Monday 30 December 2013

Frugal Newspaper

Sticking with the log burner, frugal living topic (and this is my final post on the subject – honest) there are a couple of good and bad things about newspaper. So do you want the good news or the bad?

I’ll give you the bad news first. There are a number of gadgets on sale for about 12 Euros which claim to convert simple newspapers to logs which can be burned on the log-burner. Given that you have already paid for the newspapers they suggest that the heat they give is free.

Well, I didn’t pay 12 Euros for my gadget. I got it at a car boots sale for £2 thank goodness. I say thank goodness because, quite frankly I would have felt well ripped-off if I had paid any more. So what’s wrong with it doesn’t it work? Yes it works but the logs aren’t worth the effort. Firstly you have to tear up the paper and soak it for several days in a tub of water. Then when it has turned into a disgusting gooey mush you drag it out by the dripping handful and push it into the gadget which is a kind of mould. This compresses the paper fibres. Water and pulp leak out of every surface – and hey! You’ve got a brick.

Its no use to you however until it has dried out – and the bricks don’t dry that easily if they are stacked – so you need a pretty big under cover area to dry them and you have to turn them frequently. Once dry they can be stacked but they must be kept well away from humidity because they seem to have properties a little like salt, or blotting paper– they absorb damp and seem eager to return to their dripping state.

Now, that’s not the bad news – we haven’t got there yet. The bad news is that they stink when they burn and they give out little heat. The other problem is that being composed of softwood fibres; they probably don’t do your burner any good either.

Ok so now for the good news – well newspaper makes a fine mulch and an excellent compost so you can achieve something for nothing after-all. Better still, before you throw them on the compost use them to clean the glass on your wood-burner stove. Simply wet them, scrunch them up into balls, dip them into the cooled ash in your stove and wipe the glass with them. You’ll be amazed at how effective they are. Better in fact than bought products. Now wood-ash is what gardeners refer to as ‘potash’ – so the ash stuck on the newspaper actually improves the newspaper as a composting product. 

Now if you can find a free source of newsprint, – well it has to be a pretty good idea doesn’t it. So whereas my French neighbours paint ‘pas de pub’ (no publicity brochures please) on their letter boxes – I welcome all of it.


Sunday 22 December 2013

Good Reasons for Optimism

It’s the shortest day of the year; Christmas and New Year are just around the corner and, from here on, we get a little more daylight each day. A new year, new veg growing in the potager and a boat to launch in spring (if I get the renovation done in time), and as a bonus, I have been asked to undertake a twenty day project for my old employer, so there will be a little extra in the budget – reasons to be optimistic? You bet – especially when I look back in my diary to this time last year.

The plan had been a three phase development of this little cottage and barn. The first phase was a new-build extension on the ground floor to the north with a new kitchen installed.  Phase two should have been a refurbishment of the existing ground floor, removal of old kitchen, installation of a new log-burner, a new tiled floor with under-floor heating, new dry-lining and an insulated ceiling between the beams. The third phase would have been a conversion of the barn into a workshop and utility room on the ground floor and a play-room above. When I say play-room I mean a place were we can make our music, do our art, and hang out with friends – maybe put a pinball machine and an old juke-box in there just for fun.

Well plans don’t always work out quite as expected. Halfway through the building of the Kitchen, the builder advised that it would be a bad idea to complete phase one until all the dirty work of phase two was completed. The problem was that the only viable access to the living room would be via the new extension – better to rip out the floor and dry-lining and get the liquid concrete into the living room now, before the extension is finished otherwise we would have been dragging concrete and rubble through the new kitchen. ‘Oh and by the way’ he added, ‘if you want power, water and drains into the barn, we need to dig those channels before we lay these new floors’.
So phases one two and three became one single effort to sort the ground floor of the entire property. It also
meant that stuff had to be ripped out before new stuff could be installed. By this time last year we had a home with no floors, no kitchen, bare stone walls, no doors, no running water, except for a standpipe outside, no sink and only one working electric socket. Everything was covered in plaster dust and we were surviving in one upstairs room.

At such times you realise how important friends can be – and, given that we had only lived here six months at that time, it serves as a strong reminder that people are naturally friendly and helpful. We were offered free accommodation in several homes and camping cars – and we had a different invitation for every meal and celebration through the holiday period. We even managed to throw a party ourselves using space heaters and a cooker that we took off the boat. I have no idea how we stayed so cheerful that winter but I’m pretty sure it had much to do with the warmth and friendliness of people who live in this neck of the woods – Is it like this anywhere or is there something special about this place and its people?

Well you might know better than me – I haven’t travelled outside of Europe but I suspect there is something quite special about people here. It’s a village that has traditionally made its living from the sea. The men signed up for long and dangerous voyages to Newfoundland – fishing for cod. The women were left to grub what living they could on the parcels of land they managed to buy or inherit. They would naturally support each other during the long months of the cod fishing season. The men, as seafarers, were cosmopolitan and broad in their outlook and they were used to getting on with people in the close confines of their vessels – in effect they were all in the same boat – and that culture of mutual support and openness still seems to characterise people here.

It extends even to people like us – newcomers.  People make places, and collectively they make the
‘culture’. We were lucky to land among a group of friends who could tolerate and even enjoy the differences between us. Some people I know parachute into an unfamiliar community simply because real estate prices are particularly good or the scenery captures them. I wonder how they are received and how they make out. Ah well, Happy New Year everyone


Tuesday 17 December 2013

A Real Saw Horse

Having posted an article about log burning stoves, I though you might like to see this. I can’t claim to have invented it myself, I found it on a DIY website, thought it was good, built it myself and after several years of use I can confirm that it is an excellent piece of kit. Now what is it? Well it’s a sort of saw horse, a frame which holds logs while you put your chainsaw through them.

Before building this I tried all sorts of options but logs are not a standard shape or size and nothing I had held the logs secure enough for my liking. This gadget however, offers you two options. One way up it has a V shaped indentation to stop round logs rolling, turn it the other way and you have a flat surface for split timbers. You can add luggage tapes if you like to secure the log to the horse, or you can simply use your foot – suitably clad in steel toe-caped boots.

The thing took less than an hour to make because I bought the MDF cut to size from a DIY store. The whole thing is held together with long stainless steel screws and bolts which are kept in the right place by plastic water pipes. I wn’t bother giving you the detailed building directions because they are pretty obvious – but if you want to build one – here are the materials and dimensions.

To build it you’ll need:

6 pieces of ½ inch MDF each one cut into a 15inch x 12 inch rectangle
Two ½ inch stainless steel screw threads each on 24 inches long
24 stainless steel nuts
38 inches of plastic water pipe, just large enough for the screw thread to go through.

When you get home measure 2 inches into both sides of the 12 inch side of the boards and 6 inches down from the centre and cut a V shaped groove.Then drill a ½ hole in each side of  the boards 5 inches up from the bottom and 2 inches in.

Now simply put a nut on each screw thread, add a board, fix it in place with another nut and add a suitable length of water pipe to act as a spacer. Now another nut, then a board, then another nut and another water-pipe spacer. I fixed my boards at roughly 3 inch apart with a 7 inch gap between the two middle boards – and that is where the saw does its business.

Sorry to be using old imperial measurements but I find them more frugal – I mean there are less of them to the foot. Let’s face it, if I used centimetres I’d need 30 of them to make the same distance as only 12 inches.

When it comes to chainsaws I prefer electric over petrol mainly because they are lighter, less noisy, and more reliable than two-stroke engines. I have to say I am no fan of Black and Decker most of their products seem to be for light domestic use and I have burned out a considerable number of their sanders, saws and drills in recent years. These Makitas however, just run and run. I have had to replace the chain a few times but that’s all. You can get one here.

Makita UC3530A Commercial Grade 14-Inch 15 amp Electric Chain Saw with Tool-Less Blade And Chain Adjustments (USA Readers)

Makita UC3530A/2 35cm 240V Chainsaw  (UK Readers)


Tuesday 10 December 2013

A New Log Burner

There is nothing prettier than an open wood fire but if you’re trying to be frugal it gives little comfort to know that 80 percent of the heat it produces disappears up the chimney. A wood burning stove is much more efficient and effective. For a start it acts more like a radiator than a fire. The heavy iron casing throws heat into the room and the huge chimney is reduced to a single small flue. The rest of the chimney can be sealed with insulation to keep heat in the building.

There was a wood burner here when we bought this house - a  ‘Vermont’ cast iron job putting out 8 Kwts of heat  and it was enough to keep the whole house cosy even during a hard winter.

But as a heater for a second home, a holiday home, it had a few drawbacks. Firstly, it took about a day and a half to reheat the fabric of the house, so if you came here for a long weekend, say arriving Friday afternoon, the house wouldn't feel really warm until Saturday night. Secondly, because the chimney wasn't used between visits and it hadn't been lined or capped, rain water came in.

One February night we arrived here, lit the stove and choked on the smoke which filled the room. Investigations the next morning turned up a dead pigeon and an owl in the flue. They had obviously fallen in there and died a horrible cold death. Soon after we had a ‘chapeau’ fitted to the top of the chimney to prevent further useless deaths – and to help keep out the rain.

But, by then the iron stove had rusted due to the rain and lack of use. Bits were beginning to fall off. A new stove was called for and it was one of the first improvements we made when we moved here permanently but if you’re thinking of getting a wood burner it is important that you do some thorough research into your needs and circumstances.

In France stoves are described according to the heat they put out – the measurement is in Kilowatts.  Now a stove is most efficient when she is burning good wood and when she is stacked reasonable well. It’s difficult to have a small fire in a stove so you need one that produces enough heat when burning efficiently – but not too much – otherwise you’ll be opening doors or running half empty which is not efficient.

To calculate what size stove you need, begin by obtaining the ‘volume’ of space you want to heat. Measure the width, length and height of your room and then multiply the three measurements together, i.e. width 8m x length 4m x height 2.8m = 89.6 cubic metres.

Now, if your house were a new build and fitted with very good insulation, you would divide this figure by 25. For a room with average to good insulation you would divide the volume by 15. If the insulation were poor or non existent, then the division of the room’s volume would be by 10.  If you are unsure use 15 to get an idea of the Killowatts you need.

Ok so that is the size of space you want to heat but if you've got an open staircase in your living room, heat will rise up it. This may be a good or bad thing, you may want the hot air to rise through the upstairs of the house – or you may prefer to insulate your room and use other solutions upstairs. Either way, just remember that heat rises and bear that in mind when you make your calculations. 

Another thing to know is that old stone houses like this one prefer a fairly constant level of heat and humidity so you need a stove that will bring the house up to your preferred temperature steadily and then maintain that temperature at an efficient burn.

Finally the size, type and quality of your wood matters.  Generally any dry hardwood will do but Oak is one of the most popular because it is very dense, it burns slow and hot, and it is easy to split. Birch also burns well but it burns fast. Poplar is popular as is Ash and Elm.
 Softwoods are not so good because they contain a significant amount of resin which can build up in the flue and, over time, you risk an uncontrolled blaze in the chimney or flue. The drier and more mature the wood the better. An easy test is to bang two pieces together; a dry mature log will have a musical note. In this part of France wood is sold by the Cord a cubic measure of neatly stacked logs 3M x Im  x Im. Three Steres make a Cord. I use about a Cord and a half each year at a cost of about 360E per year.

 Generally, in this part of France wood is sold as 30cm or 50cm logs. 30cm logs are more expensive because there is more wastage in sawdust. Now, ‘here is the rub’ as Shakespeare would say, our new log burner is an ‘Invictor’ which takes logs of 45cms! Bit of a pain really, either we pay more for smaller logs or I have to re-cut every log in my store!

If you have the space, you can save money by sourcing your own wood, cutting, storing and seasoning it yourself before it will be required, or  by purchasing cut  logs ‘green’, and seasoning as above but you need to get at least a year ahead (two years is better still) – purchasing or cutting, stacking and protecting now for 2015 or later.

Well, in France they say a log warms you up twice – once when you cut it and again later when you burn it, - but once you find a good woodman treat him as a family treasure.

If you are thinking of buying a log burning stove, there is a great deal to think about. I used this book and found it a great help in making a good choice

The Log Book: Getting the Best From Your Wood-Burning Stove, 2nd Edition (USA Readers)

the log book (UK Readers)


Thursday 28 November 2013

A second home in France

We bought this house because it was within walking distance of the Village of Plouer (which we love) and
within walking distance of the harbour. We also bought it because it was beautiful, aged, quiet and tranquil, it had a reasonably sized garden, a courtyard, a barn, and nothing needed to be done to it.

We have met many English people who purchase second homes in France very cheaply because they are in need of restoration. Perhaps some may have thought that renovation would be equally inexpensive.  They then discover that the cost of renovation is pretty much the same as in the UK or elsewhere. You’ll pay the same for a bathroom sink both sides of the English Channel. No wonder French friends tell me that the English in France have a reputation for demanding the cheapest possible solutions regardless of safety, quality or aesthetics. Quite simply, having invested in a second home, there isn't much left in the pot for renovation. The other problem of course is that the low property prices encourage you to purchase more than you need and often more than you can cope with.

So, our house had to be good for a few years until I could devote time and energy to it. We chose well – as a second home it was like the Little House on the Prairie - dark oak floors, a log burning stove a small but modern kitchen, bedrooms and bathroom upstairs, a well-insulated attic above – and it came with all those French effects that everyone likes – huge fireplace, quaint old wooden staircase, beams, inward opening windows with shutters, beautiful granite walls - pleasantly furnished too – in a shabby chic kind of way.

Hardly a hitch – except when I fell through the floor – oh! and when we discovered that the newly installed septic tank had never been connected – and then there was a flood, and a dead owl in the chimney which didn't help matters. Not being able to connect appliances to water pipes without leaks appearing everywhere was a bit trying of course  and then there was the time that the wall fell down - but these were teething troubles mainly!

Let’s face it – you can’t realistically expect to purchase a stone house, several hundred years old, keep here locked up for the best part of each year and expect to find her exactly as you left her several months before. Oh no, things happen, even to quaint old properties that time forgot.

In truth, time doesn't forget – it just waits until you sign the papers – then it comes at you all at once.

If you're thinking of doing something similar here is a resource not to be without
Buying and Renovating a Property in France: 2nd edition (UK Readers)

Buying and Renovating a Property in France: A Comprehensive Overview for Those With Little or No Knowledge of Buying and Renovating in France (USA Readers)


Sunday 24 November 2013

Cold Night in Plouer

It must have been a cold night last night. I came downstairs at 8:30 (well it was Sunday) and I was greeted by warm and toasty floor tiles. The underfloor heating had kicked in during the night and as a result I was more comfortable in bare feet than shoes. 

'Well, OK', you might say 'is that such a big deal?' And I would reply 'Oh yes. You should have seen the state of this place at this time last year'.

Susan and I bought this place almost seven years ago. Our plan was to use it as a holiday home and then as soon as possible afterwards we would renovate and move in permanently - trading a degree of affluence for a better quality of life. The process is described in the Home Page of this site.

Personally, I blame a guy called Maslow. He came up with a Hierarchy of Need, arguing that everyone is seeking a similar goal - but it can only be achieved when more urgent and pressing needs are met. On a simple level, he would argue that everyone needs to eat and drink but if you are drowning at the bottom of a swimming pool, a burger and a glass of beer would be the last thing on your mind! There is a hierarchy you see. Now when we bought this house we believed we were close to the top of the list - we could breath, eat, drink etc, had a comfortable amount of money and the final goal - self-fulfillment (the Americans call it self-actualization) was just around the corner - if only we could have more time for us and if only we had to devote less of this precious resource to the job.

Well, maybe there was a trade-off -- I could break with traditional employment and have more time - but of course there would be less money - so frugality would be the keyword.

We came here full-time at the end of August 2012 and began renovating. By November, this time last year,
we had the shell of an extension built - but there were no doors or windows. The ground floor of the house had been ripped up. Drainage channels and wires chris-crossed the concrete screed. The dry lining had been removed an it sat in a wet pile in the courtyard. There was only one electric socket that worked in the entire house. We had a one burner camping gas stove I had brought from the boat and we had water - but it was from an outside tap and it was cold. Every surface even in the attic was covered in plaster dust. In a period of only three months, eyes open, we had both voluntarily thrown ourselves right back down Maslow's hierarchy - not gasping for breath at the bottom of a swimming pool - but certainly we were cold, wet, miserable and living in a hovel. We did manage to eat but whatever we cooked tasted of concrete dust and old stuff, you know the sort of material that drops from old stone walls. Bathing and washing up required use of the bath, which had to be filled from an old kettle and the garden - well it had ceased to exist - more like a bomb site really. No green, just brown rocks, holes, trenches and piles of rubble.

I can't say the experience left no scars, still shudder when I see a pile of rocks - but I can say that this morning, toasting my toes with a good coffee in my hand, I at last feel able to tell the tale and maybe share a few ideas with people undertaking or planning similar attempts at self-fulfillment through a similar frugal route.

As this is my first post I should also mention that while all this has been going on, I have been attempting to renovate an old sailing boat on the estuary here. That story is called

Simple Sailing Low Cost Cruising