Home Improvement, Maker

I made a patio with stones mined from my backyard

This is the story of how I turned this:

into this:

and how it only took me 411 days.

It all started when I pried some flagstones out of the hill next to our house. They were sticking out of the grass, and I thought I’d use them for a path somewhere.

As I pulled stones out of the grass, I noticed that there were more stones underneath. My sons and I decided to investigate, so we dug into the hill to see what we could find.

We found lots of rocks — fat rocks, skinny rocks, rocks who climb on rocks.

Some of them looked really interesting too. Lots of colors were represented: tan, gray, slate, blue, red, orange, purple. (Just like the ol’ rainbow acronym: TGSBROP.)

Once we found that there was a seemingly unlimited supply of these stones in our hillside, we decided to make an entire patio out of them.  Before my wife could change her mind, I stripped the woodchips from the side of our house in preparation for laying down stones.

I had to move some dirt around to level it and get it down the appropriate height down to allow for space for the sand and gravel foundation.

In other parts of the yard, I had to add dirt to get it up to the correct height. I ordered a load of topsoil and a willing helper.

Some parts of the yard needed to be raised as much as 18 inches, so I set up some guides to let me know when I had the dirt high enough.  This didn’t work especially well, but it did work.

Of course, when adding dirt, you need to compact it. I bought a hand tamper from Home Depot and started compacting.

Two days and one case of carpal tunnel syndrome later, I bought a mechanical compacter instead.  This allowed me to finish this part of the project before I die due to the heat death of the universe.

Because the edge of the patio would be a foot and a half above grade in some spots, I bought some railroad ties and used them as a retaining wall around the edge.

I secured the bottom run of ties to the dirt with 24″ rebar and the top ties with 12″ galvanized spikes (into the bottom ties).

While I was preparing the site, I was still digging out stones from the hill, and they were getting bigger as I dug deeper.

Some of the larger stones were too heavy to carry up the hill, so I had to either break them in half or pull them up on a makeshift sled.

By Memorial Day (of last year), I had the dirt leveled out and all of the railroad ties installed.

I had a couple of extra railroad ties, so I built a pad for a hot tub we were considering buying.

By this time, I had been mining our hillside for three months and had amassed a sizeable collection of stones. I did a double-take when I noticed I had accidentally arranged them like this:

I ordered a load of gravel and a load of sand. Laying these down on top of the dirt should ensure that water doesn’t pool underneath the stones and cause problems, especially during freezing/thawing times of the year.

I rented a Bobcat to make the chore of moving the gravel and sand a weekend job instead of a rest-of-my-life job.

Well worth the money.

Now that I had the soil leveled and covered with three inches of gravel and two inches of sand, I could start laying the stones down.

As I continued to lay down more stones, the building inspectors stopped by the check my work.

Here’s an overhead view from around the time I stopped working on the patio last fall. As school started up and the weather got colder and rainier, I lost a lot of motivation.

In the spring, I kept digging up stones, and again, they kept getting bigger.

Maybe too big… I broke my shovel trying to pry this one out.

This is the point that I gave up on the idea of covering the entire patio in stone. It was taking far too long to dig up enough stone to cover the entire patio, and I was getting tired of hauling them up the hill.

Plan B: artificial turf.  Fake grass has come a long way from the plasticky Brady Bunch sod of my childhood; Costco sells a brand called Pregra that is easily mistaken for real grass once it’s installed.

It came in two 25-foot rolls, which each weighed about a million pounds.  I wrestled them over to the patio, unrolled them, and cut them to fit the space.

While the flat grass look is classic, I wanted to try something more reminiscent of the rolling foothills of southern Oregon, but I was overruled.

After cutting the turf, I secured it to the ground with landscaping spikes and then filled the spaces between the stones with Polysweep, a polymeric sand. It’s like sand, but it hardens once it gets wet.

Here’s a better shot of the dried Polysweep and the pad for our fire pit.

The last step for the artificial turf was to add infill to puff up the grass and give it some extra durability. I used four hundred pounds of play sand, and I spread it with a grass seed spreader.

After spreading the sand, I brushed it in with a push broom, and then I wrote a perfect segue into the end of this post.

If you scrolled to the bottom hoping that instead of reading a boring write-up, you could watch a timelapse of the entire process, you’re in luck. Enjoy!

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Backyard Chickens, Maker, Woodworking

I Turned a Broken Wheelbarrow Into a Chicken Tractor

Chickens, they say, are the most industrious of all birds. They are not content to while away the hours just pecking and clucking; they want to be put to work. For this reason, I built for our chickens a chicken tractor.

Unlike its human counterpart, a chicken tractor does not have an engine or even a cupholder. A chicken tractor is a portable chicken coop-like structure that allows the chickens to be transported to different locations around the yard, where they may then eat bugs, scratch at the dirt, and perform other chicken duties.

I began my tractor journey by designing the structure in Sketchup.

It’s essentially a box with a door at one end and a roof with a 5º slope (to match the main coop, of course).

Rather than butt-jointing and toe-screwing all of the boards like in the main coop (what is this, an anatomy lesson??), I decided to try using half-laps for all of the joints.

I found this to be time-consuming. I also found this to create a lot of sawdust.

I made one frame for each side of the tractor and then screwed them all together.

To increase the structure’s rigidity, I added some supports across the top (not shown) and some supports in the lower corners (shown below).

The door fit perfectly (of course) in the taller end.

For the handles and wheel, I took this broken wheelbarrow and chopped it up.

The axle is angled up at about 10º so that the bottom of the wheel just barely touches the ground when the tractor is stationary. Then, when I lift up the handles, the frame of the tractor will be off the ground, engaging the wheel.

I attached the roof panels (extras left over from building the coop), and hardware cloth over the side openings, and voila! A box with a wheel!

The chickens love it! They were all like “Cluck cluck cluck cluck!”

The single wheel idea, while ingenious, did not work out in practice. I had to lift the end of the tractor much higher than I wanted to in order to get clearance under the far end, so I added two wheels, taken from a bike that I’m sure my kids won’t miss probably. This raises the end of the coop up two inches off the ground, but it makes it much more maneuverable. If I ever put chicks in here, I’ll have to add some sort of skirt that prevents them from sneaking out.

Only one more touch was needed to turn this tractor into a home.

Now you might be saying, “Chris, did you build this entire project just so you’d have an excuse to use this chicken knob?” In response to your question, I have a lot of questions. Number one, how dare you.

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CNC, Maker, Woodworking, X-Carve

8-Bit Emergency Kit

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you wished you could escape from your problems? Well if you had this 8-bit emergency kit, you could grab the hammer, smash your way to a P-Wing, and fly away.

For the uninitiated, the hammer and P-Wing are items from Super Mario Bros. 3., one of the greatest games made for the original Nintendo Entertainment System. The hammer lets Mario break rocks in the map, and the P-Wing allows him to fly for an entire level (but only a single level).  It’s a very useful item, but it’s also very rare, so it must be saved for just the right occasion. Let me walk you through how I built this.

Like all good things, this project started with a board of quarter-sawn red oak.

I chopped and sliced the board until I had these six pieces.

I glued two of the longer pieces together to make the back of the box, and I mitered the ends of the rest of the boards for the box sides.  I cut a groove (not pictured) in each of the sides to accept the back of the box.

The photo above is a dry fit. Because the box holds the glass (“glass”) front captive, I couldn’t glue it up until the very last step.

I originally made a mushroom out of Perler beads to use as the power-up, but it didn’t seem worthy of emergency use. Nobody was ever psyched about getting a mushroom from a Toad House.

I decided to make a P-Wing out of wood instead.  I cut a pixel grid on some oak with my X-Carve and then cut out the P-Wing shape on the bandsaw.

A splash of paint and the P-Wing is done. The P-Wing looks superimposed on this photo because it’s sitting on the top of a bottle, not floating in the air.

I made the hammer head the same way, by carving a grid on the X-Carve and then cutting out the real shape on the bandsaw.

I don’t have any bits that could cut two inches deep, and cutting the edges on the bandsaw resulted in sharper corners.

In order to attach a handle, I cut a 15/16″ hole through the hammer head.  Reenactment pictured below.

I filed the top of the hole to flare it out so that the handle would fit better as I pounded the wedges into it. (I also took some liberties and cut a space between the hammer claws, even though it’s not clear from the game that the hammer has separate claws.)

I apparently forgot to take any pictures of the handle-making process, so you’ll have to take my word for it that I used part of a broken broomstick, rounded the ends, cut an X in one end, and then pounded walnut wedges into it to secure the handle in place.

(This video explains the process of using wedges to attach a hammer handle.)

This was my first time successfully making my own wedges for a hammer and my most successful X-shaped wedging.

The last step for the hammer was to coat it with clear enamel.  This really made the contrast between the walnut head and the birch (?) handle pop.

I decided to use this project to make a spline-cutting jig and cut splines for the first time. It went better than expected!

The splines are walnut so as to match the hammer.

I originally wanted a vinyl sticker for the “In case of emergency label,” but I don’t have the means to make one, and ordering a single custom sticker from a sign-maker would have been cost-prohibitive.  So instead, I cut a little placard on the X-Carve.

To mount the sign and P-Wing inside the box, I used epoxy to affix two more pieces of the aforementioned broomstick. I used epoxy instead of wood glue because this joint involves end-grain, which doesn’t always adhere well with just glue, and I don’t want these joints to fail since there is no way to fix them without breaking in to the box.

You can see in the above picture that at some point, I cut a groove around the top edge of the box to accept the glass front, which is really plexiglass because I was going to be sending this box through the mail and I didn’t trust it to arrive unbroken. So if there is an emergency that merits breaking the glass, you’ll have to hit it really hard.

I mounted the sign and P-Wing to the ends of the broomstick dowels with epoxy as well.

At this point, the bottom two corners of the box are glued together, and the plexiglass front can go in. But first, I needed to figure out how to attach the hammer to the box.

After poking around in my spare parts bin for a minute, I made a simple hook out of two pieces of a wire clothes hanger.

I drilled holes into the bottom of the box and epoxied the hooks in place. I also added a picture-hanging hook, although I’ve been exclusively using 3M Velcro strips to hang things for about three years.

You can see in the above picture that I glued the top on, effectively securing the contents of the box forever. That’s not true, I lied. Instead of using wood glue on the top corners, I used hide glue. Hide glue has the useful property that it can be loosened with heat, so if the box ever does need to be opened for repairs or some nefarious purpose, the owner could heat the top corners with a heat gun or hot water, and the top of the box should come loose.

Here’s a shot of the finished splines and hammer hook.

And a shot of the hammer in place.

And the final product.  I sent it to a friend who needed something to jazz up a newly renovated space, and I can only assume that upon hanging it up, he installed a spotlight to showcase it and a velvet rope to protect it.

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CNC, Maker, Woodworking

I Built an Infinity Wishing Well

A few weeks ago, my wife mentioned that she’d like me to find something to cover the septic tank vent in the front yard. I had strategically placed a bird bath next to it two years ago, but I guess people were still able to see the vent.

Where I’m from, when we have a problem we can’t get rid of, we cover it with a wishing well. So I volunteered to build a wishing well… but not just any old wishing well. Keep reading to learn the secret of the well.

I started off with some rough-cut 8/4 cedar.

I cut one of these 2x12s into three boards, each about 3.5″ tall and 1.75″ thick, to use for the base of the well.

From the boards, I cut eight matching pieces (each with a 22.5º miter on each end) using a miter sled I made for the occasion.

I used biscuits and glue and clamped the octagonal base together with a tie-down strap.

At the lumberyard, I also bought a handful of 6′ 1×6 fence boards. I cut each of these into six two-foot 1x3s. Some of the boards were drier than others.

I screwed the cut-down fence boards into the inside of the base, four on each side. I elevated them about half an inch so they wouldn’t have end grain in direct contact with the ground.

I repeated the process I followed for the base to make a collar around the top of the fence boards, and then I added two roof supports. Each support has two 45º miters at the top.

The lip of the well will be octagonal as well, but with the wide sides of the boards facing up. Two of the sides must be notched to fit around the roof supports, so I made a template out of cardboard.

Seven of the lip pieces are biscuited and glued together. The seven-piece part and the remaining piece are each screwed to the roof supports. More on why it’s assembled this way later.

I chose to alternate the wood colors around the lip, partly because I liked how it looked and other-partly because that was the most efficient way to use the boards.

The roof frame comprises two triangles, one attached to each vertical support.

I attached the triangles and added rafters made from leftover fence boards.

Every wishing well needs a place to hang a bucket, so I made handle and spindle out of a scrap of cedar and an old clothes-hanging rod from a closet we remodeled.

I shingled the roof with cedar shingles I picked up with the lumber, and the well is good to go!

Or is it?? (Oh, I also finished all of the weather-facing wood with some spar urethane before continuing.)

This well’s secret is that when you peek inside, you won’t see the aforementioned septic vent. You’ll gaze into an endless simulated abyss, your brain fooled by just a pair of mirrors and a string of lights. Ha ha! Stupid brain!

This illusion is known as an infinity mirror. There are many tutorials online for building these mirrors, but I do believe I am the first person to combine one with a wishing well.  I’ll wait while you rush to create a Wikipedia entry for me, now that I am most definitely notable.

I added supports for the mirror about three inches below the bottom of the lip.  The lip had to be removable so that I could insert the mirror, and, if necessary, remove it later.

The mirror base (and all of the rest of the parts) were cut on my X-Carve CNC router.

The second layer of the infinity mirror is a standard round mirror, twenty inches in diameter. I got this mirror (and the glass for a later step) custom-made by my local glass shop.

The interior of the infinity mirror is two layers of 3/4″ plywood with an octagonal opening (to mimic the inside shape of the well) plus a piece of quarter-inch plywood on each side with a circular opening that fits around the glass.  I glued all of these layers together and then painted all of the interior edges black.

I drilled a hole in one corner where the LED light strip will enter the mirror.

After fitting this section over the bottom mirror, I threaded the LEDs into the frame and used the adhesive backing to attach them around the edge.

Once the LEDs were in place, I added the top mirror, which is actually a two-way mirror. I bought a round piece of glass and applied silver privacy film to one side, creating a mirror that you can look through from one side. On top of this mirror, I added another 3/4″ plywood octagon, a sheet of plexiglass to protect the glass from errant footballs, and a final quarter-inch octagon to hold the plexiglass down.  With the lights on, this is what the mirror looks like at this point:

But what is controlling the LEDs, Chris? Surely this wishing well is not plugged into the wall! That would ruin the illusion!

You are correct. I did not plug the well in to the wall. The LEDs are powered by a battery pack that I inset into the bottom of the standalone lip side. Here’s a shot of it before I attached it to the well:

The battery pack is also a motion sensor, so the lights inside the well automatically turn on whenever someone walks up to it (and turn off 30 seconds later). See for yourself:

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Maker, Woodworking

Nelson-Style Cedar Bench

I made what could be called a Nelson-style bench to use as a step next to our hot tub.

It’s about four feet long, 13″ tall, and 11″ deep. The legs are angled out at 10º, and the top is composed of five one-inch wide slats. All of the wood came from one of these cedar 2x12s.

First, I cut the two legs. They’re about thirteen inches long with both ends mitered at 80º.

I cut the sides of each finger joint into the ends of the legs with the table saw, removed most of the inner material with a coping saw, and then cleaned it up with the table saw again.

I cut out five four-foot strips from the 2×12 and then planed them down slowly until they fit perfectly into each finger joint.  Here’s a photo of the dry-fit. (I also tapered the bottom of the end of each slat at 80º.)

I glued the slats into the legs and clamped them for an afternoon.

I cut a chamfer into the edges of the slats in the middle section so it’s easier on the butt (or feet, depending on how the bench/step is being used).

When the cedar-friendly varnish I ordered gets here, I’ll give it a couple of coats to preserve the wood’s color, but it’s otherwise finished and perfectly functional.

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Maker, Turning, Woodworking

I built a bandsaw box, and I only made at least eighteen mistakes

I made my first bandsaw box. While I’m very happy with the end result (and pleased that it looks like an ice cream sandwich), I thought that instead of crowing about how great it is, I’d list all of the mistakes I made so that I can avoid them the next time I make one.

  1. I didn’t avoid knots in the wood I chose.
  2. I didn’t use enough glue during glue-up, so there was a gap between two of the pieces.
  3. The blade I used on my first cut was too wide, so I couldn’t get the radius I wanted for the cut.
  4. After changing blades, I didn’t tension the new blade properly, leading to cuts that weren’t straight up and down. Luckily, this didn’t affect the functionality of the drawer, since the back was narrower than the front.
  5. I used a blade with too few teeth per inch, leading to a rough finish that took a long time to sand.
  6. I made one side of the box concave despite not having a spindle sander that I could use to easily sand it.
  7. I didn’t sand the insides of the drawer faces as much as I should have, so they still feel roughsawn.
  8. When cutting the drawer, I didn’t plan my cut in a way that left only one entrance point.
  9. Due to mistake #8, I should have cut the bottom of the drawer blank off before cutting off the front, but I didn’t.
  10. When gluing the box back together, I should have glue the bottom on first (due to mistake #9). I glued the back on first, which meant that when gluing the bottom on, I couldn’t tighten the clamps enough on the back edge to avoid a gap…
  11. …but I tried to anyway and cracked the box.  I undid the clamps and the crack disappeared, and then later I couldn’t find it when I tried. Oh well!
  12. Also during glue-up, I didn’t put a sacrificial piece of wood between the clamps and the box, leading to shallow dents in the front and back.
  13. When turning the knob, I cut off a rectangular piece of stock instead of a square one that would have saved a little bit of wood.
  14. If I had turned the knob with it facing the other way, I could have made the face of it a little concave instead of flat. That would have been neat.
  15. When attaching the knob, I didn’t consider that I wouldn’t be able to screw it on from the inside (because the box is too shallow to fit a screwdriver), so I had to use a screw with a hex head that I could hold with a wrench while I rotated the knob onto the stationary screw.
  16. I didn’t think to fill or sand out a small knot in the upper right corner of the box, and after oiling it, the knot is mostly invisible, but the crack in the middle of it is more noticeable.
  17. I didn’t scrape and sand all of the glue out of the interior corners of the box before it dried, so the oil finish didn’t penetrate in those spots. Luckily the drawer hides all of these spots.
  18. When I started oiling the box, I wasn’t using a lint-free cloth, so it got little lint nubbins all over it.

Hopefully, the next time I make a bandsaw box, I only make seventeen or fewer mistakes.

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CNC, Maker, Woodworking, X-Carve

Introducing the Fintendo: My Bartop Arcade Build

I have fulfilled the greatest dreams of my childhood and built an arcade machine that plays my favorite games from the Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and more.

There are many very good tutorials on the Web on how to build your own bartop arcade, so I won’t be going into a ton of detail. I mainly followed this tutorial from I Like to Make Stuff and this one from The Geek Pub.  The basic steps are to get a Raspberry Pi computer, load RetroPie onto it, buy some arcade buttons, and make it all fit into a box.

I already had a Raspberry Pi that I won at That Conference a couple of years ago, but I got my buttons from Amazon. The set came with enough buttons and joysticks for two players to each have eight buttons plus a coin and player button.

The LEDs inside are powered by the USB connection to the Raspberry Pi.

For all of the non-rectangular pieces, I cut them out using my X-Carve. This was especially helpful for all of the button holes, since they were not the same size as any of my drill bits.

After getting the holes cut in the control panel, I wired up the entire system and made sure that it worked. A couple quick rounds of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out confirmed that everything was copacetic.

For the monitor frame, I cut a window the exact size of the screen, then an inlay that would cover the bezel, and a deeper inlay for the area where the screen’s buttons are so that they wouldn’t get pressed by the frame.

Doing the frame this way hides the fact that the screen is a monitor, something that lots of other builds don’t do. I don’t want to be taken out of the moment by a distracting monitor logo and LED light. Ugh! An LED, can you imagine??  I did drill tiny holes in front of each button so they can still be pushed using a paperclip, but the holes became almost invisible after I painted the frame.

The monitor is attached to the frame by a board screwed into its mounting holes. I didn’t do this exactly right, so check one of the linked tutorials for a better example.

I followed The Geek Pub’s example, and attached guide strips where all of the sides needed to be attached. Then I glued and nailed the sides to the guides.

Lots of bartop arcade builders order custom vinyl graphics for their cabinets. I decided to go low-tech and painted a simple retro design on the cabinet and control panel in the same colors as the buttons.

Instead of going the usual route of a translucent graphic on plexiglass for the marquee, I carved a custom Nintendo logo bitmap into some quarter-inch plywood. I did this with a halftone-generator app I wrote for Easel, but it hasn’t been published for general use yet, so I can’t link to it here.

I covered the back of the marquee with red paper so that the logo will appear red when an LED light is mounted behind it.

I lined the marquee box with reflective tape to increase reflectivity. This was probably unnecessary.

The front panel holds the Coin and Player buttons for each player. Coin doubles as Select, and Player is the same as Start.

I also mounted a pair of USB ports on the front panel to allow for easy connection of a keyboard, thumb drive, or USB controllers.

All of the electronics plug into a power strip that feeds out the back of the cabinet.  I was originally going to use the speakers built into the monitor, but they didn’t have nearly enough power, so I stuck some external speakers in the cabinet too.

To allow for heat to vent out, I carved a number of holes into the back in no particular shape.

I also ran some t-molding around all of the exposed plywood edges. This really gave it an authentic arcade feel.

You can find instructions online for loading games onto the Pi, but it goes without saying that you should only use games that you already own a physical copy of.

The final step: invite the kids to play so you can inevitably step in and show them up. Done and done!

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