Hand Split Cedar Roof Shakes

hand split cedar shakesBeing a splitter of cedar by trade, Colin naturally decided to split all his own shakes for the roof of his new workshop by hand.  Having many piles of cedar already collected and in need of being moved out of his old working location gave Colin a good start at the job of splitting approximately 600 square feet of coverage, or what he estimated to be 6 squares of shakes.  A square is made up of 4 bundles of shakes covering 100 square feet (each bundle covers approx. 25sq.ft. depending on length of shake and row coverage).  Using a froe and mallet, Colin split and shaped the shakes out of 18″ bolts of cedar, using the best of the shakes for the roof and saving the less than ideal (wavy, thin, less tapered, or  too narrow) for a future wall project.  froeshake splittingsplitting shakescedar shakesShakes are split by placing the froe across the grain on one end of the bolt, about 3/4″ from the edge, then hitting the froe with the mallet and peeling off the shake.  It should taper somewhat (shakes can be 24″ or 18″ long, usually the longer the better for coverage and tapering) and then you flip the bolt over and repeat the same action, flipping the bolt after splitting each shake.  stacks of shakesIt took a surprisingly long time to split the estimated amount needed, mostly because of the amount of less than perfect shakes that he was getting from the bolts he was using (of which much was old grapestakes, and other pieces of cedar that were not as usable in longer lengths anymore, as the cedar he salvages is not collected for shakes, but in longer bolts usable for furniture, gates and fencing).  Colin chose 18″ shakes partly because of the wood he had available and partly because of the curves and roundness of the roof on his shop.  layeringHe layered the shakes with an overlap of 7.5″ each row.  As the rows are applied it is important to offset the gaps between shakes from row to row.  What this means essentially is that the space between shakes never lines up directly with the gap in the row below, and better yet not for 3 rows.  The straight grains of cedar and the overlapping shakes encourages efficient water run-off, while the gaps allow for evaporation and quick drying time.  Cedar shake roofs have a life span of 50 years (though some have been known to last upwards of 80yrs).  flowing around the curvesCedar shingles differ from shakes in that they are taper sawn, thinner, and usually are rated only for 25yrs.  Cedar has excellent natural oils present in it’s wood that makes it rot resistant in it’s naturally wet climate.  Much of the northern pacific coastline, rimmed and abundant in fat old growth logs, offers ideal shake block opportunities with wide planks and tight grains.  Most shakes are collected from downed red cedars near logging clear cuts or trees not long enough to be worth milling into lumber.   roofHere we have salvaged what we can find on the beaches and then applied the best of our skills to producing by hand the beautiful and functional flow of cedar shakes.

At the very end of the project Colin ran out of suitable cedar to split for final part of the roof, and not wanting to waste anymore time as it was the middle of winter, we gave in and purchased the last few bundles of shakes needed to complete the roof.  Although a bit of a disappointment for Colin, this is the reality of building yourself, sometimes you just need to compromise and get it done!roof finishedfinished roof

Final Lime Plaster

Back in May (2011) we decided to get going on the final lime plaster of the outside of the house before the business of summer cob building took over.  Lime prefers to have cooler temperatures in which to dry, and requires much more attention to the timing of the drying process for a result of eveness of colour and trowel lines.  Much like the process of applying the cayolin clay plaster on the inside, lime needs to be troweled on continually until a whole section can be completed, otherwise an apparent line will be visible where the plaster dried too fast, or where troweling stopped.  There are techniques to make these lines look less visible if whole big sections are difficult to complete in one go at it. We added a beveled line that undulates around the house, dividing the wall into smaller sections and providing a place for us to stop.  That way we were able to plaster only the top section, and then only the bottom, and have the line of plaster meet under the bevel and so be hidden.

moving along in a team of three

Working with three people who are competent with the job is important.  Fixing spots as you go, running out of plaster when you need it, and being too late for the sponging part of plastering is stressful.  So is having the sun come out unexpectedly and not being able to stop to find a way of shading the work space.  Likewise, having lunch, snacks, and drinks being made available while working is a huge bonus in making lime plastering a smooth and fun thing to do.

getting those mixing muscles flexing

The right tools are also necessary.  We used Japanese trowels, hawks (easy to make-plywood board with a handle on one side), just like with the interior plaster, and mixed the plaster in 5 gallon buckets and then in a large tub for uniform colour and consistency.  A powerful drill with a paint mixer attached, measuring spoons and cups (depending on colour pigment used), a spatula, and big scooper are helpful to have on hand.  Ladders or scaffolding should be close by for high parts.

The ingredients are simple- hydrated lime, stucco sand, water, and colour pigment.  We soaked the lime in a big barrel a few weeks in advance.  We also did many colour samples using a one litre mix, adding pigments in increments of tablespoons to get an array of shades and colour blends.  We have many beautiful arbutus trees framing the house, and we wanted to make a colour that brought out a reflection of the deep red/orange/brown that we see in the twisting branches.  We also thought that such a colour would bring out the vibrant yellow of the yellow cedar window frames.  Red pigment, however, has pink tendencies, and so we ended up using ten tablespoons of red in a one litre mix, plus five tablespoons of chestnut brown.  Multiplying that up to 4 gallons in a bucket, and we were deep into a large quantity of pigment.  We ordered what we thought would be enough for the whole house, based on calculations for the area covered per bucket on the inside, but discovered partway through the job that we had only enough for just over half the house.  We spent way more money on colour pigment than we ever expected, but we were committed to the colour.  Lesson #1: estimating for natural plasters is difficult, and calculating for colour pigments is even more complicated.  Lesson #2: find a good source of affordable, bulk colour pigments.  Because we were pushing to get this job done while the weather was still cool, we just walked in to a concrete supply store and bought mortar pigments that come in small bags.  When we discovered just how much we would need, we didn’t want to take the time to find a different source because different pigments have different colour shades.  We would have needed to do the colour sampling all over again.  By the time we ran out and needed more though, I was very much wishing that we had.  However, in the end we spent about $800 in the final outside layer (incl. lime and sand), and compared to other forms of siding or paint, we have a beautiful plaster that soaks in to the landscape, accentuates the curves of the bales and the coziness of the forest, for probably less money in the end.

The very first thing we had to do, before any of the plaster went on, was to add the sculptural elements to the rough coat.  Elemental it was, too – the aspect of the house is situated very close to the four directions, and we wanted to acknowledge the directions and the elements on each side of the house.

south sun

We sculpted a large sun on the south side for fire, and a water lily on the west side for water.  My mom got to work on sculpting a tree on the north side for earth, and I placed two dragonflies on the east wall under the light that shines beside the front door for air.  Our beveled relief line that undulates through the middle of the wall flows through each of the elemental sculptures and adds a subtle shadow line.  The sculptures were made using the same mix as was used for the brown coat of the walls- 1 part clay, 2 parts sand, and 1 part chopped straw.  Fine sand and clay sifted free of rocks makes the plaster easier to shape.  We also wet down the wall and spread clay slip over the area to help with adhesion.

mixing lime, sand, and pigment

Lime plaster: 1 part lime, 3 parts sand.  For us, this meant 5 litres lime and 15 litres sand.  That is what we could mix in one 5 gallon bucket.  Spin it together with the mixer, and add colour pigment, mixing it in with a small amount of water.  Then we turned three buckets into the big tub and mixed them all together.  We worked out of this tub until we got low, then had our extra person work on mixing up more.

Before we started on the walls, I went around and plastered the sculptural areas first, thinking that it would make plastering the walls faster to do rather than having to do the intricacies at the same time as keeping ahead of the drying plaster.  Two were done in white, and two were done as the same colour as the walls.  What I discovered was this was not as straight forwards when it came time to do the walls.  Red pigment, as well as splatter from the rough coat of clay as it was being sprayed with water, got all over the finished sculpture and needed cleaning and touching up afterwards.  Also, it was hard to sponge the plaster without touching the already plastered areas, which made the transitions between the two look smudgy.  From a distance, it is not a big deal at all, and since this is the outside, we usually look at it from a certain distance.  So I recommend doing it all at the same time- just consider simple sculpture lines and expect to be slowed down considerably when plastering these areas.  Small tools are essential, as well as the all useful yogurt lid with the rim cut off.

sponging- making the finish texture smooth and uniform

The sponging part of the process comes when the plaster is tacky enough to leave finger prints but dry enough that no plaster comes off onto the fingers.  It can be a very precise moment, depending on the weather and how fast the plaster may be drying.  A damp sponge is simply moved around in circles to remove the troweling marks and give a smooth, uniform look to the whole wall.  Sponging too soon will pull at the plaster too much, and sponging too late means that the sponge needs to be wetter and a stronger motion is needed to smooth out the trowel marks.  A well troweled wall, however, won’t have very many marks to be eliminated.  We noticed that sponging on a too dry wall caused a variation in the colour pigment, making it a lighter shade, just like when we sponged near an already plastered spot and brushed up against it.

final plaster layer is about 1/4 inch thick

Our process went pretty smoothly.  Colin and I mixed what we needed for the day and did the troweling with a friend who pre-sprayed the wall sections ahead of us with water, sponged along behind us when the plaster was ready, and helped remix some of the plaster from the bottoms of the buckets when it began to dry out too much.  Getting familiar with the perfect consistency is learned simply through using the plaster, and noticing when it is too dry and difficult to spread or too wet and sliding off the trowel.

the art of troweling is challenged when ladders and awkward spaces need to be reached

The motion of getting it from hawk to trowel to wall is also a practiced motion that comes with repetition.  Generally, I would make lots of little overlapping rainbow swipes over a one foot square area, and then smooth the whole area down in larger swipes right away, and move on.  No putzing allowed!  Get it on, flatten it out, and move on.  Plastering a whole house gives lots of opportunity for repetitive motion learning…  start with the most hidden space and do the area around the front door last.

dragonflies at the front entrance

There are many details and considerations with lime plaster, and it is helpful if you have experience with some other form of earthen plastering, or if someone who does can give a hands-on lesson.  Again, we had the direction of Tracy Calvert, who has been building naturally since the 1980’s and has specialized in earthen plasters.  She has led many workshops and believes that skills of natural building are to be available for anyone willing to learn, like the traditional practices passed down from cultures around the world that enable the reality of shelter for everyone in a community and not only for the wealthy.

north tree

west water lily

The Roof of the Cob Workshop

As we move into the first week of October, it remains the driest summer on record here on our west coast island, parching the gardens, drying up wells, and raising the fire danger all around us.  The one thing that the clear sunny skies have been perfect for is drying out the cob walls of Colin’s workshop and giving us lots of time to get the roof on and the walls protected for when the rains finally do pour down.  In the meantime, Colin is splitting all the cedar shakes that he needs for finishing the roof, and I am getting ready to start troweling on the scratch coat of earthen plaster on the walls.

The construction of the roof began with the laying of the rafters onto the top of the cob walls, radiating outwards from the central post and beam structure that stands in the center of the workshop to support the large skylight.  We embedded “deadmen” (inverted wood T’s) into the top foot of the cob walls every two feet, and attached the rafters to these for extra tie down support.  Then we had a small amount of cobbing left to do- filling in around the rafters up to a finished height that closed in a small vent on the outside edge.

Colin had in mind an undulating roof line as well as a curving roof line, so the top height of the walls swept up and down as they went around in the circle, making the rafters swoop above doorways and dip into corners.  Placing plywood over the rafters required half inch as well as quarter inch plywood, doubling up the quarter inch in the places where it needed to bend around corners and into the dips, giving the roof a plywood patchwork look.  We then rolled out lengths of roofing felt and started on the skylight.  Traditionally, cedar shake roofs don’t need any plywood or roofing felt.  The shakes were just nailed right to strapping over the rafters.  Because we are building a permitted building with unconventional materials with approval from an engineer in a seismically sensitive zone, well, we had to do it.  Our engineer told us that the plywood helps to distribute the load of the roof on the load bearing walls, uniting the roof and reducing the amount of pressure directly on the walls.

The skylight required a little more finessing in terms of design.  Basically, a system of nine ribs curve over a center beam, with double walled polycarbonate sheets bent over the ribs, and cedar strips screwed down on the top.  Lots of details in between, of course, but that is the basic construction of the 8×12 skylight.  There is plywood filling in the ends of the skylight, and roof venting along the sides that moves the air through from the vents at the other ends of the rafters.  We will be filling the inside of the ceiling with rock wool insulation, leaving a two inch gap at the top of the rafters for this passage of air.

The light inside is a beautiful diffused brightness, and the gentle curves and waves of the roof line is complemented by the surrounding slope and roll of the bedrock, the arch of the lifted skylight echoes the balanced curve of the strawbale house above it.  The moments of standing and looking at the very real outcome of what was an imagining is almost surreal, as if we were imagining what was already there and had just failed to notice it before.  We still have an extensive list of big and small jobs to do before the workshop is usable, or finished, but having the foundation up to the roof constructed and becoming a part of our landscape is an amazing accomplishment.  Thanks to many helping hands, encouraging words, and loads of summer fruit dropped off by generous neighbors!

Cob Walls Going Up!

It has been a little difficult to keep up on a blog posting about the building of the walls, because so much is happening in such a short time that photos of progress quickly become out dated.  Most of my own time has been spent working alongside the cobbers, helping my mom to prepare and make meals, or collapsing in bed at the end of the day.  The walls are now very close to their final height, and we will soon be able to install the rafters before we continue with the cobbing up and around them.   I thought it would be a good time to review what has been done, and then follow up with the roofing later on.

We had three people from off-island join us for four days, and a continuous stream of friends and neighbors each day to learn and help out.  Colin’s mom from Florida was visiting, as well as our friends from Vancouver who sold us the property and are building the little cabin on the property.

clay slip on the foundation

We started with learning the art of foot mixing on tarps, but then moved on to using the huge pile of bobcat mixed cob.  Tracy Calvert, our cob building expert from Cobworks, showed us how to apply clay slip to the stones of the foundation to help adhere the cob to the stone, and then we started laying down the first handfuls of cob.  We focused on building up one of the wall sections that would have windows in it, so that within the four days, our cobbers would have the opportunity to set the glass in place and cob the sills and edges.  Tracy spent time each day after lunch discussing different areas of the building process, including foundations, techniques for windows and doors, plumbing and electrical, and roof structures.  On the last day, we had a small ceremony to celebrate our work together by placing objects in a jar that have a personal connection and burying it into the wall of the workshop.  We did that again with the second group of cobbers on the next weekend, and Colin and I were very touched at the honesty and words of appreciation and inspiration that everyone had regarding their experience building and learning together.  Everyone had a different reason for being here learning about cob- some of which were specific to cob and some were seeking personal empowerment.  We come together as strangers and leave each other with new friendships and new gems of knowledge to integrate into our lives.  I was reminded of the time when Colin and I traveled a lot and met different people from all sorts of paths, knowing them sometimes for a short time or a long time before parting ways, but always taking something of the experience of knowing them with me.

It is also wonderful to have friends and fellow islanders stop in for a day or more to help out.  Having the support of our community means a lot to us.  We have come to see the building of this workshop as another example of building stronger community ties with experiences of working together and deepening relationships and memories between us.

Colin and I had drawn out a general sketch for a sculptural design on the outside of two flowing lines coming out from the sides of the main door and sweeping up into a raven on the left, and diving down into the roots of a tree on the right side of the door.  We wanted to have bottles placed in the wall along the pathways of the two lines, so as we went we taped two bottles together to span the width of the wall and cobbed them in place.  We also have some circular thick glass port windows, about 8 inches across, that we wanted to have in the walls, so we put buckets that were slightly smaller than the glass in the place where we wanted the windows and them cobbed all around them.  By turning the buckets each day we ensured that they will pull out easily when we want to set the glass in.

placing corbels for the arches

We also made corbels with long lengths of straw covered in clay and layered together to build a strong protruding window sill and arches over the tops of the tall windows that we cobbed in place.  Celine, our neighbor, brought us a beautiful tall blue glass bottle that we placed in between the windows, adding more dimensions to the width of the wall.  We added a framed opening window on the east side, hammering old nails into the wooden frame for the cob around it to grab onto.  We did the same with the door bucks, creating a network of wire and nails that the cob will harden around.  There is no plumbing in the workshop, but there are a few light switches that Colin mounted near the door bucks, running an electrical conduit up to the rafters where all the wiring will run.  Other electrical outputs will be built into an interior wall that will frame in a utility room and backing for Colin’s work bench.

Trimming is a big part of cobbing.  Every day, before more cob is loaded on to the walls, the splooges that occur while building up with wet cob is trimmed off with a saw and remixed to be put back on the wall.  It is important to make sure that the walls remain plumb, so that the strength of the weight of the cob is kept directly above the foundation.  It is easy for the wall edges to wander in all directions.  It is also easier to trim excess splooging than it is to add to dips that may occur, so it is important to keep the edges as plumb as possible and allow the splooging to happen.

We had the bobcat return in the days between the first weekend of cobbing and the second, to mix more cob and to remix the leftovers as it was getting dried out.  We had two cobbers from off island join us for the second workshop, and again a continuous flow of islanders coming by and spending time working with us.

niches built into the sides of the window and bottles framing the door

By this time, we were also getting two or three groups of people stopping by every day just to see what was going on, asking questions and watching the process.  We are fairly visible to the road, so walkers would stop, cars would slow down, and our neighbor across the street sent anybody who came to see her and her road side stand over to check out our building.  After the weekend, Shawn (one of the workshop participants)  decided to stay an extra three days and keep cobbing before flying back to South Korea, and we had two more people arriving after that who were not able to make the workshop dates but wanted to learn while we were still getting it finished up.  That is where we are now- working up in the top few feet, making deadmen for the rafters to sit on, feeding Marco and Nick alongside our family, and enjoying the continued company of our community.  Cobbing so far has proved to be a lot of physical work, work that is energizing and fun with a group of people working together and learning from each other.  New creative methods of building are developed, and artistic touches are discovered.  It would be too lengthy for me to explain details of the cobbing techniques, so I will recommend a book that Tracy recommends for anyone interested in learning more.  Check out The Hand Sculpted House, by Ianto Evans, Michael Smith and Linda Smiley and Cob Cottage Company in Oregon.  I also recommend a hands on experience for a better understanding of the process, and as a way of feeling out whether cob would be the ideal method if you have a project in mind.

Cob Workshop Stone Foundation

In anticipation of our upcoming cob workshops to build Colin’s woodworking shop, we have been busy setting up the foundation and floor of the building.  The spot where we are building is tucked up against the bedrock slope that slants down and somewhat divides our land into upper and lower sections, the upper section being where we have just completed the first half of our strawbale house which will eventually be extended down the rock slope.  The workshop is situated off to the side of this slope and as close to the side line of the property as we can go.

In early July we had an excavator come and dig out 2 foot wide trenches that would hold 18 inch deep concrete footing walls with drain rock along the outside.  Colin built forms down the middle of the trench, using the clay walls as the forms on the inside of the trench and leaving the outer side empty for filling with drain rock.  We dug a connecting trench and placed a drain pipe that went down hill towards the garden.  Colin added a small grid of rebar in the bottom of the trench and then called in the cement truck to pour the footings.  He added stakes of rebar throughout the wall to tie together later after the stonework was done, as was requested by our engineer for seismic strengthening of the stone and concrete.  He also dug footings for the skylight posts and placed saddles after the concrete pour.  The concrete footing wall came up to the height of the clay grade, and provided a strong ledge onto which the excavator would place many of the massive stones that exist on our property.

So by mid July, we had the excavator back and picking huge stones from our pile that Colin directed into the spaces between the rebar stakes, trying to place them in such a way so that he could fill in between them manually with smaller stones.  He mixed and shoveled concrete as each stone was set, and adjusted the placement so that the outside edge was either flat or sloping downwards for water run off.  In the pile, he found two huge flat stones that were placed at the front double door entrance to the shop.  Then he spent the next few days picking smaller rocks and cementing them in the spaces, creating a two foot wide, irregularly stacked stone ledge two feet high onto which the cob wall will be stacked, keying in to the varying height of the stones for extra solidity between the cob and the stone wall.

A large pile of clay left from the digging of the trenches will be used as part of the clay we need for mixing the cob, and a large pile of local pit run sand is being delivered in the next few days.  Bales of straw will be picked up from the Saanich Peninsula, and a huge tarp has been strung up to protect the space from the heat of the sun as well as the unseasonal threats of rain we have been getting.  The food menu for the workshop participants is being finalized, and we have even had a friend come by to film the construction of the foundation with the idea of making a small movie of the cobbing workshops and the process of building this small natural building.

We are off in a few days to our annual family music camp, so getting as much done and in place now will help us feel more prepared when we arrive home and have cobbers showing up four days later!  We are very excited about hosting this learning opportunity, and creating a beautiful space for Colin to work in.  We are still accepting people to join us- see the previous post Cob Workshop Approved for details of the cobbing workshops in August.

Cob Workshop Approved!

Come and build a cob workshop with us! This summer we are offering an opportunity for learning about building with cob while constructing a woodworking shop on Pender Island.  Details about registering are at the end of this post.

During the last month, Colin has been working on drawing the plans for his woodworking shop that we are building this summer.  He has been using a small area in his dads workshop for a long time, and the limitations of that space are more and more apparent. Since his business ( www.thujawoodart.com) is what pays for all our land and home building projects, it was obvious to us that the next thing on the list would be a permanent space for him to expand into, with proper space for wood sorting and storage.  Since we are building within the Capital Regional District (CRD), everything we do needs to be permitted and inspected for compliance with the building codes.  Colin’s dream of building a load bearing cob workshop was thus dependent on the engineer that we have been working with throughout the construction of our strawbale house.  For the past three years, Colin has been giving him a heads-up about this plan, and sending along information and history about the processes and strengths of cob.

From Home Work, an inspiring sky lit workshop

The design that Colin has imagined was inspired by a photo in Lloyd Kahn’s book, Home Work, showing a workshop with a huge central skylight.  Colin’s design entails a large skylight, (8×12), supported by a timber frame in the center of the roof, with the posts coming down into the center of the room, and the roof rafters fanning out from the skylight to rest on the cob wall.  In this way, the walls are supporting a slightly less load than if the roof had no posts at all, and our engineer was happy to approve the designs without any other additions besides some re-bar within the stone foundation and a concrete stem wall beneath the stones for reinforcement of the foundation for seismic standards.  We sent him a video that was filmed at UBC showing a cob building built on to a seismic shaker platform, and given the equivalent shake of a 7 earthquake.  (Ask An Expert-Cob Construction).  A city engineer was witness to the demonstration, and after the building showed minimal cracking, it was subjected to a 9, at which point a wall section crumbled but the roof remained entirely intact.  Seismic qualifications are important considerations in this area, and our engineer was quite satisfied to approve our project with the information we were able to pass on to him.   We are pretty excited about this approval- there are not many engineer approved load bearing cob buildings out there yet.

a cob wall on a stone foundation

We hope that the more exposure alternative building has in the world of construction, the more it will be seen as a viable option in certain circumstances with a understandable set of guidelines and standards in place to keep the buildings safe, healthy, and affordable.  I don’t imagine that cob houses will become a “normal” way of building, but we would love to see the doors opening so that those who wish to build with cob can do so without unnecessary expense and obstacles for something that is really so easy and widely applicable.

So now,  we are organizing some cob workshops for building the cob workshop!  Here is what we are offering this summer:

camping will be in the meadow beside the swimming pond

Join Colin and Wendi, with Tracy Calvert of Cobworks, www.cobworks.com to learn and build load-bearing cob walls onto a stone foundation.  Besides covering the basics of cobbing, we will include the finer details of working around door and window frames, constructing arches and niches, using wood lintels and exploring creative bottle and glass placement designs. Discussions will provide opportunities for questions and further site specification points, as well as other aspects of natural building.  Camping sites are available in the meadow beside the swimming pond, with an outdoor shower and composting toilet. Vegetarian meals will be provided, please inform us of any special food needs ahead of time. Two positions are available for intensives covering both workshops and extra time between and/or after, as self-directed opportunities to learn more. Also, cabin facilities are possible for any needs of circumstance. It is our hope that cob and natural building construction can be widely available methods of building for a diverse, creative, and compassionate community.

the site of the future workshop will be where the pile of logs is, against the rock slope

August 10-13 (Friday to Mon. encouraged to arrive thursday night)

August 17-20 (Friday to Mon. encouraged to arrive thursday night)

Intensive including both courses and 3 days in between with extra instruction at $950 (with possibility to volunteer and stay later afterwards.)

Early bird pricing at $380 until July 27/ Aug 3, then full price of $420 after that.

Comment on this post to register, and we will be sure to email our reply.

Odds, Ends, and Leftovers

Well there’s not much left for us to finish up with on the house- just a smattering of trim around a few doors and at the edges of the floor in the kitchen.  At the end of such a long project, it was a relief to be able to gather together the leftovers of our supplies and find as many uses as possible without spending any more money.  We got shelves in place, towel racks done, cupboard doors on, drawers inserted, light covers constructed, a built in closet installed, the table finished, and the shower up and running.  The materials that we had left over to use were mostly yellow cedar in various dimensions and red cedar 3inch tongue and groove boards.

yellow cedar plank to become a table

The yellow cedar came our way when we connected with someone on Salt Spring who reclaims high quality wood and sells it by dimension to window and door makers in the city.  He drove by our place one day and offered us a large amount of yellow cedar for a really great price if we bought his whole pile.  Colin estimated that what he had would do our own windows and doors and have a bit left over, but the pile lasted through all the trim work and the edging for the kitchen drawers and cupboards.

legs from left over timber frame fir

We also had 2×12 pieces that became the table, which had legs made from left over fir from the knee braces of the timber frame.  Yellow cedar cutoffs became the phone table.  We had a similar story with a whole lift of tongue and groove red cedar.  After the main use of covering the ceiling and the inside walls, we used it for the facings of the drawers and cupboards and for trim in some places.  Bulk buying can really provide a lot of benefits!  The house really took on a much more unified look than Colin and I originally anticipated.  Towel racks utilized yellow cedar cut offs and the leftover bamboo poles that we used to frame either side of the straw bale walls for extra support.  We tiled the kitchen counter with a combination of tiles that were from a huge donated pile.  We found three types of tiles that matched in colour and in size, and after laying them out to fit, we had not a single tile left of each kind- so careful cuts with the tile cutter were imperative.  We found a sink from the recycling depot here on the island.  The bathroom sink also came from a renovation, as well as the taps.

handmade light covers

My mom made light shades with a split cedar frame wrapped in handmade paper.  I wish I could say we made the paper, but we didn’t.  It was a very affordable purchase from an art store.  January was the cheapest month of building by far and we were just in time for my mom to move in and for Colin and I to head to California for a week.  Slowly the tools are being replaced by daily use things, like clothes and art supplies and books, and Colin is focusing back on his business.  I remember once when Taeven asked me what I would be doing if I wasn’t building a house.  At the time I was on the top of a ladder pushing insulation into the ceiling- a less than enjoyable job.  It took me awhile to answer- and I was amazed at what I had possibly forgotten about myself, or rather, that house building had become my primary interest- but then I remembered gardening, spinning, weaving, writing, felting, going hiking, trips to the beach, home school projects, friends over for dinner, music…

Plans are in the works however for the next half.

bench seat with drawers

the shower

The Earthen Floor

burnishing the floor at the "leathery" stage

The south room floor is the one spot in the house where we continued with our plan for laying out an earthen floor, in hopes of capturing the heat of the southern sun that streams in during the winter months.  The rest of the house, which was originally intended to be an earthen floor, became cork flooring due to some time pressures and uncertainties regarding the success of the earthen floor process. (See my previous post titled The Layers Beneath Our Feet for a total description of the floor.)  We found lots of information, tips, recipes, ideas, things that didn’t work, and things that did from a variety of resources, some of which contradicted each other, or were from climates very different from ours, or which used materials that were unavailable or too expensive for us.

lots of considerations and discussions

Figuring out what to do was challenging.  Tracy joined us again for the experience of mixing and laying our earthen floor, and we are grateful to her for sharing her observations and experiences of working with natural plasters.  (Tracy is our natural plaster and straw bale teacher.)  We wanted to use what we had and we felt most comfortable with techniques that were familiar to us from the wall plastering that we had just completed.  Cracking seemed to be the biggest common result, and one that is difficult to fix without a very messy look.  We heard of filling the cracks with different coloured plaster to create a marbled look, but we never found a source of a good example of this method.  A certain amount of experimentation, intuition, applied knowledge and trust was going to be needed.  This was the point at which we were grateful that it was now only a small 200 square feet that we had to do.

clay slip

We decided to follow (loosely) a set of well laid out steps and recipe ideas from Anne and Gord Bailey, of Eco-Sense on Vancouver Island, ecosenseliving.wordpress.com.  We adapted the recipe to what we had available, which was screened clay mixed into a slurry, red clay mixed into a slurry, stucco sand, horse manure, straw, and some red pigment.  We started by laying down a cob sub floor at a depth of 3/4 inch using a mix that resembled our second coat of wall plaster.  When that was dry we mixed up the top layer in 5 gallon buckets, then tried a technique we saw on the internet of laying burlap all over the floor area, wetting it and slopping clay slip as a binder then troweling on the 1/4 inch thick top layer.  I am breezing through the details here because it didn’t work.  We thought that the burlap would help reduce the shrinkage factor of the clay that leads to cracking, but it didn’t at all, and it also prevented the top layer from bonding well to the layer below the burlap.  We think it dried too fast, the layer was not wet enough, the burlap wasn’t soaked well enough, or there was just too much clay content in the mix to begin with.

troweling on the top layer

So we ripped it up!  Just chipped through to the burlap and pulled, and it lifted too easily.  We crumbled it back into the buckets, then worked out a few new ratios of higher sand and straw contents.  We laid out some sample areas and let them dry to see how the cracking went, and decided to make the mix with 4 parts sand, and one part clay slip.  Because of the remixing, it is hard to say what the quantities were for the various other ingredients.

sifted manure

Fibers (manure and straw) were around 1 1/2 parts, and water content was based entirely on feel and how the mixer spun.  Not too wet, not too runny.

This time we left out the burlap.  We also poured buckets of water all over the floor the night before to keep the cob subfloor cool and to prevent it from sucking moisture out of the layer we troweled on top.  We hung blankets over the windows to try to keep the summer sun from hitting it right away.  It took a whole day of two people troweling on hands and knees to get our 200 square feet covered once again, then while it slowly dried we lay planks across the floor so we could burnish it, giving it a polished look while compressing it more, and hoping to prevent too many cracks.  The outcome was 90% better than the first try.  We had a few thin cracks, mostly where it dried the fastest, and no lifting.

The recommended method for fixing the cracks was to use some left over plaster.

the worst of the cracking after the second try

We dried it out, crushed it, screened it through window screen, then sprinkled it into the cracks while wetting the area with a mister and troweling it smooth as best as we could.  There was a bit of texture difference for sure, but we decided that it was a natural floor overall and a bit of texture was fine!  Then we began with the oiling and waxing.  This was another reason we were glad to have done only a small portion of our floor- we brushed on 3 coats of boiled linseed oil, and two coats of Land Ark oil, which contains beeswax, tong oil, linseed oil, citrus extract, and pine rosin.  Land Ark is made with only natural, non-altered ingredients from sustainable resources, without chemical processing, bleaching, or harmful additives.

oiling with linseed oil

We have also used it on the timber frame,door and window trims, the baseboards, and the ceiling boards.  It actually feels great to get on my skin, and I love the smell of it as I have done much of the staining.  For more info on a great product- www.landarkwoodfinish.com.  The cost of this oil runs at about $85 a gallon, so we were hesitant about what it may have cost in oil to finish a larger area of floor, since we didn’t know how many coats the floor would take.  We read that it could be anywhere between 3 and 10, with at least 2 being the straight linseed oil.  Then we waxed the floor, using another natural wax from Land Ark, and then buffing it hard with a buffer.  The golden flecks of straw suddenly jumped out, and the places of various texture and colour deepened and settled in.

The best part of the finishing of the floor was not anything that we read or heard about in all of our earthen floor research, and so here I would like to add it in as a recommended part of laying an earthen floor.  Don’t move in any furniture, but set up the stereo.  Lite some candles, build an altar, and invite as many people as can dance on your floor.  Put on a rocking playlist, strip off the socks and stomp, swirl, boogie, laugh, and send all that energy of celebration, gratitude, and joy through the soles of your feet  into the hard work and beauty of the earth.  That’s what we did, quite unexpectedly.  We felt warmly supported by our friends, and happy to finally be able to open our space for gathering together and sharing what we have.

Building A Small Cob Wall

While we have used the basic mixture for cob in many places of the house- in the floor, as rough plaster coats, and for sculpting – we have only one small wall that pays tribute to the building techniques of cob.  It is a short barrier that separates the back of the wood stove from an area that will one day be a staircase leading down to the rest of the house.  Only 8 inches wide, it does not have the usual girth of a supportive wall, and rests on a ledge of concrete that was poured with the rest of the foundation and connects to the back of the two foot tall stone hearth.  We embedded an air vent pipe that opens from the outside wall to behind the stove, allowing the stove to draw in fresh air as it burns.

We started the wall with a work party, inviting families, neighbors, and interested friends to lend a hand or foot in stomping, wheel barrowing, and shaping.  Children and cob are a perfect mix and add such a joyful presence to the job!  We used clay from our huge pile gathered for the previous plastering and floor sections, clay that originally came from a farm down the road that dug themselves a huge pond and discovered clear blue clay.  The sand is pit run sand from the island, (a silty and rough sand with lots of rocks – just fine for cobbing with) and straw leftover from the bales we got for the house.  Stomping includes mushing the mix together with your feet on a tarp, adding water as needed and rolling the mix in the tarp once in awhile to help move the bottom stuff to the top.  Inside the house, we took handfuls and pushed it into the growing ledge of the wall, using thumbs and sticks to really integrate each handful.  The work party got us up about 2 feet, at which point the weight of the cob began to cause the wall to slump out the bottom.  We let this part of the progress dry out for a day, then used a saw with large teeth cut into it to trim off the excess cob from the bottom until it measured the right width again.  We could then continue to add on to it until it began slumping again.  The lowest part of this wall reaches just over three feet, and then arches gracefully up another foot behind the hearth and the wood stove.  Then my mom got her hands in there to sculpt a draping vine along the top and dangling down the sides, smoothing out the top of the wall in a rounded curve.  After letting the wall completely dry out (about a month!)  I could finally mix up some green colour samples for the final plastering.  (See my previous post, Final Plastering, for details on mixing and applying natural clay plaster).  Working around the sculptured vine took lots of patience and forgiveness, but in the end the natural quality of the plaster reflects and brings out a beautiful ease and grace framing the hearth.

vine detail before being plastered

Indoor Stone Work

art at my feet

Colin has a natural talent for packing many things into a small space.  Fitting things into a closet, storing stuff in a shed, packing the car for a road trip, or loading a truck for moving have all been times when I have been so grateful for having Colin and his jigsaw puzzle skills.  So too, does this skill show up in his stone work, whether it is a dry stack landscape feature for clients, or a set of steps and a stone hearth for our house.  Our most local stone here is sandstone, which breaks naturally and easily in flat, rectangular shapes, while retaining a sound strength and many beautiful hues ranging from grey and black to orange and red.  The hearth is two feet high by three feet wide and three feet deep, holding the wood stove up at an easy loading height and providing a warm ledge on which to perch.  We used a variety of small stones to fill and decorate the spaces between the stones, and used a tile grout to seal and fill the cracks.

The three steps that lead from the mid-section of the house into the sunken living room have a nice curving fan shape sweeping on both the upper and lower steps.  Since the opening of the stairs was quite a bit wider than we really need in which to walk up and down, Colin took the time to build a seat into one side.  We have since discovered that the seat and the depth of each step are a great place to sit with our instruments and play music.  We also grouted the stairs and added many stones that we have collected from many beaches around the world.  Since the house is built on a slope of bedrock, bringing some of this stone into the interior of the house gives it the feeling that the land below us is emerging through.

Colin’s stone work tips:

Make sure to have lots of selection of rock.  Dry fit the layout of stones of the lowest step first, chipping and shaping any stones that need it.  Then remove them and place mortar underneath and begin settling the stones back in place.  As for the hearth, dry stack the lower levels first, making sure that joints do not fall above another joint.  When mortaring the cracks, we left the mortar recessed so we could cover the mortar with a dark tile grout.  Take your time.  Finding just the right rock for just the right space will give you a finished job that will be forever beautiful.

To see more of Colin’s stone work…http://thujawoodart.com

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