Hits and misses of DIY projects, both big and small.

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DIY Holiday Card Holder on Refrigerator

Space is at a premium in our small 800 square foot apartment. With less free wall and counter space than our last apartment, my husband and I have been forced to find creative ways to store mail, grocery lists and other odds and ends. Letters and catalogs left on top of the half-wall in our kitchen will invariably get lost, knocked to the ground by one of our three cats. Even our large bulletin board that holds recipes, coupons and grocery lists is not a great option - one of our enterprising cats has figured out how to pull papers down with her paws and even bites thumbtacks to pull them out and drop them on the floor. In an effort to save our bills, magazines and other paper correspondence, I’ve come up with this DIY holiday card and mail holder for our refrigerator and metal front door.

I made my holiday card and mail holders with cardboard boxes found in my recycling bin, some scrap wrapping paper and fabric, Mod Podge, hot glue and a handful of powerful magnets. Depending on what supplies you already have at home, this project could cost very little. It cost me about $3.50 for six magnets.

To make your own holiday card and mail holder you will need:

• Cardboard box(es) (choose a size or sizes that will work best with the cards or mail you intend to keep in the boxes)
• Paper or fabric (leftover scraps of wrapping paper or remnants of pretty fabric are perfect for this!)
• Mod Podge or watered down Elmer’s Glue (for adhering paper)
• Hot glue sticks and a hot glue gun (for repairing/reinforcing cardboard boxes and adhering fabric)
• Scissors
• Ruler
• Pen or pencil
• Magnets

Gather your materials, lets DIY!

Cardboard Boxes

The first thing you need to do is prepare your boxes. Make sure the cardboard is clean and that there is no food residue on it. Cut away any ragged edges and reinforce loose flaps with hot glue. Depending on the type and shape of your box, you may need to cut and glue to modify the box to suit your needs.

The next part is more fun - decorating your box! Cut your paper or fabric to size and use Mod Podge (or watered down Elmer’s glue, I like the consistency of 2/3 Elmer’s to 1/3 water) or hot glue to adhere to your box. The process should feel similar to wrapping gifts. If you’d like to Mod Podge the outside of your paper, you can. It will give your box a shinier appearance. Allow your creation(s) time to dry before proceeding to the next step.

Before gluing magnets to your box(es), I recommend testing them on your refrigerator. Hold the box up to the fridge and place the magnet(s) on the inside of the box, on the side touching the fridge. If you have enough magnets, the box will stay in place when you let go. You can use hot glue to adhere the magnets to the box, on the inside or outside, depending on your preference. You can purchase powerful magnets at most home improvement or craft stores. This was my first experience with neodymium magnets. They are extremely strong and can break when they slam into each other. I learned this the hard way - but even the broken magnets are still powerful enough to use in this project!

DIY Holiday Card Holder

Use your DIY holiday card and mail holder to display holiday cards, keep your mail organized (each member of the family could have their own box!) or hold small kitchen items like coupons or clips to keep bags of cereal or crackers closed.

With Christmas quickly approaching, this DIY holiday card and mail holder could make the perfect homemade gift for someone special!

Have a healthy and happy holiday!

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Christmas, a joyous season that excites the young and old, is here. The excitement is contagious: drinking cocoa by a warm fire, decorations illuminating the tree, and sharing time with family and friends. It really is the most wonderful time of the year, well, except for the bombardments of advertisements that tell you what your dearest one needs, the expectation of giving, of needing to make a list for others to buy for you, etc., etc. I feel like Charlie Brown this time of the year, cheapened by the dark side of the holiday, the commercialization that steals the joy of Christmas.

As I attempt to live more simply, I find that the modern Christmas norms juxtapose my belief system on gifting. How do you express love without gifts, and how do you lovingly say no to those who lavish with presents? This has been a delicate subject that my husband and I have waded through with our families each year, as we attempt to set out desires for our lifestyle to be de-cluttered by more and more “stuff.” The conversations are not always easy, but they are beneficial as a tool to discuss lasting values and impacts.

What is the hardest part about even breaching this topic? Feeling spoiled with a “first world problem.” In some ways, yes, it seems ungrateful, but when something challenges the values that you seek, take it into careful consideration. When you have people in your life that express their love in gifts, it is hard to ask them to change. Fortunately, our families are patient with us, and over time have listened to our desires. We forgive them when they overdo it (who doesn’t enjoy occasionally being spoiled), and best of all, we have found an avenue to fully express our appreciation for them, homemade gifts.

Canned Gifts for Readymade Meals

My go-to gifts are canned goods that I have made in the summer and fall. Canning takes lots of time and energy, especially if you have planted the seeds in the ground.

It is such a pleasure to watch the transformation from garden to table, and to be able to share that warmth with your loved ones during the coldest time of the year. Now all that needs to be done is to decorate the jars with cute holiday fabric, bows, and ornaments. Voila — instant gift. Gift baskets with a sampling of your canned flavors make quick decadent presents.

cookies in a jar 

If you haven’t been canning this year, don’t despair; you can assemble gifts in a jar, like the Oatmeal M&M Cookie mix here.

How to Make Wooden Ornaments

Another simple project we worked on this year is stamped wooden ornaments. Supplies for this include: thin wood slices (also called tree cookies), stamps, ink, and eyehooks. We made our own tree cookies by cutting a small branch 1/4-inch thick, sanded each piece, then added a layer of clear varnish for the finished look. When dry, they are ready to be stamped. Be careful to let the ink dry before touching, else it will smudge. The last touch is to add the eyehook. Rustic and beautiful, here is another quick and easy homemade present to be proud of.

tree ornament

Be creative. Choose something that’s inspiring for you and meaningful for your loved one.  Take up a new hobby in 2015.  Projects are great ways to force you into learning something new, like this knitted scarf for my niece.

It is far from perfect (that's why you get the distant view), but I know she will cherish the energy that her aunt put into it far more than a toy from the store.

May we enter Christmas with a spirit of gratitude for the special ones in our life, and the upcoming year to choose more wisely and sustainably. Nothing says “I love you” like spending time on someone.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


wooden spoon

If you can make kindling, you can carve a spoon. And mastering spoon carving will not only help you make bowls, ladles, and shovels (and musical instruments -- big ladles covered with skins and strings), it will also develop all the cutting and shaping skills you'll need to make that timber frame you've been dreaming about. And, it's a great joy to take a bit of branch and with little more than a knife, turn it into a beautiful tool to fill your empty belly and please your eyes and hands.

Long before industrial factories started cranking out millions of metal and plastic utensils, spoons were common (and disposable) as seashells on the beach, or chips of wood at the chopping block. Consider that in the Romance languages the word "spoon" comes from a root meaning "shell," while in English it comes from an Indo-European root meaning "chip of wood."

So for all you shell-less dry-landers, almost any fresh bit of branch wood can make you a rough and ready (or polished and elegant) spoon.

First, sharpen your hatchet and knife (good books have been written about sharpening, so I won't go into it here except to say that the sharper your tools, the easier the work and the better the results).

Just about any wood will do. It all depends on what grows in your neighborhood. Alder is common, fine-grained, easy to carve, and holds up well to repeated wetting and drying. Apple is nice, but seems more prone to cracking over the long haul. Softwoods like cedar and fir are carveable, but tend to be stringy and tough to work, unless they have very tight growth rings. The only wood I've ever tried that I absolutely couldn't carve was Asian pear -- I could barely get the knife into it!

Below I'll describe the individual steps, but this is where videos and many photos provide the best tuition. I have an illustrated tutorial on my website, as well as photos and drawings of my absolute all-time favorite spoon, which was, I suspect, carved by a traditional eastern European carver; and searches on Youtube will surely bring up as many more spoon and green-woodworking videos as you have time to watch.

wooden spoons 

Steps to a Spoon

1. Cut a branch about 9 inches long, and as wide as you want the bowl of your spoon (the bark will all come off!).

2. Split the branch in half w/your hatchet. Hold it on your chopping block with one hand. With the hatchet in the other hand, gently place the blade across the very center of the branch; keeping the blade firmly pressed on the wood, and holding the branch in the middle, pick it up about 6 inches and bring it down sharply to drive the hatchet into the wood - not too hard or you'll cut yourself! Just tap tap tap until the blade sticks. Then let go the bottom hand, and finish the split with a single downward blow of the hatchet.

3. If the wood splits evenly, each half branch should make a spoon.

4. The rest of the roughing process is a matter of making a series of cuts which will either be parallel to each other, or at 90 degrees. When you've got the proportions of bowl and handle fixed, then you can start on rounding and shaping.

It doesn't even need much of a hollow to get most foods into your mouth - and if what you're eating won't stay on your spoon, you should probably be drinking it from a cup!

Image caption: Left to right, 1) a spoon I made, probably from big leaf maple; 2) my favorite spoon ever (I traded for it), carved, I suspect, by a traditional eastern European spoon carver, perhaps boxwood?; and 3) a treasured birch spoon, carved by Bill Coperthwaite, who introduced me to the tool that changed my life. (More on that soon!)

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Metal Tray Magnet Board

Easy to make and more decorative than a plain cork board, these metal tray magnet boards are the perfect place to display photos and notes. Button magnets make a cute and thrifty addition to this simple DIY project. I first got the idea for this project when shopping in a “shabby chic” home decor store in Columbus, Ohio. If I remember correctly, the metal tray was $15 to $20 and the decorative button magnets were $5 to $10 for a small bag. I knew I could make this myself for cheaper!

I ended up making two trays and twenty button magnets. I already had one tray in my possession, a Christmas tray with an image from The Saturday Evening Post with Santa Claus on it. My Grandma had given it to me years ago when she was clearing out some of her Christmas decorations. I liked the image of Santa reading children’s letters to him, though I had no idea at the time how I would use this decorative item. The other tray, a rectangular forest green “breakfast-in-bed” style metal tray decorated with fall leaves, was purchased at a local thrift shop for about $3.

The buttons I already had. I’ve collected buttons of all shapes and sizes for years. I cannot resist large or oddly shaped buttons — even if I don’t have a clear project in mind, a cool button always gets added to my stash! The other items I needed for this project were purchased at a craft store, two 10-packs of magnets for $4 and two metal picture hangers for $2.50. Hot glue and my hot glue gun were already on hand from other craft projects.

I estimated that the entire cost of my project, two magnet boards and twenty buttons cost me about $10, about half to a third of what it would have cost in the store.

How to Make a DIY Magnet Board

To make your own metal tray magnet board and button magnets you will need:

• 1 metal tray (if purchasing, make sure to take a small magnet with you to the shop to make sure the tray is magnetic!)
• 1 metal picture hanger
• Buttons (any size)
• Magnets (size should match that of your buttons)
• Hot glue gun
• Hot glue sticks

1. Gather your materials — lets DIY!

2. To make your metal tray into a wall hanging, measure and mark the center of the tray (on the back). This is where you will use hot glue to adhere the metal picture hanger to the back of the tray.

3. Making the button magnets is just as easy. Just use hot glue to glue a magnet to the back of each button. So simple!

Magnet Board with Button Magnets

I display the green tray I bought at the thrift store year-round as is. The red leaves make me think of fall, but the green color prevents it from looking like seasonal fall decor. Plus the photos and postcards I display with the button magnets cover up a lot of the leaves anyway.

The Christmas tray, however, definitely has a seasonal look to it. In order to use the tray year-round, I cover Santa. I cut a circle the same size as the flat portion of the tray out of some lightweight decorative paper (it was actually paper from a shopping bag - another great no-cost craft item!). I use my magnetic buttons to hold the decorative paper in place eleven months of the year. After Thanksgiving I remove the paper and use the tray to display holiday cards.

With Christmas fast approaching, this DIY metal tray magnet board could make the perfect homemade gift for someone special.

Have a healthy and happy holiday!

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Snow is on the ground and the garden boxes are filled up with that white fluffy stuff already. Each time I walk past the garden boxes, which is several times a day, I remember that there are spinach seeds planted in one box and in several months when this snow melts away they will sprout and find their way to the surface. Before the winter is over these boxes will be buried under five or six feet of snow. Following years of trial and error in gardening at high altitude I decided to make these garden boxes to keep out the various animals that we share space with. We have mice, voles, moles, ground squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits just to name a few. Then there are the larger species like deer and bear which both have an appetite for spinach, lettuce, kale, zucchini and carrots.

garden box 002 jpg

In order to preserve our garden produce for ourselves I came up with this garden box designed to keep the critters out. I first milled out assorted sizes of lumber from some dead trees we have on the property. Investing in a personal wood mill is being conservation-wise and provides a ready supply of assorted lumber. From the dead tree to the finished product, which in this case is a useful garden box, costs little to make. The only out-of-pocket cost was a roll of 36-inch hardware cloth and hinges. I made the base out of 2-inch-by-8-inch milled boards, then milled some 2-inch-by-2-inch pieces for the upright pieces which connect the top and bottom sections. I used 1-inch-by-4-inch pieces for the top and secured it all together with deck screws. I then made the hinged top out of 1-inch-by-4-inch material and covered it on all sides including the bottom with 1/2-inch hardware cloth so the little gluttons could no longer gain access to the inside.

Having the boxes made I then found a nice level place in the sun to position them and filled them with a mix of mushroom mulch and potting mix. Since the mushroom mulch was rather potent I let it all sit for a few weeks to settle down and I would re-mix the soil every few days to aerate it. This has worked out very well and now we can enjoy 100% of our gardening labors. The hardware cloth provides adequate sunlight penetration and also makes the plants easy to water. The hinged top makes human access easy but difficult for animals. When the seeds initially come up I place gardeners sun screen on the top of the box which filters the sun about 50 percent. Once the seedlings are up and established I can remove the sun screen as the plants then are less likely to be burned from the intense sun at an elevation of 9,780 feet.

I have used these boxes now for years and those animals who previously devoured our garden produce can only sit on the outside and look in. Not to say they haven’t tried to get in but they have not figured a way to do that yet. They are sturdy and easy to plant in each spring. They are sturdy enough that I witnessed a bear walk across the top of one without doing any damage other than bending the hardware cloth slightly. We also have a nice raspberry patch that is shared with the birds which we consider acceptable since we also get our fair share of the berries. We also have three rhubarb plants that provide at least 4-6 delicious pies for us. I have found that if I plant spinach seeds late in the fall just before the ground freezes the spinach seeds get an early start on the growing season in the spring. The timing is important as we do not want the seeds to sprout in the fall and therefore die while still in the tender stage of growth. That way we can enjoy a longer growing season for spinach and our harvest is greater so we can eat fresh salads almost all summer long and enjoy spinach crepes several times also.

Gardening at high elevation is tricky and years of trial and error have provided us some beneficial techniques that enable us to eat our produce rather than share with the various animals. I have attempted to grow grapes but the growing season is way too short and the vines did not survive. Fruit trees do not do well at our elevation nor did some blueberry bushes that I planted. Not only is our growing season very short our soil is very rocky which makes establishing a normal garden difficult.

So as I walk past the garden boxes I dream of fresh spinach next spring knowing that those seeds are in place and will pop to the surface as soon as it begins to warm up again. Until then we will be moving several thousand pounds of snow since we average around 264 inches per winter. Just knowing that those seeds are in place and ready to go is something we really look forward to. Spinach is a hearty vegetable to grow and often when the snow clears I find a nice healthy plant that has somehow thrived under all that snow/ice over the winter. Even when starting plants indoors our growing season is so short that many vegetables never reach maturity. We not only have a short growing season but a harsh climate which only allows some plants to survive or grow to maturity.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their mountain living go see McElmurray's Mountain Retreat.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


A while back my friend Coenraad of House Alive! natural builders got me in touch with Max Edleson of because I was playing with the idea to build some sort of cob masonry heater. After talking with Max and sharing what I was looking to do, he directed me to a set of plans for his “Cabin Stove”, a mini masonry heater, on his website. I shared this with my friend and collaborator Weston last year and he set out to build one. It performed so amazingly well that we decided to follow his lead and make one in our place this past summer. Also, another neighbor made a third stove just recently so, as Max put it in a recent email, we are on the cutting edge of mini-masonry heater development. That sounds nice, doesn’t it?

With this article I hope to share our combined experiences including performance, mistakes, and ideas for improvements. has great pics along with step-by-step directions so it’s best to check out their site to get the full idea if you’re interested in building one of these little marvels. I should also mention, as people read and learn from this article, that we live without electricity and fossil fuels so our needs and wants differ some from regular folks.


Masonry heaters in general weave exhaust channels through masses of stone or brick to maximize the absorption of heat before it goes out of the chimney and into the open air. They are touted for much greater efficiency, cleaner burns, and lovely radiant heat. They are also often huge (weighing several tons), expensive, and require a professional to install. The mini-masonry heater keeps all the good and eliminates the bad.

The Cabin Stove Model

These heaters are made of firebrick and have a central burn chamber. Once lit, the smoke and heat travel in a short loop around a channel of brick and exit to regular 6-inch stovepipe. Our top is covered with a large steel cooktop. For a door, Weston fabricated one out of steel for his and ours.

Weston bought standard firebricks (full size – about 4.5 inches x 4.5 inches x 9 inches and decided not to use refractory (high heat) mortar based on the recommendation of an old mason where he bought the bricks. While he saved on the cost of the mortar because the refractory stuff sells for about $125 bag, his mortar was a lot harder to use and several of his joints have popped leaving small gaps between bricks. After waiting a month for the mortar to cure (you want it to fully dry out so there’s no water left to expand and pop seams) he started it up. It was and is amazing! With very little wood it heats up fast and radiates a crazy amount of heat. Most days he will start it with some kindling and add one split log and that’s it for hours. Now, his space is small – maybe 350 square feet – but he spends most of his winter barefoot and in shorts inside his house often with windows open. With such amazing results we planned ours for an August build so it would have plenty of time to cure and be ready for the cold weather.

As luck would have it (bad luck, perhaps…read on) We found a couple hundred used fire bricks from a friend’s dad who is a former potter and kiln builder. These bricks are the same size as the new store bought ones but are much more dense. He described them as having better thermal mass qualities – more capacity to store heat and release it slowly over time. He described the new bricks as better insulators with more air gaps to prevent heat transfer. This all made great sense to me for what we were looking to achieve so we happily took the bricks. We also bought the refractory mortar (called “Heat Stop 50”) after Weston’s experience and Max’s advice. It was really easy to work.

Starting Our Build

I began the whole process by reinforcing our subfloor by pouring two two-foot square and 6 to 8-inch deep concrete pads reinforced with rebar under my house. Into these pads I set a concrete block and let that set for several days. I added a couple more blocks atop them to approach the floor joists. I set a 6x6 (I think, if I remember correctly) from the two piers to span a few joists. I pounded a couple wedges above them to tighten them up and left it all for a month or so while I gathered other supplies.

Next, I went topside and built a base of firebricks on top of my existing regular brick hearth base. This served two purposes: to build up the finished height a bit to our desired level and to have a safe and durable barrier between the regular bricks and the great heat that comes with firing. Then, I started building, one course at a time. Max’s plans are easy to follow and progress was “quick”: all told I spent 16 hours laying the 7 levels of bricks. My salvaged bricks were a little wonky and I definitely should have spent more time using my neighbor’s grinder to smooth them out and take off old mortar. However, I assumed I would be covering it all with a layer of earth plaster which would hide the bricks, their irregularities, and any popped seams (more on that experience later).

According to Max, the recommended method of building the base, “…would either be to have actually cut out the floor, reframe any structural members, and build a masonry foundation up from the ground; or to do as you have done, re-enforce the wood floor and then put a layer of a proven insulation below the first course of bricks.  The main materials available on the market are something called Foam Glass and/or Calcium Silicate.  More homemade solutions could be clay-perlite, cement perlite, or pre-fired clay-sawdust mixes although there is little or no specific information on performance of these materials and recommended mixes or thicknesses.  One additional idea is to build the first couple of courses so that you have bricks on edge (called shiners) and then ones bridging these so that you effectively have air flow underneath the heater.  Whenever you generate convection, the potential for heat build-up is vastly decreased.”  I’ll be going under our house with a heat probe to measure the actual temperatures generated there to ensure ours is safe.

Stove Performance and Use

From here, I waited. Life happens and Weston couldn’t get around to making the top or the doors until October. During this wait I decided to put a skin of earth plaster atop the bricks. I assumed the skin would just be a little more thermal mass and look great when covered with a finish plaster. When we got the cooktop (made from 3/8-inch steel cut from a very large I-beam) I made a janky door and we started it up. We noticed several discouraging things right away. First, it didn’t heat like Weston’s at all. Second, the top arced greatly with the heat, so much so that we could see the flames licking the steel through one-inch gaps on the edges. That didn’t seem good! The cooktop is supposed to rest on one-inch fire rope. Weston used the same metal for his and found that his arced a great deal in the middle leaving large gaps in the front and back when it is really burning hot. He decided to flip our top over thinking that the arcing was a result of the great heat in the center of the cooktop right above the burn chamber and that the natural curve of this particular steel would work against itself thus making a flattened top when in use. Turns out this was way off and that the metal arced on its edges, with its natural curve, kind of like wings lifting off the bricks. What can I say? We’re the people without the answers and experimentation is what we’re up to around here anyway. Next time we’ll do better and in fact, our neighbor is already taking advantage of that nugget of knowledge with his stove. We’ve since mitigated this by adding more fire rope on the affected areas.

More troubling was the difference in performance. We figured there were three variables. First, and most ominous, was the type of bricks. Second was the cob skin. Third was our janky door without proper breathers and seal. Before we even got the door I removed some of the plaster and was startled by the incredible difference in heat transfer from the “naked” and exposed bricks to the plastered bricks. On the plastered spots I could keep my hand there all day. On the naked spots it was far too hot to leave my hand for more than a second or two. OK, the plaster came off! That was a good thing as we gained a lot more heat. I was still really nervous about the bricks and thinking I’d be rebuilding our stove next summer. Ugh!

Once we got the beautiful door we tried again. With the ability to regulate the burn we were able to get a lot more heat with much less wood. While it still didn’t behave like Weston’s it was performing well. Different, but good. We’ve learned that it works best when we start a really hot initial fire and then just add a log here and there as needed into the hot embers.  In our climate with our easy winters full of sun we generally only need a fire in the morning and the late afternoon (which we also use to cook our food and heat bath/dish water) and never stack it up for the night as we find it’s just never needed.   As Max has pointed out to me, masonry heaters are meant to have vigorous combustion to maintain a clean burn with very low pollution.  The bricks we used seem to require a lot more heat to get through them and out into our home. But, once it’s moving, the heat keeps coming for a long time. Overall we are very satisfied with the performance. However, we’ll see how Eric’s (our neighbor) performs in his home, which is more similar in size to ours, later this season and reserve judgment until then.


Other Features and Adaptations

We love the cook top! It’s huge and can hold several large pots at once. We just butchered our three pigs and spent four days making pots and pots of bone broth and lard atop the ample surface. It also has a range of temperatures from really hot in a foot square center area all the way to just warming on the edges. Wonderful functionality!

We’ll be adding an oven to the bottom of the burn chamber as soon as we can. This will be a simple box of steel with an open front into which we can slide a casserole dish. The over feature serves a few functions as well. For starters, it makes the stove legal in our area. There is a little caveat that if a stove is in one’s kitchen and has an oven it need not meet EPA standards and so on. While we believe our stoves are super-efficient and burn real clean there are no standards on which to measure them and fit them into the box of regulations. Second, the oven will greatly enhance our cooking options and make the cold months even better. Last, the oven will bring the fire closer to the top making small fires more effective for cooking as the flames more easily touch the steel and heat it quickly. I actually made the burn chamber floor with full size bricks although Max’s plans call for using half-width bricks. I figured it would be stronger and last longer (after all, the bottom gets the brunt of the bangs and bumps from logs and such) and bring the fire closer even without the oven addition.

Max’s design also incorporates a water heating loop to hook up to a thermosiphon, a feature we decided against in our model. Last year, in our little old woodstove, we rigged up a thermosiphon for hot water and while it worked beautifully, we found we didn’t use the 10 gallons it heated very often and that it was easier to simply heat a large pot of water on the cooktop for showers and dishwater. That is even easier to do with our cabin stove because the cooktop is huge and hot.

We also left out the bi-pass starting valve that Max includes because Weston never used his as his draft was great enough to pull the smoke out through the whole J-loop right away from a fresh fire. Ours performs the same.

We took off Weston’s top and cleaned his stove out before this cold season and were happy to see no creosote build up. There was only a very fine coating of ash all around the channel and into his stovepipe. This he vacuumed out with a shop vac in a jiffy.

Both Weston and I also changed the top a bit by making the cooktop go all the wall across the entire top of the bricks and not making a little brick chimney like Max's models (see his pic above).  Max mentioned that this was a weak point in the bricks so we just avoided that issue.  

Although I’ve never met Max in person, he is a super guy who has been a great help and inspiration as we’ve gone through this process. It’s been fun to share our experience and pics with him as we go and we look forward to assessing Eric’s heater soon. If you decide to do make your own heater, let Max and I know how it goes.  Also, buy his great book, Build Your Own Barrel Oven.  It's a treat!

Purchase Build Your Own Barrel Oven and learn more about DIY masonry heating at

(Top) Illustration by Max Edleson

(Bottom) Photo by Kyle Chandler-Isacksen

Kyle and his wife, Katy, are directors and founders of the Be the Change Project, an urban homestead and education center dedicated to service and simplicity and rooted in Integral Nonviolence in Reno, NV. Email him to take his great natural building workshop in June of 2015.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Several years ago when we were living at the River School Farm in Reno we learned how to make use of salvaged tile with this simple and effective technique. It surely has been mentioned somewhere on the web before but we love it so much and just made use of it again that I wanted to share it myself.

We recently built a small sunroom off of our mudroom out of salvaged lumber, mortar, grout, and tiles. Our 1948-built house has terrible orientation to the sun so winters, even in super sunny Reno, are very dark for us. This little sunroom (about 100 square feet) houses our laundry sink with our wringer as well as Katy's pottery kick wheel and gives us a place to soak up some rays as we read, work, exercise, or eat while we let the fire die down inside. We plan to finish two of the walls with earthen plaster when the weather warms and better finish the wood walls with some salvaged pallet pieces.

Finding Tile

There are several tile stores in Reno and it took Katy all of 15 minutes to find four that had tile they were happy to give away. One store even has it stacked up in their parking lot along with slabs of granite and marble available to anyone who wants to swing by. We were also fortunate that another store had grout to give away. What's available is a wonderful hodgepodge of last year's styles, showroom samples, slightly damaged tiles, or those returned by customers. We spent an hour or so visiting the stores and collecting what we liked. There were several packs still in their original, unopened packaging. Most were some sort of tan color in a variety of sizes and some still had price stickers on them for $7 or $8 each!

The Technique

The key is to pick enough of one size (say 12 inches x 12 inches) to fit in a row in the space you are tiling. Our rows were a little over 9 feet long so nine of the 12-inch square tiles made a row. We also picked up some 6-inch, 16-inch, and 20-inch tiles along with little decorative "fillers" — shiny pebbles, glass rectangles — anything that can make up the odd leftover spaces you want to fill if you don't have a tile saw or just like the look of it, like us. We laid out the tiles without mortar to see how they looked and fit. When we got it like we wanted we took up a row or two and laid them out in order atop the adjoining rows. Then we spread out the mortar on the plywood and laid them in place. Voila!

The result is a beautiful, free, durable tile floor using recycled tiles that might otherwise end up in a landfill.

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