Monthly Archives: August 2018


The new clay oven, powered by a small resurrected ceramic space heater/blower donated by E’s cold feet at the office.

I built a new oven for plastecine clay. I have hundreds of pounds of medium red (mixed with some hard red) that needs to be warm to be pliable, then cools and firms up. Warming it up with hand friction was how I worked the clay for years, then a friend in engineering gave me a unit he had thrown together to melt hard clay that I used ever since to warm my medium clay (shown at the end of the post). I often forgo using the old problematic heater, and my hands can’t take the abuse of creating friction to warm the clay, so I needed to get creative with a custom design. This oven is a great improvement over my old unit, as it will evenly heat the clay and hold it at a workable temperature, and with a 24 x 24 inch shelf I can load in a lot of clay.


The drawer gets loaded up with clay and slid closed, the heater sits below out of the way of the drawer. The drawer has an underside gap on each end, so the blower will circulate the air back out the front and not overheat. 


The steel drawer slides on the narrow wooden rails, and rests on the side rails. The clay will be heavy, so the rails extend out beyond the box and over the footing for the heater. The rest of the wooden structure is inside the box, with feet and rails outside the bottom of the box.


The foam wall is held in place by a welded steel frame. I have since skinned the expanded steel in a finer mesh of aluminum, and added a a foam bumper to the rear to keep clay from rolling off the back when pulling the drawer out.


The new and old clay oven. The old oven was thrown together by an engineering student at the U to melt hard clay for building an aerodynamic bicycle shell- he gave me his clay and the box back in 2000. I added the wood frame around it and a “window” to see if the heat lamp was on or off. 


This has warmed up hundreds and hundreds of lbs of clay, and helped warm students’ clay for my figure sculpture classes up at the U. 


The heat lamp ensures that the clay is either cold or molten, sometimes both; the top of the clay goes to an untouchable blistering sweat while the bottom of the same piece is still hard and cold. This meant a lot of babysitting the clay, and occasional fully liquified trays of clay.  


Tankless water heater not to blame for bad pipe venting.

I’ve been heading downstairs in the morning after E leaves for work to take care of our cat, Voices, who is in kitty prison for marking around the house. I’d noticed a bit of an exhaust smell a few times, and logged it in the wtf area of my brain under Tankless Water Heater (of course, Carbon Monoxide is odorless). Yesterday morning was particularly bad, and we ran the dishwasher in the evening and had to open the basement windows so the whole-house-fan could dissipate the gasses (none of our CO sensors beeped, but whatever).  After clearing the water filtration drop-valve (the only diy warranty maintenance on the tankless system), I googled for venting and found the solution. A plumber on you-tube shows exactly how bad installations lead to exhaust blowing back into the house; and how to fix it with Aluminum tape- assuming that everything else is done right. Ours is not done right, but AL tape triage (after cutting a bit more of the drywall ceiling away to reach around the tubing) is the fix it gets for now.


This galvanized tube needed Aluminum heat tape. It should be stainless steel tube with sealed fittings, and the top run should slope downward by a degree or so to the outside to keep condensation from running back into the vent tubing and possibly ruining the tankless system. It is at a straight 90 degree bend snugged up against the floor above, and there was some condensation damage to the tubing.


The system had huge gaps where the pipes sleeved into one another (which is beyond stupid construction work from the original installation), and water staining and pinholes from condensation rolling back into the house. I could feel (and smell) the exhaust blowing down into the room when running hot water. It must always have had some exhaust blowing back in, and the whole house fan probably backdrafts the system. Maybe when the heater fan turns off and the system is cycling, then the whole house fan pulls all the latent gasses into the house. something like that anyway.


In June I replaced the big brass fitting on the R- it is the water pressure gauge, and had begun to drip, then spray a fine mist. This gauge should be placed after the piping for outside water, but no, we regulate the pressure for the yard. So that needs resolved. Turns out we also filter the water for the yard as well, which is the blue unit. It had no filter in it, so I picked one up and installed it. This unit is supposed to be placed in line with the tankless water heater as a pre-filter just for the heater.


Still not right plumbing wise, but at least not trying to kill us any more.


My next project demands that I safeguard these two residents of the house; our friendly garter snakes (introduced a few blogs prior). I’m gonna wreck their little haven to save the house.


The snake is slithering along the concrete footer added sometime mid 20th century. He just emerged from under the thick plank that runs the entire length of the house, forming his residence of a large gap between the concrete footer and the house. I think the concrete was put in as an idea of support for the old field stone foundation from the push of ground water rolling down the valley. Let’s say it is a good idea, and it just needs some upgrade. 


Upgrade number one: remove the long run of board. It only traps moisture into the seam, and gathers any and all rain that runs down the face of the house, and any spillage from the (now repaired) gutter and drain (and repaired soffits that were acting as drains as well).


I sawzall this section to protect the high speed internet cable brought underground to the house. As incongruous as Google Fiber equivalent sounds up here, that really is true. I don’t think we’ll ever connect, but there it is.


Fat barn nails hold the rail in place, and I have to take care not to shatter the thin cladding of the house.


E helps me spot the nails that won’t relent, and so keeps me from maiming the house.


Looking down the gap we see a metal flange that has pulled away from the house, making two troubling gaps.


Our housemates note that the front door of their house is missing.


He checks to see if went up here…


He falls back into the safe gap to contemplate this questionable remodel.


He pops out where Walt and I cut out a trial section, at the worst of the gutter runoff damage, backfilled with foam and impassible for snakes.


He didn’t like the noise and disturbance at all, and tells me he will be touch with our HOA about all of these changes that he certainly didn’t vote for.


He heads off to his favorite corner restaurant to gather his nerves.


I use the industrial shop-vac blower to clear the debris out of the gap while he is at dinner. I wind up tossing a few of his discarded skins out on the street. Here he returns from his evening on the town, and wonders whether he’ll be able to recover any of his belongings; he complains that he wasn’t given any notice prior to his eviction. 


He’s never felt so low.


Using roofing screws, I seal the metal seam against the house while E keeps an eye on the snake. 


With the tenants out and the gap cleaned and tightened up, I lay in many cans of expanding foam. This white foam is a special high density foam- I wish I’d gotten more of that type. 


Earlier in the day I’d repaired ‘ol Shotgun, who needed a new section of roof and a new entrance-hole faceplate. As the foam cures in the gap, E and I drive the birdhouse back to the top of Kibbey Ridge while the sun sets into a blood red wall of wildfire smoke (CA plus a Missoula blaze). I set him on a new sturdy pole on the other side of the road, as his ancient pole had finally snapped. 


If a snake even touched this gunk while it was wet it would probably kill him. It had skinned over, but was gooey on the inside, when the snake emerged from under the porch to try to return to his lair. No harm, well, no physical harm. The emotional turmoil was obvious. 


The next evening I use my vibration tool to slice the foam, forming a clean cap.


I use the caulk gun to squeeze 4 tubes of roofing tar and E spreads it like stinky black frosting to capture and seal the entire gap, capping the foam. 


I run through all the tar, and end with exterior silicon caulk, in black and that runs out, so in white as well. Ranch fix, cuz Home Depot is an 80 mile round trip.


I let the tar cure for 24 hours, then head in with my paint grinding wheel to zip-clean the weather-beaten old siding that had languished behind the do-worse-than-nothing plank. 


I grind out many other problem areas, then head in for a first of two coats of linseed oil white paint.


Can you hear the house soaking in the paint?


“Take care of Grandmother’s roses” says Ghost Dad, the roses persist here because the runoff of two pitches of roof overshoots the gutter and gives them just enough water.


The roses, and the shattered concrete from the gutter overshoot, and down in the cellar- well, lets not look at that again until after a year with these fixes in place.


2,000 pounds of dirt from the cellar rebuilt this drooping corner of the yard where the stream bends. E and I put the last three viable RR ties in the truck, displacing two big garter snakes from one tie (that I thought we’d scared away, but had scared into their hidey space in the tie, and they both wound up in the back of the truck and quickly slithered out in a panic), and disrupting a big ant colony in another tie. I had three rebar stakes and four giant fencing screws to set the ties in place and to each other, then a remnant of ground cover from SLC made an interior skirt along the ties and pegged to the ground, with enough remaining to cover the dirty pile of cellar dirt.


Lyle rock oversees the new retaining wall down at the far end. 


Here is June’s retaining wall, with the grass seed filling over the dirt nicely, Lyle rock in the midground, and the new retaining wall down at the bottom.


Just down from Lyle Rock I added in this little section of waterfall, made from the thin layers of shattered fieldstone that had once been the corner support at the porch fix. It may get swept away by spring runoff…


Nora just got a drink at the expanded falls here at the old footbridge as well.


It was a bobcat job years ago to create one level of falls here, and with a few freeze-shocked sections of the porch-fix field stone, the falls becomes three tiers. Now the voice of the stream is multifaceted as it rolls through the tree canopied back yard, and the open windows of the bedroom gather in it’s reverberations from the box-canyon wall of the house, altering it’s course just enough to flow to the inside of dreams. 


Nora wants to show you a twilight view.


This is the first of a panorama set, looking North to the great plain of the Missouri down to the Highwood Mountains. We are on the high west side at the top of the old hayfield, at a spot too steep to hay, checking our highest bluebird fence line.


Looking across the valley to the opposite ridge gives a sense of the drop and rise of our high valley. We are at the same height as the summit of the far ridge. Alpine wildflowers mix in with wild grasses, sage, and hay grass. An environment unique to this high latitude. 


The climb out of the lower section of grazed hayfield is a steep one, and the cows never bother. This waist high verdant green belt runs the length of this side of the ranch. It is a snowfield in winter.


We head into the South as the dusk settles, checking 10 bluebird / swallow houses- the new white cylinder tubes (cylons) are only housing swallows, but all are used. I think they are just a little too small for the bluebirds. E and I check the remaining 5 “cylons” another evening, and only swallows for them as well.


About 1/4 mile distant we will head through a bit of our big hayfield on the way down (4 bluebird houses as well). There, the hay is taller than the hood, still standing three weeks past it’s due date as Dave has had some breakdowns and delayed repairs down below on his fields. I spend quite awhile the next morning clearing seed from the truck’s radiator, air system, and undercarriage (it attracts mice, and will overheat the truck too). Next bluebird tour I’ll drive an alternate route that takes us on the other side of the fence, out of the steep and deep grasses.


Watching the morning air show at the front porch hummingbird feeder. A mated pair of Calliope hummers are nesting in the lilacs, and a male interloper dogfights the mated male. We have a feeder set in back as well, to lower the competition, but they run berserk over the morning sun on the porch feeder.


Shirt-hats are deployed as the sun heats up the audience, but the show still needs watching.


One of at least 5 hummers that have claimed the ranch. Our nearest neighbor three miles down the valley has told us they have never had humming birds, and were surprised that we did. I think the alpine wildflowers at our elevation bring them in.


Kaye listens to the hummers spatting over the feeder at the log ice house right behind her, and spinning over her head.


Danger takes a break from fixing stuff and sets some targets of impossibility for he and Walt to plink at with Walt’s 45 Pistol; the Ruger Vaquero. This is an amazing modern redesign of the classic pistol.


Although Walt has owned this pistol for a few years, it is the kind of monster you just never quite find a way break the ice with. This is the first time it has been fired; can’t really think of a better place to break in a pistol named “Cowboy” in Spanish.


Between the 2 of us, one target is hit. Definitely not the easy marksmanship offered by a 9mm auto. And at nearly 1$ per shot, the force is pretty spectacular. The wooden horse is our reload station.  I take the big box that held all the targets and affix it to the wire, and it serves as our target. Walt peppers it with holes.


The water from two planes of the roof run off of the porch here. In June I created a drainage system. After seeing the non-function of the concrete footing that wraps the original field stone & mortar foundation, I remove the concrete. The concrete has retained moisture against the mortar and destroyed it, so I have to remove and rebuild this entire corner.


The field stones are removed and in the foreground, below them was a tangle of roots from the nearby pine trees, all driving into the drainage area. I dig & sawzall them out, and drop the footing another foot.


The red bucket is full of dug out shale that I had just put in back in June. The yellow wagon is filling up with multiple trips of dirt from lowering the footing. A chunk of the problematic concrete is at the bottom left. The big field stones I will eventually refit.


This deck footing (at the top of my shadow) with a treated 4×4 will be the new corner support, capturing both big beams running under the house that meet at the corner. The big jack by the red bucket will lift the corner while I set the support.


I cut away two outer cedar panels and glued and clamped them back together to reattach later. The pine board behind them was rotten, and I cut it out and scavenged a replacement length from my reclaimed wood pile in the garage. The remaining panel was only partly compromised, and I dug out the worst of it and wire brushed it; later I will paint a few layers of exterior grade wood glue on it, which penetrates and seals the surface better than anything.


80 pounds of gravel are covered with 120 pounds of sand, all compacted to ensure the corner doesn’t settle. With layer one of wood glue still wet on the board.


A section of patio brick / concrete left over from making the new footing for the wood stove will further stabilize the deck footing.


I lay field stone flat and level. This area will support the jack stand.


The corner has been jacked up and the deck footing put in place. Cedar wedges stabilize the underside of the 4×4, and a fat cedar wedge sits atop this side of the 4×4 gathering up a gap between the big support planks that meet at the corner.


The angle of the wooden beam captures both beams under the corner. The drainage area of shale is separated by an 8″ belt of steel reinforced rubber, matched under the footing side with gravel and sand.


At dusk I can no longer tolerate the amount of stress on the beam running alongside the deck, and decide to mortar-set stone in place now rather than in the morning.


The house feels a lot better now.


I jam stone into all the gaps to keep any big critters from gaining entry and call it a day.


The next morning I remove the critter stones and begin dry-fitting stone for mortar.


The morning’s work of mortar and stone is completed. When the area is in afternoon shade I return and continue to dig out the drainage area from June. Here I am laying in heavy rubber pond liner and trenching around the outside of the new corner.


I add in this perforated drainage pipe, and zip tied aluminum mesh screening to each end. The mouth opens upward near the deck under the shale placed on end, and runs out and into the yard.


All buried back under the shale.


The roof drainage has splashed onto this support beam for the deck since time began, and I cut into the beam to see how far back the wood is compromised.


It has less than an inch of viable wood to the inside of the deck.


The new jack comes in handy again, supporting the deck while I refit the beam.


The building inspector arrives; the pole is right at the bee hive, so we agree that this the correct spot to make any assessments.


The original support poles are rough-sawn lumber from the 1800’s, original to the house, so I will just make an L bracket footing of old to new wood joined with fat bolts.


Like so.


The end of the deck board is rotting out from the front and under the foot of the beam.


New platform to cap the big beam below.


Over the new wooden support I place this 6×6″ synthetic deck panel. I will add a 5×5″ square to that and tack it all in place with galvanized finish nails.


Testing the new footing by dropping pressure off the jack. Needs the 5×5 section for good pressure.


The top and bottom are secured by pre-drilling pilot holes at steep angles, then driving in large oiled barn nails.


All boards at the corner are replaced and painted, the support is painted and caulked, and E and I head back up to the shale pit for another big red bucket of limestone to dress out the drainage.


In the drainage field, in line with the refurbished post is a blue area of shale, stood on end and sandwiched over the drain. The limestone in this area hit by roof runoff is also set sideways, and many ends are triangular. This will help diffuse splashing, containing it to the drainage.


Roundup day. The morning is spent bringing the entire herd into the sorting pen up by the barn, then splitting the herd into three groups, plus a group of yearling heifers.


Four on horseback and two atv, plus 5 cow dogs, bring everyone along.


Seeing one of my dad’s pure-bred angus cows among the group is like seeing a supercar in commuter traffic.


She is at least 10 years old and still looking great. The lazy A with an M with a top bar is the Alpine Meadows brand, also my grandmother’s maiden name initials of Amy McCafferty.


Herd animals like to sync up. Wait for it.


Fly girls.


Time for everyone to get their feet wet; oh dear!


The little marsh is churned to a bog.


These ladies know where the gate is.


Riders let the dogs push through the muck.


After you, no I insist, after you!


Time for horses to get the mud boots on.


The dogs continue with the heavy lifting while the riders encourage the mounts through the mud.


Bianca is on her special German bred pony, her dogs are trained for sheep herding but are quick learners on the cattle.


Her pups hold back ’til she commands them in.


All are out of the corral and heading up the road to pasture.


Streaming by the yard. 



Here is another 5 lengths of 16′ split rail, salvaged from the corral, replacing old failing round lengths of timber.


Heading to new pasture.


The clouds will bring hail and a wash out rainstorm just after everyone has left.


Heading back to move the group of Heifers up over the top.


Heifers crowd the water tank, and start to bleed into the bottom corral.


No one wants to cross.


The cowdogs push the girls through the mud, apparently not concerned about dainty hooves.


Everyone has seen the gate!


The dogs keep just the right pressure for all to “escape” the corral without spinning out at the gate and pouring back inside.


A last straggler is given some motivation to join the group.


Bud pauses while Bianca clears the mud.


With a smile and wave the riders clear the corral of the days work, and take the heifers on to pasture.


High meadows at twilight along the bluebird house route.

E and I drove up the ranch in the last week of July. We arrived a few days before Kaye and Walt flew out to Great Falls to join us. The cool nights and blustery days were a universe apart from the non-stop desert blast furnace of Utah in our bright shiny future of global catastrophe. I got right back to work on my water drainage project begun on our last trip out in June. That is, after chasing the cows out of the yard so I could run the push mower around for a day.


We arrive to a yard full of cows and calves. We chase them out of the yard and find the smashed wooden fence. We put up some old panel fence with giant zip ties my buddy Jed gave me when helping me install the Ibis sculpture back in Utah.


The old John Deer gets a new battery, oil and gas, tires inflated, and mouse-chewed wires fixed; dead starter motor: no go. It hasn’t run since my dad resurrected it nearly a decade ago, so no surprise, but worth a try.


The push mower bounces across the county road to the house from the garage, and this little guy falls out. E has me carry him back to the garage. I start the mower and his mom runs out, dislodging another little mouse. E saves it. I run a few passes with the mower and three more fall out. Two are fried by the engine, but one goes to the E mouse hospital.


The E mouse hospital (not to be confused with the EEEK IT’S A MOUSE! Hospital) is under the glove in the bed of purple columbine.


I rebuilt the door to the basement years ago, then added the steel covering in a following year. The hinge flap was tar& sand roofing material, and it had fallen apart with opening and closing the door. Water jets off of the roof exactly along this compromised seam and streams into the basement. I brought a remnant of thick pond liner to make a fix.


The liner is “glued” down with roofing tar, then screwed in place with gusseted roofing screws. We had a wash-out rainstorm that night and it all proved up nicely.


This drain was new last trip, but with a few wrong connections. Now Walt has is all set snug against the house, and drains perfectly into last visit’s ground drainage.


Down in the dank cellar, the cement between the old field-stone foundation needs some help with water intrusion. Skinning the problems with new concrete will only trap more water and lead to more problems, so I’m backfilling all the areas I can find with expanding foam. This should push far into the wall and seal most of the water out.



Nora adopts Walt, as no princess would ever head down into that dank dungeon, and would question her prior assessment of anyone who did.


This is one of two window casements from down in the hole, one on the southern wall ledge and one on the north. Both rotten and skinned with cardboard.


The view out the window casement is a wall of dirt and roots. That will need fixing…


Slacker relatives of old, your slipshod crapmanship is adorable.


Meanwhile, E has found the Cedar Waxwing nest- one lilac bush from last year’s spot- full of chicks.


Two loads of bricks dug with a pickaxe from the brick garden, going down the hole to patch the dirt-view window.


First I had to rebuild the field-stone wall. Well, first I had to prang my head hard enough to break the skin and make a small goose-egg on a big sewer end pipe not in frame. This bonk somehow made it impossible for me to mix the cement to a firm peanut-butter. I built up to the old-ish concrete footing poured around the house that dropped partly into the old window box. The window box on the other side of the basement is “completely” (?) backfilled with this mid-century concrete work.


Some mystery mineral came up on my shoes from the basement, and the house bees all converged on the door mat.


Kaye and Walt and E all roll into Great Falls for a grocery run, and I head back into the hole. I use a five gallon bucket to carry out 2,000 lbs of dirt that has washed in, and every knicknack buried in the dirt from every fix ever made, and so much more…


Once the basement is shoveled clear and raked clean, I lay down a heavy plastic over the dirt floor and weigh it down with brick and stone left over from the window casing fix.


I put a reflector on the invisible black tube, and to the right a reflector marks the shut off valve for the secondary water line through the basement that comes from a high pasture to power the yard hose and feed the corral trough. I need to replace the valve next trip, of course.


My new support from a few years back and an old support on a field stone.


The upper right at the corner held the old window casing. This is the uphill side of the house and a lot of water had swept a lot of dirt into this corner. We’ll look at some outside fixes later, that I hope will stop this mess from continuing. If it dries out, I’ll get to more concrete and brick work to seal it up good.


Not a dirt hole like the other side, but not without problems. Problems for another day (year).


I sneak the camera back along the ceiling for a remote view of some of the WTF going on up there. arg.


On the outside of the house, just above the basement problem area, a pair of garter snakes live behind a board that was nailed up against the house that rests on the concrete footing, a visual fix to the destructive gap between the concrete footing and the house: another fine bit of hair-pulling engineering. The board runs the length of the house and serves to funnel all moisture between it and the house. Also, directly above, two planes of the roof form a fast channel of water that oversweeps the gutter and has shattered the concrete and worn off the house paint.  This same overswept gutter does channel a lot of water, and until recently, channeled it through a broken drain pipe buried under the concrete patio that had long collapsed to erupt into the basement.


Our friendly housemate hunting at the creek that runs through the yard. I’ll need to remove his board, evicting him from the house- and I’ll have to take care not to kill him with the resulting process of sealing the bad gap behind the board that runs between the house and the concrete.