Wheaton Labs Tour Cooper Cabin

Paul’s property certainly has it’s share of beauty and charm. The area where the labs are located is somewhat on the side of a mountain, at least that’s what people from Kansas would call it, maybe in Montana it’s a big hill? A portion of it overlooks a steep slope down to a river and on the mornings I was there the mist and fog as you came out of Cooper Cabin was surreal and quite an experience.

Anyway, the tour continued with a visit to the interior of Cooper Cabin.

Cooper Cabin Interior

The front wall of the cabin has mostly glass so there is a lot of light coming in. The floor is finished in wood, although Paul hopes that eventually that will be converted to a Linseed Oil floor. I need to do more research on that – anyone familiar with that type of floor?

Batch Box Style Rocket Mass Heater and Cooktop

There are actually two experimental Rocket Mass devices in the cabin. The first is a Batch Box style Rocket Cook Stove.  Batch Box RMH’s have a door and have a different internal configuration for gas pathways and such. Paul is not a huge fan because they are not as simple as a “J-Tube” type (we’ll get to that in a moment) and typically require more “fiddling” to run well. If you are interested in listening to experts discuss it there is a podcast here.

The second is what would be considered a “normal” J-Tube style Rocket Mass Heater with a Cob Bench providing the “mass”.

Rocket Mass Heater

They are called “J-Tube” style because the wood feeds in vertically in the front (you can see the fire and wood feed towards the bottom of the picture above) and the burn chamber inside runs horizontally and then connects to an insulated vertical heat riser contained inside the barrel in the picture above. It is really a trip to watch flame burn sideways along the bottom of the burn chamber. The whole burn chamber is encased in cob and there is exhaust pipe that goes all through the bench to heat up the mass. Rocket Mass Heaters if running correctly burn between 1200 and 2300 degrees, burning up all the smoke, creosote and everything else combustible and then releasing some CO2 and water vapor that vents out the chimney.

The heater pictured above is in Erica and Ernie Wisner’s Rocket Mass Heater Builder’s Guide which is probably the most definitive guide on Rocket Mass Heaters currently available.


Wheaton Labs Tour

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Paul Wheaton and Wheaton Labs his property is divided into two parts – “Base Camp” where the current home and shop is located and “Wheaton Labs” which is a larger section of property where the Ant Village (we’ll cover that soon, I promise) and a lot of the other experimental structures are located. He calls it the Lab to make sure everyone remembers that the goal here is to experiment and prove concepts, not necessarily to churn out a finished product.

After the Pizza Party there was a bit of a mix-up on Friday night about where I would be bunking and Jocelyn graciously extended an offer to me to sleep the first evening on the couch in the Fisher Price House (they call it that because it’s a double-wide trailer made mostly of plastic) which I happily accepted. I helped her and Chef Ron with the dishes from the party and ended up turning in fairly late. Due to the time zone change and the length of my trip I had no trouble getting to sleep almost instantly.

I found out the next morning that Paul and Jocelyn tend to get up around 5:30 am. Paul was very kind and was being quiet in an attempt to let me sleep in. It  turns out that Paul’s version of attempting to “be quiet” is quite adorable for a 6′ 4″ large man although it’s not actually very quiet. I appreciated the effort but the early wake-up was fine because I was excited to be up and start the day. The tour and the chance to see and play with all the Rocket Mass Heaters I had been reading about was why I drove to Montana in the first place.

Chef Ron, one of the tour participants, had come in the day before from Washington and helped Jocelyn prep everything for the pizza party. Chef Ron really outdid himself making a breakfast casserole with the leftovers and making homemade biscuits to boot. He told me he had never been in Jocelyn’s kitchen prior to the day before but he had found everything he needed almost immediately. I figured that was a) because Jocelyn rocks as a cook and a person and b) he’s a chef, and people who cook tend put things they use the most nearest where they use them. After breakfast the group of tour participants gathered together and carpooled in various vehicles up to the Lab area.

The first thing we saw when we arrived at the first Lab location was the Cooper Cabin.

Cooper Cabin

Cooper Cabin is a WOFATI which stands for Woodland Oehler Freaky-Cheap Annual Thermalized Inertia structure. The Oehler stands for Mike Oehler who was a designer of underground earth houses who recently passed away. Mike was the author of the $50 Dollars and up Underground House Book and apparently quite a character based on the stories Paul was telling all weekend.

The WOFATI is designed to store heat in the summer and release it in the winter, maintaining a year round temperature without heating or cooling the structure. The Cooper Cabin is not completely finished but very close and Paul is hoping to have someone or a couple of someones live in the structure for year to document the conditions and prove that it works. If you are interested in helping out with that project let me know or contact Paul at Permies.com and let him know you want to be involved in the Thermal Inertia test.

The next project we looked at was the skiddable Wood Shed.

Wood Shed

The wood shed was built as a place to store boards they have milled with their portable saw mill. Recently sawed green lumber needs to dry for a considerable period of time before being used in structures to prevent shrinkage. There is a style of building using green logs, called Round Wood Timber Framing, that actually takes advantage of the shrinking to tighten the joints of a build but that’s a topic for another post. The Wood Shed was built by a novice builder as their first natural timber build and it’s not perfect but it does the job.

We then got a look at Paul’s Solar Leviathan.

Solar Leviathan

The Solar Leviathan is a portable solar charging station that has multiple solar panels mounted on a frame built onto a trailer that Paul’s brother welded together. The wheels look out of whack because the type of suspension they built has both wheels in a kind of floating frame, attached to a axle to allow for being driven over rough terrain. The solar inverter and batteries are contained inside the trailer making it a completely self-contained mobile power station. Very, very, cool, especially if you are off-grid and want to run an electric chainsaw, charge up your cellphone and have lights in a wofati cabin at night.

The next structure we looked at was the Canning Kitchen.

Canning Kitchen

The canning kitchen is a skiddable structure (skiddable means it’s designed to be hooked up with chains to a vehicle of some type and dragged to a new location) built to make canning in the summer more bearable by performing all the heated operations outside. All the blue food grade barrels you see in the picture are for water storage and the kitchen sink on the lower right side of the picture has a manual foot pump that allows for running water.

The structure is designed with an open bay (lower right side) that you can insert a module unit into depending on what you need. When used as a canning kitchen they can put a Rocket Mass Stove for heating water into the bay or they can put the Rocket Mass Oven into the bay and use the shelves for food prep. The structure is about 65-80 percent finished but is certainly usable.

Journey to Montana Part 3

The drive from Billings to Missoula was only about 4 1/2 hours so I slept in a little bit, went down to the continental breakfast, had a nice chat with the lady who was serving (unfortunately I did not get her name) and continued on my way. The event I was attending at Wheaton Labs was a get-together for some of the folks who had supported Paul’s Rocket Stove Kickstarter. Paul was having a natural builder’s event starting the week after so he had some natural building rock stars coming in for the event and since I was coming in from the East I was asked if I could pick up Chris “Uncle Mud” McClellan at the Missoula International Airport. I was happy to do it (basically that was like asking a teenage girl if they would like to meet Taylor Swift).

I got into Missoula, MT quite a bit before the plane was scheduled to arrive so I did some grocery shopping and went to lunch at a place called the Mackenzie River Pizza Company. It’s a great pizza joint and if you are passing through Missoula I highly recommend stopping in for a slice. After lunch and a look around town I went to the airport to pick up Uncle Mud. I had seen him in person the year before at the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, KS putting on a straw bale building demonstration and was looking forward to giving him a ride. Uncle Mud turned out to be just as genuine as he appears when putting on a workshop and his enthusiasm for all things Rocket Stove and Natural Building related is apparent in every conversation he has. The other thing that impressed me was his dedication to family and I was honored to spend the time with him.

By the time we arrived at Wheaton Labs the Rocket Stove Pizza Party of 2018 was in full swing and  just like that I was standing in a place I had been reading about for two plus years and meeting people that I been hearing about and reading about for longer than that. Just for the record Paul Wheaton is pretty much a giant. He’s 6’4″ tall and a presence in any room he is in, even if he’s not standing. Jocelyn Campbell might possibly be one of the nicest people I have ever had the pleasure to meet and is an excellent cook as the next few days attested.

The first night of the event was cooking pizza in the Rocket Stove featured in the Kickstarter video, eating good food and getting to meet the people who I would be spending the next couple of days with. It turned out that the people supporting Paul in the Kickstarter and coming together to spend time in the labs and talk Permaculture came from all over and many different walks of life. A chef turned farmer, engineers, architects, IT geeks, retired administrators, homesteaders and many others. A diverse group that actually reflected in so many ways the diversity that Permaculture strives for.

After a few hours of good food and lots of stories and introductions the various participants separated to go to the various campsites and rented structures around the property and turn in for the night.

Journey to Montana Part 2

Journey to Wheaton Labs Day 2 started pretty well. Up and on the road by 7:30 am, a little later than I planned but not by much. Kansas is much prettier in the daytime. Many people think of Kansas as flat. That is mostly true for the East-West drive, but we do have the Flint Hills which are beautiful and the North-South drive has it’s fair share of reasonable hills. No mountains but there is definitely elevation change. In the western part of the state I was driving through with a little bit of imagination you can picture what it might have been like hundreds of years ago, covered in grass 20 feet tall and herds of Bison so big you couldn’t see them all. Too bad all that is mostly gone except for a few places where they have protected it.

Soon enough I entered eastern Colorado. The scenery changes very quickly and it gets colder, you start to go up in elevation as you come closer to Denver. Fortunately my route passed by Denver but it did go partway on a three-lane highway between Denver and Fort Collins that eventually went down to two lanes. If you like a leisurely scenic drive avoid traveling that highway at all costs. Even in the late morning on a Thursday it was wall-to-wall traffic. Not as bad as the corridor from Oklahoma City, OK to Dallas, TX, but pretty bad.

The good news is that once past Fort Collins everything thinned out and the traffic became lighter and sparser as I neared Wyoming. Wyoming has the aura of the Marlboro Man, riding his horse across vast, untamed prairie. There are wide open spaces and some mountains. A very pretty drive through lots of small towns and spread-out ranches. I could easily see myself living in Wyoming – in the Summer. Winters there are pretty harsh from what I understand and I’m not really a winter guy.

Once I finally got into Montana it was gorgeous. The whole trip on Thursday had very variable weather and temperatures through every state and time zone. I went from moderate rains and 50 degrees to sunny and 72 degrees, back down to the mid 30’s and rainy again and it was happening about every 30-60 minutes. Very interesting. I finally got into Billings, MT, the Capital, about 7:30 pm. I was checked into the Sleep Inn by a nice, friendly young lady named Alicia. I spoke on the phone with the lovely Miss Mercy and then got settled in for the night.

Journey to Montana Part 1

I started my trip yesterday after work (yes, you can have a tiny sustainable life and still have a day job and sometimes it’s what funds your projects) with much fanfare from Miss Mercy who was very exited about my trip. We have a great relationship so  I’m sure she was just happy for me to go play with Rocket stuff and not just happy to see me go.  I was hoping to get out of Kansas the first night of traveling but it turns out that in flurry of activity prior to leaving I had programmed the wrong route into my Garmin and ended up traveling mostly straight West through Kansas instead of North into Nebraska.

In case you have not ever looked at Kansas (and I can understand why you might not, I probably haven’t looked too closely at your state) it is kind of a rectangle, so it is much wider than longer on the East-West vs. North-South orientation. It got dark and by the time I noticed I was passing Manhattan, KS instead of getting a “Welcome to Nebraska” sign I finally realized I was heading West instead of North. Probably most of you would not make that kind of mistake but sometimes proof that everyone is human does come out in a weird ways. My body wanted to go West, an electronic device sent me West, I went West….   And immediately ended up driving for several hours in extreme crosswinds. Crosswinds that move your vehicle sideways in lurches and send tumbleweeds and cows flying past your window. After three hours of that and having been at work all day I decided discretion was the better part of valor and got a room at a hotel in Hays, Kansas.

After a reasonable nights sleep (there was an all-night gas station across from my hotel room and the window blinds in the room were just for show, so more light than needed), a quick continental breakfast I was on my way…

Montana and the Rocket Oven

So I’m getting prepared today for a trip to Wheaton Labs in Montana to meet Paul Wheaton and get a first hand look at a Rocket Oven. Paul had a very successful Kickstarter campaign to put out a video documenting how to make and use a Rocket Oven.  You might not be familiar with the concept of Rocket technology, which can be included in a Rocket Mass Heater, a Rocket Stove or Rocket Oven. Overall a Rocket anything  is basically a super-efficient wood burning device that operates at temperatures of between 1200 and 2500 degrees Fahrenheit in the firebox area (the rest is cooler and safer than a typical wood stove).  Probably the most comprehensive book current out is Erica and Ernie Wisner’s Rocket Mass Heater Builder’s Guide.  It’s an awesome reference so if you want to know more get the book or check out the user forums at Permies for Rocket Mass Technology

Back to the upcoming trip. I’m excited to go for multiple reasons, not the least of which is that Paul has at least 12 functioning Rocket Mass Heaters and Stoves at the Wheaton Labs. I’m going to be building a Greenhouse this fall to use as a nursery for my TSL Urban Farm business that I am starting up and I’m seriously considering adding a Rocket Mass Heater to the build to help keep the heat up in the winter. I understand there are some challenges to running a RMH in a humid environment so I’m looking forward to seeing the outdoor season extension RMH they have at the labs and perhaps get the the opportunity to discuss the tech with some of the builders that are going to be onsite.

What is on your technology radar? What places will you be going soon that you are looking forward to visiting?


TSL Urban Farm

It turns out that I really like growing things. I’m not nearly as good at growing things as I could be, but I really enjoy it and I love experimenting. Miss Mercy didn’t nickname me “The Mad Farmer” cause I’m angry. I occasionally might get a little grumpy but honestly things in my life are going pretty well so there’s no need to be angry. Anyway, I’ve been trying to figure out a side business that allows me to grow things, allows me to experiment, allows me the opportunity to make a little side income and possibly give back to the community.

With that in mind I’ve been reading and learning about Permaculture, Urban Agriculture, Regenerative Farming and all kinds of other interesting things. Turns out there has been a whole wide world of stuff going on out there that I had no idea about. I started out listening to Jack Spirko on thesurvivalpodcast.com . Jack has all kinds of interesting people on his show talking about all kinds of different things. He calls himself “a redneck duck farmer” but he is really so much more than that. From interviews on his show I started to learn about people like Paul Wheaton, the Duke of Permaculture, Joel Salatin the Lunatic Farmer, Brian and Susy at Chiot’s Run, Diego Footer and his fantastic Permaculture Voices and Curtis Stone the Urban Farmer.

Based on several years now of listening to lots of people, watching lots of video on YouTube and reading many books and articles I am finally starting on the journey to create TSL Urban Farm. Exactly what we’re going to be providing is still a little up in the air. The idea is to start with Urban Market Gardening, Nursery plants and Miss Mercy is excited about possibly starting with cut flowers.

The Pond Project – Part 2

The water had completely drained out overnight. All I had accomplished was to drown some earthworms and I felt terrible about that. So I figured that I just had not used enough Bentonite clay.

The farm store was not open on Sunday so Miss Mercy, kind soul that she is, picked up another 200 pounds of Bentonite for me the next day since it was kind of on the way home from her job and the next Saturday the weather was perfect. So I put all four bags and raked it into the dirt and filled the pond again.

Fingers crossed – looking pretty good

Drained again! What in the world is going on?

Well with more internet time I found out that there are actually two different types of Bentonite clay: Bentonite Calcium and Bentonite Sodium. Turns out most farm and garden store sell Bentonite Calcium. Bentonite Calcium is a soil amendment to stiffen your soils and remove heavy metals but does not expand. I found out I could put a ton of it into my small pond and it’s not going to do a bit of good. If you want to seal a pond or dam you need Bentonite Sodium that will mix with the soil, expand and seal.

Because I have the best wife ever (they call them your better half for a reason) Miss Mercy did some research, made some calls and found a place fairly nearby that carries Bentonite Sodium clay at a reasonable price. So a road trip is in the offing and hopefully that will do the trick.

The Pond Project – Part 1

So for the better part of the summer I have been hand digging a new pond in our yard. Miss Mercy and I have had many discussions about how deep it should be, what it was going to look like, should it have fish, should it not have fish, etc. We finally determined that about 15 feet in diameter and a gradual slope down to about three feet deep or so would fit best in the space.

I started roughing out the hole I was going to dig and then built a hugelkultur type berm behind the area, to create a wind brake and give us a backdrop for the pond.


In case you are not familiar with hugelkultur it is basically a mound of dirt covering a core of wood. One of the best places I’ve found to read up on hugelkultur is at the Wheaton Labs Hugelkultur Forum. It would be best for the mound if I was able to pile it six feet or taller, but, because we live in the city, I tend to keep things lower so they don’t protrude over my privacy fence and make my neighbors wonder what I’m up to (I actually have great neighbors, but not everyone driving by might be as understanding, so lower it is).

Pond with hugel berm and hugel mounds

We had been pondering how to seal the pond and since I’m trying to keep things simple and less toxic we really didn’t want to use a pond liner so we researched other ways to seal the pond. The biggest problem I have is that we are blessed with great soil in our yard, drains well, with very little clay – excellent for growing things, horrible for holding water in a pond. We finally settled on Bentonite Clay. Bentonite is a clay that expands by 15 to 20 times and bonds with the earth to create an area that will hold water. Fantastic news! So on advice from a co-worker who is familiar with the process and after some online research I got 100 pounds of Bentonite from a local farm store, mixed it into the soil and filled my pond with about 3,000 gallons of water. Everything looked wonderful. Here’s the picture:

Pond filled up


So the next morning I was very excited to see if the water had cleared up.



WordPress and the State of Tiny Sustainable Life

So yesterday WordPress offered me the chance to try out a new editor. It seemed like a slap-bang idea and so I said yes to installing the plug-in (if you are not a WordPress author or an IT enthusiast you can pass on this post and wait for tomorrow’s).

My first experience with computing was when I was a newly minted teenager and my Grandfather, the king of all things new and shiny, bought an Apple computer from a Bell & Howell distributor (an audio-visual dealer that you can probably look up in the Internet Archive).  It’s my understanding that was probably one of the first 1,000 computers Bill Gates sold. My Grandfather being my Grandfather, always traded in his computer on a newer model  the day they came out so I was always getting to play with new stuff.

My Grandfather had a nephew who worked for Apple in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s, and I remember a huge box delivered to his office with a prototype of the first 5MB hard drive inside. The box was like 3′ x 5′ and mostly filled with padding. Took us 8 months and numerous long distance calls to California at $3.00 a minute (long distance was a thing back then kiddies) and it never really worked right until the new ProDOS operating system came out.

The reason I bring all this up is because I’ve been around computing for more than 40 years – I have horror stories of the early years for days, so I know that I should back things up. Always BACK THINGS UP. So, of course, I installed the new plug-in without BACKING THINGS UP. It failed to install correctly and broke everything.

I was finally able to delete everything broken and re-load things that were  missing but because I’m a WordPress newbie it’s going to take me a few days to put things back like they were. It’s a learning experience, and I knew better, so I have only myself to blame.

What does this have to do with a sustainable life you ask? Well, as the Survival type saying goes “One is none, two is one and three is better”. I should have taken the time to back things up. I should have had a plan in case things went wrong. Things always will go in the their own direction, and it won’t always be how you think it should be. Building in redundancy is always a good idea. I’m glad the lesson I had to re-learn wasn’t too painful. I’ll know better next time.

What kind of lessons has Life taught you when you weren’t paying attention? Were you able to adapt quickly? I hope so. Let me know, I’m interested.

Take care,

The Mad Farmer