Summon the word “homestead” and you likely think of hardy farmers with 10 or more acres on which they keep livestock, grow and preserve a great deal of their own food, and fell trees to build their homes. But more modest-sized homesteads are more attainable for most people, and these smaller-scale acreages can embody old-school homesteading in principle, if not in scope. Our half-acre homestead is one of those. Following are some of the most useful tools and techniques that have made Lesley’s and my 40-year journey toward greater self-sufficiency possible.
We began our homesteading lifestyle in the ’60s and ’70s, when the countercultural revolution was sweeping across the United States. The ’60s meant many different things to many people, but for me, the focus was on food and shelter. By building our own house, we could escape rent and mortgage payments. In 1971, we bought our half-acre of land (two 100-by-100-foot lots) for $6,500 in a small town in Northern California.
I built our current home with used lumber from torn-down Navy barracks. I salvaged the windows from chicken coops in a nearby town and picked up the doors from debris boxes outside remodeling projects in San Francisco. I covered the exterior walls with shakes I split from redwood logs that had washed up on a nearby beach. Concurrent with the construction, we planted fruit trees and a large vegetable garden, and got chickens, bees and goats.
Between then and now, our half-acre homestead has gone through continuous changes. I learned long ago that you probably can’t become fully self-sufficient, but you can work meaningfully toward greater self-sufficiency. You can grow as much of your own food and do as much of your own building as possible without fixating on doing it all. After four decades of embracing this mindset, I’ve discovered that you’ll certainly get much further down the road to self-reliance if you have the right high-quality tools for the tasks that will arise along the way. Following are some of the tools and techniques that have made Lesley’s and my 40-year journey toward greater self-sufficiency successful. As comic book character Mr. Natural said, “Get the right tool for the job!”
Build Basic Homestead Infrastructure
Chicken coop. I built about five makeshift coops and lost quite a few hens to predators before deciding to construct a proper coop. We poured a concrete slab, put up conventional walls, and protected the yard with aviary wire, which we sank about 18 inches into the ground all the way around. The new coop has successfully kept out hawks, rats and digging critters, such as raccoons. It also has a living roof.
Greenhouse. Its north wall is made of stabilized adobe bricks (1 part cement to 12 parts soil). The other three walls are recycled windows that were free. With the greenhouse roofing, trial and error prevailed. The first roof was made of corrugated vinyl sheets from Home Depot, and after a few years, they became discolored — horrible stuff. I replaced them with greenhouse-grade fiberglass, and within six years, it too had become discolored from road dust and lichen, causing the plants inside to grow too leggy. The greenhouse’s present roof is twin-walled polycarbonate, a wonderful (though expensive) glazing material (from Farm Tek) with a 10-year guarantee. We also installed a solar-powered fan for cooling.
Raid-proof garden beds. Gophers are a problem in our area, so Lesley laid quarter-inch wire mesh on the ground where we wanted each garden bed, and then dry-stacked two layers of concrete blocks on top around the edges of the wire. We then filled the bed and blocks with soil and — voilà! — we had gopher-proof vegetable beds.
Compost system. We’ve found that keeping two compost buckets works well — a 1-gallon bucket by the sink for food scraps we’ll feed to our chickens, and a 3-gallon bucket with a foot-operated lid for the rest of our food scraps, such as orange peels and coffee grounds. In the garden, I built three 5-by-5-foot bins, each about 5 feet high, with sliding boards in front that I can adjust according to the pile’s height. We mix in food scraps from the foot-operated bin, grass cuttings, seaweed, topsoil, and manure and bedding straw from the chicken coop, and keep adding, mixing and moving the compost from bin to bin until it has matured.
Tin roofs for outdoor storage. Our entire property is fenced to keep out deer and dogs. On many sections of fence, I’ve formed roofs out of recycled, heavy-gauge corrugated metal sheets to create covered areas for tool storage, firewood and more.
Lumber racks. To compensate for limited storage space, I’ve built racks so I can stack lumber five tiers high.
Hearthstone woodburning stove. This 35-year-old woodstove is our only source of heat (though we also rely on the age-old principle of layering clothing). I get wood from trees that topple on or alongside nearby roads, and once a year I rent a log splitter to split them into firewood.
Honorable mentions: Terro ant bait to control ants; products from Bug Spray for serious ant infestations; Murray McMurray automatic chicken waterers; Greenbug all-natural pest control spray for termites; wheelbarrow for innumerable garden tasks; Northern Industrial Tools yard cart for hauling.
Most Useful Tools in the Kitchen
WonderMill 110-volt electric grain mill. This mill grinds grain quickly and efficiently. We use it to grind wheat and rye for our sourdough bread, make our own cream of rice, and grind oat groats into flour for pancakes and waffles.
KitchenAid Professional 600 Series mixer. This machine is reliable and unbeatable for kneading dough.
AccuSharp 001 knife sharpener. This inexpensive little tool lets you swiftly and effectively sharpen knives.
Marga Mulino grain flaker. This small, hand-powered Italian roller turns oat groats into rolled oats, and can be set for finer grinds as well.
Fermenting crock. Using a ceramic vessel to ferment foods is so simple. To make sauerkraut, for example, you just shred cabbage, add salt and let the mixture sit for a few weeks. Our favorite pot, made in Poland, features a water seal.
Rheem hot water heater. I installed a 5-gallon electric hot water heater under the kitchen sink. It uses minimal electricity and provides hot water right at the source.
Dishwashing system. In place of a dishwasher, we use Rubbermaid 4-gallon dishpans to wash dishes in, and we place the dishes in a custom-built rack for drying and storage.
Honorable mentions: Chef’s Choice cordless tea kettle for coffee, tea and hot water needs; Component Design Northwest meat thermometer for an accurate temperature read when cooking meat; Pure Water water distiller for drinking water; Messermeister poultry shears for cutting up poultry; Weber Genesis liquid-propane gas grill for cooking meat, poultry and fish outdoors.
Mighty Mac 12P hammermill chipper-shredder. Ours has lasted more than 30 years. The side-feeding chipper is powerful enough to chip a 2-by-4. We use it to grind up branches and garden trimmings for the compost pile. Never push branches down into the hopper with your hands; use a 2-by-4 instead.
Makita variable-speed impact driver with a lithium-ion battery. This driver has been a game changer for me. It uses both rotation and concussive blows to drive screws, and it’s two to three times as powerful as the familiar driller-driver. The trigger controls the speed.
Protective gear. If you operate a chainsaw, please wear protective gear, such as the Husqvarna Pro Forest helmet and face shield system.
Saws. Lots of saws. I have a 40-year-old Delta radial arm saw that’s still going strong, a vintage Delta 10-inch table saw, an old, reconditioned Makita miter saw, a Porter-Cable circular saw, a Makita 4350 FCT top handle jigsaw, and a Stihl 24-inch MS 270 chainsaw. For a handsaw, I now wield a Japanese SharkSaw Pullsaw in place of my old U.S.-made push saws. The Pullsaw is faster and more accurate.
Lehman’s froe. I make wooden shakes with a froe . You can make shakes if you have access to tight-grained lumber, such as redwood or cedar.
Honorable mentions: Mintcraft butcher saw for butchering deer and wild pigs; Gorilla Glue adhesive products; Honda 2,800-watt portable inverter generator to keep our appliances running in case of power outages; Norton Arkansas oilstone for sharpening knives and chisels; Roselli hatchet for woodcarving; Victorinox Swiss Army Centurion knife for garden and maintenance work; Havalon skinning knife for skinning deer and roadkill.
I hope these durable tools help you as much as they’ve helped me. And remember, for homesteaders of any persuasion: The easy way is hard enough.
Influential homesteader and publisher Lloyd Kahn is a well-known proponent of natural, handmade building. His most recent book is Tiny Homes on the Move. Find a list of the tools mentioned here, as well as links to purchase them, on Lloyd's website.