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Adventures in Traditional Soap-Making

A Brief History of Traditional Soap-Making

traditional soap-making

Pannikin of soft-soap on chair at left

Then Almanzo was left alone in the kitchen, to take his bath.  His clean underwear was hanging on a chair-back to air and warm.  The wash-cloth and towel and the small wooden pannikin of soft-soap were on another chain.  He brought another washtub from the woodshed and put it on the floor in front of the open oven-door.

He took off his waist and one pair of socks and his pants.  Then he dipped some warm water from the tub on the stove into the tub on the floor.  He took off his other pair of socks and his underwear, and his bare skin felt good in the heat from the oven.  He toasted in the heat, and he thought he might just put on his clean underwear and not take a bath at all.  But Mother would look, when he went in the dining-room.

So he stepped in the water.  It covered his feet.  With his fingers he dug some of the brown, slimy soft-soap from the pannikin and smeared it on the washcloth.  Then he scrubbed himself well all over.

Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (Chapter 7 Saturday Night)

That “soft-soap” is what we are after.  I’ve called it “man soap,” or “kick ass soap.”  The traditional methods of making soft-soap go back literally thousands of years.  The basic process involves leaching ashes in water to produce “lye-water,” and then mixing the lye-water with a fat, or fats, usually over heat, to “saponify” the fats.  In Almanzo’s case the soft-soap would probably have been made from cooking and heating-fire ashes, saved from the previous winter, and left-over fats from cooking.  Soap-making was springtime work, and it was work, without question, and usually the responsibility of the woman of the house.  In a perfect world, the resulting product contains neither fat nor lye, but only soap, the two ingredients having been totally consumed in the saponification process.  I’ve called it “man soap,” or “kick ass soap.”  It’s real, it’s natural, it was traditionally made from waste products, and it does the job.  And, the devil is indeed in the details; more on that to come in this post. Read more

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Well Pump Pressure Switch Repair

Homesteading DIY: Well Pump Pressure Switch Repair

In recent months, I’ve had to file the points (contactors) in the well pump pressure switch on a few occasions, after loss of water pressure to the house.  I finally decided to replace the contactors in the switch.  Our pressure switch is made by Square D, and while you can buy the entire switch, I decided to see if a contactor repair kit was available on

Amazon, and sure enough, it was.  You will need to switch part number to search for the appropriate repair parts.  Our switch part number is 9013FSG, located inside the switch cover, and the corresponding Square D Replacement Contact Kit 9998PC241 worked perfectly; $12 more or less, delivered.

If a fella wants to spend more time on the homestead than off, spending less money is important, which brings us to yet another homesteading DIY project.  This one is relatively small, it took me a couple of hours, and as usual, it was my first time out.  If I have it to do over again, it could probably be done in 30-45 minutes.

Once you have the parts on hand, and you’ve notified the significant other that there will be no water pressure for a bit, it’s time to get started.  Read more

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Wellpump Failure!

Background

Equipment failures never happen at an opportune time, and this was no exception to that rule.  It was about 0300 the moring of the 21st when Geri woke me to tell me that we had no water pressure in the house, and that day was our first running the new Primal Woods Pure Michigan Maple Syrup evaporator, and all of the associated new equipment.  I had no time for this wellpump failure!  But of course, I had to make time.  That time was this morning, when sap was not yet flowing, and when I did not have enough sap onhand to fire up the evaporator again.

Today’s Actions

Wellhead cover off

The braided line is connected to the body of the wellpump, and ensures that it does not fall to the bottom of the hole if the PEX tubing and wiring break.  Read on to learn more. Read more

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2017 Year in Review – 2018 Goals

2017 Year in Review | Lessons Learned in Primal Woods and on the Homestead

Sawyers chalked up some impressive numbers year-on-year, and maple syruping went well in general.  Also, work on ensuring that folks searching on-line for the products and services we offer could actually find us, was greatly enhanced by doing a significant amount of search engine optimization (SEO) work on the website.  And we learned at a rapid pace.  On the Homestead, we continued to improve the infrastructure, specifically in and under the house, and did a much better job of sourcing our food locally.  So what could possibly have gone wrong?  Plenty as it turns out, and that is really where the opportunities lie.  Let’s have a look.

Primal Woods 2017 year in review

What went well, what did not go well; 2017

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Cleaning the Central Boiler Classic Edge Reaction Chamber

Cleaning the Central Boiler Reaction Chamber – Homestead Maintenance

Central Boiler tools

Tools required (left to right): shovel, Central Boiler cleaning rod and hoe, plus the sheet metal wheel barrow

Cleaning the Central Boiler Reaction Chamber – Step by Step

As pictured above, you will need a shovel, the Central Boiler-provided “cleaning rod” and “hoe,” and something to use for moving the potentially still-hot ashes, when cleaning the Reaction Chamber.

Step 1: When ready, open the bypass damper and power off the control.

Central Boiler Firestar II control

Open the bypass damper and power “off” the control

Read more

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Homestead Maintenance Planning

maintenance planning MRC (Maintenance Requirement Card)

First 2 pages of an atypical Navy maintenance planning MRC (Maintenance Requirement Card)

The Need for Maintenance Planning

On the homestead, and in the Primal Woods business, there are a lot of “moving parts,” literally, and figuratively.  Of course some of the required maintenance is more important, some less, but choosing to do a particular planned maintenance task, or not, should be a conscious decision.  It’s “okay” to choose not to perform a particular task, or not to do maintenance planning at all, so long as a person is willing to accept the associated cost:benefit trade-offs and consequences.  And I will note; a state of “resilience” is difficult to attain without maintenance plannning and execution.

In response to my recently well-documented failures to perform some required maintenance, Central Boiler Heat Exchanger Maintenance for example, I went about looking for some sort of free “app” or program that might support my maintenance planning efforts.  No such luck.  I found a lot of work order planning tools, some with free versions, most overly complex, with functionality I don’t need at this stage, and none that I thought would meet my needs at low cost, i.e. no cost.  So, I am going about doing it the “old fashioned way,” the “Navy way,” and developing a maintenance planning system, or Planned Maintenance System (PMS) as it was in the Navy back in the day, maybe it still is, for the Homestead and Primal Woods.

Maintenance Planning: Free and Easy

Well, maybe not easy, but cheap for sure.  I am simply starting with a spreadsheet, and the various equipment manuals that we have around us, either as hard copies, or as digital downloads.  And, I’m not trying to pull all of this together at one time, it will come together in the ensuing weeks and months, as I pull out a manual to do maintenance, or as I encounter of breakdown.

Maintenance Planning spreadsheet for the Homestead at Primal Woods

Maintenance Planning spreadsheet for the Homestead at Primal Woods

Let me just point out a few things relating to the structure of the spreadsheet, which itself will be improved as experiences informs change.

Columns:  The first two I am using to categorize and subcategorize the tasks.  You could do more or less of this, but I enjoy some way of sorting and filtering maintenance planning items.  Column C contains labels for the various dates, and the individual task descriptions.  Column D and beyond, the Week Number and date range within which particular tasks will come due.  I have come to prefer the European-style Calendar Week approach for maintenance planning; I don’t need daily resolution on this calendar, but I want something a bit more precise than monthly or quarterly.

Rows: One row for each maintenace task, categorizing and subcategorizing the tax, describing the task, and providing the the cell comments, a reference to the safe source describing how and when to perform the task. I am not feeling the need to develop Maintenance Requirement Cards just yet, but the one I included at the top of the post is worth a look <wink>.  Yes, it gets that bad! <smile>

Body: In the body of the spreadsheet, where you can currently see “Due” in various cells, “Due” will be replaced with the Date that a particular maintenance task is completed.

Maintenance Planning: Future

A beauty of a spreadsheet, and there are many, is that it can be changed and improved relatively simply and quickly.  When the process is substantially proven out in the spreadsheet, it could be recreated in a database, with canned reporting, input forms, etc.  Who knows where this might go over the years, but regardless, the spreadsheet is a good starting point.  Also cool, is that I put this spreadsheet on Google Drive, and I can edit it, in other words make entries, using Google Sheets from my smart phone.  Or not; print it out, stick it on the wall, use a pencil, or update the spreadsheet on your laptop/desktop.

Example: Central Boiler – Check pH and Nitrite levels

Central Boiler Nitrite Test Kit p/n 40

Central Boiler Nitrite Test Kit p/n 405

You will see in Row 10 of the spreadsheet, “CB Check pH and Nitrite levels.”  It was due the week between Christmas and the New Year, though that date was discretionary, I just wanted to get it done “soon.”  As it turns out, soon was yesterday, January 4th.

The date moved out because we did not receive UPS shipments due to the weather for several days; I was awaiting the Central Boiler test kit.  But that’s beside the point.  The maintenance was performed, and though the task was simple I documented “How I” did it in a 6 minute YouTube video.  I know from my own experience, that sometimes it is very beneficial to see someone else do it, and some people consume information better visually than in written words.

Doing it for the first time, and making the videos as I went, it probably took me a little over an hour.  Next time it should take me less than 15 minutes.  I wrote earlier about more important and less important maintenance items; well maintenance to the water quality in an outdoor wood furnace, aka outdoor wood boiler, definitely falls in the “more important” category.  Have a look at the video if you like, and thank you for reading, and for watching!

All the best in 2018, and kind regards,

John

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Central Boiler Heat Exchanger Maintenance

Classic Edge 750 Vertical Heat Exchanger Maintenance

Before – During – After Cleaning of the Classic Edge 750 Vertical Heat Exchanger

Maintenance is Not Sexy!

Say it ain’t so.  Upon reflection, it seems to me that be it in the workplace, or in life, the steady Eddy gets little credit.  When things work, or go according to plan, well, of course that’s what we expected.  When things fail however, the fixer gets all credit, a big pat on the back, and is called in the next time there is a failure.  It’s even less glamorous in this life; because I have no one but myself to blame in the event of failure, and then I have to fix it, too. Read more

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Resilient and Sustainable Fresh Water Systems

sutainability and resilience defined

Sustainability and Resilience at Primal Woods

It’s safe to say I think, that these two words, resilience and sustainability, pretty well define our long term goals for the homestead.  The first three areas in need of attention that come to mind are shelter, and specifically heating the shelter, food, and water.  I have posted relatively frequently on all of these, and the focus of today’s post will be water.  My most recent post in the resilience and sustainability catgories was Sustainable Heat – Year 2 of Our Journey.  I also wrote some on these subjects in my Late Winter 2013/2014 post, and in the 2016 Year in Review post.  Well, as it turns out, we have come a long way, but we are still quite far from the goal line.

As I think about it now, both in retrospect and in looking towards future needs, we are probably furthest along in achieving the twin goals of sustainability and resilience, with the provision of fresh water.  This might be because we froze the Well House and the Studio in our first winter; the Well House systems were not permanently damaged, the PVC supply plumbing serving the Studio was shredded in its entirety, and that is not an exaggeration.  If you have ever heard of or seen a “spiral fracture” of bone, that is what each and every bone in the PVC skeletal system suffered.  Suffice it to say, the system was not the least bit resilient. Read more

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Sustainable Heat – Year 2 of Our Journey

Sustainable Heat; Resilient Home Heating Systems

Central Boiler Classic Edge 750

Central Boiler Classic Edge 750

Our home was built in the early 70’s, and I have to say, it’s infrastructure, particularly the foundation, crawl space, attic, septic system, electrical system, plumbing, and HVAC systems, were not well thought-out, executed, or maintained.  So far, the only item on that lengthy list that we have not at least substantially addressed, is the foundation.  The HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) was particularly inefficient, unreliable, and costly.  Sustainable heat: Not.  We inherited from previous owners, an old propane-fired forced air heating system, using two package units (you usually see these used industrially, the entire heating and air conditioning apparatus is outside the house, only ducting and wiring connecting it to the house), with installed electric baseboards as “back-up,” I suppose you could say.  The first time the propane-fired forced air system failed, due to operator error I might add, we learned that the electric baseboards were not capable of bringing the house up to even 45°F; they’ve not been energized since.  So what have we done, and what are we doing, to improve the sustainability and resilience of a system for providing sustainble heat?  Read on for the details. Read more

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Making a Living, and a Life

What Making a Living Looks Like from Here

Massive lifestyle change; that’s what it looks like.  Living closer to the land means that the days of a single-point source of income is only history, and has little, and hopefully no place, in the future.  There are at least a couple of reasons for that, the first that come to mind are:

  • Time.  In the end, that’s one of the few things you have, and precious little of it.  A “job” simply takes too much time away from everything else that matters; family, friends, community, health, the land, and so on.  A job is what I call a “mutually exclusive circle,” which is to say that usually, your family, friends, the community, your health, and that of the land, are not a part of it, they’re not inside the job circle.  Where does that leave those people and things?
  • Earning money at a job is taxed heavily, relatively speaking.  That means that what you earn is significantly devalued simply by virtue of how you earn it, especially if that something results in a W-2.  The Feds take a big fraction, the States follow suit.
  • Then, most of what you buy with what you earn is also taxed, the earnings on your savings, if any, are taxed, etc.  And let’s not forget the systematic devaluation of the dollar.  All-in-all, it’s a Win-Lose proposition, and the earner/saver is not on the Winning side of the equation.
  • Resiliancy?  Not.  With a single-point source of income you are generally employed at the whim of your employer; it’s called “at-will” employment; your will, and more importantly in this context, your employer’s will.  You can be let go for more or less any reason, or no reason at all, eliminating your single-point source of income.
  • Passive income.  Nope.  With a job, typically, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid.  Especially as we age, it is important to have streams of income that do not require our active participation.  You know, like book royalties, or rent from that spare space in your barn; gifts that keep on giving.

At least that is the belief system I operate under.  So what does that mean?

Primal Woods
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