Thursday, August 22, 2013

Whiskey Barrel Sifter

When we moved into our new place, the mailbox was perched precariously on a rotten board bolted to a cock-eyed 4" steel pipe protruding from a not-level whiskey barrel planter.  Evidently, at some point during the last winter, the snow plow had blasted the mailbox, knocking it out of square in all three dimensions.  But the front was still *kind of* facing the road and so, strictly speaking, it was still functional.  But, failure seemed imminent, and wanting to make a good impression on our new neighbors, we thought we'd make fixing the mailbox one of our first priorities.

We rapidly discovered that this was a project that would involve much more than just pushing the pipe back to square and re-bolting the mailbox to it's support board.  Upon emptying out the whiskey barrel planter, we discovered three things.  First, the bottom half of the barrel was filled with the same gravel that was used in the driveway.  Second, there was no wooden bottom in the planter, either because the boards had completely rotted away, or because they had been removed to accommodate the steel pipe, which went into the ground.  Either way, it meant that moving the planter was the same as pressing its self-destruct button.  Third, the steel pipe had partially fractured underground, right at the point where the pipe went from vertical (the part in the ground) to angled (to get the mailbox close to the road).  It was very rusty, and the pipe could be bent further off-kilter, but not back toward it's original position.  That's likely because the impact from the snow plow had introduced a large number of dislocations in the steel's grain structure, which drastically reduced it's ductility along the negative of the snow plow's initial force vector.  But, that's not important right now.  What is important is that we now had a completely broken off mailbox pipe, an imploded whiskey barrel planter, a pile of gravelly dirt, and most importantly, no mailbox.

This is what the mailbox was supposed to look like. 

This is what the mailbox actually looked like (approximately): pipe broken off from the previous winter's snowplow, board securing mailbox to pipe rotted away, single dead cockle burr adorning the planter.  Could have been post-apocalyptic if one didn't know any better.

We managed to get the mailbox back to functional by cobbling together a mailbox stand out of some nearby sticks and the section of pipe that was still in the ground. (The picture above is the finished product, after all the hard work described below.) Since we had demolished the former planter around the mailbox, we felt a little guilty about not replacing it with at least some sort of flower-growing device.  After all, we had the dirt...but it was full of rocks, which don't get along with flower roots very well.  What we needed was a soil sifter.  However, a further complication is that since we were just moving into the place, we hadn't had a chance to accumulate a pile of wood scraps from which such sifters are customarily manufactured.  Head scratching and cursing ensued.  Fortunately, the realization eventually came to us that what we did have was a sizable pile of whiskey barrel planks.  Maybe, just maybe, those would work for the sides of a makeshift soil sifter.

So we trimmed the ends of the whiskey barrel planks, screwed them together with some corner brace scraps, and stapled 0.25" hardware cloth to the bottom.  (Ok, we did have a few scraps, just not the right ones.)  Ooh, it looks very vintage-ey.
Here's a closeup of the corner.  The cut end smells like white oak.  It must have fewer tannins to leach into the whiskey than the red oak.  Anyway, definitely drill out the holes before screwing it together.  These are some old boards, after all!
Our first attempt used just 0.25" staples, but these proved insufficient.  (Not all that surprising, really, but we were in a hurry.)  So, we added longer staples (the one in the middle of the corner brace board).  Most of them folded over before we could pound them all the way in, but on average, they probably went about an inch deep.
We didn't think to take pictures of the mailbox planter when we were sifting it, but our place is full of opportunities to use the sifter.  Here's another one along the driveway.  Lots of rocks from the driveway have migrated into the flower bed.  We checked the lease agreement--it didn't say anything about flowers being included in the flower beds.  That's why it just looks like dirt.  On the other hand, a dandelion has also migrated from the flower bed to the driveway, so nobody is staying where they belong.
Pop quiz!  What's the next step in this process?  If you guessed 'scoop up the dirt with rocks and put it in the sifter, you're right!  Congratulations.
And this is what it looks like after being sifted.  Large rocks and clumps of dirt captured by sifter, nice dirt passed through and stays in flower bed.  In hindsight, the 0.25" hardware cloth is a little large.  0.125" (1/8") would have been better to catch some of the smaller rocks.  Alternatively, we could add another layer of the 0.25" stuff, but offset by 0.125".  For now, we'll just hang the sifter in the garage and claim it's an antique.  If anyone asks, we'll tell them it's so old, it was made before 0.125" hardware cloth was invented.

What size hardware cloth do you prefer for your soil sifting tasks?  Do you know of convenient ways to separate gravel from soil without a sifter?  Let us know in the comments section below!

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