You may already know how to knit

You may already know how to knit

I was recently was bitten by the knitting bug, and I have just got it out of my system. I have knitted before, but I find the process too simple and repetitive and have a hard time relaxing (if something is too repetitive I get stressed out, I prefer a little variety/challenge to my simpler tasks). Plus, knitting with needles make my hands cramp easily. However, I taught myself how to knit hats with a loom, and I found it had just enough variety to its simple tasks that it became quite enjoyable.

The most striking thing I noticed, however, was how knitting with a loom was so similar to another activity, which may be familiar to parents of young children: Rainbow Loom! Read more

Stay-at-home dad

Stay-at-home dad

My third child, Isaac, is almost nine months old, and for the next three months I am on parental leave while I wife returns to work. I take some parental leave for two reasons: to maximize the limited top-up both of our employers give us on top of the government EI payments we receive for parental leave, and so my wife and I can see how it is to be on the “other side” of the fence. Read more

Community Gardening

Community Gardening

Eight months ago my little family moved back to Waterloo, into an older home. It’s not that old, but old enough that some work needs to be done. The neighborhood is slowly turning over as the older generation that were the first occupants move out, and we are just settling into one of those homes. I also gave up my first garden and now have none. While I would love to have put together a new vegetable patch as soon as spring sprung this year, my conscience couldn’t as there is a lot of other yard work that needed to be done first. I hope to start one again next year. That being said, we are still growing potatoes in our old maple syrup containers, gardening is still happening at home, just in a really limited capacity. But I am still left with two little kids who like to garden and have to go to Grandma’s to get their fix.

So after a lot of research(I contacted and viewed almost every place in Waterloo on that list), I joined the University of Waterloo’s community garden. It is free for a patch of dirt up next to the greenhouses in the North Campus. I was kind of disappointed in the City of Waterloo. Both Kitchener and Cambridge run many community gardens, while Waterloo has none. There are some run by churches, senior homes, and co-ops in Waterloo, but you either have to worship or live there to get a plot. I think the University of Waterloo’s community garden is kind of forgotten, and easy to get a plot in. Best of all it was free.

Surrounded by wildflowers and weeds, it is a very peaceful spot in the North Campus.

One thing I have to adjust to and learn about is working with very clay-like soil. In my old garden I built up the soil into some amazing stuff. Soft and yielding, whereas here it is very hard and unforgiving. I was warned that green, leafy vegetables seem to do well but root crops do not.

Here I am inspecting the tomato plants for suckers to pinch off while my son hoes a new path.

In go the cucumber seeds.

Now we’ve moved on to planting some corn.

I am always amazed at how patient my kids are when they are planting seeds. Kids who are otherwise bouncing off the walls are more than happy to crouch down and fiddle with tiny seeds and stick them in the ground.

It is a very short bike ride from my office to go check on the plants during my lunch, which I do from time to time. I am treating this year as an experiment. I am not expecting to get any yield, I am trying to just grow anything, and give my kids a place to play in the dirt with their dad.

Building our first soap box derby racer – Part 2

Building our first soap box derby racer – Part 2

My oldest son, occasionally daughter, and I had continued to work on the soap box racer last week.

We left off last time with just wheels on a flat body. Another week of work and we added a body of sorts, a seat, and some paint.

We used a seat from IKEA for the racer. It was the perfect size to fit inside the 18″ wide body, and it looked neat. We made the frame for the racer with 2×4’s and plywood Jonas and I cut with a handheld jig saw, and screwed it all together.

Isaac gets his first driving lesson. Here you can see the arched shape we were working towards for the old-timey racer feel.

I then bent, glued, and nailed a 1/8″ thick piece of MDF to the body. Both kids helped with a couple of nails at first, but grew weary of wearing the safety glasses, so they had to watch from a short distance away. Nailers are one of those tools I am extremely careful around. Safety glasses are a must if they’re connected to a pressurized source, I am always aware of where I am pointing the working end trying to always point it at my workpiece, and the safety is turned on as soon as I take my finger off the trigger. I was amazed at the number of nails it took to hold it all in place.

Kids are getting excited. At this point the driving lessons down our street began in earnest.

We took off all non-painted surfaces, and I then went to work spraying it a nice enamel red with a N95 mask on. I am still looking for a decent mask that has solvent filters available. Any recommendations would be appreciated. I think it turned out looking pretty sharp, simple and elegant.

Race day was this past Saturday (June 16, 2012). After we arrived, it didn’t take long before I realized that the racer couldn’t compete. Middlebury Drive in Waterloo is a pretty steep street, a lot steeper than the street we practiced on, and my son was barely strong enough to use the brake on our little street where we had practiced. It also didn’t help that every racer there, save ours, had some sort of rack and pinion steering and our rope steering could be barely operated by my son. I opted to keep him out of the race this year and just observe. Tears were shed, but it was for the best.

Almost forgot to mention, we watched two pretty big crashes during the trial runs, by kids much older than my son. One girl lost control of her steering and rolled on the asphalt; the other boy couldn’t stop in time, hit the wall of tires that was being used as a safety stop, flipped his car and flew out. Both kids didn’t end up competing after their respective crashes, and it kind of sealed the deal on my son not racing that day.

Although Jonas did get a tailgate breakfast out of it, so not all was lost.

A sad little boy in his racer. In some ways I feel I let him down, in others, well, we built a soap box racer together, he’s a lucky kid.

Next year he will compete. I am going to lower the racer to the ground and build two new braking systems, both of which were inspired by other cars in the race. We are also going to make a rack and pinion steering system so that he can steer with a wheel much easier than fighting to pull on the rope. The parents I met on race day were awesome and all had great advice for improving the racer. We has so many parents come up to us and mention that they were following the progress of our racer. We built it in our front yard, so the whole neighborhood developed an attachment to our progress. There will be racing next year.

Building our first soap box derby racer – Part 1

Our neighborhood has a Soap Box Derby on Father’s Day weekend. I’ve always wanted to make a racer, and this provided a convenient excuse to make one. I did all sorts of research on Soap Box Racers, and emailed the neighborhood association for details, and it turns out, it is an unregulated race. Most Soap Box Derby’s are strictly regulated; certain size tires, maximum weight for the vehicle, etc. For this race, there are no limits. After taking a couple trips to gather the parts necessary, my oldest and I decided to assemble it in the shade of our maple tree on a nice day.

I had some spare rope for steering, spare copper pipe nail-downs to hold the axles in place, scrap plywood and 2 x 4’s for the frame, and some spare wood screws to hold it together. Axles, pins, lag bolt, nut, and 4 washers from Home Depot to hold the wheels in place and for steering. Wheels came from KW Surplus. Finding wheels was the most difficult part. You can find all sorts of small, bulky ones for wheel barrows and mowers, but large-diameter, thin ones are hard to come by, fortunately I found some with some searching. All told, took about an hour to assemble with my son’s help.

The lag bolt is for the front axle so it has a pivot point on the frame to steer. The axle is fixed to the 2 x 4 on top of it with copper pipe nail-downs (the kind you use for plumbing copper pipe), and the wheels are held onto the axle with pins (the wheels have bearings in them, making attaching them a lot easier). On top of the steering 2 x 4 I attached two more scrap pieces of 2 x 4 to limit how far you can turn left or right.

Unfortunately, the race is open to Junior Kindergarten kids at the youngest, so my daughter can’t participate for another two years. Doesn’t mean I can’t give her a driving lesson.

We decided to race to test it out. My son wanted to ride his kick-bike, and Grace stuck with me.

I have never ridden a Soap Box Racer before, so here I am discovering how slow they are to get going. My son won the race easily, all he had to do was kick away.

One thing I did forget to install on the initial version was the brake, so I had to quickly figure out how to safely stop the racer without breaking my ankles. I was actually far more worried than I look here.

The race is in a week and a half. We still have to add a brake and make a body for the racer. That is the most fun part. I’m thinking of making the racer look something like this:

I’ll share the results soon.


Launching some rockets

When I was a kid, my uncles would, on occasion, take me to go launch some rockets. Either that or they would drop me on my head (according to my mom, being dropped on my head happened a lot more often than I can remember thanks to the concussions). The farm field we would often go to to launch the rockets in is now the Laurelwood neighborhood in Waterloo. With a little researching, I found a new location: Snyder’s flats in Bloomingdale. It is only a 15-minute drive from my side (the far side) of Waterloo, so the trek out there wasn’t too bad. Just a little further down the road from the A on the Google map image, below. Here is a direct link to the Google map location if you want to visit the area yourself. Synder’s flats is overall, a very interesting place. I noticed a lot of off-leash dog walkers there; it seems to be pretty popular place for owners of canines.

Just go past the church, and park in the first open parking area on your left, across the road from the sand hill (pictured below). We launched in the large, flat area beside the sand hill, in the shade of a large oak tree, the only tree around. Fortunately the wind was on our side that day, blowing away from the road, in the general direction of the shadow of the tree. No sunburns, and we were comfortable in the heat.

My kids thought they should rock out with their rockets. The photo below doesn’t quite capture how hilarious and unintentionally suggestive my daughter was with her rocket. Rocketry is a relatively cheap activity for kids. Small, click-together rockets perfect for young kids sell for $10-20.

Launching rockets with your kids is a fairly peaceful activity. Rocket  launches aren’t very quick to set up, but the build-up is worth it and once the kids see the first one go, they are more than patient for the others to be launched. You’ll need a launcher of some sort, which can sell for $20 for the one I have (although I found mine at a thrift store and paid a lot less) or you can improvise and stick a firm, straight wire, 2′ in length, into the ground (a well-straightened coat hanger will do). An igniter can sell for $20 as well, or you can improvise, I just used a 6V battery holder (4 AA batteries) soldered to 20′ of wire, cost about $2 in materials. I clicked in the fourth battery when I wanted to launch the rocket.

Photographing the falling rocket is the easiest way to lose track of it. Every time I was trying to take a photo of a falling rocket, as soon as I pulled the lens away from my eye I had no idea where in the sky the rocket was anymore.

The other great part for the kids was running after the rocket for the recovery.

We almost lost this one. Again, due to trying to photograph its fall. Tears were shed when I broke the news. Then, off in the distance, I spotted the flutter of the parachute. The day was saved.

We only launched 4 rockets in about an hour and a half. It went by quick, but it wasn’t stressful and it was quite fun. Overall an excellent activity for two, young kids and their dad. Here the rockets are cooling after their launches. I use an ammo crate I bought from a surplus store to store the rocket engines in. Rocket engines can be costly depending on the size, they usually sell 3 engines for $9. This is one area you can’t skimp on, nor should you try unless you have significant experience with handling explosives and chemistry.

They’re debating how far the wind will blow the next rocket. There are kits you can buy, usually around $50, in which you’ll get a launcher, igniter, rocket and at least one engine. Enough for hours of fun and repeat use. Once you have some experience launching, building new ones becomes quite easy. There are many more kits out there, but with some ingenuity, you can figure out how to make you own rocket out of scrap cardboard tubes (just don’t use toilet paper rolls).

Making soap

Mother’s day was coming, and I decided to make my mother a gift using slave labor my kids as helpers. I thought it would be a great activity for the kids, I also like to make my gifts, and the combination of kids and home-made-edness should result in a more meaningful gift for my mom/their Nana.

We are all set! Any parent with more than one child can attest to the need for each child to have their own set of tools.

I opted for ultra-simple glycerin soap, and the kids would mix up their own colors with food coloring. Just put a few drops into the bottom of an ice-cube tray to start.

Glycerin soap is super-easy to use; just cut off the amount you’d like, and microwave it in a safe container (I used an old sour cream container) in 15-second intervals until melted, and it is ready to pour into any form you’d like. Ideally use a disposable container, not that you are going to throw it out. If there is leftover, just keep the container. If you’re lucky it will just pop it out, but if it won’t come out, you have used a container you were going to throw out or recycle anyways and there will be no regrets. Just keep it for next time.

We used toothpicks to stir.

My son was a little more creative when it came to mixing his colors. My daughter did the one-color-per-cube thing.

Just pour…

…and mix!

The other awesome part of this activity was that the kids were so excited to see the end product, they pretty much sat still and waited for the soap to cool and harden. Sitting still is a rare treat for any parent.

I lucked out when I went looking for forms for the soap. I went to the dollar store, originally thinking I would use disposable plastic cups as the molds for the soap, but then found these really cheap ice-cube trays that had silicon bottoms on the bottom of each cube. Once hardened, the deformable silicon bottom could be pushed and the soap would be forced out fairly easily. $1.25 each.

He’s pretty proud that he made orange (his favorite color).

Out they shoot.

Pop pop pop. My son had the blue, circular ice cube tray, my daughter had the red, rectangular one.

All the soaps fit just perfectly.

Adding a pretty bow with ladybugs on it for Nana.

Above is the kids’ gift to their mom for mother’s day. We made soaps using the a similar technique (in the box) but we tried to make fancier/pretty-smelling ones, with bodyscrub (in the jars) and a hair band with flowers on it.

A close-up of her soaps. Despite our best efforts, they didn’t really work out that well. Only the cinnamon-clove soap turned out, and it turned out well.

Photographer of planets, defender of the CBC

The call went out from Heather Hiscox, a CBC morning news host, asking for people to photograph the Venus-Jupiter conjunction that was occurring the evening of March 13, 2012. Being an eager fan of the CBC, and an amateur shutterbug, I decided to borrow a tripod from work and take it home to take pictures of the conjunction and, if anything decent came from it, send them in. I sent in 3, and apparently one did air, but I missed the 7:55 broadcast because I was busy getting my kids and car ready for a trip to the ROM (another adventure and blog post in and of itself). I am trying to track down a copy of the broadcast, but in the meantime, here’s my favorite picture from that night (click for the larger copy, you can barely make out Venus below, let alone Jupiter):

It was a fun time all around. I took the photo on my driveway, using the old family Nikon D40. My strategy was to take a few dozen photographs every 15 minutes for an hour, the logic being that I knew very few would turn out great due to the general difficulty of astrophotography (I had to manually focus each picture), and that the backlight from the sun setting would be an unpredictable factor in the long-exposure photograph. My son came out with me in his pajamas and was so excited that he could locate and identify two planets “That’s Venus, dad! It has sulfuric acid clouds! And that’s Jupiter! It’s the king of the planets and has a great red spot!”.