Projects in lock down

2020 has been a difficult and interesting year for many of us. I will preface this post by acknowledging my overwhelming good fortune and continuing good health, two blessings that I am well aware are shared by too few of my fellow humans. The challenges I have faced this year are relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things.

That said, I found that without a steady stream of projects to keep me busy my idle mind would fixate on extrinsic frustrations, loneliness, homesickness, and other patterns of negative thought. Fortunately, my wife Christine and I had moved into a project house in January of 2020, an interesting vaguely mid-century cabin house against the mountains in Los Angeles. It has provided a nearly inexhaustible supply of tasks, which form part of the following.

Picnic table

Contractors ordered about 150 feet too much lumber. I turned some of it into a picnic table.

Step one: Cut pieces to length.

Step two: Assemble.

Hot tub

Some of the remaining timber I decided to turn into a wooden hot tub. Sure, I know wood hot tubs are best made of clear cedar with canoe joints routed to perfection by professionals. So I used knotty pine with tongue-and-groove, and held it together with nylon straps. It actually works, people…

Needed a stiff material to draw a circle for the base. Duct tape to the rescue.

A jig to simplify cutting the slot in the staves. Five passes with the circular saw, then chisel it out.

All the completed staves plus a couple of spares. 38 total.

Moving the rather heavy tub through the yard into position involved a lot of Stonehenge-inspired inch-by-inch lever action.

Using climbing gear and a ladder to form a lifting sling. It was inelegant and it barely worked.

In position. Effortless, really…

Either we have a local gravitational anomaly, or the foundation has failed and with it, the tub’s structural integrity.

Post mortem showed that edge-oriented cinderblocks loaded unevenly easily caused soil failure. I also took this opportunity to attach the redwood beams to the tub and reduce the number of moving parts.

Repairing the foundation involved a lot of very comfortable working positions, like this one.

Random rocks to reduce the dirt quotient.

More or less complete, together with a spooky blue/green light to keep growth at bay.

Tree house

Our house has a huge tree. I’ve always wanted to build a treehouse. But unlike the cozy (and very heavy) cottages depicted on, eg, Treehouse Masters, I felt I should exploit the benign SoCal climate and make a bird nest. The structure should be tensile, flexible, airy, light, and safe but quite exciting.

Just getting to the first fork was at the limits of what my rather large ladder could accomplish.

Learning how to self-belay on lead. Don’t try this at home.

Testing the ladder.

Net installation was strenuous and cerebral. Lots of topological constraints.

View of the sitting room from above.

A climbing partner performs the second ascent.

At long last, the spousal seal of approval!


When I learned to fly planes, I wanted to find a way to fit a small bicycle in the back so I could get from small country airports into town and back. C-152s are really small, so I decided to get a unicycle. Very practical I know, but this (2013) was before Onewheels were really a thing. Despite a few half-hearted attempts I never learned but I did carry it with me through 5 or 6 house moves, and, in the 280th day of March 2020 (or thereabouts) I decided that it was time to do battle once more, but this time with an implacable will to prevail.

To my surprise it took less than a week of regular practice (perhaps an hour in all) to grasp the basics. My ability grew steadily with more practice, so much so that my Personal Best for distance grew by about 20% per practice session, maybe 1% on average per ride. Within a month I was cruising the neighborhood, albeit while breathing heavily and resting frequently. Efficient, bump and slope tolerant technique is still being refined. In all seriousness, however, I think it’s easier than riding a bike though perhaps not quite as error tolerant. I also discovered the wonderfully weird videos of Ed Pratt.


The initial goal of the treehouse project was to facilitate enjoyment of the view of the mountains from the crown of the tree. I devised several more-or-less wild schemes to position a platform or chair at the top, however the thin branches and tensile structure constraint pushed me in the direction of a tensegrity structure similar to Needle Tower. Mounted between three vertical trunks, it could accommodate tree motion with a minimum of fuss while providing a lightweight and super scary ladder-like structure.

Initial ideas were developed with stick and string models like these. At one point I went a bit overboard with Lagrangian simulations of structure dynamics, which led to another interesting project (still in the works).

Step two was learning more about wire rope and experimenting with ways of fixing it to wooden compressional beams. I made this eminently unpractical bedside table.

Finally, I bit the bullet and bought a dozen broom sticks, custom fabricated 12 steel tension caps, and put the damn thing together. This is a prototype that I will test to destruction once my crimping hand has healed…


After our contractors bailed with half the job done, painting the eaves became my next fun task. I’ll always try something once, then I know how much to tip the pro I hire to do it the next time.

A boomlift is a fun, if pricey, way to reach otherwise very tricky spots. Fortunately for my credit card, the supplied hardware was so poorly maintained that the rental company gave us a full refund.

The fun of tying off on a 9:12 pitch roof and, after closing all the holes the contractors left with raccoon access to the attic, painting everything.

We now have a permanent anchor location just outside our bedroom window – this will come in handy I’m sure.

Finally, I fabbed and painted some decorative window frames for the spiders to make webs on.


I was inspired by Seamus Blackley to bake some social isolation bread. This is an early attempt.

This is a more recent attempt. I’m reliably informed that it is quite palatable.


Over the years I had hoarded about 700 glow in the dark stars of various kinds. Now, finally, I had a young child and a good excuse to crunch the Hipparcos dataset, map the whole sky onto a polar projection at the moment of my child’s birth, and then painstakingly attach (and reattach….) the stars to the ceiling.

About 30 decided to liberate themselves within a few days, but I was able to put them back in the right place.


Winter storms made it clear that part of the house didn’t drain very well. No matter. With gravely overloaded wheelbarrows, I moved about ten tonnes of dirt around the yard, just in time for 7 consecutive months of no rain.

Now, to coax vegetation to grow in the substrate…


Step 1: measure width of room. Step 2: order slab. Step 3: rock back and forth between pillars of adjustable height until resting on premounted wall lugs. Step 4: enjoy finally having enough desk real-estate to contain ALL the projects!


We needed a tiny human containment structure (THCS) to prevent unsupervised road ingress (URI). After spending a few weeks mercilessly harvesting the neighborhood for ideas I built this contraption one weekend. Seems to work.

Random other stuff

Sand box. About half of this sand is now in other places, like the couch, or the car.

Planting seeds. Only the yellow tomatoes sprouted, but they grew 9 feet high.

Sage advice: Do not overflow your instapot with cheese. If you do, just buy a new one. But I’ll try anything once…

I got a lovely sound system from a colleague. Super cheap, functionality uncertain. After replacing a few FETs it works flawlessly.

Not COVID-wear, but how I explore under the house. For COVID, I remove the light.

I had 250-odd pieces of wood from old window shutters, which I converted into this dome, with which the child hardly ever plays.

I wanted some Australian flora/fauna decoration, so framed this in situ with the help of the 18 month old. Hasn’t fallen down yet!

It feels like I’m approaching the end of the major house and yard tasks. A false summit, I’m sure.

I’m happy to answer any questions about these projects.

3 thoughts on “Projects in lock down

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