The continuing story of the construction of The Best Little Henhouse In Ryedale*

The start of summer 2014 brought a number of opportunities to relax. Six day weeks over, close to two months off. Time to kick back and wind down.

Yet I was on edge – and it was a poorly bevelled edge. My first attempt at a serious piece of woodworkery, putting together a henhouse, and for the first few weeks in July, all I was building was a carpentry anxiety complex.

To start with, I distracted myself with a lot of cosmetic stuff. It was pretty straightforward, wood treatment things. There were a number of sections taken apart from a hutch donated by neighbours mentioned in Fowl Play Part 1. They hadn’t had chickens in it for a while, so it wouldn’t have been cleaned, and it had become foxed.

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Note the clag, the bits of chaff and sawdust and dirt… As well as sanding the boards clean, I realised, I would have to completely re-treat the wood to make it weatherproof. The approach would be to sand it down, and paint it up, as I would sing to myself, to the tune of ‘Rip it up’ by Orange Juice as I worked. The 3 signifies me trying to be as organised as possible. Unscrewing each section, keeping a log of which bits went where, to help piece important bits back together accurately. I mean, this was sort of useful, although where the pieces went was kind of obvious even to an amateur armed only with enthusiasm and a blue permanent marker.

A lot of the older chicken manuals we used for our supporting material suggested creosote. The smell of creosote is very familiar and reassuring in a nostalgic sense. But best not savour too deeply on the inhale, Cletus! The Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) rating for creosote is so high that you can’t actually buy creosote any more in the UK. You have to get a ‘creosotesque’ substance. Despite being less volatile, it is still nostril-wateringly bad for you, for the environment, and crucially for any poultry that might happen to be pecking at the timbers.

I went for a big tub of water repellent product, illustrated here:

quack!

quack!

It was VOC rating 2 (“Low”) , which may be painty sciencey make-you-feel-good meaningless woo, but it was the same price as the creosotish product, and I didn’t get the spins every time I levered off the lid.

‘Autumn Gold’ looked like neon orange when it was first applied. J joined in the neighbourly heckling on seeing the colour slapping on.

‘Dear me, you’ll be able to see it from across the valley. “Mimi’s: the best little henhouse in Ryedale.”‘.

‘Balls! Imagine it with late summer light playing across it,’ I rejoined, although secretly I was a bit worried. In those early stages of painting, even I had to admit it made everything look like Tom Jones’ towels.

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I was confident though. Weeks passed. The colour matched the existing pine sections as it dried, and we were having some extra nice weather… note how well the grass is mowed?  Yeah, takes a special kind of prevarication to get a lawn that baize-like. Slowly, though, the different sections of the coop got their coats of waterproof paint.  I was also getting into the whole DIY thing. As you can see above, I put together an impromptu trestle. Check me, the great handyman. And if I say ‘Handyman’ into a mirror five times, do I appear behind myself holding a power tool?

I digress. The bit being painted here is the laying box. Once I had all the bits of wood painted, it was time to start sawing. I got hardware from a number of different establishments, based on how well I could accentuate a confused amateur demeanour. You’d be surprised how willing some establishments can be to offer trade prices to someone non-trade who has mistakenly wandered in off the street with cash in hand and screws to buy.

Things I had to buy in:

Box of screws

Tenon saw

8 2×2 joists

 

Then I finally got sawing. I figured out (and if this is obvious to people who cut bits of wood up all the time, forgive my childlike wonder at the realisation) that I should splice the joints.

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I believe the technical term is a “half lap splice”, and I was pretty proud to have figured this out without recourse to manuals. Okay, the finishing is a little wobbly, and probably makes it a “3/8 lip spluce” or something.  I’m sure there might well be people looking at this and shaking their heads going ‘Nope, what you’ve got there – if it has a name – is simply an affront to carpentry.’ Whatevs… it’s still standing.

 

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The clamps were another loan from Brian, the actual joiner next door. He has tools over 60 years old that are still in perfect working order, some of which I got to borrow. Some, he actually let me have, as he’d replaced them with something nicer. Look at this:

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Purty! It looked a bit worse for wear when Bri handed it over, but a bit of light sandpapering and magic sponge and it was lovingly restored to this shiny glory. It was one of a succession of moments on this project where the full appeal of joinery, the whole ‘DIY’ ethic, was revealed. If I’d had a miter saw a couple of days earlier in the project, I might have avoided some of the more intriguing mathematical anomalies in the brackets…

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…although I managed the first few corners with only me new tenon saw, a smattering of elemental geometry, and many cheerful thanks about the square on the hypotenuse, the mitered ones were much better.

The mostly finished frame looked like this:

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…and finally we were ready to start attaching those orangey sides.

Next episode: Short back and sides, something waterproof on top…

*The Best Little Henhouse in Ryedale… ironic nickname coined by J, based on the garish colours, and prompted also by a succession of increasingly elaborate and lavish designs abstracting into fantasies of a spiralling, onion-domed, rococo ostentation, frequented by periwigg’d poultry clucking approvingly in heroic couplets. Which sort of happened.

This year, we decided to keep chickens. Fowl Play is the terrible pullet pun titled tale of How the Coop Was Made, and the Chickens What Went In It.

Beginning

Here is a pic of the south-west corner of our back garden, taken at the beginning of summer.

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We’re quite lucky, really. I work at a boarding school. The college owns various properties, and we rent this one.

Waking up to this sort of view is a total privilege.

The field behind us is farmed. It was wheat this year, oats the year before that, but the bit you can see just over the fence is too small for tractors, so we have lots of nettles, and somewhere to tip the grass from the lawn. The tree is in the garden. It’s somewhat gnarly, but the apples are pretty good, as eaters and cookers.

We wanted to make the most of the space, so decided earlier in 2014 that we should get some chickens. And this summer holidays gone by was when it was Going to Happen.

Lay of the Land

The various fence posts you can see are the remnants of a previous occupant’s attempts at keeping hens. It didn’t really work out for them (the occupants or the fowls), and there was all sorts of junk behind the wire that was attached to the posts. They had a series of fires there (the occupants, not the fowls, although it’s an appealing image), getting rid of bottles, mattresses, all sorts of incongruous items. You can just about make out the fence post in the middle is charred, and there’s a bare spot on the ground just in front of that. This photo is after the initial clean-up. Getting rid of the giant thistles and Triffid-esque nettle network took quite a bit of slash and fork. I dug down a fair way, but the chickens now in place are still scratching up singed bits of battery, bolts, hooks, plastic toys.

Once I’d cleared out most of the debris and ill-placed flowers (aka weeds), the Grand Designs project was under way.

Material World

The intention was to try and build a shed from as near scratch as possible, and re-use as much material as possible. I wish I could tell you I’d kept an account of all the spending, but I’m just not that organised. I will give approximations, at least.

Starting from the base up… this large section of wood had been part of some sort of gazebo outhouse structure built along the fence, further up to the left from the view above. It was fixed to the perimeter fence with gigantic nails that took ages to prise out.
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So, free, but unwieldy. It sat in the garage for ages, awaiting sanding and painting…

… awaiting…

...later that summer...

…later that summer…

Our neighbour on the other side of the garden meanwhile offered eight of these sets of wooden panels. I think the panels didn’t pass the fire regulations wherever they used to be, and had to come out.

"...get it knocked together in an hour no bother..." - A Local Former Carpenter

“…get it knocked together in an hour no bother…” – A Local Former Carpenter

The neighbour, Brian, was a carpenter at the school for 50-odd years, so I had a fair bit of barracking and plane-speaking banter to put up with across the fence all summer. He was really sweet, actually, lending tools and offering hints when I asked… but he also took the piss quite a lot.

Taking the time to procure some A3 graph paper online, when that came I tried my best to measure and plan the whole thing. Informed by Brian’s suggestions (if unconvinced of his assertion that it could be completed in 60 minutes), I had a vague notion of making a sort of box out of the different bits, using one panel as a roof.

v rough sketch

 

I mean, I just bashed this pic out now rather than scanning the originals, but you get the idea. The process of measuring everything out properly, on the graph paper, with a ruler, was crucial. Clarifying the actual requirements into manageable sections, generating lists of other stuff we’d need to get, etc.

 The image above is sort of what ended up happening, with a few tweaks. I found a great deal of helpful info on various chicken keeper forums, and I’ll post some proper links to those later, but if you’re here looking for actual technical guidance, I must be honest and acknowledge that my construction skills are about on a par with my ‘free hand drawing in Paint using a knackered mouse pad’ abilities. Architecture and mathematics are not particularly my portfolio, as evidenced by some of the Escher-esque angles in the finished building.

It all really came into focus about halfway into July, at the start of the holidays. I heard some neighbours from down the lane were moving house and divesting themselves of all manner of stuff. I knew they had a coop in the garden. While I was too late for the fencing  – an earlier bird neighbour from the other way swooped faster – and knowing the family from school, I went round to see if I could “help their moving process” by taking any unwanted chicken fittings off their hands.
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As you may be able to discern, there was a nesting box, side panels, bits of mesh, doorways, and all sorts.  Despite me asking pointedly a number of times, all payment was turned down. I even managed to press gang the students into carrying the bits up the road to my house. Quite a result – thanks, former neighbours!

Putting these bits and pieces together with my existing supplies, the project was underway in earnest. A trip to B&Q for some lengths of 2×2 timber frame, sundry exterior paints and items, proved a decisive motion. After that, construction proceeded rapidly.

Well, construction of the frame started to be begun, at least. I wasn’t in a rush. I had a summer holiday to fill.

Next edition: Construction begins on “Mimi’s”: the Best Little Henhouse in Ryedale.

Gentle reader, hello.

That’s a personalised opening gambit, although judging by my site traffic stats I may be, actually, just addressing one person. Hiya!

Well, it’s not that bad, but if people come looking for new content they will have been sorely tested this last month or so. A glance at the twatter twitter feed info on this site will suggest that I tend to microblog rather than long-form it during term time. Six school days a week – the boarding mysteries of loading and timetabling and post-school activities. Sporadic bursts of energy with regard to writing, especially blogging. Life’s events too busy like getting all up in my face and that (prior clause to be read in R.P. 1940s BBC voice) for me to feel the need to step back and catalogue them in a public forum.

M’colleague JCG over at 10 Minutes Hate just published an interesting article on writing wherein Geoff Dyer is quoted as talking about ‘levels of noticingness’, the act of switching on enough to write things down, and the mundane draggishness of this.

It is a weird aspect of a weird idea of writing as a discipline, in some ways. Having to notice stuff? You just notice stuff, don’t you? Then write about it. Or not. You need to have something to say. Forcing it seems a bit… well, keen. In an unhealthy way. You start writing terrible poems about puddles.

I’ve measured it from side to side:
‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.

Couple that with ‘just because you can, you should…’ notions of instant publishing (the aforesaid Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Ello, etc, etc), an assumption that everything is of interest, even when it is not, and you definitely have a recipe for stress, rather than enjoyment.

These are, it might be argued, manifestations of the late capitalist notion that one is never doing enough. The act of creation and magic that writing is becomes yet another productivity measure in an Excel spreadsheet universe. One more flagged assessment for you to parse your personal progress. Self-flagellation and word count anxiety, and a failing grade from The Man by half term.

And I worry, I waver, I wonder, about the delusion of hope and progress implied in the idea of ‘late capitalism’.

Thusly, I was gratified (confirmation bias) to read Dyer’s concept of having ‘deprioritized the role of writing in my life’. Improve your focus on activities being undertaken, while making it much more fun to do the writing bit when you fancy. In this mode, it is much more valuable to no longer think of oneself as a ‘writer, interrupted,’ but as a being doing stuff who also, when opportunity knocks, likes to faff about with word strings. Puts down phone, watches gig.

These are, of course, notes from an amateur. Professional writers’s views vary: Dyer offers one, Warren Ellis synchronicitously publishes another, on being consumed by commercial writing.

Maybe that aspect of it is why I’ve always skirted the edges of professional writing. For my part, kicking off clag accumulated in the quagmires of faff (and what a choice phrase from JCG!), I note that I keep advertising a post about chickens. It never materialises. And which came first, the post ad or the idea for the post?

Reality clucks. I’ve been busy enjoying tending the flock, more occupied cleaning up the chicken shit to worry about feeling I have to write shit about chickens.

“…but we need the analogies!”

Now the fowl are in place and providing eggs as planned, though, I think I am due a bit of stepping back and cataloguing. Don’t cross the road, gentle reader! I’ll be just a moment.

Will Self, writer of occasional interest, has had a go at George Orwell. In an article on the BBC, (a somewhat ouroborostic bit of content given Orwell’s role in much the same sort of position for the Beeb), Self describes Orwell as a “Supreme Mediocrity”.

It seems pointless to rebut Self’s preposterously contentious article in any depth, given that the argument is based on a Will-full misreading of ‘Politics and the English Language’. He suggests that ‘the George Orwells of this world’ are cultural conservatives, reactionaries who ‘would rather peer at meaning by the guttering candlelight of a Standard English frozen in time, than have it brightly illumined by the high-wattage of the living, changing language’.

Orwell and his supporters may say they’re objecting to jargon and pretension, but underlying this are good old-fashioned prejudices against difference itself. Only homogenous groups of people all speak and write identically. People from different heritages, ethnicities, classes and regions speak the same language differently, duh!

…’prejudices against difference itself’! This is the sort of rhetoric one might use to lambast people who object to “txt speak”, or any other modern innovations they suspect of being a bit foreign or liked by the youth, as debasements of our great and noble tongue. It’s a fair point in some ways. Languages are living and changing (although one could begin to dim Self’s de-lux metaphor by asking why language needs to be examined at night time anyway).

However, none of this is relevant to a discussion of Orwell’s essay, because Orwell isn’t talking about demotic Anglo-Saxae, the vernacular, street speak, and especially not about everybody speaking in the same way. He is discussing obfuscation in political discourse, and the obfuscating political discoursers who create it. It’s in the title, duh!

Orwell’s target is the generators of phrases (and situations calling for phrases) such as ‘friendly fire’. Self’s a provocateur. And he has succeeded in getting me geed me up enough to write something. Gah!

Fresh outrages with children’s clothing and social nudging at Tesco.

Recently acquired for our 21-month-old female child: the kind of funky “Digi Robot” pyjama set, in exciting oranges, blues, stripes…
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By far the nicest jammies in the (limited) selection available, and she loves them. In fact, within seconds of seeing them she had stripped off, the quicker to get into them. Yet they are, somewhat perplexingly, labelled “boys pyjamas”.

Here are some other pyjamas with which you can “update his nightwear”:

"...because Mummy is soft as shite."

“…because Mummy is soft as shite.”

And here, by contrast, are some “girls pyjamas“:

Sarcastic captions fail me.

Sarcastic captions fail me.

The more I think on these colour associations, and the not-so-subtle social nudges provided by the stuff written on clothing, when I consider our two year old daughter and the choices being made on her behalf by Tesco and all the other outlets getting all pink and beauty sleepy in her face at every turn, the more… well, actually, it makes me just baffled. Like, whaaat? I really don’t get it. How is orange male? Why is that strong just like daddy? What if boys want to be beautiful and/or sleepy? How many meetings have I missed?

Then I worry. It’s not just Tesco, of course. It’s everywhere. It’s constant. So the problem must be me. In the face of this realisation, I think, what sort of monster have I become? Buying something intended for a particular function, then transgressing social mores and chromatic decency by misusing it!

Then I think, right. I want a king size bag of blue grips over here for all the males, and a queen size bag of pink ones over here for the little ladies. Now we can all GET A GENDER-APPROPRIATE GRIP.

A lengthy gap between posts.

Busy, busy! Enjoying summer holidays, watching lots of sport, playing in the sandpit, tending the garden, building a chicken shack…

Normal service should resume in the next week or so. Having typed that, the youths’ exam results are published in the next week or so, so I shall be doffing beachwear, gardener’s weeds and carpenter’s apron in favour of donning the mortar board. This post may end up a lonely placeholder between June and November. Although there’s nothing like some pressing task to make doing something else appealing…

Still, actually making a chicken shed! It has been proving an intriguing project. That may well be the next, more lavish post up.

Meanwhile:

When the world and I were young – just this morning – I heard that the songwriter Gerry Goffin had died. This was, in one of life’s funny little correspondences, only a week or so after I saw an intriguing documentary about his former writing partner and former wife Carole King.

Gerry Goffin wrote the lyrics to many of late 20th century pop music’s most enduring tunes: Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp), He’s In Town, Up On The Roof, Saving All My Love For You, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman… Perusing a list of songs he wrote is quite an eye-opener – Glenn Medeiros, indeed!

Anyway, I had cause to be in the car this afternoon and enjoyed a very loud tribute, consisting of repeated listens to my personal favourite, this genius social commentary and guitars number, from 1966 – Pleasant Valley Sunday by The Monkees.

Every single time. Mr Goffin, many thanks!

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