Tinkering Over Time – An “Off-Grid” Conversation with Michael Cadwallader Owen

Tinkering Over Time – An “Off-Grid” Conversation with Michael Cadwallader Owen

This post is one of a set sponsored by Tinkernation. We had complete editorial control over the content and decided to interview Michael Owen, a self-made maker, handyman, and tinkerer from NY state. Michael has built boats, re-built engines, and farmed for a living. He has lived on land and water, including twice living off the electrical grid, whose challenges require unique solutions.

MAKE: First tell us a little bit about yourself, including where you live and about your profession.

Michael Owen: I’m a lifelong carpenter & general contractor who dropped out of my art major a couple years into an undergraduate degree. That was back in the 60s. I – typical of my generation – romanticized the world. I felt the “real” world was the one I could access directly. My parents were interested in the “back to the land” movement and, riding on the wave of optimism that prevailed at the time, would eventually move with my wife onto 160 acres in upstate NY where I live now. We grew gardens and built affordable houses, much to the amusement of our neighbors. Along the way I picked up a lot of practical skills for direct application to the day-to-day problems we encountered. That was my doorway into the construction trades. There was plenty of work fixing up old houses or vehicles. I eventually grew into a master carpenter with a working knowledge of all phases of residential construction.

MAKE: Were you taught to make and to tinker as a kid? Were either of your parents tinkerers in their own right?

MO: I had a bench right next to my dad’s in the garage, and he taught me a lot of the woodworking skills I’ve used throughout my life. I started building things around age five, mostly fixtures I mounted on my wagon and pretended I had my own car. I got good enough as a craft person that I was accused of cheating in Cub Scouts when I had the only kite that would fly! By the time I was in high school I built my first boat, and spent a lot of hours exploring the Okefenokee.

In the fourth grade I was responsible for keeping the outboard motor running on the boat we used to ferry back and forth to the dock while we lived on a houseboat in the Bronx. Little by little I took over the small engine repairs and some auto repairs. There was a bicycle junk yard out behind the clubhouse when we lived in New Jersey. I would grab what I could salvage to fix up bicycles for myself and my pals. I spent most of my time crawling around in dumps and seeing what I could find.

A never-ending project: rebuilding a home!

MAKE: About those ‘day-to-day problems’ of owning one’s own farm home and land, describe one of the more creative fix-it solutions you had to come up with to solve a problem.

MO: How to mix concrete with water we had to carry a quarter-mile to the building site. We were able to find old concrete specifications developed during the construction of the Hoover Dam. We managed to discover that concrete made with small gravel and no sand made a great mix that required very little water, was easy to mix, and about two-thirds as strong as Transit mix. My point is that a little research can save a lot of time. Almost everything I have ever thought was an original idea wasn’t. People have been making stuff for a long time. It was all new to me but the actual skills and knowledge were already there. People like Scott and Helen Nearing were our mentors.

A makeshift fluorescent worklamp.
MAKE: Is there a specific maker skill that you wish you had more of a grasp of? Something that you know the fundamentals about but wish you could call yourself an expert in? Or something you know absolutely nothing about that you wish you understood the fundamentals of?

MO: Electronics. I can wire stuff up and have a working knowledge of basical electrical forces, but in no way can I make a DC motor controller. I’d have no trouble winding a motor physically. But designing it? Not even remotely possible. I think about the problems Sandy left in it’s wake, and how cool it would be to make a generator out of your lawnmower and hot up a few houses on the block. Being a Maker is more relevant now that it has ever been. Community is built on helping each other.

MAKE: You’ve frequently used lawnmower motors in your builds and projects. Why are you drawn to that type of motor so often?

MO: They’re simple, with very few moving parts, and there’s a great degree of interchangeability between their parts. Very often different models have the same engine. Also their availability. Everyone who has a lawn has one, and over time they’ll have a few of them. The output shaft is a common size, and the shaft is generally tapped with a common thread size. They also have a lot of power, for their size and weight.

A homemade pottery wheel made by Michael, built from scrap wood and a spare lawnmower motor.

MAKE: Are there any tools from your own shop that you absolutely can’t live without?

MO: Hand tools. Machines speed things up, but just as spray guns didn’t eliminate the need for a paintbrush, a hand plane cannot be replaced by a power plane.

MAKE: The workbench is a place where we make things. What’s on your bench right now?

MO: The usual pile of tools that I routinely need for mending and fixing various projects. For example the big one right now is maintaining the backhoe I acquired a couple years ago, which I use for digging up earth to make cellars for peoples’ homes.

Michael putting the finishing touches on a hinge, to allow for a 200lb. fireproof door to be installed.

MAKE: You’ve previously lived off-grid. Can you tell us briefly about where you lived, why you chose to live there, and what sources of energy were available to you at that time?

MO: We’ve lived off-grid twice. The first time was with kerosene lamps, wood for heat, gas refrigeration, and an outhouse. Five years and the major energy improvement was a battery I carried back and forth to the grid to charge on a table saw motor using an old car generator. That ran our record player and the party ended when that thing ran out of juice. We had a thirty mile view on a clear day and nothing ever broke down.

The next time was in the early 90’s, and it was a lot more high-tech: solar panels, battery systems, gravity-fed running water. That was out on Maui and the sun was very plentiful.

A drifter (boat) engine, built with parts from two other engines.

MAKE: What’s an incomplete project you have laying around, and why haven’t you finished it?

MO: They are everywhere! I want to build a five-wheel lightweight trailer out of wood. It’s all in my head but the structure would be a laminated hollow form. Wood is still the strongest commonly available material for it’s weight. I want to build a water platform that floats on milk jugs – I have a few hundred of those saved in my cellar. But the project I’m currently focused on is strawbale housing, because it’s affordable and energy-efficient. NY state building code rarely allows for indigenous materials for residential use, but strawbale is the exception. If you look at Sweden as a model, in the 70s they rebuilt their housing stock to what would have been LEED Platinum status. The result: they reduced their energy use by 50%. I want to go with built shells rather than manufactured turnkey structures, in conjunction with a volunteer-workshop model, to help spread awareness and also reduce costs. It’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but a couple years ago in Queens I spearheaded a build, and we brought the estimated $500K project in at around $50K using this approach.

4 thoughts on “Tinkering Over Time – An “Off-Grid” Conversation with Michael Cadwallader Owen

  1. Tinkering Over Time – An “Off-Grid” Conversation with Michael Cadwallader Owen | My Daily Feeds says:

    […] Read the full article on MAKE […]

  2. Arnold says:

    Do you see much opposition and legal hurdles to building hand crafted houses by the building authorities?

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I'm an artist & maker. A lifelong biblioholic, and advocate for all-things geekathon. Home is Long Island City, Queens, which I consider the greatest place on Earth. 5-year former Resident of Flux Factory, co-organizer for World Maker Faire (NYC), and blogger all over the net. Howdy!

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