Ralphie as a Hot Dog

Just wanted to throw in a quick post to share some cute pictures of Ralphie. Heidi found a hot dog outfit for him that, for once, he doesn’t seem to mind wearing. Its too warm out at the moment to make a difference but I could see this working as his jacket once the temperature starts to drop.

I think he’s looking pretty cute and let’s face it, it’s always appropriate to have a wiener dog dressed as a wiener. 🙂

Gingerbread House Part 2, the Construction

In the last installment we mixed up our gingerbread, traced out our pieces, and baked everything. Now its time to put it together in the gingerbread house construction phase.

Holding the parts together requires some icing to use as glue. Traditionally this is done with a “Royal Icing” made from icing sugar and egg whites with a bit of flavor added if that is your preference. This works fine and is the way my dad did it while I was growing up. I have a bit of a challenge in that my youngest daughter developed an anaphylactic allergy to egg when she was very young. Although she has now, luckily, grown out it, it did force me to find a different recipe for the icing that didn’t use eggs.

In searching around the interwebs, I came across a recipe that used the liquid from a can of chick peas, also called aquafaba, as a replacement for the egg. There are a few of these recipes floating around and I’m sure that most of them would work but, for reference, the one I use is essentially what you can find here. The only change I make is to reduce the amount of aquafaba a bit to make the icing slightly thicker. Once dry, it is more or less indistinguishable from traditional egg based royal icing.

With pieces and glue in hand, its time to put things together. There are two gotchas in the gingerbread house construction that you’ll need to deal with. The first is that no matter how carefully you mark the pieces and cut them, the cooking process will distort the lines just enough that things won’t come together cleanly. Second is that the icing isn’t structural until it has finished drying so you need a way to keep to the pieces in place until that happens. If you read many of the other blog posts on our site you’ll know I do some woodworking as well and the skills come in handy in addressing these issues.

Squaring the Pieces

Unless you have some baking secret that I’m unaware of, the pieces that you prepared for your house are likely not very square. You can put a house together as is but you’ll end up using a lot of icing to try and bridge the gap. To minimize this, you’ll want to make sure that the edges of the pieces are a straight as possible.

If I was doing this with wood, I’d pull out a plane and do a few passes to straighten the edge. As this is gingerbread, that’s not really an option but you can do something similar by laying a fine grater on a cutting board and running the pieces across it until true.

Straighten the edge of piece of gingerbread with a grater.

It only takes a few passes per piece and will make the rest of the construction considerably easier.

Gluing It Together

This is the fun step as you move from preparations to activities to actually building a gingerbread house! As I mentioned above, the icing doesn’t become structural until it is dried so one of the main challenges is holding the pieces in place until that happens.

When I first started building these houses, I would use Popsicle sticks to try and shore up the construction but this was less than successful. I’ve found a better method is to “nail” the pieces together using toothpicks for nails.

The process is pretty simple:

Put a bead of icing down and stick the two pieces together, While holding them in place, carefully drill a small hole through the gingerbread sheet and into the edge of the adjoining one.

The diameter of the drill bit you use should match the diameter of the toothpicks you will use later. You do need to take some care at this stage to drill into the middle of the thin edge of the adjoining piece. Its easy to get a bit crooked and come out the side. If this happens, don’t worry, it’s easy to cover up later.

Once you have the hole drilled, simply insert toothpick to act as a mechanical fastening device.

After sitting overnight, the icing will have hardened into a very effective structural component and you can simply pull the toothpicks and move on. When putting on the roof sections, you really only need one toothpick at the top corners of panels. There is no need to pin at the bottom, the weight of the panel will hold it in place as is.

Here’s a look at the completed structure waiting to set up.

That’s about enough for now. In the section, we’ll do the decorating to finish up. Thanks for reading!

Part One of this series can be found here.

Gingerbread House Part 1, the Recipe

Its been a while since I last put a post up so I’m actually writing about our Christmas tradition in the middle of July. Embarrassing I know. Still better late than never I suppose. In this post, I’ll cover off the gingerbread house recipe and baking process that I use to create the pieces of gingerbread used in the construction of the house.

The Christmas season pretty much uses up all my time preparing for the holidays and doing fun stuff with the family. One of the pieces of that preparation is the annual Gingerbread House build. This is something that we do every year. I’ve posted pictures of the houses from previous years here.

This year, I decided that I would document the creation of the house rather than just posting the pictures of the final project. Though, as I mentioned, I’m only actually getting to that 6 months later!

The gingerbread house recipe that I used here (and every year) is the same one that my father used when I was growing up. It is simple, straightforward, and creates a solid but tasty substrate for building the house. The only real challenge in making the recipe is how solid it is. It makes mixing it by hand a chore and by traditional mix master nearly impossible. Luckily, if you have access to a strong mixer, a KitchenAid in my case, that has a dough hook, it can handle the mixing duties just fine. So, without further ado – lets get going.

As I mentioned, the recipe is straight forward. The amounts shown below are for a single batch but I use two batches to make the house each year.

  • 1 cup shortening (I use vegetable shortening)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 Tbsp ginger

In a large pot melt the shortening and remove from heat. Transfer to the bowl of the Kitchen Aid and, using a dough hook, add the sugar and molasses. Sift 4 cups of flour with the remaining ingredients and add gradually into the molasses mixture while running the Kitchen Aid on low. Continue to mix the dough while working in the last cup of flour. The dough will be crumbly but do not add liquid. Divide in half and wrap in foil. Make a second recipe of dough and refrigerate both.

When ready to bake the dough, remove from the fridge and allow to come to room temperature. If needed, you can place it in the microwave for a few moments to soften the dough but be careful not to overheat. Roll out the dough to about 1/4″ thick and place on a silpat on a cookie sheet. Mark out the house pieces with a sharp knife but do not cut all the way through. Leave the excess dough in place.

Bake in a 350 degree oven for 15-20 minutes, or until deep brown. Remove the gingerbread from the oven and retrace the lines with a sharp knife cutting fully through. Let cool and separate the house pieces from the off-cuts. Please note that in the pictures below, I’ve already pulled the off-cuts away after baking. Do this after baking, not before! If you pull them off before baking, the edges of the pieces will distort severely.

Don’t throw away the off-cuts! The tradition in our house is to not break into the gingerbread house until Christmas day so the off-cuts are the only chance you’ll get to taste the wonderful gingerbread before then.

Next installment, we’ll put the house together!

Part 2 of this series can be found here.

The Robins Return!

The robins have again decided that our back porch light would make a great location for a nest.

And so the laying began though, unlike last year, we ended up with only two eggs in the nest.

It was only a few days until we got some activity in the nest. Unfortunately only one of the eggs actually hatched. While its unfortunate that the other egg didn’t hatch, it did make for a very fast growing and plump little robin for the one that survived.

On one of the last days before it fledged, the baby robin mistook the camera for mom bringing food and nearly jumped out of the nest trying to get at it!

You can say right down the throat 🙂

Here is a picture from the last day before fledging where he is much more relaxed. Definitely plump and fills most of the nest. Hard to believe that there were 4 of them in the nest last year!

Since fledging, we’re pretty sure we’ve seen the little one around the yard starting life as an adult, another small but successful brood.

Replacing an Antique Lockset

After my earlier success with repairing a lockset, I thought I’d fix a number of other locksets that were causing us issues. The first one, our back door, was starting to only open when the doorknob was turned in one direction. In the other, it didn’t work. It turned out that the single screw holding the cover of the lockset case on was loose. This allowed the mechanism inside to slip when the knob was turned one direction but not the other. Tightening this screw fixed things right up.

The second issue was with our basement door which has not worked at all since we moved in. I was hoping that a simple repair was in order. As you can see, that was not actually the case.

When I removed the lockset, I found it was actually in pieces. The damage had clearly happened long in the past as there was already a makeshift metal strap in place holding things together.  There was no repairing it so it needed to be replaced.

Finding a Replacement Lockset

The best case scenario would be to simply substitute in a replacement lockset and have done with it. Unfortunately, for some reason, the lockset in this basement door is different than all the other ones in the house. As a result, I couldn’t use any of the other ones that I had on hand (bottom two in the image below). All were too large for the mortise or the location of the spindle would have required making an new hole in the door. This type of modification would have been very difficult to hide.

Luckily, my father had collected the locksets from my grandparents now abandoned farm house so I had some additional pieces to work with (top right in the above image). It turns out that they were small enough to fit the mortise in the door and had the spindle in the right location. On the down side, the face plate of the lockset is much smaller and thinner than the original.

As a result, I was forced to make some changes to the door mortise to accommodate this.

Resizing the Door Mortise

I started with the empty mortise.

First step is to inset a piece of wood to fill the cover of the mortise. I used some salvaged antique pine that I had in my breaker pile.

Once the glue had dried, I trimmed the patch flush with the original door. I followed this by cutting out an opening to fit the new, smaller lockset.

You may be able to see some additional new wood along the bottom of the mortise. Since the new lockset was smaller, I glued in a strip of wood to take up the vertical play in the mortise.

Next was to mark out the location of the new lockset face plate for the inset.

And use a chisel to create the recess for the new plate.

I know that some of the break out looks bad here but it now fits the new lockset very nicely.

All that is left is to use shellac with various dyes and earth pigments to make the patch look like it was part of the original door.

With the lockset back in place, you can hardly tell that it is a replacement other than that it works.

Repairing the Strike Plate

I figured since I was doing the door mortise, I should likely do the strike plate are as well. As you can see, the strike plate had been moved around quite a bit over its life. As a result, the wood was pretty messed up.

To get started, I needed to square up the cavity so that I could fit in a wooden patch.

As there are two levels of cavity, I had to glue in two different patches to fill the space.  As with the door mortise, I used antique pine from my breaker pile. First was the deeper cavity – I glued in a patch and then trimmed it flush. I also enlarged the repair area upwards. This is to fix the damage visible near the top of the above image.

I then glued in a second larger thinner patch to fill the remaining space.

Once the glue had dried, I trimmed the patch flush with the original wood and formed the front edge to match the existing edge.

Next was to mark out the position of the strike plate and form a mortise to fit it. I measured for the screw locations and pre-drilled them.

Making the New look like the Old

At this point the wood was ready to put the strike plate back in place but the new wood was painfully obvious. Using a combination of shellac, dyes, and earth pigment to make the new patch blend into the existing door frame. The idea is not to make things perfect but rather to make it look like it has been used and abused for the last 130 years as is the case with the remainder of the door frame.

Finally, I put the original strike plate back in place. I think I was pretty successful. Amelia was unable to tell where the patch began and ended. Undetectable other than the fact that the door now works properly.

My “Painting” Supplies

I mentioned earlier that I use a combination of shellac, dyes, and earth pigments to recreate the finish and patina of the original components. Here is the setup that I use in doing that work.

The shellac is in the baby food bottle. I pour a bit out onto a plastic plate which I then color to the needed tone. The dyes are in dropper bottles that I can use, as needed, to adjust the base color. I then add in powdered earth pigments to adjust things and provide some opacity that the dye doesn’t allow.

Shellac works well for this because it dries so quickly. This allows me to build up layers of color, making small adjustments until it matches the original color. It is much more an art than a science and something that I find I truly enjoy, particularly when I manage to get the color “just right”

Thanks for watching!

Repairing an Antique Lockset Return Spring

Given our house is 130 year old, it is not unexpected that some things are going to start wearing out. This is particularly true of mechanical components that get regular use such as locksets. The continued used eventually causes things like springs to fail due to metal fatigue. This entry discusses repairing an antique lockset return spring. I know this isn’t strictly a woodworking project but certainly peripherally related to restoration so I’ll include it in the category.

The lockset on the door leading from our kitchen to our mudroom began to fail to remain closed. The bolt was no longer extending automatically after the doorknob was turned,

As a result, it would no longer engage with the strike plate and the door would just swing open.

Diagnosing the Problem

Removing the lockset for repair requires removing one of the doorknobs and sliding the spindle out of the lockset. Then only two screws need to be removed from the face of the lockset and it slides right out.

Once you have the lockset out, there is a single screw that holds the side cover on.

Removing the cover lets you see the interior of the lockset.

If you are wondering what the white is, it is lithium grease. My first thought was that the mechanism simply needed lubrication but this was not the case. The actual problem was that the spring that returned the bolt to its extended position had failed. You can see the spring, a thin strip of spring steel, in both the relaxed and tension state at the bottom of case in the following images.

Repairing the Spring

Now here is the problem, how do you find a replacement spring for a 130 year old lockset. I’m sure that somewhere on the interwebs you could find someone that sells replacements. I’m cheap and impatient, however, so I went looking for something I had on hand instead. It turns out that an old hacksaw blade is the same thickness and spring as the original piece.

A quick trip to the grinder and I have a replacement piece for the lockset.

I then slip this into place in the lockset case and close it back up.

With the new spring in place, the lockset was back in working order. I expect that we can get another 130 years of use out of it now.

Thanks for reading!

Oak Doll Bed

Recently, my youngest daughter turned 9. One of the things on her list of requests for presents was a bed for her American Doll, Grace. I’m sure that these things are available for sale but I wanted something more personal. It seemed like a great chance to build something using some of the scrap pieces from around the shop. I used the following process to make an Oak Doll Bed.

Preparing the Stock

The wood that I used for the project was all oak. I used a combination of off-cuts from other projects and some parts (apron and legs) from an old end table. The plan was to create four posts with the head board and foot board stretchers as well as the side rails mortised into it.

The side rails were ripped from the aprons. I decided to keep the remainder of the aprons intact as they looked like they could be used later as handles for other projects if needed.

I used the table saw and jointer to square up the legs which would become the bed posts. To keep the dimensions as large as possible, I didn’t completely remove the tapers. I’d work the not squared areas into design details later in the process.

Finally, I cut the all the posts and side rails to size and got ready to do the joints.

Cutting Joints

As I mentioned, all the joints were mortise and tenon (1/4″ in all cases). I started by putting 45 degree chamfers on the corners of the top of the posts as a design feature. This was followed by cutting the various mortises after marking them out with marking gauge.

Then, before moving on, I decided to add some 1/4″ beading to the corners of the posts. The was probably overkill but gave me a chance to try out my 1/4″ side bead plane. I picked it up at the antique market a few weeks back. After working to tune and sharpen it, I wanted to test it out.

Aside from the design feature, there is something sort of magical in watching the profile of the bead appear more completely after each stroke. By alternately running a bead on both edges of each face, I ended up with the desired pattern running all around the post.

This was followed by cutting the tenons and tuning them to final size with my Veritas shoulder plane.

I have to give props to Veritas here as the plane is wonderful. It is easy to hold, which is not always the case with shoulder planes, and the set screws for the blade make it easy to control side projection of the blade.

For some of the smaller stretchers, I didn’t even bother to pull out the saw and just used a knife and the shoulder plane to cut the tenons to size.

The last step was to test the fit. Things came out pretty well though, with these very small parts, getting things to perfect square can be a bit of a challenge. Even very small errors cause very noticeable problems.

Aside from the final outcome, the project was a success in that it forced me to be more careful in how I cut these joints. I think this will serve me well in future projects.


Assembly was straight forward.

It was at this point that I realized I’d need some supports running across the bottom of the frame to hold the “mattress”. I hadn’t actually thought through what to do for that yet though.

I set the supports into notches in the side rails so that they were flush with the surface. Then it was just a matter of gluing up and clamping.

You may also notice some lighter patches along the side rails. As the wood for these was scavenged from the old table aprons, they had screw holes through them at regular intervals. I used epoxy wood putty to fill the holes as I was doing the glue up.

Mid-course Design Change

After I had sanded everything and put a coat of orange shellac onto the bed frame, I started trying to figure out how I was going create the mattress.

While the 3 middle supports worked well, there was no support at the head and foot of the bed. To rectify this, I took a piece of 3/16″ plywood that I had laying around, cut it to size and notched the corners to fit around the bed posts. I then gave it a quick coat of shellac to help it blend with the rest of the bed.

The shape of the piece allows it to drop on to the bed from the top. The notches and the bed posts keep the panel in place.

I still haven’t figured out exactly what to do for a mattress but this will have to do in the meantime.

The Finished Product

The final result was a success and Anneliese is very happy to have a bed for Grace now. She seems to be quite comfortable sleeping on it with her pet dog.

I love the fact that Anneliese left her an apple and made her a tiny box of tissues. It’s there beside the bed in case she needs to use one during the night.

For now, all seem to be happy. I’ll post an update later if I figure out a way to make a mattress for her.

If you’re interested in seeing any of the other woodworking projects that I have posted, you can find them here. Thanks for reading!

Cat Themed Birthday Cake

Well, my little girl has just turned 9 and in the tradition we have been following for many years, she was allowed to pick what she wanted her birthday cake to look like. Her decision was a cat themed birthday cake which is not surprising as she’s asked for a lot of animal themed cakes over the years. If you are interested in seeing any of the others, have a look here.

As you can tell, the design is pretty tall so it wasn’t very feasible to make the whole thing out of cake. Instead, I turned to one of my favorite sculptaple materials for cakes – Rice Krispy Treats!

I started with a base of chocolate cake covered in chocolate icing. I sculpted the cat out of warm Krispy treats and then popped it in the freezer to firm it up. Finally I dropped it on the top of the cake leaving room for the lettering.

From that point, it was just a matter of piping on icing to form the fur, eyes, lettering and other details. I used a comb tip while piping on the white base layer. This allowed me to use the direction of the piping to suggest the shape of the body and fur. I then used a fine tip with chocolate icing to simulate tabby markings on the cat.

Overall, I think it turned out pretty well – and it was delicious.

Of course, the birthday girl got to have the first piece. Her selection was perhaps a bit morbid but appropriate given how close to Halloween we are.

But don’t worry, it rest was handled pretty quickly and I can assure you there was no suffering! Just lots of happy, full tummies!

Thanks for reading!

Scary Brownie Eyes for Halloween

Halloween is upon us as are the parties that people have at this time of year. We were invited to a party this weekend where we were asked to bring along some “scary” food. So we are bringing some Scary Brownie Eyes for Halloween!

Here is how we put them together.

The Ingredients

The ingredients are pretty easy. You’ll need the following:

Some Two Bite Brownies…

Some Candy Eyeballs…

Chocolate Icing…

And any assorted other colors of icing for details I’ll discuss later…

Putting Things Together

The idea is to make the brownies look like they each have eyes peering out of them. Doing this is actually pretty easy.  Start with the brownies and put a dollop of chocolate icing to hold the eye in place.

Now drop the eye on and press to adhere.

Next, we piped chocolate icing on to form the upper and lower eyelids.

For the final touch, and to make the eyes as creepy as possible, we used a variety of different color icings to simulate blood, pus, or other bodily fluids dripping out of the eyes. Delicious!

As you can tell, this is well suited to assembly line production and, using that, the girls and I managed to put together a lot of these in very short order. So we have a good collection of brownie eyes for the party and some extras on top of that.

Happy Halloween!



Nortel Baystack 5520 Fan Rescue

This post is a bit out of the ordinary as the subject is more on network tech issues (albeit old tech) rather than my usual woodworking or renovation topics. I’m going to describe the work I did to extend the life of my main network switch by talking about my Nortel Baystack 5520 fan rescue.

As some of you may remember, when I did the renovation of our main bathroom, I put in a wireless access point. If not, and you’re interested, you can see the post here. I had the wall open so it was a good time to run some cat-5 cable up and get some additional Wi-Fi coverage for the upstairs.

Some background on the setup

I use Ubiquiti Unifi AC Pro access points, which are PoE, so I need a switch that supports that. In typical overkill fashion, I picked up a pair of old Nortel Baystack 5520-48T-PWR switches on ebay for a song and use them in a hot/cold configuration as my main switches. As Nortel came apart, Avaya picked up the switches and manufactured them under the ERS 5500 designation.

Fans are the Weak Spot

The 5520s are pretty bomb proof in general but do have one specific weakness. In order to deal with the heat generated by supporting PoE over 48 ports, they can produce a lot of heat. As a result, they have a row of 6 40mm x 40mm x 20mm fans running along one side to draw air through.

These fans move a lot of air, which is not a problem but is noisy. The issue is that given the switches are over a decade old, the fans are well past their average failure date. As a result, it is not uncommon for them to just fail and stop spinning. Sometimes you can coax them back into life temporarily but, that is temporary at best and you’ll find they simply grind to a halt later. That’s where mine was at. In the period of about a week, I dropped from having 6 functioning fans to only 2. The switch never hiccuped but, with heat and electronics, it was only a matter of time. Something needed to be done.

My first stop was to look for some replacements and there are good options. Unfortunately, a set of 6 fans new would run me around $150. That was more than I was willing to put into my $25 ebay finds. I though maybe I could do something to refurb the existing fans. Maybe get them running for a while longer until I decide what to do.

Lubricating the Fans

The fans are a mechanical device so it made sense to me that maybe I could just lubricate them to get them running smoothly again. A bit of a long shot but total cost for the experiment: about an hour of my time.

First job is to pull the case open. Takes a total of 20 screws to get the cover off. A bit of a pain but relatively easy to do – no fancy fasteners,  just good old Phillips head screws. Once it is off, you have full access to the fans.

Two more screws release each fan.

The fans are pretty self contained. However, if you peel the sticker off the center, you can get access to bearing for the fan.

I gave a little spritz with pot control cleaner and lubricant followed by a spin of the fan. I then fired it up to see what happened. To my surprise and pleasure, my previously unresponsive fan immediately spun up to speed and continued on happily. I gave it a little more lubricant to be safe and then moved on to do the rest of the fans. In the end, I had 6 of 6 spinning along happily again.

Modifying the Case

I’ve left things running for a couple of hours to make sure that they don’t just grind to a halt again. I’m not so naive to think this has fixed my problems. These are my main switches so it is rather inconvenient to have to disassemble just to refresh the lubrication. My solution to this is to make a modification to the case to allow me to re-lubricate the fans without disassembling things.

First use a punch to set the center of each fan cover.

Now drill a hole large enough to expose the bearing section of the underlying fan.

I know that the holes are pretty rough but, after grinding the edges smooth, they serve the purpose.

Finally re-install the cover on the now revived switch.

Final Thoughts

Before anyone gets upset that I’ve exposed the bearings, or am using the wrong lubricant, or such, keep a few things in mind:

  • The switch is over a decade old so I don’t feel like I’m reducing some future resale with my modifications.
  • It only cost me $25 in the first place so refurbing for over $100 is not very palatable.
  • This is not a production environment, just a lab. If things fail out, it isn’t the end of the world.

In the end, it provides me with a simple way to get a bit more life out of my switches. I’ll have to replace them but, in the meantime, I can keep that money in my pocket. There is also a certain sense of satisfaction in having got things back in working order. Whether that last is another question but I’ll post an update later to document the longevity (or lack of) for the project.

Thanks for reading!


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