Practical ideas for self-reliant living

Energy & Sustainability
Practical ideas for self-reliant living

In the latest Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools, Erik Knutzen, from Homegrown Evolution, reviews Backwoods Home Magazine.


Imagine Martha Stewart as a gun-toting Libertarian and you’ll have a good notion of the editorial outlook of Backwoods Home Magazine. What makes this magazine useful, regardless of your political persuasion, is the wealth of information written by practitioners in the arts of self-reliance. You’ll find articles on everything from growing vegetables to baking bread to, yes, cleaning your Glock. Even if you live in the city there’s plenty to learn in the pages of BHM, in particular from Jackie Clay, Backwoods Home’s resident advice columnist. Clay can parse out and troubleshoot what have become almost lost arts, things like food preservation, soap making and small-scale poultry keeping. The rambling, unedited reader letters and the thrift-store-painting cover art are endearing bonuses.

Backwood Homes converges with Mother Earth News in terms of subject matter lately, but where MEN is liberal/progressive, BHM is libertarian. MEN is professional, BHM homespun. MEN is rock and roll. BHM is country.

And what makes Backwood Homes magazine different from other DIY publications is that all of the columnists walk the walk in addition to talking the talk. They don’t just theorize, they actually do the things they write about. While the Libertarian rants may be off-putting to some, with what I’ve witnessed of our local government in action, the more I tend to agree. Even if I may never shoot, skin and make raccoon stew, I can appreciate the self-reliant activities profiled in BHM as part of an essential American skill set that needs to be recovered. We urban dwellers have been too busy in recent years with less useful activities such as selling mortgages and collateralizing debt obligations. Time for some tasty squirrel!

–Erik Knutzen

Backwoods Home Magazine
$25 (6 issues)

Sample excerpts:

Restoring Rusty Cast Iron
Rusty cast iron is easily reclaimable unless the rust has deeply eaten into the iron, causing deep pits or holes. This is not commonly seen, but is always a possibility. Most of the time, all that is needed is a good washing with hot, soapy water and a green nylon scrubby. With lots of elbow grease and a couple of trips through the sink, the pot or pan is often smooth and nearly as good as new. If the rust is more tenacious, you can use a steel wool pad and scour it off with that. In severe cases, I’ve taken a sanding disc to it, removing the rust first, then using a very fine grit to re-polish the surface of the iron.

Once your pan is clean and smooth, rinse it well with boiling water, then dry it with a kitchen towel. As the iron is now unprotected, even a little moisture can quickly rust your new pan. You will now season the pan, as if it were new.



Jackie burns two of her cast iron pans in a fire to remove years’ worth of crusted-on food and grease.


Wood is not a homogeneous material. It is much stronger in one direction than in others. Wood’s greatest strength is in resisting compression along its length. Wood is also quite good at resisting pulling tension, but it is weakest at resisting bending (flexion) and twisting (torsion). One way to make a wooden building as strong and rigid as possible is to arrange the wood so it is being used in its strongest dimensions.

Here’s an example. A typical peaked roof frame consists of two rafters with a cross-tie to keep the tops of the walls from spreading. The cross-tie exerts its strength in tension, so it can be made of smaller size lumber, such as a two-by-four. But the rafters must resist bending (flexion), where they are relatively weaker. So the rafters must be made of two-by-sixes, two-by-eights, or even bigger stock. Such lumber is expensive. Long ago, engineers learned they could add greatly to the strength of a roof by inserting compression members within the frames.


Cantilever truss in a jig made from two sheets of plywood and scrap blocks. Some plywood gussets are not shown, to reveal joint details. Cut and set all truss members. Shim tight, then glue and screw gussets from top side. Pull shims and remove truss from jig. Turn truss over on a flat surface, and glue and screw gussets on the other side.


Solar Hot Water Systems
Except for batch heaters which have no electronic control devices, any solar system that includes automatic valves or solar loop pumps will require a differential temperature controller. More expensive temperature controllers will include a digital display to indicate system temperatures and alarms, but all are based on a very simple control strategy. One temperature sensor is mounted inside the solar panel on the roof, and one temperature sensor measures the water temperature inside the solar storage tank.


The control concept is simple; when the solar panel sensor is hotter than the water in the tank, a relay inside the controller is activated which turns on the pump. When both sensors read the same, the relay opens and the pump stops. More sophisticated controllers allow the installer to adjust these temperature setpoints to fine tune the system.

Make: Talk #08, with Erik and Kelly of Homegrown Evolution

From MAKE magazine:


Check out MAKE, Volume 18: ReMake America!

Buy your copy in the Maker Shed, subscribe to MAKE, or access the Digital Edition (if you’re already a subscriber).

ReMake America! Challenging times give us a rare chance to try new ways of doing things, and the opportunities for makers are terrific — we can start at home to remake manufacturing, education, food production, transportation, and recreation. In MAKE, Volume 18, you’ll learn how to make an automatic garden, heat your water with the sun, monitor and share your home energy usage, make an embedded drip irrigation system, and more. Make a topographical map of your property, put the sun and the rain to work, and make your own energy and food, using the untapped resources around your home, yard, and community.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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