“Houston, we have lift-off”

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The poles are in! I need to thank everyone who helped out. I often feel like I’m a recluse, and I have a hard time in social settings. I’m pretty much an introvert – parties wear me out, while enjoying gardening or working on my own is energizing. I asked around at church last week, and made a couple of pleas asking for help on facebook. I got a commitment of two people by Thursday night, but we needed more- a lot more. I got a couple more Friday night, and a couple of calls Saturday morning. It was humbling to think that these people thought enough of me to come help out. I’m indebted to them, because this is something that I could not do myself.

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L-R: David Bailey, Nathan Forbes, Brian Hill, Jeff Hoki, Maxon Bromley, Jude Collins, Jared Mayfield. (Not pictured: Paul Glotzbach & Julie Hill)

My plan was to do as much work as possible before Saturday so that the tractor could do most of the work, while a few guys held onto the ropes to keep things from going sideways (literally).

The results were mixed- the guys still had to do a lot of work, but when the poles started going up, it went well – and quick. We got all four poles installed in 1.5 hours. Which was great because two of the guys had to leave for other family engagements at 11:00.

A few more details, then I promise to show some pictures:

When I tried it myself, I noticed the log just went right over the hole. I needed a way to get the log to dig into the dirt enough that the tractor could get it upright. I dug some trenches about ten feet long leading down to the hole. Each hole is four feet deep, so I made the trenches go down about three feet, with a one foot drop into the hole. I figured this little shelf would help prevent the pole from continuing past vertical once it was in the hole. I was right!

Along with the trenches, I piled up dirt to get the upper end of the pole off the ground, which also helped the bottom end angle down into the hole.

On the first lift, the tractor couldn’t overcome gravity due to the angle of the cable.  I needed the pole to be higher before the tractor could do its job. Having eight guys to lift the pole high enough and walk it upright was the answer. Once the top end of the pole was about 10 – 15 feet in the air, the tractor did the rest, and the guys on ropes were able to stabilize the pole while I maneuvered the tractor to get the pole straight. Then, the pole slipped into the hole.

Once the pole is in the hole, there’s a little fine tuning to get the pole completely vertical, then I climbed the ladder to remove the lifting cable, while the guys shovel dirt back in around the poles. Maxon was like, “every time you climb that ladder I get nervous”. Wait- you’re not nervous when lifting? 🙂

The whole process took about 20 minutes per pole. My wife helped babysit the children, took great pictures, and then peeled some logs.

First, the trenches and holes:

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Then getting the lifting poles vertical:

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Next up: getting the pressure-treated sill plate installed, then on to stacking logs! Woohoo! This is a major milestone!

Stuff Breaks

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fingernail is making a comeback!

Since the beginning of this project, stuff has been breaking: Logs are too heavy, I do dumb things, money is tight, I have another job, etc.

My whole life, I’ve been working in jobs where I see areas that need improvement- more efficient methods, outdated standards, etc, and every new job I get, I try to implement changes that are more efficient. I guess my whole life has been one of “process improvement”:

I had this old Nissan Sentra my grandma sold me for $1.00. It had been through several cousins as a starter car. Finally came to me. One time, I was driving it home late at night from work while I was struggling through college and the lights went dim. When I looked under the hood, I found the belt to the alternator was loose- the tensioner bolt had fallen out. I looked in the trunk for something to brace it with or an extra bolt- and found an old screwdriver. I jammed the screwdriver in there, and I meant to fix it, but a few weeks later, the clutch went out on it.  I got it to a mechanic, and when I came to pick it up, he said, “Oh, by the way, while we were in there fixing your clutch, we found this:” <holds up screwdriver>.

“Oh yeah.”

They start laughing. “Yeah, we fixed it for ya.”

Hopefully, I’ve come a long way since those days (baby steps). Building this log home, I’m improving my methods as I go, but there are some set-backs.

Logs are too heavy (Process improvement)

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Your log home dealer offers “oversize” 12 inch logs? That’s so cute…

This is a given. The logs are always too heavy. I can’t stress how dangerous this is. They are very heavy. Tractor can’t lift them, so I have gone through several improvements:

  1. 2 tractor jacks- one on each side of the log. very unstable. Tend to “max out” at just under the height needed to get the log on the trailer.
  2. lifting tripod made out of large branches: works pretty good- very heavy, hard to set up.
  3. a trailer- works pretty good. very heavy, hard to maneuver to get it under the log- usually has to be maneuvered by hand- can’t always get tractor involved with tight turns that might bump the log while it’s hanging in mid-air and knock everything down.
  4. a log arch attached to the trailer….and a broken finger, so…
  5. ….log arch NOT attached to trailer…so far so good…
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anti-tank house logs

“Why don’t you use smaller logs?”

It’s a thought…That I don’t have. Go big or go home. Because Manly.

OK, seriously- a log home made out of 12″ logs has been proven to be at least twice as efficient as a home made from 2×4’s in a standard fashion. Most log home folks report paying 1/3 the cost in AC/heating costs as they did in their “stick-built” homes. The logs I’m using range from 14 inches to 27 inches. I’m expecting a cheap utility bill when this is all said and done.

There’s also the artistic factor: Big logs are inspiring. Look at the two homes below:

Which one has the “Oh…wow” factor? Yeah. I thought so.

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“Mommy, mommy! That man is not wearing a seat belt!”

The tractor is kinda light

I think the tractor must weigh in at about 3,500 pounds. The logs are probably about 5,000 + lbs. In a tug-o-war, the logs sometimes win. I’ve broken the tractor a few times:

  1. broken steering column
  2. broken pins on three point hitch (several times).
  3. bent the 3 point hitch mounting points.
  4. broken front grill, smashed front cowl
  5. flat tire on rear (I’m suspicious that it came that way as a slow leak that got faster with use).
  6. broken/stripped out lift arm screw – right side
  7. broken/stripped out lift arm screw – left side

For #6 & #7: I welded the right side with the neighbor’s supervision- well, he has a pacemaker and can’t get near high voltage devices, so he sat on his porch and listened to the welder. When I was done welding the first time, I drove by on the tractor and gave him the thumbs up. I got across the street, backed up to the log that broke it in the first place, and immediately broke the weld. Limping the tractor back across the street, and I see the neighbor in the chair grinning at me.

“What?” I said.

“I knew that was gonna happen- you were welding it too hot.”

“Too hot?” (I don’t know anything about welding….I guess you can ‘hear’ when someone is welding too hot?)

“Yeah- when you’re welding hardened steel to cast iron, you gotta turn the heat down on that thing – otherwise, you’re not really welding it,” says the former certified welding instructor.

Oh.

Turn down the heat. Weld it cooler very carefully. Grind off the slag. Weld again. Grind off some more slag, adjust the heat. Weld again. The neighbor comes over to eyeball it. Gives me a nod. Off I go.

Back at the log in question. Start to lift it- “clunk!” <a few choice curse words>. Turn around and look- my weld is holding ok. Look at other lift arm: now it’s broke. <smile>. Drive back across the street. Neighbor is a little concerned as he sees me coming up the driveway. Then I show him what happened. Now he’s grinning, too.

“I’ve done that same thing before, believe it or not,” he says, laughing. Luckily, I bought a universal screw pin from Tractor Supply, and what do you know? It fits. And the weld has held up since then, too. Third time’s a charm?

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I do dumb things:

Did you know that you can’t interchange a 80-link bar on a chainsaw with a 72-link bar? Yeah, I got bad advice: “just change out the bar”. They forgot to mention the drive sprocket aligns with the links on the chains. For a few days, I couldn’t figure out how the teeth on that sprocket got all chewed up. Now I know, and I now have a new drive sprocket on order from Ebay for my saw….

 

Money is tight:

This was part of the plan- do the build super cheap. With unlimited funds, I could build this thing in about 3 weeks. With no funds, I can’t build it at all. With some funds, I can afford some equipment, but not the expensive kind, so the build timeline is in between 3 weeks and forever. I’m going for 2 years…

Without a lot of money, I’ve got to stick to being innovative – do more with less. Lesson from class:

  1. cheap
  2. fast
  3. good

You can only pick two. I guess I have to pick #1 & #3. Which means any cool trick I want to try has to be cheap and good, or forget it.

I have another job:

Believe it or not, I work full time as a support engineer (no, I’m not usually the white collar guy with pink hands, so this is a huge career improvement for me- usually, I’m crawling under raised floor panels dragging some CAT-V cable). Yes, this affects the build: I’m trying to hurry as much as I can because of my limited time to build. There are those in our organization who only work on their cabins for 4 weeks out of the summer. Then there are those who do it for a living. I’m in the “do it every night after work” group. This creates problems of being too hasty:

  • Like the time I came within five feet of smashing my tractor while felling a tree- I was in too much of a hurry before it got dark to go grab my 60′ cable. So I used my 20′ chain to hook it and pull instead. I had to dive off the tractor as the tree came down. Luckily, the tree missed. You can’t really get away from a falling tree while chained to it with a tractor. Whew.
  • Borating the logs before the bugs get to them: I have to make my brew on the weekends. I was using a “rocket stove” design on my cinder blocks for the fire. I changed it this weekend to a new design with more airflow. Process improvement? yes: the first way of cooking, the brew took 3 hours. This time, it took me 1 hour.

Conclusion:

The conclusion is: Stuff breaks. Lessons?

  1. Learn how to fix it.
  2. Process improvement.
  3. Focus on the task at hand.
  4. Figure out what isn’t working, what is working, and the difference between the two.

#1 and #2 are my bright spots. #3 can be hard, but if I get ahead of myself, really heavy logs bring me back to what really matters at the moment. #4 is where I get stuck, believe it or not- it’s good to be married to a level-headed woman: whenever I get harebrained ideas like: “I know- let’s buy a 1 ton truck to drag logs around,” she straightens me out with “what you’re doing is working- you just need to stick with it.”

2016 June 24: Military trailer Log arch

I’m finally ready to tackle this log loading problem. Here’s the issue:

I’m getting trees from the property next door. I’m cutting them myself, bucking them (I figured out that bucking a tree means taking off the limbs), then skidding them (dragging them) with a tractor over a small ditch and onto my property where I stack them on some sacrificial logs to keep them off the ground until I peel them. With a smaller log, the tractor can pick it up with tongs, lift it high enough to skid, and I can easily skid it and get it to where I want, and this process takes about 1 1/2 hours:

  • 30 minutes to fell and buck
  • 30 minutes to load and skid
  • 30 minutes to unload

Unfortunately (or maybe I can be positive and say ‘fortunately’, two years from now when I look at the finished house and see massive log eye-candy saving me tons of money on A/C and heat), my logs are usually more than 18″ diameter- some of the bigger logs (A.K.A. “monster logs”) are 26″+ and 50’+ long. It takes anywhere from 4 hours on a good day, to a couple of days to move one log. It’s extremely exhausting – I’ve lost 10 lbs in a month of working. I’m estimating these logs weigh about 6,000 lbs. My tractor is a Ford 3000 diesel. I think it’s rated at 47 hp. It’s not 4wd, but it has a lift on the back rated at 2,000 lbs. It gives up on monster logs. Me too.

Problems multiply when the log gets bigger. The log outweighs the tractor by 2,000 lbs, so lifting it makes it nearly impossible to steer, so ‘just plain skidding it’ is out. I have a military trailer, which is rated at 2.5 tons, but it is about 30″ off the ground, and the tractor can only lift to about 29″ (or some amount extremely close to whatever the trailer height is). But seriously- does it matter what the height is? It can’t lift it high enough to clear the bed of the trailer, and I’m sure it’s that way by design. Yes really. Some guy at the Ford tractor factory colluded with another guy at the military trailer factory 50 years ago, and they are still laughing about their “little joke”. I’m sure of this. It’s a conspiracy.

Cheap, fast, or good: you can only pick two.

‘Why not just get a bigger tractor,’ you may ask? I might reply, ‘Why not just buy a house that’s already built?’ But actually the answer is: I’m doing this debt-free. Pay as you go. You understand when I’m done with this, I’ll have a $400k home that cost $40k to build. Some folks love a telehandler- and I do too- but the cheapest I can get one that I’ve seen is about $18k. My brother-in-law has one, but getting it from Utah to here would cost about $2,000. And he uses it all the time, so he doesn’t want to part with it for even a month. I understand. So the solution has to be cheap. And good. The kicker with my solution, is that it actually ends up being ‘fast’. -er. Instead of 4 hours minimum on a monster log, I’m hoping it is 4 hours maximum. Maybe even 1 hour. Ok, let’s not get greedy.

I came up with a few work-arounds before settling on my current solution:

  • tie two tractor jacks together with a beam bolting them together. But 29″ (the height of the tractor jacks’ lifting height before they begin to buckle and get very unstable (also on my list of conspiracies….) is also not high enough to get it on the trailer.
  • hope that the tree falls near a still-standing tree that I can use with a chain hoist for lifting. This is rare.
  • build a tripod and use the chain hoist in that for lifting. But the trailer usually can’t fit under the tripod. And I have to move the tripod when I unload it, too.

All of these methods take time. Lots of time. And lots of muscle.

I’ve been thinking about a solution for a long time. First, I’ll get a helicopter…..No. It’s something called a “log arch”. You can buy one for like $800 that claims to handle logs “up to 15 inches in diameter”, but I know I can make one cheaper. I searched for “log arch” on google and found a ton of videos and methods. My favorite one, and the most elegant and simplest solution in my opinion is this one:

I already have the trailer. Just need to mount some kind of pivot system.

I got out my copy of LibreCAD, and drew up some plans. After tweaking them a bit, I had my logarch.  I’ll make them available for free.  I checked my math a few times -mostly the shear calculations for a bolt: I figured a force equal to a 6,000 log at standard acceleration of 9.8 m/s^2 gave me about 132,000 psi to work with. I ran it by Ellery (my super-practical better-than-an-engineer mechanical genius friend), and his immediate response was “3/4 inch grade 8 bolts”. I felt proud that it took me an hour of calculations from an engineering standpoint to come up with what he said in 1 second. He plays guitar, violin, banjo, etc., and I play piano, accordian, and now, ukulele.

I bought some 3″ x 3″ 1/4″ sidewall steel tube, and a 1/4″ flat plate. The guys down at C&J welding were super impressed with the youtube video. They all gathered around to give me advice on what kind of steel, welding techniques, issues I might encounter. The owner wants pictures of the completed log cabin. It’s the business that my buddy Ken H. recommended when he was still alive. I can see why. Super nice down to earth hardworking guys.

I need to make all my cuts and learn how to weld (yes, from Ellery), but hopefully, I’ll start welding it on Saturday.

2016 May 11: It’s the little things…

Last night, my wife decided to come help. The neighbors really want to meet her. Arthur had a dentist appointment, so I had to wait for him, and then took him out to the property. I had a tree that I cut down at the neighbor’s house the day before ready to skid back to the property, so I loaded up the tractor to go down the street and get it. I showed him how to drive the tractor- and pointed out that it had manual steering. I’m not sure he understood what “manual steering” meant. He went along fine while we were going straight, but then we had to turn out onto the road- he turned ok, but then let go of the steering wheel- not realizing that with a tractor and manual steering, it will pretty much just keep turning until you stop it. We had two tires almost in the ditch before I could strong arm it back on the road. Manual steering is just one of the little things…

I also didn’t think I would be going, so I forgot to pack my new three ton chain hoist, but I had two tractor jacks, so I should be able to lift the log almost 48 inches off the ground- high enough to clear the lip of the trailer, right?

The tractor jacks, however, have no good attachment point- the chain or strap can slip off the front if the weight is pulling more to the side (such as towards the side of the log). After trying several ways to attach the strap, it finally held long enough to get the log up in the air, but since the log was in a ditch, the jacks maxed out with about an inch to spare on the lip of the trailer, which wasn’t enough to clear the lip. Just a little thing, right?

20160510_181840[1]I said, “forget it, let’s just drive”, and hooked up the tractor and started dragging. The trailer is only 10 feet too long at this point, right? Just a little thing…It went well for a while, even though one tire on the trailer was a little low on air.

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I tried to swing it wide for the right turn, but I swung a little too wide, and the trailer went into a little ditch – about twelve inches deep. ‘No big deal’, I thought, ‘I’ll just turn and it will come out of the ditch.’ Except it didn’t, and the angle of the trailer caused the strap to slip, which caused the log to shift, which caused the trailer to shift some more, and now it was locking itself up around the “No Outlet” street sign on the side of the road. And the other tire was now flat. Just a little thing…

I thought maybe I could pull the log back away from the sign and the ditch, so I hooked up to the trailer…

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pulled….

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…and the trailer came along, but the log was too tired to move.

I stopped, unhooked, backed up to the log, set the jack on one side, tractor on the other, and chain in the middle. This time, the depth of the ditch wasn’t as deep where I hooked up the tractor, so when I lifted, the big end easily cleared the lip of the trailer.I strapped it down again, and looked up to see one of the neighbors come out of his log cabin (that he built in the 1980’s- more on this later) with a four ton come-along. He asked if I thought it would help- sure, let’s use it. Just a little thing…

But now with two flat tires, the trailer decided to pull at an angle- which meant that while I’m driving down the right edge of the road, the trailer and log are driving down the left side of the road- missing several mailboxes by inches. I pulled into the driveway, knowing the trailer wouldn’t make the turn and end up in a ditch (so I let it), stopped, unhooked the trailer (that was now in the ditch), and tried to pull on the log. The heavy end decided, with ten feet hanging into the ditch, that it wasn’t going anywhere. Unhook the tractor, hook up heavy end, pull out of ditch, hook back up light end, lift, and pull.

The log was barely moving, but it was moving, so I found out that gunning it in 4th gear was the git-r-dun I needed.

Just a bunch of little things- little annoyances that end up being big problems, but it seems like there are just barely enough little helps – like the neighbor’s come-along- to overcome them. Log #13 is in the bag.