Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Reaching Toward the Roof

I accomplished almost nothing on the Nebraska Sod House during the entire month of December. The days sped by, and suddenly there was January, presenting me with a new year and a new view from my workroom window. All that white stuff also presented me with a good reason to stay inside and get busy working on my soddy again.


In my last post, I had increased the height of the sod walls because I mistakenly thought that I hadn't allowed enough space for the roof beams to fit over the windows. I was wrong. So my first construction task of the new year was to saw off that extra height. I made a big mess, but not as big as I expected. 

The tops came off so easily and smoothly that there was very little interior repair necessary. That was a great relief!

I applied more brown paint to the top of the shorter walls to cover any white styrofoam that might show through the sod. I'm right back where I started from in November!

Now my homesteader can continue to build up the sod walls. When the walls reached waist level, a wagon, if one was available, was driven alongside the wall to provide a working platform for handling the heavy sod. If no wagon was available, perhaps he used a table to stand on. (Lay the sod, drag the table; lay the sod, drag the table.)

Robert, my electrician, also put wiring in at this time for display lighting.


The walls have reached the top of the window opening; it's time to build the wood box frames for the window and door openings. At least, that's the way I did it. My homesteader would have built his simple, open box frame as soon as the sod wall reached the desired level for the window sill, set the frame in place, propped it up with sticks, and built the walls up around it.

I tried a dry fit for a side window and frame. The soddy's two small windows will have pins set in each side frame so they can swivel outward from the bottom.

Also a dry fit for the front window and door box frames. The door will be made later. The most common type of window was the twelve-pane double hung sash window that could be raised or lowered from the top or bottom. The sod walls didn't permit the use of counterweights, so when the windows were raised, they had to be propped open with sticks. In some cases, if the walls were too short for the windows to fit upright, they were installed horizontally and could be opened by sliding the frame to one side.

Most windows were set in their frames close to the outer walls, rather than even with the interior walls, to avoid any possibility of water settling and washing away the sod. This provided deep window sills inside, where they offered needed storage space. (The deep sills also gave the homesteaders a dry place to sit when rain leaked through the roof and soaked everything else!) Many homesteaders plastered the inside of the window wells to avoid the dark shadows created by the bare sod blocks.

Since all windows and glass panes were extremely expensive and seldom to be found in the small prairie towns, many settlers brought windows with them, as many as they could afford, carefully swaddled in quilts for the long wagon journey. If they arrived without windows and couldn't find them in a town - or couldn't afford to buy them - they would make do with a canvas covering for the window openings, or sometimes cover the opening with oiled paper, which would let a little light into the soddy.

The wood for these frames and windows is ready to be painted or whitewashed, then "weathered" a little. This soddy is not very old, so hasn't undergone much wear.

I stuccoed the interior of the deep window and door openings, which will be sanded and whitewashed.

All the window frames, the windows, and the door frame are ready to be installed... 

... as are both side windows.

All the box frames are installed, leaving a "buffer zone" between the top of the frame and the window opening. The front windows will be next...

...along with the small west window...

...and the east window waits its turn.

This is the collection of sticks that will serve as "cedar" posts for the over- window support beams. Cedar is a tough, rot-resistant wood that the homesteader could often find along creek banks, although finding a straight limb of the right length was not easy.

I've cut the sticks into appropriate lengths to use as support posts.

Two cedar posts for each window will be laid over the top of the sod blocks, leaving a gap between the top of the window frame and the cedar beam. This space will be filled with rags to prevent the settling of the sod over the window, which could result in a jammed window and broken window panes. The door frame will receive two cedar posts for support as well.

Views of the front and the east side of the soddy before the support beams are installed.

The cedar posts for support beams have been installed over all the windows and the door.

A view of the small windows that swivel outward at the bottom.

A simple method of propping the windows open.


More courses of sod blocks are laid above the support beams to reach the desired height of the soddy. This photo shows the west side of the house.

And the east side.

This is the front view of the soddy, showing the support posts and the overall height of the house. In many of the photographs that I looked at before I started construction on the soddy, some of the windows seemed to lean drunkenly to one side or the other, because of the premature settling of the sod blocks. I decided that was a nice touch of authenticity, so I spent some time and effort to have a window leaning at a drunken angle. However, now that it's way too late to correct its posture, I realize that the window doesn't look authentically askew; it just looks like a crooked window. 

The time has come to add sod blocks to the sides of the partial back wall; all the blocks have to be built up to the same height as the other three walls.

I thought the back (north) wall was finished - but then...

...I found better "roots" for the sod blocks that make up the wall.

This photo shows the left half of the wall with new roots, compared to the right half that has the old "skimpy" roots.

The new root system looks much more like the thick, tangled roots in Real Life prairie sod.

The last step (for this post) is to stuff rags in the "buffer zone" over the window frames and the door frame. I used unbleached muslin, colored darker by soaking  in black coffee to simulate weather stains. I wanted a blotchy effect, but the pieces insisted on being rather uniform in color. 

I tore the fabric into approximately two-inch (24-inch Real Life) pieces, which I thought would be a manageable size for the homesteader to work with when he pushed the pieces into the space over the windows. I let the fabric dry. 

The rags have been stuffed into the buffer zones over the window and door frames. I added some sod-color blotches with a paintbrush and a grayish wash after the rags were in place.

Now the sod walls have reached the roof height, so one of the next steps will be to build a sod roof. The roof was the most important part of the sod structure, so the homesteader has a hard task before him. I hope he finds a neighbor who can help with the job.


I must share with you these tiny treasures that Jodi (My Miniature Madness) sent me. I'm so happy to have received the perfect pink chair, along with a basket of kitchen towels, books and a tasseled book mark (!) There is a tiny cup of tea with a minute tea bag (how is that possible?) and a jar of honey to sweeten the tea - even the teensiest spoon for stirring, and boxes of tea so I can keep on enjoying those "cuppas." The beautiful pot of flowers and the birdhouse bring a breath of spring even in January and will add color and cheer to a wintry landscape. I'm so excited about all these delights, but they're much too elegant to find a place in the soddy, so I'll put them safely away until my next build - where they'll fit in to perfection. Jodi must have read my mind! Thank you again, Jodi. You've warmed my heart with your sweet thoughtfulness.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Soddy Grows Up

In my last post, we left my homesteaders ready to prepare their home site for the construction of their sod house. Their first step will be to stake out the corners of the house, but they must wait for a clear night so that one wall can be lined up with the North Star. In true pioneering spirit, the homesteaders want their home to stand "square against the world."

After the corners have been staked out, the homesteader, hopefully with the help of a neighbor, will begin cutting the sod blocks. The house will have an inside measurement of 14' x 18' and will require approximately one and a half acres of sod. Each sod block weighs about 50 pounds, and is limber rather than rigid, so carrying and laying the blocks is ideally a two-man job.

It will take my homesteader two to three weeks to build his soddy, depending on the weather and on how much help he can muster. Meanwhile, he and his wife will live in their covered wagon, thankful that the weather is warm. Not all settlers arrive in a wagon. Some come by train; others are on foot. Without the convenience of a wagon to provide temporary shelter while their soddies are constructed, these settlers resort to carving a "dugout" from a hill or embankment. This cave-like shelter has only dirt for the floor, the roof, and three walls. A piece of canvas can be hung to cover the front opening. If canvas isn't available, a rough, movable wall might be created using brush and small branches gathered from the banks of the nearest creek.

I'm sorry to say that my sod house will not be completed in such a short time as two or three weeks - or probably not even in two or three months! But I've accomplished some things, in spite of myself, and the following photos show my progress. Of course, the photos also show my usual setbacks as I get started - and restarted.


I started laying the first course of sod blocks on the flat, unassembled styrofoam walls, thinking that working with the walls lying flat would be the fastest method. I soon realized that the blocks weren't all lined up evenly with the bottom of the wall - because the bottom of the walls weren't completely even. When I raised the walls upright for a trial run, the blocks were poorly seated, which made the walls wobbly. 

 I removed the uneven first course of sod blocks and secured the walls in their upright position, using my usual toothpicks-and-glue technique. Then I started over, laying the blocks flat on the base board.
Success! Now I can proceed with laying the sod blocks.


I cut a shank of prairie grass (oven-roasted corn silk) into bits of about 1/4" in length.

Next I use a brush to apply glue to the bottom front edge of a sod block. I tried just dipping the edge into the glue, but that became very sticky and messy very fast. The brush prevents (mostly) such sticky, icky fingers. I also apply glue to the back edge of the block, which will be placed against the styrofoam wall.

Then I press the glued front edge of the block into the grass.

Finally, the block is laid in place and pressed against the styrofoam wall. I also insert toothpicks at intervals to secure the sod blocks. The excess grass that you see in this photo will be gently brushed away. Every fourth course or so, the sod blocks are laid crosswise instead of lengthwise along the wall, in order to bind the inner and outer blocks firmly together and add stability to the structure.
(You may remember that my solid styrofoam "inner" walls would, in Real Life, be an inner wall of sod blocks just like the outer wall.)

The sod blocks are laid with the grass side down, allowing the roots to grow upward into the blocks above, strengthening the wall.


Hmmm...these walls seem to have grown a little taller since the first two photos in this post. You will not be a bit surprised to learn that I had to increase the height of the walls because of an OVERSIGHT! Yes, I made a mistake! Or, actually, I thought I had made a mistake, but as it turned out, I was mistaken in thinking that. 


 As I was laying blocks on one of the end walls, I took a long look at the window opening, and I remembered that there is supposed to be a half-inch space between the top of the window frame and the support beam over the window. This space would have been filled with paper or cloth to provide a "buffer zone" so that as the sod blocks settled, the weight of the wall wouldn't break the window panes. The same is true of the door frame, to avoid jamming of the door. I realized that if I belatedly cut that half-inch of space, the support beam would be too close to the roof, allowing no space for the roof beams.

 I set about correcting the error by adding an inch and a half to the height of the walls. That makes the walls higher than I would like, but not unrealistically high. Of course, the addition meant some more interior work, as you'll see below - and the end of this story will follow.  

I had to add more wine packaging "bumps" to the addition...

...then cover the bumps with joint compound. Then sand a bit and eventually repaint the entire room.

At this point, before I painted the room again, I got out my windows - four of them - and tried them again for fit. And - guess what?! All four were consistently exactly one-half inch too short for the window opening! Yes. When I had cut the window and door openings, I had, with due diligence and great intelligence, allowed the necessary extra half-inch that was needed for the paper or cloth buffer. Except that I had let too much time pass before moving ahead with the construction and forgot what I had already done. My memory is way too short for such a long time lapse. So there you have it - my full confession. I may yet reconsider and saw off most of that addition, making another mess and a lot more work. But that'll be another story!


This is a close-up photo of the low back wall. There is an implied solid sod wall here, but I've left it open for viewing purposes. 

I initially thought that I would stucco the top of the wall the same as the interior, then I changed my mind and treated the wall as it would have looked during the sod laying. The adjoining wall edges will later be treated the same. I just need to decide how those sod blocks would be laid, and that will be easier to determine after the corners are finished.

In this close-up of the top of the wall, you can see the grass roots entangled in the sod. The roots were so tough and thick that as the sod was cut into strips by the cutting plow, the ripping grass roots made the sound of a giant zipper being opened.

Building up the sod courses. Each course should be laid all around the structure before the next course is started, in order to keep the walls as level as possible. A course of "crosswise" sod blocks is ready to lay.

A course of crosswise blocks has been completed along one end of the house.

The sod walls grow higher along the front and west end....

...and another "binding" crosswise course has been completed on the west end.

That's the extent of my progress to date. The walls will continue to grow upward as planned, but otherwise, construction will be by trial and error as I move on to the next steps. In spite of the various setbacks - with more certain to follow - I'm enjoying this project immensely, even while wading into unknown territory. But as I navigate through the unknown in the safety of my workroom, I imagine with what trepidation and uncertainty those pioneers faced the building of their own homes and the settling of a new land. What courage!