Building a Kayak (Pygmy Pinguino Sport)

This summer, I bought a kit from Pygmy boats to build my own Pinguino Sport kayak. This is the shortest of their boats.

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It was a really fun process! You start with impossibly thin and weak-looking quarter-inch flat pieces of plywood, and over time you glue and bend them into a boat shape, “stitching” them together with bits of wire (which is later removed).

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I won’t go deep into the details of the process; you can see everything in Pygmy’s excellent videos here. But for the sake of people who are contemplating a similar project, here’s my quick summary and advice:

  • Almost all the steps are: apply some epoxy – sometimes over fiberglass, sometimes along a seam, sometimes just painting it over wood. Come back tomorrow.
  • The project took me 10 weeks, putting in about an hour each day. All told, it took me about 80 hours.
  • You need a pretty big space; I took over our garage for most of this time. There are enough fumes that I’d be leery of doing this inside the house.
  • This isn’t a criticism of the instructions – they’re as well-written as they could be – but some HUGE steps are embedded in the middle of paragraphs, e.g. to to flip and apply another coat of fiberglass and wait for it to cure – which will take a whole day until you can continue. I’d suggest you carefully mark up your instructions to call out “chunks of work” so you can plan accordingly, since it’s not immediately obvious which
  • For fun, try tracking all different names the give for various epoxy + wood flour blend ratios. Honey, peanut butter, molasses, until a stick can stand up in it, etc.
  • An orbiting sander was super-helpful. I gummed up a lot of sandpaper, so make sure you’re well stocked – especially with 120 grit.
  • You will go through a lot of disposable items in the course of building the boat, even more than the instructions say. Amazon was a great place to buy these in bulk. In particular:
    • Two boxes of latex gloves (you need a LOT of gloves)
    • Foam brushes. You want at least 40 of them. They are 89 cents a piece at my local hardware store, but Amazon sells a 20-pack for $4.19 – so buy lots of these! Impossible to have too many.
    • Lots of foam rollers – I used about 18 of them.
    • Extra dental irrigation syringes (for injecting epoxy into cracks). You’ll need more than the 3 they provide, it’s so easy to gum them up.
  • General purpose items that were invaluable include:
    • Good scissors – fabric or craft ones would be ideal.
    • A metal yard-ruler (in addition to a carpenter’s square)
    • As many clamps as you can get your hands on.
    • At least two sawhorses (4 is best)
    • I found a painter’s cutting/scrapping tool to be useful for all sorts of random tasks, like getting rid of drips of semi-cured “green” epoxy, and also for wedging between plywood boards to force them into the right shape.

I had plenty of extra fiberglass tape leftover when I was finished, and ample fiberglass cloth. The epoxy was entirely used up; I finished the last step with my dregs. Might be useful to get an extra pint to get a bit of extra “breathing room”.

Even though the boat is a pretty narrow 28″ and the recommended paddle for my height (6′) is 220cm, the cockpit is higher than most other kayaks; I might suggest a slightly longer paddle (I’ll try a 230cm next).

I did make one huge screw-up, and cut the front hatch much too close to the cockpit (I mis-read the directions). The boat is still perfectly useable, it’s just that the front hatch is pretty much useless. I lose all bragging rights, and it makes me sad.

Maybe I’ll have to make another boat and do it right this time. 🙂

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Dining Room Table

We moved into a new house in April 2015. Our old house had a tiny dining area; this house has a huge dining room, and our previous table looked puny and weird in the space. We needed a new table!

We started shopping around, and just couldn’t find a table that (a) was the right size, (b) wasn’t ugly, and (c) was not insanely expensive. I kept checking Craigslist, visited at least 10 furniture stores… nothing.

Obviously, I needed to build a table. The standard height is 30″, and we wanted one which would be 8-10 feet long, and about 40″ wide – a really big table, in other words. Ideally, there would also be a matching bench on one side.

The lumber dictates the project. I started by visiting two of my favorite salvage stores, Ballard Reuse and Earthwise Architectural Salvage. There was a lot of interesting stuff… we could use planks of sun-bleached beachwood. Or chunks of maple from a torn-up bowling alley. But I was most fascinated by the glued-together strips of 1.5″ wood that formed 16.5″ by 8′  planks, which came from old Boeing shipping crates. (I still don’t know how that worked, or what was being shipped. Actually, this lumber had arrived to the store in 16′ lengths, and was cut in half).

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Pretty cool stuff, all sorts of different woods and grains. This would be the table top; and since it came in 8′ lengths, the table would be 8′ long! I would buy 4 of these pieces of lumber; three for the table top, and one for a bench.

Poking around the back of the store, I came across some pretty unusual lumber; mahogany 4x4s and 3/4″ ipe wood. Ipe is a really hard, dark wood; and mahogany is solid and goreous. Turns out the mahogany was also from old Boeing shipping crates (WHAT WERE THEY DOING WITH THESE CRATES?) and the ipe was reclaimed from someone’s deck. While I usually avoid buying tropical hardwoods on the grounds that they’re ecologically harmful, there’s nothing wrong with recycling lumber, so I figured I’d buy the mahogany for table legs, and use the ipe to edge the table.

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I rented a van and moved everything into the garage.

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Now, to start building!

I wanted the table top to be 40″ wide, but the lumber was 16.5″ wide. I would use three pieces, ripping one down in the table saw to be 7″ wide.

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I was prepared to use all sorts of fancy ways to join the lumber – dowels, discs, keystones, etc. – but when I called my dad for advice, he pointed out that wood glue would work just fine. It forms a stronger bond than the wood itself, and this lumber wasn’t at risk for warping. And it’s a lot easier! So I slathered glue between the boards, and used pipe clamps to hold the whole mess together. Smaller clamps at the end kept the boards more-or-less even. I could definitely have used lots more clamps; you can never have enough clamps.

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While the glue was curing, I used a scrap piece of lumber to play with different stains – linseed oil, tung oil, and Varathane natural. Below is linseed (bottom) and tung (top); the Varathane is in-between in darkness. We ultimately decided on Varathane because it’s less of a pain to use, and the color was nice.

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Next, I cut the ipe wood to edge the table. I ripped 6″ lumber down to 1.5″ width, and then cut the ends at 45 degree angles. Finally, I glued them the outside edge of the table.

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Ipe wood throws off ultra-fine dust which is rather noxious. I had to wear a face mask when working with it. Since my garage doesn’t have an air filter system, I used the Poor Man’s Air filter, which is to place a 20″x20″ furnace filter in front of a box fan. This works shockingly well.

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I repeated the same steps for the bench top. I was using full-width lumber, so I only needed to edge it with ipe, too.

Now, it was time to do a first pass of sanding to remove bits of glue and uneven edges. There was a LOT of area to sand, so I used the belt sander.

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Now that the tops were pretty much done, I turned my attention to the legs. I was going to attach mahagony 4×4 legs to the corners of the table, with 3.5″ ipe wood to as a skirt that would attach to the legs. This skirt would both give the table a bit of help to prevent sag, and also would be embedded into the legs to give them some strength to stay vertical and not wobble.

I used a router to cut 3/4″ wide, 3.5″ long channels into the mahogony legs. This turned out to be much harder than I had thought, since the router bit kept overheating as it dug into this very hard wood. Required a lot of starts, stops, swearing and occasional chiseling.

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I did also drill a 1/2″ wide hole into the middle of each leg, so I could use a dowel in addition to glue to secure the leg to the table. Once I had the dowels, legs with grooves, and ipe in place, it was matter of assembling the whole puzzle to the bottom of the table.

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For the bench, I used a similar technique to attach the legs to the top of the bench. For the bottom of the legs, I used another piece of mahogany which had a groove cut into it to hold the leg. To cut the groove, I just did lots of passes with a skill saw followed by chiseling to clean-up.

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Once the glue holding the legs had dried, I flipped the bench and table, and had something close to the final product!

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But then: sanding. So much sanding. 80 grit, then 120, then 220 over about 38 square feet.

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Once the sanding was done, the rest was pretty easy – all I had to do was stain and then apply multiple coats of polyurethane (over the course of several days).

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Finally, the table was done! My good friend Wayne helped me carry the heavy – but not impossibly so! – table around the front of the house and into the dining room.

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Cob Greenhouse

Cob is magical. 

Dirt plus straw plus water hardens into a mass which can bear significant load, and lasts for years – provided you keep it dry. 

I was first exposed to Cob when I was spending half a year at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat center in Pennsylvania. I had taken a bit of time off from college to regroup, find my spiritual center, and awaken my spirituality. As it turns out, I’m an atheist with little patience for sitting around; the self-discoveries of youth can be equal parts profound and confounding. In search of things to keep my mind off my mind, I stumbled upon a nascent project to build a greenhouse out of sustainable and local materials, including trees from the property, large stones, and the aforementioned cob.  The trees were stripped of bark, and sealed with linseed oil (which, as it turns out, isn’t sufficient; they eventually fell victim to termites). The stones were horribly heavy (surprise!) and took amazingly long to assemble into a workable foundation. But cob – oh cob! – was a great discovery. 

To make cob, we did the following:

  • Spread a tarp on the ground, ideally in a slight depression
  • Shovel a few scoops of dirt onto the tarp
  • Throw a few handfuls of straw onto the dirt
  • Add water (start with a bit, add a bit more during the next step)
  • Step and step and step on the mess until the straw is well-mixed in, and it has the consistency of jelly
  • Scootch the tarp over to the area you’re working on
  • Lay out a layer of cob; no more than 1″ thick, and at least 12-18″ wide
  • Push your finger into the wet cob every few inches to leave holes for the next layer to lock into (think: Lego bricks)
  • Wait for the cob to dry (1-3 days, depending on the weather) before applying the next layer. If it rains, be sure to cover your cob!

It’s slow, steady, muddy work. But slowly, walls emerge. Not the perfectly flat grid-walls of modern times; these are curvy, organic, emergent forms.  Surprisingly, cob hardens to an almost concrete-like form; sure, you can rub dirt off the walls, but it’s resilient and solid.

Years later, we had a house. And a boring lawn. But no greenhouse.

It was time to build a cob greenhouse of our own. 


I started my measuring out a 9′ by 14′ area. 

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I took a photo, and (crudely) used Google SketchUp to make a 3-D rough model of my vision. 

  • Brick foundation, from 3″ (one bricks) below ground level to 12″ above ground level
  • Single sloped roof, from about 2 feet above the ground on the south wall to 7 feet above ground on the north (biggest) wall. The roof is made from clear plastic. 
  • There would be a door on the north wall. This also requires less cob.
  • We would insert bottles into the cob to provide light, color, and take up a bit of room for less cob-work
  • Include windows on the East and West walls (maybe the North Wall too). 

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We were ready to dig out the foundation! This would both put the walls a bit underground, but – as it turns out, more importantly! – gave us a few mounds of dirt to turn into cob. 

We had no idea what we were in for. 

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Digging is easy. 

Bricks suck.

I mean, they look great. But even the smallest wall has a TON of bricks. And while I could’ve started with new bricks, I wanted to save money and have nice-looking, worn, interesting bricks. So I started bargain-hunting on Craigslist for bricks, hauling load after load to the house. All things told, I certainly didn’t save money compared to just ordering a delivery of new bricks – and it took a lot of time and sore muscles. But finally, we had enough bricks. 

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We laid the first layer of bricks out, and pounded rebar in-between, so it would stick up high into the wall. From there, we mortared layer after layer of brick to make a foundation, leaving an opening for the door. 

Sadly, I have hardly any photos of the building process. 

I had completely underestimated just how much dirt we would need; we quickly emptied our yard of its hills, and introduced new depressions. Towards the end, we became perhaps overzealous in our use of recycling materials for construction purposes, in order to take up room. Several hated hawtorne tree stumps made their way into the building, too. 

From the nearby, wonderful re-purposer of materials, Re-Store, I was able to get recycled lumber, and a door. Lisa rescued a stained glass mirror from the trash which was also incorporated. 

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We put on the finishing touches, and attached the roof plastic. 

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And then… we were done! Not too far from the original mockup, am I right?

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Cob also has tremendous thermal mass. As we learned, the greenhouse would get murderously hot in the summer under almost kind of sun. I installed an automatic vent which would lift a big section of the roof when it got hot; the vent was almost always open. (Automatic vents are neat, by the way; a cylinder of stuff (wax?) expands under heat, and pushes open a window just based on the pressure in the cylinder). Even so, it was too warm; the greenhouse became useful for extending the growing season in the spring through late in the fall by moving plants in-and-out.  

Garden Boxes

My old garden boxes were falling apart; they’d been made from 3/4″ cedar boards that were woefully unable to withstand the abuses of the elements.

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The size and location of the old boxes was good, though. There were three 4′ x 4′ boxes, and one 4′ by 8′ box (really, two sub-boxes). 4′ wide is a good size; you can bend over to weed and reach plants easily, and also lumber tends to come in 4′ increments. I already had pretty good, loose soil in place.

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Also, it had worked well having a built-in trellis for climbing plants like peas and beans. These were positioned on the southwest edge of the boxes so that, in summer when they were covered in a wall of greenery, they wouldn’t shade out the rest of the box.

The last thing that had worked decently well was the strip of copper tape around the perimeter of the box. Slugs and snails don’t like to touch copper. However, the tape had frayed at parts; and as the boards separated, slugs were now able to creep between the cracks in the boards.

Fortunately, removing the old boxes was easy because the wood was in such terrible condition.

The dog approves of removing the old garden boxes

The dog approves of removing the old garden boxes

My plan was to replace the old boxes in-place with new boxes constructed out of sturdier 2×12 lumber; and with sturdier 4×4 posts in the northwest side for a new trellis. I’d use lag screws to stitch things together (bolts would have been stronger and preferable, but would have taken a bit more effort).

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I would combine 4′ lengths of 2×12 boards such that, for each board, one end would cap another board; and the other end would be capped. This gives a square shape that’s the size of a 4′ board plus the the width of a 2×12 (because 2x12s are actually 1 3/4″ wide, the total width is 49 3/4″).

In terms of lumber, I decided to use pressure treated fir. Cedar, which is naturally rot-resistant and good-looking, would have been preferable; but it’s significantly more expensive. Pressure-treating helps prevent rot; while I had some reservations about the chemicals used, the lumber yard I use (Dunn lumber) advertises that these boards are safe for people, pets, and plants.

I decided it would be most economical to buy 8′ lengths of 2×12, and cut them in half to give two 4′ lengths. (Also, note that pressure treated lumber is quite heavy; 12′ would have worked too, but is an awkward size and mass to maneuver).

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8′ 2×12 lumber, on a wet day

Measure to cut boards in half, to 4' lengths

Measure to cut boards in half, to 4′ lengths

Use a skill saw to cut boards in half

Use a skill saw to cut boards in half

Because the pressure treated chemicals are only on the outside the wood, when you cut pressure treated lumber, you should coat the end of the cut with chemicals to preserve the wood. Those chemicals are not to be trusted, and so I would have to be careful to have the cut ends pointing out, away from my garden.

Freshly cut ends expose untreated lumber

Freshly cut ends expose untreated lumber

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Brushing wood preservative onto cut ends. Beware these chemicals!

Brushing wood preservative onto cut ends. Beware these chemicals!

Now I had a big pile of 4′ lengths of 2×12 boards, each with one cut end which had been treated with wood preservative. After it had dried, it was time to assemble them into boxes. First, I combined pairs into “L”s, using two 3 1/2 zinc lag screws and zinc washers at for each pair of boards.

I used a power drill to bore holes, then a wrench to screw in the law screws.

I used a power drill to bore holes, then a wrench to screw in the law screws.

Soon, I had many L-shaped boards.

Soon, I had many L-shaped boards. The Helpful Dog approves.

These L-shaped boards were then positioned around the garden beds, and combined to make squares. On the northwest side, I also bolted in two 6′ tall 4×4 vertical posts.

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The last step was to finish the trellis portion, so the plants could have something to climb onto. For this, I was going to fit sections of 6″ mesh between the vertical 4×4 poles. 
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I cut the mesh with a bolt cutter. I wanted to squeeze the mesh into holes cut into the 4x4s, so the mesh was cut to be a bit wider than 4′. I drilled holes in the 4×4 posts which were 6″ apart, and jammed the mesh in. This turned out to be a pretty awkward project; you want to wear gloves, it’s easy to get poked!mesh-2At last, the project was done! I put horizontal wooden 2x4s (cedar) at the top of the trellis. As a finish touch, I slid glass caps on the top of the 4x4s to add a touch of flair, and also to prevent water from soaking into the top of the lumber.

Done at last!

Done at last!

Fast forward a few months, and you can see that the garden is booming!

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