Sunday, July 22, 2012

Processing the Waldo Canyon Fire

My family and I are still working through our thoughts and emotions related to the Waldo Canyon Fire. I can't imagine what it would be like to lose one's house -- the sheer mass of paperwork and shopping and looking for a place to live, and then add to it trying to counsel one's children? And keep them fed/dressed/clean? Let's not even go there. I don't know how I'd do it.

So when I say we're still working through our thoughts and emotions, it feels a bit ridiculous.

This week it will be one month since the fire started. The fire is still burning, and expected to continue burning until December. As a way to commemorate the first month, Scott edited the videos we took during the fire and put them to music that reflects how we were feeling as we watched it burn. It's about 7 minutes long -- don't feel bad fast-forwarding. For me, watching it for the full seven minutes is a bit like meditating. I take a deep breath and watch and listen and pray.

Waldo Canyon Fire from Hillary on Vimeo.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

My favorite kitchen tool.

I love my knives. I love my cast iron pans. I love my lettuce spinner and my Vitamix and my juicer.

I guess on any given day any of those tools could be my favorite.

But today I was reminded how much I love one tool in particular, and I want to share it with you.

I love my pressure cooker.

For making people-friendly, planet-friendly food, there is no better tool.

My pressure cooker cooks beans from start to finish in under an hour. Can your favorite pot or pan do that?

Here's how I do it, using a method I learned from Madhur Jaffrey.

First Step: Sometimes I quick-soak my dried beans. Sometimes I don't. I try to do it every time I make beans, but I don't always have time. For a quick-soak, pour boiling water over your beans and let them sit for about an hour. Then rinse well.

Second Step: Put your quick-soaked beans into your pressure cooker and cover with an inch or two of water.

Third Step: Add a few drops of peanut oil or other high-heat oil. (I avoid canola because it comes from a genetically modified seed. Grapeseed oil or coconut oil would be good options.) The oil keeps the water from foaming up and clogging your pressure release valve.

Fourth Step: Bring your pressure cooker to full pressure and then reduce the heat to keep it at full pressure until the beans are cooked. For chickpeas like those I cooked tonight, this takes about 15 minutes. Check out this handy guide for cooking times of other types of beans.

Fifth Step: After 15 minutes at full pressure, turn off the heat and let the pressure reduce on its own. This will take at least half an hour if not a bit longer.

Last Step: Drain and rinse your beans. They're good to go!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Paint wars

Check out these two photos.

The one on the left is satin latex paint (Ben Moore). The one on the right is General Finishes Milk Paint.

I'm relatively new to using milk paint, and I'm not even sure that the General Finishes version qualifies as true milk paint, but I'm becoming a believer.

I was working on a project a few weeks back where I needed to distress some red paint, like I did to this sideboard a few months back. I ran out of the Red Pepper milk paint that I'd been using. I went to Woodcraft to buy more but they only had one pint. I went through that one pint pretty fast and then couldn't find any more Red Pepper milk paint anywhere in my city...until a friend offered me a quart from her garage. That's what friends are for, right? I didn't want to use up the end of her valuable supply of milk paint, though.

So I had it color matched (sort's not an easy color to match and I had to go to three different paint stores, but eventually I got close) in a satin latex paint.

The results were not so nice.

First of all, the regular latex paint stunk. I guess it smelled like normal latex paint, but it's been a while since I used normal latex paint (I've been trying to stick to the Sherwin-Williams Harmony line and other no- or low-VOC paints as much as possible). General Finishes Milk Paint has almost no odor, although it is not considered to be a low-VOC paint.

The other problem I noticed was how the latex paint distressed (or didn't distress) when compared with milk paint. I knew this would happen, and it was one reason why I was using milk paint to begin with, but knowing didn't make it any less frustrating. You can see in the photos above how the latex paint gums up, while the milk paint sands into a powder.

I've read that chalk paint sands into a powder's on my list to try. I may start by making my own.

One other line I'd like to try is Mythic Paint. According to the couple who supplies my PolyWhey, flat Mythic Paint may distress as well as milk paint, but in a no-VOC formula. And the colors are completely customizable, unlike milk paint which comes in a limited variety of pre-mixed colors.

I haven't found my dream paint yet, but I have been reminded why I'm trying to quit traditional latex.

Monday, July 9, 2012

{finishing} How to oxidize wood

How to what? Oxidize? What does that mean?

Oxidized wood is just wood that has weathered, or been made to look weathered.

Weathered wood has a patina that commercial stain and other finishing applications can't match. But since it doesn't make sense to build a piece of furniture and then leave it out in the elements to weather, this quick process of oxidation using steel wool and vinegar is a great substitute...and looks just as beautiful, but without the splinters.

An oxidizing solution comes in handy when you're working with reclaimed wood like I did in these projects:


When you're cutting reclaimed wood, you end up with fresh-looking wood on the cut ends. Keeping an oxidizing solution around is an easy way to make the newly cut ends match the rest of the old wood.

An oxidizing solution also works on new wood, and can even be used on hardwood floors.

Here is how I oxidized the project I worked on most recently, the X Coffee Table. I also used it on the X End Table and the X Console Table.

Step One: Create the oxidizing solution.

Grade #0000 steel wool and white vinegar are what I use in my oxidizing solution. Some people use nails or screws, but I have found that super fine steel wool works well for me. I put one hunk of steel wool (I tear it up first to make it oxidize faster) into a glass jar and then fill the jar with vinegar. I let the solution steep for a few days, shaking it occasionally. As the steel wool dissolves, the solution will occasionally bubble when I shake the jar.

This jar of oxidizing solution is about eight weeks old. It darkens as it ages.
Edited to add: your jar will not look rusty like mine until your solution has
been sitting in the jar for a long time. When you first make your solution
it should be a grey-ish color with some solids on the bottom and murky
vinegar on top. 
I keep a jar of this solution in my garage and use it frequently. If it sits for long (like more than a few weeks) it becomes super concentrated and starts to turn a rust color. Depending on the species of wood I'm oxidizing, that rust color can impart a tone to the wood that is warmer than I like. If so, I simply water down the solution with vinegar (up to two parts vinegar, one part oxidizing solution depending on how concentrated the solution is) and it seems to work fine. Depending on how much of the solution I use, I can continue to water down my solution for at least a few months or up to a year before I need to start over again with fresh steel wool and vinegar.

Step Two: Brew some STRONG black tea and paint it on your piece.

This tea isn't for drinking. You're brewing it to impart more tannins to your wood. Some wood, like the cheap whitewood I use in building rustic furniture, has very low levels of tannins. In order to get the weathered look, your oxidizing solution needs tannins with which to react. Oak, cedar, redwood, and fir have relatively high levels of tannins. Pine, on the other hand, does not so it requires a generous coat (or two) of black tea.

When I put the tea on, I try to keep it only on the wood that I know needs tannins added to it. If I'm not familiar with the wood I'm using, I test some scraps: slap on some oxidizing solution and see what happens. If it doesn't change color, I try a new piece. Brush on some tea, let it dry, brush on some oxidizing solution and see what happens.

I find that these mini-experiments are a great way to entertain my kids.

Once you've got a good coat of tea on your piece, let it dry completely before moving on to the next step.

Step Three: Paint on your oxidizing solution.

Now that the tea is dry, you can paint on your vinegar and steel wool mixture. A synthetic bristle brush works well for this application. The fumes from the vinegar and steel wool mixture are not harmful but not particularly pleasant either, so I try to use it in a well-ventilated area. The color of your wood will change gradually as the solution reacts with the wood.

Step Four: Lightly sand to even out the color.

For projects like the X Coffee Table and the X Console Table, the plans call for several different dimensions of wood and most of those different dimensions (2x2, 2x4, 2x6, 1x12) come in different species. The 2x4s tend to turn black when I oxidize them while the 2x2s barely turn grey. The black tea helps with this but, even with a coat or two of tea, the 2x4s usually end up darker than the rest of the piece.

To even out the color, I wait until the oxidizing solution is completely dry and then I give the whole piece a light sanding. I use 220 grit paper on a sanding block or wrapped around a sanding sponge. The amount of sanding I do depends on how much of the color I need to take off. The 2x4s get lots of sanding, the 2x2s get very little -- just enough to smooth out any rough spots.

Step Five: Seal it.

Just like sealing stained or painted wood, sealing an oxidized piece will deepen the color and enhance the grain pattern of the wood as well as protect the finish. I've experimented with pure tung oil, polyurethane, polycrylic, PolyWhey (usually my favorite sealer) and wax over a weathered finish. My favorite, by far, is wax. Not only does wax feel really nice (silky smooth) and give nothing more than a subtle sheen, but it also maintains the integrity of the weathered color. Where tung oil and poly finishes bring out a warmer, orangey tone in the wood, wax keeps the wood essentially the same color as the weathered finish you've worked so hard to create, just with more depth. (Edited to add: Vermont Natural Coatings has recently come out with a wipe-on PolyWhey in satin that I love. It is a more durable alternative to wax, non-toxic, has no scent, and only deepens the color of this finish. If you're looking for a hard, long-lasting topcoat for this finish, wipe-on PolyWhey is it. Vermont Natural Coatings isn't paying me to say this...I just really, really love the stuff.)

I always try to use the lowest-VOC finishes available, but I have not yet found a no- or low-VOC wax that I'm totally happy with.  So, I save most of my VOC inhalation for Briwax. I use it in a VERY well-ventilated area. For this finish I actually only use a tiny bit of Briwax mixed with bowling alley wax (the yellow can in the photo above) which seems to be less volatile than Briwax. I really love the bowling alley wax -- it is super easy to work with. There is also a brown version of the bowling alley wax, but I haven't tried it yet. (Edited to add: I haven't tried CeCeCaldwell's wax yet, but it's on my list. Since I wrote this post, I've stopped using Briwax because the fumes make me too sick.)

For this finish, I want to add just a tiny bit of brown to the wood to warm up the tone without letting the wood go orange. A touch of brown wax seems to do the job, plus it adds color to any tiny holes in the wood that the oxidizing solution missed. So, I dig out a good hunk of the bowling alley wax and slop it in an old yogurt container. Then I add a tiny bit of brown to it. The day I did this was a hot hot hot day (at least for Colorado it was hot) -- like over 95 degrees -- so the wax was melted and easy to mix. In the middle of winter it wouldn't mix quite this well.

Once the wax is mixed, find a soft old rag you never want to use again, dip it in the wax, and apply a very thin coat of wax with the grain of the wood. The wax usually dries within a few minutes and then you can use a clean, soft rag to buff the wax to a subtle shine. The faster you buff, the shinier it gets.

Adding another coat or two of wax will help protect the piece, but you'll need to give the wax ample drying time between coats. If the wax hasn't hardened yet, you'll notice that with each new coat of wax you take off some of the previous coat.

In my experience, the clear bowling alley wax seems to dry to a harder, more impenetrable finish than straight Briwax. It's also cheaper and less stinky. :)

To clean a waxed finish, I think it is best just to use a slightly damp or dry microfiber cloth. Vinegar-based cleaners and other household cleaners tend to strip wax. To rejuvenate the finish, just add another thin coat of clear wax to the piece and buff it out. As you build up the surface with multiple thin coats of wax, the surface gets more and more durable. (Edited to add: I've recently found that Howard's Feed-n-Wax is great for maintaining a waxed finish.)

An oxidized finish requires a little change in how you think -- there is no ready-made can or in-store sample to show you exactly what color you'll end up with. But, with a bit of experimentation you'll end up with a lovely piece of furniture with gorgeous silvery tones that can't be created any other way.

Pssst...check out what happens when you oxidize in sub-freezing temps. Take a deep breath, and remember that this is art, not science.

{oxidized} X Coffee Table

A coffee table to go with the X Console Table! On Ana's Facebook page, a few people requested plans for this coffee table after the console table was posted. We had it in the works, but it took me longer to build than expected, due in part to the insane Waldo Canyon Fire that recently ripped through our hometown. Our family was evacuated the same day I bought the wood for this table. Thankfully, our house made it through unscathed, although we have friends who were not so lucky.

When we returned home from our evacuation, I was itching to work on this table. Building is my favorite form of therapy, after all, even when it feels like I'm playing with kindling. Working on a piece of furniture clears my mind and refreshes me.

I have begun marking time with furniture. I remember what my life was like, what my kids were up to, how I was feeling as I built each piece and so each piece I work on has a different place in my heart. This one will always remind me of those hot and windy, smokey grey days. It will remind me of the sadness I felt as we drove away from our beloved forest and city. Of the longing for our neighborhood and mountains to be drenched by rain. Of the tears I shed as I stood on the hill behind our home in disbelief, watching the fire engulf mountains and houses. Of the faith that filled me and reminded me that what I love most are my people -- and my people are all safe. It will also remind me of the relief that covered me as we returned to our home, perfectly intact. It will remind me of how our community comes together to love and support one another, to ease one another's burdens.

I love this table. I love the smooth grey weathered finish and the bulk and heft of it. Even more, I love that it bears the weight of heavy memories. It stands as a reminder to me of how blessed my family is -- to live in a place that we love with people whom we love in a house that we love.

This table was very simple to build. Once I got started, I was able to complete it in about two days. It took me around 5 hours to build and sand and maybe another 3 or 4 for the finish. The X on this table is much simpler to cut than the X on the console table because the angles are within reach of a typical miter saw.

The only time I didn't follow the plans was in cutting the Xs, because I tend to be terrible at getting measurements perfect when they involve anything other than a 90 degree angle. For those cuts, I held up a 2x2 in the right position on the table, marked where and at what angle it needed to be cut, and then set my saw accordingly. I did this with all four pieces, marking the smaller pieces on both the ends and in the middle, where the smaller pieces intersect the long diagonal piece.
The finish on this piece involved the same process as the X Console Table. It's a process of oxidizing, or weathering, the wood to make it look like it's been sitting out in the elements. Because each part of the table is made from a different species of wood and because wood weathers at different rates, it did require a bit of experimenting and thinking, but is still a relatively easy finish. 

You can find a tutorial for the finish, which is sealed with furniture wax, here.

There are two kinds of decorative hardware on the table. Down at the bottom of each leg is a 1/2" x 1" hex bolt, available for under fifty cents each at hardware stores. To attach them, I drilled 1/2" holes in the table legs where I wanted the bolts to go and then used wood glue to keep the bolts in the holes. The brackets at the top are simple L-brackets that cost a few bucks each. They don't come with screws -- I used #8 one inch screws to attach them to the corners of the table. Both the bolts and the brackets came in a shiny steel finish which I sprayed with flat black spray paint. Once the corner brackets were attached, the heads of the screws were painted with the same black paint. 

So there you go. A beautiful, rustic table able to carry the weight of heavy memories. Here's to adding more memorable pieces to our homes and to filling our homes with happy, thankful memories.

Psst...for more on our view of the fire, check out this post and video
Psssst...for a post on the X End Table, check out this post.