40 Projects for Building Your Backyard Homestead: A Hands-on, Step-by-Step Sustainable-Living Guide
When I was young, my grandparents owned a 240-acre diversified farm in west-central Illinois. For us kids, too young to pitch in with the chores, it was a wonderful playground. If we weren’t hanging on the fence staring down steers (with one prodigy always coming forward to have his forehead scratched), we were gingerly reaching under hens for eggs or slapping the dusty backs of piglets. The haymow, redolent of alfalfa, was a wonderful jungle gym for climbing, building forts, or swinging Tarzan-style on the dusty old ropes. Our sandbox was a pile of sawdust—hen-house litter—hauled in from a local whiskey-barrel factory. On a hot day, we could cool off in a bin of shelled corn.
We also got to hang around as Grandpa did the necessary building and repair jobs between regular chores. Fence repair was a constant. For that, he carried the necessary tools, including an early multi-tool, a hammer-like object that was also a pair of pliers and a pry bar all in one, in a metal box attached to the rear mudguard of his tractor. The repairs had to be quick and effective to keep the livestock penned. Extending the concrete pad for the hog shed involved the backbreaking labor of filling a borrowed concrete mixer with sand, gravel, and Portland cement. Poured incrementally over many days, the pad was neither exactly square nor perfectly level, but it served. There just wasn’t time for architectural perfection; there were animals to feed and fields to cultivate. I came to admire the solid, no-frills skills required in farming.
One major project took place before my time. The farm centered on a 1910-vintage barn. As the years wore on, the barn started to lean away from its brown-glazed-brick silo. My grandfather hired a carpenter who was a genius with large wooden structures, though not highly skilled at interior work. He spent a couple of days prepping the barn, stringing pulleys and ropes throughout the haymow. He prepared splints and cross braces, pounding the nails partway in so they would be ready for quick installation. He pounded out some of the pegs locking hand-cut mortise-and-tenon joints. Last of all, he ran several ropes out of the double sliding doors of the barn and had Grandpa back his orange Allis-Chalmers tractor up to the barn.
With the ropes tied to the hitch, Grandpa wrestled the tractor into gear and eased forward. With great creaking and groaning, the barn began to right itself, easing back into its original shape, old joints finding their way back home. While the tractor held the tension, the carpenter scrambled over the interior, fastening splits and braces in place. The result: a barn renewed.
I hope you don’t have to tackle something that massive on your backyard homestead, but the story always reminds me that with farm structures, perfection is not the goal. What we aim for is solid, utilitarian effectiveness. That makes backyard-homestead projects a great way for beginners to learn carpentry and other how-to skills. A wall slightly out of plumb or a rip cut that wanders a bit aren’t that important as long as the structure you are building stands firm and keeps out the weather. After all, chickens are not bothered if a coop door doesn’t fit perfectly; goats don’t mind if a fence post leans a bit.
About the Projects in This Book
Because we know that your time is valuable and your skill level may be only average (or a bit above), the projects in this book are designed with simplicity in mind. If we introduce a somewhat challenging technique—like plunge cuts to make the openings in the coop-and-run project beginning on page 114—it is because, in the long run, it is the simplest, quickest way to get the job done.
A few chapters necessarily focus on what is involved in building the project rather than step-by-step instructions in exactly how to build it. Aquaponics is one example. Whole books and manuals are available on the topic; our chapter equips you with a fundamental understanding of the subject so that you will have a leg up should you want to pursue it.
We also designed these projects with your budget in mind. Each makes the most out of basic materials. There are plenty of gorgeous chicken houses out there, for example (some that would make a decent little cottages for human habitation, complete with clapboard siding, window boxes, Dutch doors, and cupolas), but we went a more utilitarian route, leaning heavily on exterior plywood and simple detailing.
And we paid attention to the human factor—making the finished project convenient to use. Feeding, freshening the water, mucking out, changing litter, egg gathering—all will, we hope, happen more often and be done better because the structure is designed with easy access in mind. You will also find help on how to expand or contract the projects to suit your needs.
Here are some friendly-neighbor-over-the-fence tips that may help as you plunge into a project:
■ Make the exterior screw your default fastener. Predrilling and driving screws takes a bit longer than nailing, but screws hold much better, and you can back them out if you make a mistake.
■ If a circular saw seems too much machine for you to handle, use a saber saw instead. With a square or other straightedge as a guide, it yields a neat, true cut.
■ Measure twice, and cut once.
■ Support your work when sawing so that the material will not bind when cut.
■ Take the time to set up a clutter-free work area. It will save time in the long run, produce better work, and keep you safe.
■ Never cut all of your components in advance in kit-like fashion. Instead, work from your project to make sure the measurements for the new piece suit what you have done thus far. Why? Dimensional lumber may vary in size. In addition, small variations as you cut will compound themselves, affecting other areas of the project.
■ Wear eye, ear, and respiratory protection.
■ Gloves make heavy chores seem to go easier because you are not concerned about splinters and abrasions.
■ Improvise! Backyard homesteading is a great laboratory for trying new ideas. If something does not quite work as planned, you can always undo it . . . that is part of the fun.—David Toht
|October 3, 2022
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