Birthday Birdhouse Feeder

We have a bird feeder that has been deteriorating over the years, and the ongoing process of patching it up has been a running gag around here.  The feeder is shaped like a little house, reminiscent of a log cabin with two porches and a pitched, gabled roof.  The string that held it up broke first, then as the wood dried out, the long, wire staples connecting the pieces of this little house together started slipping out.  I replaced the string with plastic-sheathed wire, and put screws or nails in as the staples failed.  One of the two boards that comprise the roof had split in two places, and now these separate pieces of wood are linked together with bits of flattened out metal found objects and tiny screws, looking sort of like hinges, but barely holding things together.

I decided to build a new bird feeder modeled after the old one, using redwood fence wood and 3/4 inch garden stakes.  When I started drawing up this plan, I was mistakenly thinking the wood was a 1/2 inch thick, but it is more like 3/4 inch, so the drawing is not exactly to scale.  The side walls will be made out varying lengths of 3/4 inch garden stake wood, and the end walls under the gables will be clear Plexiglass.


I started by making the base, which has railings to keep the seed in.  The fence wood is 3-1/2″ wide, so the seven-inch wide base is two pieces of fence wood tied together by the railings.  The length of the base is 11 inches.


I used 1-1/4 inch screws on the railings to keep the screws from going all the way through the wood.  I had to adjust the length of the end pieces, so I sanded them a little to fit.


After making the base, I built the “log” walls out of six inch and eight inch pieces of redwood stakes.  I pre-drilled the clearance holes, staggering them, and leaving room for slots where the Plexiglass would go.


I used 1-1/2 inch screws, which are a bit longer than the thickness of two pieces of wood, the 3/4″ wood actually being more like 11/16″ thick.  I ran the risk of the screws going all the way through two boards and hitting the screw head two layers down, but somehow it didn’t seem to matter, probably because I don’t drill very straight.   As usual, I would drill one pilot hole and attach the first screw before drilling a second pilot hole for the second screw.


After the walls were built, it was time to cut the slots for the Plexiglass.  I used a saw in a miter box, which kept the saw straight up and down.  Still, this was an unforgiving process, requiring two cuts to be made, and then breaking out the little wall between the cuts.  It was hit or miss, but somehow I got it done.


After the walls were made, it was time to attach them to the base.  First I marked the base where the walls would go.  Since the 1-1/2 inch screws poked through the wood a little, I could press the screw points into the railings of the base to register where they would go for the next step of attaching the walls.  I drilled the clearance holes from the top of the base to get them as centered in the rails as possible.  I used 2-1/2 inch long, #8 screws, so the clearance holes were bigger than the ones for the #6 screws used elsewhere.  I would have used #6 screws for the longer screws, but #8 was all I could find at the store.


This was a tricky part, because the walls needed to be vertical when drilling the pilot holes for the 2-1/2 inch screws.  The pencil marks and registration afforded by the screw points in the side rails of the base helped locate the walls.  I did the best I could with getting the wall straight up and down.


In this picture, the screws are going in to attach the base to the walls:


I decided to put braces between the walls for later, when the gables are attached.  All the weight of the feeder transmits through the gables, so it is important that they are connected into the structure well.

Here is the feeder with the walls up and the braces in place:


I bought a piece of Plexiglass at a local glass store, and I measured and cut it to fit.  Plexiglass is similar to glass, but cutting it requires scoring a line on the surface over and over with some kind of blade and snapping it.  I used a linoleum-knife type of tool to score the Plexiglass, and snapped it by holding one side down on a box with the scored line along the edge of the box, then quickly pushing down on the overhanging side.  In some cases it didn’t break cleanly along the scored line, but I was able to snap off little pieces by grabbing them with a pair of pliers and breaking them off that way.

With the Plexiglass cut, it was time to make the gable ends.  I had planned to use the miter box to cut the 45 degree angles this step would require, but the 3-1/2″ board was too big for the miter box’s clamps, so I used the rafter square to mark the 45’s by lining-up the bottom of the board with equal numbers on the two halves of the square, 4-7/8″ in the picture below.  I marked the wood and cut the upper right hand corner off, then measured the distance for the base of the triangular gable, repeating the process above to make the second 45 degree angle cut.  One more measuring and another 45 degree cut later, and I had the two gable ends.


I thought the braces were too far away from the Plexiglass to prevent the birds from being able to climb behind the gable and into the space where the seed goes, so I decided to move the gables in a little.  This required a fair amount of care when drilling, or else the pilot holes would miss the brace pieces.  It also was not too easy to keep the gable from sliding when trying to drill through the clearance hole in the gable and into the brace.  So I used the smallest drill bit to get a pilot hole started in the brace, then once it was drilled with a small drill, increased the bit size to 5/64″ for the #6 screw pilot hole.


Even using 1-1/2 inch screws, the brace and gable were not connected that well together, so I decided to remove the gable and brace pieces and put in another screw, this one straight through the brace and into the gable to secure the two together better.

While I had the braces and gables off, I put in small brass screws to hold the Plexiglass into place.  This will keep birds from going under the Plexiglass and getting trapped in where the seed goes.


Here is a picture of a 1-1/2 inch screw going in to strengthen the connection between brace piece and gable end.  Note the slotted screw near the apex of the gable.  This is where one of the wires will attach to hold the bird feeder up.


With the gables attached, it was time to make the roof.  I had decided on nine inches for the length of the roof, but found three boards I had from before that were about 9-1/4 inches, and decided to make the roof 9-1/4″.  One more cut and I had all the pieces I needed for the roof.


I used big hinges to connect two board together to make one half of the roof.


And I used smaller hinges to connect the roof pieces to the ridge beam – made from the end of a garden stake.


I had to be careful about the placement of the smaller hinges in order to allow space for the wires that had to go through the ridge beam and tie to the slotted screws in the gables.  I filed little flat areas on the beam to make places for starting to drill the holes for the wires.  I did this very gradually, first using the smallest drill bit, and working up to 1/4″ holes.


I straightened two pieces of plastic coated wire about 13″ long, stripped back the coating, and attached them to the slotted screws.  Then I was ready to thread the wires through the roof holes and attach them to a hanger I’d made.


I made the hanger out of some really heavy steel wire I found in the garage and attached the green plastic coated wires to the hanger.  Here is the finished bird feeder suspended from a cabinet pull.


And here is the reverse angle.


Here is the feeder ready for use.  I left the pointy end of the garden stake as part of the ridge beam.  It’s a nice touch I think, and reminds me of something that might be done when building a barn, to have a place to attach a pulley for raising hay bales into the loft, or a block and tackle for pulling an engine out of an old pickup truck.  The smaller hinges function very well when putting seed into the feeder.  With the old feeder, the whole roof had to be lifted up.  The hinges make it a lot less cumbersome.


St. Valentine’s Table

When the weather is not too cold or too hot, it’s nice to sit outside in the evenings.  So we made a seating area near the citrus trees, accessible from the steps we built last spring.  There is a chiminea for a small fire in case it is a little cold.  Here is the area, covered in snow, on February 20th.

Seating Area

To have somewhere to set drinks or snacks, I decided to make a little table out of redwood, a material that holds up well outside in the desert.  I used inexpensive pieces, 5.5″ fence wood, 3.5″ fence wood, and 3/4″ x 3/4″ redwood stakes.

I did not draw up detailed plans, but decided on having  the table be square and have a shelf.  The overall height would be 18″ with the shelf at 6″.  The shelf would be the width of four 3.5″ boards, or 14″, and the top would be the width of five 3.5″ boards, or 17.5″.  These are approximate dimensions because fence boards are notoriously irregular in all dimensions.  That is okay; it just requires making adjustments to match the dimensions of the boards on hand at the time.

Here is my plan on paper.


Pretty sad, I know, but I can use the lower drawing to illustrate something I don’t have a good photo of later in the blog.  I will not go into it now, but it has to do with attaching the table top to the legs that support the top.

The weekend before Valentine’s Day I had the materials together and started the project.  I cut four 5.5″ boards to make the 14″ square base, and I cut four 3/4″ stakes for the legs that extend from the base to the table top.  I drilled two clearance holes in one 5.5″ base piece and one pilot hole in one 3/4″ leg piece, lining up the leg with the edges of the base piece when drilling the pilot hole through one of the clearance holes.

Base piece and leg

After attaching these two pieces together with the first screw, I used a steel square to make the base at a right angle with the leg before drilling the pilot hole for the second screw.

Squaring base to leg

I followed the same method to add the second leg to this one base piece, and repeated the same steps to make another base piece with two legs.  Eventually I put three screws instead of two in an effort to take some of the warp out of the 5.5″ redwood base pieces.  The wood I got was actually wet when I bought it, and it had warped.  It would have been better to look for wood that was dry and not warped, but it still works, and adds to the rustic nature of the piece.

Squaring the second leg

Then it was time to connect the two pieces with legs together to make the square base.  This involved working with the pieces tilted, but eventually I could connect another of the 5.5″ boards and square things up before drilling the pilot hole for the second screw.

Adding a sdie piece squarely Side squared up

I continued on, attaching the other piece with two legs to the angled piece, drilling both clearance holes in the side piece, then the pilot holes one at a time.


This kept things quite square, but you can see how little errors could start adding up.

Squaring before drilling second pilot hole

All that was left to complete the base was to attach the other side piece.  Here I squared things up the best I could.

Finishing the base

Time was running short and daylight was waning, so I didn’t get pictures of adding the shelf.  The shelf was made from four 3.5″ redwood boards that were approximately 14″ long.  I had to notch out two of the boards to make room for the legs.  I attached the shelf boards with finishing nails.  If these eventually get loose, I can attach them with screws, but nails work fine for now.

I used clamps to glue the five 17.5″ long 3.5″ boards together for the top.  I attached 3/4″ pieces to make a frame around the top’s perimeter so I could take it out of the clamp without letting the glue dry.

Clamping the top

This is where you might refer back to the drawing as a view of the underside of the top, showing where the legs attach.

Legs and underside of top

With the top lying top down, I set the base leg-side down on the top.  I tried measuring to position the legs, but eventually found that adjusting their locations until it looked right was easier and better.  I wanted them to sit neutrally, without any spring in the legs, and to look centered.  Once I had them where I wanted them, I marked all four corners of each leg in pencil on the underside of the top.  I marked one leg and the top as a key to remember which leg went where.

I removed the base and drew an X with a straight edge to locate the center of where each leg’s corners were marked.  Then I drilled four holes, one hole in the center of each X, from the bottom.  This created pilot holes on the top side of the top for a later step.

After the four holes were drilled, I put glue at the four locations where the legs would sit.  Then I replaced the base piece, with the legs back in their original marked locations, and put a weight on the underside of the shelf to glue the legs down to the top.

Gluing legs to top

Once the glue was set, the table construction was done except for permanently attaching the top to the legs.  This process started by drilling long pilot holes into the centers of the legs from the top, using the pilot holes from the previous step as guides.  I used four longer screws, 2.5″ ones, to attach the top to the legs.

Top showing pilot holes

To finish the piece, I painted it with a good quality natural-wood colored exterior stain.

Finished piece

Bees and Owls

I had made a couple of nest boxes for western screech owls.  The first of these produced two fledglings in its second year.  Here is a picture of the two, shortly after leaving the nest.  A full grown western screech owl is not much bigger than these juveniles.

When cleaning out the first owl nest box around the end of October that year, the box fell apart, and a second owl box had to be made.  Here is a picture of that second box, in the same location as the first, about 12 feet above the ground in a large mesquite tree.

This second owl box went up in November 2010, and had visitors over the winter and spring, but no takers in terms of nesting in spring 2011.  There was considerable interest in the box by spring 2012, and I was sure a male screech owl would attract a mate to it.  That might have happened, had it not been for bees moving in – in April or May of 2012.

As with the first, the second owl box was starting to crack that spring.  The weight of bees and honey didn’t help, and it was in rough shape by the end of the summer.  In October 2012 I had a live-bee-removal service come out and take the box and bees away one evening.

The bee man came by in an old Ford pickup truck with the driver’s side door missing, and got the now bee box down.  One side of the box was split almost wide open, honeycomb filling all the gaps; the 3″ opening in the front was solid propolis, some mysterious product bees make.  The bee man used a smoker with weeds as the fuel, and put in ammonium nitrate fertilizer which decomposes to nitrous oxide to keep the bees from being too agitated.  Except for one bee that got in his ear, he seemed to get them all.  But the next day I saw a handful of bees buzzing around the area where the bee box had been.

Oh well.  Time to make a new owl box!

It was not easy to get the second bee box down, because the stainless steel screw in the mesquite tree was frozen in place.  Because of this, I decided to make it so the new box could at least in theory be brought down without any tools.  Also, I was motivated to make a box that would last longer than two years and to use relatively inexpensive wood.

I decided on 3.5″ X 11/16″ redwood fence wood with 5/8″ X 1  3/8″ redwood boards to bind them together .  We have some adjustable clamps and exterior wood glue.  Here is the basic process:

After cutting all of the pieces, it just took glue, screws, and drilling clearance and pilot holes, to make the individual boards.

There are websites devoted to such things as screech owl nest boxes, and I used the same basic design I had before.  The back board is 22″, the sides and front are 16″.  I glued three pieces of the fencing together, making the width of each of these boards 10.5″.  I used four boards for the top so there would be overhang.  The bottom piece fits inside, between the sides, so has to be cut to fit.  It is better if the bottom piece is a little short.  Gaps in the bottom will allow drainage should water find its way inside.  Drainage holes are also drilled in the bottom for the same purpose.
I did a dry fit with the bottom, sides and front to line up those pieces before attaching them.  Here are the bottom and one side:

Somewhere in here I decided to use a piece of cardboard to have an even surface to work from.  Here is the bottom with both sides:

Once I had everything line up just right, I put on glue:

I quickly attached the front with four screws to locate and hold things together.  This took a little doing.  I predrilled the clearance holes in the front for the screws.  Then I put on the glue and set the front on the sides and drilled one pilot hole in the location for one of the four screws.  The pilot hole is small, 1/16″ for a #6 wood screw in soft wood.  One at a time I put in the four screws shown below, realigning things before drilling each pilot hole.

After this, I quickly drilled all the pilot holes and put in all the screws before the glue set up.

After attaching the front to the sides, I attached the bottom.  I had to use two-and-a-half inch screws because of the thickness of wood.  I didn’t use glue.

After attaching the bottom, it was time to attach the back, the 22″ board.  I lined up the sides to the back board, and put a temporary cross piece to “remember” where the bottom was when things were lined up.  After doing that, I flipped over the part that was already assembled.

Then it was ready for glue and attaching the back.  You can see the temporary piece that helped in lining up the back to front-side-bottom assembly.

Here is the box, almost finished, with the top set in place.  Rather than have hinges for the top, I made it so the top interlocks under a cross piece attached to the back.  In the front I put screw eyes and used wire to hold the top down.  I made a handle out of wire to help in carrying the box.

I got wood shavings at the pet store.  The owls like a few inches of shavings in the bottom of the box.

I carried the box while climbing the tree, setting it different places on the way up so I could use two hands to climb.  I had made a slot in the bottom of the back board to make it easy to slip over the stainless steel screw left from the earlier owl boxes.  I put a bracket on the back board to reinforce the slot.

At the top, I used wire to hold the box to a branch, and longer wire to pull the box to vertical.  It is important that the box is not tilted.  The owls want it to be vertical.

Here is the new box, ready for owls to find it.

Rain in the Desert

It was the Fourth of July and one of those odd days in the summer in Tucson when it does not get hot.  The high was in the 80’s, and it was quite a bit cooler once the heavy clouds and rain moved in.  We got a late start, but went to Sabino Canyon for a hike.  Mainly the trails were level, and it was fun exploring a short way on the Phoneline Trail, the dam area, and the mostly dry creek bed of Sabino Creek.

Here are the mountains, and clouds rolling in at about 1:00 p.m. as we walked along the trail between the parking lot and the Phoneline Trail.  The actual phone line seems to have been a single-wire telegraph line that went up into the Santa Catalina Mountains from Tucson.  You can actually find stretches of the steel wire along the trail in certain places.

Here is an odd little bug that was on the Phoneline Trail.  It started to look more stormy, so we headed back down to check out the dam area and went up above the dam, eventually connecting with Upper Sabino Road.  There was almost nobody on the trams that ferry people up and down this road that is inaccessible to private vehicles.

Here is a look back up the road as we were leaving.  Sabino Canyon is to the right.  The road goes up about three miles from this point.  The clouds were looking ominous.

It’s hard to tell, but the rain was almost on us at this point, moving towards us and only a few hundred yards away.  By the time we got to the end of this road we were getting soaked!

One last look back before the rain started.

Wrought Iron Finished

It’s a bright sunny morning that portends of rain this first or second full day of summer.  The wrought iron color turned out well, don’t you think?  I reserved the black plastic caps over the ends of the wrought iron and replaced some missing ones.  They make a nice detail.  I’ve been noticing wrought iron around town and old places.  Unpainted is the way to go, I think, with the real stuff.

The grapes are ripening in the background of this shot.  To keep the birds off I staple paper lunch bags individually over the bunches.  The bottom corners of the bags are snipped off to allow air to circulate.  Mold can be a problem.  Thompson seedless are on the left, Flame seedless in the middle, and Ruby seedless on the right.  They ripen in about that same order, left to right, not because of position, but because of species.  Thompson and Flame are about the same, and usually ripen before the rains.  Ruby seedless ripen later, and because of the rain, are hard to keep covered in bags and to fully ripen.  There are also large scarey flying beetles that appear and get into them (the Ruby grapes), startling the viniculturalist checking the bunches.  The Ruby aren’t quite as good as Flame and Thompson anyway, but no sour grapes.  They just don’t work out quite as well for me, and the skins are a bit tougher than the earlier two varieties.  They are good in their own special way.  Birds love them all.

This is some wrought iron at San Xavier mission outside of Tucson, who knows how old.

And here are the bars over the windows of the garage.  After the fact I noticed that the horizontal pieces are hollow and have caps over the ends.  The caps do help with the illusion of the wrought iron being solid, but I may carefully pry them out and replace with new black ones from Ace Hardware.  The vertical pieces are solid, and these three sections are quite heavy because of it.

Getting the Wrought Iron Painted

The wrought iron was so rusty, there were areas needing repair before it could be painted.  Instead of black, we chose a lighter color – blue spruce.


Here are some bars that go over the windows along the side of the garage.

Here are the windows along the garage where the bars go.  The bars aren’t rusty since they are protected from the weather and the hot summer sun.

Here is the gate to the front patio, already painted.

And here is the gate to the back with some primer on it.

Dirt and Rocks

After getting the steps finished, there was both a lot of dirt and a lot of big rocks left over.  This is about the highest part of the property, and I decided to move the dirt to a lower part of the yard, just to get it out of the way.

Here are the bigger rocks left over from the rip-wrap.  I planned to build up a short rock wall with these rocks.

The hillside had been eroding and washing down dirt and rock to the point that it buried the foundation of this short section of block wall and starting to cover up the blocks themselves.  The blocks are a a material called burnt adobe.  They are clay that has been low fired.  These particular blocks were made in Sasabe, Mexico, just across the Arizona border in the state of Sonora in Mexico.  The process of firing the clay does not actually vitrify it, so the blocks themselves can be eroded.  Water is particularly bad for the blocks.  Once they lose their surface, they break down quickly.  Dirt against the burnt adobe can quicken this breakdown.  The block actually needs to be waterproofed periodically, and we have the walls and the house waterproofed about once every three years.

For some time I had been digging a trench along the wall to keep the dirt away from it.  The trench got deeper and deeper as dirt built up on the uphill side of the trench.  At some point a few years ago I dug the dirt back away from the wall, dug a long notch a couple of feet away from the wall, and set this line of rocks in that notch.  Then the space above the rocks was filling up, so it became time to put another course of rocks on the wall.  First though, I wanted to deal with those buckets of dirt.

Here is another view of the wall.  You can see the wrought iron is very rusty.  We’re going to get that painted.


Here is where I planned to put the dirt from the steps project.  It is below a small patio and against a retaining wall.  It is an area where a lot of sand must have been left from building the wall.  I decided to sift the sand and generally clean up this area.  There was a lot of prickly pear cactus and a huge pack rat midden near this area.

It turned out to be hours of work just to get to the point of moving the dirt, and the wheelie bin trash receptacle was almost too heavy to roll back up the hill to the driveway.

Here is the sand and area all cleaned up.

And here it is with the dirt.

Here is the updated rock wall.

And a little seating area.

And the wall from the outside.



The steps get finished

Here is the rip wrap from before with eight steps.

During the week I added a ninth step, and this weekend started on the rip wrap between the steps and the wall.

This view shows how the ninth step really helped bring the level of the top of the stairs up to the level of the ground at the top, four and a half feet above the brick walkway.

There was a gap at the top of the steps, between the steps and the ground, that I built up with varying sizes of rocks sorted out from all the dirt generated by this project.

Here’s another view.

More rocks going in:

And more rocks:

The  rock pile:

Fussing with rocks:

More fussing:

And more fussing:

I covered the larger rocks with 1″ rocks and a few of the 1/4″ – 1/2″ rocks.

A Roadrunner came by to inspect my work.

The finished product.

Rip Wrap

On Saturday we worked on the rip wrap – rocks embedded in the hillside to reduce erosion.  We removed a lot of these embedded rocks to put the steps in.  Some were huge.  All but one I was able to carry or roll up the hill.  You can see some of the big rocks in the “before” picture from the last post.

Most of the rocks were smaller, and the plan was to not use the really large ones for the rip wrap restoration.  Some time ago I made a short rock wall (one layer, or course of rocks) to hold back the erosion at the highest point of the property, and the idea is to use the larger rocks as a second course on that low rock wall.  The rock wall keeps dirt away from the masonry wall shown in the photos above and to the right of the steps, protecting it from damage.  I’ll get some pictures of this rock wall work in a later post.

Here is  the first of the “after” pictures, at about 1:00 p.m. on a day that got to 99 degrees Fahrenheit.  Susan did much of the rip wrap installation.  I cleaned up dirt ahead of her and finished off at the top.  The process of putting in rip wrap involved digging out niches and placing the rocks one at a time, starting at the bottom and working up.

On Saturday I mostly sifted rock out of dirt.  We have pretty much decided to put in a ninth step at the top, and so we need more of the various sizes of rocks to fill the voids in the blocks of that step.

There is going to be a lot of dirt left over from this project.  I will likely haul the dirt to a lower elevation on the property and stash it in some unobtrusive spot.

The rip wrap in this area has been overrun by the dirt of years of erosion of the hill above it.  Susan is rinsing away some of this buildup to reveal the nice rip wrap underneath.









Here is a closeup of the rip wrap at the top of the steps.  We still have to do the rip wrap on the other side of the steps – between the wall and the steps.  That should be fairly easy, because the dirt is loose from being dug out for the PVC work.  Today was 101 degrees Fahrenheit.  We’ll try to work on the rip wrap again next weekend.




The Last Two Steps

I was able to put a few hours in over Thursday, Friday, and Saturday to finish off the steps.  On Thursday I leveled the space for the seventh step in preparation for digging out the space for the eighth step.  I again used the six inch tall frame as a gauge for where to level off the eighth landing in the dirt.  This wasn’t too exact.  But digging a little too deep just means more pea gravel to bring the level up to where the blocks sit.

After hacking out space for the eighth landing, I smoothed and compacted the space for the seventh step.  It’s not shown, but I did wet it and tamp it down with the end of a block and by just walking around on the moistened dirt.  It is a little messy.  The idea is to not get it so wet that it becomes muddy.

Here are the seven steps in the waning light of Thursday evening.

Friday I got started a little earlier in the afternoon.  Here is the pea gravel, all ready to go for the eighth step.

And a short montage/sequence of the last step.  Not shown is a lot of measuring, leveling, and general fussing with the gravel and block to get it right.





And finally the eight steps were in before the weekend!

Saturday afternoon I had a couple of hours to complete filling the voids in the blocks.  Here is the 1/4″ – 1/2″ native rock I screened to finish off the steps.

native rock to top up the voids

There were a lot of twigs in the bag of rocks, but after more fussing and picking-through, and having to screen more dirt to get a few more of those small rocks, I had enough good clean rock to fill the spaces in the blocks.  Before putting the native rock in the block voids, more sand, pea gravel, and other rocks went in.  The layer of 1/4″ – 1/2″ rock is about two inches thick.


Here are the top two steps showing the texture and contrast of concrete and rock.  The rock is still a little dusty, so it will get looking better and better.  There are pieces of quartz-like rock that I set aside to act as accents in the top layer.  Those will go in later after more fussing.

Still to be done are putting the rip-wrap back and contouring the ground above the steps into a little trail that leads away from them.  Right above the steps might be a good spot for some one-inch native rock if I can muster more of it out of the dirt.  There is a pile of dirt to deal with from digging out for the last four steps.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.