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

Add to My MSN


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:

This article was originally posted in Instructables and is reposted with permission from Vicky Knoop.

copper table 1I needed a table in my oddly shaped kitchen that could act as additional counter space, a place to eat, a place to stash kitchen stools and general spot to put stuff on — all fitting into a 16-by-52-inch footprint. 

Given the odd dimensions and my limited budget, I felt my only option was to make a DIY table. Also, because my little apartment lacks a garage or outdoor space, I needed an easy project that didn't require power tools and a wood shop.

Reclaimed-wood tables are popular in home furnishings catalogs, but the $2,000 price tag is pretty far out of reach of most budgets. My solution is a DIY table made of copper pipe and reclaimed wood that cost me about $120 to make. 

After I finished the table project, I was super-stoked and built a smaller cart to roll underneath my reclaimed-wood table. Materials to make the cart (pictured at right) cost about $100. 

I decided not to solder the pipe on either piece of copper pipe furniture to keep a consistent color, and also so I wouldn't have to learn how to solder!

Supplies and Tools List

Power drill
7/8-inch butterfly drill bit
Paper plates for mixing epoxy
Stir sticks for mixing epoxy
Pipe cutter (sold in the plumbing aisle for about $7)

Materials List

35 feet of 3/4-inch copper pipe (I bought three 10-foot lengths and one 5-foot length)
Ten 3/4-inch copper tee fittings
Four 3/4-inch copper pipe ends
Two tubes 5-minute epoxy
Wood (anything you like, cut to measure 16 by 53 inches)

Copper tacks
Stain, paint or other wood finish
Mask or respirator if you're finishing the wood indoors

copper table 1

For the tabletop of my reclaimed-wood table, I bought some old floorboards from the local reuse store (Building REsources in San Francisco). Floorboards are great because they have fantastic character — plus I scrubbed the heck out of them — and I knew that the tongue-and-groove edges would help hold the planks together on the top of my DIY table. The REsources folks kindly cut the boards 53 inches long for me. If you're using individual boards as I did, rather than a continuous plank for your tabletop, you'll also need three wooden battens (each 15 inches long) and screws to hold the boards together on the underside. Be sure to set the battens back from the ends of the top so they don't interfere with the copper-pipe legs.

I tried to find used metal for this copper-pipe furniture project, but most copper is sold for scrap before it can be upcycled. Hardware stores sell new copper pipe in 10-foot lengths and 5-foot lengths. The 10-foot pipes costs less per foot than the 5-foot pipes. I bought a pipe cutter at the hardware store so I could cut the 10-foot lengths in the parking lot to fit inside my car.

Building the table is pretty straightforward. First, you'll have to settle on the size of the DIY table you want to build for your own space, then do a quick sketch and calculate the measurements of each piece. Take a look at the photos of my reclaimed-wood table. The front legs are assembled of three pieces joined by two tee fittings. The rear legs are assembled of four pieces joined by three tee fittings. All four legs are capped by copper pipe ends at the bottom. I included a bottom stretcher at the rear (but not at the front) so I could slide a stool under the table. The two top stretchers cross, making them longer than the bottom stretcher, but the stretchers on your own reclaimed-wood table wouldn't have to cross. The wooden top simply rests on the uncapped ends of the legs.

You can see more photographs of this project on my original Instructables post.


Chimney sweep tools jpg

Chimney Fire

We heat with a wood stove from October until May which ends up being a long continuous burning season at our elevation of 9.750‘. When I was younger and living in N. Florida I had a chimney fire that was a very scary event. Our chimney pipe quickly went from red to orange to yellow to white hot and made some very ugly noises. Fortunately it did not catch anything on fire except the chimney but it certainly impressed me with its ferocity. Therefore in the last 17 winters here on our homestead we use a creosote remover throughout the burning season and I clean the wood stove and chimney at least once a year.

Safety Precautions on a Ladder

Our home is an A-Frame so I have to go up the ladder 30+ feet to reach the wind cap which seems almost straight up so it is imperative that all safety precautions be taken. Since I’m now in my 70’s that means reflexes are slower and my agility leaves much to be desired. Therefore I wear a climbing harness and when I get to the top of our 40’ ladder I attach it to the top rung with a strong rope. Since both of us can barely lift and carry the ladder I figure with its considerable weight it will stay in place and if I’m firmly attached at the top it is unlikely that either the ladder or I will go anywhere. To make matters even more risky when I get to where I can reach the chimney cap I have to turn around and face out on the ladder which puts a ladder rung under my heels and lots of air in front of me. With the harness if I slip I will only go a few feet before the heavy duty rope halts me. If you are afraid of height I would suggest that you consider hiring a professional chimney sweep to save you the anxiety.

Removing and Cleaning a Wind Cap

I will describe how I approach cleaning our system because each house and chimney are different. First after getting the ladder securely in place and having put on the climbing harness and adjusting it to a good fit I go up the ladder to take the wind cap off. Some are held in place with a band of metal that can be loosened through a small bolt. Others may be affixed to the top by sheet metal screws or still others may be like ours and sit inside the chimney by virtue of a collar.

I prefer to remove the wind cap and take it down to the ground where I can work on it with a wire brush or screw driver to scale the stubborn creosote off. Once I have it devoid of all soot and creosote accumulations I set it aside and proceed to clean the chimney from the inside. The less I have to ascend and descend the ladder the better I like it.

chimney sweep jpg009

How to Clean a Chimney

I approach the chimney from inside and first remove the double wall section of chimney and set it outside to be cleaned later. I now have a chimney open at both top and bottom. Unless you want a large amount of soot and creosote cascading down the chimney as you run the wire brush through it a method has to be devised to stop it at the chimney base. My method is using an old inner tube cut open so I have a large flat rubber piece that is wide enough to cover the bottom of the chimney with a margin left over so I can place a band clamp around the rubber and chimney end and tighten it in place. I cut a small X in the center large enough to accommodate the shaft of the brush rods before I clamp it to the chimney.

Insert the brush from the top side of the inner tube piece before the clamping process. Then I can screw my first section of fiberglass rod to the base of the brush and I start up the chimney brushing as I go. When it clears the top of the chimney I then repeat the process coming back down removing the 4’ sections when they come out through the rubber inner tube. Then after the last section of rod has been removed I put a garbage bag over the entire end of the chimney, release the clamp and let the rubber, brush and creosote all fall into the garbage bag. I remove the brush and rubber tube piece when I get them outside.

How to Clean a Woodstove

The next step is to then clean the double wall chimney I removed earlier by running the wire chimney brush through it several times. Then I remove the wood stove top and using my shop vacuum I suction out the inside of the stove from the top being sure to get all the loose material with the vacuum. I usually find a large quantity of soot, ash and creosote inside the stove after I remove the top. I wire brush those areas that do not vacuum up and then finish with a final vacuum.

I then clean the under side of the top and replace it. I then reinstall the double wall section of chimney pipe and that puts the entire system back together again. When everything is back together I clean out the firebox, ash pan, doors and inside until it has no further deposits. As I work on the stove I check the gaskets to make sure they are all in good working order and that finishes the job. For me by going slowly the total time expended is about 3 hours from start to finish. It also helps if you have someone helping you.

Safety With Creosote

Creosote is abrasive and an irritant especially if it gets in your eyes. I understand it is also carcinogenic so wear safety goggles and gloves when working around it. I try to not inhale any which is why I do the majority of my cleaning outside with the wind blowing away from me. If you choose to be your own chimney sweep be sure to go slow, use safety precautions and all safety equipment mentioned. Since I sometimes have to get my hand into the wind cap I also use rubber bands to close off my long sleeves at the wrist. Again if you are remotely afraid of heights or slightly clumsy it just might be worth the cost to hire a chimney sweep. The described method above has worked for me over the years and keeps our chimney and wood stove clean and safe. In case I forgot to mention it plan on getting dirty as it is a very dirty job.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their life at high elevation go to:

Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.