Thursday, May 03, 2007

The great white whale, or, how to remove stumps.

Now that the weather has taken a turn for the better, we have rushed headlong into building a shop. My goal is to have the shop totally weather proof by Christmas.

I think this is a reasonable and attainable goal.

Unfortunately, I also have a longstanding (and scary accurate) rule of thumb about time estimates for task completion. Many years ago, I observed that if I made a very sophisticated guess about how long it would take to complete any give task, accounting for all the things that could go wrong, head scratching, running to town for parts, etc etc etc, I was still always wrong. In fact, I was always overly optimistic. However, if I took that best estimate, doubled it and added ten percent, that was often pretty close to the mark. Feel free to use Troy’s patented time to completion methods to aid in your own forecasting efforts. Royalty payments may be made to my secret Swiss numbered bank account.

If I have substantially improved my forecasting ability, it will be weather tight and totally closed in by Christmas. And why shouldn’t I be more accurate? I am older, wiser, more experienced, and I have a lot more money to make things happen faster. Of course, if my rule still magically works, instead of taking 9 months, it will take 18+, perish the thought…

The actual “progress” on the shop is on two fronts, planning and physical work. On the one hand, there was a tree in the way and it has to go away. Cutting it down went exactly as planned. Then there was the stump to deal with. The stump has become my great white whale, and if my heart were a cannon ball, I might have shot it out of my own chest to kill the monster.

There are any number of methods to remove stumps, each with their strengths and weaknesses.

1. You can let it rot all by itself. Microbes are everywhere, and some of them can digest wood. If you have a couple of decades to wait, this works reliably and required no effort on your part, other than mowing around the stump for twenty or thirty years. I do not have the time luxury for this method.

2. Back in the day, farmers often used dynamite. It was not uncommon to have a stick or two laying around because it’s such handy stuff. If they didn’t have any, they probably new a guy down the road that would have a stick or two. This method is both reliable and fast. Since this activity generally occurred in a sparsely populated area, nobody really cared, even the law enforcement folks. When your distant neighbors heard the boom(s) they would probably comment to the spouse that George had been talking about blowing those stumps out on his back forty, end of conversation.

For better or for worse, times have changed. Dynamite is somewhat harder to procure. The nice law enforcement folks take a much dimmer view of the widespread use of high explosives by amateurs. The countryside is much more densely populated, and your neighbors would probably have more than a passing comment if they hear explosions over at your house. Then there’s that whole 9/11 terrorist event and its aftereffects. We may, with some sadness, discard method 2.

3. Use a stump grinder. Vermeer makes a nice machine with a powerful engine that drives a rotary grinder on a carriage. The grinder looks like a steel drum about a foot wide and about the same in diameter. It is covered with wicked looking “fingers”, each of which is tipped with a sharp carbide tooth. They run this baby back and forth over the stump, something like eating corn on the cob, and it is magically turned into mulch. I’m just making up numbers here, but I think Vermeer’s starter model runs something over thirty thousand dollars. I’m just not that rich, and even hiring a tree service with a stump grinder runs into real money pretty fast.

4. Farmers and pioneer types who had to clear the land could use a patented stump puller. There were several companies that produced these heavy, large, strong, heavy tripod devices, typically ten or twelve feet high. The working principle is a huge screw, which is really an inclined plane wound around a long thin cylinder. The screw, which was about as big around as a man’s forearm, had a big wooden lever on the top, to be hitched to the plow horse or horses. So you set the tripod up over the stump, chained the stump to the bottom of the screw, hitched the horse up to the long wooden drive lever, and walked the horse around in circles.

While this was going on, several helpers would be digging around the roots and chopping at them with axes. Mind your fingers. This was an all day affair for several people and a horse or two. Hard work for everybody involved and not terrifically successful on big stumps. Plus, since I don’t have a draft horse, I will have to pass on this method. It does give me enormous respect for those early pioneers!

5. Really big machinery. If you have a big enough back hoe, or better yet, a track hoe, you can just rip it out of the ground, roots and all. By big, I mean really freaking huge, and correspondingly expensive. I, of course, have a teeny little backhoe attachment for my teeny little Chinese tractor. I did use the backhoe to scrape away most of the dirt from the roots, just to see what I was up against. It didn’t even pretend to do any ripping of roots or stumps.

6. You can burn them. This was also suggested by our good friend David, who knows a lot about a lot, and has some first hand experience. The traditional method is to drill a bunch of holes in the stump, approximately one inch in diameter, as deep as you can go. Dump in your favorite flammable liquid and light it up baby! It’s supposed to burn and smoke and smolder for a week, after which you sort of cave in the remnant shell and you’re done. While this may work flawlessly on an older, deader and dryer stump, I can tell you that it was an amazing failure on my new living green stump.

I drilled my holes, dumped in my gas and torched that baby! It made pretty flames and an ominous hissing sound for a couple of hours. Imagine my surprise when I examined the end result the next day. 32 flawless holes in a perfectly sound stump. There was a tiny little ring around each hole that had charred and blackened a bit, but experimentation suggested that the damage was about as deep as a sheet or two of ordinary paper. For a few moments, I had delusions of wealth and grandeur, having discovered fire proof wood.

Then I took the Tim Allen approach, you know, if ten units of power don’t work, try 150. I have built several large, scorching, searing, nuclear bonfires over/around this stump, and have successfully destroyed/removed approximately the top two inches. I do think that we are getting the stump dried out. If nothing else, we are gradually tiring it out. I can be a persistent bugger and will overcome the stump somehow, stay tuned.

7. You can build around them. This was also suggested to me, I think in jest. As I think about it, I have seen a couple of houses on some “Fancy House” tv show, that incorporate a tree into the construction somehow. At the time, I assumed this was some artsy/enviro/hippie thing (not that there is anything wrong with that!). In reality, they must have realized that the minor inconvenience of having a tree stuck in the middle of the kitchen floor is nothing compared to removing the offending stump. That teaches me once again to be cautious about making assumptions.

The other activity involving the shop, is the planning stage. I am finalizing the size, which I think will be 28' x 70', or maybe 30' x 70'. It has certainly grown a lot since I first picked a number out of a hat at 24' x 50' a few months ago. Then I measure the garage, which is 24' x 22', and really not that big. A few days ago, I used stakes and a long tape measure to approximately lay out the building and it looked pretty good in the larger format. I have also been reading up like crazy about in-floor radiant heat and oil fired boilers, since the time for pouring cement rapidly approaches. Well, you know, rapidly for me.

Finest regards,


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