Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Dehydrating Food: First Efforts

As much as I love canning, I have been eager to try my hand at dyhydrating food. It offers some advantages for processing, and unlike my canned goods, dry ingredients do not need refrigeration after opening.

Originally we'd set our hearts upon a solar dehydrator, to the point where I'd purchased a book on how to build one. That ran into a snag right away, though "damp and horribly moldy blanket" might be the preferred metaphor. Central VA summers are too humid for solar dehydration to work, though getting an oven to 125 degrees would be as simple as sitting a box outside on any sunny day from late May to early September.

The Cabelas sporting goods chain sells units that range in size from a large toaster oven to a full-sized range. All of them circulate air over the food as it dries out. For small items like garlic flakes, I put parchment paper on top of each wire tray. Do not use waxed paper unless you enjoy making a melted mess. I was happy to discover that online before my first attempts.

We chose a mid-sized unit the size of  dishwasher that holds many trays of fruit or vegetables.  at 80 pounds boxed, I could easily lift it onto a small table in our shop, where mice won't crawl as easily into the works to make nests.  Plus we have at least one black snake there, on the prowl, helping me with mouse-management strategies.

Our first efforts involved a bunch of organic bananas, and the results impressed me. I set the unit to dry the overnight, and by breakfast we had bananas dry but not crunchy; they maintain good flavor and we stored a quart jar of them out of the sunlight in our cabinet. No sign of mold, yet.

We do not grow bananas, but we do grow several pounds of garlic that I cure in an unheated utility room off the side of our house. It stays warm without freezing; the year before, I hung the garlic up from the ceiling in our root shelter to keep mice at bay. This season, however, I used a lot of the garlic and just stepping down into the utility room made the process really easy.

Two sites advised me on drying garlic. I found the advice at Self Reliant School excellent overall, but I did not wish to vacuum seal the jars. That step adds an expensive piece of equipment. Then I asked Dave, the author of the Our Happy Acres blog about this processing. He assured me that sealed jars left out of daylight would keep a year. That's enough for my purposes. Here are my results.

We used the hand-cranked food processor advised by Jennifer at Self Reliant School; Amazon seems short on them, but I found one on eBay for under $20, new, with free shipping. It made short work of the process, though there was no short cut for peeling 5 pounds of garlic cloves! The processor was sturdy enough to endure the work and cranking it required no great effort. I did freeze all but the center jar; dried garlic thaws well and can be put right into the pantry.

My next week involves peeling and chopping about 5 pounds of carrots that overwintered in the soil. I cooked a few and they taste great. Now we'll extend the harvest with them, as well. Look online and  you'll find many recipes. Unlike canning, this food is simpler to process. It will be safe as long as you dry it thoroughly and store it well.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Old-School Tools: Hatchets and Axes

To a novice like me,  not long ago all hatchets and axes looked alike. yes, I use both, as well as a maul, to split a lot of smaller logs that don't merit the hydraulic log-splitter with its 27 tons of force. All of my modern tools, as well as a 1930 Keen Kutter "Half Hatchet" inherited from my father-in-law, work wonderfully.  As I began to auction off his collection of tools, however, I found out a lot more than I ever guessed about wood-cutting technology.

There's a great deal of pre-mechanized history here.  We often think of hatchets looking something like one of the two pictured below. Axes might have one blade or, more rarely today in the States, two. There is also the famous fireman's axe, a tool unlikely to ever vanish from regular use.

In fact, a study of a 1930s tool catalog reveals specialized hatchets for shingling, for flooring, and even a "produce" hatchet whose use may be lost to time.  A favorite I no longer see as what is called a "broad axe" head.

Hammers, wrenches, and pliers, other hand tools that survived the coming of power tools, at least has several examples for sale in any modern hardware store, but modern hatchets seem to have dwindled in purpose to the sorts just pictured. So few of us split our own wood in the age of gas logs.

For those who want to know more about the terminology of axes and hatches, I found a Swedish toolmaker's site with an excellent page on the subject. You may find yourself spending more hours there than you should, when you should be out splitting wood!

Friday, January 5, 2018

I Mark the Line

Every year, once the snakes vanish after frost, I tell myself "this year I need to walk the property lines and mark our boundaries."

Easier said than done on 100 acres. Our home has 11, so that was not a big deal despite a few creek-crossings in temperatures that hovered in the low teens.  I put on blaze orange to alert any late-season hunters and grabbed some "no hunting" signs.

On the other hand, one could wander in circles for days on 100 acres  in Buckingham County and die of exposure. Yet marking one's property is a very good practice. All rural land-owners whose property ends not in fences but in woodland should do it, regularly.

With my brother-in-law and our neighbor Bunny, we trekked the boundaries of the family's property in Buckingham. The family had just purchased two more parcels that had come on the market, so I toted along two spray cans of paint, a compass, and my usual hiking swag. Our property map would not suffice except for vague references; plats may have notes such as "large stone with paint blaze" or "metal rod" with vague (or no) GPS coordinates.  In any case, the land is far beyond any sort of cellular reception.

One thing I had forgotten that day was our surveyor's wheel, a must-have for this work.

Still, we slogged along old logging roads, followed streams, and soon had used all our paint. The timber-company neighbor had marked a good deal accurately, but some of the blazes were old and needed renewing before the next harvest. They plant only Loblolly Pine, so that helps them identify where their land ends and ours begins.  We also wanted to post no-hunting signs, a must if you want to deter hunters. If caught hunting on posted land, they can face stiffer fines than they do otherwise. We do hunt the land ourselves, as does Bunny, which is why he was so eager to help; though I did not bag one during my abbreviated season of three days in a stand, it's thick with whitetail deer.

I'm not paranoid, but when I walk alone I take a holstered revolver. I was attacked by a pack of dogs in Spain, and though I drove them away, without injury, using a satchel of textbooks, that awful memory lingers. Poachers may also be detained by a landowner until the cops arrive (good luck with getting them swiftly, with no cell reception). A friend once held a pair of men until the sheriff came for them.

So usually we walk in pairs or trios.

The most useful part of this exercise was learning landmarks. If you do walk your land regularly, you spot large trees, water courses, and other useful things. We IDed a couple of oaks in decline or in places where they can be felled without hurting the diversity of the forest. With my brother-in-law's little sawmill, we can make boards for our buildings.

We also began to make plans for a few ATV roads we can use to skid logs out. In winter, you can really see the best routes, which are often the old roads that are lost in the undergrowth of summer. 

Get to know your land, and get neighbors involved. It's a good way to make friends. Bunny does a lot for us, because we gave him permission to hunt on our property. His help is worth its weight in gold.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Garden Lessons, 2017

2017 was a year of many lessons, not all of them good. I don't know that my experiences will help others, but here's what happened.


With a challenging summer, first hot and wet, then hot and arid, it was good that we had 1200 gallons of stored rain water. One tropical system moved west, only giving us perhaps half an inch of rain when we could have used two.  We tapped the 500 gallon cistern once, pulling about 200 gallons out after we'd been through another 300 in our smaller rain barrels.  We'll see about adding another 250 gallon tank next year, so we can water young trees as well as the garden.

Our harvest, save for white potatoes, was still very good. Frost arrived a month after the average date, so I was harvesting tomatoes and peppers later than ever. I save a window-ripened green tomato in the fridge now, in time for Thanksgiving.

Hot Peppers: 

Let's start with the bad news. Despite beds that grew into thickets of hot-pepper bushes, it's likely my last season growing them in bulk for a local restaurant. At the prices I can get per pound, we are better off giving up some of the garden for increasing our flock of laying hens. We just cannot meet demand, and if we even sold two more dozen per week, we'd make as much money as we do with the peppers.

The hours of work starting seeds in the greenhouse, transplanting to larger pots, then harvesting the peppers simply do not add up to economic sense. I've yet to tell our customer, but he may want a different source in any case: despite cross-pollinating our Thai Dragons with super-hot peppers, the heavy rain early on and the later-than-normal harvest may have made their heat content too low.  I watered deeply once per week when the dry weather came and stayed. That should not have been excessive, but the peppers lacked the bite we want.

I've learned an adage that my friend Dominic, at Dellicarpini Farms, told me: focus on crops that provide more pounds of harvest. Thai Peppers are small and difficult to harvest. I'll still grow a few for myself and to continue my cross-pollination ideas.

We also lost a verbal contract for a crop of super-hot Ghosts and Scorpions. The would-be buyer had told me he'd buy "every pepper I grew" the year before, then turned about to say he'd not need any at all. I sold a few pounds, but about 20 pounds froze on the plants and are now compost.

So next year several raised beds dedicated to peppers will go to other plants, as we rotate our garden and let the soil rest.  Two beds will be given up entirely, as we expand the chicken run to add a coop for a laying flock and our first rooster.

One good thing that came from the pepper crop was a method I learned for curbing weed growth. We rolled out 4 oz weed-block fabric from A.M. Leonard, and then we cut slits in the fabric for transplanting. It's labor-intensive at first, but in the long run we saved hours and hours weeding. The fabric gets rolled back in winter, so our chickens can scratch up the raised beds.


Okay, I gotta cage the beasts; next year it will be welded wire cages. We had good luck with Mortgage-Lifters, Long Keeper, Yellow Pear, and Sungold Cherry varieties. I saved seeds from the best plants; some of the Yellow Pears had wilt and others did not. So I chose wisely when saving seed for 2018.


We experimented with using Doctor Bronner's Eucalyptus soap (1 part to 9 parts water) on the plants weekly. We did not pickle this year, but we had slicers until the vines died in the heat of early July. Squash bugs were rare this year. I'm going to try the same treatment next year on our cukes and our squash; we did not put in any this year.

Our Lima Bean harvest was sufficient for the two of us, and there too I sprayed the Dr. Bronners a couple of times. It's cheap enough on the scale we grow.


While our multiplier onions only produced enough bulbs to replant this fall, we hope that next year we'll expand our crop enough to actually eat some!  I need to side-dress the onions a bit, as the bulbs were small.

Garlic, however, proved a real bonanza for us. I credit Ira Wallace's workshop from the 2016 Heritage Harvest Festival. She plants late, up to mid-November in prepared beds. We more than replaced our seed garlic this year, both hard-neck and soft-neck varieties.

I froze a lot of last year's crop, in March, that we stored in our root cellar. I put the peeled cloves in olive oil and froze that, in small tubs. We used that all summer for a weekly pesto dinner.


These have been another ongoing success. We ate lettuce (Slow Bolt) into June, and I replanted with seeds (that variety plus Tennis Ball and Spotted Aleppo) in September. We are eating lettuce now that we put under a row cover.

Chard survived the summer, looking horrid and blasted, to feed us again in Fall. The freeze nipped it, but we keep cutting and cooking good leaves. Our mustard and collards, however, are thriving after the freeze and are very sweet. We put them in in the bed that had the garlic and onions until harvest.

Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes:

I stupidly planted the white potatoes in not enough soil, over a layer of weed block. We got four small tubers and ate them in one meal.

The Becca's Purple sweet potatoes, however, were amazing. In a raised bed I got nearly 60 pounds that will carry us through the winter. They are great weed-blockers, only needing attention when the drought got really bad or when Japanese Beetles really got after them. We handed picked the plants daily, and the crop shrugged off the pests.


Our first year of jam! We had a nice early crop, and we'd have had more had I weeded more later. That is the plan next year. The plants draw critters, and I shot one groundhog in the patch, despite good fencing: the whistle-pig found a gap at the gate.

Rabbits also had fun in there, but with a scoped small-bore rifle I rid the garden of a few of them. Our livestock guardian dog got others, to judge by the skulls at the back of her run.

That, too, is nature. Everyone has to eat.

Our wild blackberries came in heavily. This winter I need to bushhog two thickets of old canes, so we'll get young canes and new fruit. We got enough as it was to freeze several pounds for winter.

So next year I'll put these lessons to work and see where 2018 take us all. In dark and difficult times, full of so many disappointments and tragedies in our nation, it's good to at least eat food you grow yourself.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Homesteaders of America Conference, 2017

We had the great pleasure of attending the first-ever national conference of the Homesteaders of America.  I've been delinquent in my conference reviews this year, especially of the recent Heritage Harvest Festival.  I will cover that event soon, but I have to say that the Homesteader gathering was a Tractorpunk's paradise.

We attended two speakers' presentations and talked to a lot of vendors. The event sold out, so I'm glad we bought tickets in advance.

Warrenton VA hosted the gathering at their Fauquier County Fair Grounds. It provided a perfect rural setting. The area there is building up fast with DC commuters, but it's not all awful sprawl. The twee little downtown area, as well as a sentimental favorite of mine, Frost Diner, show that suburban and rural can coexist. I hope they can maintain that balance.

The balance between a hurry-scurry life of consumerism and debt vs. the potential freedom, monetary and spiritual, of the homesteading life was central to talks by Doug and Stacy, the stars of the YouTube Channel "Off the Grid with Doug and Stacy," as well as author, farmer, and rural philosopher Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms.

Now just a moment. Folks living with no internet connection or electric power but with a series of YouTube videos? Oh yeah, and using their own drone to film the event? At that moment, I knew I was in the right crowd: no Luddites here, just, to paraphrase Howard Rheingold's point about the Amish, very clever techno-selectives.  Think: farm truck to charge electronics + unlimited data for Verizon cellular users. Makes at least as much sense as me building my own shaving horse to do woodwork.

The couple talked about our culture as one that rewards staying in debt, becoming dependent on technology we do not understand, of severing our ties with the soil and the rest of nature. Salatin continued that with his talk later in the day. I grinned at both of their references to "The Man," which propelled me mentally to the early 70s again.

And yet, they are correct. As Doug put it, "barter is what The Man is scared of," and Salatin later chimed in that we are desperately in need of "relationship rather than consumerism." Fine and good, that, thought I, preaching to the choir.  As if anticipating my very snark, Salatin added that the choir did need some preaching-to, so we would be energized to share with others our foodways, our practices that build wealth in the soil and self-reliance in the home. Homesteaders are gentle missionaries of a way once taken but left behind after the Second World War. I was greatly moved by Salatin's remarks, for which he noted Michael Pollan's ideas, that "we know that eating like Great Grandma is healthier and safer."

Yes, I too worry about the slow accumulation of pesticides and herbicides in our bodies without any longitudinal studies of their impact. As Salatin noted, in his Christian-Libertarian way that I found suddenly reasonable, our government now sells us on the safety of GMOs when, just a generation ago, it found that margarine would be safer than real butter and all of the carbs at the bottom of the food pyramid--an innovation of 1979--were equal nutritionally: Twinkies and taters apparently sustain us equally.

It's easy, when on the mass-comsumption treadmill, to dismiss homesteaders as crackpots. One of my colleagues who toured Polyface with Salatin found him to be half visionary, half crackpot. And he charmed my colleague utterly. I agree. It may seem ludicrous to tell a culture seemingly content with morbid obesity, car-based lifestyles, and land-use plans intent of paving our best farmland that "you are insane." Jim Kunstler has been doing so for years. Salatin does it with a different method of delivery, and Stacy and Doug live that vision of a world (almost) made by hand.

So I came away inspired. There is much left to do, but each step adds something in a movement toward more self-reliance. Next year for us? Food dehydration and cooking with a solar oven. We found an inexpensive one available from a vendor. My own plans would cook but not dyhydrate, so having one professionally made tool will be the route I take in 2018. We will also be raising chicks from incubated eggs.

This year we've expanded our seed-saving to tomatoes, begun reloading ammo, and I'm about to hunt deer for the first time in 30 years. Others will pick different skills from our frontier history, but one or two steps at a time will get us closer to what worked for our ancestors. I've critiqued the myth of self-sufficiency here before, so it pleased me that the speakers discussed the need not to build bomb-proof silos but rather resilient communities where we develop some of the skills our grandparents had. In the end we might create collapse-proof communities, if the worst that they and Kunstler fear comes to pass.

I learned a whole lot and, true to the spirit of the event, did not spend a lot of money beyond buying a really nice gardening knife to replace my easily broken hori-hori (replaced once already under warranty).  I will use the new tool this weekend to weed as I harvest hot peppers for our one restaurant customer.

A few quibbles about the event are inevitable, and I think the organizers can iron them out. Next  year, I hope they offer more food. We plan to pack our own food--very rural-thrifty of us--but a hot cup of coffee on a foggy morning would have been ideal. The one vendor with that beverage was overwhelmed by a long line at his food truck. The same problem occurred at Monticello in September, for the Heritage Harvest Festival. I hope the organizers of each event can lure more food trucks--so often a source of farm-to-table fare--to their gatherings.

We who paid ahead for admissions and speakers got first dibs for seating. It was not a problem but being a "Green Wristband" and thus encouraged to get seating made me uncomfortable. I'd recommend just charging one price next year; luckily no fights erupted because we call got seats. I'm looking forward to my own tour soon of Polyface with my fellow crackpot, Joel Salatin. I just wish I could get that "visionary" part going for me. The crackpot part I have down just fine.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Four Essential Shop Tools (+1)

Having lived this way for nearly five years (!) I took some time to take stock, walking around the shop and just thinking "which of these things has proven most useful to me?"

Here are a few answers.

The Vise

The Columbian vise pictured above was in my grandfather's basement for decades, then my dad's garage for twenty years. As far as I know, neither of them ever used it. My grandfather was a junk-man and tinkerer. He probably bought the vise for its potential value as scrap steel. His basement was full of such things, and it's rather hard to imagine one making a living peddling junk these days, when our thrift stores are chock-full of ancestors' possessions no Millennial apparently wants to have.

But I digress. When I saw the vise the first time, I knew I wanted it. The solidity of the thing! It radiates the sort of sleeves-rolled-up, baseball-on-the-AM-radio DIY of a different era. And the metal is as formidable as the Battleship Wisconsin, another relic of that time.

My pipe-cleaner arms of my early teens could barley budge it. My dad knew its worth as a good tool, so after his father passed, dad stuck it in a corner of his garage. My dad's idea of DIY consisted of "call some guy" after his two tools--a claw hammer and 16d nail--would not solve the problem. All right, I'm exaggerating. Dad had a set of pliers too, if he could find them in the kitchen drawer.

When Dad passed, I grabbed the vise and asked my father-in-law to media-blast it. He then primed it, and I painted it with a heavy-duty monument paint that should last down the decades.  But the vise is not bit of hipster decor. I have used it many times for many projects. The jaws grip firmly enough for hammering metal into curves or bending bar-stock metal, though it occasionally serves the prosaic purpose of holding a #2 pencil that holds a spool of fishing line, when I restring my reels. The top of it can be used for cold-hammering metal flat, rather like an anvil.

So this tool is my #1 go-to in the shop. I could not live as I do without it.

The Drill Press

I've never owned one of these before, but my father-in-law left one on the property and it works wonderfully. The trick to a good press is that is spins slowly but has enormous torque. I've bored through sheet steel a quarter of an inch thick, with no problems. I use a cutting oil to make things go smoothly and the motor does not suffer undue wear.

I don't know much about modern drill-presses, but this one has real staying power. There are so many uses for it that I'd need a chapter of a book to list them all. But the press gives precision when precision is needed, or when very large bores for bolts need drilling. I used the press to make seat bracket adapters for a car I'm restoring and our 1950 John Deere M tractor.

Note the safety glasses nearby. Though the bit spins slowly, slivers of metal are no joke when flying through the air!

The Bench Grinder

These are salted around our property like Dandelions. I must have found six in various states of disrepair, including one very new and very cheaply made Chinese one in the box. It has no torque; if you press down on the wheel, you can slow it down! It is, however, perfect for light materials.

The best of the lot is shown, a vintage Craftsman from when Sears not only was the King of Retail, not a dying memory, the innovator purveyor of just about everything America's then burgeoning middle class needed for the good life.

The best grinders offer a work light, sturdy tempered-glass shields to protect one's face from sparks, and two grits of wheel or a wheel and wire brush (my favorite combo). As with the drill press, the torque on a good grinder can be immense. I usually have to hold work by hand to grind it, so I wear thick gloves to keep my hands from burning, and I never get distracted. Imagine having a finger pulled into the metal guard by the grinding wheel!

Grinders work for wood too; my first experience was as a 10 year old, making a Pinewood Derby car when I was a Scout.

The Miter-Box Saw

I own two, one of them a professional model Bosch with a 12" blade that is heavy and rides around on a folding stand. It  does great work, but the handiest saw of the lot I own is a little Hitachi, one that cost me less and $100. It is light enough to tote to the job site in one hand, and the 10" blade big enough to do all sorts of chores. It angles in both directions
and can accommodate lots of different sorts of blades.

I have used this little saw for wood (of course) but with a masonry blade, I've cut HardiePlank paneling for a siding job. An installer told me that his firm saves old saw blades and mounts them backward to cut such cement-board planking, as clever an adaptive reuse as I've encountered.

Safety with such a saw involves reading the manual and slowing down when making cuts. I wear googles and make sure I know where every finger is, so one day I don't come up, um, short.

That's four essential tools, but then I remembered my own example of adaptive reuse

The Floor Safe

I could not figure out what to do with a floor safe that had no working dial. Someone drilled all that
out years ago, but there it sat in my shop.

Recently I purchased a few fireworks for a 4th of July Party we didn't have. Where could I store them, safely? Then the old safe came to mind. I put them  and my jug of gunpowder for reloading in the old safe. There's a plastic jug of Alliant Bullseye pistol powder in there now.

The door shuts well and only needs to be pulled open. The thing weighs a few hundred pounds, incidentally.

So if you find a broken safe for sale, cheap, get some helpers to bring it to your shop.

Pro tip: If  you do reload, keep your primers elsewhere. Those can explode. Gunpowder only burns until it's confined in a cartridge or firework.

Get a second broken safe! Or even one that works for free. I see a 1966 post-office safe on Craig's List locally, an 1100 pound beauty. The catch?

It is "on wheels but is located in a small room in a basement that does have a walk out...however the walk out is into the yard not a driveway, so this is going to be a challenge. But if you want a cool big old safe and like a challenge, contact us."

Have at it! You can never have enough safes.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Why I Like "Fiddly" Hobbies

My last post about canning discussed my desire for hobbies that focus the mind completely. They also produce something I can use or enjoy in some way. One reason you will not find me staring at the smart phone all that much or watching TV comes from my belief that when I'm done, I can, in the words of my late father-in-law, "have something I can put my hands on." A friend called such hobbies "fierce" but I prefer "fiddly" because they involve a lot of geeky knowledge combined with special tools and learned craft.

I suppose writing has all that going for it. For many of us, hobbies enrich our knowledge while keeping at bay what writer Joseph Conrad called "that obscure feeling that life is but a waste of days."  Hobbies can immerse us in social circles online and in person.

There's also something more at work with fiddly hobbies. Consider the urge refinish furniture, make one's own clothing or knitwear, spin wool, restore old cars, fly fish, and renovate historic houses. All these tasks immerse ourselves not only (when needed) in the virtual but in what I call, with a twist on Baudrillard's term, "The Garden of the Real." Gardening, too, can be a fiddly hobby, when practiced a certain way.

Yet fiddly hobbies are different from other pastimes I enjoy, such as travel done well and off the tourist track.  My travels change me and leave me with memories and some mementos. Fiddly hobbies are like a good holiday from the day-to-day that never ends.

Since the 1960s, I've built scale models. In fact, my earliest modeling memory is of spray-painting my eyeball in 1968, during the Richmond riots following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. As glass broke from looters a block from our house, my mom, without a car, had to phone the hospital to get advice on how to rinse out my eye.  Yet I most recall how good the Jaguar E-Type looked to me in a decidedly non-stock shade of metallic Lilac.

I still build a kit or two every year. My current project honors a deceased friend, Gary Braswell, an avid collector of realistic action figures. He had in his stash a nice American Volunteer Group "Flying Tiger" pilot standing about 12 inches tall as well as, in the same scale, a Zero-Fighter pilot from Pearl Harbor. I decided to pose each pilot with a scale model of his sort of plane.

Getting the kits together involves a lot more detail than my long-lost Jaguar and, for that matter, a lot more safety. Today I use airbrushes, different types of glues, specialized tools, and I take months on a kit. I do a lot of research on aspects of correct paints and the weathering on particular subjects, going so far to mix my own shades of paint for certain projects.

Reloading is my newest fiddly hobby, and I bring to it the same level of research that I employ with models, but even more care. I picture a few reloading tools here, for .38 Special and .45 ACP rounds I shoot for target practice. I have a case trimmer, different measures and a "trickler" for gunpowder, a Swiss-made caliper good to thousandths of an inch. There's a fat Lyman manual with precise information, because a mistake, such as overcharging a bullet with powder, could mean a trip to the hospital or the Great Beyond.

Reloading led me to an epiphany about American gun culture that has almost nothing to do with firearms.

Long ago, most of us could work on our cars, if we wanted. Today, even an oil change is difficult without a lift or special tools. To a large degree, our cars have become a collection of computers on four wheels. Meanwhile, what seemed a safe refuge for tinkerers has vanished. Just a short decade and a half ago, I built both PC and Mac desktops from old parts, and I donated them to needy families and local charities. Now, in the age of SSD drives, flat-screen displays, and wafer-thin laptop cases, there's not a lot inside a CPU that a user can service.

I cannot even imagine working on a smart phone.

Modern gun owners, compared to the old guys who went out to hunt with a bolt-action rifle and kept a simple revolver in the night stand, trick out their firearms with optics, special triggers, new grips, and all sorts of internal and external upgrades. It amazes me how geeky the gun forums become with tales of amateur gun-smithing, barrel swaps, and changes to recoil springs.

Whatever the political and moral questions that swirl around America's fetish for guns, there's this fiddly-hobby, hot-rodder aspect that most critics and enthusiasts of firearms tend to ignore.  Of course, for some of the gun hobbyists I meet, I'd feel safer if they decided to build a few model planes.

Whatever  the hobby, the need to tinker exists on both sides of the Atlantic; in the UK I've been shown many DIY projects and the products of fiddly hobbies. There is something delightful about the hours slipping by, slow enough to savor their passing, as one engages in a fiddly hobby.  I might, if I can find one still on radio, have a baseball game in the background.

You just won't catch me in front of a TV watching hours of baseball or other sports. Now playing baseball, that most fiddly of sports? Perhaps in my next life.

Meanwhile, I have my 2017 fishing license and that involves infinite fiddling with lures, leaders, sinkers, respooling old reels, and stocking the cooler. I'm a fierce fisherman, too. I don't tend to go fishing to drink beer. It's about catching fish, finding the deep spots where they linger, scouting a bank for just the right overhanging tree to cast under (but sometimes into). Soon I'll have a lifetime fishing and hunting license from the State of Virginia, so I can continue my fiddly hobbies until I'm too old to clamber into a boat or get up a tree into a deer stand.