Archive for the ‘Celtic Wheelhouse’ Category

Creative stump removal

October 28, 2008

If you have never dug out the stump of a large tree by hand, then you have missed out on the true pioneer experience. There are few jobs that are more miserable and that are harder on your tools and your body.

When I was building the Wheelhouse there was a large double birch tree quite near the building. I went to great lengths to protect the tree and the roots. Despite this, the tree came down in an ice storm several years later. The stump was too large and too near the building to ignore and it looked like a back-breaker to remove. After considering my options, I decided to take the approach that “obstacles can be opportunities”. So, I turned the stump into a planter.

A couple of hours with a chainsaw and a chisel and mallet and I had carved a face on each of the two stumps. I cut a shallow bowl in the top of each head and drilled a couple of holes to allow water to drain out of the bowls. Then, I filled the bowl with potting soil and transplanted some myrtle that was growing locally. The myrtle grew out like hair and what had been an ugly stump became a piece of sculpture and a planter.

stump planter

stump planter

It has been many years now since I carved these faces and the stumps are rotting away, one is almost completely gone and the other is in advanced decay. The carvings have become echoes of what they once were. I no longer make a concerted effort to plant anything in them because nature has taken them over. They have evolved into something that looks like fragmentary ruins of some sort of Viking settlement. Accented with moss, a favorite hangout for woodpeckers, they have acquired a value different and more complex than the one that I originally intended.

I had hoped that by making the stumps into planters, the constant exposure to dirt and water would accelerate the process of decay so that the stump could be more easily removed. What I did not anticipate was that the process of decomposition would actually add something to the sculptures. Now, I find, I will miss them when they are finally gone.

A hurricane and other minor distractions

October 8, 2008

The month of September was a very real trial. Between trying to get the roof of the Celtic wheelhouse finished, which consumed most of the best sailing weather, sweating over whether hurricane Kyle was going to pay us a visit on the coast, I am just glad that October is here. There is still a lot to do, the boat will be hauled some time in the next week and still needs to be de-commissioned and winterized, but the tension of the last week has abated. Moreover, the explosion of color that signals the arrival of Autumn has begun and it brings with it an almost instinctual need to prepare for the coming winter.

Finished Roof Celtic Wheelhouse
Finished Roof Celtic Wheelhouse
Boat Shed with Autumn colors

Boat Shed with Autumn colors

              Like the animals that are storing food, I find that the shorter days, colder nights and the chaos of color around me have triggered some primordial desire to stack wood, hang storm windows, and get the coal into the basement. I am even looking forward to washing sails before putting them away for winter. In the meantime, back to the firewood pile…

More Cedar Roof

September 19, 2008


There have been numerous distractions here and on the sea as well. A fantastic week cruising on the Friendship Sloop in August was followed by tropical storm Hannah, which had the unfortunate consequence of canceling the Traditional Classic Boat show and postponing the Short Ships regatta at Atlantic Challenge. The storm also interrupted the progress on the new cedar roof for the Celtic Wheelhouse.
                Where we are now: I have stripped the old cedar, which took several days, and have begun re-shingling. The smell of the cedar is wonderful and the work itself, though physically demanding, has a certain calm, rhythmic quality about it. The most demanding part of the work is the planning. Each shingle needs to be tapered specific to the spot where it is placed. The most frustrating part of this job is the damp. We have had so much rain here this summer that getting the shingles to dry enough to put up has taken far longer than the actual shingling. So, much to my chagrin, this job is taking much longer than it did the first time I shingled the roof, nineteen years ago.

drying shingles

drying shingles

Cedar Roof

August 19, 2008

The wheelhouse is based on a very old design that was in evidence in many parts of Europe in pre-Roman times. The common form of roofing that was used at that time was thatch. Because good thatch is a material difficult to get in New England, I chose to use cedar shingles instead. Since cedar shingles can be easily tapered with knife or bock plane, they are a good choice for a conical roof. They also have a primitive organic look, and indeed, have been in use as roofing for nearly as long as thatch. However, in 1990, when I completed the wheelhouse, getting decent cedar shingles proved to be almost as difficult as trying to find a source for thatch.
              After doing a lot of research, I ended up using a white cedar shingle that was of a lower quality than I would have liked because it was all I could afford, and it was all I could get. The finished roof was beautiful, however, and complimented the design of the building well, but the cedar has aged poorly and now it is time for the shingles to be replaced.

The old shingles need to be replaced

The old shingles need to be replaced

              The roof of the tool shed is in even worse shape because it has been overshadowed by a huge hemlock and does not get as much air or sun.

close up of tool shed roof

close up of tool shed roof

tool shed roof

tool shed roof

              A lot has changed since 1990. One thing that has changed is that the average person can access a global market though the internet. It came as a surprise to me that I could now buy a much higher quality shingle directly from a mill in British Columbia for less money than I spent on the roof in 1990. Even given the outrageous cost of shipping, there was simply no comparison. I could buy a much better product, directly from the manufacturer, skip the middleman, and pay less. That is the good news.
              The bad news is that since 1990 the construction world appears to have become obsessed with  power tools. When I went to buy the nails for the actual shingling, they proved to be hard to find. Several big-box-home centers have moved to town since the 90’s. Some of their sales people seemed to have some difficulty grasping the concept of a nail that is not driven by a pneumatic tool. One salesman, when I explained that I did not have a pneumatic nail gun, or compressor, assured me that was no problem, he could sell me one. When I explained that I had no desire to buy a nail gun and compressor because I already own several hammers, he clearly had difficulty understanding what I was saying. When I further explained that there is road going into the building that I am working on, and that there is no electricity, he went away and had a nervous breakdown.
              Fortunately, there is a small building supply company, not too far away, which has been run by the same family for several generations. I walked in:
              “Hey Mark, any chance you have 5d hot-dip nails?”
              “Sure Ted, 5lb, 25lb, or 50lb box?”
              “No problem. Middle building out back.”
              Of course, they also sell hammers at this place, so clearly they knew about nails.

New shingles, stacked and ready for dry weather

New shingles, stacked and ready for dry weather


              The next step will be to find a window of five or six days when the weather forecast is not for rain…we have not had that since May…but perhaps in September.

Rain Rain Go Away

August 13, 2008

I was depending on some outdoor projects to provide me with fodder for this web log, however, we are in out tenth week of damp weather. Not rain every single day, but close.
             The wet weather has delayed the re-shingling of the Celtic wheelhouse and has spread a damp cloud (physically and metaphorically) over much of the cruising season on the friendship sloop. Still, hope springs eternal, and I remember the exchange I overheard some twenty years ago between a tourist and Buster Aldridge who ran the “ferry” between Stonington and Isle au Haut.
             Buster was never that keen on conversation and liked his personal space. The tourist in question jumped aboard the ferry, marched right up to Buster and in a familiar manner asked Buster, “So, do you think it will clear up?” Buster looked the tourist right in the eye and replied, “It always does.”
             Let’s hope Buster was right.

Handmade Hearth Tiles

March 25, 2008

Last week I had an open house at the wheelhouse for the class of EMT students that was at SOLO. The tiled hearth at the center of the wheelhouse drew a lot of attention, as it often does, so I thought it would make good fodder for a post.
             The base of the hearth is poured concrete and I wanted to cover the concrete with something attractive, washable, and durable.
             A friend who is a potter suggested designing and making tiles for the round hearth. I came up with several designs but the only one I really liked involved making more than six hundred tiles. At first, this was too much to contemplate. What I eventually did was break down the pattern into twelve tile shapes. I made a pattern for each tile shape and assigned each a number. I made a poster-board showing how many tiles of each pattern needed to be made (with a few extra to account for breakage), got the clay all prepared, set up a production area in the shop that I was using at the time, and invited a bunch of friends over for a tile making party.

Tile pattern

             The party was a much greater success than I expected. We actually made all the tiles in one afternoon. The tiles are made of stoneware. The prepared blocks of clay were set up to cut tile slabs with a wire ¼ inch thick.
             The process went like this; the slab of what will become tile is cut and placed with what will be the top side down. The back of the tile is scored lightly with a toothed trowel to take the tile mortar. Patterns are now laid out on the back of the slab in whatever way leaves the least waste. We cut around the patterns, removed the waste clay to be re-wedged and made again into clay blocks for cutting into slabs. The next step is very important, many of the tiles look quite similar but are not interchangeable, so each tile was stamped on the back with the appropriate pattern number, and this eliminated a lot of confusion later on. The very last step was to carefully remove the green clay tile from the work surface, touch up any imperfections by hand and lay the tiles face up on sheets of drywall to dry.

Comleted tiles

             My potter friend then lent me one of her electric kilns (she did, and still does collect pottery stuff to an alarming degree) I set up the kiln in the garage where I lived and was able to do all the bisque firing in one go. I had to do the glaze firings in several different firings, first because some of the colors I chose needed to be glaze-fired at different temperatures from one another, and second because not all the glazed tiles would fit in one firing without touching one other and thus sticking together.
             At last all the tiles were bisque fired, glazed and glaze-fired, boxed by pattern type, and the boxes numbered and labeled.
             I now thought that the worst was over, it came as something of a surprise therefore when I discovered that the actual process of tiling would take several days and many hands helping in order to complete this project. In fact, it took several months to find a window of opportunity to set the tiles, but the finished hearth met all of my expectations.

Setting the tiles
Completed tiles


Celtic Wheelhouse Page

March 18, 2008

           This has been a busy month and I have not worked on this site very much, but there has been a lot of interest in the Celtic Wheelhouse lately. I realized that a lot of the information about the Wheelhouse is scattered around this sight, so I stayed up last night and created a new page just for the wheelhouse (See the “pages” column on the right). On it, I have tried to organized posts about the Wheelhouse in a more chronological order.
          It is my hope if you are interested in the Wheelhouse, this page may make it easier for you to gather the information you were looking for without jumping all over the dovetails site.

Celtic Wheelhouse

Games and Toys

May 31, 2007

I have not written about wooden toys in a while and have not written about chess or other games in a really long time so I thought I would write about some of the games that live at the Wheelhouse.

Chess at the Wheelhouse

            First, another chess set. My brother found a cool ceramics place out in New Mexico where he lives, where you can come into the shop and can pick out ceramic pieces that are already bisque fired; paint them with supplies provided by the shop. The shop then fires your pieces for you and gives you a call when they are ready. My brother saw these chess pieces and thought it would make a great project. He painted the chess pieces and went home and made a neat chess board/table that he gave to me for the Celtic Wheelhouse. He went further, put a backgammon board on the reverse side of the board/table, and made the interior into storage space for the pieces. It is such a great gift and a clever project.

The Chess table at the Wheelhouse

            Next, is a Viking game I picked up many years ago in York while on a trip to England and Scotland. The game is a modern version, the pieces made of plastic, based on actual wood and or ivory pieces excavated at York. The game was popular in medieval Europe before chess was widely known. Sometimes called Hnefatafl, it is becoming popular again. The only problem with the game is that the box it came in fell apart and I was afraid of losing the pieces. My solution was to make a cedar box that looked like it might have been a made by the original players of Hnefatafl.

Viking Game   Viking Game

Box for Viking Game

            Hounds and Jackals is a game that was popular in ancient Egyptian times. I saw an original in the Metropolitan Museum in New York made of ivory. I made a sketch in the museum of the board, counted the number of pieces and holes, and then when I went home I made a version out of wood. I was teaching history of ancient civilizations at the time to ninth graders and when it was time to cover Egypt, I used to give them the copy of the game and ask them to look at it as an artifact. I was often amazed at how many correct deductions those ninth graders drew about the civilization that created the game based only what was in front of them. The other interesting observation I have, is that even though the game does not have any directions, kids in particular seem to have no difficulty figuring out how to play it. The only adaptation I have made is to substitute stick dice for the original knucklebone dice in the museum.

Original sketch made in the Museum  Hounds and Jackals

            I should say that I am not much of a board game person myself, but I really love having these games out for visitors to play with, and get great pleasure out of watching others play with these various games from other periods in human history.

More Landscape at the Wheelhouse

April 30, 2007

I just wanted to add two further notes to the last post about the landscape design at the wheelhouse.

         The first one is a further note on the construction of the woodshed. There are many ways to build a log cabin, but I chose a kind of joinery that I had seen used in the Alps and that is not very common on this side of the Atlantic, so I thought it might merit comment.

         The logs are trued; that is the top and bottom surfaces are made flat and parallel to one another. Logs are also matched, in other words two logs of the lame length are matched to one another based on having the same thickness, or distance between the trued surfaces. The next step was to shape each end of the log so that it has six sides. The drawing below came from the journal that I kept while building the wheelhouse.

Log cnstruction

             The reason for the six-sided ends is that the notches that hold the structure together can now be made as a simple three sided notch, rather than having to be scribed, and cut to the exact natural profile of each individual log.

             The other footnote is that while completing the wheelhouse I discovered a company that made wood fired, cedar hot tub. The tub is a kit I bought from the Snorkel Stove Company. I located down hill from the well, which makes it easy to fill with a piece of garden hose set up as a siphon. It is also set into a landscaped area with stone retaining walls and gravel drainage. This makes it easier to get into the tub without tracking in dirt or mud.

Location of Hot Tub

           The tub was great for soaking sore muscles after a hard day of moving stone, carpentry or gardening, but I don’t use it during black fly season, or in the later half of winter when it is too much work to dig it out after each snow storm.

The Landscape at the Wheelhouse

April 25, 2007

I was at the wheelhouse this morning trying to tackle the post-winter cleanup and thought I would put some information together about the landscape around the wheelhouse.

             Quite a lot of thought went into the landscape design outside the Wheelhouse. The building is in the forest, away from roads and modern conveniences like running water. I used stone left over from the building to put up small retaining walls and to create terraces for plants. The plan was then to gather all kinds of plants, but herbs in particular that have a tradition of medicinal use. The reason for this was that I wanted there to be a theme to the garden, and I wanted to have a cross section of plants that require little attention. Basically, those plants that did well in a forest climate in New England have thrived and the rest have taken themselves out of the mix. You can see from the garden plan below the original landscape layout at the wheelhouse.

Garden Plan

             Two other elements of the landscaping that are important to the maintenance of the gardens are the well and the tool shed. The soil at the site, such as it is, varies in depth from two feet to about six feet deep and covers a granite ledge. I had excavated the soil where the building was to be built so that it sits directly on ledge. To the south of the building, the ledge forms a depression under the soil. In that spot, I dug down about through six feet of soil to the ledge and put a dry well so that water from the surrounding area would drain and collect in the well. The well is the physical center of the gardens and its location is intended to make the watering of plants as easy as possible with a bucket. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, you should know that my approach to gardening is one of minimal effort, and I water plants rarely, but the idea behind the well is sound, and when I do actually get around to watering, it is easy.


              The design of the tool shed was dictated by events in the forest. Blight came through and killed a small stand of fir trees. One year they appeared to be fine, and by next summer, they were dead. The firs needed to be cut down or become a fire hazard, so I decided to use the tree trunks to make the tool shed. The shed is a cross between a log cabin and an “A” frame. It has just enough room for garden tools, some firewood, an axe and splitting maul and not much else. Even though the construction of the tool shed is different from the wheelhouse the addition of Nordic “house dragons” on the eves of the roof help, tie it stylistically to the wheelhouse.

Tool Shed

            Over the years, the gardens have taken on a life and character of their own. No matter how I try to impose order, plants have a mind of their own, after the third time I tried to put the soapwort, or the comfrey back where I thought it should be, I gave up and let them sort out for themselves who grows where. It now has a somewhat wild look but many of the plants are still doing quite well without interference from me.

              The tool shed, as all tool sheds do, has collected an assortment of items that have nothing whatsoever to do with either the gardens or the wheelhouse. Homemade bows and arrows have ended up there, leftover playthings of local children, now all grown up. Half-filled bags of some miracle garden product that proved to be, less than miraculous, clutter the corners of the shed. Squirrels store odd and ends from their own lives there as well through the winters. In short, the tool shed seems to have a destiny, like the garden, over which I have no control.