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Stove in the Ox Barn – 2016

February 8, 2016

After a strange non- winter, we have gotten a couple storms in a couple weeks. Today is my second snow day of the year. I may even be able to get out into the woods next week and do a little harvesting. In the meantime, I have finished a couple recent projects. Today I finished a new pair of deerskin gloves with rabbit fur lining. Here are some pictures.  This is my third pair of deerskin gloves and first with the backs completely linded.


The other big project was the repair and installation of an old woodstove I found in one of the barns. When I found it, the stove was covered in rust. I thought it was a stove that had been in the Kennedy Cottage when I lived there. (The Kennedy cottage was named for Dick Kennedy a farm hand who worked for my grandfather in the late 20’s. Dick Kennedy and his wife and three children all lived in the tiny two-room cottage. Later, the cottage was used by my grandparents on weekends while they lived in Brookline before they built the “Big House”.) As I worked on the stove I realized it was not the Kennedy Cottage stove. I was surprised that, although I had all sorts of identification on the stove, I found very little on the Web about the model. I found a picture of the stove in the catalog of the Adirondack Museum, and plenty of mentions of the company that made it, but nothing about the model #124


I brought the stove to my day job, Dearborn Academy, and one of my students got very involved in refurbishing the stove. It was great to see his interest, and a great help in getting it all done. We started by taking the whole thing apart and removing the old stove putty. I was able to remove most of the bolts using Liquid Wrench Penetrating Oil. I have to give credit where credit is due. The stuff worked very well. It smells as if it has some sort of solvent other than the oil, and I wouldn’t want to spend to much time working with the stuff. But it did a better job than the other penetrating oils I usually use. We used a wire brush on a corded drill to do most of the work. Actually, we used a couple different wire brushes to get into the different shaped spaces. After we cleaned off the rust we applied stove polish. This is another smelly job, but it really looked beautiful after the job was done.

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I bought a new set of fasteners from the Bolt Depot and was ready for re-assembly. I took the whole thing down to the Holly Hill and put it together, sealing all the joints with stove putty.

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I will not go into the trials and tribulations of getting the stove pipe, but I will mention that it was such a drag trying to figure out what I needed and where to get the parts that I very nearly gave up several times. I have been thinking of putting a small stove into my shop for years, but the odd thing is that even on the coldest days, it is always quite cozy. I have often mused that perhaps the residual heat from those beloved oxen that lived in the barn all those years ago is still emanating in that special spot. It is really only on the very coldest and cloudiest days that it is cold in that barn. But last weekend I gave the stove a test fire. The permanent stovepipe is not in place, but I put a temporary pipe up through the roof and lit a fire that was sufficient to set the stove putty and burn off the polish residue. February break is next week, and I will try to get the chimney finished. That is if there is not too much snow on the roof.

Stump Stools

July 31, 2015

The dew point has finally fallen below 70 degrees. It is dry enough to sit in our sunroom (where the computer resides) and do a bit of writing. A real writer cannot be kept from writing. I learned long ago that I am a real tinkerer. In grad school (Columbia School of International and Public Affairs) the accomplishment that made me the proudest was repairing the beautiful old Electrolux vacuum cleaner I had with nothing but my pocketknife. It takes very little to put me off writing, though I like it, but nothing can put me off tinkering.
This has been a really good summer for me. I have been feeling well and getting lots done, both at home and in the ox barn (or the “studio” as some of my visitors have pleasingly called it.) My attempt to have a sale last month was a total failure, but that’s fine. The past few weeks I have had more visitors than I did at the official “open house”. And, as thrilled as I would be to sell some of my work, it is still talking with folks about it, especially the kids, that I enjoy most of all. It is still a treat to see youngsters visiting the farm and enjoying the barnyard. One of my favorite attractions is Abby the goat. Not sure what it is about her, but we seem to have a special bond.

Selfie with Abby

Dear Abby

As you may know, we had a bit of snow this winter – many feet of it. But it was a dry spring. The growing season started out looking as though it might be a very dry summer and a lot of the growth was stunted. But since mid to late June the rain has be sufficient and things on the farm have been growing nicely. They have even started selling tomatoes. I have made it down to the farm most Saturdays and have made quite a few new pieces. In particular I have made a few “stump stools”

Stump Stool

Stump Stool

I start with a short log and split it in half. This is easily accomplished with a sledge hammer and a couple of wedges (provided, of course, that the grain is straight). For my latest I had to cut it to square up the end as well. Fortunately, I had my magic saw to do the work for me. Otherwise it might have taken an hour or so and been mighty sweaty work.

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After getting the half stump the right shape I have to figure out whether to flatten the seat or make it concave. The latter is preferable, but challenging. I have tried using a variety of tools – adze, slick, block plane, spokeshave – all with varying success. The adze and the slick (a 3” wide chisel with a two foot handle) leave a very rough surface, at least when I am doing it. The block plane leaves a flat surface. The configuration of the spokeshave makes it difficult to work wood wider than the tool face. There is a type of plane made for this sort of work called a compass plane.

Adjustable Compass Plane (convex)

Adjustable Compass Plane (convex)

Throat of the Plane

Throat of the Plane

It has a sole that is curved to plane a curved surface. I have had an adjustable compass plane for a couple years, but have never been able to get it to work because the throat (the opening in the sole of the plane that the blade peeks through) of the plane gets smaller when the plane is set to do convex work. This week I finally took a small file to the throat of the plane and tried to enlarge it. I will see tomorrow whether this worked. In the meantime I bought a convex sole plane from Lie-Nielson tools. [If you haven’t heard of Lie-Nielson check out their website to see some of the pertiest tools in the world. They are wicked expensive and I reserve buying them for special occasions. In this case because Lee Valley – another great source for tools that are very reasonably priced – didn’t have an equivalent.] The Lie-Nielson plane is a beauty (although it was slightly smaller than I expected) and it worked perfectly out of the box (you can expect that with this company).

Lie-Nielson Plane

Lie-Nielson Plane

Using the little convex plane (convex plane to make a concave seat) I got the seat to the general shape I was after then I finished up with a card scraper. I will try to write about card scrapers some other time, but they are blades and despite their name when used properly they cut rather than scrape.

Card Scrapers

Card Scrapers

They are great for smoothing surfaces and can leave a better finish than sandpaper.
After I have shaped and finished the surface of the seat I flip it all over and drill four holes for the legs. I generally drill then at a slight angle for stability with my two inch auger. This is basically a large auger bit, but rather than going into a bit brace, it has a permanent wooden “T” handle. I bore holes approximately 3” deep and then decide what sort of legs to give it. I have used a froe to split billets and then round the ends that are going into the holes and leaving the legs very rough. I have used interesting bits of saplings such as in the first picture. Notice one of the legs has a deep spiral groove in it made by a strangling vine. And sometimes I use the shave horse and spokeshaves to shape a leg. I could of course use a lathe if I had one available down at the farm. In any case, once the legs are fitted and inserted, I through a coat of Danish oil on it and it’s done. The first one I made years ago to put my tool chest on. I had arrived at a craft fair and didn’t have anything to serve that purpose. I was able to find a short log in the firewood pile and turn it into a suitable stand in about forty minutes. I have enjoyed making them every since.
As always I will try to write more regularly, but there is always so much tinkering to be done.

Open House and Sale Saturday July 11th

June 30, 2015

While I have done no writing for the past four or five months, I have been making furniture. If you are anywhere near Cohasset, Mass July 11, swing by Holly Hill Farm (226 Jerusalem Rd) and say, “hi”. I’ll have most of my stuff out for viewing (and purchase if the spirit moves you). I’ll also be working if you want to see how it’s done.


A New Experience

February 18, 2015

This is February vacation week, though with all the snow days we’ve had this month one would hardly know the difference. Even if we had school this week, Monday was Presidents’ Day and that would have been the fourth Monday in a row with no school. I have spent plenty of time outside this month, along with untold thousands of my fellow New Englanders, shoveling. But somehow I have not felt particularly productive. So, I started the break by making a new pair of mittens. I had just enough elk skin lying around to make a replacement for my old deerskin pair. As much as I liked the old pair, I think the new ones are a definite improvement. The pattern for the new ones came from a company that makes patterns for re-enactors. In addition to the mittens, I have made a couple pairs of gloves, which as you can see from the picture, get quite a bit of use. But for the mittens I decided to use my old sewing machine, instead of sewing by hand, as I did for the gloves. The machine is a beauty, but it takes a while to get tuned up each time I use it, which is not often, and it can make me a little crazy until it is going smoothly.

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With my new mittens, I decided to head down to the farm, not on my usual Saturday trip, but on a Tuesday. The traffic was lousy. As you may have heard, the commuter situation in Boston these days is horrendous. The T (subway) is running about 30% capacity, and they are literally hiring folks off the street to shovel the outdoor lines. Yesterday I heard they were paying thirty dollars an hour! (I thought they should consider trading T passes.) For me, the best parts of the drive are when I can view the ocean. So, I always look forward to Wollaston Beach in Quincy and from Hingham Harbor on down to the farm. This time, Wollaston Beach was hidden behind massive piles of snow many as tall as fifteen feet. However between the piles I could glimpse a frozen Quincy Bay. With no wind, the water was frozen well out into the bay. The Northbound traffic was making very slow progress up Rte. 3a. As far South as Weymouth traffic was a crawl. At Forest Avenue, the small beach was also frozen. Against the rocks the slush water sloshed about disconsolately, but a few feet out it was frozen and appeared frozen several hundred feet out into the ocean.


When I got to Cohasset the street pavement disappeared and I didn’t see it again until I left.

When I pulled into the barnyard, it looked like nothing I had ever seen before. Snow was piled everywhere. The road down to the turn around was plowed only as far as the blacksmith shop. I drove my truck to the ox barn and went to check in with my Aunt Jean. She told me that my Cousin Charlie , who lives up in the woods with his family, has been doing a great job plowing the main drive. But even on a farm, there is only so much room. Every so often a friend with a Bobcat front-end loader comes by to scoop up the great piles and move them out of the way. Nugget the horse was frantic because he couldn’t see his little pal Pumpkin the pony in the paddock (the drifts were so high). And they couldn’t be in the same paddock because there was so much snow.

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One paddock was filled right up to the top of the top rail of its fence.

The first thing I did after checking in with Aunt Jean was shovel my way into the oxbarn. My first job for the day was replacing the sled chase I had broken the previous week. Then I went out into the barnyard and pulled some of the snow off of a couple roofs. Most of it had been raked by someone else, but I try to help out where I can. Then I decided to go snowshoeing.
If you read my last post you will know that during last week’s outing into the woods I had some trouble with the snowshoes I made. The toes of the shoes kept getting stuck in the snow and I would stumble forward. Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that this week I had a much easier time of it. The bad news is that I used an old pair of snowshoes that I did not make. This time I was not pulling the sled, so that may turn out to be the problem. But if it really is design of the shoes, I will hang mine up on the wall and switch to these new old shoes. In any case, the hike was truly unlike any hike I have ever taken on the farm. There was so much snow that the trails became purely theoretical. The horse briar, which normally makes the woods so impassable, was buried under three to four feet of snow and it was possible to walk anywhere. Stone walls, small streams, underbrush, poison ivy, I was tromping above it all. At one point I caught a glimpse of a small, dark, possibly canine sort of critter. It was about fifty yards off and I was able to walk directly toward it. In the summer, not only would I never have seen it, but it would have extremely difficult to approach it through the underbrush. But I made a beeline toward it to looks for tracks. Unfortunately, I didn’t find them. I walked straight to where I thought I saw it and found nothing at all. I can only imagine that it had a den in the vicinity and was safely ensconced inside. I saw no tracks in the area. One thing I did find was the largest oak tree I have ever seen down there.

I would say its circumference was well over double my arm span (that is, just under six feet or twelve feet total). And that was at my chest height plus the three feet of snow I was standing on. In other words, at eight or nine feet up the trunk the circumference was about fourteen feet or so. It was a magnificent sight and one that I would never have seen in the summer. The woods were also wonderfully quiet. Activity in the area was minimal and the snow absorbed much of the sound that was around. Several times I simply stopped where I was and sat down to listen to the quiet. After an hour or so out in the woods, I stepped down off the snow and onto the driveway with a jolt. It was as if I had been walking around on one giant mattress and then landed on a hardwood floor. I hadn’t collected any materials for furniture, but the trip had been well worth it. I hope to get another such one in again soon.
My grandfather used to tell me of his youth when, rather than plow the roads, they rolled them with logs pulled by teams of horses, so that they were smooth enough to sleigh on. Apparently the town of Cohasset is renewing that old tradition, as they seem dedicated to making sure no ones’ runners are damaged by the salt or pavement.


It is hard not to wonder what my Grandfather would have made of this year’s snow. He always contended that there was much more snow in his youth. But I think this year’s totals might even have matched his memory.

Another Snow Day

February 9, 2015

We have now had our third snow day Monday in a row. I hate missing the school and the idea of having to extend the school year further into the summer, but the extra days off have been giving me a chance to write. And so it is today. After a morning spent shoveling, I have some time to write another post.

Front steps on another snow day

Front steps on another snow day

The drive down to the farm two days ago was quiet. The latest weather had not yet moved in. The roads had narrowed, but were all passable. Wollaston Beach was frozen and calm. The sky was gray. Driving up Rockland St. in North Cohasset the great Hull 2 wind generator was being pushed by a strong West Nor ‘west wind at a pretty good clip. As I came round onto Jerusalem Rd in sight of the ocean, the sea was flat, and the horizon was invisible. The barnyard was piles of snow, infiltrated with paths and lanes for people, cars, and animals. The ox barn was snowed in again, and I had to dig my way in through to the side door. Only a bit of snow had filtered in through the main door. After my usual check-in with Aunt Jean and a quick introduction to the gentleman who’d come over to clear snow with his bobcat, I pulled my sled out of the snow bank and hooked up the traces. After getting my snowshoes on, I gathered my harvesting tools and threw the leather yoke over my shoulders to head out into the woods. Over the past few weeks we’ve gone from no snow to more than a couple feet. Last week I went out without the snow shoes and it was pretty tough going. This week I was wearing them and it was pretty tough going, but at least I wasn’t sinking more that a few inches. Sadly, I think one problem may be the design I chose when making these shoes. I made them in the Ojibwa style. I really like the look. But the extended “toe” of this shoe may make for tougher walking as the toe often gets caught in the snow as I lift my foot. On the other hand, as Grandma Cornelia often said, “It’s a poor workman who complains of his tools.” Perhaps I just need more practice.

Ojibwa style snowshoe

Ojibwa style snowshoe

When I stopped to begin cutting I realized I’d left my saw in the barn. I like to use the pruning saw, especially when cutting farther up the trunk of the tree because it leaves a cleaner cut than the axe. The axe isn’t bad if you are cutting close to the ground and the trunk can’t move much, but further up the tree and the trunk can move with the each strike absorbing the energy of the blow. I hit the first tree trunk where it emerged from the snow and the tree moved several inches. When I checked the depth of the snow with the axe handle I found it was over two feet. This meant that unless I wanted to clear away the snow from each little tree I’d have to cut them at about two feet and they’d be a pretty sorry sight in the spring. So I did the best I could with the axe. After I trimmed the saplings and cut them into manageable lengths (from six to twelve feet) I lashed them to the sled. About a quarter of the way back to the barnyard the sledding got very tough, and I was really yanking on the traces when one of them gave way. As I sat panting in the snow, wishing that I had finally remembered water and marveling at how thirsty one gets in the working in the snow, I debated whether to leave the sled and come back later to pick it up. It put me in mind of a trip I had taken with my buddies fresh out of high school from our home in Michigan to the mountains of western Montana. We were camping in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, when the strap on my backpack broke. I was already anxious about being out in the middle of the wilderness on our own, and I started crying and carrying on. Craig and Alan basically said, “Get over it. We have no choice but to fix it and get going.” Despite my protestations that that was impossible, I dug out my sewing kit and fixed it and we got going. And so it was this time. I removed the leather yoke from the traces and threw the broken trace on the sled to fix at home. I tied one end of the yoke to the sled and held it in my left hand. I held the remaining trace in my right. Sometimes there ain’t nothing to it but to do it. And I hauled it home. It was a tough slog, but not truly that far to go. And I was more worried about exhausting myself for basketball the next day than about survival. I got back and had a lengthy drink from the water bottle, unloaded the wood and bent a few choice sticks around the stanchions to use in chairs in the summer.
The last job for the day was to fashion a new handle for the lovely adze that my pal Robert had given me when he came down to visit a few weeks ago. The trick with this sort of tool head is that instead of fitting the end of the handle into the head, as with an axe or sledge hammer, the entire handle has to slide through the head, as with an grub hoe. This makes for a tool which is much less likely to fly off the handle, but requires that the entire handle be shaped.
adze head - handle inserted

adze handle full length

I chose a piece of ash that I found that day and used a pair of drawknives to shape it. This morning when taking these pictures I discovered that the very green wood had checked. So I am not sure whether it will be suitable for use. We’ll see in a few weeks when I get a chance to try it out.
Last week, during another snow day I tackled an indoor project, sorting and replacing many old photographs into a new album. There were pictures from the first six or so years of my life. Many, many were of the farm. Amongst them was this one. Apparently I have had a longstanding interest in wood. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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Eternal Lure of the Ocean

January 31, 2015

The ocean fascinates me. Occasionally I am lucky enough to get to take a course at the Wooden Boat School in Brooklin, Maine and I love the classes, I am just as happy to sit down on their dock at admire the boats or listen to real sailors talk ships in the dinning hall. It could be my ancestry, with a sea captain or two amidst the branches of the family tree. It could be the enormous ship model that once belonged to one of said captain’s and graced my grandparents’ living room when I was a boy. It could be the stories I read and continue to read or the movies I watched and continue to watch. It could be the Jacque Cousteau documentaries that amazed me as a child. Regardless, I love watching the ocean. I love its endless moods. I love its smells and tides. And I can see why, despite the immense danger, humans have gone down to the sea in ships since time immemorial. They have gone for sustenance, escape, fame, fortune, transport, even fun.
The sea is elemental. It bore us all. It can nurture and heal. It can maim and destroy. It is worthy of its own god if not many gods, goddesses, and all manner of god-lets. From earliest times, humans have taken to the waters on logs, rats, dugouts, kayaks, canoes, wherries, dorries, dhows, junks, sloops, shalloops, barks, brigantines, clippers, man-o-wars, frigates, catamarans, whalers, tankers, destroyers, and absurd cruise ships. The names evoke and the sea rolls on – sometimes caressing and soothing, sometimes grasping, terrifying, dragging, devouring, engulfing – always indifferent to our plight.

The past few weeks’ procession of winter storms coming of the ocean has resulted in some noteworthy seas. On my trip down to the farm today, as I turned on to Jerusalem Road in Cohasset, I was greeted by a roiling scene. Under pale blue gray sky the waves were crashing over the great granite rocks of that town’s coast like water slopping from an over full bucket carried by an under sized child. The white caps extended to the outer limits of visibility. Breakers crashed and the spray exploded icing the exposed rocks. And all the while the gulls and sea ducks bobbed improbably on the swells. The road was strewn with oceanic detritus. The ocean was not blue, nor is it often. Today it was a pale green, reminiscent of frothy pea soup – very cold frothy green soup. It was the sort of sea that reminds of the unnumbered hazards of a life at sea. There were waves, rocks, winds, and ice –those plagues to sailors of any era. One could see Minot’s light stalwart and erect in the misty distance.

Oddly, when I worked on the farm I rarely visited the beach a quarter mile away. It was always colder than I liked, even on the hottest day. And I loved being on the farm. In fact I was often taken aback when the wind shifted and blew off the water, and I could smell the tide and seaweed and was reminded that it was all so close. Growing up in Michigan I was spoiled, not only by the many ponds and small lakes, so cozy with their size, warmth, and sandy beaches from which I fished and swam. But also by Lake Michigan, as vast as an ocean (or it may as well have been for one cannot see its dimensions from the shore) and completely and wonderfully salt free. Yes it’s true; as much as I love the ocean I can’t stand swimming in salt water, no matter the temperature. The Great Lakes are a miracle. They are vast and wild enough to have sunk literally thousands of ships (perhaps most famously the Edmund Fitzgerald). They can develop serious waves and have surprised many a “blue water’ sailor the major yacht races that are held on their immense waters every year.
So, I would be happy to stare from my front porch or through some picture window at a Great Lake as much as I would enjoy looking upon the ocean. But I would miss the smell of the sea. And if I could find a small house, overlooking a working harbor, and could hear the sounds, and see the sights, and smell the smells (and had a nice little pond to dip my toes into not too far away) I think that might be heaven.

New Year 2115

January 19, 2015

For the most part I avoid New Years resolutions. If something is worth doing, I try to start doing it no matter what time of year and not put it off to January 1. However, as the new year began, some students in my school were given an assignment to poll staff on their resolutions, and while thinking about what mine ought to be, I realized that it really was time to buckle down and get back to my blog. So, here I am.
Despite months of web silence, I have been making regular trips to the farm. I had a very productive summer making things from more furniture (benches, stools, a pair of armchairs, and a pair of dining chairs)

Arm chair - one of pair

Arm chair – one of pair

to clothing including an elk skin jacket, two pairs of sheep skin boot/moccasins, and a couple pair of serviceable gloves. The sewing has been one of the things I have been doing instead of writing. Another factor has been my new phone. Why should a new phone be a problem? Well, it takes very nice pictures, so I have stopped using my camera. Unfortunately, I am not proficient at uploading those pictures on my phone to the blog. And so pictures of all of the above-mentioned projects are locked safely on my phone waiting for me to learn the intricacies of yet another technological “advance”. However, one can see a picture of my jacket and me sitting in one of the dining room chairs in a picture taken by my friend Robert, who visited me on the farm last weekend with his camera and posting it on his flicker account.
As for the coming year, I really can’t say whether I will be able to continue making regular contributions to the blog. I hope so, and I will try to get my photos up for viewing. I have decided one thing. Up until this point, I have always had a laissez faire attitude about selling my furniture. But this spring/summer I will put a bit more effort into the enterprise. When the farm stand reopens, I will be putting all my furniture out on display and letting people know that it’s available rather than just hoping folks will stroll around to my corner of the barnyard and make a spur of the moment purchase. It will be interesting to see what happens.
Meanwhile, if you live in New England you have probably noticed that despite a few chilly days, we haven’t really had much of a winter. We certainly haven’t had any snow to speak of. While many folks are just fine with that, it has put a big dent in my twig collecting. That is because I usually do this with my sled

Me and my sled, obviously not the winter

Me and my sled, obviously not this winter

and the alternative is to go out and carry the harvest on my back. So far I have been waiting for snow, but pretty soon I will have to go out and do it the hard way. Of course, beyond my personal travails, it is just plain disturbing to have a winter go by with no snow. Last year was just announced by NASA and NOAA to have been the warmest on record, ever. Snow is ground cover, habitat, and water for spring growth. People don’t like to shovel, but it is a nuisance that we depend on for the health of the environment.
While I wait for snow I have been occupying myself with wood splitting, but on a slightly larger scale than usual. This winter break, it was my great pleasure to have a visit from my brother Owen. We decided to take on an oak log about six feet long and three feet in diameter. We weren’t trying to split it down the middle but along one side to make slabs. We were under equipped (only two steel wedges and a couple sledge hammers) and he was very game about the whole ridiculous enterprise. After a few hours and ambiguous results as well as several broken sledge handles (my doing) we called it quits and I had to wait a week to get back down to finish off the job. I bought two more wedges, made some wooden wedges, and manufactured replacement handles for the ones I had broken. I finally got the slab off. Only after removing it did the sizable internal knot that had made it so tough to split become visible. Did I mention that I got poison ivy in the process? Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t get p. i. in the winter. But it is the challenge that makes the effort worthwhile. And I have learned several useful things in the process. One, when trying to get steel wedges out of a split in a log, don’t bother trying to knock them back and forth in the direction of the split. Hit them at ninety degrees to the split and the will wiggle themselves out. Two, lots of wooden wedges with very slight tapers and increasing widths are invaluable. Start with the steel wedges then use the wooden wedges as place holders or to stack with the steel wedges to widen the split. Three, watch for poison ivy vines, even if there are no leaves (but I should have known that one).
Now I have two slabs, six plus feet long and a couple feet wide. They will take a lot of work with an adze, and might even be a excuse to buy a broad axe. I am not sure what they will turn into. But they are still very wet, so I have time to think about it.
So, I will continue to wait for snow, try to split off another slab, do little chores around the ox barn, and if needs be, start harvesting new twigs and dragging them in by hand. It’s the challenge that makes it worthwhile. Happy New Year!

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