This winter I built a Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest. You can see pretty clearly what it is from the photos: it’s a chest, and you put your blankets in it. But that term “Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest” is tricky: it refers almost exclusively to antiques, and so it might seem proper to call this a Pennsylvania Dutch style blanket chest — but it is, in fact, Pennsylvania Dutch, because I’m Pennsylvania Dutch, and I built it. It is also, in both construction and decoration, in keeping with both the form and the spirit of traditional (pre-1850) Pennsylvania blanket chests, and not only because I stuck a heart and some goldfinches on it. It isn’t a flat-sided New England six-board chest; it’s got decorative molding and a scroll-cut plinth (base). But the molding is simple, and it isn’t built of figured maple or imported mahogany, as some rich merchant or southern planter might want; it’s made of inexpensive wood (poplar) and painted. The painting is “just for pretty” but it relies on simple forms and on the skill and individual creativity of the maker rather than on expensive materials for its aesthetic value. It’s both practical and decorative, and there’s no competition between those qualities.
I tried to carry that spirit through the whole design, elevating the practical without compromising it. (Oh lord, this is starting to sound like an artist’s statement now. Reader, forgive me.) There were two challenges in designing this chest, the construction and the decoration, and I’ll address them separately. Continue reading “Threads of the past: A Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest”→
This year I’m teaching my daughter physics, and though you might think it would be easy for a guy with a degree in physics to teach eighth-grade physics, it is not. It is undoubtedly easier than it would be if I didn’t have a degree in physics, but that’s not a high bar, you know? Much of physics beyond the most elementary observation is deeply mathematical; you need at least first-year algebra to make any sense of it, and at least a year of calculus to make a lot of sense. And to the extent that there are simple, practical, hands-on ways of exploring deep concepts, I didn’t learn them in college. So, for example, I did lots of fancy calculations of torque but never built a trebuchet, and I learned to analyze the role of a capacitor in a circuit but never built a Leyden jar. Teaching middle-school physics, then, has been an opportunity for me to fill in some rather distressing gaps in my own education, and to think about what I did learn in new ways.
To wit: In planning our unit on electricity and magnetism I stumbled across a book called Safe and Simple Electrical Experiments, by Rudolf F. Graf. Since it was published in 1960, “safe” assumes something slightly less than the helicopter parent’s standard of child care, and “simple” assumes a child whose brain has not been squeezed completely to mush by electronic devices: all the better! You have to think to do this stuff, and fiddle with things when they don’t work the first time, and there are delightful instructions on how you can give your friend an unpleasant but allegedly harmless shock. On the negative side, some of what were considered household objects in 1960, such as vinyl records, may not be as easily accessible in 2017. But there are nearly always substitutes if you hunt for them.
Much has changed since I first started raising ducks and chronicled my experiences here in 2002. Then, backyard poultry was almost unheard of, a thing of the past I was fighting to revive. At the turn of the century few urban places in the U.S. allowed poultry in residential areas; now, in many mid-sized cities, it’s become common, or at least not surprising, to hear the bwaaawk of a neighbor’s chicken. In 2002 the Internet was still a fairly new medium, and it was hard to find and share personal experiences with the few people who did know something about raising poultry. As resources I had a book written for professionals, a couple of skimpy websites, and a veterinarian whose workshop at a sustainable agriculture conference first got me thinking about ducks. For day-to-day details I was on my own.
For the first few years, I received hundreds of emails from around the world — literally, six continents and, if I recall correctly, more than forty countries — from people asking questions and sharing experiences. Those conversations with fellow “new agrarians” was the reward for building this website. What I wrote here seems to have helped a great many people get started raising ducks on a small scale, and for that I’m grateful.
Over the years, what I built in 2002–03 seems increasingly dated (hard to believe, but those tiny movies were high-res back then), even though the information and advice is still perfectly sound; and there are plenty of other places to get help. Moreover, I no longer keep ducks — that’s a long story; I hope to again someday — and I have no more experiences to share. My “Raising Ducks” collection has become effectively an archive. But I’m going to leave it here and preserve it, in hopes that it may still help someone. If you have questions or thoughts, do feel free to email me and I’ll try to get back to you.
These days it’s all green this and renewable that, solar houses and electric cars and trains that run on cow farts. Well, look, my woodshop runs on solar energy, too. My daughter drew this diagram to show you all how it works: Continue reading “The solar woodshop, explained”→
Until my first day doing living history I’d never used a shaving horse before, never used a drawknife or a spokeshave. I’d always thought that someday I might like to take a chairmaking class, just for fun, but that it wasn’t something I really saw myself doing much.
Shows what I know. One day muddling my borrowed-tool way through demonstrations and I knew I needed a shaving horse and tools of my own, if only so that I could pay decent respect to the real craftsmen whose role I was playing. It turned out, though, that even though a shaving horse is one of the simplest, rough-and-tumblest workbenches a man can make, it might just be harder to make in 2011 than it would have been in 1700. I had to get a little inventive. What follows is the story of my thirty-dollar, down and dirty, twenty-first century shaving horse. Continue reading “The thirty-dollar shaving horse”→
During their first year of laying, our seven Khaki Campbells laid 332 eggs each. That is 47 pounds (21 kilograms) of eggs per duck, in a single year.
When we were debating breeds of ducks, we read that Campbells typically lay about 300 eggs a year. (The record laying bird of any breed, any species, was a Campbell duck who laid more than 365 eggs in a year.) Several sources confirmed this figure, but we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to believe it. It just seemed fantastic. An egg a day, with only an occasional miss and time off for molting? Surely these ducks must be pushed to the limit of their genetic capacity.
Never eaten duck eggs? Most people haven’t. The differences between chicken and duck eggs, while slight, are noticeable by people who aren’t used to the latter. Most of the people I know who have tried them prefer duck eggs, but not everyone likes them. In this primer I’ll set out the differences between the two, but you really will just have to try them for yourself. Continue reading “Duck eggs: A primer”→
Cooking with duck eggs doesn’t call for a major revision in technique. But there are differences: the yolks of duck eggs have more fat and the whites more protein than those of chicken eggs, and you need to take these differences into account when cooking. Somewhat gentler cooking is the key. Continue reading “Cooking with duck eggs”→
As the weather grows colder in the fall we make some minor adjustments to our housing and management. They do not seem to mind the cold; they do fluff up their feathers and huddle together to sleep on cold nights, but the first thing they do every morning is to jump into their pool—even if we have to break up floating ice first to let them in. They also eat more to keep warm (and because there aren’t any bugs to eat after a hard freeze). Continue reading “Winter care for ducks”→