Posts Tagged ‘rants’

Wildland firefighting – an iron-age culture of backcountry ditch-diggers – has folklore borne of 50,000,000 hours of tool time. Young rookies must learn to keep their tool sharp and swing it safely all summer. Tool maintenance is reliable winter work for the fulltimers, many of whom learn to grind and weld. Wildfire stations usually have a metal shop, and over time, crews in each region have developed custom tools that work well in their particular fuel-type. Losing your tool is a serious ‘crew-foul’.

The clearest memories I have of seasonal work with the Forest Service all include tools: The sense of LOOT! upon seeing a jumble of beat-up, hand-me-down fire tools in the forestry cache at Bogard, Larry Vogan giving us hell for sharpening our Pulaskis without gloves on, Cedric accidentally throwing his machete at me, sharpening my Pulaski every 10 minutes while chopping ceanothus and on rocks along the Deerheart trail, or the public shaming I got when I stuck my Pulaski into a stump, sharp-end up, thinking it a clever way to hold it for sharpening.


I just got back from 10 days on the Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX), where about 40 of us practiced putting good fire on the ground, reducing hazardous wildfire fuels and restoring oak and conifer forests with a torch. Half the group were new firefighters. We were too busy lighting the woods on fire to talk much about tools, so it was kind of a free-for-all – we just grabbed tools off of the fire engines, or from the back of a pickup, but few of us had our own tools. I loaned out a nice McLeod and someone tried to use it as an axe, broke the handle.

The intention of the TREX program is to build local capacity for using fire to manage forested landscapes (how did the government come to own fire on the ground)? A decentralization of fire management empowers local communities to engage with fire on their own terms, but it also requires a level of thrift not common in our current fire culture. A set of personal protective equipment (fireproof clothes, a fire shelter, hardhat, and boots) can easily cost $1,000. A good radio can cost over $1,000, a fire rake costs over $100, a Pulaski fire axe is $80.

Luckily the Nature Conservancy showed up with a big stash of loot for us to use, but part of building a sustainable fire stewardship culture must include a means to equip a large number of backwoods restorationists with the tools that they need to do the work.


Tools are also important for leaning on.


This unit was so steep that most of the time I was using my McLeod as an ice-axe or a crampon.

A 20 person fire crew is a machine, designed to chop fireline 12 hours a day. Each person takes a whack at the ground and steps forward – ‘bump and lick’ – repeat. On our burning projects, smaller groups of people worked on a wide variety of tasks. A day’s work might include chopping fireline, putting in a hoselay, pruning branches, scraping moss off of an oak tree, running a drip torch, throwing some dirt on a hot spot, pulling back litter from the base of a large tree, scratching line around a slop-over, or mopping up a smouldering snag. There is a lot of solo work.

Working on the Klamath I had a few complaints about the different tools I was using.

  • Pulaski axe is great for chopping branches and grubbing brush, but the handle is too short for a long guy like me to use for very long.
  • A shovel is good for throwing dirt or cleaning up after a bunch of line-builders with Pulaskis, but not very effective for chopping fireline in rocky oak litter.
  • A normal McLeod fire rake is great for moving leaf litter, but lacks the heft to chop out brush or limb small trees, and the handle could be longer.
  • I got to use a Rogue Hoe for a while, but it also has a short handle, is pretty heavy, and is not very well balanced.
  • Combi-tools are great for mop-up, but not much else.

Now that fire season is finally on hiatus, I got back into the shop this week with a notion to prototype a multi-purpose fire tool that works for my body, and the Klamath mixed evergreen/conifer forests. Here is a first prototype of a mini-McLeod fire rake. Made from recycled tractor plow disc (which is actually high-quality ‘1080’ tool steel), it is designed to rake, scrape, limb, and grub.


I was hoping to find a shape that would yield 4 blanks from a single disc, but this design only yields 2. After layout, I cut the rough shape with a plasma cutter and cleaned it up with a grinder.


My favorite toolmaking projects require making more toolmaking tools. This jig is a bottom die for crimping the teeth of the rake. It goes under a 65# treadle hammer – you place the yellow-hot tool blank onto this, center each rake tooth on the jig, and then drive a fuller hammer down onto it.


The initial blank seemed much too heavy – the disc is pretty thick – so I chopped the top half way down, then got it yellow-hot in the forge and crimped the teeth using the tool above.


The hole is for the handle/socket to go thru for welding on both sides. The top edge is sharpened for whacking branches and chopping brush. The sides are ground for scraping.


Heating a piece of pipe in the gas forge to use in making the handle socket.


Tapering the handle socket on another custom tool made for this particular job – a cone mandrel made from lengths of round bar and old bolts. The cone mandrel has a 1″ solid shank on it that plugs into the hardie hole on the anvil.


Finished tool with handle installed and thru-bolted. The blade is 1080 tool steel while the collar is plain/mild steel. When you weld tool steel, you have to preheat it to a cherry-red color either with a forge or torch. I tacked the collar into place, and then got both blade and collar red hot, and used 6011 rod in an arc welder to weld both sides of the joint. It is also good practice to draw a blue temper on the tines and cutting edge.


The handle is an off-the-shelf hoe handle, with a tapered end – you could substitute local hardwood if you have it.


Back it down, nice and easy. ^This is good McLeod ground. I am looking forward to trying this thing out.

The Broadfork

This is a non-forged, toolmaking project that I did a few years ago for some local farmer friends. Farming is another tool culture, and though I have less of a personal connection to farming, we like getting ‘custom’ for our homies, and they paid us in good food.


Broadforks are used for turning garden beds. You use the weight of your body to drive them into the ground and pull the handles back to turn the soil over.


While both the fire tool and broadfork projects used 100% salvaged steel and plasma cutting, the creative process was much different, and this one felt a lot less organic. Where the layout for the fire tool project used soapstone and a ruler, I designed the tines for the broadfork in Adobe Illustrator and had them cut locally on a robotic plasma table. The hardest part of the fire tool project was tapering a chunk of red hot metal with a hammer and a hokey homemade jig; the hardest part of this project was converting an Illustrator file to a DXF format that the robotic-cutter could understand. Many hours wasted, with little to show for it. I don’t believe that any time spent working with red hot metal is ever wasted. If I had to do this project again, I wouldn’t remember the file conversion steps, and it would cost me another day at the computer. No muscle-memory to be built behind a keyboard…


Tines cut, ready to weld.


Jigging up the tines for MIG welding.


Ready for handles. I used ash 2×2’s, and rounded them with drawknife and block plane.


The finished tool. It worked alright, but since we didn’t use tool steel for the tines, they are prone to bending, and it isn’t very good for hard packed or rocky soil. There is another tool company in town that makes nice broadforks. They have a nice shop and a steady crew. Theirs cost $200 – they are pretty nice. I don’t think we’ll be building a broadfork factory any time soon.

If you are looking for vintage wool, the fewer people who have heard of a ‘Tweed Ride’ the better. Whether we are in Kansas City, Saint Paul, Cheyenne, or Oakland, our salvage forays seem to usually land us in the ghetto. 

We just spent a week on the road in the great Nation of California, visiting friends and family, searching for materials and tools, and just looking around. Who needs to travel to Peru to have an exotic time? Wowee, Pop, this State is crazy! I don’t know if it is just getting older, or the fact that your three-year-old can announce that he has to POOP RIGHT NOW! when you are driving thru West Oakland; all I can say is that when I am on the road, my mind is blown continuously.  

6 thoughts from the road:

1. California is a FUCKING AWESOME, dynamic place to live. We drove from Chico to Santa Cruz through a wild storm that dropped 4 feet of snow on Westwood and 6″ of rain on the Santa Cruz Mountains in one afternoon. Down I-5 in gale winds and peppering rain, through blur-out downpours in traffic on the 880, and over Highway 17 on flooded lanes, with mud pouring off of gushing driveways. Even the daily commuters were driving slow, and we arrived alive. The San Lorenzo River was at the tops of the levees in Santa Cruz. As the storm broke, we walked to the beach bluffs, and Ezra, on his Scootbike, laughed at the gusty winds and said ‘Wild nature, Daddy’! Monday dawned clear, and we had a bluebird drive down the 101 thru rolling green hills.  

2. You can’t have a global financial system without the movement of people, and migration is not just about ethnicity, language, or religion. New Americans are bringing us lessons on both poverty AND wealth. Their understanding of thrift, reuse, repair, and niche markets is making us a better people. America isn’t becoming a ‘third world’ country, the Earth is becoming a ‘third-world planet’ with some good neighborhoods. If you don’t like it, you can always move to Northern Idaho. You’ll have poor neighbors there too, but shittier food – we’ll ship you some organic mandarins, fresh salsa, and avocados if you promise to leave tomorrow.

3. There is no such thing as ‘first-world’ and ‘third-world’ – just walls and school districts. New Chinese millionaires are buying homes in Palo Alto like crazy. A friend there told us that all of their neighbors are new Chinese millionaires, and that their tiny two bedroom cottage is worth $1.8 million. As it gets more expensive/difficult to own a car or drive, your carpenter, pool boy, lawn guy, nurse or maid might actually have to live in the same zip code as you. Drive Middlefield Road from Redwood City to Palo Alto and try not to let your neck snap when you cross into Atherton

4. Thrift stores are the new Macys. For every major retailer that goes bust, I am guessing that two thrift stores take its place. Can I buy stock in Goodwill? They are building new, huge stores like crazy all over the country! Also, Dollar Stores are a dime a dozen. Every retail business along every main drag in every town is selling cheap Chinese shit (unless they are selling cheaper Bangladeshi shit). This includes REI, Patagonia, Home Depot, and even the fanciest boutiques. The only place to find non-cheap-Chinese shit is a thrift or antique store. 

5. There is not a ‘Tweed Ride’ in Santa Maria, California. There are, however, many grownups riding bicycles, and many vintage wool jackets in the thrift stores. Also, there are cheap toys for sale that have been repaired well, with rivets and aluminum scraps. This is the future! 

6. It’s all about the water. I-505 will become the next Fairfield-Vallejo within 30 years, and they’ll get their water from the Tehama-Colusa Canal/Tuscan Aquifer.    


We like salvage, but this is just garbage! Right around the corner from E’s mom’s house in Lompoc – aka ‘Lompton’. If I start ‘collecting’ tires, please take away my children.


In the parking lot of the Capitol Flea Market in San Jose.  


When you don’t have a warehouse and live in a shitty neighborhood, supporting the arts has its benefits.


These reminded me of Pakistani ‘Jingle Trucks’. In between them, sketchy dudes were swapping duffel bags. 


Not for hire. 


The black market is alive and well. We got to the market as the rain was ending and things were just getting set up. People were swarming the vendors as they unpacked the ‘hottest’ items – things like I phones that they don’t want sitting on the table for very long. Non-cyclist-types selling nice bike wheels without the bikes. Asked a few guys for prices on things like power tools and got prices so low that you could tell that they had no idea what things were worth, and were just hocking whatever they had come into. No thanks, we’ll buy from legit people.


In West Oakland 



West Oakland BART- our friend Janay has a shop here where she sells her amazing clothing. When I was younger I would ride the BART to SF and was always glad that I was on the train, and not down there on the street below.



A bike repair event in front of Janay’s store, West Oakland – my dad used to drive a taxicab here.



Something cubist about this.  


Probably would have been condos without the housing bust, but then where would the children paint?



It is blurry because I was nervous.  


It is blurry because I was nervous. 


It is blurry because I was nervous. 


It is blurry because I was nervous. 


It is blurry because I was nervous. 


It is blurry because I was nervous. 


Well, that’s enough of that, and he didn’t really need to poop, just peed on a tree next to a liquor store.



Blasting North, two brats not napping.



Approaching Hamilton City at the speed of light, two brats not napping, earplugs making it all a little surreal.


1,000 miles later, crossing the river with a van of plundered textile and not-stolen tools. 


The booty 



We’ll number them here, and if you want a custom bag, tell us which print suits you.

This is #1



This is #2 – it is actually quite a bit darker that this photo.



This is #3 



This is #4 


This is #5 


This is #6 (the brown one)


This is #7 


This is #8 


This is #9 


This is #10 



This is #11 


This is #12


This is #13


This is authentic.


Our friend Mark Growden is a storyteller and professional musician from my hometown. Several years ago, he asked us to make him a bag to use during his songwriting workshops that could hold his Sruti Box, a tambourine, and a notepad.

I have been watching ‘Ax Men’ with my 2 year old, and it conjures layers of memory from childhood in a logging town. 

Our childhood hero was Mangin, the bachelor timberfaller across the street. He was home from the woods at about the same time that we were free of school  – logger childcare. As kids with the whole afternoon to kill before our folks got home, we would sit in his yard in the shade of a big fir tree and watch Mangin and Kent take off tall boots, sharpen saw chains, drink Mickey’s bigmouths, and spin yarns.  

Mangin was also a Volkswagen mechanic. He wore the same pair of black Key Jeans every day in the woods, and they could stand up by themselves. His house smelled like fir pitch, sweat, and peanuts. He was half deaf from logging, and spent a lot of money on stereo equipment, on which he played very loud ZZ Top and rock radio.  He welded a secret compartment in some bozo’s gas tank, and when that guy got popped smuggling a whole bunch of cocaine in from Central America, Mangin had to spend some time in the Federal Pen in the Mojave. My dad the homebrewer put a six pack of beer into root beer bottles that – delivered to Mangin – proved a great hit with the boys down there in Barstow. I was about ten, but I still remember Mangin’s going-away party before he went to prison. August in Goodrich Meadows, with kegs of Budweiser cooling in the back of Mangin’s Willys pickup under a load of snow from Swain Mountain. Dave Foat roasting a pig over a pit fire. 

Kent was killed falling a tree about 10 years ago, and there were a lot of broke-down burly woodsmen in his yard for the wake. A section of the street was flagged off for the overflow crowd using ‘KILLER TREE’ flagging. The preacher was from the church that Mark’s dad helped to start about 30 years ago. When he said that Kent was going to heaven not because of his good deeds but because he the preacher had saved him not 2 months before, a surge of anger flushed through me, and a good part of the crowd too. Kent’s good friends from the bar stirred angrily out in the street, and Kenny Bruns grumbled ‘Bullshit! He is going there for his good deeds too’.

I have come to realize that we had a lot of male role models, and that we are of a storytelling culture.

My (Zeke) bagmaking has been slowed up by two young boys and starting another business – I’ve made three bags in the last 10 months. 

I took measurements for this bag 16 months ago, and Mark has been very patient. Finally he called a month ago and said gently ‘the bag I have been using has completely disintegrated, how’s that bag coming?’ I needed a prod.

Two or three years later, this one is finally done. Making it brought up a lot of these stories.
Fire hose, cordura scrap, necktie, a classroom map, a jacket lining, surplus webbing, treebark camo pantleg, and some aluminum tubing from the ReStore. 


Under the flap is more necktie and map. Mark is a few years older than me and his dad was my track coach/crafts teacher in high school. Mark has been studying music for most of his life with influences all over the world ranging from Ravi Shankar to old slave songs. He came back to town when I was still in high school to regale us with tales of traveling around the West Coast juggling, making music, falling in love, and having wild hitchhiking adventures across the American West. He knew how to make weird Vietnamese-shaped hats out of felt, and spent a few weeks telling us stories and teaching us to juggle, playing music, and generally blowing our smalltown minds. Then he was off again. 



Old camo as a nod to shared millpond roots. This project brought up memories of growing up in Westwood, and the interweaving of lives there. Of track practice in the gym with 6 feet of snow outside, or running on melting slush through streams of icy runoff; of shooting guns at the sewer ponds with Dean Growden – Mark’s brother who is now Lassen County Sheriff. 

Or of the 1970s Cutlass that Mark’s younger brother – my best friend Jeremy, filled up with gas one day during our senior year and just drove away.



And Mark has always been pretty flamboyant for a Westwood man, so I had an excuse to go wild with the bag, and let my own freak flag fly a bit. 


For wild Middle Eastern circus music, and a tambourine. 


Mark’s sister Janay makes amazing clothing, window displays, and anything else. We painted flowers and peace signs on her VW bus before we knew that we weren’t really hippies, or that hippies weren’t really very cool, and drove it down Highway 32 to Chico to shop for school clothes at Pegasus, wondering why the guys in the big trucks were flipping us off or screaming at us. Janay is a master textile artist who gives me courage to sew in a stream of consciousness way – we share a love of the zigzag.



Making the bling/tag was its own project.


Real tree. 


Time passes, and the meaning of songs change. Mark wrote a song about Westwood years ago that means something to any person who is from there. Trying to reconcile his love of the land with the hardship of the place and its baggage. I used to think that he whined too much about his life, that he was being a drama queen. Later I realized that he was just a few years ahead of me in trying to come to terms with, or express how you identify with (or don’t) the important places in your life. As time goes by, I am glad that we have a place that we know is home, and stories to share about it.

Long may you run, Brother Mark.


April is a wild month in Chico.  A budding, blooming, creative explosion of lengthening light and lusty life.  We were lucky/taxed to have two deadlines fall at the end of it – RayRay’s ‘Bike=art’ show and Chikoko’s ‘Bizarre Bazaar’.  We overextended and are glad that they are over!  But we got to make a lot of new art – a spectrum from Bumblebee habitat boxes, psychedelic micro messenger bags, and rice harvester steel sunflowers to ‘Opium Den’ leather collage purses and fire hose totes.   Here are some photos from the two shows.
Hillbilly yard art, firehose snakeskin samba belts, tough-mama firehose totes, and rake+ski pole garden diggers – our uncategorizable booth at Chikoko’s Bizarre Bazaar.

Pulled together some new and old bags with a bike theme and decided to use my old chopper ‘Pinkie’ as a rack at the last minute.  Welded a stand, loaded up the goods into the hemp panniers and rode it to the show.   The bags on the handlebars are a new design that I am calling the MicroMessenger – they are big enough for a mini Kryptonite lock, cell phone and wallet; they have a loop to go on your belt, or we can add a traditional messenger strap and stabilizer. 

Our hemp panniers and large and mini messenger bags – I added a new stabilizer strap to the messenger bags.  
Stopped at the newspaper recycling shed at 6th and Flume to get some paper to stuff the bags with and found a paper bag full of old maps!  Score!  RayRay decided to put us in the window – I like what they did with the maps – they are prolific and amazing.

My folks were in town and pops took these photos – you can see him in the reflection, below. 

Thanks RayRay and Chikoko.  The RayRay show is still up in downtown Chico – make sure to go out back and look at Katrina’s handmade longbike – she did a beautiful job on it.
We are starting to get back on the pony.  We are going to be vending at the Bicycle Harvest Party at the end of October, and need to make some goods before then!  Also starting to think about the Bizarre Bazaar – Chikoko’s annual holiday fair, and our favorite event.  Here are some new things.
Erika scored 231 of these tough zippers at the Salvation Army, look for them all over our stuff until they are gone.


Erika just whipped this messenger out from one of her old paintings.


Details  – I love my wife.

I am making pockets – this is what I do when I don’t feel up to actually putting bags together – lots of bag parts. 

Pocket full o’ texture.  Sorry, Pearson (friend with texture-phobia)! 

More pockets fronts – these will go into the outside of the bulgy pockets below. 

Detail – I have decided to own the fact that many of our materials are old and frayed.  If you want a bag that looks like it was made in China by a crew of terrified teenagers working under an anal Nazi line-director (meaning clean, all edges trimmed, no raw fiber visible) I will make you one, but I am going to charge you quadruple!


In the spirit of reuse, I present my 15 year old bike seat – coming soon, to a pocket near you.


Who doesn’t like camo?  This is vintage, not to be associated with our current militarism.  Camo from old wars – we promise not to use any pixelated desert camo for at least 30 years. 

Bulgy pocket variation on the hip-slinger Kanteen pouches I have been making.


New bulgy pocket design.


Bulgy pocket detail.  We saw some festival belts at the International Festival at Chico State last week, and I am knocking off some of their details.  I love knocking off details from mass-produced imports for some reason.  If you are designing any hipster festival belts and having them made in India, know that I am going to plagiarize them and sell them to people that will pay three times as much because I made them here, myself.  HA!  You can’t have third-world slave labor and your first-world intellectual property rights too, I love it!  Fire hose trim and hemp-cotton canvas from German Army bags.