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

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Is it a pond leak or evaporation? One thing to help determine if it is leaking is if we are in spring weather with snow melt and rain and the pond is still going down. What we are looking for is if we have water coming in to supply the pond, is the pond continuing to lose water?

If this is the case, then we most likely have a leak somewhere. The leak could be anywhere in or around the pond. But if we are in the summer months with no rain or water entering the pond, evaporation could be lowering the pond level. Hot dry days can suck up to 1 inch of water a day so pay attention to the weather as well before we assume there is a leak.

There are plenty of areas in the pond where a leak could develop over time or the pond may have never have filled up in the first place.

Let’s get started and poke around in areas that could be leaking this is to help get you thinking of the possibilities where to look and if you’re building a pond to be sure to pay attention to some of these areas listed below.

Pier Indicates Leak in Pond 

Finding the Pond Leak

On a new pond build was the entire site compacted? If so, is the entire area of good clay content? Remember that the entire site needs to be compacted; digging a hole in the ground typically will not work. The exposed new earth is now like a sponge allowing water to penetrate and keep weakening the pond basin area. The other problem is if there are multiple layers of earth, like top soil, clay, gravel and sand, finding a vein or porous material will allow the pond to leak.

Start on the outside of the dam look for greener areas in the grass, depressions, cracks, rooted vegetation such as trees and any moist or damp spots. Finding any of these could mean a structural problem with the dam.

Another common problem area is with new or an old pond is the outlet pipe. Take a look at the pipe, water should only come out of the inside of the pipe. If any water is coming around the outside this is a dangerous situation and needs corrected. Getting more pure clay from the local gravel pit or your property is cheaper in costs than ordering in products since they are heavy and add to shipping costs. Take the clay and pack around the pipe on the water side of the dam, nice and thick like a foot or more to seal around the pipe and get the water to stop leaking. If it continues to leak it will only get bigger which could cause the dam to fail. Older ponds may have the metal pipe which could be rusting out and would need to be replaced.

Does the pond stop leaking down? Is there a level at which it seems to slow or hold? If so then somewhere around the new water level is most likely your leaking area. Take a pole or shovel to investigate for gravel or sand areas—even soft spots where the water level has stopped along the new shore line. If you find a poor quality area it should be dug out and re-filled with clay.

What if the pond empties completely? Now we are looking at the floor of the pond for gravel, sand or soft areas that could be letting the water seep out. Even a pond built down to bedrock or slate for the bottom will leak out the top of the rock. Or look at the smooth plastic pipe going through the dam? Water will seek out the path of least resistance and follow the smooth surface, leaking out and potentially getting larger over time. One way to fix the slate bottom is to build the pond higher than the slate leaving a foot or two of clay on top of the slate. Or get through the rock plate and seal the exposed rock.

Fixing the Pond Leak

Above I talked a lot about using local clay from your property or a gravel pit near you, the reason is clay is very heavy and shipping it in from a great distance will run the costs up just for shipping it to your pond.

There are other products on the market to repair leaking ponds and two of the companies I have spoken to, and we have an interview with one to learn more about their product. The other product works as well but more in line of slower leaks so first up is Pond Seal.

Pond Seal, a tiny stone that is surrounded by compacted sodium bentonite forming a small stone shape a little smaller than pea gravel. The whole concept is that the pond seal can penetrate the water and go to the leaking area, provided you know where the leak is such as a 4-by-4 pounded into the pond floor or if you know where there may be a gravel area during the building process. The pond seal can also be used as a liner in a new pond or a full pond providing the application covers evenly at 7lbs per square foot rate. Pond Seal is relatively inexpensive, but depending on the amount needed the cost can grow, and don’t forget about shipping cost too. On average shipping three 50 lbs bags will cost the same as the material itself.

Next up is ESS-13 which can be applied on the water, sprayed or treated and compacted in to the soil. This product is for soils that are able to be compacted but not hold water. There are some requirements to use the product such as a way to mix the product in the pond water like a fountain or proper sized aeration system and to have incoming water to keep the pond full while the product gets distributed throughout the pond. What happens is the material will seep into the leaking area, start to collect and expand to fill in the tiny pores that is allowing water to leak out. So you see if the leak is too rapid or the pores are too large the material will just be washed out. There is a slight caution on using this product if you have fish; this is taken right from their website for the waterborne application.

"The phenomenon of the occasional 'fish kill' is one that people involved in pond management are familiar with. There are many contributing factors that can trigger this event and often several of them need to occur simultaneously. Some of the most common are: low dissolved oxygen, high water temperatures, prolonged cloudy weather, excessive algae, and overcrowded populations.

Over the last 50 years of sealing lakes, ponds and lagoons, Seepage Control, Inc. has occasionally seen a fish kill after a waterborne treatment of ESS-13. Other times the aquatic environment has seemed to thrive. There has been speculation that the oily nature of the product causes a mechanical disruption to respiration in fish, however this idea has not been confirmed. Seepage Control, Inc. contacted the Marinco Bioassay Laboratory located in Sarasota, Florida to run tests to determine the toxicity of ESS-13 on the aquatic environment.

The lab ran standard toxicity tests on Fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas) and Daphnia (Daphnia magna) to determine LC50 values for the product (lethal concentration that causes 50% mortality in a test sample). The testing shows that the product is non-toxic and any effect on the organisms is at concentrations significantly higher than our standard treatment. While the occasional loss of fish is unfortunate, we are pleased to see the lack of toxicity of ESS-13 shown by these tests."

If you are spraying or treating and compacting there would be no worries of harming the fish. You can Contact Seepage Control for more information.

This whole process of finding the leak can be very time consuming, but remember how the pond has acted over the years, the rain fall amount, what time of year the pond drops, whether it always go to the same level, and if there are trees around the pond. These are a few things to think about and they can help you get a better idea of where to look. Once there is a potential area of concern, then it is time to act.

One last note on the leaking pond, many folks are excited about having water coming in while they dig their pond, although it's a pain for the equipment it seems to be a good sign the pond will fill up. Remember where these springs or seeps are for future reference. Over time things can change such as the water table level. Even the water that has come into the pond over the years can be a potential leak if the spring should dry up, basically draining the pond.

There are other thoughts on the causes of pond leaks, such as the new well drilling and the fracking of gas wells, even a tremor or small earth quake can be a culprit.

With this said, we also want to watch the hot dry summers. As the water recedes and the ground becomes hard and cracked, these cracks can also be an area of a future leak. As the water level rises, the clay hasn’t had time to soften and seal the crack; water can pass through to the porous ground and leak out.

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

Freshly Milled Lumber

Is a portable wood mill right for you? Everyone has to answer that question for themselves depending on their individual circumstances but we have determined that for our homesteading needs it is worth while to have one, even when we only set it up once a year. Being able to mill our own lumber is a distinct bonus for a homesteader who is faced with ongoing projects. We have several acres of heavily wooded mountain property and that means plenty of standing dead trees to choose from. We heat with a woodstove in the winter so we use the aspen for our firewood and the pine and fir for lumber once they die.

It took us eight hours plus ten logs and the end result was 83 boards (1X6X8’) cut to perfection. I priced the cost at a lumber yard and to purchase these 83 boards I would have paid close to $1,400.00. Of course kiln dried lumber would be ready to use direct from the lumber yard and ours has to air dry for a few weeks and then I will have to plane it down and trim the edges myself. Our lumber cost was $5.40 in gas to run the wood mill which is the total extent of my cost. I therefore saved $1,394.60 so to me it is worth the time to mill out my own lumber. Our particular wood mill has a 13 HP Honda engine which is very efficient and provides us with a lot of lumber for the amount of gas used. Regarding cost it is also important to factor in the pay back cost of the wood mill. I have milled enough lumber with mine that it has paid for itself several years ago so I don’t need to factor that cost in any longer.

Properly Curing Freshly Cut Lumber

The photo depicts the lumber stacked with stickers between boards so it will dry uniformly and slowly. I have yet to have boards check, warp or wind in the many boards I have cut and cured. Having a kiln makes the lumber ready to use much faster but I am not in a hurry so putting 1” by 1” sticks (stickers) between the pieces of lumber helps them reach equilibrium moisture content in a few weeks. There are some things that transcend buying lumber. Putting the labor into doing it exactly the way you want it, the pleasant smell of fresh lumber and looking at a stack of finished lumber knowing that you cut the dead tree down and milled the logs into boards are only a few benefits. That smell of freshly cut lumber is priceless it smells so fragrant and wonderful.

From the 10 logs I milled out I ended up with multiple other boards between 2 inches wide and 5 inches wide. 83 boards that were 6 inches wide and up to 10 feet long. Six 2 inch by 6 inch boards 10 feet long. The key in the air dry process is not to rush it. Boards that slowly dry take time but if patience is exercised all will end well and much usable lumber will be available for projects.

Choosing the Right Trees

One of the trees I milled out has been a dead leaning tree for at least 16 years. It was a pine that I have been intending to mill out but never was able to get to earlier. I finally milled it out and the boards were more beautiful than I could have ever hoped for. We have Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, Spruce and Limber Pine trees to name a few. All of these trees produce beautiful lumber which has beautiful grain and texture. Trees at our elevation grow very slowly; therefore the boards have a nice tight grain making them suitable for many uses. They are easy to work with and make very attractive furniture plus other projects. As I look around our homestead I see multiple projects that have come from the dead trees on our property. These current boards will make two stand up closets since having enough closet space is hard to find in an A-Frame house. We also plan to make two interior doors and one solid wood front door with these boards.

Our Choice for a Wood Mill

We have owned three different wood mills over the past 25 years including a band saw mill, a steel frame chainsaw wood mill and our current blade type mill. I have found our current wood mill that cantilevers the head stock both ways meets most of our needs. One pass down the log and one pass back and I have a finished board. Our current mill is limited to six inch wide boards unless we turn the head stock around which is a real pain for the two of us. Our mill has carbide cutting tips and takes a ¼ inch kerf so for every four cuts in the log I lose a one inch board. I am willing to accept this loss because this mill makes a much more precise cut providing me with a truer board. I have found each mill has its pros and cons so it depends on what you plan to produce with the wood mill. Our current mill satisfies most of our needs because we don‘t need boards wider than 6 inches and we can produce more boards faster.

In the final analysis it depends on how many trees are available, what type/size lumber you plan to mill, not objecting to a little hard work plus being willing to wait until your lumber has dried properly. Most personal wood mills are portable with some being more portable than others. Ours is not as portable as most but we don’t plan to take it to other locations. If you have plenty of projects requiring lumber owning your own wood mill may work for you. If you don’t choose to own a wood mill or maintain one but have available trees to mill possibly hiring a person with a wood mill may be a good economical solution.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their back to earth lifestyle go to:


Liquid Soap

Let’s talk about liquid hand soap. My family goes through a lot of hand soap with all our cooking, gardening, bike repair, art, play and backyard chickens, not to mention plain old bathing. But liquid soap is expensive, in land-filling disposable containers, frequently loaded with “anti-bacterial” chemicals and a laundry lists of additives. After my recent experience making rendered fat lard and tallow bar soap, I took the leap and made my own liquid hand soap. All you need is a bar of soap and a cheese grater. What could be easier?

Making Liquid Soap


1 bar hard soap (think French Milled, Ivory-Type or Castile Soap)
4-8 cups water

Start with a standard bar of hard soap, either your favorite brand or a bar of your own making. Grate the soap on the fine side of a cheese grater or microplane. You’ll have a giant, fluffy pile of soap shavings. Add your shavings into a 2 quart container and add 4 cups of water. Mix with a spoon and allow to sit over night. The next morning you should have a solid gelled mass of soap. At this stage the soap will be to stiff to use in a dispenser, so add 2 more cups of water, stir, and again allow to sit overnight. Keep adding water until you get it to the desired consistency. It should be thick enough to stream. Be sure to stir it first. My single bar of soap took a full 8 cups of water, yielding over two quarts of liquid soap.


lumber logs.jpg

The above pile of logs in the photo came from a very dead spruce tree on our property. When I walk through our trees and I see a 16” conifer tree that had just died last winter I experience the thrill of looking at the board feet within that tree and projects I can make with it When looking at the pile of logs in the photo most people see firewood or just a pile of logs. What I see when I look at those logs is 220 board feet (per the doyle log scale) of lumber that is ideal for many uses. Projects like making two standing closets and an addition to our kitchen plus a new front door and pantry door. That is what I visualize right there in that pile of logs - lumber. So depending on who you are when looking at a pile of logs they can be viewed quite differently depending on what you intend to do with the logs.

Moisture Content in Lumber

Many people realize that lumber comes from trees and hence logs can be converted into lumber. They also know when they need lumber the easiest place to get it is at a lumber yard. They know that it has been kiln dried to a specific moisture content and finished down to a nominal size. The lumber I mill is dimensional and true to size. If you purchase lumber at a lumber yard that wood has been dried to a certain moisture content but as you move it to your area it attains the moisture content level where you are. Lumber will reach the equilibrium of the atmosphere moisture around it. Therefore air drying lumber is nothing short of allowing it to reach the equilibrium where it is located. I seal the end grain with paraffin wax paint so it will obtain a more uniform moisture level and doesn‘t dry too quickly and warp or wind. I also use inch by one inch strips of wood to keep layers separate and support the weight equally. These are called stickers.

Living in a semi arid locale our milled out dead trees dry out very fast where the moisture is literally sucked out of the wood. Curing time does not require more than a few weeks if handled properly. If I mill the logs out now I will have lumber available later this fall which is fully dry and cured that I can use to make two free standing closets. A-Frame construction does not allow much room for conventional closets so making two free standing closets will go a long ways toward the organization of our clothes.

Running an Efficient Wood Mill

Lucas mill.jpg

Setting up the wood mill only takes about an hour but I go over the Honda power head carefully before I even start to set the mill up. I want to be sure all the fittings are properly greased, sharpen the blade, check fluid levels, clean the air filter and make sure proper tension is achieved so it will cut efficiently. The mill could be set up in an hour but I’m pretty fussy and want it set up just right so I don’t have to stop cutting once I get started. In the attached photo it is set up and ready to go. It is capable of cutting up to 2000 board feet a day but for me that would have been 30 years ago. At my current age I tend to move a little slower plus I’m not in a big hurry.

Available Dead Trees

My closet projects will require about 320 board feet total and these logs in the photo will be short of the needed amount. Fortunately we have more dead trees available that also died last winter in which I can make up the extra board feet. In addition I will also need another 62 board feet for a new front door and pantry door.

If you are a do it yourself person and have a wood lot or access to a wood lot and have projects to make out of lumber perhaps a small wood mill would be to your advantage. If you decide to mill your own wood or know a sawyer who you can pay to mill lumber for you it would be advantageous to learn about air drying techniques so once cut your lumber does not warp, wind or mildew. Milling the trees into lumber is the easier part and the more tricky part is drying the lumber properly. It is not a difficult task but it needs to be done properly to end up with usable lumber. It makes little sense to mill the lumber and then have it end up in an unusable condition due to improper drying techniques.

Pick the Right Wood Mill

There are a number of wood mills from chain saw mills to the more sophisticated band saw mills and blade mills (like the one in the photo). Any will do the job and some depend on the size of the log you plan to cut. They are reasonably priced to fairly expensive depending on just how sophisticated you plan to go. After I mill out the lumber there are the culls remaining which are very popular for those looking for firewood. They cut easily, split easily and are already dry and prime quality firewood. Some sawyers sell the culls but I just give them away to get rid of them. Our community has a brush burn site but I would rather see them put to use keeping people warm instead of just destroying them. The sawdust from the milling process works it way into the ground also serving as a soil binder. Nothing goes to waste and the total cost to make this lumber and projects is equal to the cost of two gallons of gasoline.

Milling your own lumber to make your own projects is rewarding in many ways. Knowing the final product came from a specific tree and was converted to a useable project is reward enough. Also knowing that none of the residual went to waste is additionally rewarding.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their self sufficiency go to:



Fresh basil is on of the easier  things to grow in the garden. From my experience, very few insects are attracted to eat its savory leaves due to its strong flavor. I usually dehydrate enough to fill a bag to use as a spice, but I process most of it into pesto. Fresh pesto is great in the summertime, but it can be even more delicious in the middle of winter when you are ready for something green.

Fresh Basil Pesto Recipe

Here is a list of the ingredients:

1 1/2 cups fresh basil
1/3 cup oil
1 cup pine nuts or walnuts
2 to 3 cloves garlic
1/3 cup olive oil
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup Parmesan  cheese - Vegan option: 1/4 cup Nutritional Yeast flakes

fresh pesto

Step 1: Bring a pot of water to a boil. Submerge the basil in the boiling water for about 30 seconds.
Another option is to steam the basil leaves, again for 30 seconds. This is called blanching, a process which kills the enzymes that can cause your food to continue to mature, losing flavor and texture, even after the food has been frozen.

Step 2: Immediately remove and place the basil in ice water. This halts the cooking process and ideally will keep your basil and pesto green, preventing it from turning black.

Step 3: Put all of the ingredients in a food processor and pulse. You want to keep some texture and avoid turning the mixture into mush, specifically the nuts.

Place spoonfuls of the pesto into the cube sections of an ice tray and freeze. Remove from the freezer and pop your pesto cubes into a freezer bag and store.

The small serving size makes it easy to get out just the amount you need for a meal. You can also drop a cube or two in a pot of spaghetti sauce for zesty flavor. Go Green!


shoulder bagOn the surface, homesteading seems like it’s all about livestock and gardens, and many of us have an image in our heads of the idealized small farmer walking out in the early morning to feed the chickens. While that is part of homesteading, it’s not all there is. At its core, homesteading is about learning new skills to increase your self-sufficiency, and the more skills you can learn, the better.

If this becomes reciprocal, it’s called bartering, and that’s what we’ve been doing lately with some family friends. Their daughter will be staying with us soon to learn photography from my mom. In exchange, they taught me to use a sewing machine.

My First Sewing Project

My first project with them was a tiny pillow with my name stitched onto it, but to my surprise, we weren’t done after that. I was going to make a cloth grocery bag.

We started by selecting the fabrics. For the outside of the bag, I chose a pink cloth embroidered with elephants; for the inside, a soft gray fabric touched with white, like faraway stars. I cut my fabrics to the same size and pinned them together inside-out, threaded the sewing machine’s needle, slipped my fabrics into the machine, chose my stitch, and started off.


Using a sewing machine is slow and repetitive—unless you’re as good at it as my friend’s mom is, in which case it’s fast and repetitive. Still, there’s something about knowing you’ve done a good job, or at least gotten better, that’s thrilling, though that’s true of any skill, sewing or ziplining or writing. When I finished sewing the fabrics together around three edges, I was proud of myself.  

My friend’s mom showed me how to turn the bag right-side-out, and we sewed the edges together, leaving room for a handle. For the handle, I selected a strip of rough pink fabric, and she slipped the ends into the spaces we’d left for that purpose. Then I got to sew them in place.

The final step was ironing. Being clumsy, I put my thumb in the wrong place almost immediately and had to run cold water on it, but the actual ironing was easy, and in minutes the bag was complete. It was satisfying enough knowing that I had made the bag, and that it had been less painful than my knitted hat, but even more so that I had contributed to my community.

Walking out to help feed the chickens afterward, I felt content.

Top photo by Evie S.


chimney sweep jpg009

Subsequent to my previous blog on sweeping our own chimney I received notification from an organization that specifically certifies chimney sweeps. I was totally unaware of such an organization but in exchanging emails and perusing their website I have found that this non-profit organization is a good place to go if you don’t want to clean your own chimney. My prior blog on DIY was geared toward cleaning our own woodstove chimney but each chimney is different and may require different techniques. Professional chimney sweeps are able to not only inspect and clean your chimney but have closed circuit video cameras that can be inserted into your chimney to see if any cracks exist or if there are any other potential visible hazards that are hard to see with the naked eye. For anyone who is timid over heights, doesn’t want to get dirty or suspects that they may have chimney problems the following information may prove valuable.

The Chimney Safety Institute of America

The organization is called Chimney Safety Institute of America and is a nonprofit that educates homeowners and certifies Chimney Sweeps. Since there are no national or federal standards for those who service and clean your chimney this peer driven organization has been in existence from 1983 to create professional standards and consistency in maintaining safety and performance of chimneys - all kinds. They have a very informative and interactive web site at: . Simply by going to their web site and putting in your ZIP code it will index certified chimney sweeps in your area. Presently they have over 1,450 chimney sweeps that are certified. The web site is full of helpful and useful information pertaining to chimneys and it is easy to navigate.

To receive certification chimney sweeps must attend a review session, pass a one hour exam, then pass a 90 minute exam on residential codes and agree to the high standard of ethics formulated by the institute coupled with their peers. They will take prospective chimney sweeps and put them through their 6 day school to help them become certified. It is the purpose of this non profit organization to foster public awareness of issues relating to chimney and venting performance/safety plus promote the education of associated professionals through technical training and certification. Not only has the organization established a country wide standard of performance and professionalism but the underlying benefit is safer chimneys and fewer chimney fires. Having had a chimney fire I can attest that it was a very scary ordeal and I was fortunate that only the chimney was damaged and not our home.

Professional vs. DIY

I have successfully cleaned and maintained our chimney for so many years I can’t remember when I started doing this. It is nice to know (and the time is rapidly coming) that if I need a chimney sweep all I need do is log onto a web site and enter my ZIP code to find a professional sweep in my area. I have talked to friends who tell me that their chimney doesn’t need cleaning but I know differently. They burn highly resinous firewood and the slow accumulation of soot and creosote will eventually be ignited by a spark. The resulting damage will far exceed the cost of having their chimney cleaned regularly. Having personally witnessed a double wall insulated chimney go from red to orange to yellow to white hot I don’t intend to ever take another chance on a chimney fire. Our current chimney actually cost more than our woodstove and replacing it is an expense we would not like to do.

Chimney Options

I only see three options available when it comes to chimneys and chimney safety. One is do nothing and risk or wait for a chimney fire to occur. Second is do your own maintenance and chimney cleaning, especially if you have a knowledge of proper installation and maintenance and are not afraid to get dirty or are fearful of heights. Third, if you don’t want to undertake the personal risk of climbing to the top of your chimney hire a professional and certified chimney sweep to do it for you. Keeping a chimney clean and functional is vital to safety. Not maintaining the integrity of your chimney regularly is equal to never replacing the oil in your vehicle and expecting long and satisfactory life from your engine. Cleaning a chimney is a dirty job and whether you do it yourself or have someone do it for you it is needed on a regular basis for safety. I equate keeping our chimney safe and clean to a sign I see each time I go to my dentist that says “only brush the teeth you want to keep“. When it comes to a chimney it could be said to only brush those sections you want to keep.

Chimney Sweeps Look for More Than Creosote

An inspection by a trained professional may be just as important, if not more so, than actually sweeping the chimney. Having someone who knows what to look for can save a lot of heartache later. Home heating fires are not limited to just a chimney although that is a major cause. Clearances to combustibles, inadequate floor protection, damage to chimneys or flues are all equally important. A professional chimney sweep will recognize these defects in an instant. A periodic inspection will go a long way toward heading off a chimney fire and help reducing the risk of a chimney fire or worse. Having a certified chimney sweep who knows what to look for can be a real asset to having a properly functioning woodstove. Many thanks to Chimney Institute of America for advising me that there is a certification process and the benefits of hiring a professional chimney sweep.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray go to:

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