Autumn has made its way here and those coolish foggy mornings when the sun either rises as a bright red circle in the mist or never appears until it’s nearly midday, are dominating our waking up routines. Scything is our new hobby as we have neglected the garden while we were fitting shutters, painting and working on external walls, so there is plenty of grass and bushes to cut. Garden work is actually a blessed break from working frantically on refitting shutters and general tidying up. The costly work of fixing the roof has been completed both on our house (including the stable) and on the pigsties in less than two weeks, pretty much when I wrote my last post. It was a pleassure to see the builders work tirelessly and professionally while we were slwoly advancing with our own DIY work too. It made me think of what makes one happy with his job and what one should really be proud of. The next big installation work is to start early November when we fit a masonry stove to heat up our living space. It’s getting chilly so I can defintely say that I’m looking forward to that! Autumn also brings in mice… so here is an update of it all: Doors, cyclists and mice.
It is in the last couple of weeks or so that we started preparing the cow shed (what we actually call The Old Stable) for hosting events, workshops and lessons. Working on the Old Stable entails a different type of excitement as we are finally dealing with realization of our work dreams, those that concern the ideological and cultural side. There is also the financial pressure that urges us to get on with it as we should really start getting some cash flowing in and the Old Stable is part of this too. Fortunately, the excitement overcomes the stress because now we can focus on what brought us here in the first place. It’s not just about living in a big place in the countryside, it’s about making this a cool centre to visit.
To get things rolling and more inviting, the stable doors were the obvious starting point, the face and the entrance to our physical space. We first thought of restoring as much as we could of the old doors by filling in holes, removing old paint and painting it all over with our vivid red.
However, the wood of the stable doors (back and front) was already too rotten and wasn’t worth of saving. In fact, it wasn’t even the original door so there was nothing of historical value to keep. Above all, paint was flaking everywhere and working with a grinder to remove it is how I got my green faced photo I use as an avatar for this blog. Although it makes me look like I’m living in the Wild West it wasn’t as fun as it looks. In a way, (although in contrast to the zero waste life style we want to adopt), it was just easier to build new doors.
Now, I know this might not be the most interesting topic (ecuse my detour) but the process of building the doors was quite an adventure for me. Up until now, for refitting the external shutters, I was working with 25 mm thick boards of composite wood (three layers) that is usually used for casting cement structures as a temporary scaffolding. I thought that was tough to chew on and pretty thick…and indeed it was the first time I used a table saw (with a circular blade). For the stable doors it was a different scale altogether not only in thickness but in size generally: whereas the width of shutters were at most 90 cm wide and 165 cm tall the stable doors are 2 m tall and 2 m wide. Most striking is that the hinges used for the old doors require each door to be as thick as 40-45 mm. We could have started with a thin door (25 mm) that is then reinforced with another layer of slabs of wood, to reach the required thickness (I think that is what was done existing set of doors). At the end we decided it was cheaper and probably sturdier to build the doors from a single board with the required thickness. The panel we got was 42 mm thick (composite of three layers), 5 m wide and just above 2 m tall . That covered both the front and the back doors and left us with a big enough offcut to build something else in the future. Cutting this ‘monster’ board was a challenge by itself. We needed to get the panel laying on donkeys under the vault (we just about had the space to keep it covered in case it rained). For the cutting part I had to walk on top of the board and use a hand held saw to cut the measured pieces while Loredano and Marco held the boards from both sides of the cut.
Once the doors were cut roughly to size, we used a table saw to straighten the rough cuts and make final adjustments. The table saw was tiny compared to the size of the door and we needed nearly three people to hold the door, align the cuts and push it through the saw. Loredano and Marco came especially to help me with initial cutting but as they were busy later on, it was left for me and Elena to do the final adjustments and fit the hinges, so plenty more times to try get those bulky doors on the table and shave a 1-5 mm stripe for final fittings. One of the things that I’ve realized during the refitting process is how well the original doors were fortified and strengthened to prevent breaking in. In fact, compared to the rest of the house these doors were the most sturdy. It’s probably obvious why. A farmer 100 years back had his entire fortune is his livestock that was kept in the stable. The doors were much thicker than the entrance to the living space and there were fittings in the wall to allow robust metal bars to block the door from the inside. There were padlocks and extra metal hooks fitted to the wall that kept the doors shut. Except for the metal bars we’ve kept most of the original fittings. Just because it’s cool.
Fitting the hinges was not as difficult as we initially thought as luckily the 42 mm board had to be hammered slightly to grip the hinge, and the clamped part of the hinge had enough grip to keep the doors up. Adjustments for the even spacing between the doors, ceiling and the floor was done by hammering slightly on the sides of the door. Finally, 8 mm bolts were inserted to keep the hinges fixed in place. It’s a crucial moment because you don’t want to end up drilling a 8 mm hole through a thick door, in the wrong place. Once that’s done it’s a great sense of satisfaction.
I find what happened next a symbolic celebration for fitting the first of the stable doors. While I was about to put up the front doors, before inserting the 8 mm bolts which would fix them for good, a teenager appeared in the garden and asked in broken Italian if she and her cycling partner could pitch a tent for the night. They came from Berlin and cycled across the Alps with bashed-up commuter push bikes on their way to Florence with a final destination to work for friends in the olive harvesting season. I have a full admiration to the spirit of travelling, the courage of just asking random residents if they could pitch a tent and above all the eco friendly approach of travelling by bike, there was no room for hesitation. I knew Elena would agree. There was something symbolic about just partly fitting the stable doors and hosting our first eco visitors. As if they knew that our stables are now getting ready and as if they knew we wanted to welcome exactly people like them. Cycling is one of these activities we’d just love to promote so I felt it was a sign. We invited them to sleep in the living room and prepared a big dinner. Poor kids, they had been cycling a lot that day and really needed it, we finished over a kg of pasta together.
The next morning they realized that the bread they had left in the stables with their bikes had been eaten by mice… the bigger type (I dare say rats), not these cute little field mice that look so chirpy and harmless filling their cheeks with grains. As I mentioned, autumn is here and the mice look for the warmer places to hide. During the day our doors are half open and it’s not the first time we see a field mouse in the kitchen or in the living room. They are cute, and the kids love them, even though we tried to explain that having them in the kitchen is not great for our health. One time, in the efforts to scare a field mouse out of the living room we accidentaly trod on it.
It was a sad moment for the kids who participated in the chase and it ended in staging a proper burial ceremony in the garden, the following day. I think it was the first time we explained what a funeral was, and the first one they attended. Anyways, we had visits from bigger rodents coming into the stables (most probably it is what is popularly called house mice, and as I said I dare call them rats, but who knows! they are not that cute). Now, this is unacceptable… not only for our own health but also because one of our biggest fears is the vision of someone attending an event in the stables and screaming because they saw a mouse. That would be the end of The Old Stable, before it even started.
To cut the mice story short, we were playing with the idea of adopting a cat for some time and it was by chance that one has found us on a visit to Elena’s mother in Nonantola. We took it back with us and are in the process of getting to know each other and train for hunting.
I was never a big fan of cats, but I’m open to new ideas… especially when large mice are involved. In the next posts we will hopefully update on our animal stories too… Elena has lots to say including on how we nearly ended up adopting six male goats.
Going back to the Stable doors… we were super excited to get them painted in red and to get our logo printed on the front door. Using a home printer we patched together a 70 by 70 cm logo that I cut carefully with a sharp knife. I used spray paint to create a yellow circular background and sprayed the logo in metallic black. So here we are: we have The Old Stable doors fit, a logo and a mouse catcher… or so we hope.
Next on our to do list is clearing up the Stables and helping Elena set up the looms and equipment for her spinning and weaving workshop. Which obviously reminds me that the autumn temperatures are calling for fermentation… and as Marco continues reminding me:’ I can start smelling beer!’.