Monday, December 29, 2014

Colonial Williamsburg at Christmas: "Twelfth Night" Performance

We've attended several wonderful concerts in the Ballroom at the Governor's Palace, but we've never seen one of Shakespeare's plays performed there -- until now.  Although there's no record of any theatrical event taking place at the Governor's Palace in the 18th century, this adaptation of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" was our first opportunity to see Shakespeare performed in a colonial era setting with 18th century costumes.  I'm glad we went.

Although the play was performed ten times in December, we were unaware of its existence until about a week before we were scheduled to begin our trip.  Karen saw a Colonial Williamsburg blog post that offered two free tickets through a random drawing, and decided to enter.  To her surprise, she won!  The only problem was that we won tickets for a sold-out performance scheduled for the day BEFORE we planned to arrive in Virginia.  Fortunately, our schedule was flexible, so we were able to leave home a day earlier than planned, and made it to town a few hours before show time!

The performance was not a disappointment.  The actors were all very talented, and presented Shakespeare's 16th century language in a way that was relatively easy to follow.  The costumes were nicely executed, and the actors even made some references to the room in which the play was performed.  The fact that we got to visit with most of the cast after the show was simply icing on the cake.  In the photo above, Karen and I are in the middle surrounded by eight members of the cast, and Ralph and Dotty on the right, who also won tickets to the play.

The moral of the story: if you see a contest, enter it!  Especially if entering is free, and the prize is something fun you can't do every day!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Basement Remodel Project: Angled Board Cuts

Some aspects of this remodel project have been intimidating since they involve skills I don't have, or techniques I've either never tried, or seldom get to use.  Even worse when the results will be prominently displayed when the project is finished.  The wainscoting on the stairwell presented one of those challenges.

My goal was to continue the spacing of the vertical stiles (visible on the left side of the photo above) up the the angled section of wall next to the stairs.  A couple of simple angled cuts on each end of each board was all that was involved, but I didn't have a tool to help me transfer the angle to the boards, so I left this project until I had a clear idea of how to tackle it.  I took special care to make the angled upper rail board parallel to the stringer trim board next to the steps based on the geometric principle that the angle would then be the same at the top and bottom of the boards.

This handy little tool proved to be the key that made this project a lot easier.  I've seen simple wood and steel angle finders used by others, but never had one for my tool box.  This Harbor Freight Multipurpose Angle Finder isn't terribly accurate due to its size, but since it is based on a four-bar linkage, it's actually pretty versatile beyond the simple application I employed it for.  In my case I placed the tool in the angle between the stringer and vertical stile at the bottom of the staircase since that was the angle I wanted to duplicate on the other stiles.  I checked the stile for plumb and was reassured that it was true enough to ensure the other stiles parallel to it would also be plumb.

The angle finder was then used to set the angle on my miter saw table.  After making one cut on one end of a board, I fit the stile to the stringer and checked for plumb.  I had to make a couple slight adjustments to the angle of the table before I was happy that the saw matched the angle on the staircase, but eventually was confident the stiles would fit as desired.

Four stiles later, I'm pretty pleased with the results.  The distortion caused by the camera lens makes the spacing seem to decrease up the staircase, but in reality it's uniform with the rest of the wall.  After a short confidence-building exercise like this I find myself wishing I had more opportunities to practice my new-found technique, but life seldom works that way for me.  In the mean time, I've got another tool that should reduce anxiety in the future.

Monday, November 24, 2014


Farmer Wagenbach informed me recently that the corn harvest in the field behind our house was larger this year than ever before.  The yield averaged 258 bushels per acre, which is exceptional no matter where the field is located!  Growing conditions were good this summer, but it's obvious that God has blessed Farmer Wagenbach with a good bit of knowledge and skill when it comes to growing corn!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A better mousetrap

I can't claim to have invented a better mousetrap, but I'm pretty sure I've found a way to improve the effectiveness of even the cheapest traps.  We first tried this idea about ten years ago when we discovered a mouse had found our candy stash.  That mouse was particularly fond of chocolate, to the extent that he ate all the chocolate of a caramel filled chocolate drop and left the caramel!

Because we didn't have much experience with catching mice then, we baited a trap with peanut butter and hoped for the best.  The next morning I found the trap still cocked but the peanut butter licked clean off the trigger.  Since the mouse was obviously attracted to candy, we decided to bait the trap with some chocolate instead of peanut butter.  It was also obvious that this mouse could be gentle enough with the bait to be able to steal it without disturbing the trigger.  So we devised a plan to make it more difficult to get away with the bait without springing the trap: we glued an M&M candy to the trigger with hot craft glue.  The results were most satisfying.  Not only did we catch the mouse, but he left teeth marks on the candy to prove he was in the act of trying to wrestle it off the trap.

About ten years have passed since we last had the need to set a mouse trap out, but we found evidence this week that convinced us we had at least one unwanted guest.  Unfortunately, we didn't have any M&M candies in the house, so we initially had to try a different strategy.  Since M&Ms worked well before, perhaps a chocolate chip glued to the trap would work as well.  We set two traps, baited identically, and found the next morning that the mouse had removed the chocolate chip and left the glue on the trigger undisturbed.  I think the chocolate may have been too oily to adhere to the glue securely.

Still being without M&Ms, we turned back to peanut butter in desperation, but our experience was like that of before: the bait holder was licked clean by the next day while the traps sat cocked and ready.  After finally acquiring the right candy, we were able to bait and set both traps like that pictured above.

To my satisfaction, the bait worked again!  In fact, both traps contained victims after the first night.  One only managed to lick the "m" off the candy before he tripped the trigger, while the other was able to break the candy shell, but gave his life in the effort.

By our experience, we were able to reuse the bait two times out of three, but even if one has to glue an new candy on the trap for each victim, that seems a small price to pay for a solution so effective.  If you've had trouble with mice stealing your bait without getting caught, I encourage you to try this method!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Basement Remodel Project: Wood Burner Surround

This Lopi Endeavor wood burning stove was already installed in our house when we purchase it in 2007, but we've only used it sporadically since then.  Even so, it has been valuable enough to us that we wanted to include it in our plans to remodel the basement.

Even though much of the previous wall treatment was removed when I took the photo above, one can still appreciate the brick and tile surround the previous owner used as heat and debris protection on the wall and floor.  The platform under the stove is a small concrete pad topped with tile and ringed by brick.  Initially, I intended to leave the core of that platform and reshape and cover it with a different tile, but the further I proceeded, the more that platform appeared to have only one purpose: stubbing toes.

The updated version of the surround uses Ply Gem Durata Mortarless Stone as the primary non-combustible wall surface.  My skills with stone and mortar are very limited, so I was happy to find this mortarless product that satisfies my aesthetic requirements.  As you can see, we included insulation behind the stone to limit the heat loss through the stone and avoid any potential issues with a significant temperature gradient in the wall.

In this shot the top several rows of the stone have not been cut to size, and one can observe the plastic brackets used to anchor the rows of stone to the wall.

Several provisions were included before the gypsum board was hung in order to make it easier to trim around the stone, and insure the wall was sound.

As you can see in this image, the tile base for the stove was affixed directly to the concrete floor so the possibility of stubbing toes on that feature would be minimized.  This image was taken shortly after the tile was laid, and before it was grouted.  Our wall paint colors are also visible in this shot, although I can't vouch for the camera accurately capturing the shade of the green on the upper portion of the wall.

This final image shows the tile after grouting, most of the trim on the wall, and (obviously) the stove set in place.  Gretel cleaned up some rust and chipped paint on the stove before we repainted it, since it could be difficult to paint it in the future.  Although it has a coat of dust on it in this shot, it looks much improved.

As is typical, I learned a few things while mounting the stone, setting the tile, and repainting the stove, such that I could probably improve each of those activities in the future.  But for now, I'm content with this section of the basement and look forward to the warmth the stove will radiate this winter.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Corn in the backyard, 2014 -- Harvest!

Farmer Wagenbach harvested this year's crop while I was at work on September 25, and this photo was taken a few days later.  No word yet on how the yield this year compared to other years, but to my amateur eye, I'd say it looked pretty good.  The crop was in the field for about 21 weeks, and experienced about 8% more growing degree days than normal this summer.  Our rainfall was also noticeably above average, which seemed to do more good than harm.

The 39 acres behind our house will now rest for about seven months until Farmer Wagenbach plants the crop of 2015.  Make sure to check back next spring for all the details!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Corn in the backyard, 2014 -- weeks 17, 18, 19, and 20

August 31

Although the ears were showing indications of drying, the stalks and leaves seem to be late in drying out this year.  We had 45% more growing degree days in the week preceding this photo, which probably accelerating the maturing and drying processes.

September 7

Warm weather continued until this photo was taken, as the week accumulated 33% more growing degree days than typical, and the increase in plant drying was obvious.

September 14

Temperatures cooled significantly on September 11, and stayed below normal for eight days resulting in 84 growing degree days for the week compared to the normal 119.  The change in dried plant matter from the week before was subtle, but evident.

September 21

Even though the cool weather continued most of the week before these photos, the visible drying of the plants stands in stark contrast to the week before.  Growing degree days were only 80% of the normal total, but the crop seems close to harvest, and several neighbors have begun harvesting already.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Basement Remodel Project: Hanging Drywall

Have you ever noticed how a room can grow and shrink with each successive phase of a project? In this case, I believe mounting the drywall sheets to the walls of our basement made the rooms grow a bit.  Here are several photos at different stages of completion.

This image shows the south end of the family room early in the hanging process.

A closer view of the pantry closet and stair landing a little later, but not quite at the end.

The view to the north from the stairs shows the closets on the north end of the family room more clearly.  The pieces of drywall that don't match the majority are simply scraps left over from prior projects.

In this view of the family room closets, almost all the pieces were hung and waiting for the mudding to begin.

This is the view from the bedroom looking south into the family room.

Another view of the stairwell clearly showing drywall pieces in three different colors.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Corn in the backyard, 2014 -- weeks 13, 14, 15, and 16

 August 3

The biggest changes in the crop at this point in the summer are taking place behind the husk leaves of each ear as the kernels mature.

 August 10

The height of the stalk reached its maximum about four weeks before this photo, so our attention has been drawn to formation of the ears.

 August 17

I also watch for stalk and leaf drying since the plant typically dries as the kernels are drying.

 August 24

By the 16th week, some stalk drying was visible, but less than I expected.  Referencing photos from previous years convinced me that the drying rate at 16 weeks wasn't much different than most years.

 August 3

Zooming in on where the action is, the ears appeared close to full size on August 3, but weren't showing signs of drying yet.  Growing degree days were 11% fewer than normal for the week.

 August 10

Not much change in the appearance of the ears this week, and the number of growing degree days for the week was only one unit off the historical average.

 August 17

The week of August 17 showed more signs of stalk and ear drying even though growing degree days were 7% fewer than normal.

August 24

By week 16, some of the husk leaves were pulling away to reveal beautiful kernels beneath, but those that were visible were obviously not fully mature.  Unseasonably warm weather during that week produced 28% more heating degree days than average, and the plants appeared to accelerate their drying.  As long as there are plants in the field, we'll keep reporting more progress toward harvest!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Basement Remodel Project: Framing Overview

You may have noticed in a previous photo that our basement has concrete blocks both on the outside walls and for the bearing wall separating the east and west sections.  The basement remodel project in our previous home convinced us that lining the exterior walls with 2x4 studs and insulating those walls made for a very comfortable space all year round.  This post details some of the framing and insulating necessary to define our new rooms.

This wide door opening leads to the guest bedroom at the north end of the space.  A five-foot wide french door will occupy that opening so the doors can be opened to allow natural light into the south family room from the largest window in the basement.  The two spaces on either side of the door opening are closets that open into the family room.  At the time of this photo, the framing and insulating were complete, and drywall panels were just moved to the basement and were ready to be hung.

The door at the far left is the one that was featured in a previous post and one can see the wood burner and the stone wall that defines that appliance's spot in the room just this side of the drywall collection.  I hope to include more details on the wood burner's new surroundings in a future post. The thickness of the block bearing wall is also apparent in the door opening.

The southeast corner of the family room is home to the electrical panel and a waste water pipe that runs down the exterior wall before going through it to the septic tank in the yard. I debated how to hide these two items while leaving them both accessible, so we opted to build this closet in the corner of the room to gain some storage just at the base of the stairs while providing the desired access.

In this photo one can also see the different strategy applied to the exterior walls of the stairwell. I wanted to minimize the space lost to insulation, so these walls received 1.5"x1.5" furring strips with 1.5" foam insulation in between.

This is how the southeast corner looked before demolition was complete, including framing around the sewage pipe that did not leave access to the clean out port. That and more was removed as part of the demolition.

This is the northeast corner of the space looking from the bedroom into the closet that's home to the sewage ejector pump for the bathroom just to the right of that pump.  This door opening was cut in during that bathroom addition project, and doesn't disrupt the bedroom space too badly.

Finally, a shot that's a bit blurry but gives one a good view of the family room from the stairwell. A lot had already happened by this point: framing, wiring, moving and adding lights, reconfiguring heat runs and returns, building a new masonry wall behind the wood burner, etc., but more was yet to be done.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Corn in the backyard, 2014 -- weeks 10, 11, and 12

July 13

July 20

July 27

July 13

July 20

July 27

Although the corn stalks didn't add any height in weeks 10, 11, or 12, the growth of the ears was impressive over that period.  In the first week, temperatures averaged about one degree F warmer than normal, while the second and third weeks were much cooler than the historical average.  July 13 through 19 averaged six degrees F per day cooler than normal, while the week of the 20th through the 26th averaged over two degrees F cooler.  We didn't get much rain over the period, and even the humidity was on the low side, so the corn had to be pulling moisture out of the ground for its purposes.  Even though the weather was not Central Illinois' traditional hot and humid variety for this time of year, the corn didn't appear to be suffering greatly.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Basement Remodel Project: West door replacement

One small part of the basement remodel project was replacing the door that separates the east half of the basement from the west half.  The door style, while architecturally interesting, didn't match the style of the rest of the doors in our house, and the size of the door was non-standard.  Here's the culprit.

We had a similar door leading to the space we claimed for a bathroom on the other side of this basement space.  Although we replaced that door a few years ago, we didn't change the height.  In fact, I didn't consider changing the height until well after it was practical to do so.  So we have a door on the bathroom that kinda matches our other doors, but is shorter than normal.  On this opening, I decided to do a little extra work to end up with a standard 80" tall door.

The biggest challenge was removing the header over the old doorway that supported the floor joists above it.  As you can see, the wall is constructed from concrete blocks, and the header is solid concrete about 52 inches wide and about 8 inches tall and deep, which would mean the header weighs about 280 pounds.  Although I planned this process as best I could, I wasn't sure how much effort would be required to loosen the header from the wall, and move it off the wall so it could be lowered to the floor.

I used a rotary hammer to loosen the mortar around the header, and then beat it with my 10 pound sledge hammer to move it off the wall.  I was appropriately concerned about safety through this procedure, and supported the header with two nylon cargo straps attached to hooks temporarily mounted in the floor joists.

Another consideration was how the floor joists would be supported after the header was removed.  Since the plate on top of the header would remain after the concrete was removed, I figured a floor jack would be sufficient to support the three joists over this section of the wall.  In this photo the header was moved far enough to fit the floor jack behind it so they were both supporting the wall, and the header had a few more inches to travel horizontally before it was free to be lowered.

Once the header was free to be lowered to the floor, I couldn't take my hands off the straps until the concrete reached the floor.  The concrete was removed without injury, and I was able to build a wooden header that both supported the floor joists, and allowed room for the full-height door.

Obviously this photo was taken much later, but it shows the new door painted and hung in the larger opening, and ready for trim.