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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.


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.


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.

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.


new door jpg.001

The next completed project from the logs we milled out into lumber last summer is our new pantry door. The old door was perfectly functional and attractive but it was a heavy door that had an 8-inch opening at the bottom which our intelligent German Shepherds figured out was there for them to open the door when they wanted. When we are not home we would rather they not go into the pantry where the food is kept. We trust them completely and they have never disappointed us in that respect but why tempt them into possibly doing something they would rather not have done. This completes project number two of the four projects we had planned when we milled out the lumber a few months ago.

Future Projects

The next project will most likely be a stand up closet for the loft area. We have been using a broken down and patched up dresser for clothes storage and would like a closet with shelves for storage with a side to put hanging clothes in. Living on a dirt road, especially on the up hill side, allows dust from the road to drift up the mountain and when we have our windows open to enjoy the summer temperatures we do get some dust that gets past our window screens and manages to get into the house. Having a closet will serve to protect our clothes from that fine dust. We have very few people drive down our road but no dust is better than a little dust.

Changing Rough-Sawn Boards into Beautiful Lumber

Project number 2 is now complete. I ran the boards through my planer reducing them down to a 5/8th thickness, edge jointed them, then glued the boards together to make the door. I also prepared boards to replace the existing door frame which I squared up with shims so when the door was installed it would then fit properly and open and close without binding. Then after installation of the door itself I cut the trim molding and put a coat of wax/oil finish on it so residual future finger prints can be washed off. I would estimate the total time put into the door was somewhere between 8-9 hours spread out over a few days. We now have a very functional lighter door that we feel is attractive. It also matches the bathroom door which provides more equal visual consistency throughout the house.

Production Cost

The total cost for the door is zero. I probably did not use a tablespoon of gasoline to mill the logs out and I was able to reuse the hardware from the old door. I had some finish left from another project that I used to put a good finish and sealer on the door. No purchases were required and the cost for a new interior fully functional door was just right. Zero cost. Since I milled the lumber from logs I had selected I was also able to match and arrange the boards so they would present the most attractive appearance. That is now two projects done and two to go. I still need to make the closet previously mentioned and a new solid wood front door. Those two projects will be more expensive with the closet costing in the vicinity of $25-30.00, and the front door approximately $200.00, for new hardware and trim. I am still trying to formulate an appropriate design for the front door in my head. With or without lights and if lights how many? I have plenty of time to work this out since winter just started and we have months of time ahead to design an construct the door.

A Special Satisfaction

As I mentioned in the prior DIY topic the personal satisfaction from selecting a dead tree, reducing it to logs and then milling those logs into lumber with a specific project in mind is beyond description. When I look at that door I will see that dead tree at a very specific place on our property which was transformed into a door. It is a unique and special way of being connected to the land and the resources available to us.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their lifestyle and mountain living go to:

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.


closet.jpg002An A-Frame house provides very little room for closet space with the slanted roof. The 45 degree angle where the floor meets the roof has been modified and used for clothes storage by building benches with a hinged top in that difficult to reach and otherwise unusable area. That required getting down on my aging knees each time I needed a clean pair of socks, T-shirt etc. In a prior blog I reported on using our dead standing trees to mill out lumber for several proposed projects. In our semi arid area I had waited a sufficient period of time for the lumber to air dry. When it was workable lumber and reached equilibrium moisture content with its surroundings I made a stand up closet to alleviate that getting up and down each day. Now I have all my clothes in one specific area and can reach them by just opening a door.

Preparing Rough Lumber

To make finish grade lumber I first ran the boards through my planer to get all pieces of lumber a uniform thickness and then edge jointed each piece to have straight boards that I could glue together without gaps in the woodworking joints. The top half of the closet is where I keep hanging clothes and the bottom half consists of two shelves that have a lower door that opens on the opposing side of the closet. Having access from two sides makes greater use of space and makes it easier to access stored clothes.

Prior to building the closet I had to level and cement 1/4-inch plywood to the existing concrete floor to insure a level and uniform floor. I then attached the back of the closet to the wall for stability. Doing one section at a time I constructed the remaining walls of the closet and anchored them together with a brad nail gun along and my pancake air compressor. For an exterior finish I used a high grade oil and wax finish rubbed in that gives the unit a semi gloss seal on the exterior. I previously made a trip to the hardware store where I bought a bottle of Gorilla glue, two sets of hinges, two door pulls and two magnetic door closers. Total cost for the closet was $22 in materials, not including the exterior finish which I had on hand from an earlier project. The lumber all came from the standing dead trees on our property.

While I would like to share my plans for the closet I am unable to do so because I don’t have any plans. I sketch out the design I want to achieve and determine with a tape measure what dimensions I can work within and I start building. I have been utilizing this technique for so long that I rarely encounter a problem during construction. It also gives me the creative freedom to make changes as I progress on the project without rigorously following a specific set of plans.

Sense of Satisfaction

The beauty and uniqueness of this project is the minimal cost to build it and knowing which specific tree the project came from and having had the satisfaction of milling the lumber ourselves. Cutting the dead tree down, trimming the limbs, cutting the remaining log to the length needed for the closet and then dragging the log to the mill site and reducing it to lumber sounds like a lot of work but it is all very rewarding. Waiting a suitable time period for the lumber to air dry and then putting that lumber to use in a project like the one in the photo generates a satisfaction that is hard to beat. From log to finished project generates a level of satisfaction which is rarely experienced and goes to demonstrate that not all lumber has to come from a lumber yard.

This closet provides sufficient space to handle all my shirts and winter coats with room to expand if necessary. The shelves are sufficiently deep enough to hold all my socks and underwear which I keep in plastic containers which we already had on hand. By using plastic containers I can keep my underwear organized so I no longer have to sort through stacks of clothes to find what I am looking for. This will be a functional addition for our home and it also is an attractive piece as well.

Time and Cost

My rough estimate of time to mill the logs into lumber is approximately four hours. Time from start of the closet until completion was 11 days working on the various aspects approximately two hours (plus or minus) per day or about 22 total hours. Therefore the total time expended on the project was roughly 26 total hours. The final project cost is $22.00 for hardware and wood glue. This project demonstrates the advantage of being able to mill out your own lumber and the considerable savings realized by producing your own lumber from dead standing trees.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their projects at their mountain homestead go to:

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



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.

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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:

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