Workshop improvements

When we moved into this house seven and a bit years ago, I immediately commandeered one of the biggest sheds as a workshop. It’s had constant use since as a base for renovating the house, building an office, building a studio, building a bike shed, moving a greenhouse and fixing everything from bikes to kids toys, but you certainly can’t say it’s very tidy or organised any more: IMAG0733.jpg

We’re about to embark on a major extension project so we’ll soon need to make it easy to find all the plumbing, electrical and woodworking stuff (I’m going to be installing the new kitchen and bathrooms) plus we’ll need to rationalise our collection of old paints, glues, oils & greases:


hopefully without adding too many more. So we’re overdue for a general tidy-up and reorganisation of the workshop. I’m also having a new power supply fitted which will extend the supply to the office – I’ve dug a trench ready for the electrician to come this week:


The old supply comes from the back of a socket in the kitchen using standard 13A twin and earth cable, and is dodgily strung above head-height on wire (this isn’t very safe), and even has its own meter and notebook where the previous owner of our house would record his consumption:


Once this is sorted out I should be able to add a few more sockets and lights because my long term plan is to stop using the workshop mainly for renovations and building work, and create space for some more creative use.

I was lucky enough at school to have a chance to learn how to operate both wood and metal lathes – the latter not so much, as I tended to leave the chuck key in before starting them up (which led to an impressive test of the toughened glass windows on one side of the D&T centre) – but I made several really nice pieces of turned wood. My friend Duncan gave me an old lathe in pieces some years ago (he’s a serious woodturner and has already created some wonderful things for us) and I’ve been waiting for the right time to restore and reassemble it: there’s some work to do to fit a motor and figure out how it goes back together:


I’d also like a bench grinder and bandsaw, plus I may inherit some tools from my father’s workshop at some point, including a lot of specialised equipment for casting pewter (a family trade since at least the 1400s). I find it easier to think about planning how to build things by drawing on paper (at the aforementioned school I was taught technical drawing and I’ve never really got on with CAD systems apart from a brief period using them for circuit designs at a previous job). Here’s my first attempt:


The bench is already there (I fitted it when we moved in), the woodstore (a shelving unit piled with random and sometimes usable scraps of timber) needs moving along a bit and all except the wall at the bottom need insulating in some way, plus I need a better system for hanging up tools – as in the intervening years most of the handy nails now have three or four things hung on them. Still, it’s a start, and at least the workshop is now dry with its brand new roof, so my tools shouldn’t get quite so rusty.


Sheds, sheds and less sheds

When we moved in the previous owner had built a variety of sheds around the property – including a single garage, a shed he used for woodturning and basketmaking, a workshop, a motorbike shed and a slightly odd-shaped shed for storing wood. As we’re planning an extension some of these buildings will have to be removed and some are simply ugly and in the wrong place, so I’ve been attempting to rationalise them in some fashion. I also wanted to stop the workshop roof from leaking whenever it rained heavily and create a combined storage/potting shed to replace some of the space we’ll soon be losing.

I started late last year by hiring an asbestos skip and removing both the small motorbike shed and workshop roof which were made from cement/asbestos corrugated sheeting:

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This wasn’t a pleasant job as it had to be done wearing protective clothing and an asbestos-rated facemask, plus the sheets are very heavy and were fixed down with rusted metal roofing nails which had to be pulled/sawn off by hand (no powertools here due to the risks associated with asbestos dust). I also had the common roofing problem of removing the very things I was trying to stand on….when I’d taken part of the workshop roof down I realised how fragile the roof structure was and had to quickly reinforce it. I replaced the workshop roof with plywood, covered in tarpaulin that frequently blew off/leaked/tore into smaller pieces: the ply thus got a little damp at times, but I’ve treated it with rot-proofer:


Next I needed to make the concrete base of the old motorbike shed slightly larger as I wanted to extend the workshop to create some extra storage (as I’m knocking down some of the sheds we currently use to store camping gear, garden chairs and other stuff).


This was the first time I’ve laid concrete – it takes a surprisingly large amount of materials to fill a small area. I knocked up a rough frame and used various rubble to bulk out the hole. IMAG0427.jpg

I then started to build a frame from a collection of old timber, bits of shed and spares left over from the studio build a few years ago:IMAG0446.jpg


The slightly random collection of wood made some of the joints rather interesting:


Note that the roof of this structure is higher than the workshop roof by around 50mm, as I was intending to insulate the workshop with left-over Kingspan sheets. I also used up spare tongue-and-groove timber from the studio for the rear wall:


With this complete it was time to insulate the workshop itself using the aforementioned Kingspan:IMAG0481.jpg

I also decided to add a skylight to the workshop, using left-over polycarbonate roofing sheet. I had to build a frame for this:



Again, I had to make sure this was the right height for the skylight and insulation to line up. Bear in mind this was all done while climbing on a half-built roof on a shed next to a stream, so it was a little awkward. The polycarbonate sheet could then be fitted and the rest of the insulation cut to fit around it:


More plywood was used to cover the insulation and this continues on at the same level onto the new shed extension. I decided to use feather-edge weatherboarding for the outside walls, but also used up any other insulation sheets I had (both 25mm Kingspan and some old expanded polystyrene to further insulate the workshop) between vertical battens:



Fiddly at times but great to finally use up everything I’d saved (which was also taking up shed space). The weatherboarding was then nailed onto the vertical battens:


I also re-used the old motorcycle shed door, also cladding it in weatherboarding:


Next was to start glueing on the EPDM rubber roofing sheet which I’d used previously on the studio roof. I had some left-over scraps of this as well:


Although I’d managed to avoid it up to this point, I did actually fall off the roof into the stream while trying to fix the rubber, which sadly cost me a wooly hat, old fleece and my trusty Bosch rechargeable drill (luckily I was uninjured). However once I’d waited for a dry week the rest of the roof was glued down with a waterbased glue:


and the edges folded round and glued with contact adhesive:


With the last pieces of weatherboarding finally fixed on, the extended workshop is looking much smarter – eventually we’ll paint it to match the rest of the house:


It’s also importantly now dry inside (which is going to be much better for my tools) and partly insulated (I’ll complete this once I have demolished another shed which has some insulation I can re-use). The new extension has enough room for storage and for use as a potting shed.

Teaching and practising the 4 R’s of the Circular Economy

I’ve been talking to the kids about various green-related themes recently and mentioned the four ‘R’s of the Circular Economy concept – repair, re-use, recycle and reduce (almost certainly not in that order, not that it matters). We’ve been trying to live like this for a while now, and I can only hope that some of it sticks with them as they grow up in an uncertain world.

Repairing things has fallen out of fashion now we can buy cheap replacements online with a couple of mouse clicks, but it’s fun to do and deeply satisfying. I’ve recently started helping with some local Repair Cafes and there’s now a thriving set of them locally, which is very encouraging. I’m lucky enough to have some engineering skills and to be able to drive my elderly and temperamental sewing machine, so glueing toys back together and replacing broken zips isn’t much of a challenge.

Re-use is more about thinking creatively and being able to hang on to anything that might be useful in the future – scraps of wood and metal, old clothes for rags and anything one could plant a seed in. It’s not always easy if you don’t have the hoarding instinct or the space to store things just in case. However, the resources, tooling and sheer intellectual effort that have gone into to manufacture even something very simple like a plastic yoghurt pot demand that we at least try to find something else to do with it. Our kids like making things out of scrap and we keep a box for spare packaging, cardboard, paper etc. Some things such as glass jars are very easy to re-use (and I need a lot of them for preserving).

Recycling is much more common now local councils are forced to provide collection facilities, but there are still things which are hard to recycle or separate – for example we keep a bag for any metal waste, which periodically goes to the appropriate skip at the local recycling centre. Untreated wood scraps can be used in the woodburner instead of filling up the green bin – it all takes fuel to transport it away of course.

Reducing what you buy or acquire in the first place is however probably the most important of the four. It’s not easy when we’re surrounded by advertising and peer pressure. It’s also important to buy the right things when you do need them – I suffer slightly here from being a cheapskate by nature and I’m a sucker for special offers, which means I tend not to buy quality, long lasting items. I should probably stay away from the Screwfix website. Luckily, I detest clothes shopping!

There is much about the Circular Economy philosophy that is complicated and brings up questions about globalisation vs. localisation, how the first world exports many of its problems to the third world and how easy it is to ‘greenwash’ our hugely consumptive western livestyle. However the 4 R’s is a relatively simple idea, and easy to communicate to others.





Preserving & brewing

Now we are able to grow a lot of fruit and vegetables I’ve become just a little obsessed with making all kinds of jams, jellies, chutneys, pickles and drinks – for our own use and to give away as presents or swap with others. For example, just this year I’ve already made marmalade, rhubarb¬† relish, gooseberry and elderflower jam, rhubarb and ginger jelly, blackcurrant jam, tomato relish, nettle beer, elderflower wine and just last night crab apple and blackberry jelly. On the horizon is this year’s cider, quince jelly, onion and apple chutney, chili jelly, various fruits in spirits / liqueurs…once you start it seems it’s rather hard to stop!

The following books, as well as recipes from the web and my collection of self-sufficiency books, provide inspiration:


Half the fun is dealing with bottles, jars (we save any useful ones we buy or find), filters, thermometers…it’s like a chemistry set with mysterious fragrant liquids bubbling away happily. A big preserving pan and jam funnel are pretty essential equipment:


I try where possible to only use ingredients we grow ourselves or can forage: although there are a few exceptions (marmalade for example, we can’t grow Seville oranges). Our fruit cage and new greenhouse can be very productive, we have a huge apple tree and various other smaller fruit trees, and we’re surrounded by hedgerows which in autumn provide sloes, damsons and blackberries -here’s 1.6kg of the latter found in only a couple of hours last weekend:


Last year I managed to buy a cider press on eBay after borrowing one from friends for several years, which also came with several glass demijohns. Apple boxes come from supermarkets and grocers so I can pick enough to make around 5 gallons of cider (they need storing for a couple of weeks to soften). A small label printer is a very useful addition. There’s also corks, siphons, cleaning brushes, gas locks, old jars and bottles, sterilising tablets, yeasts…more for the chemistry set:


We’re now fully self-sufficient in jams & marmalade for breakfast and chutneys/pickles for lunch, produce enough extra to give away a lot as presents (the kids’ teachers appreciate these at a the end of term a lot more than the omnipresent scented candles) and get to eat things you simply can’t buy in the shops – redcurrant and loganberry jelly for example. It’s also a lot of fun to take something you’ve grown and turn it into a preserve or drink that will last for at least a year. At this time of year, satisfying stacks of full demijohns, jars and bottles are building up in our various sheds, a counterpoint to the shortening days and autumn colours:




An automatic watering system using recycled hosepipe

I now have a tap in the greenhouse, gravity-fed from a rainwater tank, but wanted to see if I could set up an automatic ‘leaky hose’ watering system for the tomatoes I’ve planted in the greenhouse bed. This bed is below the shelves used to grow seedlings earlier in the year, which are now folded down:


The system will run from a battery-powered timer that is fitted to the tap using a T-adaptor:


It’s possible to buy ‘leaky hose’ systems of course, but I have quite a collection of old hosepipe that I should be able to recycle and save a bit of cash. I chose to use some that is quite stiff and inflexible, hoping this would be easier to drill. I made holes every 5cm or so using a powerdrill:


The far end of the hose is folded over and secured with Tywraps – it doesn’t matter if this leaks a bit:


I experimented to see how far the water pressure would drive the hose – it turned out that after 3 meters or so water wouldn’t reach the small holes, so this gave me a maximum length. A mains pressure system would probably work with a much longer hose. The hose is attached to the timer using a Hoselok-type connector:


and tent pegs hold it down on the bed. I’ve attempted to run it so that it’s as close as possible to the various plants it will water – they’ll probably grow roots towards the source of water, and covering it with mulch will also help the water to percolate:


The timer (which cost around ¬£14 from Amazon) can be set to come on for a certain period, separated by an interval – currrently I have it set to come on for five minutes every 12 hours so it will deliver water in the morning and evening. This won’t cover all the greenhouse (there are still lots of other plants in pots) but if it works, I’ll see if I can extend the system!



Learning to be Mr. Fixit at a Repair Cafe

While I was growing up my father would try to fix almost anything (I have happy memories of stripping down and rebuilding an elderly Suffolk Punch lawnmower with him, aged about 7) and at home I try to do the same. In the last few months I’ve replaced the heater elements on our cooker, patched up a few toys and rebuilt a greenhouse.

I’ve been looking into how I might help at a Repair Cafe – an event where people can bring anything that needs fixing, from lawnmowers to ornaments to cameras, to a community hall where volunteers will have a go at a repair. The idea is to reduce landfill and re-use items where possible, and help those who don’t have the confidence, skills or experience to have a go themselves.

This Sunday I went to Royston to help out at their event. My score card reads as follows:

  • Black and Decker mains power drill – replaced the brushes, tested the switch, got it running but only slowly and noisily, discovered the motor armature was missing a piece which was happily trashing the new brushes, deemed it unrepairable. FAIL.
  • Digital camera which had been dropped, distorting the lens so it wouldn’t retract – took it to pieces (many, many teeny tiny screws) but it seems the lens unit is a single piece and hard to disassemble (not that I could remove it from the camera). FAIL. (note the same chap brought in both these items but seemed happy with the results, as at least he can get rid of the items now!)
  • Small lava lamp. Stupid moulded un-rewirable plug and inline switch (when I’m President of the World I shall legislate that everything should be held together with screws so you can take it apart). Tested and seemed that power was getting to the bulb holder, but neither bulb the owner had would work, so advised her to buy another. SUCCESS (if she gets a bulb that works).
  • Cast-iron clothes iron, used as an ornament. The handle had been damaged and many repairs attempted with Superglue but this hadn’t worked, so I cleaned off all the old glue, replaced a pin holding the metal and wooden parts of the handle together and re-glued it with two-part epoxy resin. Here’s it all strapped up with tape for drying:13076547_10154783766084554_4329741097336539020_nSUCCESS (if it held together all the way home).
  • I also consulted (which means hovered over other people’s repairs, making hopefully useful suggestions) – the most impressive repair was an old radio which needed a potentiometer taking apart and cleaning, the young lady was very pleased her grandpa’s radio was making a noise again.

I didn’t have my own toolkit, so had to borrow the cafe’s own donated one – it’s always difficult when you don’t have quite the tools you need but I got by. It was a fun morning and well organised – if not, these events could easily turn into a bunch of (generally) middle-aged men talking about their favourite spanners – not that I wouldn’t join in I suspect!

Hopefully I’ll be involved in a more local event soon – there’s talk of a roving event for the villages south of Cambridge.


The never-ending list of projects

My life often seems like a series of projects – in the past these have included ‘create four person touring trapeze show’, ‘start software business’ and ‘build lighting rig for festival’, but these days they tend to be centred around the house and garden. This year I have a few ideas about what I might be able to get done:

  • build a heating system for the studio – a woodburning stove in a heatproof external enclosure of some kind, with hot air blown into the studio. We don’t want to put the stove indoors as the building itself is full of flammable materials.
  • replace the workshop roof – it’s made of concrete-bonded asbestos and I want to dispose of this safely and replace it with an insulated wooden roof with a skylight made from an old metal double-glazed window. I’ll mainly be using materials left over from the studio build. Eventually I’ll be insulating the side walls as well and re-cladding them with more recycled timber.
  • while I’m getting rid of asbestos I’ll be demolishing a small shed made entirely of it, which we don’t use for anything other than storing more of the same concrete-bonding corrugated roofing sheets. The previous owner had a bit of a thing about this material and used it everywhere – including as flowerbed edging, which means I’ve been digging it out of all kinds of places over the years. I’ll probably hire a specialist skip for this (and yes I’ll be wearing all the right safety gear – it’s actually one of the safest forms of asbestos unless you start grinding or sanding it).
  • fit solar-powered lighting to the studio. We won’t need this very often (it’s only really used in daylight) but some small lights so we can find things in the evening would be good, a light inside the nearby garden shed would be useful as it’s very dark in there, and it will also mean I can add a 12 volt inverter to power a radio – currently this runs off a portable car battery/inverter combo.
  • creating a larder – there is a small room at the back of the building that houses my office that was once an outdoor toilet, which faces north(ish), has stone walls and will thus be a perfect storage room for preserves, vegetables, home made cider and whatever else we want to keep cool and dry. It needs some repair to the lime render, a new ceiling, new floor, a light fitting and some rat-proof mesh vents fitting. I’m toying with going on a lime plastering course first (we have lots of external walls that need re-rendering too.

Of course all of this will have to be fitted between work and home life, always a puzzle – and there’s almost certainly a number of other things I’ve forgotten to put in the list!