When living off of the grid, being able to make your own luxuries can be a very valuable resource. Learn how John J. Rowlands makes some of his simple luxuries and necessities.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/UZI TZUR
Although Cache Lake Country was copyrighted in 1947, I didn't discover this great little book for teenagers (and younger folks and adults too!) until I found a copy in a secondhand bookstore sometime in the early 60's. Everybody should have one; it has great tips on how to make useful country gear. The way that John J. Rowlands handles copy and Henry B. Kane supports those words with illustrations is a delight and Cache Lake Country is packed with rich, warm, useful "down-home" lore too! — JS
During the usual April rainy spell I put in some
time getting things fixed up for the summer. I made myself a new table from
three boards, two pieces of split birch log, and some seasoned birch saplings
for legs. I plan to make some benches the same way to go with it. That will
mean company won't have to sit on the nail keg. The only tricky part is to bore
the holes in the logs at the proper angle so that the legs will set just right.
The best way is to lay the pieces on the floor, make a wooden templet or guide
of the angle, and use it to start each hole.
While I was working on the bench Hank came over
and got an idea that he would try his hand at making some candle holders out of
tin cans. You've probably seen some of them before. They come in handy and a
candle is a pretty safe light to have in a house, especially if you have to
carry it around at night, which is not safe to do with a kerosene lamp. What is
more, a candle is almost certain to go out if it drops on the floor. I save the
ends of all burned candies, melt them up and pour them into a jelly glass,
first setting a wick of string in the glass by tying the top to a twig that
rests on the rim of the glass. This kind of candle lasts a long time.
Hank sometimes makes his own candies by molding
them in the bark slipped off a small decayed birch sapling. You often see birch
rotting on the ground in dark places in the woods and if it has been there long
enough the soft wood can be pushed out, leaving a nice mold for a candle. You
make a little wooden plug with a hole in the center to hold the wick in place.
Stick the plug in the bottom of the birch tube, tighten up on the string, and
tie it to a twig across the top. Then all you have to do is pour in your melted
wax and when it's hard run a sharp knife down the side and strip off the bark.
A piece of bark about hoe-handle thick and four inches long is easy to clean
out and makes a. candle of the right size.
When I first came up to this country I worked for
a while in a mine and I still have my miner's candlestick and a very handy
thing it is. One end is sharpened so that I can stick it into a wall, and there
is also a little hook to hang it on my hatband leaving my hands free to work.
They are not used much since the gas lamps came in, but I find it useful and it
keeps the memories of my mining days green.
For a long time I had been wanting a bellows to
quicken up my fire once in a while. It is a very handy thing to have around for
various purposes. So during a stormy spell I got to work and made one. Mine has
extra long handles so that I don't have to stoop when I use it.
The main part of the bellows forming the air
chamber is eight inches wide by twelve inches long and the handles are two feet
long. I had saved a nice piece of pine board which I planed down to half an
inch thick so the bellows would be light to handle. For the nozzle I used an
old .38-55 rifle cartridge with the head filed off. It is just about the right
size, the wide end being fitted into the block at the point of the bellows.
In the lower board I bored an inch and a quarter
hole for the intake valve. The valve flap is made of a small block of wood
faced with a piece of soft leather about a quarter of an inch larger than the
hole with room enough left on one side to tack it to the inside of the board.
Across the block is tacked loosely another little strip of leather, so that the
flap can rise about a quarter of an inch. The idea is that when the boards are
pulled apart, air is sucked in, but when they are pushed together the air
forces the leather flap tight against the intake hole.
On the bottom board is nailed a little block about
two inches long with a hole bored through it to hold the nozzle. Now, before
you hinge the top board to the block with a strong piece of leather, you have
to put springs between the boards to keep them separated. I used two slender
pieces of willow, curving them around and tacking the ends down to the lower
board near the point of the bellows. With that done you are ready to hinge the
top board and fit the leather sides. For this you will need some soft pliable
leather. I used soft smoked deerskin, but the sheepskin chamois that you can
buy would work very well. To get the shape of your leather the best thing to do
is to prop the two boards apart where you figure they would be as wide open as
you would want them, ant! then fit a paper pattern around them and trim it
until it is just right, leaving plenty of room at the pointed end for tacking
around the block.
By using a pattern you don't run the danger of
spoiling your leather, for the job of fitting is a little tricky. I found that
the best way is to tack the leather on with the tacks part way in until you are
sure it fits, especially around the handles where you-have to notch it. When it
is all laid on you can drive the tacks home and then cover the edges with a
binding strip of rawhide which not only protects the leather but helps keep it
airtight. There should also be a binding strip where the leather fits around
the point of the bellows.
Aside from brightening up my fire in no time at
all, I use the bellows when I ready up my house to blow dust and crumbs out of
the floor cracks where it's hard to get at them with the kind of homemade broom
The Chief, Hank and I have been having a
wonderful time building a crystal detector radio receiver. It all began when a
friend of ours, Mr. Beedee, a radio engineer, came up for a week's rest last
fall and got an idea it would be a real achievement to build a radio from the
odds and ends of material you could find lying around a camp in the north
woods. Of course, we couldn't expect to find materials to make earphones, but
he thought if we worked hard enough we could dig up the rest. Before he left he
made a diagram for a set and said he would send the earphones. So we started a
search for parts.
It was like one of those scavenger hunts you hear
about. When the three of us put all our findings together we had some pieces of
well seasoned pine board, various bits of metal, two or three dozen brass-headed
tacks, an empty spool, a handful of assorted screws, and an old cardboard salt
The two main problems were the tuning coil and a
variable condenser. Following Mr. Beedee's diagram we found we would need about
150 feet of insulated copper wire. Any size between number 22 to 28, or even
finer, would do. For a while it looked as if we were not going to have any
radio, but Hank got an idea and we snowshoed over to the old abandoned mine to
see what we could find there. As luck would have it, in one corner of the
blacksmith shop where it had lain for nigh on to twenty years was an old
ignition coil once used for firing a gas engine. I certainly was excited when I
pulled that thing apart and saw what was inside. Sure enough, there was a
winding of fine wire, just the kind we wanted.
The salt box turned out to be just the thing for
winding our coil on, so we cut off one end four inches long and soaked it in
melted candle wax so it wouldn't take up moisture. Then we began winding,
beginning one-quarter of an inch from one end of the box and put on a total of
166 turns. At the start of the winding we anchored the wire by passing it back
and forth through three pinholes punctured in the cardboard tube so the wire
wouldn't slip. Every seven turns we twisted a little loop to make a tap until
we had eight of them. Then we wound on 40 turns without any taps. From then on
to the end we made, a tap every ten turns, scraping off the insulation on each
tap to make a good connection. Those taps, connected by short wires to the
switch points, make it easy to use any desired number of turns on the coil to
tune in a station.
When all the turns were wound, the end of the wire
was again fastened by passing it back and forth through pinholes in the tube.
Then we painted the coil with candle wax to keep the wire in place. While we
were doing that the Chief made a little wooden disk to go on top of the coil to
hold the crystal detector.
Making the movable condenser had us puzzled for a
while, but we looked on the diagram and it said tinfoil would do, so we started
to hunt and it wasn't long before the Chief thought of the tinfoil lining of
the packages our tea comes in. We got enough to make two sheets four by six
inches and the Chief smoothed it out very evenly with the edge of a knife. We
also needed some waxed paper and found what we wanted on a package of dry
cereal. Meantime Hank cut out a pine baseboard for our set 14 inches long and
12 inches wide.
The first thing we did then was to start on the
condenser and you will get an idea from our friend's diagram how we made it. (Click on the "Image Gallery" to view the diagram and diagrams of other tools described.)
Out of an old piece of tongued and grooved siding I cut two narrow guides and
from another piece of the board we made a slider five and one-quarter inches
wide and six inches long. Fitted between the two guides, this piece slides back
and forth very nicely after being shellacked and waxed, making it easy to
adjust the condenser.
The next step was to use shellac to fasten one of the
sheets of tinfoil onto the baseboard at a 45-degree angle, leaving one corner
free to connect a wire, and then covering it with waxed paper extending the
full width and length of the guides which are twelve inches long. Then we
screwed the guides in place on top of the waxed paper, making sure that the
slider board moved back and forth freely with just enough clearance so it
didn't touch the baseboard.
On the bottom of the slider at a 45-degree angle
we fastened the other sheet of tinfoil, which was also glued down with shellac,
leaving one end turned up over the edge of the slide for connecting a wire. The
slider ought to be shellacked, too, for you want to keep all wood parts as dry
as possible. Then the Chief screwed the spool on top for a handle, fitted wood
strips at each end as stops for the slide, and our condenser was done.
I used two narrow strips of brass cut from the
name plate of an old canoe for the two switch blades and then copper wires from
the various taps on the coil were brought down and fastened under brass-headed
tacks. The connections for the earphones, antenna, and ground were made of
little bits of copper wire, but we hope to have something better, such as a
binding post, or spring clips, someday.
For a cup to hold our detector crystal we used one
of the Chief's .3855 caliber rifle shells cutting it off about one-half inch
from the cap end so that we could screw it to the top of the coil. Matter of
fact you could use the end of a 28-gauge shotgun shelf or even one of those
little cups they use on brass curtain rods.
For a cat whisker you take about two inches of
fine steel wire sharpened to a point at one end where it touches the crystal,
which should be a little lump of galena or silicon or even iron pyrite. I have
heard that you can use a couple of razor blades set in slots in a block of
wood, with a fine wire resting on the edges for a detector. Some fellows say a
small piece of coal will do, but I don't put much reliance on such detectors.
The best detector of all is one of the small fixed
crystals that you can buy in any radio store. When our earphones arrived,
tucked in with them was a fine fixed crystal and I can tell you we didn't lose
much time putting it in place. It has a small tip on one end, so we set the
large end in the holder and made it snug by tamping in tinfoil and then wound
the fine bare wire around the tip to make the other connection, for the cat
whisker is inside these manufactured detectors.
For a spell it looked as if we would have no
antenna, but then I thought of the copper wire I used for deep trolling for
lake trout and we stretched a hundred feet of it between two jack pines above
the cabin, taking care to insulate the ends. From one end we brought an
insulated lead wire through the window to our receiver. We also took some bare
wire through the window and buried it in a damp place below the eaves for a
For insulators on our aerial we used pieces of
broken syrup bottles, but if you have no glass you can take a well-seasoned
piece of hardwood, such as the end of a broomstick, about six inches long,
drill holes about an inch from each end, and boil it in candle wax to keep out
I never will forget that evening when at last we
had everything ready and I put on the earphones and listened for the new
government station that has been built in the woods about twenty-five miles
from us to cover the north country. At first I didn't hear anything so I
changed the little switch blades and moved the condenser slider and all of a
sudden I heard a girl singing Annie Laurie, clear and sweet!
One of the little problems of living in the woods
in winter is coming home and having to get a fire going and wait for a meal to
cook when you are hungry enough to chew rawhide. Well, I've got that one
beaten, for I made myself a fireless cooker and now when I am away for a day I
come back to a hot meal ready for me the minute I step in the door.
I don't know who invented fireless cookers, but
they have been used for a long, long time, especially in the Scandinavian
countries, where they were usually insulated with hay or straw and called
"hay boxes." A fireless cooker is simple and inexpensive to make, for
any kind of box that is tight or even a keg or a barrel will do. The important
thing is plenty of good insulation to hold the heat in, and you can find the
right kind wherever you are. I used well-dried sphagnum moss, but sawdust would
have been all right. In addition to straw or hay, crushed paper, wool, ground
cork, excelsior, or cotton batting are all good for insulation. Many of the
materials made to keep houses warm, especially mineral wool and fluffy
asbestos, would also do well as insulation for a fireless cooker.
The first step in building a cooker is to decide
on the pot or pail you plan to use regularly, for on its size depends the kind
of box you will need. Make certain the pot has straight sides so it will slip
in and out of its compartment easily, and it must have a tight-fitting cover.
Enamelware, aluminum, or stainless steel utensils are all fine for the purpose.
The best type of pot is one which is about as wide as it is tall, for you don't
want any more surface to radiate heat than you can help.
A fireless cooker does a much better job if you
use a preheated round, flat stone, the diameter of the pot and about an inch
thick, at the bottom of the cooking hole. Sometimes you can find a soft stone
that can be chipped to size, but I cast one an inch and a half thick by mixing
a little cement with sand and pouring it into a circular cardboard mold. I made
a little hollow in the middle and set in a loop of wire so it could be lowered
into place with a hook.
Once you have your pot you will know how big a box
is needed for the cooking well that holds the pot must be surrounded by at least
four inches of insulating material, top, sides, and bottom. Before doing
anything else, line the bottom and sides of the box with heavy paper, and then
fill the bottom with four or five inches of insulating material. Next place the
pot on top of the heating stone on the insulation in the center of the box and
pack insulation evenly and not too tightly around the pot until it comes up to
the rim and no more. Then work the pot around carefully until the hole is
slightly larger, so it will slide out easily. Now slip in a cylindrical liner
of cardboard to form a smooth wall for the cooking compartment.
When the insulating material has been packed to
the top of the pot, cover it with heavy building paper or cardboard with the
edges turned down and pasted to the sides of the box, the edge around the
cooking hole turned down and glued to the cardboard liner. Then you make a
cloth cushion four inches deep to fit the top of the box and stuff it with four
inches of insulating material, for this top pad is very important. The last
step is to make a hinged lid for the box that presses down snugly on the top
insulating pad. Make a hook to hold it down, for the tighter the cooker the
better it will work. If you want to make two cooking compartments make a
partition in the middle and have a separate top insulating cushion for each
Once you have a fireless cooker you must know how
to use it properly to get the best results. Of course you start your food on a
stove and bring it to a boil, meantime heating the stone for the bottom. Then
get it into the fireless cooker as quickly as you can—instantly is none too
fast. That's the real secret!
Another important thing to remember is that you
will get much better results if the food fills your cooking pot instead of
being half or three-quarters full, for wherever there is an air space, heat
will be lost. Beans, cereals, stews, and soups are best cooked from eight to
twelve hours, but many foods need only two or three hours in the cooker. You
don't know how good food can be until you have tasted it from a fireless
cooker, which keeps in all the fine flavors that usually steam away on a stove.
Reprinted from Cache Lake
Country by John J. Rowlands. Illustrated by Henry B. Kane, with permission of
the publisher. Copyright 1947, 1959 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, N.Y.