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9/8/2014

handleWhat’s the best way to replace wooden tool handles? I’ve got an axe with a handle that’s completely broken off, and a sledge hammer with a cracked handle.

Hammers, hatchets, axes and sledge hammers usually have wooden handles and eventually they all get loose and break in time. That’s why learning to replace wooden tool handles is such a useful self-reliance skill. You really can’t pay anyone to do this work for you, and you shouldn’t. 

Get a new handle, whittle it to fit your tool head, then anchor the handle into the head so it doesn’t move. These are the three steps to tool handle replacement, but you’ll need to understand details for success. 

Hardware stores everywhere sell replacement wooden handles, but when you select one, look for growth rings that extend from the front of the handle edge to the back. Avoid side-to-side grain orientation since this makes for a weaker handle. Grain orientation is not something that tool handle makers pay attention to, so you’ll find a wide variety of growth ring patterns on any store shelf. 

What you might not realize is how easy it is to make a handle from scratch. Easier and better than buying because you have more control over wood quality. Why pay for a replacement handle that’s weaker than something you can make in less time than it takes to travel to the store? 

I was reminded of all this last week when I made a new 18” long wooden handle for one of my 4 lbs. stone hammers. The whole job took less than 45 minutes from rough lumber to installed handle, and the process of making a new handle begins with a table saw. 

Where my homestead is on Manitoulin Island, Canada, ash is the wood of choice for tool handles, but hickory is even better if it grows where you live. Either way, cut a piece of wood that’s as wide and as thick as it needs to be to fill the hole in the head of the axe or hammer you’re making the handle for. As you work, keep that all-important growth ring orientation in mind.

After using your table saw to cut your handle blank to thickness and width, tilt the blade over 45º to saw off the corners of the handle blank. Bringing it closer to an oval shape on the saw means less work to do next with the spokeshave.

Any simple vise works for holding your handle blank while you shape it. Keep an eye on the old handle if it’s around and let it guide you as you shape the new one.

Fitting a new handle to the tool head is the same whether you make your own handle or buy one ready-made. For a detailed, illustrated lesson on the process, download my free, full-color report How To Replace Wooden Tool Handles.

Photo by Steve Maxwell


Steve Maxwell and his family have homesteaded on Manitoulin Island since 1985. You can visit Steve’s homestead online at his Real Rural Life blog.



8/22/2014

How should I choose a router table? I’m planning to make trim and molding for a renovation at my house, but I really don’t know where to start when selecting a router table. There are so many to choose from, and the cost varies a lot. Can I make my own?

A router table is one of the most useful additions to any home workshop because it boosts safety and usefulness. There are many different kinds of router tables, but all work on the same idea. Instead of being used free-hand, the router is mounted upside down in the router table. You move the wood over the router instead of the router over the wood.

When I first started woodworking seriously in the early 1980s, you had to make your own router table to find a decent one, but that’s changed. Making your own table is still a great idea, but if you’d rather spend a little more money and a little less time getting to your woodworking projects sooner, there are lots of options for a purchased table.

One way to learn about router tables is to see what I use in my own shop. Check out my router table screencast:

Photo by Steve Maxwell


Steve Maxwell and his family have homesteaded on Manitoulin Island since 1985. You can visit Steve’s homestead online at Real Rural Life.




8/14/2014

I found some old cast-iron cookware that’s rusty and covered in black crud. Can I resurrect it?

Old cast iron can be a bargain, says Mark Kelly, public relations manager for Lodge Manufacturing in South Pittsburg, Tenn., the last U.S. manufacturer to cast its own iron. Kelly says cast-iron cookware from China is usually lower-quality, with several telltale signatures: It will have odd marks at the “throat” of the handle and perhaps on the bottom, it may not look as finished, it will be thicker and clunkier, and the edges won’t be as smooth. A better bet would be a piece of U.S.-made cookware, no matter how gunky it may appear.Rusty Cast-Iron Skillet

If you’ve found a well-made cast-iron piece, restoring it will be fairly easy. Kelly instructs: First remove rust using a soap-free steel wool pad (or have the rust sandblasted off at a metal shop), and then bake away any crust by heating the piece on a grill, over a wood fire, or in your self-cleaning oven. Cleaning it outside may be best, because the process could otherwise fill your house with smoke. You may need to repeat this process several times before the crust is gone.

When the cast iron is clean, re-season it by applying the cooking oil of your choice all over it. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, line the oven floor with aluminum foil, and bake the piece upside down for an hour. Turn off the oven and let the piece cool.

Seasoning cast-iron cookware fills the pores of the metal with carbon particles, which creates the nonstick effect, Kelly says. The more you cook with the piece, the more that effect will be enhanced, and that’s why it gets better with time. Re-oil the piece after each use.

“There’s no way to ruin cast iron,” Kelly says. “Well, in Leviticus, it does say that it’s a straight path to hell if you put cast iron in your dishwasher. But that’s the only way.”

To learn more about caring for cast-iron cookware, read The Care and Feeding of Cast Iron: Cleaning and Seasoning Cast-Iron Cookware.

Photo by Fotolia/Jaimie Duplass: Salvage crusty cast-iron with a bit of scrubbing and baking.


Robin Mather is a senior associate editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS and the author of The Feast Nearby, a collection of essays and recipes from her year of eating locally on $40 a week. In her spare time, she is a hand-spinner, knitter, weaver, homebrewer, cheese maker and avid cook who cures her own bacon. Find her on Twitter, Facebook or .



8/7/2014

I don’t want to mow my meadow every week with a riding mower, but I do need to mow it once or twice per year to keep weedy trees from moving in. What kind of heavy-duty mower do you recommend?

Many people mow large areas too often. If you spend less time mowing, you’ll not only save time and gas money, but you’ll also preserve a vastly better habitat for birds, bees and other wildlife. To mow tall grass a couple of times per year, a brush mower or a flail mower is the most effective tool.Land Pride FM4188 Flail Mower

Brush mowers rotate on a vertical axis — either a heavy-duty, two-ended blade or, in the case of higher-quality mowers, a disk rotating on a vertical axis, usually with two hinged blades. The hinged blades better protect the drivetrain if you hit rocks or stumps. This style of mower is effective for cutting down material, but the way it chews up the matter isn’t consistent. The mower will chop some of the material into small pieces while lopping some off at the base. The lopped-off grass will fall to the ground and the mower will pass over it, so you could have some pieces of mowed material that are 3 or 4 feet long, depending on the height of what you’re cutting.

If you want a mower that will convert your meadow grass, weeds, brush or cover crops into smaller pieces that will break down more quickly into the soil or make good mulch, opt for a flail mower. These mowers have many blades hinged to a horizontal drum that rotates about 3,000 times per minute on a horizontal axis. The mower’s multiple cutting surfaces at various heights allow it to hack any substance into a small, uniform size. (It’s essentially a chipper-shredder on wheels.) The horizontal drum axis will also evenly distribute the chewed-up matter across the width of the mower — unlike a brush mower, whose vertical-axis blade rotation tends to windrow the material to one side.

Both of these mower types are available as walk-behind units, or as power take-off (PTO) attachments for riding or walk-behind tractors. You can also buy towable, self-powered models (for riding tractors that do not have a PTO for driving implements). Even some riding brush mowers are starting to appear on the market.

Photo courtesy Land Pride: Flail mowers, such as this Land Pride FM4188, can help keep your meadow free of invading foliage.



7/30/2014
Every summer, I find being outdoors after dusk impossible because of mosquitoes. Is there a natural spray or trap for mosquito control?Homemade Mosquito Trap

Several synthetic and organic pesticides will poison mosquitoes on contact, but they’ll provide only minimal relief. The best way to reduce mosquito populations in your yard is to eradicate breeding sites and also install both passive and active mosquito traps.

Mosquitoes need water to breed — their larvae are the “wigglers” you can see in neglected buckets of water if you look closely — so you can naturally limit mosquito swarms by eliminating breeding sites in your neighborhood. To do this, always empty water from open containers, old tires and other potential breeding grounds within five days after a heavy rain. Add a product called Mosquito Dunks (made with Bacillus thuringiensis) to rain barrels and other standing-water supplies for a safe and easy way to prevent mosquito larvae from hatching. Or, let fish do the trick — preferably native minnows. You can purchase traps at a sporting goods store that have been designed to collect the minnows from a pond, and then release them to feed on larvae in your rain barrel or water garden.

You won’t need many minnows — fish are some of the best mosquito traps available. One fathead minnow can eat 74 mosquito larvae per day. A study from Rutgers University recommends 10 gambusia minnows for one standard rain barrel, and 35 to 100 for a water garden, depending on its size. Similar stocking rates would apply to arroyo chub minnows or fathead minnows.

Some of the best mosquito traps use multiple attractants — light, carbon dioxide and an attractant called “octenol” — to lure mosquitoes and then suck them in with a fan. A University of North Dakota professor of biology collected data in 2002 showing that the Mosquito Magnet caught 8,000 female mosquitoes per night during peak-summer season. The Mosquito Magnet is pricey, starting at $400. The cheapest Mega-Catch model costs much less — $150 with lures — and is a good fit for smaller yards. Shop carefully: Some anti-mosquito products actually spray chemical pesticides into the air — and those pesticides could be toxic to you, too.

Photo courtesy Mega-Catch: The Mega-Catch Pro 900 ALPHA mosquito trap is an affordable and effective trap for smaller yards.


Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on .



7/23/2014

Seed Packets In Jars In The Refrigerator

What’s the best way to store my garden seeds?

Seeds are living organisms, so don’t simply toss them into a shed or shoe box. To keep seeds you buy viable as long as possible, you should always keep them as cool and dry as you can. Usually, your best option is to keep them in the refrigerator, sealed in a glass jar.

If you live in a humid region, you can add silica gel to absorb additional moisture. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange sells silica gel beads for drying seeds, or you can find them at craft supply stores, where they’re sold for drying flowers. You can also use powdered milk as a desiccant: Measure 1 to 2 tablespoons from a freshly opened package onto a piece of fabric or a paper towel, fold it up, and then place it in the container with the seed packets. Powdered milk will absorb excess moisture for about six months.

If you’re saving seeds from your garden, dry them well before you store them in the refrigerator. Spread the mature seeds in a shallow layer over a fine mesh screen or ceramic plate, and dry the seeds in a warm, dark and airy location for several weeks, until the seeds are hard and no longer pliable. A fan may help speed up the process. If possible, gently stir the seeds every now and then to expose them evenly to the air. Package the dry seeds in envelopes labeled with the variety and date, and then store them in glass jars in the refrigerator.

If treated well, your garden seeds will stay viable for one to five years, depending on the plant type. To learn how to test your seeds’ viability, read Testing Seed Viability.

To learn more about how to store seeds, see Savvy Seed Care.

Photo by Hannah Kincaid: Airtight jars placed in the refrigerator will safeguard the viability of the garden seeds stored within.


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on Google+.



5/28/2014

Where do I locate sustainable wood for my home building projects?

Certified sustainably grown wood isn’t always easy to track down. trees in a forestThe certification label could reside on the product’s wrapping paper, shipping document, or an invoice that the distributor sees but that you may not have access to.

You can source sustainable wood with a little digging, however. Two major organizations certify sustainably produced wood: the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). SFI is a North American organization; FSC works globally. Each has a searchable online database that identifies lumber, engineered wood, decking, siding and other wood products that have met the organization’s standards for sustainability. You can check out the SFI database and the FSC database, and then locate dealers that carry the certified brands.

Another approach is to ask your local lumber distributor to direct you to the sustainable wood products it stocks. If a label isn’t clearly visible on the product and you want to verify the product’s certification status, you can ask the distributor for the product’s identification number and then check it on the SFI or FSC website.

If your retail distributor doesn’t already carry sustainably harvested wood, ask for it! That kind of grass-roots demand is one of the best ways to increase its availability and support sustainable forestry, says Valerie Luzadis, president of the U.S. Society for Ecological Economics.

Both the SFI and FSC certification programs officially organized shortly after the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, which put forth a set of principles to guide the sustainable management of forests worldwide. The SFI and FSC certification programs differ, and those differences have led to considerable debate about which system is more rigorous. Over the years, each organization’s certification standards have become tougher, and additional updates are in the works. A 2011 Dovetail Partners report examined the differences between the programs’ certification standards.

If you’re planning to build a home or undertake some other large project, seeking out certified lumber is ecologically wise and impactful. A March 2012 Journal of Forestry report that measured certification’s effects on forest-management practices concluded that both systems have improved the environmental, social and economic sustainability of forests by establishing geographic information systems, controlling exotic invasives, monitoring chemical use, planning with biological diversity in mind, and more.

Photo courtesy Forest Stewardship Council: The Forest Stewardship Council has certified more than 330 million acres of forest around the world.


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on .









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