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.

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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In A Flap – flip-flop denim fabric strap upcycle

The flip-flops.Summer is here (or so they say!). And whether you call them thongs or flip-flops, the three-point strap sandal is a mainstay of hot weather footwear. While I was getting a few bits and bobs in town the other day, I saw these fun flip-flops on a sale rack. I really want to like flip-flops, but I’m afraid they don’t like me! I can’t walk 100 yards in flip-flops with rubber or plastic toe posts without getting the most awful blisters between my toes. Ouchie!

Chop off the strapsSo those straps were going to have to go. There’s always something faintly satisfying about a spot of wanton destruction, isn’t there? Push the straps through the sole and chop them off with a pair of stout scissors. Congratulations, you’ve taken a pair of perfectly good, new flip flops and rendered them completely useless. Time to get mending!

I was planning to make fabric straps for these flip-flops out of some recycled cotton jersey, but I couldn’t find anything in my old-clothes stash in an appropriate colour. What I did find was a pair of Hubby’s old jeans. On reflection, denim seemed like a rather great idea, and the colour was a good match for the psychedelic print on the soles, too.

Of course denim poses some problems that cotton jersey doesn’t, not least in it’s tendency to fray extensively.  It’s also not famous for its stretchy characteristics, which means sizing will need to be more accurate, but I was pretty sure these were things that could be overcome.

Rough cutFirst up, I rough cut a broad and a narrow strap for a ‘test fit’. The narrow strap is tied in a reef knot around the wide strap and acts as the toe post. Push the straps gently through the holes and support them temporarily with safety pins while you offer up the sizing.  I tried the sandal on at this stage and showed it to Hubby to see what he thought. His verdict, ‘they’re quite, erm, rustic…’ felt a little bit short of an unqualified recommendation!

The principle seemed sound, though this mock-up stage proved one thing, which was that the narrow toe straps were literally going to fray away to nothing, and really quite quickly, too. Some reinforcement was going to be needed to avoid the whole thing coming apart!

Now, my sewing machine is a really very basic beast, more or less does straight stitch, zig-zag, not much else. But it has a rather neglected set of ‘special stitches’, one of which I admit I’ve never used in anger before today – it’s a sort of faintly-decorative compound zig-zag, which looked like it might do dual purpose for fray control while not being entirely unattractive! Well, it was worth a shot. A trial run on a narrow strap confirmed that I could run a length of the stitching, and then pull away the stray threads before trimming quite tight to the stitch line. The result seemed quite stable and robust. Excellent!

Rectangle of denimI chopped a rough rectangle of denim out of the leg of hubby’s discarded jeans. They were very well worn by the time they reached the end of their working life, so the denim is gorgeous and soft.

Cut the wide strapsUsing a ruler and cutting wheel, I sliced two wide straps 3cm wide, and two narrow straps about 1cm in width. If you don’t have a cutting wheel, mark the back and cut carefully, especially for the narrow straps.

I decided to go with a contrasting colour for the stitching to make a decorative detail out of it, and loaded up the machine with some bright yellow cotton.

With stitching completeEach wide strap takes two rows of stitches, as close as possible to the edges. The narrow straps get one row of stitches straight up the middle. If your machine doesn’t do a stitch like this, then a sensible width zig-zag is probably a good compromise.

Pull away your the threadsOnce the stitching is done, tease away at the threads outside the sewing, and gently pull it away until it ‘sticks’ in the stitching. Then, using a really sharp pair of scissors, trim the loose threads to within about 1mm of the edge of the stitching. This is all a little bit time consuming, but worth it in the end!

Now, all your straps are made, and ready to be assembled.

Straps complete before assembly

Fit the straps to the sandalTie the narrow straps in a reef knot around the approximate mid-point of the wide strap, and then feed all the ends through the appropriate holes. My denim isn’t an even colour because of the wear on it, so I used the darker end for the outside hole on both sandals, and the lighter end on the inside.

Straps on sole-sideThis is the experimental trying-on bit of the process. Adjust the straps until they’re all the right length and the fit is comfortable, using safety pins on the underside if necessary. Once you’ve know how long your straps need to be, it’s time to work out how to retain them. I’d considered the ‘tie a knot in it’ approach, and that seemed likely to work ok with the narrow toe strap, but didn’t seem as plausible for the thick straps.

Instead, I had a dig about in my button box and found six small stout little white buttons, just the right size for the recessed gaps in the bottom of the sandals.

For the toe strap, join both halves together with a horizontal row of stitches, before fixing the button between them, then trim the ends with about a cm spare and fold the straps over, securing the ends down again as firmly as you can.

Fixing toe strap (1)  Fixing toe strap (2)  Fixing toe strap (3)

For the broad straps, start by identifying the attachment point you need, secure your thread firmly and then sew the button into the centre of the strap. Trim the strap and then sew the corners down over the button, before securing the strap below the button into a round shank, wrapping a few times with the thread to help you hold the shape.

Fixing wide strap (1)  Fixing wide strap (2)  Fixing wide strap (3)

In essence, that’s it. Make the second sandal the same way, trying to get the strap lengths to match.

Finished straps

If you were just going to wear them indoors, you could probably leave it at that. I had in mind using a blob of hot glue both beneath and finally on top of the strap and button assembly to secure and stabilise the lot, and add some waterproofing and abrasion resistance to stop the first rough floor surface wearing the thread away and letting all the hard work come apart again. But then I remembered that I’ve finally got my hands on some Sugru, so I think I’m going to use a blob of that over the top (and possibly a cuff underneath) as the rubber texture seems likely to be nicely compatible with the rest of the sole. I’ll post final photos once I’ve done this (in the next few days, all being well!).

Finished sandals with home-made denim straps

I can think of some possible variations (and having done this ‘make’, some I wish I’d thought of before I started!). Satin or grosgrain ribbon would make great straps (you’d want a matching pair in 25mm and 6mm widths, I would guess, and a metre of each will be plenty) – and might even be quite ‘dressy’, with the right choice colour and plain dark-coloured sandals.  I suspect – though I haven’t tried this, so if you do, please let me know! – that you could just tie knots in the ends of the ribbons, embed the knots in a little ball of  Sugru, and just sort of ‘squidge’ it into the recesses in the sole, reducing the whole make to a five or ten minute job.  Hot glue would probably work pretty much the same, too (but don’t burn your fingers)! Next time I see a set of dirt cheap flip-flops in a pound shop or market, I’m definitely giving this variation a try!

I’m really thrilled with this, actually. These sandals are *comfortable*, and they look pretty cool too, though I say so myself. I’m definitely planning to take them on holiday, and I shan’t be one bit embarrassed by them by the pool – the finished effect is certainly more ‘handcrafted’ than ‘homemade’. So do give this a try, and please, let me know how you get on?

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Simple Summer Sewing – make a quick, cheap, pretty beach and pool cover-up

I can’t take the credit for the idea here – I’d seen a photo of something similar on Pinterest some time ago, and tracked instructions on the ‘Vie en Rose’ blog (and you should go and take a look at these, the rest of the post will make a lot more sense!) at the time. Then I more or less forgot about it until I started thinking about what to pack for our summer holiday. It seemed the perfect alternative to a sarong, easier to wear and a bit more ‘shaped’.

So I picked up some remaindered floral print cotton jersey on Ebay for about a fiver, and got started with it on my day off a week or two ago.  I’d offered up a sarong to get an idea of how wide a piece of fabric I needed, and came to the conclusion that the ‘ideal’ size was about 10cm wider than the width of fabric I had.  Slightly irritating.

Rather than chop a lengthwise section from my 2.5m length (seemed wasteful!), I decided to take a punt on the 1.6m width and hope the bit of stretch in the jersey and the inherent ‘forgivingness’ of the pattern would let me get away with it.  This decision rather forced my hand in terms of hemming – no spare fabric for this, and worse, I was going to have to use the selvedge, rather than trimming it, too. I know, I know, two cardinal sins of sewing and dressmaking just there. But do bear with me, this is quick and cheerful stuff, but the result is surprisingly good!!

Decide roughly how long you want your wrap, measuring from about armpit length downwards, and make this the width of your piece of jersey fabric.  Make sure all the edges are nice and straight as you cut your piece, as these will be your finished edges. I used a cutting mat and roller for speed and convenience, but you could manage carefully with fabric scissors.

Shape the armsThe only piece of shaping required is around the arm holes. I used a strappy top I own as a reference template. Line it up at the top of the ‘body’ and mark out the arm shape. If you fold the fabric in half, you can cut both sides together, so they’ll be symmetrical.

Cut the arm shapingMark (this is the reverse side!) with a pen or pencil. Then just cut carefully along the mark.

Now it’s just a question of working out how to attach a for each shoulder. I measured the strappy top from where I’d stopped shaping the arm hole, up to the seam at the top of the shoulder, and then back down to the seam at the underarm.

Measure for the strapsThis gave me a length of about 40cm as an estimate for the strap length. The blog tutorial I found made braided straps, and you could certainly do this.  I had my sewing machine conveniently to hand, so it was just as quick to make tubes – I cut two lengths about 2.5cm wide and 40 cm long, sewed along the length with right sides together, trimmed the seam allowance and then turned them carefully the right way out.  This was actually pretty fiddly and time consuming, but I think gives a nice finish.

Straps sewn in placeOnce your straps are ready, safety pin them in place and try on your cover up. This will allow you to adjust the strap length to suit your preferences (I shortened mine by about 5cm in the end).  Now, I can see no reason at all to post photos of myself in my bathing suit on the internet, so you’ll have to refer to the original tutorial for fitting photographs. Once you’ve decided on the right strap length, hand sew the straps in place firmly.

If you’re using a solid coloured fabric, this should give a pretty nice finish, but you can see with my contrasting print it’s all rather scruffy!  But it’s done. Try it on and flounce about in it a bit, pretending to be standing by a beach bar somewhere delightfully tropical.

Buttons!I wasn’t quite happy with the strap sewing, so I gave it some thought. Eventually it was a colleague who suggested buttons, which were an inspired solution.  I had a dig around, eventually found my button box, and excavated these four pretty little off-black beauties.

Strap with buttons in placeSewn in place over the strap joins, they completely conceal my scruffy sewing.  Hurray!

I’ve considered shaping the short edges on a slight angle to cut away the worst of the selvedge, but although I know it’s there, it really isn’t obvious, so I’ll probably leave it for now. If it annoys me later, I’ve always got the option!

Finished beach wrapWell, there it is! I’m really pleased with it, I think it’ll work beautifully as a cover-up over swim wear, for the beach of the pool this summer.  It’s such a quick ‘make’, not sure I agree with the ’20 minute’ assertion, but certainly well under an hour, all told. And all for well under a fiver. Practical summer style on a serious budget!

Fun crochet beach bagIncidentally, I’ve also finished the crochet beach bag I was working on a few weeks ago. I’ll  do a full tutorial at some stage when I re-make it (there were a few details I got wrong with this one that I’d like to do right next time!), but I’m still pretty thrilled with it, it’ll do very nicely by the pool this summer with plenty of space for a paperback, the sunscreen, sunglasses, and of course the cover up!

I’m feeling rather excited about the summer now… Bring it on!

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Easily Hooked – oops, I seem to have taken up crochet!

We had so much to do in the garden this weekend, but the weather hasn’t been friendly!  At least we managed to get the turf cleared from the unpromising rectangle of old ridge & furrow grass which is to be my experimental cut flower patch – watch this space for more (and photos!) in due course.  The greenhouse seedlings continue to thrive, though I’m struggling to believe the tomato seedlings are ever going to grow up big and strong enough to fruit! This time of year in the garden is always a mix of hope and doubt, without much to show yet for our efforts!

Stormy spring beech tree

But it’s raining, and there’s nothing to be done outside for the time being!

I hate to have my hands unoccupied (stop giggling there in the back!) so I suppose it was only a matter of time before I gave in and took up crochet.  Many years ago (half a lifetime, really!) I learned to knit, got good enough at it to make myself a jumper, and mastered some fiddly cable work, but it never really grabbed me.  I’ve always been impressed by the flexibility of crochet work, the variety of shapes and textures which crochet seemed to be able to achieve compared to two-needle yarn craft.  And then, about three weeks ago, by chance, I stumbled over the first part of a learn-to-crochet part-work magazine, complete with a 3.5mm hook, two balls of yarn, and a guide to basic stitches. All for 99p.

Well, I couldn’t resist. I started tinkering with a few stitches and patterns from the starter pack.  I did a bit of playing and made a little round basket out of some jute garden twine, just to see if I could.  It’s the simplest thing, with just a circle of double crochet stitches for the base, made without turning, and sides the same, but turned between rows, picking up only the front loop of the  V to add a horizontal stripe.

Jute basket bottom    Jute Basket inside    Jute basket detail with twine

It makes a lovely coaster for the bottle-cut vase I made a few weeks ago, using the bottle cutting jig I made last year.  Better still, it was surprisingly easy to make, despite the less than promising choice of yarn!

Jute basket with bottle vase

So that was it, really, I was hooked.  Obviously a single hook and a big ball of garden twine wasn’t going to get me very far, so I scurried off to the internet for a few supplies (oops!) – a couple of books for inspiration, a lucky-dip selection of yarns, and of course a set of different sized hooks.  I was good to go!

What do you make first but a scarf? Of course!

Crochet scarfI’m really happy with my first effort, the pattern is from Sue Whiting’s ‘The Crochet Bible’, which has served me really well as a crochet primer so far!  For a complete novice it was a nice simple project which gave a pleasingly complex-looking result, and came together over the course of just over a week.  I used a heather-coloured yarn I got in my mystery-pack, and I’m thrilled with the result.  The photo doesn’t quite do it justice, it’s not as blue as that!

Dave kindly offered to model it for you all, so you can see it a bit more clearly. (He continues to do very well, thank you for asking!)

Dave the dog

Of course, I couldn’t stop at just the one project.  The current one is straight out of my own head, a crochet string-bag for the summer – I think it would be great for a day at the beach.  I’ve used two of the colours of yarn in my lucky-dip pack that I think I’d struggle to wear – an orange that can only be described as ‘health & safety high-viz’ and a bright sunny lemon yellow.  I’m after a relaxed, cool, hippy-ethnic look, and I think we’re headed in the right direction – more photos, and instructions, once it’s finished, but here’s a sneak-peek of the work in progress..!

String bag - work in progress

Finally, some sad news this weekend from my hens – Gertie, my white hen, and the final member of my original hybrid quartet, went the way of all things on Saturday.  So RIP, dear Gertie.  All good things come to an end…  There’s always been a white hen in my hen-house.  I feel rather bereft.

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Growing and Healing – back after an unscheduled break from blogging

So the blog’s been quiet for a bit! Sorry about that! I feel like I owe you all a bit of an explanation, so here goes – 

Back at the end of March, Hubby and I set off for a well-earned holiday, our annual-if-we-can-manage it ski trip.  We left my lovely in-laws looking after the house, garden, Dave the dog and the gaggle of poultry. A few days into our holiday, news came that Dave wasn’t well.  We tried not to worry – after all, we were almost half-way around the world, and there wasn’t anything we could do from there – he was in good hands and had been to the vets.  The days went by and rather than getting better, he was getting sicker.  By Easter weekend, he was in the hospital on a drip, having refused food for most of a week. By the time we arrived home the following week, he’d been admitted to a specialist referral centre – they were concerned that his liver might be failing, and didn’t know why.

We both hate to leave Dave and had been looking forward to the joyous welcome-home he normally gives us.  Instead the house was silent. We went to visit him at the referral hospital and he barely had the strength to give us a squeak of greeting.  A few more days went by, and after a CT scan which yielded a few answers, perhaps – ruled out some really sinister possibilities anyway – and a plan, kind of, he was fitted with a feeding tube.  Meanwhile, in a silent house, we were both struggling to keep our heads above water.  Times like this, if there were ever any doubt, we know what these creatures we invite into our lives truly mean to us.  I wonder if they understand how much they’re loved.

Dave with his feeding tubeAfter five day with the specialists, still not eating for himself but being fed through a tube inserted through the skin of his neck and into his oesophagus, Dave came home for us to care for.  He was incredibly weak and I really feared we wouldn’t be able to bring him back to health.

But one pill at a time, one liquidised-feed at a time, his strength returned and he started to eat for us again.  A week and a half ago his feeding tube came out, and he has continued to do better in the days since.  He’s still taking a pharmacy full of medication, and looks like a patchwork dog with all the hair that was clipped off to allow investigation and treatment, but over the last few days I finally feel like we’re getting our wonderful, beloved dog back, and while there are never any guarantees in this life, we have hope, and real joy.

Dave enjoying the sunshine

Some of you have been following the saga of Dave dog’s illness on twitter, and I would like to thank you all from the very bottom of my heart for your kind words and thoughts over these past few very difficult weeks.  They’ve been an immense source of strength and comfort, and have meant the world to me.

Of course, it’s a truism that whatever our personal turmoil, time doesn’t stand still.

It’s spring! At last! It really did feel like the winter that would never end! And while the blog has been quiet, we’ve still been very busy.

Dave the dogThe greenhouse we built in March is now stuffed full of seed trays and little emerging seedlings.  It has been performing wonderfully, and the automatic opening vent – a birthday present for myself and admittedly a bit of an indulgence – has been working brilliantly and prevented it becoming a seedling-cooking device on sunny days when we’re not around!  Incidentally, the giant climbing triffid in the foreground is one of my hop plants, grown from a bare root rhizome this year. It’s quite something, isn’t it!

Vegetable bedsOutside, we’ve almost finished sorting out the vegetable beds, and the potatoes are planted.  Now I just need to get a bed prepared for the cutting flower patch I’m experimenting with this year!

My window ledges are packed with chillies, tomatoes, and other things too tender yet to survive in the unheated greenhouse.  I’m hoping we’ve now had the last of the really cold nights and they may be able to go into the greenhouse in the next few days.

Chilli seedlingsI’m especially pleased with my chilli plants, despite an initial disaster (top tip here – don’t take your beautiful heated-propagator-raised chilli seedings outside on even a lovely sunny early March afternoon to prick out and pot on), the survivors, and second sowing are now thriving. I’ve grown two varieties – ‘Vampire’ (the purple-leaved ones in this photo) and ‘Twilight’ this year.  What is it about naming chilli varieties, incidentally???

Seedlings for the cut flower patchStarting these seedlings, and waiting for them to grow, has been the most amazing therapy and displacement activity against the stresses and worries of the past few weeks.  Seeing them start to grow and thrive is always such a great source of faith and hope for the year to come, but this year it’s felt particularly poignant somehow!

Oh, and I seem to have accidentally taken up crochet… more of which, no doubt, another day!

Thanks for your patience in the hiatus, folks, and I’m hoping that more normal (and frequent) blogging service will now be resumed!

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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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Light ‘Em Up – candles in Christmas trees – Blog Advent (20)

Like Scrooge, we’re all haunted, a little bit, by the ghosts of our Christmases past.  In my ‘Blog Advent’ post on December 6, I wrote a little about my memories of St Nicholas, from the time I spent growing up in Switzerland as a young child.  These were my formative Christmas memories, so of course I hark back to them every year.

A very Swiss tree

One tradition which is still widely practiced in Switzerland and Germany – and not at all, in the UK – is the habit of putting real candles in domestic Christmas trees.  I love this – it feels so utterly ‘proper’ and festive to me!  Yes, of course it’s a fire risk – but so is any lit candle or open fire.  Our neighbours, in the small Swiss village where we lived, seemed to manage to avoid setting fire to their houses every year!

Tree candlesHubby is very British about this – the whole idea seems to him like a huge fire hazard just waiting to burst into a ball of flames.  I asked him to suggest a title for this post and his suggestion ‘Flaming Torch of Christmas Death!’ rather sums up his position on the issue!  It’s not so black and white, to me – after all, people were managing to set fire to their living rooms with the small incandescent Christmas tree lightbulbs well into the 21st century.

But all good relationships are about compromise, so while I wait for him to come around to my way of thinking (this, folks, may well be some time!) I picked up these pretty hanging baubles designed to take tea light candles.  Rather than equip them with a naked flame, I’ve used some LED tea lights which, while not *quite* convincingly the real deal, flicker gently with a warm golden light, and, at least out of the corner of your eye, might just be little candle flames in my tree.

Compromise candles

Not many days left on the advent candle, either!  I had so many bits and pieces I wanted to get done today – my last weekday off between now and Christmas – but instead I spent most of it gently nursing this nasty cold.  Here’s hoping it’s gone by the weekend!

Advent - day 20

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Life’s A Beach – driftwood decorations – Blog Advent (19)

It feels like a very long time since we were on the beach in Cornwall with Dave, back in October!  Dave adores the beach – the seaside is his favourite ever place.

Dave on the beach

After he was done posing for his portrait (well, doesn’t the backdrop suit him??), I indulged in a spot of beach combing along the strand line, and collected up some pieces of driftwood. Only small lengths, the longest was about 8 inches long.  They had to fit in my pocket!

Driftwood Christmas tree

I put them together into this small driftwood Christmas tree.  It’s lashed together with jute twine, a bit like the twig and twine star decorations I made earlier this month.  If you wanted it a bit more solid, it would be simple to add a blob of hot glue or other adhesive between the ‘stem’ and the ‘branches’ before wrapping with twine or ribbon in whatever decorative way you favour.  It makes a very pretty hanging decoration – I’ve got it on the end of a bookcase in the hall.

The scale is a question only for your imagination and your driftwood supply!  I had visions of making a tree a couple of feet high, possibly hanging, with a thick piece of jute rope threaded through a drilled hole in the centre of each of the driftwood branches.  An idea for the future, perhaps – I need to live a lot closer to the sea!

Advent - day 19

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Take Your Medicine – my perfect hot toddy – Blog Advent (18)

One of the Christmas traditions I don’t relish, but seem to ‘enjoy’ every year all the same, is my traditional pre-Christmas cold!  Well, it’s here again, and almost perfectly on schedule! You have to look for the silver lining at times like this, and the up-side of a filthy winter cold is the perfect excuse for a beautiful hot toddy.  It’s medicinal, honest!

Toddy ingredients

My toddy is whisky based.  But don’t use your best single malt – if your nasal passages are as stuffed up as mine, there’s no chance of you knowing the difference!  You also need some honey, a lemon, a few cloves, three or four whole allspice berries, and a cinnamon stick.  Oh, and some hot water.

Cut two thin slices from your lemon and stud each with a couple of cloves.  Put these in your glass (I use a big red wine glass which I know can take the heat – they’re the glasses I use for mulled wine – but a tumbler or a glass with a handle are more traditional!) along with your allspice berries and cinnamon stick.  From what’s left of your lemon, cut a wedge amounting to about a quarter of a lemon and squeeze the juice into the glass.  Add two teaspoons of the honey (more or less to taste – that’s my personal preference) and a double measure of whisky, and stir with your cinnamon stick until combined.

Now top up with water from the kettle, which you’ve allowed to go just off the boil.   If you’re not *that* keen on cinnamon, take the stick out at this point, otherwise leave all the whole spices in.  Stick your nose in the glass and breathe deeply – you should be able to appreciate the spicy aromatic hit through even the thickest head cold.  Then sip, and enjoy.  All the Christmas spices with a bonus dose of vitamin C, and some lovely soothing whisky.  Drink it while it’s still piping hot.

How could something that tastes so wonderful fail to be good for you???   You know, I think I may be poorly enough that I need to take a second dose!

Advent - day 18

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The Icing On The Cake – how I decorate my Christmas cake – Blog Advent (17)

Christmas cake is a real ‘anchor’ for me, one of those food experiences that connects back, right through my life and my family history.  I wrote a bit last year about how baking the cake takes me back, every year.  I learned my cake from my grandmother – she learned it from Delia! – and I’ve only ever baked it and decorated it this one way.

The Icing On The Cake

After it’s been baked, usually some time in early November, I wrap it up in a few layers of greaseproof paper and stash it away in a tin. To keep it happy, it gets a tot of booze every week or so.  For the last few years I’ve baked it with, and then fed it on calvados (French apple brandy), because I think it adds an extra lovely fruity note compared to the traditional sort.

Before dressingOnce it’s nicely sozzled, and in time for Christmas, it’s time to get it all dressed up in its party frock!  More years than I can count, I’ve ended up decorating the cake on Christmas Eve – but I’ve been a bit better organised this year (well, OK, I wanted to make sure it was all ready in case someone fancied a slice this weekend!).

Brushing on the jamI ice my cake in two layers, first a nice thick layer of marzipan, and then a layer of royal icing.  Finally, the cake gets a decorative marzipan poinsettia to top it off.

First, to make sure the marzipan sticks down securely, I brush the cake with melted apricot jam, slightly loosened with some water and warmed in a pan on the hob.  A desert spoon of jam or so is plenty.  Brush it on generously with a pastry brush.  This is home-made jam, so has some big chunks of apricot in it, which isn’t a problem, just work around them and leave them in the pan!

Rolled out marzipanNow roll out your marzipan.  Mine was bought (sorry!) nice golden marzipan.  There’s about a kilo here. When working with marzipan, use icing sugar to dust down your surfaces and rolling pin, the same way you’d use flour when working with bread or pastry. Roll the marzipan out to the thickness you prefer, and make sure that it’s plenty bigger than the cake and sides in all directions.

Lay the marzipan overI know the baking aficionados on telly would have you apply your marzipan in two pieces – a round piece for the top of the cake, and a long thin band around the side.  I can’t see any reason to do this, for this cake at least – if you’re careful it’s possible to get a perfect layer with a one-piece approach.  In fact, the only merit I can see to the two-piece approach would be if you’re trying to get a sharp, 90 degree edge between the top and sides of your cake – in which case you’ve already started by cutting the top off – what a waste!  Gently place the big, rolled out piece of marzipan straight over the centre of the cake.

With sides flushNow, very gently, using the palms of your hands (dusted with icing sugar as required) push the ‘skirts’ inwards, towards the sides of the cake.  As you can see, I managed to get it all to sit snugly against the side of the cake.  But if you muck it up and get folds?  Just trim off the excess marzipan from the fold with a sharp knife, and stick the edges back together using a little bit of tap water.  The icing will conceal a multitude of sins!

Marzipan - doneTrim off the excess marzipan. I used the edge of the board as a cutting guide.  This sounds a bit generous, but it’s about the distance you want to leave.  I’ve over-trimmed in the past, and had to add extra marzipan back, so I now subscribe to the adage that you can always cut more later!  Once cut, gently nudge the marzipan in towards the base of the cake all around.  Anywhere you have an excess of marzipan, trim a bit more at this stage. You’ll be surprised how little there is, though.  Wrap up any extra marzipan you have left over tightly in cling film, and store in the fridge.

Ideally, let the marzipan dry out for a couple of days before applying the icing, though I’ve done it all in one night from time to time when necessary!  This gap is supposed to reduce the oiliness in the marzipan to reduce the risk of this ‘striking through’ and discolouring the icing.  I’m not sure how or whether this works, to be honest, and I’d love to say I’ve noticed a difference.  But I had time this year, so I gave it the 48 hours.

Royal icing ingredientsMy royal icing is made up of 3 large egg whites (I weigh my home-produced eggs and compare them to the egg size guide for this sort of cooking, since obviously they don’t come out of the hens graded!) 500g of icing sugar, and a teaspoon of glycerine.  I have forgotten the glycerine once or twice – it’s not a disaster if you can’t get any, but doing so does mean the icing sets very hard, so mind your dentures!

Whisk icingStart by spooning your icing sugar into your egg whites a bit at a time, stirring as you go.  It will look horrible and lumpy until right at the end, so don’t despair. Once it’s all incorporated, and you have a heavy gloppy-sort of consistency, start beating the mix with an electric whisk.  You really do want the electric whisk for this job – trust me, I’ve made royal icing with just a hand whisk one year, it’s *incredibly* hard work! – and ideally, if you have one, use your stand mixer.

Stiff peaksEven with an electric whisk it will take about ten minutes to get to the consistency you want, and I found that even with a handheld whisk I tended to get to the ‘I’m bored, sod it, that’ll do’ stage before the mix was really done!

Stir through glycerineYou’re after ‘stiff peaks’, which roughly means that the icing stays in whatever shape you place it in.  If you stop the whisk, you’ll get an idea pretty quickly by watching what happens to the ripples in the icing, which should be very stable.  You can test this by raising some peaks with the point of a knife, or your spatula.  If they stay there, you’re done.  Add your spoon of glycerine and stir this through the mix.  It adds a lovely shine to the icing.

Now, start slapping it onto the cake.

Apply the icing 1  Apply the icing 2  Apply the icing 3

Rough is good – you’re after a ‘snow scene’ effect, though I’ll be honest and say I’ve never seen a snow scene quite like this!

Store extra icingStill, it’s what my grandmother’s cake looked like, so it is with mine!  Once you’re happy you have a good covering, spoon any extra icing into a small plastic bag, and tie this off securely, excluding all air, and stick this bag in the fridge for later.  The icing now needs to set for at least 24 hours.  Then, it’s time for the final flourish.  For me, it has to be a poinsettia pattern in marzipan, but you could just as easily add holly leaves & berries, or even a Christmas tree, using a very similar approach.

Colouring your marzipanDig out the surplus marzipan from the fridge, and divide it into uneven thirds (two larger, one smaller).  Dye the two larger portions red and green using food colouring.  I find putting a sheet of cling film down on the kitchen counter when playing with food dye seriously simplifies the clean-up.  Also use plenty of icing sugar to stop things sticking.

Coloured marzipanIt was around this point that I remembered that last year, I’d made a mental note to try to find some better food colouring – I’m sure the food colouring my grandmother had only ever took a couple of drops, I seemed to have to ladle this stuff in by the spoonful!   Mind you, it was probably full of nasty artificial colours we’re not allowed to use these days…   You’ll get there eventually, even if your food dye is as wimpy as mine, and have the building blocks of your final decoration.

Prepare your leavesRoll out your green marzipan, and cut out a first set of six poinsettia leaves (or however many holly leaves, whatever you fancy).  I do this freehand, but you could easily cut make yourself a paper or card template.  Snip the corner off the bag of royal icing, and you have a little prepared piping bag.  Blob a little onto the centre of the cake and use it to glue down your leaves.  Then carry on with the red leaves, in much the same way. Finally, finish with some plain yellow berries in the centre.

Add green leaves  ... then red...  and finish with berries

Dab the marzipan with a damp piece of kitchen paper to remove any loose icing sugar, and finish with a ribbon, if you like.

That’s it, all done!  Round about now, I get to feel quite proud, very Christmassy, and revel in the connection to decades of family Christmas tradition.

Advent - day 17

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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