Sunday, February 24, 2019

Detours and Roadblocks Enroute to the Roof

Yes, the Sod House will eventually have a roof, when the time is right. I  believed that the right time had come, but when I sat down and thought about it, I realized that at least two things had to be accomplished before the roof could be raised. Those two things were simple things. Easy things. Which is probably why my mind had skipped right over them and gone straight to the top of the house. But I was right, in a way, because if this were a Real Life sod house, the roof would indeed have been in place before those two simple things needed to be done. But sometimes the miniature world sends us all topsy-turvy, and we must put carts before horses. So I hitched up the horse behind the cart, and, as could be expected, everything began to go wrong.

A Simple Dirt Floor: What's So Hard About That?

 Rarely did a sod house have a wood floor, because of the scarcity and expense of lumber. Sometimes the prairie grass inside the sod walls was cut short and left in place, and for a while, until the grass wore away, it had the effect of soft carpeting underfoot. But most soddies had a dirt floor that was scraped, smoothed, packed, and tamped until it was as hard as concrete. Sweeping was the only care necessary; and if the floor became dusty, a little water could be sprinkled on to settle the dust. I decided to try to replicate a concrete-hard dirt floor by spreading on a layer of drywall compound and painting it a dirt color. 

 But the floor seemed almost too smooth. I stippled on globs of thick paint, hoping that as it dried, the globs would remain in place. 

 Instead, the globs gradually flattened out, leaving me back where I started from, except with an extra layer of paint.

So I tried again by adding smears of drywall compound.

 I found a bag of brown ballast (fine) in the model railroad section at Hobby Town that seemed a perfect dirt substitute. I wanted just a faint sprinkling of loose dirt on the bumpier spots of the floor. But when I sprinkled it on over glue and let it dry, the material looked too granular, and was a completely wrong color. 

With a putty knife, I scraped off the whole mess. This was exciting: the floor had changed from worse to worst in sixty seconds flat!

 I decided there were maybe too many bumps, so I sanded down the drywall compound until the floor felt smooth again.

I repainted with the original color; but all that sanding was in vain. The bumps hadn't disappeared afterall.

I rummaged through my drawer of "aging" materials and found a container of taupe eye shadow that I just knew was going to be the perfect thing to achieve that loose-dirt look. I scraped the eye shadow into a small cup and mashed it up until it was smooth and powdery. Then I applied some glue in small random patches and sprinkled on the eye shadow, which instantly was no longer taupe, but a sort of tobacco brown. I cleaned off all that mess and repainted. 
And that's where I've left my concrete-hard dirt floor, until I come across something that looks like taupe-colored dirt. And why, you may well ask, doesn't she just go out and dig up some Nebraska dirt and try again with the real thing? The answer is, that's exactly what I plan to do as soon as (if ever) the temperature climbs above freezing and a foot of snow melts off my dirt.

Simple and Easy Smoke-Stained Curtains

I knew that hanging curtains would be very difficult if I waited until there was a roof to impede my movements and my working light. I chose a soft, lightweight fabric, sparkling white, so that the meager light entering the soddy wouldn't be diminished by the curtains. The curtains aren't necessary for privacy in the vast emptiness of the prairie - but they are necessary to add a touch of softness to the sparse soddy interior. I cut the fabric to the correct measurement, then turned under and glued the raw edges, leaving a wider rod pocket at the top.

I made pegs from the ends of toothpicks, although they're barely visible in this photo. The pegs will be inserted into the wall to hold the curtains. Twine was threaded through the rod pocket and wrapped, then tied, around the pegs.

 A closer view of the pegs and twine. The excess length of twine will be snipped off before I hang the curtains

I dipped the curtains in a mixture of glue and water, pressing out the excess mixture.

 The curtains are shaped and pinned in place to dry before adding the tie-backs.

 I used one of my smallest drill bits to drill holes on each side of the windows where the pegs will be inserted.

After adding the tie-backs to the dried curtains, I dabbed glue onto each peg before inserting it into place in the drilled hole.

 So far, so good! The curtains hang naturally and will block only a bit of available light from the window. This is the southeast window.

 This is the southwest window. The cookstove will be nearby on the west wall. The wall will be smoke stained. The ceiling will be smoke stained. I suppose the sparkling white curtains won't escape the smoke stains, so realistically I should stain them up a bit. It's also quite likely that dirty rain water will wash in from the top of the window, so a few water stains would add another touch of realism.

So I pretended to be smoke stains and dirty rain water stains, and I stained and stained, a slight bit more on the west than the east side. I used a soft brush and did all the staining with the curtains in situ. I thought that I was being very moderate in applying the stains, but when the curtains dried, I was appalled at how really filthy they looked! This will never do; the hard-working, homesteading woman of the soddy would be mortified to have those curtains hanging in her house.

I took the curtains down and tried to cover the stains with white paint, which transformed worse to worst, just like the floor fiasco.

So I started all over again with a fabric that isn't sparkling white.

 Same technique.

Dip in a glue/water mixture, then shape and pin. This fabric is heavier and doesn't shape as easily or hang as naturally. It also weights down the twine so that the curtains sag a little, but that does seem more realistic to me, since twine isn't rigid.

That's All She Wrote

This is what I have to show for a LOT of time spent on the soddy: sagging curtains and a recalcitrant floor. But I'll conquer the floor yet, and I've decided to let the homesteader take care of her own curtains; she has a sewing machine, and I'm sure she's a better seamstress than I am. So all is well, and I've finally got the horse and cart in their proper places. I'm very eager to get on to the NEXT THING - the ROOF!

Sunday, February 3, 2019

A New Old Stove for the Soddy

Yes, I know that I'm supposed to be working on the roof for the Nebraska Sod House, but I encountered a major and irresistible distraction that I just could not ignore. The soddy needs a wood-burning cookstove, although it won't be burning wood. What it will be burning is information that I'm withholding until it's time to start cooking that first meal. I looked and looked at cookstoves online, and I finally found one that I really like, even though it's obviously made of wood and not cast iron. I wanted a stove with an overhead warming oven, just because I like the extra height that it offers. I also like that it has a small three-burner cooktop, so it isn't as deep as those with four or six burners and will fit nicely in the small sod house. I ordered the stove, thinking that I'd work on changing it a little when I'm ready to furnish the soddy. The stove arrived quickly, and I opened the package and immediately dropped whatever I had been working on and started rummaging through my bins and drawers and boxes and bags to find parts that might work to turn the shiny wooden stove into a well-worn cast iron cookstove that will serve to feed and warm my young homesteaders in their prairie venture. 

This is the original wood stove that I ordered because I like its height, although I thought that it looked more like a cabinet than a cast-iron wood-burning cookstove. I took a chance, hoping that I could make it over.

I started the makeover with a few brass photo-corner embellishments.

There are more embellishments to come. I removed this broken warming shelf (on the left) from an old cast iron stove with missing parts. I used a bolt cutter to snap off the protrusions from one edge so that I could glue the shelf flat against the side of the stove.

The embellishments are complete - and the warming shelf has been glued on successfully. I cut a circle from wine packaging for the center of the oven door.

The first coat of flat black paint has been applied over all.

I found more add-ons! I took the stove pipe from the broken cast-iron stove and cut it down to fit the height of the soddy's walls. It's larger in diameter than the pipe on the original stove, and I think it looks more proportionate. I cut the leftover straight piece in half lengthwise to make a half-round pipe to fit between the stove's cook top and the warming drawer. I also found a brass curtain rod in my stash to attach to the stove front for a drying rod. (At least I think that's what those rods were used for.) The toothpicks in the background are holding painted connectors meant for bead chains. The connectors will be used for door handles on the oven, firebox, etc. I discovered a second cast-iron warming shelf in my stash, so I glued it to the opposite upper side of the stove. (That piece is not quite technically accurate, but it adds some necessary detail.)

The stove after a second coat of paint. For a final finish, I added some age and wear by lightly brushing on a rust-color wash in spots.

All the pieces are glued on. The oven door handle has a larger metal piece (a button) for a backplate. You can see the half-round stovepipe against the backsplash.

A close-up view of the half-round stovepipe. I found a small metal piece in my stash to use for the spin vent draft control. (I think that's what it's called.) It isn't quite the right piece but was as close as I could come. I painted it black, hoping that it would sort of disappear into the stovepipe. I bent a flat piece of metal and twisted wire around the end to make a lid lifter, then replaced the original small lids with larger ones from the broken stove. I never thought that broken old stove would be so useful!

Additional views of the completed cast-iron cook stove.

So that's what I've been doing with my soddy time for many hours. I'm happy with the stove, and I think the homesteaders will be pleased. But now I hear that soddy crying out for a roof - quick before the next rainfall! I'd better get busy.

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.