Wednesday, December 23, 2015

For The Birds, Part 2

To recap the story so far, our old feeder and pole had been damaged irreparably by an onslaught of corpulent doves, and after an inordinate amount of difficulty, I managed to assemble a new feeder and locate a stronger pole that needed some modification before I could use it.

The new pole was ten feet long, which meant I had to dig the existing hole two feet deeper in order to mount the feeder the required six feet above ground—four and a half feet deep in all.

The added depth was a bit of a concern. Our soil is riddled with boulders, some of them quite large. I was lucky the first time around in that I encountered no obstacles, but I was really pushing my luck going two feet further down. I hoped I didn't have to blast.

Of course, I could simply have cut two feet off the new pole and made the job a whole lot easier. I didn't do that because rigid electrical conduit is heavy, and as I mentioned last time, it has a certain amount of flex in it. With the feeder at its top, it will have a tendency to flex back and forth in heavy winds, and the flection could conceivably extend down below ground level, increasing the risk that the pole will work itself loose and start to lean. The deeper footing should prevent that.

I pulled the old pole up, and was very happy to see that there was no rust on it to speak of. This was a nice verification that six inches of rocks in the bottom of the hole was sufficient drainage, even in our slow-draining soil.

Then, I started to dig. The first two and a half feet of the hole was easy, because all I was doing was emptying the hole I'd already made. I saved the sand from the first two feet in one pile, and the rocks and dirt from next six inches in another, so that I could re-use the fill.

At the Farm House, we even recycle dirt and rocks.

From that point on, the work was considerably more tiring. I haven't done any really hard physical work since my last bout of tendinitis in January, and on top of that I had had that spell of pneumonia. My arms and lungs were thus in need of a good workout, and boy, did they get it now.

On the way down the hole, I needed frequent rest stops in order to catch my breath, and so to keep things moving I decided to alternate the hole-digging with the task of reducing the diameter of the top of the pole so that the receptacle on the bottom of the feeder would fit. I have very little experience working with steel, but I figured a file would be the right tool for the job.

I have an extensive collection of files inherited from my uncle, so I picked out the most appropriate-looking one, cleaned its teeth with a brass brush, and started filing away. I went slowly and methodically around the circumference of the pipe as far in from one end as would be necessary to accommodate the receptacle. Once I came back around to the starting point, I slipped the receptacle over the end to check the fit. It slipped readily along as far down as the pipe threads went, and then stopped. I filed around the pipe again where it was still too big, and when I checked the fit again, the receptacle progressed about a sixty-fourth of an inch further down. It seemed as if I were taking off a lot of material, but apparently I wasn't.

So I worked around the pipe once again, more aggressively this time. This yielded another sixty-fourth of an inch of progress. Something seemed wrong. I did a little research on the Internet, and learned that I was using the right kind of file, and I was using the proper technique, more or less. So I abandoned the hole-digging for the time being, and worked on that pipe for the rest of the day and well into the evening. While my arms benefited from the exercise, I didn't make much progress. Still, the project up to that point had been so full of mishaps and complications that I just accepted the situation. I was happy that I was making any progress at all. I was a hostage to fate, and the Helsinki syndrome had set in.

Wifey suggested that perhaps the file I was using was dull. That had not occurred to me. The file looked perfectly fine. There were no broken teeth, and there was no evident wear. Still, she had something there. After all, my uncle had inherited his father's tools. There was a very good chance that the file I was using was older than I was, and had been used a lot. Moreover, it had been kicking around in a tool box with a number of other files for a long while.

The next day, I got a new file of the same type and went back to work. In an hour I was done, and the receptacle slid down fully without binding or wobbling. I primed and painted the filed area to prevent rust.  

While I may not be the sharpest tool in the box, with Wifey's help I feel as if I can do anything. We make a good team.

With the pole now all ready to meet its destiny, I went out and finished the hole. There are tools made specifically for this purpose that make the job simple: the post-hole digger, and the digging bar.

I use a post-hole digger of a unique design, called The Hole Deal, and I highly recommend it over the traditional design. All post-hole diggers comprise a pair of shovels joined with a pivot so that when the shovels are brought together, they capture soil between them that is then lifted out of the hole. The traditional design joins them with a simple pivot, so that the handles must be separated to bring the shovels together. This gets progressively more difficult as the hole gets deeper, because it is hard to keep the soil in the digger when the sides of the hole are limiting how much the handles can be separated.

The Hole Deal uses a two-pivot design so that the handles and shovels move in parallel; its handles are brought together to bring the shovels together. The sides of the hole and its depth are thus not limiting factors, and it is very easy to keep the dirt captured between the shovels as the digger is lifted up. This allows one to dig holes that are plumb and uniform all the way down. Although the digger is only five feet long, I had no difficulty in taking the hole down to four and a half feet without my having to widen the top of the hole.

The other tool is called a digging bar. It is a six-foot-long iron bar with a chisel end and a tamper end. The chisel end is used to loosen the dirt at the bottom of the hole to make it easier to remove with the post-hole digger; the tamper end is used to settle and compact material at the bottom of a hole. The digging bar is also used to dislodge and break up rocks, or cut roots, as necessary.

Happily, I encountered absolutely no obstacles on the way down, so while the work went slowly, it also went steadily. I got so enthusiastic at the end that I actually went an inch farther than I needed to. Then I had lunch.

You may be wondering why I set the pole in sand, rather than concrete. While there are several advantages to the use of sand as a base, the reason I used it here is that we have no overall plan for the yard design, and until we do I don't want to build anything that I can't easily remove. If you think a concrete footing would have kept the old pole from leaning, take a look at it:

Clearly, the sand held the pole so firmly that it bent at ground level; it did not shift in the hole. If I had set the pole in concrete, I would have had to excavate and lift out a hundred-pound cylinder of it, and then I would have had to dispose of that.

It occurred to me when contemplating the pole with the socket that I could have sunk the socket in concrete in order to give it some measure of stability, but without drain holes at the bottom it would have rusted out in short order, causing the pole to move back and forth in the hole more or less constantly. This movement would dislodge the concrete plug soon enough, and the pole would fall over.

I could have put down two feet of concrete to prevent its being easily dislodged, but then I'd have that hundred pounds of concrete to remove someday. This was altogether too much work for a setup that would never have been satisfactory.

The best material to use for setting poles in sand is actually not sand, strictly speaking, but crushed granite (usually called "decomposed granite", or "DG" for short). DG is the best because its individual granules are jagged, and tend to interlock pretty firmly when the material is compacted, making it quite stable and resistant to movement. This is why it is used for baseball diamonds and "gravel" driveways; as I've mentioned, we use it for our own driveway.

Unfortunately, DG is generally not available in smaller than half-truckload lots, at least not hereabouts, so instead I use paver-base sand, which is readily available in 50- to 70-pound bags. Paver-base sand is silica sand of a uniform fine grain; it interlocks to a lesser degree than DG, but it is more than stable enough to serve nicely for setting poles. Building sand will work if necessary, but not playground sand, which has no silica and offers insufficient resistance to movement.

A word of caution: never handle any silica-containing sand when it is dry without breathing protection, because silica dust acts like sandpaper in the respiratory tract. It is best and most convenient to work with it moistened enough to prevent dust from kicking up.

After lunch, I screened the two piles of the material I'd removed from the original hole in order to remove debris and reclaim the stones that were in them. 

I put a layer of larger stones down as evenly as I could at the bottom of the hole, put the rest of the stones back in, and tamped them down with the tamper end of my digging bar to minimize any settling when the hole was filled. I ended up 3/4 of an inch higher than I wanted, but that is close enough for my purpose, and the extra drainage won't hurt. I put in water to just above the level of the rocks, and let things settle overnight.

As I mentioned, our soil drains very slowly.

But I was not yet done for the evening. I drove four three-foot wood stakes into the ground, each about two feet away from the center of the hole, two of them situated roughly parallel to the back wall of the house, and two perpendicular to it.

When tomorrow came, I lowered the pole into the hole slowly, taking care to land the pole somewhere in the center. Precise positioning is not crucial, but a position near the center ensures that the pole is supported evenly around its circumference, thus increasing its tendency to remain plumb as the sand settles. As it happened, the pole found a nice little niche within a half-inch of dead center. This positioning is ideal, for it locks the bottom of the pole firmly in place, further enhancing its tendency to remain true to the earth.

Having achieved this, I carefully moved the pole over to rest against the side without knocking it out of its niche. I took a length of sash cord (any rope will do), tied one end to one of the wood posts, looped the other end around the pole and tied a taut-line hitch around the cord. This is a knot that I learned back in Cub Scouts, very useful when you need to adjust the length of a rope under tension. I use the knot shown on Wikipedia as #1857 (the third one listed at the link).

I did this for all four posts, all the while moving the pole gently to avoid dislodging its bottom end. Then, I attached a post level to the pole at eye level, oriented it so one side was parallel to the rear wall of the house, then I adjusted the length of each rope by sliding the taut-line hitch towards or away from the pole until the bubbles in both horizontal vials were centered. indicating that the pole was plumb (i.e., perpendicular to the ground). I tightened the cords just enough to ensure that the pole stayed plumb, and no tighter.

This reminds me that I have forgotten to tell you about the post level, one more specialized tool used in this job. It has two spirit vials positioned horizontally at right angles to each other to check for plumb, and one positioned at a right angle to the other vials vertically to check the top of a post or beam for level with the ground. 

This gag with the ropes and wood posts was something I whipped up this time around, so I would be free to work with both hands without undue worry about keeping the pole plumb. I've put poles up several times before without doing this, and it was quite awkward filling the hole with one hand while trying to keep the pole plumb with the other.

I worked with the posts and the level oriented to the house's footprint because the feeder would most often be viewed from the house. Theoretically it doesn't really matter how one orients the posts or the level, but a post level is not a terribly precise instrument, and orienting things the way I did maximized its precision along the most-used sight lines.

With the pole thus secured, I filled the hole back up, starting with the screened sand I took out of the old hole and continuing with some new sand. I put it in a trowelful at a time evenly around the pole, stopping every six inches or so to wet the sand evenly, putting just enough water in to cover the sand and then letting it drain in order to eliminate any little air pockets and to get the sand to settle evenly and firmly.

At eight inches below ground, I switched from sand to decomposed granite, which I stole from my supply that I have for filling divots in the driveway. I put in six inches of it just to help keep the pole on the straight and narrow path. I topped up the last two inches of the hole with screened dirt to give the installation a finished appearance, then let the whole hole settle overnight before I put a load on the pole.

Early the next morning, I put the feeder in place, and Wifey set a table of tasty comestibles for our little pals. As is always the case with a new feeder, it was greeted with great skepticism at first; the little creatures of the forest are rightly skeptical of change. By mid-afternoon, however, we had our first hungry customer.

This reminds me that my next job is to clean the gutters.

Our feeder is open to all our little woodland friends. But as for the company that sold us the feeder with its crappy screws and instructions as well as that pathetic excuse for a mounting pole, the company with the buncombe-laden product descriptions, the company that through its malfeasance turned a simple task into a major project—well, that company is strictly for the birds.

* * *

"My client is prepared to plead to one count of PC 481(a)(2), Knocking Non-Glass Ornament Off Christmas Tree, if the count of PC 666(e), Grand Theft Bird Ornament, is dropped."

Monday, December 21, 2015

For The Birds, Part 1

We have more than our share of wildlife here at the Farm House. While this can occasionally be troublesome, our pups do a great job of keeping the predators at bay. Nature is a fine thing, but we want our yard to be Daktari, not Wild Kingdom.

The first summer here, I put up a big platform feeder on a 8-foot galvanized-steel pole that came with it. It was a simple feeder, just a wood frame with a perforated-metal insert to hold the food and provide drainage, but it served our needs quite well.

June 2007, about a year after I installed the feeder.

I set the pole in a sand base two feet into the ground. It did just fine for nearly a decade, serving all comers with no problems. I had to tighten up the joints of the feeder occasionally, and eventually replaced all the screws with better ones, but the pole remained serenely unchanged by the passing years.

Then, a few years ago a new species began to appear, some sort of dove or pigeon that is larger than a rock dove (the common street pigeon), with a generally pearl-gray body and a dark collar on the back of the neck. As nearly as I have been able to determine, it is the Eurasian collared dove, although our birds are larger and of a more substantial build than the breed description.

For a long time, there was only one pair of the collared doves. Eventually, another pair appeared, then a third. Then, before we knew it, the feeder was covered with them. It was much like that sequence in The Birds wherein one bird lands on a jungle gym, then after a while the scene cuts back briefly to show a half-dozen, and after a while the scene cuts back to the same shot a third time, only this time you can't see the jungle gym for all the birds on it. Soon thereafter, the birds start breaking things.

So it went with us. The collared dove population kept increasing until by the start of this past summer, they had become a genuine nuisance. Scores of them would appear each day, occupying every square inch of the feeder. When they'd eaten all the food, they'd just hang out on the feeder like a street gang, blocking all other customers. We'd shoo them away, but they'd return in short order.

After a month or so of this, we looked out one day to find that the pole had actually bent under the weight of all those doves. Not only that, but they'd bent the feeder's mounting plate and the metal insert, and loosened all the joints badly. As a result, the feeder was pretty much useless.

Great, another unscheduled job. Well, at least it would be a quick, simple one. The hole was already dug. All I had to do was get a new feeder and a stronger pole, take out the old pole, empty the hole, put in the new pole, fill the hole up again, and put up the new feeder. It was a day's work at most, once I found a new feeder and a stouter pole.

I surveyed our usual online sources. I found a half-dozen or so feeders that would serve, but no poles long enough to suit me. I needed eight feet at least; we'd learned from experience that this pole length was necessary to place the feeder high enough to keep our invited dinner guests safe from our canine security detail when the pole was sunk to the proper depth. Anything less than 8 feet, and either the feeder would not be high enough, or the pole would not be stable enough.

At that point, I came down with a pretty bad case of pneumonia, and was out of commission for about six weeks. When I recovered, I was wholly occupied with the task of catching up on all the general maintenance that had gone undone during my illness. I was desperate to get back to my raison d'etre, finishing the exterior restoration.

In order to defer replacement until I had the time to find a suitable new feeder and pole, I reset the old pole in its sand to counteract the bend somewhat and did what I could to fix the other damage. This made the feeder marginally usable. To discourage Las Palomas Gordas from wreaking further damage, we put out only peanuts, which are too big for them to eat. This would at least take care of the squirrels, jays and crows.

After resetting. The feeder was pretty wobbly on the pole.

November rolled around, and with the Christmas season fast approaching, I abandoned hope of getting back to the restoration anytime soon and began my usual seasonal preparations. Then, the weather turned decidedly colder, and Wifey, concerned for the winter welfare of the little birds such as finches, nuthatches, and sparrows who needed actual seeds to eat, took matters in her own hands. She selected a rather pretty new feeder with a roof, and brought her choice to my attention.

This brought the feeder project suddenly front and center once again, and so I put everything else aside in order to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. I liked her choice; it was somewhat smaller than the old feeder, which would lessen the load on the pole, and the roof would, I hoped, make the feeder less accessible to the collared doves, who were too big to fit easily under it.

I wasn't so sure about the pole that was intended to go with the feeder. It was one of those that I had rejected earlier. I didn't like its base: a foot-long socket that was to be buried in the soil. The socket was just a length of pipe with one end squashed. The pole itself was probably okay as far as it went; it was 80 inches long in three segments, and it looked like it could stand up under a load. I figured that at most 10 inches would slip down into the socket, putting the feeder at the absolute minimum height, which was fine. But that would put only one-eighth of the pole in the ground, which is not nearly enough. Good building practice dictates that at least a quarter of a pole or post's length should be in the ground, so that it can carry the load and still remain securely in place.

At this point, however, I was beginning to get desperate. As skeptical as I was about this pole's suitability, it was the only possibly suitable one I had found. Moreover, the company selling the pole is reputable and has been around for longer than I have. The pole's description specifically promised "super stability in any soil."

We've had a pleasant relationship with this company for over twenty years, and in all that time we'd never received a product that did not live up to its description. So I ordered the feeder and the pole. I wished, rather than believed, that the pole would come with a way to embed the socket securely enough in the earth to support the pole, feeder, food and birds.

In due course the order was delivered, but when I unpacked the pole I saw to my great dismay but utter lack of surprise that it came with no instructions, no revelation about its installation that would somehow render it usable. The pole was stout enough, but it was too heavy to be supported by that short socket once the feeder was mounted upon it. In any soil.

Self-evidently inadequate.

Perhaps the most irksome thing about the socket was that it had no drain holes in the bottom, and although the pole was advertised as being powder-coated, it appeared from the thinness of the coating to be merely painted. Thus, even if it were somehow possible to arrive at a stable mounting for this pole, the socket was doomed to rust fairly quickly from the unavoidable accumulation of moisture sitting in it constantly.

Not willing to give up just yet, I thought it might get us at least through the winter if I could drive it directly into the soil, but I had to give up on the attempt before I'd managed to get the socket more than two inches in; our ground is so dense that at that point the top of the socket was already beginning to flatten. It would be unusable before I got it halfway in. If I had tried to sink it in sand, it would slip to one side as soon as I put the feeder on it.

The pole purchase was nonetheless necessary, because I needed the feeder mounting plate that it came with; it has a nice, sturdy socket on the bottom that slips onto the top of a pole and tightens securely with a thumbscrew. I could work with it, if I could find a suitable pole it would fit upon.

If. This put me back at square one. It didn't matter that I had a swell new feeder, because I had no suitable pole for it, and my muse had thus far failed to guide me in the proper direction.

Getting increasingly anxious to put this task behind me, I decided to put the feeder together while I awaited divine inspiration regarding the pole. It was a very pretty feeder, made of solid unfinished cedar with iron roof supports. The stock used was even 7/8 of an inch thick, just like the 4/4 S1S stock used throughout the Farm House. Wifey had chosen well, it seemed.

My job was to screw the supports to the base, then the roof to the supports. It seemed simple enough. They had even put little dents were the screws were supposed to go. The instructions said to line up the holes in the supports with the dents in the wood and start screwing away. They even said it was "OK" if some of the screws didn't go in straight.

Well, skewed screws may be okay with them, but certainly not with me. Furthermore, as I've pointed out more than once, it's never good practice to drive screws into wood without pre-drilling the hole first; either the wood will split or the screw will break.

I became rather annoyed when I looked at the provided screws; they bore a thin yellowish finish that was unsuitable for outdoor use in any event, and especially unsuitable for use in cedar, which is readily and deeply stained by such screws. I briefly considered going out to get the proper stainless steel screws, but at that point I just wanted to get the job done as quickly as possible. Besides, no one else would likely ever see the screws, or the ugly black stains they would make. So, I forged ahead.

Before pre-drilling the holes, I checked the alignment of the guide dents. Fully half of them were way off the mark. I was beginning to suspect that these people just didn't take their business seriously. This was a very expensive feeder, and these blackguards couldn't even be bothered to put their dents in the right place. No wonder it was OK with them if the screws didn't go in straight; once you reject pre-drilling, it's a slippery slope.

I made proper guide marks where they belonged, then drilled pilot holes. Then, I grabbed a screwdriver of the appropriate size and slowly drove the first screw most of the way in, at which point the still-protruding part of the screw, with no warning, twisted right off, despite my having pre-drilled the hole. One of the most expensive feeders on God's green earth, furnished with the cheapest screws I've ever seen. What were they made of, gutta-percha? At this point, I really wanted to drive these screws into my temples and have done with this whole mess. The walls were seriously closing in on me.

Not enough of the screw was left above the wood to back it out with pliers, so I went out to get one of those doodads that allow one to back out a damaged screw, as well as the stainless steel screws that should have been provided in the first place. I had to go to a few places to find these items, only to discover upon returning home that the diameter of the screw shaft was too small for the screw-extractor doodad to work. So I just left the broken screw in place and put the blasted thing together with no further trauma nor offense to my bleeding sensibilities.

I then turned back to the problem of finding a suitable mounting for the feeder. I hit upon the idea of using a 4x4 wood post; I knew the company that sold the feeder had feeder mounting plates for such posts, and this would definitely be strong enough to carry the load. They also mentioned in the feeder's description that it could be mounted on a 4x4 post.

This idea ran aground when I discovered that, in fact, the feeder couldn't be mounted on a 4x4 post, at least not with the only mounting plate the company sold for that purpose; the bottom joist of the feeder wasn't wide enough to accommodate it. I could have modified the feeder to address this problem, but I decided to look for a simpler solution.

As I mentioned, the receptacle provided with the pole that came with the feeder was sturdy enough, so I resolved to try to find a pole that would fit it that would also provide a solid mooring for the feeder. I figured Ganahl Lumber was a promising place to start, because they have an admirable selection of building materials, and they always make me feel at home there.

As usual, Ganahl came through for me. 

Thar be poles here!

I found a nearly perfect solution: a 10-foot length of 3/4-inch (inside diameter) rigid electrical conduit. Despite its name, it's flexible enough to withstand stress and snap back to straightness without staying bent permanently.  It's sturdy enough to carry the weight of a hundred collared doves, made of galvanized steel to resist corrosion, and it has an outside diameter of just over one inch. I say "nearly" perfect because I would have to reduce the diameter of the pole's top down to an inch in order to accept the receptacle.

But I didn't think that would be very hard.

Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I actually get to the point.

* * *

The Wily Forest Cat lies in wait for his prey, after having hidden all the remotes.