Rustic Cyberpunk

Coffee & Cabins

That One Tool

4 min read

I have a wire cutter which has a blunted edge, multiple pairs of pliers which grip poorly and have too little leverage, a wrench that is too short. A cornucopia of almost usability. I'm not fond of spending on things for the heck of it, even for short-term dopamine to stave off existential dread, but my situation was approaching a catastrophic handicap.

Functioning within a dwelling of any sort entails some manner of upkeep.

The purpose of tools has been a sore point in my life. Owning "things" is yet another form of personal burden for the most part and having purpose was a key measure of my continued ownership. And yet purpose is often transient while utility, when most needed, can't be bought with aspiration and hope. I really do need to cut things, hold things, remove things, and beget other verbs connected to things in various degrees.

To that end, I decided to set aside most of my almost-tools and for a usable one, both for my own safety and thought hygine.

plier package
Engineer PZ-78

From Engineer Co., Ltd which is also sold in local shops in New York and elsewhere in the U.S., rebranded as "Vampliers". The Japanese version is still significantly cheaper in my neck of the woods. These are part of the "Nejisaurus" line. A play on "neji" for screws or fasteners and "saurus" for dinosaur. The dino-grip does leave every other gripping and cutting tool in my arsenal in the dust.

I'm still not fluent enough in Japanese such that I can read this without great difficulty, but here is the packaging.

front packet
Front packaging.
rear packet
Rear instructions, dimensions and specifications

There's enough leverage here so that I can handle most of my stubborn leftovers from previous jobs. My primary concern was carrying out routine maintenance tasks around my place and the cabin without fighting the tool and causing myself an injury.

Pivot point. Notice it's close to the edge which gives greater leverage.
side profile
It's also wide enough that I've yet to lose grip on any bolt I've tried it on
cutting edge
Looks like it was just taken off the local shelf in a Japanese hardware store and put into a shipping box

One of the tools this is replacing is my wire cutter. I needed to run some wiring to a closet light and realized I may actually end up hurting myself if I can't easily cut the 12/2 wiring already installed in my apartment. While my future library will not be wired, I will still have some electricity and wired runs in some of the planned shelters and I can hopefully avoid buying another tool to do all of the work.

cut slice
This can cleanly cut a piece of the packaging. It should make short work of every gauge of wire I have.
closed profile
It actually closes flat. This was never a feature on any previous pair of cheap pliers I owned.
I have a feeling I'll need the crimper more often than I thought. Especially for cabin-related work where soldering isn't always practical.
crimper back
The crimper slot is a nice feature that lets me rest the wire before closing. This reduces guesswork, especially when I'm tired.

I've noticed that a lot of the smaller gauge connections almost never get soldered. Sometimes, soldering isn't necessary and other times, I'd rather have a crimp connection that I can remove from a source later. This is especially true of low-voltage wiring and smaller devices.

grip face
The bolt gripping feature is thanks to the horizontally cut section. While most of the face is dedicated to typical grip, this allows grasping at stubborn fasteners edge-wise. Impossible with any of my previous pliers.
grip closed
The side gripping feature is more obvious when looking at the front face while the pliers are closed.

I've seriously considered swearing off machine screws. They're supposed to be a convenient fastener for metal boxes, but in my experience, they're almost always never worth the pain of future removal. If the box is to be closed permanently, I'd much rather opt for a spot welder or an epoxy product such as J-B Weld.

Aside from the pliers, which will hopefully replace or support the rest of my plier-like tools, I also got a set of short rulers to leave around. I'm amazed at how often I'm reaching for one when I need to quickly measure something and need to fumble in a drawer.

ruler set
A set of short rulers

One stays on the nightstand just so I can visualize something in a hurry. I noticed I'm quite bad at imagining the smaller sizes of things.

ruler closeup
Each ruler is graduated to 6" or 5.5cm. There are submillimeter and 1/64" graduations that doubt will get much use, and I can barely discern with my naked eyes, but they're nice to have. I'm more interested in the overall size of the ruler.
ruler conversion table
There's a conversion table in the back that I doubt I'll use much. Whenever possible, I try to stay with just one measurement system and any conversions take place via calculator or the Internet.
conversion table closeup
This level of precision is unlikely in my cabin plans, but good to have.

The last few months have been involuntarily eventful for me. I hope to return to regular posting in the coming weeks.

Coffee and Coziness

3 min read

The summer storms came and went.

I was finally able secure a new (old) sewing machine since my ancient Singer Scholastic broke down. I suspect the original owner bought it while being stuck at home, but never got around to it. The new machine is a Janome HD 3000 listed as "gently used", although it showed no real signs of use. It's an addendum to my cabin-life plan of repairing my own clothing as much as possible. Based on the Food, Shelter, Clothing triangle of thriving and not merely surviving.

I'm generally picky about shopping so most of my clothes are fairly old to begin with. Some of my t-shirts and jeans are from my high school days. On the few occasions I do go shopping, it's usually only for the bare essentials like socks. There were even fewer chances for me to shop lately.

I hope to take delivery of the sewing machine in the coming weeks. It was the most expensive purchase of the year and I hope to make it the last such expense until things calm down a bit more. I have no expectation that it will any time soon, but I can't stop moving on in my own life because so much else is at a standstill. Besides, being able to repair my own clothes and possibly make new ones in the future is too important to put off until there's an actual emergency.

It's unfortunate that I didn't get the opportunity to study Home Economics. I feel like my generation missed out on a good foundation for learing these basics like sewing and cooking earlier in life. It would be nice to wear things I've made or repaired myself again. Life is a series of investments. Some dividends are paltry or non-existant in the present, but keep you afloat when you can't swim anymore.

I'm only a beginner at sewing and there's so much I don't know and haven't tried. Aside from clothing, I'd like to try making simple things that I'll find useful, like messenger bags and straps. These were much harder to do on the old machine, which I mostly used for making seams and touching up a few things.

For the past few months, I've been running around the most since the world got sick off of disease and global supply chains. There were a few instances where I was about to lapse into the post-lockdown era of tightened budgets, and I'm still not in the same state as I was before all this, but things are getting better. I missed most of the autumn colors since my head was pointed at my desk and screen, but I may be getting a short break soon. I hope to take it easy before snowfall.

Winter is usually when I enjoy camping, but it doesn't seem like this season would be it for me. I'm fairly content at being home this time. There's a lot more reading for me to catch up to since silence was in short supply for a bit.

I look forward to the winter storms. And now, coffee.

DIY Laser Cutter

5 min read

For the past several months, I've slowly been collecting parts for a device that can handle CNC functions. This includes X, Y, Z axis movement, with an action head capable of handling X/Y and a platform to raise and lower the work material in the Z-axis. Aside from a few setbacks, it's coming along nicely.

I want to try manufacturing components and small parts that I'll need around my place and eventually during cabin life. And I would like to thoroughly document all of the steps and my mistakes so everything is repeatable for anyone who reads the directions.

It's unlikely that I'll be able to run to the shops to get a part to repair something in a rush when I'm far from convenient transportation and, more than likely, the part in question many not even exist to be sold. So home manufacturing becomes more than mere convenience. I've wanted to do something like this for some time, but the Timegods were not in my favor. Since cutting back on my workload for the most part, I've had more thought space to pursue this. I'm hopeful that I'll have something functioning very soon.

The overall cutting size will be roughly 950x150mm because of the need to fit the rail gantry components. I'm recycling an OpenBuilds frame for this purpose, and adding the extra rails and attachment components. I was unhappy with the acrylic components in the OpenBuilds kit and will be switching to all aluminum plates. This will significantly add to the weight and cost, but will ensure a more sturdy build.

The list of parts and exact layout has changed quite a bit in the last week alone. I assembled a rudimentary frame to visualize any potential issues with the way I'm envisioning the layout. It was a tedious, yet fruitful excercise that helped me narrow down the final arrangement. I'll have a detailed parts list at a future date, but this is what I have so far (all rails are v-slot metric):

  • 2x 2080 @ 1000mm
  • 2x 2020 @ 1000mm
  • 1x 2040 @ 1000mm
  • 2x 2040 @ 700mm
  • 2x 2040 @ 500mm
  • 4x 2020 @ 550mm
  • 4x 2020 @ 500mm
  • 4x 3-axis corner connectors
  • many 90-degree angle brackets
  • many M5 t-slot nuts
  • several M5 hex nuts
  • many M5 flat profile screws in both 8mm and 10mm lengths
  • 3x NEMA 17 stepper motors
  • 1x NEMA 23 stepper motor (pending)
  • 4x TB6505 stepper motor controllers
  • 1x Arduino Uno (for testing)
  • 2x DIN rails
  • 1x Mean Well 5V DIN rail power supply
  • 1x Mean Well 12V DIN rail power supply
  • Lots of DIN rail terminal blocks
  • Lots of wire
  • GT2 6mm timing belts
  • Some additional leftover hardware from the OpenBuilds kit

I'll be adding some other electronic components like a couple of breadboards, prototype boards, a few optocouplers (to ensure I don't burn out the Arudino on the first try). I'll also need some gantry plates, some motor mounting plates (to ensure I don't get in the way of the grantries) and some other hardware depending on the final arrangement.

All the rails are v-slot types because I wanted to double the functionality whenever possible. I can attach any additional componets, wiring, brackets or anything else needed down the line without worrying too much about placement.

Rails laid out
The rails laid out in roughly the orientation they'll be used
90 degree angle brackets
These 90-degree corner angle brackets will be doing most of the hard work of keeping the frame square
3-axis brackets
These 3-axis brackets will help hold the corerners square. They also cap off the tops of the rails, which will double as the gantry stops.
Overall frame
Overall frame now standing thanks to the corner connectors and angle brackets. That 2080 rail laying across will be the second y-axis rail eventually. It will be located somewhere in the middle of the frame so the rest of the space will go toward the electronics and other components.
TB6505 stepper motor controller
A generic TB6505 stepper motor controller
Mean Well power supply
This is a 12V power supply which I may need to upgrade in the future or connect another one in series to get up to 24V. But it's all I could manage on short notice

I want to make all of the components and build steps easily downloadable so anyone with the resources can build their own. So this assembly is a dry run that I'm sure I'll need to disassemble and assemble again several times to get the kinks out.

The entire frame will end up being 1000x700mm, which would make it no longer fit through my bedroom door (my lab area). However, since the frame is easily disassembled, I'm not too worried about that. The critical components are the two y-axis rails at 2080. I selected the larger size width deliberately because I intend to move it a bit. I don't think I'll be fitting it through many door frames, but I needs to fit into the back of a typical 4-door family car or a small SUV.

I initially planned on getting a replacement CO2 laser tube since my last 60W burned out. But I may be starting with a diode laser first. That will significantly limit the types of materials I can cut, but I want to ensure the process is well honed before moving on to more expensive purchases.

There's a lot more to do here with regard to planning. Naturally, I'll be making quite a lot of mistakes so I wouldn't be surprised if I'll need to replace many of these components in the near future.

Overall, I'd like to start experimenting with what's possible with the fewest number of easily replacable components. In keeping with my frugal philosophy, I tried to scavange components whenever possible instead of buying new. Sometimes, that wasn't possible, but I'm hoping my Patreon can help with the heavy lifting. I don't want to rely on Patreon too much so I'll still be dipping into my savings at times.

All in all, this has been a very educational process for me.

DIY Word Processor: The Problem with Shortcuts

5 min read

There's a strange thing that happens to people who work with computers for a long period of time; Loss of usability perspective. I've seen it happen to some design people too. It's when you're so caught up in creating features or modifying the functionality to be more "useful", for varying definitions of "useful", you lose the big picture and the thing you're working on turns into a morass of molasses.

Something like that happened somewhere along the way while I was working on my DIY word processor keyboard. I got stuck with perfecting shortcuts.

I'm not one of those people who is particular about using the keyboard over the mouse or vice versa all the time, but I do have a set of preferences for certain applications. Most of the time, I use the mouse in Photoshop because I don't use it enough to get familiar with all the shortcuts. I use shortcuts almost exclusively in Microsoft Excel since I've used it since high school for so many things. That's actually one of the things I miss in LibreOffice Calc, in addition to feature parity.

When I first decided I'd like to have a writing computer, that isn't a laptop or mobile, for writing my cabin journals, I gave no thought at all to shortcuts. I imagined it would be a simple drafting machine that's barely more than an electronic typewriter. I knew it would have a backspace key and I was pretty sure it would have an e-Ink display for clarity and low power usage, but beyond that, I had no hard requirements. Then I came across the shortcut list for WordStar.

This turned out to be a blessing and a curse. I forgot what exactly it was I was trying to accomplish with all this.

On one hand, I learned the power of true mode-less editors. Many modern editors have "modes" in some sense. One for editing, one for writing, and several others in between and more. WordStar is so completely different in that there's only one mode: Writing. There's a "column mode", but that too is focused on writing first. There's nothing to set to get it into "insert". In that regard, it's the anti-Vim. It's even anti-Emacs for the most part.

The possibility of adding shortcuts was a nice extra, but on the other hand, I didn't think it would be a focal point. Until I found myself halfway recreating WordStar for no other reason than I "felt like it" at the time. This was a mistake.

While editing chunks of text can be handy, as would navigating around the document with great precision, I don't think that's a good enough reason to copy WordStar crudely. On top of that, I had the silly idea of putting the control key where caps lock is on most keyboards. That works well for folks who exclusively use the keyboard for shortcuts, and for the nostalgic pros, but it makes no sense for someone like me who already has a couple of decades of muscle-memory tied to the control key located lower left on the keyboard.

Sometimes, copying is insincere flattery.

I also realized that I won't be using even half the shortcuts in WordStar. It's a great program for what it is, but it's not for me after all. And there's no reason why I should continue copying its features. To that end, I've also abandoned my original idea for the keyboard layout after the WordStar episode. That had a whole heap of shortcuts for various editing tasks. Still nowhere near the breadth of WordStar, but it was awfully busy and complicated.

Instead, I'm going with something a lot more simple. The shortcuts now are only as follows:

( Menu = Ctrl )

  • Ctrl + A = Left
  • Ctrl + S = Down
  • Ctrl + D = Right
  • Ctrl + W = Up
  • Ctrl + Z = Undo
  • Ctrl + Y = Redo
  • Ctrl + N = New document
  • Ctrl + O = Open document (numbers to select)

I think that list is so short and already familiar, I don't even need to print them on the keycaps.

I thought about whether I should also implement copying, cutting, and pasting. But that just encourages more editing when I should focus on writing. I'm also letting the system do an auto-save whenever I pause typing for 5 seconds or if I create a new document, or open an existing one. If I let the software handle revisions, I don't need to bother with manually saving.

In light of my rediscovered sense of computer simplicity, I'm redoing the keyboard layout.

Keyboard layout

The following recipe should work on the keyboard layout editor.

[{a:7,w:1.75},"Caps Lock","A","S","D",{n:true},"F","G","H",{n:true},"J","K","L",{a:5},":\n;","\"\n'",{a:7,w:1.75},"Return"],

I think this should be the final iteration of the keyboard layout. I have no further plans to introduce new shortcuts without a very good reason.

I'm still thinking about what the base platform for this will be. I originally went with an ESP32 microcontroller, which is great for low power consumption, but severly limits what I can do with the computer. Particularly when it comes to copying files and editing large volumes of text. I've been told I'm quite "wordy".

I briefly toyed with the idea of creating a minimal Linux with BusyBox as the starting point, but we'll see if that's an actual option with what other hardware becomes available or if this is yet another potential loss of perspective. The low power consumption is still the primary goal since I plan to write for days at a time on a single charge.

Whatever I choose, I have to stop listening to what other people think I should make and go with my own gut feeling after letting the thought simmer a bit to gain the flavor of perspective.

DIY Word Processor: Keyboard Ideas

10 min read

I've slowly been working toward building that glorified typewriter I always wanted. There are lots of these in the market as "distraction free" utilities and/or gadgets, but they always seem somewhat unsatisfactory. The fact that some are in the $250-$300 range is a bit of a downer as well.

Many of these also need some kind of cloud connectivity so I'm pretty sure rural areas are out if I want to transfer the writings as files. The non-cloud variety invariably falls into the mid 2000s school duty camp. There's nothing wrong with buying an AlphaSmart Neo from eBay, but the screen size wasn't what I had in mind. Besides that, they all seem a tad delicate.

If I'm taking my writing computer out into the woods, there's no way I'm not getting debris in between the keys. Many of the pre-made writing computers have sealed keyboards and the keys are all but impossible to replace without disassembling the whole device. Most only have replacement keyboards as one unit, not single keys.

I do still take notes on paper, but I prefer to type long-form journals since it's easier to make revisions. Plus I can take my sweet time to write on a low-power device instead of a laptop or mobile without worrying too much about battery life. I plan to have the device solar powered in the long run.

I initially thought about building the keyboard with keyswitches I can find online. In fact, the original plan was to do exactly that. Then I remembered that I didn't quite like some of the keyswitches either. And many of them seemed delicate as well. I think the problem is that they were designed for a completely different quality-control environment that just doesn't exist at the consumer level. Nor is such quality-control desired from a cost perspective for the manufacturer.

But if I'm the manufacturer, I'll take as much care as I need to get the quality I want. And we're not talking about millions of switches here.

Besides, building a keyboard from scratch can still be fun. I can also completely tailor the size, look, and feel of each key, which is impossible if I just used off-the-shelf parts. I'd also like to make the keys a bit more low-profile than standard mechanical keyswitches. Something similar to what I'm used to on older Thinkpad laptops, but without the delicate (and debris-sensitive) scissor movement or squishy rubber dome base.

I'd like to make the entire mechanism using raw materials like sheets of acrylic or HDPE; The same stuff milk jugs are made of. It's harder to glue HDPE, but there are ways around that. For a prototype, I'll probably try acrylic first since it's easier to cut and glue. Also, the materials are inexpensive so I can experiment quite a bit.

A lot of this is inspired by the IBM buckling spring keyswitch. But I'd like it to feel a bit more linear. And I'd like to avoid a separate "paddle" to work as an actuator. The least number of separate parts this has, the better I think it will perform.

IBM buckling spring in action

Since I have no graphic design prowess, and I'm writing this on the laptop, I thought I'd sketch some ideas in ASCII. It's been a very long time since I've tried my hand at ASCII art. I posted the actual text versions on Github and in a separate file since my little blog script eats the formatting. It can handle code, but not ASCII art. Caution: Tor browser seems to seriously mangle the ASCII formatting, at least for me. So you can probably save that HTML file and open it locally. Beware: There are some sites that scan the Tor network for files and cache pages locally so if you're not visiting via Tor browser, then check the file for any script tags.

The keycaps might be cut from a single sheet. That makes it easier to try out various shapes and surface profiles as well. It might even be fun to leave the tops completely blank. The key tops also act as travel stops when the key is pressed down. I think this is better than relying on a delicate stem, which might break "in the wild".

The keyswitch mechanism starts off with a hollow tube of acrylic for the inner stem.

Key stem, top and side view

There's a tiny notch cut in the bottom for the horizontal cross bar stop.

Then comes the spring guide, which I thought might still work well when off to one side. In the original IBM patent, I noticed most of the spring activity only took place in rougly half the diameter of the inner stem. It might be easier to make the spring behave if it's inside a "box guide", which is basically a smaller box tube of acrylic cut to the same height as the stem tube.

Spring guide

This spring guide assembly is then placed inside the hollow acrylic tube (stem). The cross bar stop protrudes slighly out from either side of the hollow tube, which prevents the key from popping out of the key guide. The cross bar itself is just a tiny strip of acrylic. It doesn't need to carry any weight. It just needs to have enough strength to ensure the key movement is only in the vertical direction when typing, no accidental rotation, in addition to acting as a key stop.

The spring guide is flush with the top. The stem height determines key travel height. I'd like to keep this about the same as my Thinkpad, but that might not be realistic for a DIY keyboard from scratch. I certainly don't want the key travel to be as much as a typical desktop mechanical keyboard or be as noisy.

Guide assembly inside stem

The key guide itself can be of the same material as the inner stem tube, but I think I'd like it to have slightly thicker walls. It's the surface that has to withstand the most pressure while typing. A notch is cut on either side of the tube to guide the protruding cross bar of the inner stem. Instead of an acrylic tube, I wonder if it's better to use a rod and hollow it out. But I would need a lathe for that.

Of course, this tube has to be a slighlty larger diameter than the stem so free movement isn't obstructed, but not too much because I want it to still feel smooth while typing. It also has to be slightly longer than the inner stem and its height will determine the overall key height. Again, I want the keys to be relatively low-profile. At least lower than a desktop keyboard.

There's a tiny acrylic piece glued to the bottom on one side to act as a locator. This ensures the key is straight when press-fit onto the base sheet. This can be a single tiny block or a tiny rod cut to size. A rod is probably more durable. We'll see what works when I get to the prototype stage.

Outer key guide

Now that I look at it, instead of a notch, I can simply groove the inside of the key guide to accommodate the cross bar of the stem. That will take out yet another opening to the outside. Ideally, I'd like to avoid anything that acts as a dirt-magnet.

Once the key guide is made, the inner stem and spring guide assembly can fit inside.

Key assembly stem inside key guide

I might use a tiny bit of lithium grease between the inner wall of the key guide and outer wall of the stem to improve movement. But I'd like to avoid using any material that can collect dust and debris later on.

Once the assembly is together, I can glue the top cap. I think a single sheet of acrylic with the top sides rounded might work well here. The top cap is only glued to the stem, not the key guide.

Key stem with key cap glued

Once installed on the base sheet, the spring underneath will lift the key up to the notch in the key guide. I think I'd like to keep the spring weight under 45g. Normally, I prefer a heavier keypress, but writing for hours on a keyboard with heavy keys can be a chore. I'd rather not "notice" the keyboard when I'm writing.

Key assembly with spring inserted

When pressed, the keycap glued to the stem will prevent over-travel. And it will keep the spring from getting crushed, instead of bent, which feels very unpleasant when typing relatively slowly.

Key pressed

Giving some thought to the base sheet which will hold all the keys, I think a single, thick, sheet of acrylic might work well here. Maybe the same type of sheet as the one used for the key caps. That way, I can easily replace a switch by pulling out the whole assembly. Since they're made from scratch anyway, replacing them again should be fairly straightforward. I can also make improvements to the design and operation as needed.

Keyswitches installed on base sheet

I was originally planning some laser-cutting to get the base sheet done, but that's a lot of assembly and precision work that just isn't practical for me at the moment. My old laser tube gave out a little while ago. It was a cheap CO2 tube from eBay that I got a while back. The holes will probably have to be cut with a drill press. I do have one, but I haven't assembled it yet. That's another problem I discovered during my tool audit. I briefly toyed with the idea of making the whole thing out of wood since I'm getting a tad rusty with my woodworking. But the stems and such will definitely need a lathe, which I don't own. The last thing I need to do is buy more tools I'll only use once.

I was also thinking about the circuit and wiring diagram for this. Living in the woods virtually guarantees that I'll get the thing wet at some point. Moisture alone isn't the end of the world. The old "bag of rice" trick might still work, but moisture + dirt is pretty harsh on electrical contacts.

Instead of physical contacts, I think I should go with hall-effect sensors. While they need more involved circuit designs, they eliminate the dirt and moisture problem almost completely. I think I can glue or otherwise attach a tiny neodynium magnet to the cross bar stop in the inner stem of the key to trigger the hall-effect switch. I'll have to adjust the height of the attachment to make sure the sensor triggers exactly when (or very close to when) the spring buckles.

Since there are no electronics or wires in the actual moving parts, that greatly reduces the risk of key failure. And, since I know it will happen eventually, if I damage a key, I can remove it without any de-soldering. No matter how many times I've done it, de-soldering is always a pain and the PCB is never quite the same again.

Surface-mount hall-effect sensors are getting cheaper now too so I can probably get away with having all of the actuation happen on the PCB with the entire key set being replaceable at any time. I don't have too much practice soldering SMD parts, but no time like the present to get more practice on that front. Also, the idea of drilling a whole heap of holes doesn't seem too appealing. I think I'll be testing the 44E switches which trigger on threshold, unlike 49E which are linear. I.E. Actually "switch". That simplifies the circuitry too since there's no need to debounce; No "chatter" or double key presses to worry about.

This is a writing keyboard too so I'm not looking for millisecond actuation to save me from the zombies.

For actually building the keyboard, I'll probably use the DRV5032 series from TI since it's very sensitive and uses very little power. It may be a bit too sensitive, but until I actually test it out, there's no way to be sure.

The keyboard base is a single sheet, to hold all of the press-fit keyswitches, just screwed onto the PCB for support. That should greatly simplify assembly and improve typing feel too. I don't know if I'll have the main CPU also on the keyboard PCB. That will really help with assembly, but it does mean less room for the battery pack. Something to think about.

I think I'm satisfied with this key mechanism overall. We'll see if it actually is a nice keyboard to write my journals once it's complete. I don't know how durable it will be in the long run, but I think it will compare very favorably to factory-made mechanical switches.

The true test will come when I take the whole thing into my cabin and let it survive the winter.


2 min read

There's a word in Japanese for collecting books and letting them pile up in the home without actually reading them; Tsundoku. I've managed to control this for the most part, but I still have a moderate collection that I'll need to get through. As time allows, I've been clawing away at the pile. Aside from my first editions and other prints with sentimental value, I've given away each book as I finish reading. That helped quite a bit.

I discovered I have a similar problem with power tools after completing a survey of the things I own.

I dread to think I might have the stereotypical inclination to collect these or I'm just as suceptible to marketing aimed at "Weekend Warriors". I've been more of a weekend worrier most of my adult life.

While it's a fairly typical collection for someone who might own a detatched home, it's still far too many for someone who lives in an apartment. A number of tools have been used only once. A few haven't been used at all. I've been justifying these as useful to build my cabin or start making furniture, but realistically, I'll probably only use half to a third of what I actually own.

When I was still renting, I had two rules for owning "things"; If I won't use it within a year, I won't buy it and if I haven't used it in a year, I won't keep it. Having my own place has spoiled me into forgetting these rules a bit. I think it's time to enforce these again.

Besides the waste in space, "what if I'll need it" is such a pernicious trap. It blurs the line between wants and needs, which should never happen. It's hard enough to decrypt our senses and strip desires from the onslaught of advertising.

I only notice how terribly saturated society is becoming with the detritus of manufactured needs when I leave it for the woods. The stillness of camping brings clarity and shakes loose what I actually need for the day. I have to find time to do it more often.

Rethinking the Cabin

5 min read

Sometimes, I really do get ahead of my physical ability for a lot of things. I enjoy a good snow storm now and again, but I need to acknowledge that my body won't hold up at its current level of functionality forever. It barely functions adequately as it is.

I do still enjoy it when the Earth tries its best to obliterate me. But I also don't like the prospect of an early grave because my strange Winter proclivities might send me outdoors at a bad time. Especially when I'm older and more feeble.

I really liked the idea of an outhouse since it gave me the option of adding a nice outdoor shower and keeping all sanitary needs away from the living space. But realistically, that's terribly inconvenient in bad weather or if I become seriously ill at some point. The area I'm planning for this is somewhere in heavy snow country. I can make do with a sponge bath until Spring, if I can at least do my business indoors.

One of the books I've read for inspiration is Compact Cabins by Gerald Rowan. One design in particular struck me as having everything I needed to get every creature comfort I'll actually use at some point.

cabin design
I like the interior layout of this one, sans over-sized kitchen

There's an outdoor closet that I'm sure will be better served by a dedicated storage shed. I'd rather turn it into a set of windows instead, as in this design.

cabin exterior window design
The exterior front windows look better to my eyes

I'll be tweaking those quite a bit to fit my exact needs. The size is twice the original idea I had for this, but I think folding the outhouse into the one living cabin will more than make up for the cost. If I still use the composting toilet, it will also help save water for sink duty. I don't plan on having as many amneties since I do value more free space. The bed will be significantly smaller as well. The additional windows are good for more natural light for longer hours, which will help preserve battery power until night.

Calculating the amount of labor and materials needed, it's still actually a significant saving. I bought that book a while ago and there are quite a few more ideas in there that I'd like to explore.

I still plan on building a separate structure for the library as I feel a separate space from the living and sleeping area to think and tinker is important. That structure may also double as a tea room, although I'm parttial to coffee myself. That idea may have come from In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichio Tanizaki. Although Tanizaki was quite fond of the outhouse, it was also written when he was still an able-bodied man. A lot of lessons on appreciating the understated in there and it's well worth a read.

I don't think I'll be getting rid of the solar shed idea as I do want to keep power generation separate from the main cabin. It's significantly easier to transmit high-voltage AC with relatively little loss via underground cables than via heavy, and expensive, DC wire from the batteries for the same distance. Keeping the power generation separate also simplifies adding other electrified structures at a later date.

Other resources I've been looking at are the myriad of small cabin and shed plans available. There are possibly hundreds of thousands out there of varying quality, but I settled on complete plans with attention paid to the details. I was specifically looking for ideas on how to build the foundation.

A simple shelter

This plan was floating around in various places including The domain seems to be defunct now, but the Internet Archive has the last snapshot, to the PDF download page.

I'm also quite fond of the toilet and the kitchen arrangement in that. They're quite a bit more space-efficient than in the Compact Cabins example.

Burying the wood post footings in concrete piers seem to be a common method of building foundations for small structures, but I prefer anchoring steel retainers in concrete and attaching the treated lumber posts to them instead. This allows for replacement of the wood if it rots at a future date. Even treated wood does rot eventually and keeping them away from moisture is the best preventative action. This additionally makes it slightly easier to move the cabin, should the need arise at a later date. It's more simple to unbolt the posts than to cut them off from the concrete piers.

Land is still the primary goal for now. I was looking into places in upsate New York, but it's getting to be quite a challenge to find areas which deliver more solitude than loneliness.

Parcels of land way off in the boonies are quite cheap, but they're far too remote to be practical to access and awfully lonely. Accessible land is plenty yet expensive, and is quite often picked clean for lumber or already industrialized. Thus defeating the goal of solitude. I haven't given up on New York yet, but elsewhere is getting more enticing like Vermont, New Hampshire, or Maine.

New Hampshire seems to offer the best of solitude, but at a very high price. By far, Maine is the most affordable (and the best weather for my tastes), but I fear it's suffering a population drain and so it may eventually wander into loneliness as well.

Wherever I end up, I'd like to thrive in solitude.

Particle Board: or The Death of Furniture

2 min read

When was the last time you sat on a wooden chair? I did it this afternoon and it was a religious experience. Having my buttocks nestled in woven nylon and plastic all day in mass-produced abominations called "office chairs" really don't seem to have the same effect. Even if the thing has no cushioning, there's really no substitute for a well-contoured piece of dead tree of the right kind.

Most "wood" furniture I can find these days, including tables and chairs, seem to be made of termite residue squeezed into planks, covered in a thin veneer of lies, and pumped full of sticky poison. The material is averse to even tiny levels of moisture; It can't withstand the stuff covering 71% of Earth.

Mars is crying.

Particle board is terribly cheap, of course. Which makes it great for mass-produced landfill material. I'm not sure when exactly the tipping point was, but somewhere along the way, we started accepting powdered milk and powdered wood as lifestyle products in lieu of what they really were. Tithes for consumerism at the church of mass-production.

I can appreciate that trees are a slow-growing limited resource, but how much more friendly are wooden granola bars compared to intact fibers? Is there at least a better way to compact and bind the stuff that doesn't fall apart from the stuff we excrete with every breath? Or won't kill us with cancer in 15 years?

I was also looking at bamboo furniture, but I'm not too comfortable with the resins used to bind them together either. Why is glue so attractive?

I'm not sure what the solution to the death of furniture is, but when I build my cabin, anything made of particle board shall be strictly forbidden on the premises. Doesn't matter if it's some other soft wood, but it has to be dead cells of a living organism as-grown.

I wonder if antlers dropped in the woods make viable armrests.