I’m hoping for a platform somewhere between 8×10 and 10×14.  Final dimensions depend on how far it will stick out away from the tree, and how easy I can put up support columns underneath the corners.  Fun, fun!!  :)

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Making Maple Syrup

Maple buckets on the treesLate February into March…  what do you think of?

After getting the paper cuts and allergic sneezing fits on Valentines Day, and trying multiple times not to repeat Groundhog Day, I think of pending Spring and tapping the trees.

Now some people think of maple syrup as nothing more than a condiment you put on your baked goods.  Growing up however, it meant a whole process, that ended up a wonderfully thick, golden, sweet and tasty spread.  I grew up in North Salem NY.  It was known more for raising horses than raising children, but thankfully we were fortunate enough to be surrounded by open land and woods.  Right next to our home, was the biggest sugar Maple tree I have yet to see bested.  This, along with many others on property, were tapped and collected into buckets to make maple syrup.

So first, if you’ve never tasted real maple syrup, you’re in for an exquisite treat.  While similar to the fake stuff, it isn’t nearly as sickly sweet, but rolls with an undescribable warm goodness you have to try on your tongue, to understand.

The process is far simpler than most people realize.  Basically you drill a hole into the tree, hammer in a tap spigot (which you can get online or at area hardware stores), and hang a bucket off of it to collect it.  Of course you should put a top on, and drill a hole into the top to allow it to drip – otherwise you get too many bugs, or too much rainwater mixed in.  Once you have half a 5 gallon bucket or more, you strain it through some cheesecloth into whatever collection device you have.  I use a very basic, 30 gallon spare garbage bucket.  Now it sounds a bit nasty, but I make sure to clean it first, then line it with a new, also clean garbage bag.  Once you have a decent amount of time, pour it off into a big pot and boil away!  Any worries about bacteria or further nasties get scalded off with the water vapor.

Boiling the syrupNow the professionals use things called evaporators, that take the process to a highly efficient stage.  I myself however, use your basic lobster pot over a contained fire using spare fire bricks and the grate off my outdoor grill.  Not exactly pretty or highly efficient, but it certainly gets the job done.

So once you have it boiling, keep in mind, maple sap collected is little more than all natural mildly sugared water.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of 4% sugar content in the sugar maples and less content in others.  Boil it down at a 40:1 ratio and you get maple syrup (as in, 40 gallons of sap make 1 gallon of syrup).  The easiest way to tell when it is done, is to note how thick it is as it gets condensed and the water evaporates.  The other more accurate way, it to add 20 degrees onto the boiling point of water on any particular day.  This varies depending on air pressure and weather conditions, but generally it will be done once the sap/syrup reaches 120 degrees.

At our home we’ve collected the mason jars from pasta sauce, and use these to save the syrup.

This past weekend, since I’ve just begun collecting and it is relatively early in the season, I’ve tapped just 3 trees and gotten about 10 gallons of sap.  After an all day fire, and time spent chopping wood and keeping it roaring, we’ve ended up with about 1 and a half 32 ounce jars, or about 3 pints worth.

At every pouring stage you need to filter using cheesecloth and a mesh strainer, which complicates things, but makes it all the worth while when you got a full stack of homemade pancakes and a slow waterfall down the sides of the good stuff.

P.S. – Bite me Mrs Butterworth.

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Ditching Cable – Part1

Broken Cable :(Or….  How I learned to love the Internet.

So after months and years of paying to the man for a decent picture, and 50,000 channels I never watch, I gave my $157 monthly bill a good hard look late last year.

I’ve found myself downloading more and more, and whenever I watched TV it was usually something I had taped with the DVR a few days earlier.  Whenever I watched through the channels, it was either for a show I would like to catch, usually after it had aired, or just random flipping.

So after much thought and a bit of research I decided to take the plunge as others had before me, drop cable television completely, and get everything online as much as possible.

Now, I could use my laptop, but I use this more for work than anything else.  I would also have to reconnect it every time I wanted to go online to view something.  My thought was to get a dedicated PC, and use this.

But I wanted to get a good PC.  Nothing too big like your average tower, or something that would suck my electricity bill dry, but also something that had enough horsepower to get the job done.

All this for under $500.Boxee on HTPC

After running past some reviews I settled on the Dell Zino, Acer Revo AR3610, or the Asrock HT330.  I was hoping to watch movies off DVD directly on the PC (so I could disconnect the DVD player as well), and that rules out the Acer as it doesn’t come with an optical drive (DVD).  I could always get an external one for USB, but that means more components, and more bucks.

So after much ado I order a Dell Zino on sale for around $450 shipped.  Of course, after I sent the order in, I receive a notice that it will ship nearly 3 weeks later.  That was just ridiculous to me.  I was a bit on the fence between the two remaining PCs, as Dell is more of a known brand, but the options were more limited with no optical audio port, a handful of USB ports, and only a single audio out.  Wheras the ASRock came with a DVD drive, 5.1 Dolby channel sound, optical sound out, plus options for HDMI, VGA, and 8 USB ports available (plus it included a remote).  Shortly thereafter I canceled the Dell order (with a 45 minute wait time on hold – ughhh), and ordered the ASRock.asrock_ion_330ht

It shipped out the next day, and arrived 4 days later.

The PC itself is about the size of a large hardcover, and uses just 65 watts while up and running.  It only comes with 2GB of RAM, but it is upgradable, and has decent sized HDD with 320GB of space.  The innards are tiny, and nearly all components come on board with an NVidia chipset and graphics, and a newer Intel Atom 330 dual-core processor.  Technically, this is not just a regular PC, but rather a NetTop.

So here I am, just over a month in, and while I’ve had some speed bumps, I would have to say it was a great choice.  So far, so good.

I am by nature a tinkerer.  I work in IT and I spend my days figuring things out.  The challenge it presents is not much for me, but rather just time.

Next post I’ll dive into the software options, streaming sites, and how to handle live TV.  Stay tuned!

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Woodworks – Finished The Poker Table Railing

Railing01So after much ado, and nearly a year of trying to find time, I’ve taken a week and a half off of work.

On top of the 50K things the wife threw my way, I insisted on finishing the railing for the poker table, begun soooo long ago.  I already had purchased all the parts I needed, so it was just a matter of doing it at this point, once I had the time.

I began with rolling out the large inch thick furniture foam.  Once it was laid out, I sprayed the railing with 3M adhesive and pressed it centered onto the wood.

After that it was a matter of guiding a razor knife around the curves, while leaving enough foam to go over the sides as well.Railing02 Needless to say I have a whole bunch of scraps left over for the kids to dive into.

Once that was done, I moved onto the top material.  I had picked out a black leather-like cloth, typically used on boats, with a nice soft feel to it that easily stretches.  With this however, I planned on using staples to hold it in place rather than the adhesive.

After sizing it up, I laid the foam covered railing on top of the cloth, and wrapped the outer edge first.  I spaced out the staples every 6 inches or so, pulling it tight as I wentRailing03; working on the sides first and moving into the curves.

With it roughly sized and pulled taut, I sliced it open to allow for expansion and let me more easily staple into place, while not changing the shape of the wood or the foam too much.

After that it was back & forth between the inside and outside of the railing, placing staples ever closer to each other, while continuing to pull it tighter.Railing04

Eventually I was able to get them all in place, and neatly wrapped.  I cut off the excess, and placed additional staples to reduce the bulges and warping of the fabric due to all the stretching I had done to work it around the curves.

There were more than I would like, but as this was on the underside I didn’t think anyone other than drunks would see it, and they would hardly care.

Railing05So I carried it out into the wonderful New England weather, from our nice warm basement, to the frigid outside barn, while hoping I wouldn’t slide down the driveway on the ice patches.

I managed to hoist the bulky result in, and after some minor adjustments, including pushing it back onto the table, we have liftoff!!

The railing should work well, and looks great.  To be frank though after months of using it without the foam I think I could have made do just fine, but it looks more finished this way.

If all goes well I might be able to get the word out, and get some orders to build more tables for other people.  If I can set aside dedicated time a 2 month turnaround should suffice for nights & weekends.  I might consider the finished railing as an option, or allow the client to use a vanished railing with rounded edges instead.  In either case, I’ll leave cloth and racetrack stain colors choices up to them too.

See something you like?  Don’t like?  Let me know if you have suggestions.  I’m  thinking about making a smaller version – a round 5 person one, and have that available as well at reduced pricing.  Now to enjoy a successful project :)

NicoCole 2009 EndDecember2 067 (Small)

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Make Hard Cider – Step 4 – Bottle It Baby!

Cleaning bottles againSo after roughly a month, I am back to the cider.

After having sat there in the chill of the garage, it looks to have cleared up really well.  All the particles from the pressed apple juice have fallen to the bottom, and I’m left with a clear amber liquid – yum!

From the tasting before I left it alone, I found it was a little dry, and more like wine than fermented apple juice.  To make it bubbly when you open the bottle, you’re supposed to add some sugar back in.

I figured, why not kick the flavor back in, which giving me the bubbles I’m looking for anyway?  So I went out to the store and got a can of apple juice concentrate (all natural).  The sugar content was near even with a measured cup, so for the 5.5 gallons I have, I added in just over a cup of concentrate.  Since you’re supposed to add about 1/4 cup of sugar per gallon to make it bubbly, I had the numbers just about right.

Cleaning the bottles twice!So I blended it all back into the 5 gallon carboy, which barely fit, but just enough.  Next step was to prep the bottles.

You have two options here.  Buy them new, or wash out ones you have.  I opted for the second, not just to save a few bucks, but I also figured it was a home brewing right of passage.

I started picking out bottles that looked in decent shape, and soaked them in a bathtub for 30 minutes or so.  After that I set to scraping off the labels, and quickly found some brewers use more glue than others.  If I had to recommend, I’d say to stick to Sam Adams or Dogfish brewery.  Both labels came off easy enough after a soaking.  Magic Hat however was a bear, and while I made do, I used different ones for the next batch.  After that I put them into the dishwasher, without soap, to rinse out any bacteria and reduce any odd flavors it would lend.

Then I used my siphoning wand once more to rack it out of the carboy and into the clean bottles.

Suck it Laverne & Shirley!A few spills here and there, and the thoughtful use of a catch basin helped a lot.  There was a little loss, but not too bad and nothing I couldn’t live with.  The floor might be a little sticky until I can bust out a mop though ;)

I put the last few overflow ounces into a bottle for tasting later on.

The day before I lucked out, as the brewing store was only open for a few hours on their holiday schedule.  Thankfully they had more than enough cappers and caps for me to pick up.  After getting the bottles ready, I learned on the fly and capped them off one by one.  I filled the bottles up 1-3 inches below the cap depending on the bottle, so we’ll see if the air, and how filled they are, makes any sort of difference.  My fear was that the carbonation would build too much and make the tops pop off well before I’d get a change to drink any of them.  So I thought to vary how filled they were in turn.

Bottles bottles everywhere!As with the labels I found some brands better than others.  Thankfully the Sam Adams held up well.  The Wychwood bottles that I was really keen on using (with the embossed witches on them), turned out to have bulby tops rather than the bulgy standard, and I nearly broke the capper trying to fit a cap on.  While moping about them I couraged up considering I hadn’t spilled a drop, and picked out another bottle instead.  I might need another capper, but it lasted through the rest regardless.

As for the taste test?  So far so good.  Definately a stronger brew, and still not quote as “apple-y” as I’d like (but closer), but that should  change once the bubbles kick in.  If you’ve ever tried a flat soda or beer, you know what I mean.

Overall I’m really enjoying the process.  Its nice to have a start and finish, and so long as I don’t take it too seriously I’m having fun learning it all too.  It seemed to make for a nice Christmas present for friends and family, so I have about 30 bottles now when all is said and done.  Perhaps this will help me get into brewing my own beers later on ;)

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Make Hard Cider – Step 3 – Secondary Fermentation

So the primary fermentation has stopped.  How do I know?

Simple.  No bubbles!  When I began it naturally foamed up like a bubble bath as the yeast chewed through the sugar, and shed gas and alcohol.  Now it looks flat with no bubbles on top.

Cleaning the equipmentAs with the other steps I began with a cleaning cycle.  I had picked up a long plastic wand, that I can use to siphon it out of the bottle (called racking).  You do this to filter out the drink from the yeast and whatever else has settled to the bottom of the bottle over time.

The gallon bottle I was going to use to set some aside.

Once that was done I headed down to the basement to begin racking it.

Racking from primary fermentationThe wand is nothing more than a tube and a plunger type thingy.  You move the plunger up and down a few times and it creates suction that pulls it out of the upper bottle and into wherever the hose is directed.

I managed to get the 1st bottle drained down ok.  I had to leave about 3/4 of an inch on the bottom, otherwise I would end up suctioning the yuck off the bottom that the racking was all about.

On the 2nd bottle, I tried to be trickier about it, moving the full bottle to a higher point first.  But all I did was end up pulling the hose out accidentally, and spilling some all over.  Not a huge loss, but enough that I spent some time on cleanup afterwards.  In the end I sloshed it around more than I wanted to also, so if I kept racking I would have brought over more of the yeast than I wanted to.  So I chalked up the remaining 2 inches (maybe a quart) to experience and pitched it.

I also siphoned some off into the gallon bottle for tasting, to see how it was coming along.

Once this was done, I refilled the airlocks and moved the bottles over into the garage where it is cooler and less apt to get bumped.

Primary CiderSo how has it turned out so far?

Well, lets just say I was hoping for a cider similar to what you’d buy in a store, like Woodchucks.  What I have so far though is more like a dry white wine.  Definately high in alcohol content, and drinkable, but no real apple taste to speak of.

I asked around as to what other people had done, and between this and online research it looks like my best bet is to mix in some concentrate and sugars just before bottling.  This will kick in the carbonation as well as bring back more flavor.  Supposedly, allowing it to sit a few weeks and months also brings out a stronger flavor.

So while it’s not exactly what I expected right now,  I’m pretty sure it will get there eventually.  Maybe I can make a Christmas gift out of it?

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Make Hard Cider – Step 1 – Clean The Bottles!

Ugggh - Dirty Bottles!Being interested in beer as I am, I’ve found myself tinkering with the process of making my own.  It seems a good way to begin learning the process is going about a simple batch of Hard Cider.

I began with looking up the information online.  Seems like everyone and their mother has a version of a cider recipe.

I pieced together one, along with advice from others, and began gathering my components.

Other than the obvious of needing some pressed cider, I also needed something to make it in – the bottles.

I consider my self very fortunate in this area.  You see my father took it upon himself to make some very awful batches of wine back in the day.  Occasionally he would step it up with exploding beer, and overly carbonated soda that would make you throw up.  Thankfully however, all of his bottles were saved.

As with many hand me downs from them, it needed some work.  They had collected their fair share of dust  and yuck over the years of unuse.  One had nearly an inch of dark foul smelling things collected at the bottom.

Once I knew I would do this, I had stopped by a “brew-your-own” store ahead of time.  Picked up a bottle brush, and a jar of food grade cleanser.

I began with scouring the entire outside of the bottles.  Moving onto a basic fill and rinse.  Then I dumped 3 cups of bleach into each, and topped it off with water, leaving it to sit overnight.NicoCole 2009 EndOctober 137 (Small)

The next day, I continued.  First with using the brush anywhere and everywhere it could reach.  Flushed it out with water, and then brushed again.  I next put a quarter cup of the bottle cleanser into some water, diluted it, and filled it up halfway.  Another brushing all over, and I even got Nico involved with scrubbing the outside this time.

A half hour later, with multiple rinses, and voila!  I turned them all upside down, let them drip dry, and followed up with a towel down.

I decided to make 6 gallons, but I’m not positive if the tall skinny ones are 3 gallons or 2 1/2.  To be on the safe side I decided to use the (2) 5 gallon carboys and fill them up 3 gallons each.  A call and a stop over at March Farms (the local orchard), and after I receive a fill up call later this week we’ll be on our way :)

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Weekend Project – Popcorn Ceiling Removal

Ugly half scraped ceilingOur home was built in the mid-eighties.  For some reason, along with the big hair, it was the style to have a “popcorn ceiling.”

Just a bunch of chunks to add some texture.  Now I’m not the biggest fan, but it was tolerable.  That is, until the wife looked up one day recently in the bathroom.

We found that the summer heat and humidity, along with being in a typically humid environment anyway, had helped to collect extra dust and mildew all along the dangling points.

So, after a test scraping, I began the task of removing it all.

Armed with a shop vac, a metal paint scraper, eye goggles, dust mask and a stout stool I began around 9:30am.  Soon enough, my arms were burning, the goggles were fogged up, and it looked like a winter wonderland.

After it was scraped, I moved onto a drywall sander to give it a nicer finish.  Short of using some heavy duty sandpaper, that was good enough, and to be honest just enough texture to give it character.  I found that as it was all coming off, it seemed like it was little more than plain plaster.   No wonder it was getting mildew.  I’m surprised we didn’t get it sooner, but thankful anyway.

In between steps I had run out to the store to pickup some Kilz paint.  I had a small can leftover of the Kilz Premium, which has mildew preventative.  After some bleach spray just to make sure I got rid of what had grown, and a quick wipe, I began the 1st recoat.

The can only lasted so long, so as I was opening the gallon Kilz, I picked up that it was Kilz original.  Now you’d think it wouldn’t matter so much, but it turns out Premium gives you what it really should be in the first place – mildrew resistance.  So a quick jaunt over to Home Depot later and I continued with a 2nd and 3rd coat.

I’ll need to redo the walls, as the scratches there stand out much more now, but it needed it anyway.  No rush there, and no more mildew – woo-hoo!!

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