Thursday, October 11, 2018

Steps, Missteps, and Next Steps

In 1862, the Homestead Act was passed, and many hopeful settlers began arriving in Nebraska from points east - and from foreign countries. For a $10 filing fee, any homesteader over the age of 21 could claim a quarter-section of land. After living on the claim for five years, and making improvements, the homesteader became the proud (or not) owner of 160 acres. Since there were few trees or stones available, the building material for homes was, of necessity,  the tough prairie sod, cut into blocks that were held together by a mat of grass roots. As time passed and more settlers arrived in Nebraska to build sod homes, the construction techniques were improved through shared experience.

The homesteaders who will live in my sod house have arrived in Nebraska in 1886, with only their most necessary household goods and tools packed in a covered wagon. There are sufficient railway lines now to enable them to order goods from back east - but the cost is prohibitive, and much time must be allowed to receive a shipment of supplies. For my homesteaders, as for most, "making do or doing without" is the usual way of life on the prairie.

After selecting the best possible building site - near a creek for a water supply, within a day's wagon trip to the nearest settlement, and only an hour's walk to a neighboring homestead - my pioneers are eager to begin cutting sod and building their new home on the treeless plains. 


The first step in constructing the soddy was to purchase a 4' by 4' piece of pressed wood (or something like pressed wood) from which to cut the base board for the house and its surrounding yard.

The cut board measures 28 inches by 36 inches. I've drawn the outline of the 2 1/2 inch thick walls on the board. You can also see the window and door placement and the red dots where I will drive in the nails that support the styrofoam walls.

Nails have been driven through the board from the underside so that the points project upward and can easily penetrate the styrofoam walls.

 I cut the three main walls and the low back wall from a 1 1/2 inch thick sheet of styrofoam.

(That's Robert's second homemade kayak on the right; it's a 17-foot beauty made from thin strips of walnut, western cedar, and Alaskan cedar. Robert used a kit from Redfish Kayak in Port Townsend, WA.) I could build one too, but styrofoam doesn't take too readily to the water.

What a fast and easy little structure; the dry fit didn't take long! This is the "inner core" structure. Rather than lay sod blocks for the entire structure, I will lay the blocks as an outer wall, creating only the illusion of two thicknesses of sod blocks, which would have been the Real Life construction technique. The interior measures 14 inches by 18 inches with an exterior measurement of 19 inches by 23 inches.

I've cut the door and window openings. Because of the thickness of the sod walls, very little light could enter a soddy, so the homesteader would put in as many windows as he could afford. My homesteader chose two large windows and two smaller ones; but he had to sacrifice having a wood floor and a wood roof. A sod roof and a dirt floor seemed a better choice than living in perpetual darkness. (I may have unduly influenced his decision, since I like a LOT of light in my home!)

The interior walls of a sod house were scraped with a sharp spade after construction to make them as smooth as possible, but after the sod had settled for a while, lumps and bumps inevitably appeared. I used pieces of egg cartons and wine packaging to rough up the walls.

This is the first layer of lumps and bumps. I applied joint compound over the cardboard pieces, but I forgot to take a photo.

The first layer didn't produce quite enough bumps, so I repeated the process...

...and applied more joint compound over the second layer of cardboard.

I smoothed out the joint compound. (But I didn't scrape the walls; I sanded instead.)

The interior walls of many soddies were plastered over with a soupy mixture of yellow clay, ashes, and water, and the walls were sometimes whitewashed as well. But a whitewashed wall couldn't stay white for long because of smoke stains from the cookstove or water stains from a leaky roof. (I will create more stains when the walls are erected and I have an idea of furniture placement, especially the wood cook stove.) 

I painted the exterior walls a dark color so that there would be no white styrofoam showing between the sod blocks.

Ah, the sod blocks! You may remember this Mystery Material from my previous post. I thought it would be the perfect thing for sod blocks, although it was oh so tough and hard to cut. But I optimistically believed that I could cut it with a fine-toothed saw. I couldn't. Not even with a power saw, which only sent black bits flying every which way and made a big mess. I could imagine what an ugly time I would have trying to cut as many sod blocks as I'll need. So - back to my usual stuff - the steadfast styrofoam!

I decided to cut the sod blocks from sheets of 1/2 inch by 12 inch by 36 inch styrofoam. The size is very convenient to work with.

I had discovered, in my experimenting, that the inside cuts of the styrofoam had ALMOST the perfect texture that I needed to replicate sod. After cutting one-inch wide strips of the styrofoam, I enhanced the texture by poking holes in the sod edge with a slightly blunt knife.

Things were moving along well. So well that I grew careless and FORGOT TO FOCUS. I had good intentions of trying out ONE strip of styrofoam to make sure that the spray paint would cover well and DO NO HARM. But instead, I put all the strips - every last one - into a paint box that I rigged up in the garage. And I sprayed the whole kit and caboodle in one fell swoop!

And I did a LOT of harm! The spray paint melted the styrofoam like a hot knife melts butter. And to add to the frustration, the spray paint didn't even cover well! The good thing is that I can still use much of the misshapen mess, because I'll need filler and odd pieces of sod as I build the walls.

So I started over with a new sheet of styrofoam. I hired Leo, my grandson who just celebrated his eleventh birthday, to poke the holes in the edges of the strips this time. (I told him I'd pay him a dime a strip. After a while, he asked how many he'd done. I said, "You've earned $1.60. How many do you think you've finished?" Without any hesitation, he told me he'd finished sixteen. He's quicker than his old granny in the numbers game!)

Strips cut, holes poked. Ready to paint - with acrylic paint and a brush this time!

Painting accomplished and NO HARM done! I've used a mixture of taupe, gray, and tan to achieve the color of old, dried sod.

The styrofoam strips have been cut into three inch pieces - and they're close to turning into sod blocks; I just need to add the prairie grass. This batch of sod blocks will be enough to get me started, but there are many more to come.

I had decided that corn silk would be an ideal material to replicate prairie grass, but I wasn't sure that it would dry to the red-gold color that I needed. But Lori, from "Works In Progress," suggested that I try drying the cornsilk in the oven at a low temperature - and that worked perfectly. Thank you, Lori! I "toasted" the cornsilk for about ten minutes at 250 degrees Fahrenheit ....

...which resulted in just the right color and texture for prairie grass. This big batch of "grass" should be enough to complete the soddy. And yes, we did enjoy eating fresh corn on the cob OFTEN this summer!

I've gotten this far so far, although I should have done more. It's been raining here for about forty days and forty nights, so although outdoor activities have come to a soggy halt and I'm confined indoors, my soddy time has been more limited than it should have been. Somehow various household tasks keep popping up to occupy my days. But I'm sort of on a Sod House roll now, so even if the sun should ever shine again, I'll be forced to neglect all outdoor chores and just concentrate on furthering the soddy construction. I hope that you'll stop by next time and see how (whether) those next steps are progressing.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A House Made of Nebraska Marble

It seems like months since I've published a blog post, but my calendar says that my Tuscan Villa Grand Finale was published only six weeks ago! I had planned to take a somewhat short break from miniature construction before starting my next project, but the break felt a lot better than I thought it would, so I've managed to drag it on and on. I've accomplished a multitude of things that have nothing to do with miniatures, and that felt good too. But now I have that itchy tingle in my fingers and the distractions in my mind that tell me it's time to start shrinking my world again.

I've known for a long time that my next miniature build would be a Nebraska Sod House. Actually, I started building a soddy more than twenty years ago but became overwhelmed at creating the sod blocks - and overwhelmed at the amount of work space that I would need to create them. I set that project aside and moved on, but I never entirely gave up the idea. Now I have a simpler construction plan and more work space - so the sod house is an idea whose time has come.

Although I know that I'm going to build a sod house, I haven't yet decided exactly how I'm going to go about building it. I've done much research, and the finished sod house is held firmly in my mind. But I'm experimenting to find the right materials to use for the construction, so this post is just to introduce my intentions and show my exploration into possibilities and probabilities.

This tiny sod house in Nebraska is a long way and a far cry from the Tuscan villa that I just finished! The soddy is located at the Sod House Museum in Gothenburg, Nebraska.

This sod house has been here for a long time; mine won't be quite so settled and worn - but old dirt is still old dirt! I like the cactus cluster growing on the roof.

The setting here is a bit more lush than the "treeless plains" that would have originally and realistically surrounded the house.

This bison is a full-size wire sculpture at the museum. The roaming buffalo are gone - but the memory of their majesty lives on. 

These are my research tools; I've had most of the books for twenty-plus years, but a few are recent additions.

I bought this book to research my first attempt at building a sod house; it's still the most instructive and informative of the lot and makes me want to build a Real Life soddy along with the miniature version!

Solomon D. Butcher traveled extensively in Nebraska, photographing homesteaders during the 1880s and 1890s. His photographs are an inspiration and make Nebraska pioneering history come alive.

Another informative favorite, filled with soddy construction techniques and humorous illustrations. 

Prairie sod, or "Nebraska Marble," was used out of desperation as a last-ditch building material by homesteaders on the Nebraska plains, where trees or stones were rarely to be found. Sort of the way I use styrofoam as a last-ditch material because even though wood is plentiful in Lincoln, it requires more skill than I possess. So styrofoam will be the building material of choice for my soddy's core construction.

To give texture to the "sod" blocks that I need, I've looked at several options. The texture of cardboard egg cartons may not be pronounced enough, but I found that wine crate packaging is sturdy and well textured, as are cardboard drink holders. The drink holders, however, don't have much usable surface - which is a drawback to the egg cartons as well. If I use the textured cardboard, I'll construct the walls from styrofoam and glue on strips of cardboard to resemble sod blocks. In the construction of a sod house, the blocks were laid in double rows to make the walls approximately 2 to 3 feet thick.

This is probably the optimal material, and I hope to use it for the sod blocks instead of the textured cardboard. I was so excited to find it that I didn't pay attention to what the product is called or what it's supposed to be used for. But I do know that it's a rubber-like material that's as tough (almost) as nails. I couldn't cut it with a knife, so I'll need to use a saw with a thin blade. This mystery material is the right thickness - sod blocks were 4" to 6" thick. They were cut 12" to 18" wide and 36" long and laid in the same way as bricks. Each sod block weighed about 50 pounds, so building a sod house was no easy task! But I especially like the texture of this material and the easy-to-handle strips that are 5 feet long and 4 inches wide. I have to experiment with painting the strips to achieve a taupe/gray/tan variation in color. If I use this material, I'll erect inner walls using styrofoam sheets, then lay blocks of this material as the outer sod block wall, rather than cut the hundreds of extra blocks for the inner wall.

I've also found several variations of prairie "grass" that will be glued to each sod block. I can, of course, try to use real dried grass, but so far I've seen only green grass, and I'd have to wait for it to dry and change color. This broom was in my stash and looks similar to dried grass, but it might not be flexible enough. When it's cut into very short lengths, it's likely to stick straight out instead of bending. That may be true of real grass as well.

This bag of vari-colored dried moss from Hobby Lobby has potential, but it may be too "curly" to  replicate wild prairie grass.

I picked up this bunch of something like seaweed from the shore of the lake where Robert was kayaking. It's too green, but I'm waiting to see whether it will turn a nice golden brown.

This is probably the perfect material to replicate the prairie grass that I need. I discovered it by accident when Robert bought some ears of corn at the store. Corn silk! Golden, light weight, flexible, easy to come by. I just have to let it dry out thoroughly. If it works as a grass substitute, we're going to be eating lots of corn for a while! 

I've come this far in my plans for the sod house, but the experimental phase will last a while longer. Then there's a floor plan to draw up; that won't be a demanding job, since there will be only one room in the soddy! But I will need to decide on the size, which I think will measure 14 by 16 inches on the inside, with a 20 by 22 inch exterior size. I'm still working on that decision, which must be made before I can cut and prepare the base board for the house. I'll also need to decide on the door, window, and chimney placement. This house will be the first that I've built that will be open in the back, thus making it possible - at last! - to have a front door and front windows. The completed soddy has a place reserved for it in our Nebraska Sandhills home, and it will rest on a centrally-located table, which will allow it to be viewed from all sides. I'm excited about that! I'm also excited to get started with the actual construction of this soddy, but I'm going to patiently plod along with the preliminary steps. I'll be back when I have some actual progress to show!

I hope you're enjoying your summer - I'm wishing you a long and lazy one.

Friday, June 1, 2018

A History, A Tour, and a Flowery Finale

This post will mark the completion of Villa del Vigneto, which I started building on Oct. 13, 2015, and completed on May 23, 2018. This is a very long post, for which I apologize in advance. I will use as few words as possible and let the photographs speak for themselves as I take you on a tour of the completed villa. (You know I love tours!) Those of you who may have followed my blogposts from the beginning will already have seen all the rooms that are included in the tour; I hope that you won't mind the repetition.



The villa was originally a farmhouse, built in 1750, with living quarters above a barn. There was also a storeroom in the barn and a dovecote on the roof. The farm was sold in 1850 to Leonardo Gabriele, a Venetian banker who remodeled the house and barn, turning them into a country house, or villa-fattoria, for his family. Leonardo dreamed of growing a vineyard and perhaps converting one end of the barn into a winery. He christened the retreat "Villa del Vigneto," - the villa of the vineyard. He incorporated a grapevine motif into various areas of the villa and planted a grape arbor outside the kitchen door. For various reasons, the vineyard was a dismal failure, but the villa's name, the grapevine motif, and the grape arbor remain. 

Now, in 1910, Leonardo's grandson, Leopoldo Gabriele, has inherited Villa del Vigneto and visits there as often as possible from his home in Venice. Leopoldo has undertaken more remodeling, and the villa now boasts electricity and indoor plumbing. Leopoldo's wife and daughter, along with his older spinster sister, spend every summer at the villa, and Leopoldo takes frequent breaks from his work to join them.



Our tour begins in the kitchen, because this was the first room that I completed in the villa.
Magda, the cook, has been preparing a board of sausage and cheese to take out to the terrazza beneath the grape arbor, where it will be enjoyed by Liliana and Leopoldo Gabriele, the owners of the villa. Magda has made herself a cup of coffee to drink as she begins dinner preparations but is letting it cool while she slips around to gather herbs from the garden at the back of the villa.

The beautiful toweling fabric with red and green striped trim was a gift from Elizabeth, along with the perfect red tomatoes, the carrots, sausage, and - way back on the counter - a jar of pasta. Thank you again, Elizabeth. That box of treasures goes on and on! 

Our tour takes us through this door that leads from the kitchen into the dining room.

The beautiful plates are from A Lavender Dilly.

 This arched opening is between the dining room and the entrance hall; we'll go through it later. 

If we go through the door on the right, we'll find ourselves on the terrazza, where Liliana and Leopoldo are still enjoying wine and waiting for dinner. But for now, let's cross the dining room, go through the arched doorway and into the entrance hall.

We're greeted here by Guido, the handsome Bloodhound created by Karl Blindheim. 

After crossing the entrance hall and bypassing the stairs, we'll walk through a second arched doorway into the living room, where we'll make a counter-clockwise circuit of the room.

As we pass by the doorway, we have a glimpse back through the entrance hall into the dining room. Guido has left his post for more interesting pursuits.

And we're back at the chair that the oboist has left for a moment. (Or maybe for more than a moment - Leopoldo plays the oboe, and he's ensconced on the terrazza with Liliana and a glass of wine.) We'll take this opportunity to go back through the arched door and up the stairs that you see through the opening.

Guido has returned to his post and will see us safely up the stairs.

The bathroom, which is located at the back west corner of the villa, was the first upstairs room to be finished. The door opens to a short hallway that leads back to the stair landing on the left or to the master bedroom straight ahead.

This bedroom belongs to Liliana and Leopoldo. Through the doorway, you can see the short hallway leading to the bathroom. The bedroom is at the front of the villa.

The door also offers a glimpse through to the stair landing.

The stair landing.

A view from the landing, through the arched opening to the hallway and into the bathroom.
There is an identical arched door on the opposite side of the landing that leads to two more hallways and two bedrooms on the east side of the villa.

You can barely see the doorway that leads from the landing. The short hallway here opens into the tranquil bedroom of Sophia Gabriele, Leopoldo's older sister. Zia Sophia has gone for an early evening walk with her niece, Gianna.

The short hallway makes a right turn into a long, long, hallway that leads to Gianna's small east bedroom or, farther along, to a door that opens to a small balcony on the east side of the villa.

We will enter Giana's bedroom here. Gianna is the fifteen-year-old daughter of the villa. This was the last room completed in Villa del Vigneto.

This concludes our tour of the interior rooms of the villa, and soon we'll continue the tour around the exterior premises. But first, I'll take this opportunity to interject some photos and information about the flowers, vines, and other landscaping elements that I've used in completing the villa.



I've never made a miniature flower before; I've only contrived flowers or arrangements from real-size fake flowers and leaves, which turn out to be of some vague generic variety. But I needed geraniums for the villa, and geraniums have such a distinctive look that I couldn't contrive a substitute. I bit the bullet and looked up a tutorial by Kris Compas - an excellent tutorial that was actually fun to do. Lacking Kris' expertise, I muddled my way through and was happy with the resulting geraniums, although there is much room for improvement if I make them again.

The tutorial said that the little spherical bases for the petals should not have folds. That was beyond my ability. Count the folds.

Stems have been added to the bases.

These are among the hundreds of geranium petals that I made. Each geranium consists of 15 petals glued onto the spherical base. 

Punching out geranium leaves from painted paper.

Leaves have been glued to flower stems, and I've made extra stems of leaves.

I didn't have orange paper for the geraniums, so I used red paper and painted the red flowers orange.

I did have to contrive some geraniums buds from a plastic stem of small pods.

The finished orange geraniums - Thank you, Kris!



I filled many pots with contrived "generic" flowers. I also added the pink geraniums that I made to the pots of mixed flowers.

I was having a hard time getting the flowers to stay in place in the pots. After I tried several methods unsuccessfully, Robert suggested that I try a mixture of used coffee grounds and glue, stirred together to a doughy consistency. I tried that, and it worked like magic, gripping and holding each flower stem as I inserted it into the arrangement - and the mixture dried to a stable, hard consistency that looks like soil.

Additional planters and other landscaping elements. I forgot to take a photo of the original benches and the cherub. This photo shows them with a coat of joint compound brushed on.

This aged bench and cherub will be used in the villa's entrance courtyard. The second bench will live on the terrazza.

These are some of the flower makings for the two wall planters and the urn in this photo.

Just when I thought I was all finished potting flowers, I decided that I really needed more. I started all over again with more bits and pieces from real-size flowers.

The wild-looking vines in the two long planters will grow through the balcony railings, and I'll add flowers to the restrained vines.

Now that the pots of flowers and other landscaping elements are in place, we're ready to continue our tour of the villa's exterior.



The west balcony off the master bedroom.


The balcony off Zia Sophia's bedroom.


The balcony at the end of the long hallway at the back corner of the villa.



We've worked our way from west to east on the upper level, so now we'll come down to the terrazza just outside the kitchen. The near door that you see in this photo opens into the dining room. Liliana and Leopoldo have left their chairs for a short time while they stroll down the drive to meet Gianna and Zia Sophia as they return from their leisurely walk. You may just glimpse Momi the Mouser inside the kitchen door near the chair.

Tosca, another of the villa cats, is watching and waiting - but for what or for whom only she knows.



Luca, the Brittany Spaniel, is also watching and waiting and may decide to run to meet Gianna, his favorite family member.



Here is the back of Villa del Vigneto, partially covered with creeping vines. 


And so the end of Villa del Vigneto's construction brings us also to the end of this post. I've grown very attached to the villa and its occupants during more than 2 1/2 years of working on it (and playing in it.) I'm sure that you can relate to the mixed emotions of elation and sadness that I feel upon completing this project. I'm happy, though, that the villa will continue to live in my home so that I can visit often. The doors are always open, the occupants are always welcoming, and the wine is always ready to pour - so please join me at Villa del Vigneto at any time!

I'll be returning soon with a post that will introduce my next project (how fickle is that?!) which will be much smaller than the villa but will be challenging, nevertheless. Meanwhile, June is "bustin' out all over," and it's time to go out and enjoy the summer sun!