Friday, July 29, 2011

My Ideal Workshop

There isn't room for a real workshop on our property. And indeed, even if there was room for it, it'd be a low priority, because I've half a dozen other hobbies and pursuits that come above the woodwork. But still, when I'm working on some piece of woodwork on a makeshift bench, or wishing for a fourth hand and an extra elbow, I do think about a Proper Workshop. When we get in a new shed, sometime later this year, I may even take some steps toward setting up a small one.

Now, I was brought up in a carpentry shop; my father is a master craftsman in a number of fields, and he's had various work areas. The only thing they've all had in common is copious space - these are not sheds and basements, they're full-on professional spaces where you can build a 10-metre stairs and rotate it without running into anything. I'm not thinking of anything that big, not least because I'd never have the use for it. The largest things I'm likely to handle are more on the 2.5 metre scale.

There are two key aspects, I think - working space and storage space. And the two cannot overlap. The default state of the place needs to be that the working space is empty, and the storage space is full, or nearly so.

The working space in my father's shops has always been big, heavy tables. These would have tops a good 4cm thick, maybe more. 2 metres by 3. Legs in 10cm square chunks of timber, often braced two ways. They weren't nailed or bolted to the floor, because sometimes they'd need to be moved, but they were incredibly immobile pieces of furniture. And then they'd have a full sheet of thick plywood attached on top, because the working surface would become pitted and battered, and need to be replaced after a while.

Now, I'll never need anything quite that massive, but I do reckon that something very solid is essential. If you need to really put pressure on something, if it's clamped down, the very last thing you want is the table moving. There's a heavy desk that was in the house when we got it, and is now in the garden shed, which might well be ideal for this job, except that it's far too low - any surface that's comfortable to sit at is not comfortable to stand at. So it might be best to build myself a bespoke worktable, at the proper height, and with the proper density. I think a 1 metre by 2 surface should be plenty. 1 by 1.5 might even suffice.

The worktable also needs space around it. A metre would be good, but I'd probably get away with 75cm. That would, on a 1.5 metre-long table, give me space enough for an object of up to 3 metres in the longest axis.

Now, there's the question of a vice. A good vice is essentially an immovable object, so common sense dictates that it be attached to the worktable. But it can get in the way, and having taken so much trouble to ensure that the worktable can remain clear, deliberately putting a heavy chunk of metal where it can interfere seems counter-productive. There are two possibilities, I think - you either ensure that the vice sits slightly below the surface of the table, or you put it on a second bench. In constrained spaces, I think the former is probably more likely.

Then, storage space. There are two kinds of storage spaces needed - tools, and materials. Tools need to be visible, accessible, and safe. Wall-mounted racks of one kind or another are ideal for this. Boxes are definitely not; they encourage rummaging, and rummaging in a box of sharp things is trouble. There is also, of course, something very pleasing about a wall covered in tools. Tool storage like this isn't even all that intrusive; it doesn't use up much space in reality.

Material storage is another matter. Materials for projects under way, bits of scrap that are "too good" to throw out (and I've been really glad to have these, already), and then the things like sandpaper, glue, screws and nails, varnish, and so on. That can take up a lot of space. In some workshops I've seen, there's an entire room, sometimes a second building, given over to this storage. Again, that's not practical for me, so I think that stacking by a wall for timber, and a cupboard for the sandpaper and screws end of things will be needed. Maybe some semi-loft-like storage, if the structure allows for it.

Is that everything? Not hardly. There are three other things to consider: permanently placed tools, lighting, and ventilation.

Permanently placed tools are the things like table saws, pull-down drills, sanding belts, and so on. At present, of course, I've none of these. A pull-down drill would be convenient, but isn't essential. Some sort of mounted saw would be very good, though - not necessarily a table-saw, but one of the pull-down style as well, perhaps. And maybe a small lathe. And, considering how much of my reference material is online, I'd need space for some sort of laptop or old desktop computer. These things need their own space, usually along by a wall. Some of them need a solid bench, again, for a mounting. They do need a workspace, but they can share that around the main work table, and if they're on benches, then I might have drawers or other storage underneath.

Lighting is a thing that my father's shops never did well, but I'm not sure that lighting was done well anywhere in the 80s and early 90s. What's needed is one or two powerful pendant lights over the main work table, high enough that they won't be hit by ordinary movements. And then you want spot lighting for the permanent tools and storage spaces. There's no need for these lights to be on all the time, and indeed, if they're off, you can get the pleasing effect of a pool of light in the working space, and nothing elsewhere to distract.

And finally, ventilation. My mild allergy to wood dust seems to have decreased massively in the last couple of years, but it's still better not to be breathing it too much. Not to mention varnish, paint, and glue. A flow of air is often enough - so a door and a window will do. I'd like to have some sort of air suction, as well, for clearing away dust from places where it'll otherwise build up, under saws and drills - it's entirely possible that an old vacuum cleaner will suffice for this.

Ideally, then, I'd be looking at a space of about 2 metres by 4. It would, of course, fulfil many of the functions of our existing sheds - storage of garden tools, outdoor furniture, and so on, and I'm sure the lawnmower can find a space in there someplace. Inevitably, some compromise will be needed - but it's nice to have an idea in mind.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Native Irish Plants for Winter

I've been listening to the BBC Gardeners' Question Time podcast of late, and also looking at gardens while I commute. The harsh winter of 2010-2011 seems to have ravaged gardens up and down the British Isles, and this is clear in two ways.

First, nigh-on every every episode of GQT has a question like "My beloved such-and-such plant died over the winter; can you suggest a replacement?". Second, gardens all over Ireland have dead shrubs standing out - sometimes it's just one set of bare branches, but there's one garden near us that has a hedge, three large shrubs, and several lower and smaller ones, all stone dead. There's a honeysuckle growing over one of the big dead shrubs, which gives the garden some semblance of life, but otherwise it looks like some sort of depressing art installation.

The GQT folks have a barrage of suggestions, but they come down to one fundamental - use native plants. We may think that winters like the last two are unusual, but the plant life of the British Isles disagrees, and can handle the -15°C fairly well. The exotics, on the other hand, keel over - there are dead palm trees hither and yon all over the South-west of Ireland, for just one example. Now, there are exotics I have every intention of growing, but they're either tolerant of our climate - pak choi, for instance, which is so happy in cold damp conditions that the crop I planted this year reckoned it was too dry, and bolted - or kept in greenhouses, like the jalapeƱo peppers we're hoping to have a crop from this autumn.

There were two palm trees in our place when we moved in; one at the front, and one at the back. They were terminated with extreme prejudice. Everything else shrub-like or hedging in there is native, or hardy - hazel, holly, blackthorn, hawthorn, ash, and so on. The only thing in the whole place that didn't make it through the winter intact was the rosemary in the herb bed.

So it's pretty clear that native plants have a massive advantage in this regard over the exotics. Now if only the weather could kill off bindweed.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Two years ago, I planted asparagus crowns. I noted earlier this year that they seemed to have died; this turns out to be incorrect. There is, once more, one solitary frond of very narrow asparagus hanging out where the three crowns went in. This, to be honest, almost more frustrating than the things having died off completely.

Now, having concluded they were dead, that area hasn't been weeded, so that's probably not doing it any favours. It's halfway covered in vetch, for a start. But even if I weed it thoroughly and carefully, I'm not sure what to do to actually encourage the plant. More compost? Dig it up and move it somewhere else?

Some initial research seems to indicate that compost is indeed the way to go, but also argues for a well-drained sandy loam, rather than our cold clay. So I'm reckoning that if I want to keep this one, I'll look at clearing it up carefully, leaving the fern there over the winter, and providing it with a good dollop of compost in the autumn. But it does seem like a small raised bed elsewhere with some more suitable soil brought in might be a better solution - it'll warm sooner in the spring, drain better, and be somewhat easier to keep weed free. I do have a bunch of beams left from the attic, so I could build a nice high bed.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Crops, July 2011

Some pictures of the crops growing in the garden this summer.

The lettuces are starting to go to seed a little - we've more coming up, so it's not a problem, and they've done very well as cut-and-come-again crops. Also, they're gorgeously geometric when they run to seed, so I'm willing to let them be for a bit on that stake as well.

The apples are getting sizable enough. There are six on this tree, and two on the other; after the whipping around in wind they got in late April, I'm not unhappy with that, and they're young trees yet.

The peas have come into their own in the last couple of weeks; there are fattening pods all over. We've had some, and they were very good, and I look forward to more soon. Oddly, the ones in newer, unimproved ground did well (or maybe it was something to do with the rogue potatoes alongside them), while those in better ground are much slower to get going.

And then the green beans, which were extremely poor at the germination stage. But all three plants that actually sprouted have done very well, and are now being trained up the cones. They're just short of flowering, so with any luck, we'll have a crop from them as well.

Next year, I reckon I'll be doing a lot more planting in trays and then planting out; much better control over conditions starting out, and a lot less bother with thinning. And they'll look neater too.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Second-hand Greenhouse (Miniature)

Friends who are moving out of the country said we could have their miniature greenhouse. Having assembled a makeshift one from old windows and attic beams, I wasn't about to say no. It needed some dis-assembly to get in it as far as the car, and then we realised that the size of the back panel - composed of solid pine beams and tongue-and-groove boards - meant it just wasn't going to go in, and that was it. So out came a hammer, and I took it apart, plank by plank, until it fitted.

Re-assembly therefore meant starting with remaking the back panel, and that started with taking out the rusty staples it had been put together with. Between a hammer to knock them flat in places, and a pliers to get them out where possible, I eventually got them all dealt with. And then on to the assembly. There's something very pleasing about working outdoors with wood on a sunny day.

Here's the final result:

That's now sitting at the back of the house, holding two tomato plants (one starting to groan with green tomatoes, the other only starting to produce a few; both have lots more flowers), a jalapeno pepper (flowers, no fruit yet, but I'm hopeful), and a small grape-vine, which we thought was dead, but has started to produce some small leaves again. Ideally, I think, it should actually be in soil, with a wall to climb on, but it's very small right now, and I think a year's coddling before we expose it to the outside world might be good for it.

One thing I would like to get would be a couple of small thermometers, which I'd mount where they can be seen in this and in the makeshift one. I reckon this will be hotter than the recycled one, so that gives three stages of heat - outside, recycled greenhouse, and good greenhouse, in increasing heat.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Attic Progress

The attic work is under way, and it's going well. We pulled out the fitted wardrobe - which took a little longer than expected, because whoever fitted it had some of fetish about using lots and lots of nails. The removed chipboard and plasterboard are going into a skip, which arrived yesterday, and will be filled up tomorrow. The more solid bits of actual timber that were forming the structure, I'm hanging on to; some of them have already become the frame of a miniature greenhouse, and the rest will find uses in the garden.

The next bit was putting down flooring. First, though, it was necessary to raise the level a bit, as there are lots of wires, pipes, and other bits that cross the actual rafters. The optimal height to raise it was exactly 5cm, but annoyingly, this falls short of the floor level in the bedroom, since the bedroom floor is on thicker, deeper rafters. I looked into what I'd need to do to make the floors match in level, but it would have been difficult, and made the overall structure rather weaker than I was happy with. So there are 5cm square beams crossing the rafters at right angles, about 35cm apart, and the high-density particleboard "loft panels" rest on these. There were support beams, wires, and other things to navigate around, and by and large, it has come out very neatly. There are a few more bits to slot in, but that's waiting on the replacement jigsaw blades I bought this morning.

We had a local electrician in to lay cables for the sockets and light fittings, and those have been accommodated as well. The cables will disappear behind panelling of one kind or another when everything is finished. Once everything else is in place, the electrician will come back in to do the final fittings.

Since there's a support beam at ceiling level as well, the old opening for the fitted wardrobe is becoming the opening into the new space - a doorway without a door. This will become a feature, and I plan to put a nice timber step - only a centimetre or two high - in the opening to allow for the difference in floor levels.

We're also putting up a hardboard ceiling - this won't be the final surface; it's just to keep the insulation material at bay for now. It's about two-thirds in place, and is awaiting the jigsaw blades as well before it can be finished.

The next bit will be to put in the storage. There are various details to work around with this, as there were with the flooring; beams and access to the water tank being the main ones. Once I'm done with the floor and ceiling, I can start to measure and calculate how we can get the most storage out of the space that's there. Long drawers and pull-out rails will certainly feature. The spare mattresses, which were such a nuisance to get in and out before, are being disposed of; we got a chair-bed for the study downstairs, and we'll get an air mattress or two in case of extra need. Not having those will free up a lot of storage, and put less constraint on what we can do.

And when all of that is in place, we'll finish it out with tongue-and-groove panelling, as in the bathroom downstairs, and put something a bit nicer on the floor.