Final Details!

October, 2019

What makes a house livable? What must be in place before you’d consider moving into a house? Window trim? Water coming out of the kitchen faucet? A kitchen faucet? A bathroom? Interior walls of any sort? I feel a bit crazy to say that none of this (besides the all-important window trim) do we have, and yet I’ve been excitedly making lists of what to bring with us on our soft move-in.

The fact is, we’ve been building this house for four years, dreaming it for six, and now that we have four finished walls and a roof, I’m dying to move the heck in, whatever the costs.

Long ago (at least two months now) we scraped and sanded all the woodwork to remove any splashes, drips, gobs, and errant brushstokes of lime and plaster. (See my previous post for an ominous warning to keep your woodwork clear of plaster: Whitewash and a Slide Show.) We scoured every inch of woodwork, from each ceiling joist to around every timber, cursing every clumsy splash made in our haste to slap on the plaster. Nevertheless all it took to clean up nearly all the wood was elbow grease and a veritable fleet of sanding implements. The only woodwork permanently scarred has been our beautiful home-grown oak baseboard, which we’ll stain dark, hopefully enough to cover all our indiscretions.

Next on the agenda, working downward from the ceilings, windows, and posts, was the floor. A daunting task. Three years ago, we installed our finish floor boards, rough-sawn at the local mill, before we  had even raised the frame of the house. Since then they had gotten wet and then dried so cupped that I sometimes tripped just walking across the floor; they had turned silver with age, and then were insulted in their old age with a generous splattering of plaster. All in all, they put the “rough” in “rough-sawn.”20190828_124544

It took some time behind the sander to fix them.

That may be an understatement. J. spent days behind a borrowed floor sander with the coarsest grit sandpaper he could find. Then passed the floor again with the next finer grit, then finer again. Back and forth, back and forth. First it looked tiger-striped, with fresh blond wood interspersed with the old silver/black/limey-white. With each pass of the sander, we wondered: is this good enough? How nice is nice enough for this house? In other words, how much of our lives (read: J.’s life) should we sacrifice to make this house beautiful? And if you know us by now, you know the answer to the last question: quite a bit.

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And here, looking down beside one of the posts, is where we decided to stop sanding. Leaving some of the scars left over from the cutting of the wood fits precisely with the aesthetic of the house. I also like how it tells a little of the story of the house’s construction. You can still see the weathering of the wood beneath its smoothened surface.

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We chose to finish the floor with Rubio Monocoat, a wax/linseed oil coating that leaves the wood feeling and looking like wood, instead of polyurethane, which feels like a coat of plastic. The downside of this beautiful surface is its slightly more complicated application. Although, true to its name, it only needs one coat, that one coat needs to be buffed on and the excess immediately buffed off.

So we rented a buffer. J. mixed the coating, thereby starting the stopwatch (the stuff needs to be applied six hours after being mixed).

And immediately discovered that our generator couldn’t power the buffer. So he returned it and went to a different store to rent a different brand.

Which also didn’t work.

Spurred on by the rapidly expiring drying time of the (expensive) floor coating, we found ourselves on hands and knees, a pair once again united by the need to accomplish an urgent task. J. scrubbed the coating into the floor; I crept after him with a towel, rubbing incessantly until the surface felt dry and slightly waxy. We recruited the children, who took turns rubbing gamely beside me, singing songs to pass the time, until finally, two knee-crushing and shoulder-aching days later, the floor was done.

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Jump-ropeable at last.

Floor, check.

Next up: since winter is coming on again, heat. This has been a very wet fall, so J. had to wait for a day that the roof was dry to clamber up and cut the hole for the chimney.

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J. admiring our new skylight.
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He installed a cathedral ceiling box to send the chimney through our roof.

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We bought this cute secondhand woodstove, hauled it up the hill, attached it to the chimney, and nearly burnt the house down with the first firing. Wait, that doesn’t sound right. Let me try again. WE NEARLY BURNT THE HOUSE DOWN WITH THE FIRST FIRING. Our house. That we’ve been spending the last four years building.

Here’s the story. We attached the chimney to the stove, then shimmied the stove around a little to get the chimney plumb, during which two chimney pieces near the ceiling silently disassembled themselves. So when we started the fire, 16 feet of chimney were cantilevered above the stove by 3 screws, with a one inch gap between the two unattached sections.

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Lighting the bad-luck stove.

J., thankfully much more vigilant than I, caught the problem before leaving for the night and shored up the chimney, then built a much more stable version the next day.

Unfortunately, over the next few days as we lit more fires in the little stove, we discovered that we had bought the wrong stove. Mostly because we had been planning to cook our meals on it for the next year, and the thing wouldn’t boil a pot of soup. Cute it was, but we at The Clay Life expect our cute things to work for their livings. In the parlance of ceramics, we say “form and function.” In permaculture, we call it “stacking functions.” At The Clay Life we say “Heat the house, cook and bake, heat water, and look good while doing it or you’re out of here!”

So we went back to Craigslist the next day after the failed soup experiment, and lit immediately upon our stove at the end of the rainbow. Our pot-of-gold stove. Although it cost about half a pot of gold and weighs maybe two pots of gold, we think it’ll be worth it. It’s called the Vermont Bun Burner, and it’s a woodstove with a bake oven below it, all wrapped with soapstone, which gives a nice even heat once it warms up. It’s already plumbed to heat water once we get to it, and you can cook right on the top.

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And she looks good too.

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So what’s next? Water? Interior walls? Electricity? Kitchen? Loft space?

Why, moving in, of course.

 

Whitewash and a Slide Show

August, 2019

Even before we were done plastering, we began to whitewash our walls. Whitewash is the simplest paint ever–lime and water, mixed. You can add colorant (but that would make it not-whitewash, wouldn’t it? And in our shaded, woodsy, non-electric house we need all the brightness and light reflection we can get). You can add other ingredients, like linseed oil or quark (but these days we need all the simplicity we can get too). So for us, mixing more paint was as simple as going to the barrel of lime soaking in water, scooping some out, and whisking water in until it looked like paint.

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Here in Wisconsin we’re familiar with limewash/whitewash because they used to paint barn interiors with the stuff, but it’s infamous here for its powdery, flaky texture. That’s because it doesn’t adhere well to wood. However, when painted over lime plaster, limewash cures into a tough, stone-like surface similar to its parent material, limestone.

We painted the limewash right onto wet plaster, the day after each wall received its final coat of plaster. The fresh limewash on top of the wet wall helps each component dry slower, curing harder.

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Here it got really fun. You can see how just the first coat brightened up the house.

We painted on layer after transparent layer until we ended up with three coats of limewash, inside and out, which added up to a nice opaque white. It has quite a dry surface, similar to the “matte” paint you can get at the store, but more so. I imagine it’ll scuff easily, so I plan on keeping a bucket of limewash under the sink for easy touch-ups. It keeps indefinitely.

OK, let’s do the slideshow here, because in the last blog entry I had exactly zero pictures of the finished walls, and you’ve been waiting so patiently.

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The whitewash did seem to highlight the imperfections of our plastering job. On the bright side, future patch jobs will be less obvious in our already imperfect wall.

 

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Pardon the mess in these pictures–the house is still very much a work zone, not a magazine centerfold. 
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I scraped and sanded the door, stained it dark, and now it looks real neat (in the local parlance).

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Kitchen, showing backsplash tiles. I grouted them with a mixture of fine sand and lime putty, which works well except that I didn’t clean them off quick enough and now I’m having to scrub them individually with a wire brush. 

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Now for the outside:

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A word of caution about limewash and lime plaster–it stains wood. We had read this but let our dropcloths lapse in places, figuring a little scraping would cure all. This was true for aspen, from which the lime scraped easily and completely, but less so for pine, which took some persistent sanding to erase deeper stains. Most affected by the lime was our oak baseboard, which turned black where the lime soaked in. Sanding it has been onerous, and the stains seem to go deeper than we can sand. We’ll probably end up applying a dark stain, but we’re not sure how well it will cover up the lime spots.

So. I know it’s been said before, but it bears repeating: keep your wood dry.

And that’s as good a way as any to end this post.

 

 

Plaster Complete!

August, 2019

Some people run marathons. Some climb mountains. Some walk burning coals. We build a house.

Let me catch you up on our adventure of choice. I haven’t written much lately because my hands have been too tired and sore to type. I know, whine, whine. Turns out, plastering is hard! It’s heavy! It does not always want to stick to the wall!

We were totally right to fear it.

It was so hard that we didn’t accept help from our friends who offered, fearing they would no longer be our friends after the jobs we would make them do. So we only asked for help from people we didn’t like.

🙂

So where were we? After the first coat of plaster we took a few days to camp on the shore of icy Lake Superior, refreshing ourselves. It’s nice that the plaster has to cure for 14 days before the next coat–this enforces a break, in which you can stack stones, or try to get in the water. Or just lie around and…not plaster walls.

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When we got back to the house, we were encouraged to see that our mushy, squashy harl coat of lime plaster had cured nice and hard. Rapping on the walls with a knuckle yielded a skinned knuckle. So far, so good.

We started the second coat of plaster. Whereas the point of the first coat is to create a good bond between the straw bale walls and the wall, the second coat is the leveling coat, in which you try to create a flat wall. So in some places we built it up to an inch thick or so, and in some places it’s barely a skim over the previous coat. Some people also call this the float coat, because you scrub/burnish/”float” the plaster as it dries to compress it, which also heals any cracks and raises the grain to key into the next coat.

The recipe was mostly the same as the first coat, with slightly less lime, the theory being that as you move outward from the straw bales, you need more strength from the sand and less anti-fungal, moisture-wicking magic from the lime. So:

  • 2 (4 gal.) buckets sand
  • 2/3 (4 gal.) bucket lime putty
  • 1 (1 gal.) bucket straw shavings
  • 1/3 gal. grog
  • water

(For more details on the materials, see my previous blog entry.)

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Coat #2 begins.
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Maybe you can see the various thicknesses here. That may have been why I snapped this photo. I can’t remember.

As in the previous coat, we wet the wall down with water before applying the plaster, and then sprayed it daily for a few days as it dried. After this layer dried a little, we floated it with the hard rubber float, which further leveled the wall, burnishing out the worst of the tool-marks and compressing its surface. This takes a lot of force–the action feels more like scrubbing dirt out of your kitchen floor than the ephemeral-sounding “float.” Then we scratched it again.

Into the plaster, while it was quite wet, I pressed a few tiles for a backsplash behind the kitchen counter and also as baseboard around the curved entryways. I’m not sure if this was a good idea–time, I suppose, will tell. I did it this way so we can trowel the final coat of plaster right up to the edges of the tiles, but I’m worried that the plaster won’t adhere well to the tiles. I guess we’ll know it was a bad idea if they start popping off into my bread dough.

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But, so far, so good. I made the tiles from scrap clay and fired them in odd corners of my wood kiln.

I have no pictures of the floating because I was just trying to keep my head above water. Or, to try another metaphor: I was busy undergoing a trial by fire. That’s how it felt. You don’t take pictures as you’re drowning, or burning. Mornings we watered the previous day’s wall, floated it (this took an hour or more per wall), and scratched it, then watered the wall we’d work on that day, all before finally settling down to mix plaster and trowel it on. So we’d barely get a load of plaster mixed and on the wall before we’d feel all wobbly and need to eat lunch. Then we’d work until the wall was done and drag ourselves home to root around for something for supper, drinking pickle juice like mother’s milk to rehydrate, and then bide our time until an acceptable hour to retire.

Therefore, the pictures are rare.

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And sadly, none of the pictures I did take show how well the float coat worked to, in fact, level out the wall. It went from a shaggy skin over straw bales to a pretty decent (if undulating) wall.

Here’s what the kids did while we put on the second coat:

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So after two weeks of work we finished the second coat, inside and out, strung up the tarp to slow the plaster’s curing, and then headed to Lake Michigan. Because apparently that’s what you do while plaster cures: you go visit a Great Lake.

By the time we got back from Michigan, it was the end of July and time to start–glory, hallelujah–the Final Coat. Here’s the recipe for this one:

  • 2 (4 gal.) buckets of sand (I highly recommend using fine sand, but we couldn’t find any nice sharp fine sand without spending a week sieving the sand we had–so we just used our coarse sand and later only regretted it slightly)
  • 2/3 (4 gal.) bucket of lime putty
  • 1/3 (1 gal.) bucket grog
  • water

The mix was mostly the same as the second coat, minus the straw–an exclusion which made the mud easier both to mix and apply. Plus the final coat is quite thin, just a skim coat really, so each batch went a lot farther, resulting in much less time at the wheelbarrow with the hoe. J., by now, had taken over plaster-mixing completely, a heroic task which he undertook without complaining (unlike someone we all know…).

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The final coat going on. The pillar on the far right is complete. Plastering the undersides of the window wells was kind of difficult–since plaster is affected by gravity, it doesn’t want to stick to the underside of anything. While wrestling it up there I meditated on the Sistine Chapel, and came away with a new appreciation for Michelangelo’s triceps.
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This corner is complete.

The technique we used for the final layer of plaster was to scrape it on with the trowel like butter, then burnish it with a pool float, a delightful tool with round edges that don’t gouge and a flexible metal surface that rides the undulations of our wall without imposing it’s own sense of what’s vertical.

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Here’s J. putting on the final coat…
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…and here’s me floating it with the pool float.
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And here the wall begins to dry in all its smooth, undulating glory. Care had to be taken to keep dry edges to a minimum. Even so, our lunchbreaks will be preserved for all eternity by the cold joints they left.

As long as I’m giving out recipes, let me share one for the homemade scrub/balm that saved our skins while we plastered. Even though we wore gloves, the lime still wormed its way into the gloves so that some days as we worked we seemed to be soaking our hands in alkaline water. And while it didn’t exactly burn, it worked on our skins like the salt you sprinkle onto a zucchini to draw out its moisture. So here you go:

Gardener’s Hand Scrub

  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 T. sea salt
  • 1/2 c. coconut oil
  • 5 drops tea tree oil (if you have it on hand)

Melt coconut oil until liquid. Pour in sugar and salt and mix until sugar is thoroughly coated. Add essential oil and stir. Pour into container. To use, moisten skin and rub a pinch of the stuff all over hands and arms, scrubbing off bits of dried lime or dirt/whatever. Rinse and dry and revel in your recently moisturized, healed skin.

*

So we finished! Like magicians revealing a trick, we tore away the dropcloths and swept off the window seats. I have no pictures of the house complete! You’ll just have to stay tuned for the next entry (coming soon).

I know you’re disappointed, but here’s how we felt:

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Oh, and by the way, here’s what the kids did while we put on the third coat:

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*

Long before we had those bouncing little dears, J. and I took a trip to Italy, during which we borrowed some bikes and took it upon ourselves to pedal up a mountain. (Maybe in Tibet it would not be a mountain, but to this Midwesterner it was.) The road kept going upward in great curves–every corner we turned continued up hill, while my thighs screamed for relief. I wanted to walk my bike up. Or to call the view good enough, turn around, and sail back down. But J. said, “Just keep pedaling. You don’t have to pedal fast. Just keep pedaling.” So I did, and I reached the top still pedaling, elated, and it was worth it.

I’ve thought of that climb many times this summer, times I wanted to give up, and then I would hear J.’s voice in my ear: “Keep pedaling.” So I would. And we made it.

As if that weren’t enough, during this plastering summer I entered my fourth decade. Instead of feeling old and washed up (which is how I imagined it would be like to turn 40 back when I was turning 20), I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. Muscles have shown up under my skin that I’ve never felt before. More than that, though, I’ve gained a sense of courage and determination, a confidence in the labor of my body, that simply by not giving up, by keeping pedaling, I can arrive at somewhere great.

Because this mountain is almost climbed. We can see the summit from here.

 

First Coat of Plaster Done!

June, 2019

Have you ever staked a 4 year project on a skill you did not have, had only read about, and half of that was horror stories online, and most of the rest urged you to hire a professional; and the appropriate materials were unavailable in your area so you had to make do with substitutes based on knowledge and experience you did not have; and you knew that even the professionals rely on conveniences (like electricity and running water) to make the job easier, and you don’t have those, so it’ll be even harder for you, a novice?

I have.

[Apologies and winks to Tom Papa]

It’s hard to fully describe the almost tangible fear/anxiety/elation we felt as we finished the last details on the straw walls. Applying the necessary three coats of plaster, inside and out, would be the last big job before we could move in, but exactly how it would go and what it would be like, we could only guess. Plastering was a dark fog looming before our very toes.

The urgency to begin only grew as we ticked off the final preparatory details on our list, and May turned into June. The early start we had planned evaporated. Since plaster needs to cure frost-free for two weeks at least, which in our climate means finishing up by the beginning of September at the latest, and because of our utter lack of experience we had no idea how hard it would be or how long it would take to apply three coats of plaster, we began to develop facial twitches.

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All ready for plaster, except for a drop cloth.
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Plastic drop cloth? Check.
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Another job before we could plaster: installing this beautiful, wide, live-edge oak baseboard, milled from our own trees. We’ll plaster the walls up to it, so the surface of the wall will be flush (more or less) with the board.

Finally, all was ready. We assembled our plastering tools, gathered our materials, flexed our muscles, and went to bed early.

The next morning, J. woke up with a cold, the kind that keeps you in bed for two days. So the trepidation grew. I had nightmares. My stomach had butterflies.

When J. was finally healthy the whole family tramped into the woods for the ceremonial first day of plaster.

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We had it all set up. Loosely left to right: generator to power the cement mixer, pile of sand, cement mixer, stainless steel milk tank full of rainwater, vinegar to neutralize spills, tools for mixing, and buckets of lime soaking in water. (The wood scraps behind are simply an incidental, if aesthetically dubious, backdrop.)

First off, we discovered that the cement mixer wouldn’t work. Our generator wasn’t strong enough to power it. But after borrowing a neighbor’s generator, we discovered that it still didn’t do a thorough job of mixing. Turns out, you need a mortar mixer for plaster–a fact I had read, but sometimes I like to test these things out for myself.

So here’s our altered set-up:

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It sort of brings us back to our roots, when J. mixed the concrete for the foundation piers in a very similar way. Mixing with a hoe makes a much quieter job site, without the noise of a generator and cement mixer. That’s a positive way of looking at it.

A final job before plastering: wetting the wall, to keep the bales from sucking moisture out of the plaster too quickly. A well-equipped plasterer has a hose and water supply for this, but we’re using a garden sprayer filled with rainwater. We find it works quite well, if a little slow. But we’re used to slow. Plus, using a tool to build our house which was  originally intended to spray pesticides feels a little like turning a sword into a plowshare.

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It’s a good kid job.

Here is the recipe we used for the first coat of plaster:

  • 1 (4 gal) bucket type S hydrated lime, slaked in water so it’s putty-like but in reality still pretty sloshy
  • 2 (4 gal) buckets sharp sand (mason sand or concrete sand)
  • 1 gallon packed, chopped straw
  • 1/3 gallon fine grog (from the local pottery supply) to act as pozzolan, a material to make the plaster more weather-proof
  • water to make a workable (read: mixable by hoe) mud.

* When plastering over the stucco lath (aka blood lath) we omitted the straw, which had been keeping the plaster from fully entering the holes in the mesh.

Aside from lime’s tendency to burn the skin and its just-plain-heaviness, the plaster is quite a pleasurable material to work with. Once we got the hang of it, we could slap it on almost quickly, smearing and shaping to our gloved hands’ content. The experts use a hawk and trowel, but we found that those tools require the strength and endurance of very specific muscles which we have yet to develop. So rubber gloves and a bucket it is!

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A trowel was helpful for easing plaster neatly up to the wood edges, but everywhere else got the glove.

The plaster was easy enough to apply, so everybody gave it a try.

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Plus, climbing the scaffolding remains a draw.

Some people call the first coat the “harl” coat because you’re supposed to “harl” the plaster into the wall to get a good bond between substrate and plaster. This is also super fun. You gather a snowball-sized ball of mud into a hand and harl it into the straw, then smear upward with any remaining plaster in your glove. As a potter, I took to the whole process and the material intuitively. My printmaker husband, I suspect, found it less than intuitive, but still plodded along gamely. He knows I mostly keep him around to mix plaster anyway.

By the end of the first day, we finished one outside wall, and this is how we felt:

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Filthy, but elated.

It looked great. Once our work had set up a little, we scratched it with a homemade scratching tool to give the surface more tooth to bond with the next coat. Hence people also call this the scratch coat.

We continued the next day, just a touch sore from the previous day. Covering the work of the day before with a tarp helps to slow the drying and allows the plaster to cure slow and hard, but sadly has also dampened our sense of accomplishment, since to this day we have yet to see the entire house plastered and uncovered.

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By the end of the fifth day, we finished the entire exterior, but there’s no picture of that because the house looked much like it has in the past: swathed with a tarp, as familiar as that hoodie you keep handy to pull on when the evening cools.

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We took a day of rest and sent the kids to Grandma and Grandpa’s so that, fueled with a diet of summer sausage and Ritz (oddly similar to our subsistence the entire length of our honeymoon), we could more fully focus on the work of plastering the interior.

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Because of the tarps, the interior is super dark so it’s hard to photograph, much less see what you’re doing when you’re plastering. But we persisted with a battery powered work light, exhilarated to watch the surface of the house emerge with each batch of plaster.

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It was an amazing thing to apply a skin to these walls which we had been forming for months. All the tiny detail work, the attention paid to each nip and tuck, turned out to be well worth the work. It was a dream (a well-earned dream, paid for in blood, sweat, and tears, but a dream nonetheless) coming true under our very gloves. Because suddenly the straw bale walls became walls, the kind you could live inside your entire life and forget what they’re made of, the kind that becomes familiar while the seasons and the days play their distinctive shadows in each curve and hollow. Suddenly I could imagine my children’s voices ringing on these walls; I could envision meals eaten here and prayers spoken.

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But back to details: you may notice we’re not doing a perfect job of keeping the woodwork clean–the plan is to come back after the plastering is done to scrape and oil the unfinished trim, then caulk the cracks that form between wood and plaster. It will be a lot of caulk.

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The niches were especially fun to plaster.
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The last bit of straw.

 

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Time to say goodbye to the straw, hopefully forever. Oddly enough, it was a moment of mixed feelings.

So finally we plastered over the last bit of straw and cleaned up the tools and sat down to look at our work with relieved, exhausted gratitude. It had taken 9 of the last 10 days, which we had spent almost entirely plastering, eating a little, and sleeping, but the fact remained that the first coat was on the house, inside and out, and it was still only June. Our fears appear to have been unfounded.

We’ll take a week’s break to let our skin recover from lime burns, let the plaster cure nice and strong, and catch up on our nutrition; then we’ll hit that next coat hard. Easy peasy.

Almost Ready for Plaster (And Move-in!)

May, 2019

It’s been so long since I wrote I’m sure you’ve all forgotten we’re building a straw bale home. Mostly I haven’t written because what I’ve been doing isn’t that photogenic. Or share-worthy. The straw bale walls are up, the windows are in, what are they, twiddling their thumbs over at The Clay Life? Are they expending all their energy biking their laundry so they have nothing left for building their house?

Turns out, building a house is more a marathon than a sprint. In case you just tuned in to this blog and hadn’t figured that out yet. While I did spend January and February cozily in the studio working on pots instead of the house, the rest of the cold season after a morning of studio work I would put on the layers to slog up the snowy hill for afternoons of work on the house.

Naively, I had thought that once the straw bales were up last fall, we’d be able to plaster the walls in a few short weeks, after attending to some minor preparatory details. Because isn’t a straw bale house just a bunch of straw bales stacked under a roof? Turns out, it’s way more kinky than that. An ENTIRE (minus those studio months) WINTER’s worth of “minor details”! Because a straw bale house is in fact a maze–a trap–full of tiny, kinky details that mean the difference between a lumpy, pitiful-looking shack and an elegant yet understated cottage whose gently undulating walls suggest that it was hand-crafted with skill and care. You can guess which direction we hope to lean.20190412_120607

In the picture above you can see some of those kinky details. The wooden header supporting bales over the doorway has been covered with black tar-paper to keep the plaster from sticking to the wood, where it would crack. But since the plaster won’t stick at all to the tar paper, it also had to be covered with blood lath. I know. The places where I stuffed loose straw also needed to be covered with lath, as you can see above in the alcoves between ceiling joists. On top of all that is a wider mesh, which I’ll illuminate in a little bit.

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Here’s a [blurry] shot from the ladder of the curve at the top of the wall, where the straw bale walls needed to meet the thinner, more conventionally insulated second story wall. The second story floor joists will rest on a wooden cleat at the top of the straw bale wall. You can see the tight work spaces I navigated this winter: six inches of space between the timber frame and the wall, in which I used twine to cinch the top bales tight against the wood wall, nailed blood lath to the wood, bent and wired it to the mesh below, and stuffed the curve with straw. Then scooted my ladder down and measured for the next piece.

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Still, the view from my ladder wasn’t bad. Maybe just a touch cluttered, but it has promise.

So yes, this winter I learned to pound nails with a hammer. I learned to pound nails between the rungs of a ladder. I learned to pound nails with my non-dominant hand. I learned to pound nails with the side of the hammer when space was too tight to use the head of the hammer. I learned (not well) to pound nails by sound and feel when I couldn’t see them. I cut blood lath with a tin-snips, and I bled.

Once I was mostly done installing the blood lath, I moved on to the other mesh you see in the pictures: 2″x 4″ welded wire fencing, which helps to give the wall rigidity, tying all the bales together in a unified wall. J. ran the chain saw over the wall to trim up loose straws and odd corners of bales sticking out, then it was ready for the fencing. I used fencing staples to attach it to the wood at the top of the wall, both inside and out, then got out my trusty old bale needle. I used the needle to punch twine all the way through the wall, cinching the bales tight between the two layers of fencing and stuffing straw in low spots as I went. I kept a bale needle inside and one outside and scrambled up and down the ladder, pushing twine in from the outside and out from the inside, like a giant, 16 inch thick quilt.

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On the left you can see some orange twine, my quilting thread of choice this winter.

I also put in a few niches, which are standard straw bale house fare.

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Also meshed, fenced, and sewn to within an inch of its life.

Oh, I almost forgot. J. also did not twiddle his thumbs this winter. He tried his hand at building windows, and did a plumb job. (Ha! I made that one up myself.) Most of the windows we had bought secondhand came in their jambs, but on a few the jambs had broken upon de-installation. And since these were sliders and what we had wanted from the beginning were french windows, AND since I’m married to a guy who can make anything, we thought we’d shoot to turn those orphan window panes into french windows.

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So he did. With wood milled from our own trees.
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Bathroom view.

So now we have french windows in the gable ends upstairs and one in the bathroom, and as we install trim on the rest of the windows, we want to keep the whole works easily removable, with the intention of replacing them all with frenches at a later date.

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A view from below of one of the upper windows.

The window trim, on the inside and out, will double as a plaster stop. It’s a little hard to get straight since in places the straw bulges against the window frame…but hey, it’s a hand-built house. It’ll look great.

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We even have a set of doors, and they have trim around them too.

So as you can see, we’re getting closer and closer to plastering, after which we plan to move the heck in. We’re so close that I’ve already had a nightmare about it. The plastering, that is–that great unknown looming before us.

There were plenty of times this winter when I tossed off my boots with their two pairs of wool socks, when I rubbed my sore, cut hands together and wondered, “Is this worth it?” Would we have launched into this project if we had known the hours, months, years of hard, constant labor we would dedicate to it? Shouldn’t I be doing something else with my life, like reading a book?

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This spring I’ve been watching a wood peewee weave her nest above my kiln shed, bringing tiny beakfuls of grass and combining it with mud and other mysterious wonders to create this new little thing in the world, made just by her (and her husband), in the way they know how, with the materials they know how to use, to be just the right home for her little family. She will not be waylaid from her task–she does what is in her to do, and she does it well.

So I, like the wood peewee, do what is in me to do, to work through pain and cold because it’s something I believe in, because I’ve been made to do it, to make beautiful things, to weave a home for my family. You might have to put me in a cage, tie my wings behind my back, to keep me from doing this. Maybe there are better ways to spend one’s life, but for me at this time, working with my hands in the quiet of the winter woods, making something that will ring with the laughter of my family, and making it well: this is where I belong.

So here’s our to-do list:

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This also (*sigh*) is where I belong.

 

 

 

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