Take A Seat – how to re-upholster a dining chair, for complete beginners

So your dining chairs are looking a little tatty. Perhaps the seat fabrics are stained, marked, torn, threadbare, or just looking rather dated and no longer suit your decor. Time to throw them out and start saving up for some new ones, perhaps? Don’t be silly! For a start, chairs are really expensive (I mean, easily £100 each for nice ones!). If the chair frame is still sound, then DIY re-upholstery or re-covering of the chair pads is a job which should be within the grasp of anyone with a few basic craft and DIY skills.

Before and after

In order to do this job properly, you will require –

  • A chair or chairs in need of restoration
  • Staple-removing tool or tools
  • Heavy-duty staple gun suitable for upholstery tasks, and staples
  • Replacement covering fabric, of the mid to heavyweight upholstery type
  • New bottoming fabric (non-woven synthetic material)
  • Replacement seat foam (optional, see later)
  • Basic everyday tools such as scissors, screwdrivers, iron and ironing board
  • Adhesive spray and stain-repellant spray may also be useful

The right tools for staple-removingIt is possible to cut corners on the equipment list, of course – you can remove staples using a flat-headed screw driver (not one you’re particularly fond of, as it will never be the same again!) and a reasonably heavy-duty desk stapler could be pressed into service instead of a staple gun, but having the right tools will make the job an awful lot easier and quicker, not to mention safer for you! A staple gun and hinged-type staple remover should set you back about £10 between them, so won’t break the bank.

I would definitely replace the seat foam if the chair is imported, or is older than the 1988 UK fire safety regulations, as upholstery foams before this date (and some of those still in use overseas) can be incredibly flammable. If you know your chairs are more recent than this, and the seat foam is in good condition, not stained or breaking down, then it’s reasonable to re-use what you have. This is what I’ve done in this tutorial, as I know the chairs are at most six or seven years old and were originally manufactured here in the UK. Obviously this is a DIY job for my own use, the chairs won’t be labelled as complying with the regulations after re-covering, and consequently will not be suitable for sale or for use in a furnished rented property.

I want these chairs to last me many more years, so I’m doing this properly – yes, you could just wrap an extra layer of fabric over what’s there already and staple it down, it’s a quick-and-dirty approach which will save you a lot of time and effort, but you will inevitably add bulk, particularly at the corners and underneath, and the seat pads may very well not sit properly afterwards. Stripping the seat pads down is pretty hard work and takes time, but for me it’s worth it in terms of the quality of the eventual finish.

Right, to work!

Chair in need of re-upholsteryThese are the chairs I’m re-upholstering. I bought them from eBay to match four I already have, but they are very stained and all my stain removal efforts have failed. If you turn your chair over, it’s very likely that you will find the seat pad held on by four screws through the base, one at each corner. Remove these and set the screws aside, you’ll need them again later.

Seat pad - bottomRemove the seat pad and turn it over. The view that greets you will probably be a bit like this one, a sheet of bottoming cloth held on with staples all the way around. This is light non-woven fabric, generally, and while it’s tempting just to rip it off, you’re going to want to remove all the staples anyway, so you might as well get started. Leaving staples in situ is a tempting effort-saving decision (trust me, it will once you’ve taken a few out!) but will interfere with neat tidy fitting of the new fabrics later on, and may affect the way the seat pad fits back into the chair.

Personally I find having one of the wooden-handled, curved, pointy staple removing tools a real benefit, even though they’re quite expensive (expect to pay about £15 for a new one – but it will last you a lifetime) – I use it on the staples first, just to ‘break’ the back of them and make a little space in the centre. Then I use the jointed plastic handled tool, which grips the staples to pull them out evenly. You could save a little money and buy just one or the other – they will do the job on their own but the curved tool struggles sometimes when one side of the staple comes free first, and you’ll need pliers to pull out the other end. The plastic tool has a chunkier tip and is much less easy to squeeze under the tight staple to start with.

The wrong tools for removing staplesI mentioned you could use a screwdriver – well, you can, but it’s not the right tool for the job, you’ll damage the corners using it for leverage, and will require a lot more force to use, too. All of which means it’s a lot more likely to slip, and damage parts of the chair you want to keep. Or, you know, your fingers. Obviously you should keep all your fingers *behind* any tool you’re using like this (be it a screwdriver or a proper staple removing tool). Don’t say you haven’t been warned!

Once the bottoming fabric has been removed, you’ll find even more staples holding on the top fabric. You’ve guessed it, these all need to go too. In all, it’s quite likely there will be well over 100 staples in each seat. It’s a long old job and until you get the knack of it can easily take over an hour for each chair. But it’s worth it for the quality of the eventual result.

Finally, you’ll have all the fabric off the seats. Probably, what you’re left with will be a wooden (plywood or chipboard usually) board and a foam pad, which may or may not be glued together. If they’re not glued down, or you’re replacing the foam pad, then it may be worth turning the board the other way up before re-fitting, particularly if it’s chipboard and crumbling a little where the old staples have been. If you’re replacing the foam, it’s easiest to take one of the existing pads to a foam supplier and ask them to cut replacements the same size and shape for you – most will be happy to do this though they may charge you something to do it. I’m keeping the foam pads, because they’re relatively new and in good condition still.

Cut out fabric and mark wrong sideYou’ve probably chosen your replacement fabric already, and really anything could work, so let your imagination run wild! The fabric I have used is actually salvaged from a pair of heavy cotton curtains we found in the house when we got here. I’d taken them down and washed them as I didn’t like them where they were, but the subtle neutral check pattern makes a great seat and goes really well with the natural oak of the chair frames. And also, you know, it’s free, which is awesome!

If you’re buying fabrics to use, a thrifty option could be to have a look at the second hand curtains for sale in local charity shops, where you may find a real vintage bargain! Try to choose a fabric of a similar weight to the one that you’ve removed, as this should make the seat pad fit back into position best, without unexpected gaps or excessive thickness. If you’re buying new, don’t feel you need to restrict yourself to upholstery fabrics – for a little job like this, clothing fabrics like denim or a heavyweight woollen cloth could make great alternatives. Do bear in mind that a fabric with an obvious check or stripe, like mine, will show up any wonkiness and uneven tension in the fabric re-fitting much more than a fabric without!

Pre-wash, dry, and then carefully iron your fabric before cutting out. I hate ironing as much as the next person (in fact, I pretty much only ever iron at all if I’m doing a sewing or textiles project!) but do go to the trouble of doing this, it’s important I promise! Washing your fabric first should both shrink it, if necessary, and improve your chances of removing stains from it in the future, should you need to, without causing colour run.

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Using the old seat fabric as a template, cut out your new seat covers. I prefer to cut a little larger, and to cut to square corners, without ‘scalloping’ them out. This just provides more of a margin of error for the fitting process! If there’s any risk of confusion, mark the ‘wrong’ side of your fabric clearly when you cut it out, to ensure it goes on the chair right-side-out! If your seat foam isn’t already glued down to the wood, consider using some spray adhesive to do this, as if the two are fixed in position already, it will make stretching the fabric over them much more straightforward.

Fix straightest edge with staple gunThen, starting along the straightest edge of your seat pad, secure the fabric with your staple gun. The first side is simple, but of course it gets a bit trickier after that. Do the opposite side next, so that your fabric is nice and straight. While it *is* possible to stretch, hold, and staple the fabric on your own, this task is a lot easier if you can recruit a glamorous assistant to help you (hello, Hubby!).

Wrap over fabric snugly and fix opposite edgeYou will want to pull the fabric as tight as you can, and this will curve and round-off the cut edges of the foam in the process. Work slowly and keep the tension even. I tend to work in a divide-the-difference pattern, placing each new staple in the centre of a gap, rather than trying to work along a line from one end to the other.

Then fix sides, maintaining desired tensionThen do the same with the two other sides, though you might find it easier to work on both sides alternately, rather than securing one side and then the other. Just keep checking your tension is even and appropriate as you go along, and don’t be nervous of taking staples out and trying again if you’re not happy with the result!

Once you’ve finished the sides, fold the corners over neatly and secure these too.

Finally staple down corners

With a bit of luck, you’ll end up with seat pads that look a bit like this.  Now just to finish the bottoms. You could re-use the bottoming cloths that you took off in the first place – if you managed to get them off without tearing – but they’ll look tatty and new non-woven fabric to replace them is very cheap (it’s usually available in black, grey, white, or beige and costs a couple of pounds a metre, so choose the one that will blend in best). You could even forget about it and just re-fit the seats as they are, but that will leave the raw edges of your covering fabric exposed and these will eventually fray.

Cut out replacement bottoming cloth using old fabric as templateA word to the wise – take it from me, and do not attempt to iron your bottoming fabric. Doing so (even on your iron’s lowest setting) will result in ruined fabric and a nasty sticky mess on the bottom of your iron. Do you really need to ask how I know this..?

Attach new bottoming cloth with staplesCut out the bottoming cloth using the old one as a template, and then staple this in place over the seat bottom, concealing all the rough edges and staples securing your top fabric as you do.

Treat seat pads with stain-repellant sprayMindful of why I had this job to do in the first place, I got out my trusty can of Scotchgard spray (other stain repellant products are available) and treated the re-upholstered seat pads before re-fitting them. This would also be a good time to make any repairs to the wooden chair frames, and oil, varnish, or even paint these if necessary.

Finally, fix seat pads back in position with screwsOnce everything is done, re-fit the seat pads using the screws you set aside at the beginning, and stand back and admire your handiwork! Aren’t they fine? I’ve only got another four to do, now!

Just consider the possibilities – old dining chairs in need of re-upholstery sell online and in general auctions for pennies on the pound compared to new ones. Doing the job yourself takes a little time and effort, but you can produce a really professional looking result, save a heap of money, and bring a great vintage feature into your home, too!

Admire your finished chairs!

 

Still doubt that this is a beginner’s project? Well, these chairs are the first things I’ve ever upholstered. If I can do it, I have no doubt that you can, too!

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There’s A Hole In My Kettle, Dear Liza… Well, fix it with Sugru!

The blog seems to have been very heavy on recipes since the new year – mostly because all I’ve managed to write most weeks is the Cooking the Books post (and, you know, not always that!). There’s a lot going on in our lives at the moment that I’m not really free to talk about just yet, but which has completely put a stop to the gardening I would normally be stuck into by this time of year (my window ledges are entirely bereft of their usual forest of seedlings, and sitting on my green fingers is such torture!). But this was never intended to be just a food blog, and, of course, life goes on.

Now, I’m sure you all know about Sugru by now – I waxed enthusiastic about it to my little sister last summer, only to discover she’d been an early convert (but had somehow neglected to mention the wonderful stuff to me?!), so I know I’m late to the party. But just in case you haven’t come across it, let me tell you a little bit about this wonderful stuff. Sugru is a mouldable putty, rather like play dough or blue tack. It comes out of a little sealed packet, and then you have 30 minutes to play with it before it starts to set. The Sugru then cures, in the air, at room temperature, in the next 24 hours (longer if it’s a particularly big piece), after which it is set permanently, with a silicone-rubber character.

Sugru pack

So, what? Relatively slowly setting modeling clay doesn’t seem so exciting perhaps… Well, it bonds permanently to a very wide range of underlying materials (plastics, glass, metals, ceramics, fabrics, wood and so on), and will tolerate a wide range of temperatures from -50C to +180C, as well as being flexible, waterproof, electrically insulating… You get the idea, it’s clever stuff! [Full details on the Sugru website, here.]

Back in the summer, I used my first pack to finish my denim strap replacement up-cycle on a pair of flip flops. They held up extremely well to the wear and tear they were put through in the course of what was an unusually hot summer. I’m looking forward to wearing them again this year.

Sandal soles sealed with sugru   Denim strap upcycle - complete

Some of the leftover from the pack, I used to mend and re-attach a cracked knob on our cooker. That repair has held up so well – and is so ‘seamless’ – that until I started writing this little post, I’d almost forgotten I’d ever mended it in the first place!

Broken knob   Blob of Sugru inside knob   Hold knob tight and wait to cure

A few months ago, now, I noticed that our kettle had started leaking, apparently from the join between the metal body and a plastic viewing window set into it. We have very hard water here, so I suspect limescale got established in a little gap and slowly pushed it apart. For a while, it was just the odd drop or two when I boiled a big kettle of water, but then one day, at the end of January, there was rather a big puddle of rather hot water on the kitchen counter after I’d boiled the kettle. Obviously water and electrics are a great mix! I nearly chucked the kettle in the bin and went to buy a new one, but I do hate to throw things away that might still have some life in them – and after all, the kettle still ‘worked’… Then I remembered the Sugru, hiding in the fridge (refrigeration extends the shelf life of the product before use).

Leaky kettle

It seemed too good not to try – I mean, the worst that could happen was still the kettle ending up in the bin anyway. This is one of the reasons I love mending things so much – you can justify all manner of experimentation that you might hesitate to try on a working item for fear of breaking it. My plan was really quite simple – to make a Sugru gasket or seal for the plastic window, by pushing it into the gap all around the outside, and then the water wouldn’t be able to get out any more. So far, so obvious, right? I shared my plan with Hubby, who looked a little unconvinced and told me ‘not to make it look rubbish’ – well, there’s nothing like a vote of confidence from your nearest and dearest…

Now, the surface preparation instructions that come with the Sugru are very simple – they boil down to ‘make sure the surfaces you want the Sugru to bond to are clean and dry’. I admit, I didn’t do this carefully enough. I’d given the kettle a really good wash to remove any grease, and removed as much of the limescale as I could using vinegar. I gave it all a good dry with a tea towel but didn’t really think that there would probably be some residual water (and probably detergent) in the gap I was planning to seal. It turns out soapy water acts as a release agent for uncured Sugru. You have been warned!

Insert Sugru into gap   Trimmed away where adhesion failed

The process was simple enough – roll out little lengths of Sugru, and stuff them into the gap. Then smooth off the surface (to avoid it ‘looking rubbish’). Problem being that around the lower left part of the window, the Sugru refused to adhere and kept falling out again. This was particularly vexing as I’m pretty sure this is where the worst of the leak was coming from! Eventually I gave up and peeled the Sugru away everywhere it wasn’t sticking, tidying up the edges with a putty knife, and left the rest to cure for 24 hours.

Finished job!Fortunately, I had a second pack of red Sugru in my stash, or it would have been a funny multicoloured fix that might have upset Hubby’s ‘rubbishometer’!

On day two, with my second pack, I was able to complete the seal all the way around, without any obvious difficulty. I left it to cure for another 24 hours, and then couldn’t wait to test my repair.

Well, it works. You can see from the photo just below, taken a day or two ago – almost two months after the repair – there is a little bit of limescale visible in a couple of places around the repair. It does still leak *very* slightly – the odd drop of water manages to sneak through while the kettle is boiling energetically, and evaporates on the spot, so for my money, the repair is a success – no more water on the worktop! I’m pretty sure that if I’d waited for the kettle to be really dry (and, lesson learnt, I won’t make that mistake again!) then the repair would have been completely successful.

After two months, with some limescale showing

Will the leak get worse as time goes by? I don’t know yet – it may be that the limescale will continue to do its thing and will slowly push the gap wider. Then again, because the Sugru stays flexible after curing, it may be able to accomodate this without additional leakage. Anyway, in the meantime hopefully I will have worked out what replacement kettle might look best in my new kitchen…

And think, if only he had some Sugru, Henry could have fixed his bucket – mind you, I’ve never worked out how the straw was going to help – can any of you shed any light on the matter?

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Living in Glass Houses – DIY greenhouse build

I have to admit to having wanted a decent greenhouse for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my grandmother’s neighbours had a beautiful greenhouse and vegetable garden, which I used to admire from over the fence, and I suspect my life-long enthusiasm for the glass-house springs in part from this!

Dave, showing off his new greenhouse!

Apologies, incidentally, for the quality of the photography in this post – I made the mistake of thinking I had enough on my hands and that photos from my mobile phone would be ‘good enough’ rather than worrying about the SLR as well as everything else.  The photos took ages to tidy up and even now aren’t really up to my usual standard!

A little while after Christmas, while we were watching telly, I asked hubby whether we were really going to get on and build a greenhouse this year.  Yes, he agreed, we definitely were. So I did a bit of digging around, and had more or less decided that for what we required, a baby polytunnel was probably going to be more cost effective and sensible.  Then, deploying his superior (well, so he says) google skills, he turned up a 6ft x 10ft aluminium and polycarbonate greenhouse for about the sort of price I was finding for tunnels.  It seemed like a no brainer, so we got on and ordered it. It arrived a week or so later.

It’s been sat in the garden in two boxes since then, of course, because the weather we’ve had this winter can only be described as ‘not compatible with construction projects’.  As it happens, I’ve given up complaining about the weather for Lent (yes, it’s been that bad!), so I’ll spare you the details.  It finally started to dry out a little a couple of weeks ago, so we finally had a window to get going with the ground works.

The intended site for the greenhouse is on our ‘paddock’, which is a scrappy bit of ridge and furrow pasture land, most of which we planted for an orchard three years ago.  The grass is very established and the land isn’t level (the clue is in the ‘ridge and furrow’!). The only way we were ever going to get a level frame for the greenhouse was to dig a ‘slot’ for it out of the pasture grass to level it, and set a frame of breeze-blocks on which to rest the building.

You’ll need a good spade, a turf cutting tool and ideally, a mattock. We measured out the 6ft by 10ft rectangle and got to work.  Once we’d cleared the space, it occurred to us to consider in more detail the ‘6 x 10ft (aprox)’ size given on the greenhouse packaging.  It turned out the greenhouse was sized in something that could only be described as ‘metric feet’ by its German manufacturers.  Armed with the metric measurements, we enlarged the slot by a reasonably generous margin, and turned in for the evening, pleased with ourselves for having completely cleared the required space, and confident we could crack right on with building the greenhouse the following day.

The next day dawned cold.  Really cold – barely above freezing, in fact, despite being late February.  Undaunted, we put on our ski jackets and thick woollen socks, and headed back out to the greenhouse site. We’d gathered together enough lightweight breeze blocks to do the job – the sort that are made from a sort of concrete ‘froth’, a bit like an aero bar, and would float, if you let them.  Our sophisticated building and levelling tools were the spade and mattock from the previous day, a spirit level, and some string.  The blocks themselves were to act as ‘squaring’ guides, in due course.  And, as we hadn’t yet managed to pick up a bag of sharp sand, we had only the soil itself to use to pack the blocks straight and level.

Assembling the brake blocksThe first course of blocks assembled itself quite straightforwardly.  The mattock is a great help in cutting a clean trench, and then the blocks just go in one after another, with a check on level and height adjustment on each.  After setting the corner as square as we could using one of the blocks for reference, a couple of pegs and a length of string set the alignment for the next course.  Things were going well!

Two courses more or less complete, we wanted to make sure we had the right dimensions for the greenhouse, so we decided to get out the base from the kit and get that assembled for reference.  This done – and it was nice and straightforward (though it revealed that the assembly instructions were a ~50 page pictographic document, in the IKEA tradition) – we offered the frame to the greenhouse site, and discovered our slot was too narrow, given the width of the blocks.  In a stroke of good luck, we also discovered the base build could be bodged to use only whole blocks, which was a huge bonus.

Three courses placedCarrying on with the cut, measure, level, we had three courses installed.  We laid out, crudely, the blocks for the fourth course.  Inevitably, this is when you discover that, rather than a neat rectangle, and despite your most careful efforts, you’ve built some sort of trapezoid only theoretically known to mathematics. A bit of head-scratching and adjustments to the squaring, requiring a bit of extra turf cutting, and we put down the fourth course.

Greenhouse base, complete

It had been trying to snow all afternoon, and we’d been outside for five continuous hours laying the foundation blocks. It seemed apparent that one of the corners (the back one, in this photo) was lower than it should have been, but we were running out of energy, and light.  We tidied up and came back indoors, and gave up for the weekend.

Pro-tip: you know you’re really, properly, cold to the core when you *start* shivering several minutes after you get into a nice warm bath…

Skip ahead, then, through a working week to this weekend.  Finishing the greenhouse was our main order of business.  The weather, at least, is improving – no snow this weekend and even moments of sunshine!

Fixing the base down onto the blocksFirst up on Saturday, completing the levelling of the base.  Easy enough with the base frame sitting on top to confirm our suspicion that the back corner was ‘down’.  We’d got hold of a bag of sharp sand, so correcting this by lifting the two sides progressively was pretty straight forward.

Then, after placing the base as square as we could on top of the blocks, we marked the fixing holes, drilled these out with a hand drill, and then after placing rawlplugs, screwed the greenhouse frame down into place.  (Hint – mark carefully, and then *check* – it’s annoying when the holes aren’t quite in the right place!)  Skip any holes which are really close to an edge, as the block will just crumble away. Note that we’ve used no mortar at all in constructing this base.  You could, of course, if you wanted a more permanent foundation.

Out of the ground at lastThe sun was thinking about coming out, and we were ready, finally, to get the greenhouse build out of the ground.  The construction guide is purely pictorial, and weighing in at 51 pictographic pages, is something out of a flat-pack-furniture-phobe’s screaming nightmare. In the end, it’s just a question of following the instructions, as carefully as you can.

Our greenhouse was manufactured by ‘Palram’ and is a ‘crystal clear’ (read vaccuum-formed, single-ply) polycarbonate glazed aluminium framed greenhouse.  We bought it via B&Q but their greenhouses are stocked by lots of different retailers.  We’d built a tiny (6ft x 4ft) polycarbonate and aluminium greenhouse in our previous townhouse garden, and I was expecting the same, two-ply corrugated polycarbonate glazing that we’d had before, and which we were very pleased with.  I can only surmise that the insulation properties of this single-ply material won’t be as impressive as the other option.  And handling the glazing panels, which seemed alarmingly lightweight, was a bit hairy in places.  That said, once complete, the finished greenhouse does seem reassuringly ‘solid’. So, time will tell!

Side panels installedBut, back to the build.  Proceed carefully according to your pictograms.  Those on the cover informed me two people would be required, and that was certainly the case – at various times this build would have been completely impossible to perform single-handed. I was expecting to assemble the four walls individually and then combine them, but this wasn’t the case – the whole thing came vertically out of the base, acquiring glazing as it went, and then the build continued up into the gables and finally onto the roof.

We made one mistake (repeated at all four corners), which gave us some trouble until we noticed what we’d done wrong – fortunately our efforts at mitigation only involved some very slight trimming of some edges of the polycarbonate panels, nothing with any lasting consequences. Hint – if there’s more than one possible hole you could screw in, check, and check again before committing (and stop that giggling at the back!).

I gave a few small blood sacrifices on the sharp metal edges of the frame while threading the glazing panels.  The instructions tell you to wear gloves, of course, but it’s impossible to do this while fiddling with the 120 pairs of small metal nuts and bolts that hold this monstrous Meccano set together, and in the end I gave up, and suffered the consequences.  Overall we felt that, at least where it came to the glazing panels, the manufacturing tolerances were probably wider than the assembly ones, which made things a bit tricky from time to time.

Greenhouse roof installedGetting the roof apex installed did require a ladder (at least for us – though we’re both a little on the short side!), which isn’t on the list of required equipment.  It would have been a bit of a nuisance if we hadn’t had one conveniently available!  With the sun setting, and the roof on – missing only the final fitting of the window vent, and the door – and after seven hours solid work, we gave up and went to the pub for a well-earned steak dinner and a couple of pints of rather nice Ringwood bitter.

This morning, after a more sedate Sunday breakfast, we got on with the finishing-up tasks. The window went in quite straightforwardly.  The door was a bit fiddlier but posed no major challenges (and is very thoughtfully designed, in fact). By lunchtime, we had a completed greenhouse frame and glazing.

Hubby had work to do this afternoon, so after a whistle-stop trip to Wickes, he got on with that while I cracked on with the inside of the greenhouse.  I was hoping, rather ambitiously, to finish this evening with the hard-standing for the staging installed, as well as a paving slab path, the staging fitted, and the borders initially dug-over with a ceremonial planting – perhaps a row of early carrots, or something – completed.

Laying the slabsLevelling the ground and installing the slabs was probably, in fairness, a good worked example of why you shouldn’t let amateurs do hard-landscaping!  The soil at the back of the greenhouse, where the staging was going, produced a rich vein of solid clay, the kind that would probably have made a victorian brick-maker’s month.  Again, we wanted to avoid concrete or mortar, so the paving slabs are to be laid directly onto a layer of landscape fabric on top of the soil, using some ‘pads’ of sharp sand to help level them.

Hard standing installedThere are gaps between my slabs, which I’ll fill with some gravel once I’ve remembered to buy a bag.  Eight blocks across the back of the greenhouse provide a space for some shelving, and then a five-block path runs between the two greenhouse borders from the door.  I’m hoping that the slabs will also provide some useful heat-sink effect to hold warmth into the evenings as the temperature drops.

It’s around this stage in the process, when you’re raking the soil under the pathway to a fine tilth, while treading your precious borders harder and harder, that you remember that gardening is about pretty flowers in the same way that house-building is about paint colours for the hall.  In the end, it’s mostly hard labour!

Greenhouse staging 'installed'Just as I was ready to give myself a big pat on the back and congratulate myself on a job well done, I realised I had a small problem with my (great, cheap!) greenhouse staging.  The pack, describing itself as 2ft 11in (x2) greenhouse shelving (and I’d measured the gap!!) turned out to have the ‘aprox’ behaviour in the, compulsory, unhelpful direction.  They don’t fit!  Until I decide whether I want to take a hacksaw to eight lengths of steel tubing, they’re installed at a rather ‘jaunty’ angle…

No ceremonial carrots, but three big pots of compost with my newly-arrived hop rhizomes in them, pending the preparation of their final planting site.  There’ll also be a water butt to collect the run-off from the roof and reduce the distance I have to walk to fill the watering can.

Completed greenhouse

I think we’re both, it’s fair to say, seriously pleased with our efforts, even though it’s been physically very demanding and taken about twice as long as we had imagined it would.

To finish, and following Ross’s example in his excellent barn door guest blog post, some summaries:

Costings –

  • Greenhouse kit, including base & glazing – ~£350
  • Breezeblocks – £32
  • Paving slabs – £32
  • Sharp sand – £1.81
  • Landscape fabric – can’t remember, it was in the back of the shed

Time invested –

  • Ground clearance ~1 day, two people (or a bit longer for one)
  • Installing breeze-blocks ~1 day, two people
  • Greenhouse build ~ 1 day, two people (if you get up sharpish or have more hours of light than we did!) allowing extra if you want to do silly things with paving slabs inside.

Lessons learnt –

  • Measure, then measure again. Then have someone else measure too.  Don’t trust the measurements on packets, especially when they may be ‘metric’ feet-and-inches!
  • Wear gloves, unless you want to discover quite how sharp the sliced edges of extruded aluminium components can be.
  • Consider the weather forecast.  It can be really *really* cold in February! And finally,
  • If there is more than one possible hole… insert your own joke here.

I can’t wait to really get growing!

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Built Like A Barn Door – or, how to make your own shed doors [Guest Blogger]

Lemon TreeOur Guest Blogger is Ross, from Christchurch, NZ.  

You may recall the lovely series of lemon-glut busting recipes which Ross has shared with the blog.  As well as all that preserving, he’s been doing some DIY lately – and I was so impressed by this new shed door that I rather cheekily asked him for a write-up!

So, as they say, now for something completely different! But something which is still undoubtedly a very useful country skill – woodwork.

Scenario

We have a shed. It’s timber-framed, and until recently it was clad with asbestos boards. We got some professionals in to remove and dispose of it properly, and then had a local builder come and reclad the shed in plywood. So far so good, but his quote didn’t include reinstating the door – which, to be fair, was old, rotting, and had a sliding track which was ruined when the asbestos guys ripped it off.

Shed, doorlessWhat to do?

The aperture was 190-191cm high and 140-141cm wide. (Yes, the edges are not parallel; what do you expect?) An unusual size, and if I did get a door made to fit that, I’d also have to shell out for delivery as it wouldn’t fit in the car. Such a wide door would have quite a large swing, which could be a bother.

I got some door designs from various DIY books and websites. The traditional basic ledged-and-braced door design – described as having a “rustic” feel – would certainly work for us. In short, you lay out some planks side-by-side, then nail or screw two horizontals and a diagonal to keep them together, and there’s your door.

Single door panelI don’t have a good picture of the design that doesn’t infringe somebody else’s copyright, but – skipping ahead a bit – here’s what one of ours looks like.

I rapidly came to the idea of a double door to reduce the swing size. But if I made a pair of ledged and braced doors, I’d still have the same problem getting the parts home from our local DIY barn as the wood would be too long to fit in the car.

There was a bit of head-scratching, and a few minutes more spent getting the splinters out from under my fingernails, before I realised what I could do. Stable doors. That is to say, a pair of doors with the ability to swing independently but which fill the frame vertically.

So, to deal with the swing issue as well, I’d make a double stable door. That is to say, four doorlets to fill the space. What could possibly go wrong? I should point out that, between my partner and I, we have limited tools, skill and experience. We have an electric drill and a Workmate, and know what end of a hammer to hold (beginners please note, not the metal end), but New Yankee Workshop this ain’t…

Design

door drawingHere’s the design. H for hinge, S for a door-stop, and the brown rectangles are tower bolts.

If you compare it with other ledge and brace doors, you’ll notice this is a modified design. Traditionally the ledges would both be a little distance in from the top and bottom of each door. Here I have moved the central ledges nearly flush to the edge, for convenience in bolting them together. (I still needed to be able to bolt one side at the top and bottom, but I figured I would use off-cuts to extend the ledges where I needed to. You probably don’t want both ledges to be flush with the edges in case you need to shrink the doors later.)

So I spent a good while in Mitre 10 figuring out which of their available pre-cut timber widths would give me a reasonably convenient time of assembling it all. (I had hoped to find tongue and groove, but they don’t keep any. That was OK as their regular boards are uniform enough; some are a bit warpy but not too bad.)

It broke down like this:

  • Right side: 7x 13.5cm x 9mm boards per door
  • Left side: 2x 23cm x 9mm boards per door
  • Bottom half: Boards to be 1.2m long, uncut
  • Top half: The same 1.2m boards, to be initially cut a few cm too long, then later cut to fit precisely.
  • Ledges (horizontals): Cut to same width as their respective doorlets. I realised later they need to be a little smaller to allow for the swing of the door.
  • Braces (diagonals): Pythagoras tells us that these are going to be longer than the verticals or the horizontals. As they’re blocks with a non-zero width the length will be slightly longer than by Pythagoras, but it worked out within about 1%.

You may notice that (7 x 13.5cm) + (2 x 23cm) comes to 140.5cm, for an aperture that varies between 140 and 141cm in width. This would prove to be annoying later.

Assembling each doorlet

Assembling the doorletLay out your panels side by side. Use a spare block of wood to square up the ends. (For the 7-panel doorlets I did this in two stages, four boards then three, as my working area wasn’t quite wide enough.)

Clamp the ledges into place. I also used a sash clamp to hold the planks together laterally; I don’t know whether this was essential but I suspect I’d have needed more G-clamps if I hadn’t.

Then pin the ledges to the planks. You can do this with nails but I used screws (drilling pilot holes first, of course). I attached each end of the ledge to its corresponding board with three screws, then put one screw into each intermediate board; the same for the other ledge. This may have been overkill.

Next cut and attach the braces. We just marked these with a pencil and steel rule, then sawed as close as we could to the line (fixing up later). The braces have to fit well as they spread the weight of the door. I fixed each ledge with two screws into each end board and one into each intermediate. On reflection this was definitely overkill.

Then paint, varnish, or apply whatever decoration you wish. For efficiency we painted only the outward faces at this point (we have still to paint the shed exterior, after all) – in a less clement climate you might be well advised to paint all of it before hanging to try and prevent damp getting in and warping the wood to next week and back again.

The hinge conundrum

I had read in my DIY book that a tee-hinge was “traditional” for this sort of design of door, so I bought some without thinking much about it. Mistake! For an outward-opening door, it was only going to be possible to put these on the outside of the door, with the screws exposed to all comers: no good for security. (Thank you, Mitre 10 returns policy…!)

I replaced them with some ordinary door hinges, of the kind that doesn’t require you to cut a rebate into the frame.

It’s important to think about where the hinges will attach to, on both the door and the frame. You can’t put screws into the end-grain of a block of wood and expect them to hold. Similarly, putting them into the side of the plywood cladding would have been hopeless. These were going to have to go into a door frame, the shed’s timber framing, or something securely attached thereto.

Shed frameOn one side I had the timber stud. No worries – just have to chisel away a small section of the plywood edge so I could attach the hinges properly into the stud and not foul their pins.

Existing shed constructionOn the other side things were a bit more interesting. There’s no frame to be seen – just the edges of the interior wooden cladding, and a bit raggedy at that.

Adding part-frameTurns out the frame is just behind, so I bought a couple more boards to act as a part-frame, which I attached with long screws through the inner cladding and into the frame.

Hanging the doors

Finally, it was time to hang the doors. You can hang a single door yourself, but it’s a bit troublesome and involves a couple of wedges; much easier with a spare pair of hands. (Sadly, I didn’t have a third pair of hands to photograph this process.)

I started out with the lower two doorlets. Obviously, the bottom doors don’t go all the way down to the deck; you want them to sit slightly off the ground (one source I read said 6mm) for clearance over any debris that may lurk. First fit the hinges (remembering not to put screws into the end grain of a ledge); then put the door into its open position, jacked off the ground; mark the positions of the holes, drill your pilots, then screw it into place.

Except, if you’re me, at some point in this process you think “hey, if I cut rebates for the hinges on that side, even if they don’t need it, I’ll save the couple of mm that will mean I don’t have to trim the doors.” Mistake! I’ve never cut rebates before, and they were distinctly less than even. Worse, the rebates I cut were sufficiently deep that when closing the doorlets fully the pressure tried to rip the hinges off! I ended up packing the hinges with cardboard and crossing my fingers. This may yet come back to bite me, but at least it’s “only” a matter of turning the fake-frames over and rehanging two of the doors, right…?

Offering up the second (larger) door it was clear I was going to have to trim a few mm off the edge for it to fit. On hanging it I found I had somehow managed to give them a 6mm height differential. I wasn’t worried; they swung well, and it’s not surprising as the ground isn’t flat, but if only I had realised this first and hung one to match the other…

Bottom doorlets installedBy now it was getting late. I had bought four heavy-duty tower bolts for securing the doors to each other and the frame, so I used one of them to keep the doors from swinging freely, then called it a night.

Fitting the upper two doors was very much like the lower two, but less close to the ground. We offered each up in turn and trimmed them to fit vertically, as planned.

On closing them for the first time (one at a time), one of the ledges prevented the other door from closing, so we cut a bevel into it. Then the doors fitted!… just. Very very tight, not really usable, so we spent a few minutes hand-sanding the mating edges down. It’s just about usable. I am reticent to take more off yet until the doors have hung for a couple of weeks as they may settle, changing their shape subtly.

Door furniture

All doorlets with boltMy plan for using the door was to treat the whole thing as a double door most of the time. I fitted a tower bolt across each vertical pair to keep them together; this is why I put the central ledges where they are.

Most of the time we won’t need the full width of the door so will only open the larger half. I fitted a tower bolt vertically at the top and bottom half of the smaller pair to secure them. (I added a couple of off-cuts in the corners, butting up to the ledges, so I could attach the bolts with the same deep screws I had been using on the rest of the door. The shed sits on a concrete slab, so making a hole for the bottom bolt to drop into required a couple of minutes with a big masonry bit.)

Inside view, bolts installedThe door is secured by a hasp, staple and padlock across the top pair. I may fit a further tower bolt inside the bottom pair so we can have it held fast while the top pair are open stable-style.

A couple of door stops (not yet fitted at the time of writing) will complete the security, preventing the larger half of the door from being forced inwards when the shed is unattended.

Next steps

After the doors have had time to settle (a few weeks) I will have a good look at them and see if I need to adjust or re-trim anything. I suspect I will want to plane a few mm horizontally off the upper doors where they stick. You can see they don’t sit perfectly; can I claim some sort of amateur’s privilege?

Finished, doors closed

If you have a big gap between double doors you might want to fit an astragal. I may yet fit one on ours – depends how much I remove after it has had time to settle.

Materials and costings

[The costings won’t be of too much use if you’re not in NZ, but they give you an idea. At the time of writing the exchange rate is about NZ$1.90 to £1.]

  • Materials cost: $384.08  – of which $233 was wood, $97 door furniture, $44 paint.
  • Consumables: Sandpaper and sanding block; several dozen screws.
  • Tools used: hammer, wood chisels, electric drill (several different wood bits, a countersink, and a big masonry bit I bought specially so the bottom bolt could drop into the floor), screwdriver bits for the drill (a big sanity saver!), hand plane, G-clamps, 1.2m sash clamp (bought specially for this project; $48.15). Black & Decker Workmate.
  • Time taken: The lion’s share of three days, including trips to the DIY shop. A little more time will be needed after the doors have had time to settle.
  • Labour cost: zero!

The satisfaction of doing it ourselves: *Priceless!*

Lessons learned:

Think through your design. No, really. Don’t assume that hinges will be so inconsequential as to not require thought.

Mortising rebates is hard – or, at least, I don’t have the knack. Beware, it’s very easy to cut too much, which you can’t easily undo.

If you buy hinges that don’t require to be rebated, don’t cut rebates for them!

Remember that the door swings. A thick door, or one thickened by ledges and other attachments flush with the edge, is harder to swing than a thin one.

When hanging a pair of doors that you can see the tops of (e.g. a double stable door like this project), you might want to try and make sure the tops are level.

Ross is an expat thirtysomething Brit who went to the Shakey Isles in search of adventure. Works in technology, enjoys creating, has a love-hate relationship with his kitchen.

Thanks, Ross, for this great DIY tutorial!

It’s been so much fun having these guest blog posts from Ross – and they seem to have been appreciated, too!  So if any readers out there have favourite ‘country skills’ they’d like to share with the blog – particularly if, like Ross, you live on the other side of the world, or have great ‘urban’ country skills – then drop me a line on kate@countryskillsblog.com and we can have a chat!

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Clucking Mayhem – introductions, is the worst over?

Five weeks ago, I drove a 200 mile round trip to bring home three new hens to add to my little backyard flock. Introducing new hens is always a difficult process, they can be remarkably opinionated creatures and don’t enjoy having new housemates!  The ‘pecking order’ is a very real, and sometimes rather violent thing.  For the sake of both my new and existing hens, I wanted to achieve as gentle and stress-free an introduction process as I possibly could, and made arrangements to take my time about it.  You can catch up with the story so far, from coming home, first introductions, and settling in together.

Reasonably settled?

The weekend before last, once the hens were reasonably settled living together, but sleeping mostly apart, I took the second henhouse out of the run, leaving a dodge-board for the small girls to get out of sight behind if necessary.  There was a bit of stress around bedtime the first couple of nights, but the girls are now all bedding down comfortably side by side on the perches, and during the day, apart from the odd scuffle, are mixing, feeding, preening and generally getting on with happy relaxed henny-things!  Egg production is down, but then it’s well into autumn and more dark than light these days so that’s hardly surprising.

Flora continues to wear her bit – her behaviour is the last remaining problem, it’s not really her fault, I suppose, but things would be really nice and settled without her disturbing influence on the flock.  I think – though it might be wishful thinking – that the frequency and savagery of her attempted attacks on the other girls are reducing a little.  With a bit of luck, in another month or so, the headgear can come off.  In the meantime it seems to be causing her very little difficulty, she’s eating well and laying better than anyone else at the moment, giving an egg almost every day.

Midge is growing up fast, with more comb and wattle than she had when she first arrived, and a hunger to match the growth rate.  I’d love to think we’d get some eggs from her soon, though I suppose it may not be until spring.

With a bit of luck – though I hate to put it in black and white and jinx it! – things are settling nicely now.  I had in mind that things would take about a month to bed down and we’re pretty much on that target.  I really hope the girls can get on with enjoying their seasonal treats (the Halloween pumpkins are going down rather well just now!) and lay me lots of nice tasty eggs for a long time to come!

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More Clucking Mayhem – the poultry palaver continues

Just over a week after we mixed the two groups of hens, it’s gone time for an update on progress!  Well, I still have six hens (hey, you’ve got to look on the bright side).

They’re all living together in the run during the day, though the three new girls have still been choosing to bunk in the temporary hen-house at night.  Tonight, for the first time, though, Agnes is asleep with the original trio in the ‘big house’, leaving only Doris and Midge in the temporary accommodation.  Doris is still using the temporary housing to lay, whereas Agnes has been laying in the main coop for a few days now.  The pecking order that established on that first morning out in the garden still appears to be in force, with the strange Agnes > Mabel > Flora > Agnes loop surviving for now.

Flora with Mabel

Speaking of Flora, she’s still wearing her bumper bit.  Flora has turned out to be the real problem – I suspect without her presence in the flock everyone would be living essentially in harmony by now.  Gertie and Mabel, the two other members of the ‘original’ trio are happy to be side-by-side with the new girls and only scuffle with them very occasionally.  Flora has a bad temper, a bad attitude, and seems to spend her life spoiling for a fight.  It doesn’t help that she’s also unusually stupid, even by chicken standards.  Thick and bad tempered, what a winning combination!  Until she’s spending less time trying to thrash poor Doris and Midge into submission, the muzzle is going to have to stay on.

In terms of the effect the bit is having on Flora, it’s less marked than I’d anticipated.  She can eat and drink from the normal feeders and drinkers (we made sure of this before taking the additional open drinker out of the enclosure) and goes to bed every night with a bulging crop.  She seems to be able to graze to at least an extent, and remains (sadly!) able to bully the other hens, though less so than if she could pull feathers too!  The only obvious consequence is in her ability to preen herself.

I suppose it stands to reason that a device primarily designed to stop hens pulling feathers out of other hens would also impair their ability to closely comb their own.  Flora is looking really quite tatty, but it’s something she’s going to have to live with for now.  Despite her muzzle, she still has the girls terrified, chases them to cower behind the hen house, and if they don’t get away fast enough she’ll leap on their backs while they cower and try to pull neck feathers.  I don’t doubt that given the opportunity she’d be doing them real damage, there’s a genuine ferocity to her attacks and I don’t know how long it’s going to take for that to settle down.  Soon, I hope, for her sake as well as everyone else’s!

The next bridge to cross is removing the temporary coop so that all six girls are bunking together.  They could do with the space back in the extension run, and the nights are getting colder, the open-doored temporary house is no place for any of the girls to be sleeping on a cold winter’s night.  We’ve had our first frost here now, so it won’t be long before they’ll really want to be tucked up warm at night!

Still, only just two and a half weeks after I brought the three new girls home in a carrier, overall things are going pretty well.  After the experience of introductions last time, I’d reckoned it would take a month to get things settled and so far I think we’re pretty much on target for that, with a bit of luck.  How long Flora is going to have to be muzzled, though, I don’t want to guess at this point!

Stay tuned for more, folks, from the ongoing poultry palaver!

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Clucking Mayhem – chicken introductions, poultry politics and a bit on the side

I’m blogging from the garden right now, because I’m on hen watch. For the last four hours, my three new hens, and three existing birds, have been free ranging together.  After just over a week of living in adjoining but separate runs, I’m hoping this is the next stage in getting them to co-exist happily as a group of six.

Gertie and Midge

Mixing groups of hens is difficult.  Yes, they look sweet and innocent, don’t they?  But hens’ social structures are complex, and established and enforced by drawing blood (or worse!) if necessary.  That pecking order you’ve heard thrown about as a metaphor?  Well, it’s real.  And nasty.  It’s at times like this that you don’t get to forget than hens really are little dinosaurs at heart.  Genuine pint-sized feathery little T-Rexes.  Next time you get to spend some time watching hens, have a look in their faintly-reptilian eyes and tell me it isn’t so!

Home advantage is a big thing, so I expect the new girls to come off worse, and end up at the bottom of the new pecking order.  It’s more complicated than it might be, though, because Agnes and Doris are adult hens – the same age as Flora from the original trio.  To be honest, I was expecting the whole thing to degenerate into an explosion of swearing and flying feathers as soon as the six were out together.  It didn’t, much to my surprise!

My existing three, as far as I can tell, are ranked with Gertie (the white hen) at the top of the pile, Mabel the Isa Brown in the middle, and speckeldy-grey Flora at the bottom of the stack.  Flora was introduced to the flock last year, and got a bit of a nasty kicking in the process, mostly from Mabel who seemed to declare herself ‘enforcer’.  She still gets the sharp end of Mabel and Gertie’s short temper sometimes, particularly when there’s a tasty morsel or two they don’t want to share.

Midge and DorisThe new girls have established with Agnes, the Welsummer (and biggest of the bunch) at the top, Doris the small but adult Legbar in the middle, and Midge, the New Hampshire Red pullet at the bottom.  Agnes flexes her muscles, on occasion, though things have settled nicely.  Midge and Doris are pretty much inseparable, but Doris does occasionally remind Midge who’s in charge.

What’s really interesting to me at the moment is that Gertie and Agnes seem to have settled on what can only be described as an armed truce.  Neither has taken beak or claw to the other (well, if you ingnore Gertie pitching Agnes out of her favorite dust bath – Gertie is *very* protective of her dust bath), and they’ve been very much in each others strike range without hackles up or much in the way of posturing.  Agnes seems to have yielded subtly – she will give over to Gertie, but only just as much as necessary.  I don’t know what Gertie’s secret is, she just seems to exude natural authority!  It gets odder still.  Agnes seems to have established above Mabel (who runs for cover when she sees Agnes coming) but below Flora (who has a similar effect on the otherwise unflappable Agnes).  No doubt this is going to take some sorting out down the line, since I’m not sure pecking orders permit loops!

Flora is a fascinating character.  I suspect it’s the same cycle of abuse that’s described in humans.  She was the hen who reacted most violently to the arrival of the newcomers last week – lunging at them through the bars and even drawing blood on Agnes’ comb on the first day.  She’s declared herself ‘enforcer’ this time around, and thrown herself into the role with gusto, lunging straight at Agnes the first opportunity she got, landing on her back and really viciously pulling out neck feathers.  I’m not surprised Agnes is afraid of her!

Flora's bitThere’s a substantive difference between Flora’s attacks and those of the other bids.  The other hens will peck, will grab and pull feathers, even fly at each other feet first, but generally speaking, just enough to make their point.  Flora’s attacks are really aggressive, no-holds barred, with malice aforethought.  It became clear over the first half hour or so that if left to her own devices, Flora was going to injure one or more of the new birds, possibly seriously, so we decided to catch her and fit her with a bumper bit.

Bumper bit & pliersThis is a little plastic device which sits with a pair of prongs in the nostrils (a bit like the earpieces of a stethoscope), and has a flat bar across the mouth between the top and bottom beak and a ‘bumper’ type bar which wraps outside the mouth around the front of the beak.  By stopping the upper and lower beak coming together normally, it’s designed to prevent feather and skin pulling, and the ‘roll-bar’ in front of the point of the beak should stop her using this as a sharp weapon!

Flora wearing her bitIt’s the first time I’ve used a bit and it wasn’t a decision I made lightly.  While Flora can drink, and eat with the bit in, it does restrict her choices.  She can munch down on pellets and corn just as well as always, but grazing and preening are more difficult. Immediately after it was fitted, she was obviously aware of it and rather unhappy, she rubbed her beak on the floor and scratched at it with her feet.  But she’s settled with it now, and is foraging around the garden normally.

It hasn’t entirely disarmed her (or improved her temper!) – she’s still throwing her weight around – but the damage she’s able to inflict has been greatly reduced, as has the general level of anxiety amongst the other bids.  I’m hoping we can restrict the use of the bit to the shortest period of time we can – ideally a few days to a week or so – though we’ll have to see how the rest of the politics settle down.

Doris and Midge are going to be at the bottom of the new pecking order, but apart from the initial attacks from Flora, and the odd ‘establishment peck’ from the other hens, seem to have been mostly left alone for now.  I’ll be watching these two with particular concern when we house the girls this evening, as they may well get a rougher time when they haven’t got so many options for getting out of the way.

All the hens have been in and out of the open, now combined houses-and-runs.  Gertie seems particularly entranced by the new contraption-house!  We have two feeding stations and three drinkers in place at the moment to reduce unpleasantries associated with competition for resources.  The second house will be staying for now, as an option for any hens who don’t fancy running the gauntlet of the main coop!

Agnes enjoys a dust bath

Over all, mostly so far I’m startled by how well things have gone today.  It’s been a huge improvement on the last set of introductions – but then I learned a lot from that experience! I don’t for a minute believe that things will continue to go this smoothly, but it’s a really nice place to be starting from!

Stay tuned, folks, as the ‘clucking mayhem’ continues!

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Getting Clucky – welcome the new hens!

Three of my hens!I’ve kept hens for about three years now.  Until this week I still had three of my original four hybrid hens, but sadly on Monday Spot, my beautiful Rhode Rock (the black hen in this trio), passed away.  This was sad in itself, but also left me with three hens, one of whom (Gertie) hasn’t laid for some time, and the other two (Mabel, and younger hen Flora who came into the flock as a pullet last year) are moulting and won’t lay me anything for a few weeks at best – at worst they won’t think about it again until the days start to lengthen again.

Since my first four pullets came into lay, I haven’t bought a single box of commercial eggs (admittedly hen-keeping neighbours and colleagues have provided the occasional half dozen when my needs have exceeded my supply!).  So, I had an egg supply problem, and one that I didn’t want to solve by going back to retail eggs.  We thought about this for a while, and decided it was time to bring in a few more hens.

This wasn’t a decision we made lightly – last year, after losing Hazel, the first of my four original girls, we introduced two new pullets to our flock. The process was hugely stressful – hens can be vicious creatures, and it’s when when they turn nasty that you really see them for the tiny little feathered dinosaurs they are!  Flora and Daisy eventually settled well, but the introduction process was ghastly (and at times, brutal).  Sadly, we then lost Daisy tragically young last Christmas.

Dave welcomes the new girlsOn Thursday, I drove a 200 mile round trip to see a chicken supplier, Chris at Poultry Park in Newent, who I knew from our previous life in Gloucestershire.  I came home with three traditional breed birds – two hens, a Cream Legbar (Legbars lay blue eggs) and a Welsummer, both a year old and ‘retired’ breeding birds, and an 18 week old New Hampshire Red pullet.  Dave, our collie, was immediately intrigued by the new arrivals, and came very sweetly to say hello!

The new girlsThe new girls have moved into a run extension at the bottom of the old girls’ run.  The idea is to allow them some time to get used to the sight, sound, and smell of each other before introducing them to the same living space.  I tried the ‘short, sharp shock’ introduction approach last time, and wished I hadn’t, so it’s slowly-slowly this time.

The existing trio of hens were not impressed by the arrival of the new three girls, and Thursday afternoon was a chorus of sometimes angry chickeny-shouting in the garden.

First 'contraption' temporary hen-houseTheir first night, the new hens roosted in a ‘contraption’ of a henhouse we put together from an old cardboard box, a hedgerow stick, and a tarpaulin.  Necessity is the mother of invention, or so they say!  Anyway, the New Hampshire pullet (now called Midge) didn’t appreciate our efforts and decided to sleep out on the roof rather than inside the house with the other two!

Egg of brightest blueOn her very first afternoon with us, the Cream Legbar (now named Dorris) laid us an egg.  This egg.  A *blue* egg.  I’ve *always* coveted a hen that lays blue eggs.

If only it were all that simple, of course.  There’s a lot to do, yet, before the new girls can be settled in nicely with the existing trio.

New, improved 'contraption 2'On Friday evening, I got home to find my lovely husband half-way through building a new contraption out of the remains of an old laminate-chipboard office desk. I would have taken photographs, but it was getting late and we had to get the job done!  The new house is a huge improvement, much more robust and seems appreciated by all three girls, who are happily sleeping and (in the case of the adult hens) laying eggs inside it.

The three new girls are new to each other, too, of course – and with two of them being adult hens, there’s been some politics to work out.  Agnes, the Welsummer, is the biggest of the batch, and has decided to assert her authority.  This was all getting a bit nasty on Friday and by Saturday Dorris and Midge were looking a bit cowed, hiding away in the house with Agnes strutting about outside, or worse, guarding the pop-hole to the henhouse.

We resorted to applying some anti-peck spray to the neck and shoulder feathers of the two smaller hens.  They’ve also had several spells of free ranging time this weekend, and whether it’s that, or the slight re-arrangements we’ve also made to the space and the feeding arrangements, or just time passing, relationships seem a bit better and less stressed. By this evening with everyone was out in the run, eating and drinking and scratching around together and only occasional outbreaks of pecking-order politics.  Gertie, Mabel and Flora seem less on edge and more settled back in their normal daily routine, too. They’re even giving the odd egg!

Egg skelter

All seems relatively settled for now, and with Agnes also laying some gorgeous chocolate-brown eggs, after three years of hen keeping, finally, I’ve got the egg basket (well, egg-skelter) of my long-held dreams.  Yes, I know they all taste the same, but aren’t they beautiful?

I expect the next few weeks to involve more than their usual share of stresses and difficult moments – never a dull moment with pets and livestock!  I’ll keep you posted!

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Tinker and Try Again – second burn of the DIY cold smoker

It was obvious on the first burn of the DIY cold smoker that despite my best woodworking efforts (I do *not* possess joinery skills!) it leaked like a sieve from almost every edge and corner.  It was always going to be an iterative design process, so we broke out the mastic and panel pins and sealed the sides as best we could.  Then I cut and fixed batons along the edges of the slate roof to improve the seal between this and the sides of the smoker box.   After leaving it overnight for the mastic to go off, it was time for the second burn.

The morning dawned unconvincingly, grey damp and foggy.  Even the hens seemed unimpressed when I opened their pop door before turning my attention to getting the smoker set up for its second outing.

Smoker set for second burnI chose a mix of oak (~70%) and apple (~30%) dusts for my second burn.  In the smoker I had a whole side of cured salmon, my experimental Christmas bacon, a slab of cheddar, the bulb and a half of garlic from my first smoker run which hadn’t already been eaten, and a mix of already-smoked and unsmoked chillies.  Oh, and a little muslin bag of sea salt.  It was more or less full.

The smoker was greatly improved by the modifications, and breathed whisps of smoke out through the intended ventilation gap at the front steadily for about 11 hours.  The burn time was longer on this occasion, and I’m not sure whether that was due to the different mix of wood dusts or the weather (it stayed damp and foggy all day and never got above about 7 degrees celsius).  The apple smoke smelt wonderful, sweeter and softer than the 100% oak from the previous burn.

I plan to write more about the salmon in due course.  The bacon took the smoke very nicely and I’m very pleased with the results.  The garlic has definitely benefitted from a longer total time in the smoker, so I suspect I’ll batch garlic smoking to weekends I plan to run the smoker for two consecutive days to give a stronger smoke.

The cheese was a request from a friend, so we await the verdict!  As for the salt, it *smells* of smoke, though that may be the muslin.  I’m gratified that it doesn’t appear to smell of salmon at all.  It looks entirely unchanged – photos of caramel-brown smoked salt I’ve seen on other blogs aren’t the case here, though most of those have been hot-smoker efforts – but I look forward to tasting it soon!

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Smokin’!! DIY Cold Smoker – design and build

Time: 4 hours build time – Difficulty: Easy – Knackyness: Moderate (woodworking skills & equipment required)  – Cost: around £50

I’ve wanted to try cold smoking for a long time.  Hot smoking is an easily solved problem, modify a BBQ with a lid or some heavy duty tinfoil and add some woodchips, or even on the kitchen hob burning rice in an un-loved saucepan and steamer with the cooker hood running full pelt.  Hot smoked food is tasty enough, but though our American cousins have raised it to an art-form, I can’t get terribly excited about it.

Cold smoking, on the other hand, is far more interesting.  It requires more complicated equipment and, a bit like curing, feels like a sort of culinary alchemy.  The knack is to fill a space with sufficiently thick smoke for a long enough period to flavour your food, without raising the temperature so high that the food starts to cook, or worse, is at risk of spoilng.   Now someone observant once said, ‘no smoke without fire’, and therein lies the problem.  The internet, and the various books published on the subject, have a wide variety of different designs for low-cost home smokers.  The involve oil drums, modified fridges and filing cabinets, air conditioning duct, garden sheds, breeze blocks, and innumerable other approaches.  There are high tech ‘smoke generators’ and low tech fires in holes in the ground.  Then there are the purpose built smokers like the lovely-looking ones Bradley make, but they’re a bit outside my budget.

My smoker is a variation on a wooden box, and uses the ProQ cold smoke generator, which burns sawdust, as a smoke source.  I have built my smoker out of new wood, though I would have preferred to have used reclaimed wood – both on cost and ecological grounds.  If you are using reclaimed or scrap wood do make sure it’s clean and hasn’t been treated with any toxic wood preservatives.  The roof is a spare slate I happened to have, you may need to come up with something different. The structure is assembled from 2.5cm square section timber and covered with tongue-and-groove cladding, using various screws and fixings you are likely have in your toolbox.

What I bought to make the smoker –

  • The ProQ smoke generator and a few bags of wood dust
  • Set of 3 non-stick cooling racks (mine were from Amazon, but a cookshop would have similar products)
  • Four 2.5cm square 1.8m lengths of timber
  • Ten 1.8m lengths of tongue-and-groove cladding board
  • Four magnetic clips

I also used the following items I already had –

  • Wood saw, tape measure, screw driver
  • Electric drill and screwdriver, work bench (not essential, but useful)
  • Variety of screws, pins, fencing staples
  • A roof slate
  • Wood glue
  • Water-based shed stain

Smoker Frame

Smoker frame, size relative to rack

Dimensions of the smoker are 1.1m high at the front, 1.0m high at the back.  The width and depth are based on the size of the racks you want to use.

First, build the frame.  It will probably look something like this (note it is slightly narrower than the width of the rack.  Secure the horizontal timbers with long wood screws.

Frame showing slots for racksSlot the front vertical timbers to hold the racks.  The choice of spacings is yours, I placed a slot about every 15cm from about 40cm above the ground.  We cut the slots with a large drill bit and tidied up with a chisel.  There’s a bit of hit-and-miss here and while all the slots are not equally beautiful, they should do the job.  You could also slot the back timbers, but we decided to use small screws here with their heads proud to support the back of the racks,  also preventing backward and forward slip.  The highest slot is positioned to allow a rack to rest on the side timbers to take the weight of items hanging from it on hooks.

Applying claddingNext cover the back and sides with cladding going from floor level all the way to the top of the frame, including the triangle sections at the top of the sides.  I glued the tongue and groove for extra stability.  You could equally use plywood to clad the box.  We used fencing staples to secure the cladding to the frame.  Panel pins would be more traditional.

Complete smoker - openI want the whole front of the smoker box to be removable, in two sections – a large top section to allow me to load and unload the smoker racks and hooks, and a small bottom strip to allow management and monitoring of the smoke generator without letting all the smoke ‘escape’ from the box during use.  I built the main panel and secured it with three strips of 1cm baton.  The top and bottom baton positions are chosen to rest on the horizontal timbers forming the front of the structure, taking the weight of the front panel.  Four magnetic clips hold the front panel snugly in place.  The angle of the roof will allow a 1cm ventilation gap above the front panel.  A final length of cladding is used horizontally for the bottom section.

Complete smoker - closedFixing the roof will depend on your materials.  For the time being my slate just rests carefully on top, in due course we’ll come up with some sort of clip arrangement.  A plywood roof could be screwed in place.  I’m going to use a knackered old baking tray on the floor of the smoker to catch ash and any drips from the food.

The outside of the smoker will be painted with water based fence and shed stain.  The inside will not be painted, and I hope that with time exposure to smoke should provide a good seal to these surfaces.

Next, the first very experimental firing…  I can hardly wait!

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