A wood-buying expedition

As of four weeks ago we’re allowed to travel for other than “essential purposes” again, but not to stay away from home overnight unless it’s in self-contained accommodation. On a sunny day late last month we opted to go for a drive in North Yorkshire, the excuse being that we needed to visit Duffield Timber to buy hardwood for our old railway bench. This is the bench that consists of two cast iron legs and 4 pieces of wood. We repainted the legs in 2018 and promised ourselves that, one of these days, we’d replace the painted softwood with something more durable and better looking.

En route to the timber merchant we stopped for coffee in Masham, a lovely town with a huge market square and two famous breweries. Cafes, pubs and restaurants are still only allowed to serve customers seated at outside tables, but that wasn’t a problem in the warm sunshine. It felt like a real treat, especially as this was the furthest we’d been from home in over a year.

Duffield Timber

Then on to Duffield Timber where we had a good browse around and settled on iroko, an African hardwood that is similar to teak and just as suitable for outdoor furniture but a lot easier to find nowadays. We drove home with a large board and two smaller ones sticking out of the boot. I’d been hoping to find some offcuts of exotic hardwoods to play around with in addition, but there was very little of interest in the clearance section and I can’t really justify spending £50-100 on a full-sized board that I’ll probably never use fully.

Iroko for bench
The rough-sawn iroko

We spent a full day the next weekend working on this rough-sawn timber. First we had to saw one of the smaller pieces down the middle to make it into the lower rail of the seat back and the support that goes underneath the seat. Then we trimmed the ends to make everything the same length, and trimmed the uneven sides of the big board that will become the seat, before using a router to round the edges that will come into contact with anyone sitting on the bench. Finally, there was a lot of sanding to be done, and iroko is notoriously dusty. I was totally exhausted by the end of the process even though I’d done very little beyond lifting and carrying.

A few days later my dear husband chiselled away parts of the seat support to get it to fit snugly into the legs. Then for more than a week we applied coats of Danish oil whenever the weather was fine enough – a long spell of dry weather had come to the end. We also ordered stainless steel coach bolts and nuts to replace the galvanised ones that were holding the softwood members onto the legs. They were surprisingly expensive, but it would be a shame to see the iroko stained with rust.

Railway bench before renovation
Before / After

Finally, we drilled the holes for the bolts and applied more Danish oil to the resulting bare wood before bolting the bench together. It feels like we’ve done it justice at last. Now we need the rain to stop and the weather to become more like it ought to be in May so that we can enjoy sitting on it.

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Repurposing a pet food bag

Empty Purina bag

Our cat is rather partial to Purina dry cat food, which comes in bags in a beautiful metallic blue colour with a couple of cat images interspersed amongst all the printing. I found an empty 3kg bag in the dustbin the other day, where my dear husband had put it – our local authority doesn’t accept this type of packaging for recycling. It seemed a shame to throw it away when much of it was such a gorgeous, shiny blue. I fished it out, gave it a wash and then wondered what on earth I was going to do with it.

Some time ago I made a few zipped pouches from printed cottons as Christmas stocking fillers and I thought this pet food bag might do for a similar pouch. The waterproof material would make it suitable for a make-up purse or a small sponge bag for a weekend away. I cut the “fabric” to make the best use of the larger cat image, and this is the result.

Front of cosmetic purse

Full details of how to make it are in my Make-Up Purse from a Petfood Bag Instructable. Unlike the cotton bags I’ve made in the past, this one has no bottom seam and it has squared-off corners to give it a base and allow it to stand upright. The only problem I encountered was turning it right sides out through a gap in the side seam of the lining, because scrunching it up to get it through resulted in horrendous creasing. I tried ironing an offcut of the “fabric” but there seemed to be no temperature difference between too cool to do anything and hot enough to distort the plastic and make it curl up. I tried a hairdryer and that didn’t do any good either.

Cosmetic purse before hot water treatment
Before the boiling water treatment

Then a fellow maker suggested boiling water. It worked a treat on an offcut of the cat food bag so I filled a shallow dish from the kettle and dipped the cosmetics purse in it thinking that I’d get away with a quick dunk without any water getting in. Of course, I’d forgotten that the stitching holes would let water inside. Worse, I’d used a water-resistant fabric for the lining thinking that it could then be wiped clean if anything spilt in the bag, but it meant that once water soaked its way inside the lining it was very hard to get it to leave, in fact just as hard as to get it to drain back out of the outer material through the stitching holes.

The bag took a while to drain once I’d lifted it out of the hot bath, and I didn’t dare pack it with screwed-up paper to stretch the “fabric” smooth because that would have impeded the drying process. I left it in the sun with the zipped opening propped wide and it did dry eventually. And I was pleased to see that the boiling water treatment had made a noticeable improvement in the crinkling. If I did it again I’d pull the lining out of the bag and use it to hold the bag upright in a deep dish of water up to zip height, thereby keeping the lining dry. That’s the way I’ve said to do it in the Instructable.

This took less than one side of the cat food bag, and there was another, smaller cat picture on the other side. I had a browse on Instructables and found Sew a Simple Oilcloth Wallet. I think it’s designed for US Dollars but I adjusted the dimensions a little to give me a wallet that would suit both Sterling and Euro notes. In fact, the size of a standard credit card is the limiting factor, widthwise. I plan to use this wallet for future cycling holidays – if we are ever able to go abroad again – rather than taking my big leather wallet. It’s small enough to slip in a pocket with maybe a dozen notes and three or four plastic cards in it. In the absence of foreign holidays I’ll just use it when I’m popping out for a walk or a bike ride and want to have a bit of cash in my pocket ‘just in case’.

The plastic “fabric” sews really well, I had no problems at all with the make-up purse using an ordinary polyester sewing thread and a fine, sharp needle. The wallet was trickier because I opted to use a thick polyester thread meant for buttonholes as the upper thread for all the topstitching. I didn’t want to risk it in the bobbin, it really is very thick. Whether it was the difference in upper and lower thread thicknesses or for some other reason – the fact that I had to use a large jeans needle to accommodate the thread, perhaps – the upper tension needed a lot of adjustment. Surprisingly, my normal Bernina setting of 5 was far too loose for this thick thread. I’m used to slackening the thread tension a bit for wide zigzag stitches, maybe to 4.5, and I can’t remember ever having to tighten the tension. But I had to turn the knob to 7 before I got an acceptable stitch with this buttonhole twist. I can’t understand why a thicker thread needed a higher tension, but it did.

It’s unfortunate that the placement of the cat picture on the food bag was such that it appears on the back of the wallet instead of the front, but never mind.

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Foraged pesto

The woods around our house are full of wild garlic at the moment, just beginning to flower. It’s called “ramsons” locally. When I was small it was regarded as something of a nuisance, as the smell can be overpowering and a lot of people don’t like it. But when more Brits started holidaying in Mediterranean countries in the 70s and developed a taste for garlic, the culinary potential of ramsons began to be recognised.

Wild garlic in the woods

I’ve been meaning to make something with wild garlic for a few years now. While on my walk the other day I decided that I’d better get on with it, or the opportunity would have passed for another year. I had a penknife in my pocket so was able to cut a leaf here, a leaf there without doing any appreciable damage to individual plants. They grow so thickly in these parts that the floor of the woods is completely covered and foraging a few leaves isn’t going to do any harm.

When I got home I washed the leaves and patted them dry with kitchen paper. Then I weighed them – just 15g. I should have picked a few more. I found half a packet of pine nuts at the back of a cupboard with a “best before” date of July 2018. They were a funny colour but I popped one in my mouth anyway – big mistake, it tasted rank. Fortunately, I found some walnuts that were fresher. I felt that a 2:1 ratio should be about right, so I weighed out 7½g of nuts and microwaved them for a minute or two to bring out the oils, a lot less fuss than toasting them. Then I blitzed them in a food processor, added the garlic leaves and blitzed again, before dripping in a tablespoonful of olive oil with the motor running. Finally, I grated in a little Parmesan and mixed it in.

A plate of pesto on crackers

Result: the freshest, greenest pesto you could wish for. From woods to plate in less than an hour. We ate it on cheese biscuits with a glass of moelleux Vouvray as an aperitif. There was only enough for 8 biscuits, I must pick a sensible quantity of leaves the next time and make a jarful.

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De-rusting chrome handlebars

In an idle moment I was watching one of those TV programmes in which two scruffy-looking middle-aged blokes find an old wreck of a car or motorbike and restore it. (In my defence, this pandemic has gone on so long that I’m doing all sorts of things to stave off boredom that I would normally never consider. I’ll be watching Top Gear next.) The tip I took away was that aluminium foil can be used to clean up rusty chrome plating. Or, I should say, chromium plating that has worn to the extent that there are pinholes in it which allow water to reach the steel below and cause it to rust.

My bicycle lives outdoors all year – albeit under cover now we have a new canopy – ever since I determined a few years ago that I would keep using it through the winter. It is 25 years old and, unsurprisingly, the handlebars look pretty rusty. I decided to give the petrolheads’ foil trick a go.

All you do is tear off a length of foil, scrunch it up, dip it in water to provide some lubrication and then apply it with elbow grease to the chrome plating. The aluminium is soft enough not to scratch the chromium but, in its scrunched-up form, rough enough to strip off the rust. As an added bonus, tiny pieces of aluminium are torn off and lodge in the surface pits, filling them in and making them much less obvious.

After maybe five minutes of rubbing the left side of the bars and the stem, this is what they looked like. Quite an incredible improvement.

It’s only a temporary fix – although I waxed the handlebars afterwards with some neutral-coloured shoe polish to keep the rain from re-rusting them straight away – but it’s so quick and easy to do that I’ll just repeat it whenever the rust is getting me down. But next time I’ll wear rubber gloves. My fingernails were totally black afterwards, like when you clean silver that hasn’t been touched in years, and if anything the blackness was even harder to shift. Despite much scrubbing and soap my hands didn’t look properly clean until two or three days later.

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Jacket re-style reveal

Black and white grosgrain ribbon

The non-essential shops are open again, thank goodness. Which means I was able to buy some grosgrain ribbon earlier in the week to finish my jacket re-styling project. I chose this black ribbon with a white stitch effect along the edges which I think complements the new black and white pearl buttons nicely.

The sleeves are now smoothly set in rather than puffed, the pockets have a new trim and have lost their elasticated, gathered-in tops, and the two-tone buttons I bought on a whim years ago have finally found a home.

Black velvet jacket before restylingBlack velvet jacket restyled

I’m pleased with the overall result. I’m sure I’ll be wearing this jacket a lot more now it’s had a revamp.

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Blackthorn winter and a little monster

I was chatting to my sister-in-law on the phone yesterday, complaining about the cold snap we’re experiencing. The days are bright but chilly, with temperatures hovering around 5°C, and we’ve had a few light snow showers. But only 10 days or so ago it was warm enough to sit outside in the afternoon sun. “Ah”, she said, “It’s the blackthorn winter”. I’d never heard this term before and had to ask her to explain. Apparently, blackthorn winter is the name for a cold spell that often occurs in late March or early April when the blackthorn is flowering, which it is now. I Googled it afterwards and it even has a Wikipedia entry. Who knew? I’m not sure it makes me feel any better knowing that this weather pattern is common enough to have been given a name though. I just want the weather to become spring-like again.

I’ve been confining myself to indoor jobs until it gets a bit warmer. As regular readers of this blog will know, I document a lot of my makery projects on Instructables – more than 50 to date, covering subjects from cookery and sewing to woodwork and coding. A few weeks ago I saw that there was a “speed challenge”, ie a contest with a short entry period, for projects involving zips (US: zippers). Now, I’ve had in mind for a while to make a little zipped purse in the shape of a monster, ever since I removed a ridiculously short zip from a pair of jeans and replaced it with one of a more sensible length that would actually allow me to get the jeans on without a lot of unseemly wriggling. What else is one to do with a 4” zip?

Materials for monster purse

I have some fur fabric left from a shoulder cape I made to go over strappy evening dresses.

And one of the last purchases I made from the much-missed Bonds before it shut in 2019 was a bag of toy safety eyes.

So I had everything required for this project, I just needed to figure out how to make a monster and then get on with it and write it up, all within a period of about two weeks.

I wasn’t sure about the tongue at first, given that it has to be outside the “teeth” (the zip) or it will just get caught in them. But it seems to work, and who’s to say that monsters don’t have their tongues in a funny place? And I hadn’t planned to line the purse until I saw how messy the zip tape and seam allowances looked when it was open. Fortunately, I had a scrap of plain red cotton fabric that was perfect for the job, and I think the purse does look much more monster-like now with its gaping red maw.

Monster purse

Having made the purse, photographed it and written up the Instructable (Monster Coin Purse) I had no further use for the purse and offered it around. A friend took it for his 5-year-old, monster-loving grandson, who is reportedly delighted with it. And I was equally delighted – possibly more so – to learn on Wednesday that the Instructable won first prize in the contest. That’s not quite as impressive as it sounds because there was a grand prize and then three first prizes, so actually it was more like an equal second.

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