Saturday 30 January 2016

We're blog award finalists!

Well, this is weird.
Remember a couple of weeks ago when we asked you to spend a few seconds now and then to vote for us in the UK Blog Awards 2016?

W... T... F... ?
Somehow we've only went and gone and got on the shortlist of 10!
It's in the Education section, ironically, but a shortlist is a shortlist and that definitely means Dawn and I are among the top 10 blogging educators on the internet in the UK today. Probably. That's what I'm going to tell people anyway. We're so much brighter than we look.

The black-tie awards ceremony is towards the end of April at the swanky Park Plaza Hotel in Westminster down in Londonium, but the tickets for the do (not to mention fuel and digs) are quite expensive so we'll have to do some penny-counting and weigh that up against new rat traps and skirting boards and living in a shed for a bit longer and the likelihood of actually winning. I'll get to work on an acceptance video just in case, though: "Sorry we couldn't be there, but it's icy out and the electric blanket is so very persuasive. For their invaluable help I'd like to thank my manager, my agent, our misguided readers, our parents, God, Screwfix,, the hardware shop down in the village and, when faced with no other options, the overpriced hellhole that is B&Q...".

So thank you all very much for going to the trouble of voting for us when you could be bothered and weren't too drunk. We really do appreciate it.
'Industry experts' will now be examining Incubator More before they realise that there's somehow been a huge mistake and laugh it out of the competition for all the wrong reasons. Then next year they'll announce a complete overhaul of the voting system to make sure something like this never happens again. Heads will probably roll.

Still, we're officially recognised as edumacationalists now and they can't not never take that away from us.

To view the full shortlist, where you'll see we're up against trifling and insignificant blogs about the Holocaust and the dire state of Britain's classrooms, click here.

Thursday 28 January 2016

Fitting a wood burning stove

A recent study suggests that modern Man's early ancestors first started using fire 350,000 years ago, and that a significant proportion of that time has been spent waiting for the new Living Room log burner to be installed in The Lodge.

It's all in there. Studies never lie.

Purevision PV5W small log store
Name: SausageTheCat
Age: 5 or 6ish
Likes: Sleep, Marmite crisps, ham, cheese,
gravy, sniffing plywood stove crates
Nevertheless the wait is finally over and I'm delighted to be able to write this blog post in front of what is supposed to be a cockle-warming roaring fire but is, in reality, a few pieces of mildly moist wood that are spewing so much smoke I'm worried the fire brigade will rock up and ruin my day.
I'm not sure what's going on with it, to be honest. It's not the stove - that's perfect - but we've had a few gorgeous fires now and only yesterday did I discover that none of the wood I wanted to use next is burning. It's supposed to be well seasoned (donated by someone Terminator Trevor knows) but it must need another few months in Outbuilding 2, which is our log store until we work something else out. Unless the log store's damp, which it probably is... I need a hand-held moisture meter, I do.

Aaaaanyway, the log burner is in!

Let's get the legal stuff out of the way first, though - it's perfectly within UK law to fit your own log burning stove and despite people who haven't done it suggesting that you're about to kill your entire family and immediate neighbours, you're free to go ahead and chance your arm. And everyone else's.
In Scotland you don't even have to tell anyone with an official hat on, but the rest of us either have to have our efforts signed off by a HETAS-registered engineer or a Building Control bod at the local council in order to comply with Building Regulations. Apparently thousands of people don't even bother with the red tape and go ahead regardless. If it's good enough for our Scottish cousins...

The flue liners were dropped
back in August when the
weather was nice and warm.
Remember that?
But here in the rest of this fair isle, if you've done your research and got the proper-sized hearth, made sure there's enough room around the stove for airflow, dropped approved flue liners in the correct way and coupled the whole lot up with proper fittings and seals - all of which we did - then there won't be a problem with approval and your wallet will be the thick end of a couple of hundred quid lighter in return for a certificate.
Don't just take my word for it though. Everything I've just typed I got from the excellent Stovefitter's Manual website here, which you'd be daft to overlook if you're planning to install your own burner. And it's written by a real human being rather than a spotty marketing exec who hasn't got a clue.

So having decided that we were going to give it a go, Dawn and I ordered a hideously-expensive 5kw Fireline Purevision PV5W which we decided we wanted way back in 2014 when one caught our eye at Grand Designs Live. It wasn't overly-ornate, had lovely clean lines (which we eventually decided to use for the hearth and mantel, too) and, most importantly, had a huge window so we can bathe in the warming glow of the fire. Lovely. In fact the sales blurb for it uses the phrase "high-definition" which basically means you can see it and it's real.
We didn't want the stove to sit straight on the slate hearth as though something was missing, however, so we also ordered the smaller of two log store stand thingies which raises the burner by about 200mm or so, which is just enough to make it look 'right'.

At 120kg for the stove alone we enlisted Terminator Trevor to help with the man-handling, which was made easier by removing everything that could be removed - namely the door, insides, top, ash pan and even the silica gel packets because every little helps.
Together we managed to struggle it in to place and get it centralised, then on went the trimmed-down vitreous enameled connecting pipe which was sealed to the flue adapter at the top and the main stove body at the bottom with fire cement.

Purevision PV5W small log store

The door and everything else was then replaced, our Christmas present stirling engine stove-top fan was assembled and a little bit of kindling was lit, then out we went to marvel at the sight of smoke coming from the chimney for the first time, which was amazing to see and marked a big old milestone for us all.

Purevision PV5W small log store
Fire is Man Business so Dawn had to ask
for permission to light the first one
We kept the fire small to begin with while the fire cement and stove paint cured and by the time Trevor headed home it was roaring, which it was for about four solid days afterwards, bringing the previously-high humidity in the room down to an ideal level. We even spent a couple of evenings sitting by the fire in our camping chairs, wishing we had a comfy settee and smelling faintly of wood smoke - which everything now does.

I've already mentioned our wood supply in the log store, and there's plenty in there to keep us going if not this year then next when it's properly dry. Yesterday Trevor and I chainsawed a couple of fir trees down in the front garden which were leaning at 45 degrees, the logs from which are now stacked around the back, and there's another load of unseasoned wood next to it which Trevor scrounged from someone else just before Christmas. I plan to build a proper wood store with some skip-dived reclaimed timber in a week or two, which should provide decent cover and airflow to get the seasoning process fully underway.

Big chopper. Got wood. Etc.
If only we had some wood that we can burn.
Luckily, living on the edge of managed woodland means that there's a bloke at a farm down the road who makes a living from chopping, seasoning and supplying firewood so I might give him a poke tomorrow to see what his prices are.
Yesterday, before I realised the problem with our own supply, he dropped a couple of massive 20"-tall chopping blocks off for the extortionate sum of £10, so we're keeping our fingers crossed that he can get us through the rest of the chilly weather without going completely bankrupt.
One block will be used for proper axe-wielding purposes while the other will play host to a Christmas present from my dear wife, a superb Kindling Cracker, which will likely keep my precious fingers attached to my incredibly useful hands.

Purevision PV5W small log store
Our lovely new Purevision PV5W in full flow.
As far as we can tell this is the only photograph of the small log store being used in
anger anywhere on the interwebz. Maybe I should've prettied it up a little more.

Purevision PV5W small log store
The obligatory flaming log photo.
The fire chamber is so big we could probably get an old settee on there if we pushed the door closed with our feet.

Friday 15 January 2016

Any old iron - forging our own companion set

Take a look at the picture that I've stolen from Google on the right and tell me what's wrong with it.
Don't spend too long staring, it's not that important - the answer is absolutely nothing.

Contrary to what I had always believed, the items in the random web store's photo aren't known as a Poker And Shovel And That but are in fact called 'companion sets', and although they're manufactured to look decorative next to a real fire, their purpose is to tend to the logs and coal with a poker and shovel and that.

The ones in the picture are perfect. Probably computer designed in China and manufactured by robots in Thailand with materials from Taiwan then shipped back to China for spray painting by five-year-olds before being sold for the princely sum of £36 to a housewife in Scunthorpe, these companion sets are definitely decorative.
They're also flawless because they were made by machines to a precise specification, which means they're also identical. There are thousands of these exact companion sets 'out there', all made from the same cheaper metals with joints and welds that have never even been inspected by a real person. Mass-produced dullness.
Don't be offended if you have one (mam and dad) - I'm just making a point.

Now look at the picture below and tell me what's wrong with it compared to the Chinese one.

As exciting as a companion set can be.
The nail in the centre of the key hanger (top, centre) was Dawn's first attempt and shall henceforth be known as 'Stumpy'
Again, here's the answer: The finish is discoloured and textured in places; the spirals at the tops of the handles are all different, the shovel is a bit rough around the edges, they smell a bit 'industrial' and they're not painted.
But there are no other companion sets like this anywhere in the world. In the truest sense of the word, it's unique.

That's because we made it <big grinny face>

Yesterday Dawn and I took a trip to see our blacksmith mate Charlie in Gloucestershire, who agreed to let us risk life and limb in his traditional 1800s forge in return for a slice of Christmas cake, which seemed like an unbeatable deal.
Wylie's, The Ironmongers is one of those tiny companies that you don't think exist any more in these days of production lines and corporate greed - it's essentially Charlie with his bushy Olde England publican's chops, a small coal-fed furnace in a drafty and cluttered workshop, a few hammers and an anvil. Everything he does is made by hand and nothing is identical. I know this sounds like an advert, but it's true. It's ace.

The forge was boiling hot and freezing cold at the same time
Having discussed it for many weeks, we decided that we wanted a companion set that instead of cluttering the hearth or floor on a stand, was fixed to the wall on a bracket.
Then my self-diagnosed OCD appeared... if the poker and shovel and that were all on one wall that would make everything visually lopsided so we eventually decided to have two brackets, one on each side of the fireplace and turning in to the opening in an L-shape, with one item hanging at the front above the hearth and a second one just inside the opening. Same on the other side, of course.

Sticking with our theme of reusing original materials that we find in The Lodge when we can, we wanted the brackets to be made from lengths of hand-forged wrought iron bar that I had found above the suspended ceiling in the oriel window (they originally tied the frame to the house but weren't attached to anything any more), with the hanging hooks made from large original hand-made square nails that I also found up there.

The brackets were originally
tie bars used to hold the Living Room
window on to the front of The Lodge
The 10 hours we spent with Charlie saw tea, sausage sandwiches, cake and lots of hammering before we near froze to death in his other workshop where the final bit of welding took place.
Before that we made more nails for the brackets - only two that I had brought were suitable; heated, bent, hammered and snapped one bracket before getting the other two right; walloped the heavy poker, shovel, brush and tong handles in to shape (with mild steel provided by Charlie); cut and hammered the shovelly bit and made an impromptu key hanger with half of the snapped bracket and left-over nails. Charlie did most of the work, naturally, but what we lacked in knowledge and talent we hopefully made up for in brute force and enthusiasm.
Dawn lost two fingerprints on the poker before remembering that even no-longer-bright-red-and-glowing hot things hurt, I've probably done lasting damage to my forearm muscles with the weight of the hammers and Charlie came worryingly close to losing his chops in a never-ending shower of sparks, but it was an excellent day and keeps us well on the road to doing as much as possible ourselves during the renovations.

I've already re-pointed (with lime) some of the inside of the fireplace where the old mortar was failing and painted the galvanised metal register plate with two coats of red oxide and four coats of heatproof matt black paint. The plate has also been sealed as much as possible around the edges with a black heatproof Mastic-type mortar to lessen drafts and muck coming through.
All that needs to be done before the log burner goes in next week is to dust-proof the brickwork with a breathable fixative and put the companion set brackets up - then maybe we can stop huddling in front of the portable electric fire that I'm facing right now as it gently snows outside.

We're sooooo close to normality.

Now get ready for the action shots:

Health and Safety precautions were offered, but politely declined. Gloves and goggles were thought non-essential and we considered H&S rules as more of an arbitrary set of loose guidelines for the day.

Dawn prepares to fire a red hot nail straight at Charlie's Gentleman's Area.
He won't be laughing then.

We made more nails than necessary so we could choose the best for the brackets.
The leftovers were used for a key hanger thingummybob.

Hit the punch, not the hand. Hit the punch, not the hand. Hit the punch, not the hand. Hit the punch, not the hand. Hit the punch, not the hand...

Dawn didn't need this piece of metal for anything but it was all sparkly
so she walloped it anyway for the photo.

Charlie's magnificent facial adornment is a thing of glorious wonder.
But there was cake in it.

It really is as simple as 'heat it, hit it' but for weakling novices like us it was more difficult than that.

Look, but don't... ah, go on then. It's pretty.

Charlie made the shovel head from an old metal disc he had knocking about.

Welding is dangerous so this is where Health and Safety got serious.
"When I say 'eyes'," said Charlie. "I want you to turn away and cover your eyes. Don't even look in to the window because the reflection from the glass could still blind you."

So I took a photo.

Tuesday 5 January 2016

UK Blog Awards 2016 - it's the winning that counts

So we've been nominated for a blog award.
Us. Muz and Dawn. Incubator More. An award.
I know. An award.

Technically, and for the sake of transparency, I nominated us for a blog award, but Dawn was out getting drunk and throwing her shoes around on a work thing one night in November and I had nothing to do... so... well, I put Incubator More forward for the UK Blog Awards 2016 in the 'Lifestyle' section. And the 'Education' section (we taught you the chemical code thingy for Olivine - (Mg+2, Fe+2)2SiO4 - a few weeks ago).

The thing is that now the contenders are public, one of those popularity contest public voting systems has been launched which means that our little old page is pitted against heavyweights of the Blogosphere with their finely-honed Social Media Campaigns and millions of e-friends around the world all itching to make sure those with the most Twitter followers reign supreme.

We've only got this blog. And most of the time I just talk to myself on it.

We've got our personal Facebook pages too, I suppose, but as most of our readers come from there already, there's not much mileage in that. And I've only got 66 'friends' (by choice) anyway, so I'd be a fat lot of help.

Which means it's down to you, dear, dear readers.
We need your votes. Please.

I love what you've done with your hair, by the way. And where did you get that cardigan? That colour really suits you. It brings out your eyes - they're simply to die for! 

Voting is open from now until 9pm on Monday, January 25 - and you can vote once every day using the same email address.
If you have multiple email addresses we couldn't possibly condone duplicating a vote you've already cast, but you can if you want to. We can't stop you voting for Incubator More every day, using all of your different email addresses, including your work one, and we can't prevent you setting a daily reminder on your phone just in case you forget. We just can't. You might need to refresh the page after each vote, though.

To cast your vote every day, just click the logo below, which will open up our little page on the UKBA website.
Scroll to the bottom of the page, type in your name and email address then click where it says 'Select Category - in the last box.
Important: in the short list of categories, select Lifestyle + Education

If you could possibly tell all of your friends too, that would be spiffing. And if you were inclined to put it on your Facebook page that would be even better. And Twitter. And a mailshot to your colleagues. Is a TV ad taking things too far? I know some people who know some people who might have met Ant and Dec's backstage fluffer once...

Dad instructions:

  1. Click the picture logo below
  2. In the new window that opens, go right to the bottom (you can read the words later). Then back up a bit to the 'Vote Now' heading.
  3. Type your name in the first box
  4. Type your email address in the second box
  5. Click the words Select Category
  6. Select Lifestyle + Education
  7. Click the blue Submit button
  8. Make a cuppa
  9. Repeat this process every day!

Vote for Incubator More in the UK Blog Awards #UKBA16

Installing a slate hearth

Having installed the reclaimed oak beam as a fireplace lintel/mantelshelf successfully, it was time to turn our attention to the remainder of the fireplace.

We've already chosen our stove; the chimney flue liner (long-lasting 904 grade, both to allow for longevity and the fact that Muz is a pyromaniac) was put in as soon as the chimney pots were installed; and the register plate and flue liner adapter (we put a six-inch flue in the chimney, and the stove output is 5-inch - future proofing in case we ever get a stove with a bigger output) are now in too, so we pretty much just needed to put in a hearth and then the stove can be installed.

Our time capsule now lives in here.
The brick 'step' at the back had to be lowered by 25mm
so the new hearth would be level with the floor in the room.
I spent some time researching on the brilliant website to find UK hearth regulations. Having done that, and established what size we needed, we were ready.

We decided we'd like to use a single slab of slate, having seen some at the same reclamation yard that we bought our beam from. Unfortunately when we rocked up with our measurements, the largest slate they had was still 80mm too narrow so we skulked back home with our tails between our legs, and started Googling for a Plan B.
Then my mum came up with a genius idea, by suggesting that we try the same place that had made our house sign. Replacing the rubbishy wooden house sign with a nice coordinated sandstone version was something we did back in the summer, courtesy of an excellent stonemason called Thomas - who we then completely forgot about. Doh.

Sharp, square-edged (not chamfered) and cut to exactly
the same width as the mantel above it. The devil
is in the detail, apparently.
Off we went and yes, they could do what we wanted for not a lot more than the slate from the reclamation yard would have been. We ordered it, expecting to get it early in the new year. But on the 23rd December, we got a phone call - it was ready to pick up if we wanted it before Christmas? Absolutely we did, so one slow and careful car journey later and the hearth was propped up against a wall waiting for it's final resting place.

And what better time to install it than the random bit in between Christmas and New Year? Especially when a handy bank holiday Monday was available. Unfortunately Muz came back from his family Christmas with man-flu and was forced to stay in bed. 

So my dad, aka Terminator Trevor, came round and the two of us got cracking while Muz took copious amounts of Beechams and occasionally appeared looking sorry for himself before heading back to bed (EDIT: I evaded the Grim Reaper by a mere whisker - Muz).

We'd already filled in the void under the hearth with a combination of our time capsule, old bricks, gravel and sand. Before we started setting the hearth stone in place, we first lifted a few of the quarry tiles from directly in front of the chimney breast, where the edge of the new hearth would rest. One tile was badly broken and some more had sunk quite significantly in to what appears to be a (surprising) thin lime bed on top of sand, so we swapped the broken one for a different tile, and put additional sand underneath the others to level them up.

Glazed tile chunk
We also needed to chip away a small, slightly raised, area where the previous hearth had been, in order to get our new level. This turned out to be a small fragment of old glazed tile - we guess from around about 1900.

I spent some time Frogtaping (like masking tape, but better) the edges of the hearth slab that would be exposed, and then covering the remainder of the top surface with newspaper, to save any splashes of mortar discolouring the stone.

To set the hearth in place, we then made a lime mortar mix, using 2 parts sharp sand, 1-and-a-bit part NHL3.5 lime, plus water, having read this interesting article around commonly used 1:3 mixes and that fact that hydrated volumes change the ratio.

Moisture content beneath ground level inside the fireplace came in at 100%+, so the lime mortar was laid thick to
give a good level, solid grounding and plenty of breatheable material through which moisture will naturally wick. This
will also be helped by a 20mm lime mortar-pointed gap between the bricks and slate when it's in.

Yet another tea break for Terminator Trevor

Using some narrow pieces of wood to set the correct level, we spread the mortar in, and leveled it off. 

We then removed the wood levels, filled in the void left behind by those, and then man/womanhandled the mammoth slate into place. A bit of pointing around the edges and we were done!

Now to wait a week or so until it's gone off and the stove can go in, although we need to paint the register plate and possibly re-point some of the mortar first.

Ta daa...

The thick lime bed should help the naturally damp materials beneath, especially towards the back, breathe