Building a Dry Stone Wall

Last December, my wife came across an ad on Craigslist for free fieldstone. On a whim, I decided to haul it home to build a wall. As is so often the case with DIY, it was easier to concieve than to execute. I finished my small wall only a few days ago. It took me nearly four months.

The steps for building a dry wall are fairly straightforward. The essence of it: stake out the wall line; dig a trench about eight inches deep and a bit wider than the planned wall; fill the trench with crushed gravel to form a base that will minimize shifting from frost heaves and settling; then stack rocks. The basic rule of rock stacking is to place one stone over sections where two stones come together, and two stones over sections where there is one stone. Cap the top with heavy, nice-looking stone. The overall pattern should be stable, level, and visually appealing.

That last part is the kicker. In my case, I had to contend with a three foot downhill slope in the front of the house and a one foot incline on the part that curves around the odd looking conifer at the corner, which is called a Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar. A flat wall would have been challenging enough, but the sloping ground added much complexity.

My goal was to place the stones in a cascading fashion so that they conformed to the slope of the land. That entailed placing some rocks, stepping back for a wider view from various angles, deciding it wasn’t quite right, tearing down parts that looked unnatural, choosing different rocks, then rebuilding the offending section. Then I’d build another small section and repeat the process. Over and over and over.  

I think the resulting wall looks nice, although I’m sure it would look nicer if a professional installed it. It might also be more structurally sound. Time will tell how well my amateur job holds up. I suspect I’ll know in about a year. That length of time will test the wall against the stress of changing temperatures, weather, and frost. The great part about a dry stone wall, though, is that there is no mortar. I can always adjust it. I like to think of it as a rock garden in the shape of a wall. 

A Better iPad Stylus

Handspring Visor Edge? I had the metallic silver model (and still do). It sports a blazing fast 33 MHz CPU and 8MB of RAM. I’ve kept it over the years because it still works … and because I think it’s a great design.  I especially loved the weight, shape, and feel of the little stylus.  That stylus happens to be metallic.

You see where I’m going here. Since the stylus is metal, all that I needed was some sort of conductive tip.

Here’s what I came up with. It works great as long as any part of my hand is touching the metal pen (which is hard not to do). It looks nice (I wouldn’t say it’s beautiful, but I think it looks better than most homemade styli). It’s compact and easy to tote around. And here’s the best part: the tip offers far more accuracy and draws a thinner line than commercial or homemade conductive styli that I’ve tried or seen demonstrated.

Here’s how I made it:

Here are the primary ingredients. Heavy-duty aluminum foil, tape (I used electrical tape, but you could use duct tape), and a rubber foot that I found in my shop.

About the rubber foot. This may be the hardest bit to find, but it’s something you should be able to pick up at a hardware store (or, at least, you can find something similar). I cut off part of the foot as seen in the photo above, then drilled a hole into the rubber that would tightly fit the metal stylus. Other materials will also work. I made an earlier model with a cheap wood plug using the same method. It worked well, but isn’t as flexible (meaning that you may have trouble with the wood cracking when you drill into it). Rubber works best. 

Now wrap the foil-wrapped rubber foot and stylus with a short piece of strong tape. Once you’ve done that, you’re done. The blue shrink tubing you see here isn’t really necessary. It’s just for looks. I took a short segment of blue shrink tube, stretched it out with pliers so it would fit over the stylus, cover the tape, and partially cover the foil-wrapped foot. Then I applied heat to seal it all up. And here is the completed stylus, ready for action.

So that’s all there is to it. It’s a bit more involved than most of the DIY capacitive stylus tutorials you’ll find on the web, but I think it’s worth the effort. It works great. It looks nice. It’s a great way to recycle a peice of old tech. I’ve been using it for a while and the aluminum is showing no signs of splitting. If it does split, it’s a relatively simple matter to rip off the tip and make a new one. If you don’t have an old Handspring Visor Edge in your closet and want to try this, would you believe that you can still buy a metal stylus

New Life for a Broken Lamp

I started out by (carefully) destroying the lamp with a screwdriver and small pry bar. I threw out the plastic junk and kept all the internal parts.

This is the wall-facing side of the lamp, showing how I reassembled the ‘guts’ of the old plastic lamp in the new wood structure. Only the on/off switch required soldering; I had to completely unsolder the switch to fit it through the hole in the wood. I used heat-shrinking plastic tubes to cover up the solder work. For the other wires, I used plastic connector caps to join them back up. I attached the components to the wood with screws and staples. It’s hard to tell here, but I mounted the metal reflective shield from the old lamp to the wood surface behind the bulb. Last note: I had to cut all the wires when extracting them from the old lamp’s plastic housing. The key thing to point out here is this: if you try something like this, be sure to mark the wires very carefully so you can remember how to reattach them.

And here’s a wider view so you can see the effect of the light reflecting off the wall behind my main monitor.So that’s it. The entire project took about five hours on a Sunday. I’m waiting for the glue to completely dry before applying a coat of polyurethane to the front. 

The most challenging part was figuring out the design: I wanted to create a very simple and functional lamp using only scrap wood left behind from other projects. Aside from my time, the project didn’t cost a dime.

The tools I used to assemble the lamp included a miter saw (to cut all lengths and angles), a biscuit joiner (to join the two pine pieces and the feet to the base of the lamp), a drill (to create a hole for the on/off switch), a table saw (to cut a strip of oak for the top edge of the lamp), wood glue, and a sheet sander.  For the electrical work, I used a soldering gun and some heat-shrink tubing, wire connectors, a wire cutter/stripper, and a few screws and staples.

I think it looks better than the original. It certainly fits in better with my wooden desk than did the plastic lamp. I may have to go and break the other lamp now.

My new desk

I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve been spending all of my free time building a new computer desk in my workshop. I’m quite pleased with how it came out. 

library book, which I adapted to meet my needs. It consists of a corner desk, a writing desk, and a printer/scanner stand. The modular design allows for different configurations, which is great if I decide I want to move it somewhere else or arrange it differently down the road.

I used relatively cheap, off-the-shelf wood from Home Depot to keep the cost down. The desktop and keyboard tray surfaces are 3/4″ birch plywood edged with 2″ Radiata Pine. The legs are also constructed of Radiata Pine with birch plywood panels. 

The desk also sports a plywood bookshelf that forms the rear support for the corner piece. It serves to support the weight of the monitor, and the books and external hard drives stored there keep most of the cables, bricks, and power strips out of sight.

The black material covering the wooden keyboard tray consists of two sheets of .99¢ cent foam mat sold for children’s craft projects, which I mounted with a light tacking glue that’s easy to remove should the panels be damaged. The mat material is similar to what you’d get in a mouse pad, but it’s thinner and firmer. 

the desk using double-adhesive velcro strips. I mounted a USB hub under the desk to connect all of the devices.

I also devised a simple wooden laptop stand to raise and angle the Macbook’s monitor. I based the dimensions of the stand on the technical specs of the Rain Design mStand.

I had to buy two items to complete the desk: an adjustable keyboard mount (without a tray, as I chose to make a custom oversized tray) and a monitor arm. The monitor arm is particularly nice as I can adjust height, depth, and angle of the monitor with ease.

While the desk turned out well, it’s worth noting that using wood from a hardware store chain isn’t ideal. It’s not furniture-grade material, and I don’t have a jointer or a planer. So I had to do a fair amount of planing by hand to fix warps, bends, and thickness differences. Also, working with plywood can be maddening. The top layer of birch is so thin that it’s scarily easy to sand right through it. As for tools, it required a table saw (with a dado blade), a mitre saw, a drill, a few hand planes, chisels, and a lot of clamps for the glue-up. 

The project is complete, but there are a few things that could make it better. For instance, I’d love to mount a 30″ display on that monitor arm! And I’d like to take advantage of the fact that the monitor can be raised to standing height. The problem, of course, is that I’d need a raised platform to hold the keyboard and mouse.  I’m envisioning a small tabletop lectern that I could mount to the front of the desk for times when I feel like standing up to compute. I’d want it to be hinged and collapsable so I could store it nearby. Hmm. I’ll save that for another day.