Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Building a Garden Bench

This simple design allows you to place an attractive garden bench on any spot you choose, even one with some slope to it.  We used to build this type of bench in a natural sloping hollow or bowl shaped terrain to create a natural outdoor chapel or amphitheater when I worked at camp.  These aren't hard to build and are very sturdy and durable, especially if you use pressure treated lumber.

What You Need for a 10 foot long bench:

Three 3-foot long 4 x 4 posts
Post hole digger
Six bags of concrete
One 10 foot long 2x10 or 2x12 depending on the width of........well, let's not go there.
One 12 foot long 2x8's
Three 3 foot long 4x4's
Circular saw
Drill and 7/16 inch bit
Spirit level
Fifteen 5 inch long galvanized half inch lag screws with washers
Six bags concrete mix

Selecting the Site
Choose a site where the tops of the posts will sit level. You can build one on a slope if you run it parallel to the slope.  You need ten feet of linear space for a ten foot bench. You can make a six foot bench with two posts if you want to go shorter.

Digging the Holes
Dig three 2 foot deep post holes 4 feet apart. Dig them wider at the bottom than at the top so the concrete will sit more firmly in the ground.

Setting the Posts
Place each of the 3 foot long 4x4's in a hole.  Turn the bench board on edge and set it on top of the posts. Set the spirit level on top of the board.  Adjust the depth of each post till the bench is level by digging the hole deeper or throwing more dirt in the hole.  Once all three posts touch the bottom of the bench edge and the bubble in the spirit level is centered, mix up the concrete and pour it into the hole. Don't make the concrete too wet. Dryer concrete is stronger concrete. Allow to cure overnight before banging on the posts or attaching things.

Mounting Brackets
Cut the 2x8 board into two foot lengths.  Cut the boards to the shape shown in the drawing. Drill two holes in the center of each board as shown.  Hole the brackets up against the posts as shown and predrill into the post.  Do this for each bracket.

Attach the Brackets
Screw the lag screws and washers into the mounting brackets and posts. The brackets will be on opposite sides of each post running lengthwise to the bench. Tighten the screws till the wood dimples slightly under the washers.

Positioning the Bench 
Lay the bench plank on top of the posts and brackets. Position the plank so it overhangs the outside posts evenly (about a foot).  Drill three pilot holes through the plank into the top of the posts.  Screw the lag screws and washers through the top of the plank and into the ends of the posts.

Finishing the Bench
If you used pressure treated wood, you don't need to do anything else. If not, you should stain and varnish or paint the bench to protect it from the weather and insects.

This bench can be placed almost anywhere. You can even carry the parts, precut and drilled, back into the woods and bolt yourself a bench along your favorite hiking trail. You don't have to concrete around the posts, just tamp the dirt around it with a shovel handle. It will hold well enough for a seldom-used rest stop. 

You can also replace the 2x10 or 2x12 planks with a pair of 2x6's. Just leave a half inch gap between them and screw them to the brackets with galvanized screws. Don't put them closer together than a half inch or the flexing of the boards can pinch your behind between the planks.

If you cut a 45 degree cut on each corner, it will give the bench a more finished look.

You can also string a series of planks on posts four feet apart to make pew-like seats. Two boards can share a post, just screw them into the post and brackets with galvanized screws.  If you angle the ends, you can even bend the rows of seats to follow the curve of the terrain.

It's not hard at all and these benches look really nice when you're done with them.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Free Federal Grant Money

Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow or Dangerous Myth?

Matthew Lesko really hacks me off.  First off, he looks like the riddler in those tights.  Second, to listen to him and other grant hucksters tell it the federal government is just jumping up and down about to wet its collective pants waiting for you to ask them for money.  Ads for books, tapes and videos on how to get the “Free Federal Grant Money” are deceptive and cruel. They prey on people who are poor, people who have big dreams that they are trying to make come true and people who have bought into the idea that the federal government is one big Santa Claus and if they just know the right magic incantation, they can get him to “Open Sesame” and all the gold will come pouring out. 

A federal grant is never free, no matter what Lesko and his ilk may say.  The only reason federal agencies award grants is to pay someone or some organization to do something the agency believes the public wants or needs and is for their collective good.  They do not give grants to help you pay your way out of debt, renovate your bathroom or clear up your acne.  Federal grants pay for research, delivery of human services, public arts projects, economic development, data collection or testing of a new drug or weapons system.  If you get such a grant, you can bet the agency that gave it to you not only wants you to do something specific with it, but also will be looking over your shoulder to make sure you do it the way you said you would and that you don’t misuse or misappropriate the funds.

That’s how they get people to fill up all those nice federal prisons.

That said, here’s what you do to get a federal grant.

Decide What Good Thing You Want to Do

First you need to figure out what needed thing you want to do that can’t be funded through a bank loan or investors – the way an ordinary business is funded.  The project should be something the community needs but doesn’t have and can’t get without help.  One way to do this is to listen around the community to what people are complaining about.  Not enough baseball fields for Little League?  Maybe you need a park.  Too many teens running the streets and getting into trouble? Maybe you need a youth center or after school program. Listening to the radio, reading the newspaper and watching TV is a good way to recognize recurring themes.  Talk about your idea for fixing the problem with community leaders if you want your grant application to have a chance of success.  Get their input and support for your idea.  Now you’re ready to start work in earnest.

Conduct A Series Of Stakeholder Meetings

Stakeholders are people and organizations that have a stake in your cause. If your idea is an after school program for youth, invite parents, teachers, law enforcement and even the kids themselves.  If your community needs improved transportation for people with disabilities, seniors or low-income families, invite city-planning officials, human service agencies, transportation providers and people who will use the services and get ideas from them.  Stakeholder forums help you collect ideas and synthesize them into a plan. Stakeholder meetings also help you get communities behind the plan. You’ll need that later.

Identify The Lead Agency

The lead agency is whoever will handle the money, write checks and assume responsibility for the execution of the project and for the many (repeat many) detailed reports the government will ask for. The lead agency should be be someone everybody trusts. If it’s a collaborative project, the partners should agree on the lead agency and that agency should have a record of trustworthy behavior. This is important because the lead agency can make the collaboration work or screw it up royally. If you’ve ever been a junior partner in a collaborative projects, it’s likely you’ve been burned by a lead agency that cut you out or reduced the amount of money you received. Selection of the lead agency is of primary importance to the success of the project.

Write A Project Plan

A project plan is pretty much the same as a business plan.  You’ll need a multi-year budget depending on the Request For Proposal.  You’ll need to develop staff lists, qualifications of key project leaders and organizations, certifications, licenses and permits needed to operate. You’ll need to create goals and objectives, strategies and implementation plans. You may even have to create a new organization from scratch if one does not already exist that can handle the project. Write the project plan up in a business plan format.  The project plan answers the proverbial 5 W’s:  Who is doing the project; What the project is; When the project will take place; Where the project will be conducted; Why the project needs to be conducted.  Answer those questions in your project plan and you’ll be ready to write the grant.

Find Federal Funding

Visit Grants.gov on the Internet and sign up for their e-mail newsletter. The newsletter is published frequently and lists all new federal RFP’s as they come out.  The announcements include links to downloadable applications and instructions for RFP’s.  When you sign up for the newsletter, you will choose which programs you are interested in, what areas. Think about what you are doing.  You project may be able to receive funding from several agencies.  Suppose you were funding a high school student internship program at a rural wildlife refuge. You might approach the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, Fish and Wildlife or the Department of Labor if they had funding for this type of project.  Request or download a copy of any RFP for which you qualify and study it to make sure you are eligible.

Fill Out the Application

Follow the instructions in the RFP closely. If you don’t understand something, call the federal agency’s contact person for help. They love that. Nothing warms the cockles of a bureaucrat’s heart more than to have you sit at their feet, eager to learn from them. Calling for help can keep you on track and help you build rapport with the agency awarding the grant. It may not help you win the grant (the process is pretty strict about the decision being in the hands of impartial reviewers), but it can help make the process easier if you do win the grant.

Collect Support Data

Put together all the data, documentation and letters of support from the community that are required by the RFP.  If there is a matching funds requirement (and for federal grants there usually is), then now is the time to raise the matching funds. You need to at least know where the matching funds are coming from and be almost read to submit the matching fund application BEFORE submitting the application for federal funds. The federal funds won’t be available till the matching funds are in place. Get letters of support from politicians and public officials as well as other agencies with whom you will work.

Complete the Application

Fill out the application, its appendices and attach the proper documentation and all of the letters of support you have collected. Send the application as soon as you have it completed.  Don’t wait for the last minute. It never fails that you need something else or that something gets delayed.  Plan to be finished early and you’ll be finished on time.

Be Patient

Wait for the announcement of who won the grants.  The date is published in the RFP.  Don’t pester the agency for information.  They won’t tell you anything before the scheduled announcement.  All you will do is hack everyone off and only lose friends at the agency.  AND they still won’t tell you anything.

Success and Failure

If you win the grant, all you need to do is do what you said you would do, when you said you would do it. Do that and it scores you extra points when you reapply for later grants.  If you fail to get the grant this time, don’t despair.  Most grant applicants fail to win the grant the first time out. Don’t just give up.  Contact the representative at the agency and as for copies of the grant reviewer’s comments about your application and figure out what went wrong.  As soon as the grant comes up again next in the year or so, reapply using the information you learned last time.  Don’t quit. Sometimes you have to apply two or three times to win a grant.

What Not to Do

The “Free Grant Money” people will often give you “template” letters to write. Do the grant or don’t do it. Shoddy or cookie cutter applications are worse than useless. Do NOT write generic letters to federal agencies asking for money.  They give the agency a bad opinion of your competence to use federal funds effectively. A federal grant will not pay off your credit cards, buy you a house or help you start a business simply because you are a woman, a minority or a person with disabilities.  A federal grant may fund a project from which you draw a salary.  It won’t pay you to write the grant. Most of the time you half to raise half of the money somewhere else. 

Still federal grants can help you raise a lot of money.  Stick to the grant application.  Follow the instructions in the request for proposal to the letter.  Keep in mind the tips I’ve laid out here and you can create a successful project and grant application. 

Good luck with that first grant, it’s a doozy! 

Good Places to Search for Federal Grant Resources.

Federal Register
Federal Funding Tools and Links
Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA)

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Tuned Wind Chimes - A Soundtrack for Your Garden

If you've never had tuned wind chimes, try making your own.  It's a lot of fun.  Here's how.

Start by cutting a 6 inch round circle out of inch thick board.  Then cut a 3 1/4 inch circle out of the center.  Sand the "O" and the center disk.  You can even route the edges lightly to make it look prettier.

Now comes the fun part.  Go down to the Home Depot and go to the plumbing section.  Borrow a hammer and go around the store tapping on various kinds of pipe or tubing in various sizes and shapes, especially the metal tubing.  Also, try out tubing in other departments like electrical or home decor.  Find something that makes a beautiful sound when you strike it.

Get yourself about 8 feet or so of tubing depending on how ambitious you plant to be with your chimes.  Get more if you tune them because you WILL make mistakes. If you use a larger diameter tubing than an inch or so, you may need to make your "O" ring and center disk proportionally larger.

The most important thing at this point is to cut your tubing the right length. Use a band saw or saber saw with metal cutting blade. The first piece is something of a crap shoot.  Make it about 15 inches or so.  Drill a pair of holes opposite each other about a quarter inch from one end of the tube, then suspend it with fishing line.  Get the heavy 80 pound line if you don't want to replace it a lot.  Mono-filament deteriorates in sun and weather over time.

Now that you've strung your tube, strike it with a hammer or hard object and make it ring.  Set up a keyboard or other musical instrument next to it and try to find the note that comes closest to that of the tube.  It probably won't match exactly. Pick the note on the keyboard that's just higher than the tube when struck.  Now use your saw to shave off the end a little.  No more than an eight inch.  Restrike the tube and see if you're any closer to the note you want. Keep shaving till it's in tune with the instrument.

Now you need to pick out either a chord that includes that note or a line of music that includes that note.  I have a chime that, struck sequentially, plays the seven note opening line from the Harry Potter theme. It makes a wonderful sound on a breezy summer day.  If you want to do something like that, pick out the notes and then cut a tube to match each note. Just make sure one of the notes, preferably a low one, matches the tube you've already cut.  You may have to try the tune in several different keys to get the right one.

The first time you do this, as I said, have some extra tubing on hand because you will mess up.  Start with the low notes first because if you cut them too short, you can always recut for one of the higher notes.  When you are done, try again to cut one to match the low note.  Keep going till each tube matches a note in the tune or the chord you've chosen.

Now cut pairs of small holes for the monofilament line, 3/4 inch apart, with each pair evenly spaced around the "O" ring. If the tune or chord you chose has four, six, or seven notes, you'll need to figure 1/4, 1/6, or 1/7 of the distance round the ring to set your pairs of holes. String fishing line, through the holes you drilled near the tops of the tubes, then loop them through the pairs of holes in the "O" ring and tie them off.

Now drill 3 eighth inch holes evenly spaced in the "O" ring.  Tie keeper knots in three foot long pieces of cord, thread them bottom up through the "O" ring and tie them together to a hook about six inches above the "O" ring.  Tie a cord to the hook and drop it down the center of the "O".  Drill a hole in the 3 1/4 inch round disk and thread it onto the cord.  The disk should hang about a third of the way from the bottom of the shortest tube.  Tie a keeper knot and then tie a flat thin piece of wood at the bottom below the tubes.  It can be any shape you want, but light enough for the wind to blow it around and cause the disk to clang off the sides of the tubes and heavy enough to move the clapper disk.

Now all you need to do is hang it somewhere you can get a breeze and listen to the music.  Minor chords are really nice for that ethereal kind of sound.  Major or major seventh cords make for a cheerier sound.  Piddle around with the placement of the notes to match how the disk tends to swing and you can have the chimes almost play a tune.

If you would like to do the tube cutting mathematically, there is an in-depth article that tells you all you need to know to figure tube lengths mathematically at Chuck's Chimes.  And boy howdy is Chuck thorough. If you can handle college algebra you should be able to keep up and theoretically you could cut any tune you wanted out of any pipe you'd like and only have to cut once. He also tells you where on the tube to drill the holes to suspend it.  Apparently there are nodes along the length that provide the best tone if you hang the pipes at that point.

Take your time and have fun with this project.  Keep track of tube types and lengths from successful projects so you can repeat the set.  Soon you'll be making wind chimes that are so beautiful all your family members will want you to make them for Christmas.

Then, again you may want to tell everyone you got them from a flea market in Kentucky so you don't have to ever go through all that work again.  Depends on whether you enjoy building chimes or not.


If you're interested Chuck's Chimes also has this really great Wind Chime Tubing Length Calculator for tuning to a four note chord.  Very nice.

Doggie Diapers

Okay, here's the problem.  My dog's in heat and we decided that we'd let her get at least a year old before we had her spayed.  Recent research indicates that, despite the current "standard" recommendation to have pets spayed at 6 month old, you might want to wait to let your dog mature a little before you neuter him or her.  This lets them get past the puppy stage a bit. There's some evidence that the "puppiness" that makes them rowdy and excitable at that age gets locked in if you neuter them when they are too young.

So we decided to wait a bit with Daisy. Unfortunately, you have the whole bleeding and discharge during the time the dog is in heat.  So, I looked up to see if there was some sort of doggie diaper thing we could get while she was indoors.  Turns out there was.  They run from $6 to $20 for just one! 

Well, I found a cheap alternative.  Boys sized underpants!  With a little help from a safety pin, I got myself a nice set of underpants for my hound dog.

1 dog
3 pair boys boxer/briefs
1 box of safety pins

Step 1
Buy a package of boys medium or large boxer/briefs

Step 2
Lay a pair on the floor with the legs open.  The front panel with the pee-pee flap will be toward the back.  The back of the underpants will be underneath the dog.  Daisy doesn't like wearing her fancy pants.  Here she is doing the limp dog routine, hoping I'll give up.  But I am made of sterner stuff and she gives in and cooperates.

Step 3
Set the dog's feet into the leg holes.

Step 5
On top of the underpants in the middle of the dog's back and above her tail, overlap the waist band and pull them tight. CAREFULLY, safety pin the folds of the waist band together as shown (see the arrow in the picture).

Step 6
Turn the dog loose and say something stupid like, "How does Daddy's girl like her new fancy pants?"  Your dog will duck her head and slink away to nap in the corner, thoroughly embarrassed to be running around in this funny looking rig.

I'll admit the black and gray pants look better.  I used the white ones so you could see it better in the pictures.  Daisy doesn't mind her fancy pants so much.  She even lifts her legs to let me slip them on and stands still till I'm through.

Don't you just love dogs.