Sunday, May 22, 2016

Garden Improvements 2016

Rough plan view of garden and improvements, more or less to scale
We installed the garden in year two on the site, that would have been 2014.  Basically that involved designating a space, installing the five 4 foot by 8 foot raised beds, on contour, and filling those beds with topsoil.  The soil profile on the home-site is 2 inches of topsoil, atop five feet of clay, almost clean enough to throw pots with straight out of the ground, resting on sand, almost as fine as powdered sugar.  In short, it is not great soil as-is for a vegetable garden.  This year so far, we have added about 4 cu. ft. of compost to each of the raised beds; call that a wheel barrow full in each.  Now though, we are getting a bit more ambitious.

There are a few reasons why we are getting more ambitious, and why we are perhaps a little impatient in making our garden more productive.  First of all, our diet has changed pretty radically over the course of the past two years, for reasons I may go into in detail in a later post, but for now suffice it to say that it is for health-related reasons.  This past year we have got a better handle on what we put in our mouths, and we want to grow more of that food ourselves, organically.  Secondly, in partnership with a friend, we are going to raise a few meat chickens this summer and into fall; if allowed, chickens can be hell on a garden.

So, the two biggest improvements to the garden for 2016, are:
  • bigger garden beds (cross-hatched areas in the sketch), not raised in the conventional sense, for the growing of root vegetables, squashes, and other produce I'm sure (Geri does the detail work regarding the plantings), and,
  • fencing to exclude the chickens from the garden during growing season.
Other improvements are:
  • two "herb spirals" (see circular crossed-hatched areas in the sketch), actually these are more like herb concentric circles; think of a round layered wedding cake with three layers, and,
  • the addition of 8 cu. yd. of screened top soil.  Because of the heavy clay soils in situ, and our desire for a productive garden in the near term, I will till the cross-hatched areas, top-dress with the top soil, and re-till.  We will plant into that prepared soil this year, and then continue to build the soil organically.
Before picture, facing east; north is to your left
Yesterday was planning day, to include development of the layout pictured above, and preparing the garden for today's work.  Today is tilling, top-dressing, and re-tilling day.  Hopefully we will be planting late afternoon into early evening.  The next big undertaking will be the design and installation of the fence.  I will keep you posted.

Thanks for reading, and kind regards,

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p.p.s. soon, this blog will be ported over to our new website, and the name of the Facebook page will change to Primal Woods; more on that as the date approaches

Monday, May 9, 2016

2016 Maple Syrup Season Lessons Learned

This season was disappointing in some ways, and a grand success in others.  On the disappointing end of the spectrum, is the low yield this year.  This low yield was due to a confluence of factors, some within our control, and some not.

  1. We got into the woods late, we tapped late, as our process was not yet ready for sap.  We started tapping, and collected the first sap, on the 28th of February, all 100 taps were not in until March 3rd.
  2. The weather did not cooperate very well.  We had a couple of decent snows, but it warmed up so quickly that the snow melted in a couple of days.  In prior years we had used snow to keep our sap cool until we could get it processed; no such luck this year.  The result of insufficient cold storage was that some sap never made it to the evaporator.
  3. By March 13th I was evaporating the last of the sap, and there was no sap flow favorable weather in the 10-day forecast.
So for us it was a two week season, as opposed to the usual four to six weeks, and in that two weeks, we had five days of no sap flow, between March 1st and the 5th.  The short story is, we ended up with about a quarter of the syrup that I had been planning for.

On the grand success end of the spectrum, is everything we learned, and the enjoyment of doing the work and sharing it with our community in Michigan, on Facebook, and with all of you here on the blog.  Based on what we learned, I anticipate that we will do much better in the spring of 2017.

To ensure that we actually do better in 2017, we will be making a number of improvements to the process this year, based on the lessons learned in the table below.  I have highlighted in yellow some of the key things that did not go well, and in green some of those that did go well.  Solutions have not yet been identified for all of the problems, but Geri and I met and have already decided that while some things will stay the same, there will be some changes for next year.  We decided to:

  • not tap more trees, we will stay at 100 taps
  • expand the capacity of the Half Pint; specifically an arch extension kit and pan will be added, which can increase evaporation rates by up to 65%
  • add a combustion air blower to the Half Pint

    (together these two modifications to the Half-Pint should take it to 100 tap capacity)
  • improve water management in front of garage/sugar house
  • put a wood chip/pea gravel "floor" in sugar house
  • and we will not finish the syrup in the Half Pint; we will draw it off when it is "near syrup," and finish it in pans over propane burners
These decisions have mostly to do with what it would take to go bigger than 100 taps.  It would take a larger evaporator than the Half Pint, and the evaporator I have in mind would require a larger sugar house; there would probably be a need for some labor help, more buckets and taps, more sap handling and syrup finishing equipment, etc.  That is simply more than we want to take on, while at the same time ramping up the Sawyer and Soaper businesses.

The decision regarding how to finish the syrup has to do with the fact that temperatures at the Half Pint draw-off are relatively unstable, especially when drawing off, which is to say the temperature can climb to well above 219°F.  If the temperature climbs above 219°F the syrup is too dense, and if the syrup is dense enough, 68 Brix or above, the sugar can precipitate out after it is bottled.  Not good.  In my view, a cause of the temperature instability is the small capacity of the evaporator, and another is that the heat under the Boiling Pan cannot be quickly modulated.  In any event, there is too much risk in burning the syrup, so we are changing the process to ensure we produce great syrup, first pass.

I will leave it at that for now.  If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments; I respond quickly.

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-- John, 09 May 2016

(See the Process Flow Diagram at

2016 Maple Syrup Season Lessons Learned
Process Step Lesson Learned Comments

What did not go well?
0 Process Management Need to develop an evaporator log sheet based on checks per 8 minutes White board worked well, but not a permanent record. Fix it for 2017.
0 Process Management Pallet flooring was better than nothing, but unsafe Melting snow and rain, plus condensation from evaporation. Fix it for 2017.
0 Process Management Equipment cleaning is an issue Investigate for 2017.
0 Process Management It was very wet and muddy at the front of the sugar house Fix it for 2017.
0 Process Management Personal hygiene facilities needed Using the house is okay for now; when more help is required we will need facilities.
0 Process Management We were not ready, enough Develop timeline for 2017 set-up.
0 Process Management Being tapped in Feb would have resulted in much more sap/syrup Develop timeline for 2017 set-up.
0 Process Management Too many trees, not enough evaporator Expand evaporator capacity in 2017; Consider Half-Pint extension, combustion air blower, propane-fired finishing evaporator.
0 Process Management Freshness of sap is KEY It should be like looking through water; milky sap has gone off.
0 Process Management We were not ready with pricing, labeling, marketing
1 Obtain Necessary Equipment & Supplies Needed to get the evaporator earlier for construction and installation Adjust plan for 2017 accordingly.
3 Tap Trees Need to mount the inverter, stable and dry, in/on the Ranger Fix it for 2017.
5 Sap Handling A barrel lifter for the 30 gal barrels to/from the back of the Polaris would have been handy This may not have been required had we had enough evaporating capacity, or enough storage (275 gallon tote) capacity.
5 Sap Handling More 30 gallon barrels These may not have been required had we had enough evaporating capacity, or enough storage (275 gallon tote) capacity.
5 Sap Handling Electric sap pumps would have saved time (look at solar powered (12VDC) well pumps) Investigate for 2017.
5 Sap Handling The 30 gallon barrels move around too much in the back of the Ranger Fix it for 2017.
5 Sap Handling The funnel/filter was not well secured to the top of the 30 gallon barrels; it would move around and even come off altogether Fix it for 2017.
5 Sap Handling Definitely need labor for collecting if we go bigger Not going bigger in terms of taps for 2017.
6 Remove Water from Sap Need to manage condensation; it was getting wood and equipment wet inside the sugar house Investigate for 2017.
6 Remove Water from Sap We do not seem to be getting as much syrup as I expect from a given amount of sap. Is it true? If so, why? Investigate for 2017.
6 Remove Water from Sap The process of removing foam is messy; what can be done? Investigate for 2017.
6 Remove Water from Sap The measuring wire for pan depths could have been longer; Geri's hands got hot using it Fix it for 2017.
6 Remove Water from Sap Wood needs to be in sufficient quantity, local to the sugar house, and of correct size  Fix it for 2017.
6 Remove Water from Sap Size of evaporator; plan for 3 gallons per day per tap "worst case," and plan to evaporate it in 20 hours of operation See expansion plans for 2017. Use this rule of thumb for later years.
6 Remove Water from Sap More, and DRY wood (see YouTube "Maple Syrup with Skip Drake 42 min 1920x1080" for 3-step firewood process)
6 Remove Water from Sap Evaporation on this scale (Half Pint, 5 – 7 gallons per hour) is not truly continuous flow; the syrup/”near syrup” comes off in batches.  It is also typical to go past the “syrup state” of 66 Brix at the boiling point of water plus 7 degrees; density reduction is then required. Plan for drawing off as “near syrup,” finish under tighter control over propane burners.
7 Syrup Finishing Need syrup/"near syrup" storage for before finishing/filtration and bottling Investigate for 2017.

What went well?
0 Process Management The regular 6-8 minute process checks
3 Tap Trees The 1000W inverter worked pretty well, maybe a little under-powered for the 3/8" drill for tapping This solution to insufficient drill power from battery powered portables, will not scale to 1,000 taps, but it's good for 2017.
5 Sap Handling The Polaris Ranger was indispensable Also used in process step 3 Tapping Trees.
6 Remove Water from Sap The pan depth measuring wire worked extremely well and was convenient
6 Remove Water from Sap White board for recording evaporation process management
6 Remove Water from Sap Good lighting is a must The string of 5 LED lamps worked very well in the sugar house.
7 Syrup Finishing The filtration and canning unit worked well
7 Syrup Finishing Reducing density process worked

Monday, April 25, 2016

Assembling the Leader Evaporator Half Pint - Parts 3 and 4 of 4

In this installment will be documented the moving of the bricked arch to the sugar house, leveling the arch/evaporator, installing the stack, and the first (test) boil using water and baking soda.

To see how we got to this point, see:

Part 1, "Assembling the Leader Evaporator Half Pint - Part 1 of 4," can be found at, and Part 2, "Assembling the Leader Evaporator Half Pint - Part 2 of 4," can be found at

We knew that moving the arch from the house to the sugar house would be "challenging."  Unfortunately the controlled environment of the house was necessary to facilitate the curing of the refractory cement used in the process of installing the firebrick.  Getting the sheet metal and cast iron shell of the arch into the house was no real problem, Geri and I accomplished that in less than 30 minutes, using only the garden cart as a simple machine.

Moving the shell of the arch onto the garden
cart for transport to the house
Moving the firebricked arch out to the sugar house, and getting it up onto its foundation, was another matter altogether.  The firebrick alone weighs ~200 lbs, plus at least 3 gallons of refractory cement (MEECO'S RED DEVIL 610 Refractory Cement ), that is ~60 lbs, plus the weight of the arch shell, I put that at 50-75 lbs, and we are somewhere between 310 and 325 lbs of dead weight.  We used a few 2x4's that were lying around, and fashioned a sort of litter, although carrying the arch in that way simply did not work for more than a couple of steps.  We ended up sliding the 2x4's under the arch, picking up one end, sliding the arch down to the other end, and repeating that process, a couple steps at a time.  It literally took four men to lift and carry the arch out of the house, with an additional man to supervise the operation.  Things got a bit easier after the arch was clear of the house.

Once outside the house, we manhandled the arch onto the utility trailer, and towed that behind the UTV over to the sugar house.  Then, more brute force getting the arch off of the trailer, into the sugar house, and onto the pads I had prepared for it.  Moving the arch from the house to its pads in the sugar house, was definitely to toughest part of the commissioning job.

Many thanks to (l-r) Nathan Douglas Smith, Gene Feid, Tommy Smith, and Dennis Goss, these guys put the man in manpower.

Concrete and cedar "pad,"
plus shims for 
After the arch was on the pads, we leveled it front to back, and side to side, using a 4 foot level and softwood shims of the type that are normally used to level and plumb a door or window frame.

The final step of the arch installation, was to install the stack.  Dennis and Nathan had helped me to select the various straight sections, elbows, and the cap we would need, all in 6 inch diameter stove pipe from the local hardware store.  At first I had thought that we would go straight up through the roof, but as usual, two or more heads are better than one, and we decided to go up and out the back of the sugar house, between the top of the rear wall and the peak of the roof.  The amount of vertical stack recommended by Leader Evaporator is a minimum of 9 feet; when assembled our stack stood with a height from arch outlet to stack cap at 7 feet.

Dennis supervising the First
The assembly and installation of the arch having been completed, the next step was to put the Boiling and Reservoir Pans on the arch, and then to conduct the test boil.

As it turns out, we actually performed two test boils.  During the first, we just could not seem to get the entire boiling pan to a rolling boil.  The solution to this problem brought to light that it is not enough to simply Read The !@#$%^& Manual, one must also adhere to the manual, or understand completely why it is unnecessary in a particular case.  The fact that enough vertical stack height had not been installed, proved to be the problem.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the draft (flow of combustion air) into the fire box and up the stack, is directly proportional to the height of the stack.  Another whodathunkit moment!  I do not know how often I have proven my high school math teacher, Mr. Lauer, correct; all of those equations, and more importantly the science behind them, do come in handy.  Teenagers can be such asses, and I was no exception!  I suppose I am still no exception from time to time.

Per that go-to source, Wikipedia, Flue Gas Stack (

Flue-gas flow-rate induced by the draft[edit]

As a "first guess" approximation, the following equation can be used to estimate the flue-gas flow-rate induced by the draft of a flue-gas stack. The equation assumes that the molar mass of the flue gas and the outside air are equal and that the frictional resistance and heat losses are negligible:.[5]
Q = C\; A\; \sqrt {2\;g\;H\;\frac{T_i - T_o}{T_i}}
Q= flue-gas flow-rate, m³/s
A= cross-sectional area of chimney, m² (assuming it has a constant cross-section)
C= discharge coefficient (usually taken to be 0.65–0.70)
ggravitational acceleration at sea level, 9.807 m/s²
H= height of chimney, m
Ti= absolute average temperature of the flue gas in the stack, K
To= absolute outside air temperature, K

What does all that mean?  Well to me it means that the flow rate of combustion air through the arch and up the stack is proportional to the square root of the the height (H) of the stack.  So, if we assume nothing else changes, and we increase the height of the stack from "1" to "1.3," or a 30% increase, the change in the flow rate would be increased by √1.3 - √1 = 1.14 - 1 = 0.14 or 14%.  In other words, if the stack is 10 feet, and I increase its height to 13 feet, the flow rate through the arch will be increased by 14%, which means hotter fire and more sap evaporation.

I trust someone will check my my math and comment if it is incorrect.

Based on that analysis, we added 3 feet to the 7 foot stack, and voilá, blast furnace-like performance of the arch and evaporation rates within Leader's specified range.  Heck, I may try adding another 3 feet for 2017.

According to Leader Evaporator:

The first boil is done to remove any residual materials from the pans and to “season” the bricking and insulation.
1. Prepare 15 gallons of a baking soda and water mix in proportion as follows:
  a. 1-1/4 ounce of baking soda
  b. 15 gallons of water
2. Fill the boiling pan with the baking soda : water mix to a level of approximately 3 inches.
3. To season the bricking, start by building a small fire in the fire box and very gradually build to a normal fire.
4. Boil the solution for approximately 30 minutes. Watch the boil carefully and replenish the solution as needed to ensure the solution in the pan remains at approximately the 3 inch level.
5. Check all equipment:
  a. No leaks at fittings
  b. Pan is boiling evenly
  c. Valves work properly
  d. Draft is correct (pan boils evenly)
6. Drain the baking soda solution from the pan. Rinse the boiling and reservoir pans thoroughly with clean unsoftened, non chlorinated well or spring water. Drain the water and dry the pans.

Having finally satisfied element 5 d., we were able to drain, rinse, drain again, and dry the Boiling and Reservoir Pans, making us ready for evaporation of the first sap of the season.

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-- John, 25 Apr 2016

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Maple Syrup Process Flow Diagram

A short post today, simply to provide something that might be of value to anyone consider the production of maple syrup, on any scale.

Final version for 2016 preparations
I have found that mapping out the process helps me to ensure that we have everything we need, in place, to perform the task at hand, maple syrup production being no exception.  This flow chart is simply a thought-starter, no doubt it is not perfect, nor does it incorporate every possible detail.  However it might be of use to you, I certainly hope so.  You can find 11 in. x 17 in. pdf version at this link: Process Flow-Maple Syrup.  As this process is refined, so will be the pdf.

And, just so you can see how I use the process of actually creating the process flow diagram, below is an earlier version I used in putting together the equipment and supplies for the 2016 season.

Working copy while in use and under development

-- John, 2016 March 05

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Assembling the Leader Evaporator Half Pint - Part 2 of 4

Part 2 involves assembly of the Reservoir Pan and the Boiling Pan, which are relatively simple and easy tasks, as well as installing firebrick in the sheet metal structure of the arch, a seemingly simple but very tedious task.

Draw-Off valve and thermometer at right front
corner of Boiling pan
I assembled the pans first, which only involved the addition of draw-off valves and thermometers ( 2 each) to the Boiling Pan, and the addition of what I am calling a "make-up feed valve" to the Reservoir Pan.  The only tool required is an adjustable wrench, and aside from the parts supplied with the evaporator, the only item required is a roll of teflon tape to seal the pipe-threaded joints.  Pictured is the draw-off valve and thermometer installed at the right front of the boiling pan, there is an identical set of valve and thermometer at the left rear of the boiling pan.  Having draw-off capability at opposite corners allows the flow through the Boiling Pan to be reversed, which minimizes the build-up of "sugar sand" in the Boiling Pan.  A "solid, sand-like material in the bottom of the syrup pan ... is sugar sand (commonly calcium malate crystals containing varying amounts of sugar).  Excessive amounts of sugar sand on the bottom of the pan can burn, giving the syrup an unpleasant strong caramel or bitter taste, and possibly damage the pan."¹  In our first two years as hobbyists we did not experience trouble with sugar sand build-up in our boiling pan, probably because we did not take the sap all the way to syrup in the boiling pan; we drew off the final 3-4 gallons from the boiling pan and reduced it to 12-16 cups of syrup on the range in the house.  I will have more to say on sugar sand and the operation of the evaporator in a later post.

If you look closely at the picture you might also find it interesting that the thermometer has an indicated range of only 0 to 50 degrees, and that the "7" is made to rest at the bottom of the dial as installed.  Syrup boils at approximately 7° F above the boiling point of water, regardless of altitude or barometric pressure.  Taking advantage of this fact, it is possible to adjust these thermometers to "0" when pure water is boiling in the pan, so that when "7" is indicated with the evaporator in syrup-making operation we know that its sugar content is approximately 66%.  With the "7" placed at the bottom of the dial, only a quick glance at the thermometer is required to know that the sugar concentration is at or near 66%; the final determination of sugar content is made by hydrometer (measure of specific gravity) or refractometer (measure of index of refraction).

Now on to the fun stuff, installation of the firebrick.  Let me just say up front that I am no mason!  And, eventually the job of "firebricking" the arch was done in spite of the inexperienced hand on the trowel.  This more difficult than it needed to be, for at least three reasons:

1) The instructions call for putting "about 1/8” on each edge of the brick to be installed and a skim coat on the side facing the metal," but the "fit" having done so is not as depicted in the instructions, and
2) I decided to fit the bricks to/around the nuts and bolt ends that protrude into the arch, versus simply pushing the bricks up against the fasteners, and finally,
3) the cement needs to dry at "room temperature (approximately 65°F)," and the only place I could maintain that temperature for extended periods of time was in the house.  This third difficulty was not a problem until it came time to move the arch to the sugar house!  The process of moving the arch to the sugar house will be included in Part 3 of 4.

Sample of brick instructions for floor of the arch
First came a leveling of the arch using a 4 ft. level and quarters for shims.  This is an absolutely necessary step, as was found out when the team and I were leveling the fully bricked arch in the sugar house; with the brick fully cemented into the arch, the arch becomes very stiff.  What I mean by "stiff" is that the arch will hold whatever shape it was in when the brick was installed.  In still other words, if it is not square and the top surface is not level before bricking, it will be extremely difficult to make it so after bricking.  The top surface is key, because when the Boiling Pan is mounted the sap needs to flow front to back, left to right, right to left and back to front, with equivalent ease, for the evaporator to work as designed.

Bricks laid out for floor of arch, with
refractory cement and instructions
The instructions (Leader Half Pint Assembly and Operation Instructions) depict a dry fit of the bricks, which is to say they do not allow for the 1/8 in. of refractory cement on the edges of the bricks.  If you count the joints between bricks front-to-back in this picture there are 6 (at 1/8 in. per joint that is 3/4 in.), and side-to-side there are 2 (1/4 in. at 1/8 in. per joint), which resulted in the need to do more trimming of brick to fit than was accounted for in the instructions.  Surely my joints were a bit wider than 1/8 in. which contributed to the need for additional cutting. Fortunately I did not need any additional bricks, in fact there was one Half Brick (HB) left over.

I worked in the order provided, which was Floor, Back, Side (1), Side (2), Front, and Firewall.  Things went more smoothly as I learned, but I definitely spent more time in this endeavor than anticipated.  As work was started, the included image shows the sheet metal and iron structure of the arch, the refractory cement (which was not nearly enough to complete the job), the instructions, and a "dry fit" of the bricks needed to complete the Floor.  With the use of 1/8 in. tile spacers during the dry fit stage I might have realized what was going on earlier, or perhaps if closer attention had been paid to the caveat in the instructions, which is, "Measurements in these drawings will vary depending on the technique used in bricking."  Well of course measurements will vary, why didn't I think of that!

Left side; (L) bricks dry fit, (C) brick 8 relieved for protruding nut/bolt, (R) brick 8 installed and cemented in place
Those pesky nuts and bolts; I was simply not content to only push the firebrick up against them, for among other reasons there would be a 1/2 in. gap between the brick and the sheet metal shell of the arch.  So, like is done when installing drywall around an electrical outlet, I measured and made cuts, in this case drilled 3/4 in. holes, in the brick to allow it to fit around the nuts/bolts.  The picture above shows the process using "Block 8" as an example; I numbered the blocks 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 from front to back on the left side, and 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 from front to back on the right side, to keep things in order when going to and from the garage.

The left and right sides were the most difficult parts of the firebrick installation, this was due predominantly to the number of projections into the firebox, including the grate rail (where the fire grate sits) and the nuts/bolts securing the grate rail and the nuts/bolts in the corners securing the front and back panels to the side panels.  Still, things went as well as could have reasonably been expected.  I am very happy with the outcome, and I expect the attention to detail to pay off in the life of the arch.Please "follow" the blog, or follow us on Facebook.

-- John, 02 Mar 2016

Easier said than done, the evaporator positioned on leveled blocks in the sugar house

1. Randall B. Heilegmann Ph D, “Chapter 7. Maple Syrup Production,” in North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual, ed. Melvin R. Koelling Ph D, et al. (Ohio State University Extension, 1996), 79-80.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Assembling the Leader Evaporator Half Pint - Part 1 of 4

This year our plan is to put 100 taps in 100 trees.  By Leader Evaporator's account, in their on-line catalog, processing the sap that is produced by those 100 taps may be a bit of a stretch with the Half Pint.  My supplier assures me that they have at least one customer managing 100 taps with the Half Pint, and with the Flat Pan at that, while we chose the newly introduced Supreme Pan for increased capacity and efficiency.  We shall see.

Leader's Hobby Evaporator Buying Guide (accessed on-line 08 Feb 2016)

On a good day, of which we have had several in each of the past two seasons, we will collect two gallons from at least some of our taps.  If we assume half of the 100 taps flow 2 gallons on that hypothetical high-flow day, and the other half flow 1 gallon, we would need to process 150 gallons of sap, preferably on that same day.  The Leader sales rep told me that they assume a 9 hour day for evaporation, so worst case we might have to work a very long day to make syrup of the entire 150 gallons, or perhaps we would extend evaporation into the next day.

Half Pint unloaded on to 2 pallets in the garage
I picked up the Half Pint on 14 January; it fit nicely, if with very little room to spare, on a pallet in the back of a Honda Pilot.  Sugar Bush Supplies Co. had it palletized and ready to go, and after measuring twice, they loaded it into the Pilot using a fork truck.  

The story of its assembly and the "first boil" will be split into four parts, Part 1 being assembly of the structure of the evaporator; the bottom, sides, back, front, legs, corner brackets, grate rails, and grate.  

Part 2 will include assembly of the boiling and reservoir pans, and installation of the fire brick.  

Part 3 will be the installation and leveling of the evaporator in the "sugar house."

And finally, Part 4 will document the first boil.  I anticipate that the installation of the fire brick will be the most challenging for me; bolting stuff together I can do, masonry of any sort is not something I have done a lot of.  Also, the refractory cement is supposed to dry at "room temperature" (65 F), which may prove challenging in our unheated garage.  Of course that is part of the allure of this adventure, a life of learning something new every day.

Starting with what was on that pallet that I picked up, the first things you might notice in the picture are the fire brick, and just behind the brick are three 3 foot sections of 6 inch diameter stove pipe, and a 90 degree elbow.  The roll of white material resting on the stove pipe is actually a part of the sugar house, not the evaporator.  Beyond the stove pipe you see some cardboard boxes (Half Pint Arch Parts List):

Cardboard Box A contained the heavy iron and hardware, including the legs for the evaporator, the grate rails, the grate, and the nuts and bolts. The nuts and bolts are all 1/4"(diameter)  x 20 (threads per inch), which is nice, however three-quarter inch and half inch length screws are all packaged in the same Ziploc bag. This has the potential of leading to a mix-up during assembly.  Been there done that of course, and it invariably leads to the need for significant disassembly and reassembly!  I sorted the 1/2" from the 3/4" before starting work.  Box A also contained the corner brackets and the Instruction Manual (link), which is commendably comprehensive and well-illustrated.

Cardboard Box B contained the sheet metal; front, back, bottom and sides, the so-called "draft latch," and the draft latch nut and bolt.

Two other boxes contained the "boiling pan" and the "reservoir pan," and the box that has "Standstrait" printed on it contained the draw-off valves and thermometers for the boiling pan, plus the "rail gasket," which goes between the arch and the boiling pan.  The white plastic pail contains the refractory cement, for attaching the fire bricks to the inside of the arch and to each other.  All parts arrived in good condition.

Steps 1-4 complete
Step 1 of assembly loosely attached the left and right sides of the arch (think of the arch as the fire box) to the bottom.

Step 2 of assembly called for raising the arch up approximately 8 inches from the working surface; I used four stacks of three full firebricks to serve this purpose.  Four 8 inch tall concrete blocks would also suffice.  The fire brick was at hand, because it is required for evaporator assembly. 

Steps 3-4 mount the legs.

Step 5-6 complete, step 8-9
in progress
Steps 5 and 6 mount the front and back panels.

Step 8 squares up the assembly and tightens bolts in the corners (the instructions called for a carpenter's square, a speed square worked just as well)

Step 9 ensures all remaining bolts are tightened

(L) Grate rails installed, (R) grate installed on rails

Step 10 is installation of the grate rail

Step 13 installs the grate assembly.

Draft door latch installed
Step 12 was to install the draft door latch, which will be used to control air flow to the fire box

I allowed 4 hours for the assembly; that included some garage clean-up before starting work, and it included the time necessary to make the photographs and document any process issues that arose.  And, in there somewhere was a break for some homemade pumpkin soup courtesy of Geri.  I estimate the process of assembly took 2 of the 4 hours.

A safety note:  Cut edges of sheet metal can be sharp; I just urge caution, avoid cutting yourself.  There are also some knuckle-banging opportunities when tightening the nuts.

To this point the work has been straightforward.  The holes in the sheet metal panels were well positioned to pull the panels into good alignment; I did not have to do any work to get the fasteners to fit through the holes.  Tools required included a 7/16 inch socket / wrench, a Phillips-head screwdriver, three C-clamps, and a speed square or carpenter's square.  Safety equipment included a pair of leather gloves to prevent the cuts and knuckle-banging previously mentioned.

The assembled arch structure, less the grate rails and grate

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-- John, 09 February 2016

Friday, January 22, 2016

Life's Work

It seems like it has been forever since I posted, or was it yesterday?  To say that we have been caught up in something of a whirlwind is probably an understatement.  Just 4 days after my last post, on 24 September 2015, my now former employer made a public release, "BUILDING FOR A STRONGER FUTURE, CATERPILLAR ANNOUNCES RESTRUCTURING AND COST REDUCTION PLANS."  Some of us have felt that tightening in the gut that follows showing up at the job only to find out that your badge does not work!  Typically the cause has nothing to do with an end to employment, rather it is a system malfunction of some sort, or you kept your badge to close to your cell phone, or another of the innumerable and perfectly innocuous possible causes.  Am I a part of the "stronger future,"  or am I a part of "cost reduction?"  Warranted or no, the guts tighten up a bit until the matter is resolved, or at least understood.  So it was on the morning of 24 September.

Fortunately, this time, we were ready.  And, that had more than a little to do with what we have been up to on the homestead since about six months before I wrote my first blog post on 18 February 2014, "Spring 2013, In the Beginning..."  It is not that we all of sudden had made the homestead productive enough to meet our needs entirely, or that we are even approaching self-sufficiency.  Rather, I would say the biggest change has been in our heads, or perhaps more accurately, in my head.  It took some time, the better part of a month, to sort through the what and how of the "restructuring and cost reduction," and to fully understand the impact on us.  Still, it must be said, after learning that my age cohort was part of the plans for "cost reduction" as opposed to the "stronger future," I did not for a moment consider staying at Caterpillar, nor did I consider looking for another employer.  Caterpillar had put together a package of incentives to encourage some folks, several thousand in the United States alone, including me, to leave the company voluntarily.  That was the carrot.  The stick was that there would be involuntary layoffs following the voluntary departures, to achieve the cost reduction targets.  It seemed like a no-brainer.

Within about three weeks all of the details had become clear, or at least clear enough, and on 13 Oct I applied for the package, which led to my "retirement" from Caterpillar on 31 December 2015.  The word "retirement" is used loosely here, because I will receive no retirement benefits, no medical, no "defined benefit" retirement income; nothing of the sort.  Like a lot of people, I was an "at will 1" employee, and portable; by portable I mean that my retirement accounts could be taken with me from employer to employer, or be rolled over into an IRA, and that there was no promise that at some point in the future I would qualify for defined retirement income.  Beyond that, I cannot even imagine what retirement looks like at this stage of the game; I am too young, and there is too much left to do.  So, the decision having been made, then what was left a myriad of details that required my attention to put the decision into effect.  The details were sorted, and all required paperwork was completed before we left for Christmas vacation, on 19 December.  At that point, for all intents and purposes, I was done with Caterpillar, and God willing and the creek don't rise, done working for "the man."

As to Caterpillar as a company, to quote Richard Nixon, "let me just say this about that;"  Caterpillar is a great company, with rock solid leadership, that came into my life at a time when I was in desperate need of some stability.  My leaders worked with me and offered a flexibility in working hours that served me greatly, and that I would have found difficult to replicate elsewhere.  I met and was surrounded by great people, and I will cherish the friendships that were built over the years.  The "restructuring and cost reduction" was handled professionally, and the company was as generous as I could have realistically hoped for; it was a blessing in disguise, and again the timing could hardly have been more perfect.  I have no complaints.

So, what next?  I will start with where we are right now, and then go back to how we got to here from there.  Geri and I are starting a business, which will be comprised of three subsidiaries.  The name of the parent business is "Primal Woods."

Primal Woods and subsidiaries
The "Sawyers" business will start as a portable sawmill services business.  Basically this means that the mill will be taken to customers who have logs, and the logs will be milled at the customer location.  As I have learned first hand, moving big logs around requires heavy equipment, and it is expensive relatively speaking, especially if the quantity is small. Customers can be, but are not limited to, farmers, artisans, tree service companies, etc.  Eventually I expect this business to incorporate a stationary mill, kiln drying, and planing services.  In keeping with Permaculture principles though, specifically "use small and slow solutions 2," we will start small, and learn.  I have apprenticed with another local sawyer, Jim Hoover of Hoover's Mill, and I spent a full day with Jim Birkemeier at Timber Green Forestry in Spring Green, WI. (Also, have a look at Spring Green Timber Growers Store, and their store on Etsy,  Jim is a wealth of information; in the Wood-Mizer "2014 Business Best" competition, Jim and his team won 1st Place in the Hydraulic Sawmills category. Timber Green Forestry has also won awards as a family and sustainable business from the state of Wisconsin.  Training is great, and necessary; still, the learning curve will be steep.

Wood-Mizer LT40 Hydraulic
My tool of choice for the sawyer business is a Wood-Mizer LT40HDG35 Hydraulic; it is probably safe to say that this is the industry standard, and Wood-Mizer invented the portable sawmill in 1982.  The mill includes several optional features, and is powered by a 35 hp Kohler engine.  I will be picking it up in early March.

The "Sugarers" business will start by producing Pure Maple Syrup; there are other maple products, including maple sugar and other confections, and as with the Sawyers business we will start small and learn.  In the spring of 2016 we will put taps in 100 trees, which by rule of thumb, one quart per tap, should yield about 400 cups of syrup.  The plan is to scale up year by year, to 1,000 taps for the spring of 2019.  We have hobbied at maple syruping the past two years, starting with 13 taps in 2014 and 19 taps in 2015.  We are self-taught, of course we have taken full advantage of books, on-line resources on the subject and seminars.  You can check out previous posts on the subject at

Leader Half Pint
The tool of choice for making syrup in year one of the ramp-up, and potentially in year two, is the Leader Half-Pint with the "Supreme" pan.  This is a wood-fired evaporator.  Leader now makes an extension kit for the Half Pint, which is why I say that it might take us through year two of the ramp-up to 1,000 taps.  Also, the "Supreme" pan, not shown, increases capacity significantly from the advertised 15-50 taps.

And finally, the "Soapers" business.  This will start small and simple, as with the others, and include a line of men's soap products, including bar soap, liquid soap, and shaving soap.  Perhaps others.  When I say that these soaps will be made "from scratch," I mean it, we will even be producing our own lye.  They will be naturally scent free, which the hunters among us will enjoy.  Of the three businesses, this one is the least capital intensive, and frankly, the least well-defined at this point.  Geri and I took a course in soap-making at Tillers International, which by the way, is a real gift to homesteaders and DIY'ers.  Tillers is also an organization that does good; I highly recommend exploring what they have to offer, especially if you live within a few hours of Scotts, MI, which is just southeast of Kalamazoo.  Accommodations are available on-site, so you can stay overnight, as I did for the Blacksmithing I course.  In what may be a sign of things to come, I am currently signed up for the Draft Animal Logging course in 2016.

Primal Woods is a vehicle of sorts, a vehicle for achieving "The Purpose."  The Purpose is something that Geri and I developed before Caterpillar made its announcement.  Future businesses were in mind even at that point, which was after two years on the property, in June of 2015.  Admittedly, "The Purpose" is aspirational, and that is okay; it is what we will hold ourselves accountable to, and it is the framework inside which we are making our decisions.

The Purpose
So, how did we get here from there, "there" being 30-plus years on the corporate ladder, leading the stereotypical "American dream" more or less, and yet being unfulfilled in work?  (I am speaking for myself now, not necessarily for Geri.)  For the most part, I suppose I have followed my gut throughout my career, and I do not have regrets in that regard, I would not otherwise have had the opportunity to acquire the homestead property.  Opportunities presented themselves and I took advantage.  The only exception to following my gut was my employment with Caterpillar; I took that on for family-related reasons.  By then I knew that long term, big companies and I were not a perfect fit.

Then in 2012-2013, Geri and I went to visit friends Jim & Bobbie Sauter in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan.  Almost immediately I began looking for what I envisioned as a vacation and retirement property, and specifically I began looking for property in the U.P.  Pretty soon though it became clear, that at 6.5 or 7 hours from our home in Illinois, the U.P. was something that we would not be able to take full advantage of while I was still working.  I refined our search parameters, with Geri's agreement, to include only areas within 2-4 hours by car of our then home base, Naperville, IL.  I ruled out Illinois, simply because it is a fiscal disaster area, in my opinion, and sooner or later that will come home to roost in a bad way, on its residents.  It has already come home to roost on those that are dependent on government services, the disabled for example.  Ruling out Illinois left southern Wisconsin, eastern Iowa, northeast Missouri, north and west Indiana, and southwest Michigan.  It did not take long before we focused the search in southwest Michigan, because there is an abundance of water in that area, and one of our criteria was that we be on water, and preferably a lake.  (If you are interested in undertaking such a search, I highly recommend  Geri and I went back and forth over the course of a couple of months, and had it narrowed down to six or eight properties before I contacted a real estate agent.  He then added a couple more, and in the spring of 2013, we drove over to South Haven, MI, and  on a Saturday looked at 10 properties.  The homestead was number six on that list, and as soon as we left the property I told Geri that it would be ours.  I was looking for raw land, perhaps developed, but not built out.  Geri on the other hand was looking for a 2nd home.  I insisted that we not take on a 2nd 1st mortgage, that is a 1st mortgage in addition to the Naperville home.  Needless to say, we ended up with a 2nd 1st mortgage, and I could not be happier!

We closed on the homestead property in July 2013, and at that point, from pretty much the first day, a switch flipped in my mind, and the pull towards the property, and the life, only became stronger and stronger over the course of the ensuing two plus years to date.  Less than 12 months later we sold the Naperville property, a home that Geri had put her indelible stamp on, and a home that we loved dearly.  In my adult life I have moved often, this time was different.  Having spent 9 years in Naperville, and it our home there, it has been an emotional departure.

I remember the first weekend we had guests to the homestead, this was maybe two weeks after we closed the deal, and we discussed buying firewood.  Even then I just about came unhinged; there was no way that I was going to buy firewood while sitting on 69 acres of woods.  It wasn't long after, a few months at most, and Geri desired hardwood floors.  Well, we still do not have them, but when we do they will be felled, milled, kiln dried, planed, installed, and finished, by us, beginning with Sugar Maples from our woods.  It does not get better than that.  As I was investigating this process though, we had the maples (and beech for that matter, and red oak), I knew that much, and I began to research the "how" of getting those maples on our floor; this led to an awareness of the portable sawmill service, and ultimately, to the decision to take on a portable sawmill service as a business.  At first I only thought of getting a low-end used sawmill to mill our logs for the floor, to be used infrequently, but one thing led to another and here we are.

As for maple sugaring, frankly I do not know what prompted us to tap trees that first spring.  I think it probably had something to do with the study of Permaculture, with its heavy emphasis on tree crops. What an amazing time we have had making maple syrup in our first two springs.  I read something in recent days, I do not have a citation at hand, but the article was about a farm, and the owner drew a distinction between "commodity farming," and "community farming."  Maple sugaring has been a community-builder for us, and as Primal Woods Sugarers, the business will build community; that is in keeping with "The Purpose."

And finally, as "soapers."  We took the class, yes, but that does not explain it.  It was actually Geri's idea to take the class, and she asked me to tag along.  We had an interest in our health, and in not bathing ourselves in a bunch of chemicals, which frankly is what most modern day soaps are.  Modern day soaps are mostly not soap at all.  What then is the connection between sawyers and sugarers and soapers?  It is all about the woods, and the wood.  Obviously the Sugar Maples can be felled, more likely they just fall in the woods, and we harvest them for wood products.  Equally as obvious perhaps, the Sugar Maples can be tapped, resulting in maple syrup.  Perhaps not as obvious is the connection between the first two and soaping.  And again, do not bother to ask how the connection was made, because I do not know; it is amazing how the mind works when you have a burning desire to do or be something, connections appear where none were apparent before.  The connection is in the lye used in soap-making.  Today lye is made in factories, and is sodium hydroxide, NaOH.  "Back in the day" however, as early as when soap was discovered, and subsequently when soap was made in colonial days, the lye used in soaps was potassium hydroxide, KOH.  Guess where that comes from?  That comes by leaching water through hardwood ashes if you can believe it; hardwood ashes being a waste product of both heating our home, and firing the maple sap evaporator.  Waste not, want not.

So there you have it, we have come full circle, and in doing so used waste from the sawmill (cants, waste from the milling process) to fire the evaporator, and waste from the evaporator (ash) to make lye, to use in the making of soap.  'Tis a beautiful thing.

Nothing is certain of course.  Failure is indeed an option.  But I know we are on the path.  It might not look exactly like what is in my mind's eye, and I'm okay with that, even if it does bring on some anxiety.

Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.  Please "follow" the blog.

-- John & Geri, 22 January 2016

1 At-will employment is a term used in U.S. labor law for contractual relationships in which an employee can be dismissed by an employer for any reason (that is, without having to establish "just cause" for termination), and without warning.
Wikipedia contributors, "At-will employment," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed January 21, 2016).

2 Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centered around simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems. The term permaculture (as a systematic method) was first coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978.
Wikipedia contributors, "Permaculture," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed January 21, 2016).