Saturday, March 10, 2012

the straw chopper pt. 1

I can't remember exactly when, but i had a plane ticket waiting for me to return to philadelphia. As things continued to go well at aprovecho i was encouraged to stay for longer, so i wrote another proposal- work 4 days a week doing construction on the main hall, and one day a week on bike machines, for a year. It was accepted and so i stayed.

The project that i jumped into next would end up being the most significant work that i did while at apro. I didn't know that at the time. It was a loooong process, lots of experimentation, some false starts, and eventually a completely unique machine. I'm not sure of the exact amount of time that went into the straw chopper, but it was definitely several months. Far too much for a single post. Its going to have to be in parts.

So, part one.

Ash, a visiting natural builder, and Chris, the resident natural builder, independently and simultaneously came up with the same idea- what if there were a bike machine to chop straw for cob construction? (Straw is added to clay and sand to create a sturdy building material called cob) The current natural building industry standard was to stick a gas powered weed whacker into a metal trash can full of straw and cover it with a tarp. Loud, smelled terrible, and, well, not particularly in line with the philosophy of natural building. The more expensive alternative is a special electric machine designed specifically for shredding straw. It would be ideal if i could create a pedal powered means to achieve this same end.

Chris asked me to sketch up some ideas, i came up with something that looked a lot like maya pedal's corn de-kerneler except what sat at your side was a set of reel mower blades inside of a hopper. The straw would be fed from the top and shoot out the bottom onto a tarp, or into a bin. Ash and Chris took a look at what i drew, Ash suggested that it be designed like an electric coffee grinder- blades spinning fast at the bottom of a basin. We discussed how that might happen (keeping in mind that i was limited to whatever i could find in the scrap pile by the shop) and concluded that there probably wasn't a good way to do this without having to buy several significant pieces of the puzzle. We continued brainstorming and Ash said, you know, what you've drawn looks a lot like that chipper shredder that's sitting down in the bike shed. We discussed it for a little bit, Chris, looking uncomfortable, reluctantly said well it seems like that's the best thing to use. So that was the plan.

I pulled the chipper out of the shed and had a look at it. It had a hopper allright, and some blades too. Fairly complex in terms of the engine (well, complex for me). I wasn't quite sure how this was going to work, but i knew how to find out- take it apart.

The thing was heavy, too heavy for me to lift safely. So i made a ramp and wheeled it up onto a table where i could get better access.

It occurred to me that i ought to drain it of its gasoline before pulling it apart. Didn't seem wise to potentially dump a bunch of gasoline on the floor. Probably also wasn't wise to try to siphon the gas out of the tank. Especially since i didn't know what i was doing. I tried using a bicycle tube, bad idea, ended up with a mouth full of gasoline.

Knowing gas is bad for you in a general sense, i didn't want to take any risks, so i stuffed my mouth full of wood shavings to try and soak up whatever didn't get spit out.

But then i had a mouth full of wood shavings. So to get the wood shavings out of my mouth i tried rinsing it out with water. But the water was rain water in an abandoned coffee can, that had been sitting out for months. In my rush i didn't notice... its taste. So, apro has these composting toilets right, which are basically a 5 gallon bucket that gets emptied into a large composting bin. And its the emptying of the bucket that is the worst part of the whole process, particularly the smell. This water tasted like that smell. I assumed the worst and ran up to the strawbale to wash my mouth out with iodine.

I called the CDC. Which is crap, by the way, its just a stupid robot that tells you to look at their website. And the website tells you to go to a hospital. Fuck that, i'm poor. I'll ask Ash, he's an engineer. He assured me from growing up in Louisiana, and sometimes getting mouthfuls of gasoline, that i'd be fine. And i was. But i was also done for the day.

Friday, March 9, 2012

the instructional video

After the water pump was finished i decided to make a new blender. This might seem strange, even stupid, but it wasn't. Hear me out.

Yes, there was already a blender, but as i discovered during the workshop with the kids, it wasn't working. I probably could have messed with it a bunch to get it to work but i decided not to. Couple reasons. First, and this is no criticism of Eleva- she did an awesome job with a challenging and ambitious project, especially since it was her very first attempt at metal working, welding and building a machine- it was really ugly. And again, not eleva's fault, its the nature of stick welding bicycle tubes, it blows holes, it sprays metal everywhere, and generally looks like crap. One of the things that was emphasized to me by the aprovecho staff members was that to do something alternative was great, but to make it additionally beautiful was their ideal. (Now, in all fairness to Eleva the one that i made, in the end, wasn't that much better looking, only slightly). But that brings me to reason 2, the blender was, sadly, built from a bike that shouldn't have been in the scrap pile. In fact, it was the personal bike (and a nice one) of a staff member. This didn't get figured out until a month or two after the fact, and while a new bike was purchased to replace the old one, it seemed prudent to remove the sensitive evidence of our mistake.

Additionally, the blender also provided a unique opportunity, a chance to film the construction start to finish. To make an instructional video. This was something i'd wanted to do for a while, so it was exciting to have an opportunity to try it out. Jeremy, one of the aprovecho staff members happens to be, amongst many things, a pretty talented videographer. He agreed to help me get set up with everything that would be needed to film- lights, mics, hd camera, you name it. Before doing any shooting he asked that i draw the whole thing out, story board style. (I vaguely remember doing a lot of it on a plane, must have been thanksgiving...)

Once everything was all drawn out, we reviewed it and jumped into filming.

Unfortunately there was so much work that had to be done inbetween each step that Jeremy got pretty bored and said, here, just use the stuff and don't break it, okay? Deal.

The camera that he let me use was pretty slick, its this little thing about the size of a digital still camera, but it takes video in HD, and has no tapes- its all digitally recorded on a flash drive. Pretty swanky. One downside though, no audio. Or, there might have been audio, just really crappy audio. But that's okay, because Jeremy also happened to have some pretty nice sound recording equipment that i could use. So once all the filming was done, i wrote myself a script, built myself a "sound proof" room out of mattresses and recorded away.

I didn't completely understand the technology all that well, so the levels on the audio aren't great. But, whatever, they're intelligble. Just turn up your speakers.

So after some editing during the christmas holiday, i got the thing all wrapped up and posted it on Vimeo.

This video tells you what you'll need:

build a bicycle powered blender pt. 1 from Matthew Corson-Finnerty on Vimeo.

And this one tells you how to do it:

build a bicycle powered blender pt. 2 from Matthew Corson-Finnerty on Vimeo.

I'd like to give a very big thanks to Jeremy, this project wouldn't have been possible without his help. He was pretty great about the whole thing all the way around, lending his time, his equipment, his personal computer- pretty stellar. Thanks again Jeremy.

Monday, March 5, 2012

workshop with some kiddos

At some point in the fall a group of kids from a collective homeschooling program came out to visit aprovecho. They were to spend two days with us learning about all the stuff we were up to. This was the first time i'd experienced aprovecho gearing its programs towards kids, which they'd done plenty of times before, just hadn't been there when it happened. It was interesting to see how play became central to the lessons. Identifying plants in the woods? Scavenger hunt! Natural building? Make a sweet cob birdhouse! I was asked to join in the fray and come up with some stuff for the kids to do with the machines. Fortunately, pedal powered machines are intrinsically fun, so it wasn't too hard, even when one of the machines didn't work.

The plan was to fill x-amount of hours with activity. Smoothies was, of course, the first thing that i thought of. Demoing the machines (which with kids amounts to them crawling all over them). And... drawing what you would make with pedal power if you could make anything. Smoothies were a bust, well, pedal powered smoothies were a bust. The blender didn't work. I probably should have done a test run right before the workshop, but it didn't occur to me. But even so, the kids didn't really seem to care all that much. They were still completely enraptured by the machine anyway, it didn't matter that there wasn't anything in the blender, just watching the blades (kind of) spin was enough.

Just about when everyone had their turn on the blender i sensed the energy about to shift, so i quickly got them going on the mill. Now, the mill was working. And it was hard. Their legs weren't long enough, it took too much force. So i crouched down and cranked one of the pedals with my arm while they sat on the other side and did the same. I don't think that part was all that exciting for them, though i didn't run out of volunteers. They mostly were excited to see the wheat berries being ground into dust. Endlessly fascinating.

After the mill we went inside to have smoothies, sadly, via the electric blender. Kefir, raspberries, bananas, honey and a little bit of spinach. Kefir! I love kefir! several shouted upon seeing the carton. What a bunch of west coast homeschool kids, i thought as i smiled to myself. "Ewwwww, spinach?" Oh, right. But they're still kids.

The smoothies were, of course, a huge success despite the hint of spinach. And they transitioned us well into the final phase- go crazy drawing pedal powered machines. And that they did. This was definitely my favorite part of the day. Kids come up with the weirdest stuff, like pedal powered cloners, toilets, dragons, or a swimming pool maze hotel soda machine... that's attached to a bike. I really enjoyed wandering around and listening to them excitedly, and at times unintelligibly, explain their brilliant contraptions. Uh huh... Yeah... Oh, really? It has an automatic pizza machine attached to it that shoots pizzas at your little brother's head?

Oh man, kids are great.

organizing the shop

When it was clear that i was going to be staying for a little bit longer (the agreement might have been a few months, as opposed to the previously stated month, don't remember). It seemed worthwhile to do some rearranging in the shop. I checked in with the staff to see how they felt about it- anything that brought more order was a good thing so i got the go ahead.

The shop space was built originally by a former aprovecho staff member to do testing on rocket stoves. Its a giant metal shed. No insulation, terrible whistling lighting, and full of stuff. I loved it. It was a space with so much potential, mostly being used as storage, i could see so much more happening there. The first thing that occurred to me was to consolidate materials. The workspaces i was using were dispersed throughout the building, as were the stored materials. So i relocated all of the stuff i was using to the very front of the shop, storage to the back.

Several of the power tools, things like the bench grinder and drill press were loose on the tables and difficult, not to mention dangerous, to use. So i bolted them to the sturdiest table. It made a really drastic difference in their use.

All the tools all over the place? I laid them out, organized them, and then put up a peg board to hang them. The peg board is kind of a funny story, so there was no budget for any of this, it was just me using my own time and whatever was around to make it happen. There weren't any actual pegs for the board so i ended up bending a bunch of random nails into the rough shape of a manufactured metal peg. It took way too long, but it worked.

I also went ahead and organized all of the small bike parts into various buckets by type. Utilizing a small table for their storage.

All of the bikes were in a big pile. Bikes in piles have a unique way of becoming frustratingly entangled. Pedals caught in spokes. Cables wrapped around handle bars. It made a lot of sense to separate them, furthermore, to store them vertically. Without clear access to any of the walls, it occurred to me to build a hanging structure which the bikes could dangle from. Luckily there was a tall ladder, a drill, and plenty of rebar to play with.

My first attempt didn't go very well. I kind of thought this might happen.

So the next try i cut out the middle length of rebar and replaced it with a 2x4 on end. One thing i learned from a couple years of house building is that any board stood on end has a great deal of strength and rigidity (that's why joists and rafters are always on end, look in your attic sometime). Anyhoo, the board worked great. To hang the bikes i bent a series of rebar S's and then twisted them in the middle so the bikes would hang straight. This went so well that eventually i built a second hanging beam for all of the wheels.

When all this was done, gave it a sweep (props to Eleva) and stood back to take a look. I don't know if anyone else gets excited about this kind of stuff, but damn it feels good to take a whole lot of messiness and straighten it out.