Light City 2017 – Part 1

It has been a busy winter at Formstone Castle (Actually it’s been super busy since July, but those posts will come later).

Last spring we visited the very first Light City Baltimore festival.  Saturday night in particular was a wild conversion of friends, neighbors, art, music, and weather.  We began thinking of ways to get involved in 2017, but couldn’t quite figure out what we should do.  It wasn’t until May when we resurrected the Kinetic Couch that we focused on an idea.  Our 2016 KSR was a great success.  We won our second (2/2!) major award: “The Next To Last Award”.

We’re still not exactly sure where the convergence of ideas came from, but we decided to apply the look of Japanese Dekotora trucks with our 3 person couch and coffee table. In about 3 weeks we put together a killer proposal for Light City 2017.  In the process of writing the proposal the project evolved, took on collaborators, fed back their input into the piece over and over until we came up with this:

In the process we also roped in artist friends to collaborate.  Katlyn Wyllie would make the mural on the back, Charlotte Hager would make the costume for the creature, Adam Rush would make a 6 hour music mix and Siri and I would build the couch and coordinate all of the other details.

As winter settled in, we wanted to have lights and controllers in hand to being building prototypes and playing with code.  Our first orders were placed within hours of hearing we were selected so that we could have them by Christmas to play with.  We wanted to order as much as we could locally, but some parts did come from over seas such as the controllers and WS2811 LED light strips.   The battery was sourced from Best Battery in Baltimore.  It is a giant 12v 150lb 255Ah deep cycle battery.  This was all set up in the basement with our fuses and wires run up through our floor vent into the living room where we used the lights as our Christmas tree, but also to test our ability to power them from the battery, charge the batter and program the controllers.  If you got our Christmas card, this was in the background.

We also started the the process of strengthening the rear wheels and brake as they’d need to hold several hundred additional pounds with the new design.  I wanted cast aluminum wheels to be able to handle serious side loads.  A quick trip to Baltimore Cycle Salvage led to some dope 1981 Suzuki GS400 Enkei wheels with mesh disc brakes, calipers and brake/clutch levers.  I can’t overstate how generous Dean at Baltimore Cycle Salvage was.  He practically gave us the parts and was fully supportive of our way outside of the box project.

Around this time we moved into Spirits Tavern’s garage on Bank Street in Upper Fells Point.  We didn’t want to work outside in the winter so we made sure to add this into the budget.  Here is a good spot for a pause.  The following day we left to Puerto Rico for a quick winter vacation to prepare us for the wildest 2 months finishing this up.  Details in following post.

The Kinetic Couch Awakens


It will be spring soon and with spring comes the annual AVAM Kinetic Sculpture Race.

Waayyyyyy back in 2011 the DC Couchsurfing group got together to raise money, design and build an entry for AVAM’s Kinetic Sculpture Race (KSR).  Friends used their skills to help with different aspects from fundraising, cad drawing to fabrication.  We even had team members donating bikes for parts.

Couch FrameCouch

While pretty simple looking on the outside, the couch was pretty complex and took us a few months to build.  This was a KSR race entry after all and it needed to be able to tackle the city by land and sea.  It had to float.  On top of the tubular steel frame (made from an old trampoline), we fitted a 12″ thick 3’x 6′ block of styrofoam.


Steering is pretty neat as we were trying to hide the front wheel under the coffee table the best we could.



Three people can ride at once.  Power goes from the three cranks to an idler with freewheeling gears.  This makes it so riders can rest and take turns.  Power is then transferred via a beefier farm chain to a lawnmower differential so we can get this thing to turn.


While we were off to a great start, our day ended early.  We bent an axle, likely during the enthusiastic Le Man’s start, and that eventually led to a broken axle at the bearing. We packed up about a mile in and drank away our sorrows in the very neighborhood Siri and I would move to a year later.

It wasn’t all a waste though.  Our breakdown was spectacular enough that we won the coveted Golden Dinosaur Award that evening. Those of us who were still upright had gone to the ceremony for the free beer and were pretty well sloshed when we went up to receive our statue.


After a few years sitting in the bushes I finally have the space and tools in Baltimore to resurrect this machine.  We can fix it.. we can make it better.  I’ve brought it down and am announcing our 2016 entry.  We’re hoping to find support from the local bike and couchsurfing communities.

Things we’d like to accomplish:

  • Move bearings outboard to be closer to the wheels.
  • Repair broken axle.
  • User stronger wheels with better brakes (moped wheels?)
  • Re-grease cranks as they’ve sat in the elements for 5 years.
  • Possibly add derailleurs so we can have multiple gears.
  • Testing, testing, testing.

As it sits today.


Taking off in October hasn’t gone so well. Things just keep getting done.  One was finally getting around to installing video cameras that we bought last year.  It’s a Swann HDR-8200 DVR with 4 1080p cameras.

The cameras ended up being way bigger than I thought (3″ x 8″ or so) so mounting options were reduced.  I didn’t want to ruin the look of the house, but also needed specific views to cover all the entryways + detail.  In the end we have 2 cameras in the back and 2 in the front.  One of each is a wide view and the other is a detail view.  Being full HD we can still read license plates from way up there and its wide enough to get our front door, alley gate and the neighbor’s doors on either side.


You can barely see it up there.

For the front detail camera, I decided to do some camera surgery.  Inside that huge can was a 1.5″ x 1.5″ x 1.5″ camera.  I drilled a hole in the front door and installed the whole circuit board and camera inside the door.  To finish it off, I caulked on the 3″ glass lens from t he camera for a seemless and sealed look. The end result is pretty good.  I get a good detailed view across the street and of every person that walks by and especially those that come up to the door with only a little cutoff on the corners that I may be able to adjust away.

Door Camera

Peep Hole Camera!

Our views

Our views

I can view all of this on the HDTV.  So far we’ve sat and watched the cat go out back and have yelled at the TV a few times as cars sped down the street.  When not at home we can stream the video to our phones or computers.  It does seem to lock up one or two camera channels on the DVR every now and then.  That was discovered last year and was one of the main reasons we took so long installing it.  Guess we’ll just deal with it?

Winter is Coming

I’ve vowed to take off for the month of October since it seems every October since we bought the house we’ve had some massive time critical project to do seriously impacting our Halloween costuming abilities.  With a few days left in September, there are still projects to do before it gets cold.

First off is the bathroom window.  This wasn’t a huge priority, but it is one of the few things that would really suck unless its already open window weather.  The main problem is that the wood frame is rotting away and letting water in which has ruined the bricks under it.  To fix it I decided to take it all out down to the bricks, relay the bricks that are loose, point the joints around the ones that I can reach and then re-frame the window.

new window frame and tools

Refamed. You can see the width of empty space beside the new frame where the old counter weights would have been.


Needs some paint.

First round of bricks went well until I realized that the old mortar wasn’t going to harden.  It all had to come out and be redone.  That set me back a few days, but I powered through and got the bricks (re)done and framed it up.

I added 4 studs as well on the sides of the windows.  These are to be used to hang a window box.  We may or may not close it in. It’s main purpose is to hold plants to give us a little more privacy from our neighbors who have a window just oppose ours.


While the weather held out I also knocked off some loose mortar from the alley bricks and Siri painted it up.


Also refurbished our non-venting stove vent to actually vent outside.  This involved disassembled the whole thing, washing it inside and out, blocked off the front vent, opened up the rear vent and adding some ducting.  I’m no longer shy about making holes in my walls so out came the impact drill.  I circle of 1/2″ holes later and I was through the brick wall to the alley.  Finished it up by spray foaming the inside and rebricking the outside.


Trim.. Finally.


We bought our base boards for doing trim in the fall the same day we had the truck for getting the steel and joists used on the stairs.  They’ve sat in the shack since them until I could catch up on some things.  Finally that day has come.  Having painted boards little by little over the last few weeks, and making some little corner pieces, I was all ready to go.  My brother came over and brought his trim nailer, chop saw and air compressor.  Six hours later we finished the trim in the bedroom.


With the trim done I could finally move the bed across the room.  This was a bed we built out of IKEA shelves and leftover strips of wood we tore out of the 1st floor ceiling. Previously it was against the end unit wall and got really cold in the winter.


Also, it was opposite was the chimney which meant that I had all of 12 inches to squeeze past every night leading to many bruised knees.  Moving it across the room lets use wrap it around the chimney a few inches giving me 24″ at the end of the bed to maneuver.


Over the next few days I added trim in the kitchen, hallway and living room.  Eventually I had to return the air tools and could take a break from the madness for a few months.  It was until September that I got a chance to finish up the front of the living room.


This seems like a short, maybe insignificant post, but this is HUGE for us.  We’ve stared at the gaps between the walls and the ceilings for nearly 3 years.  It was obviously something we could live with, but it was obvious and sloppy to anyone who visited.


Goodbye ugly gaps

The Leaning Tower of Upper Fells Point

150 year old housing stock has its drawbacks.  Sometimes the roof goes and that leads to brick problems, sometimes the foundation goes first and the rest has to come down, but sometimes its just the soil it is built on slowly giving way.  One of our favorite houses to take friends to see was what we called The Leaning Tower of Upper Fells Point.  This 3 story row house had, over the years, sunken in and would have fallen onto its downhill neighbor had some brick buttresses not been built to support it.  This seems to have occured decades earlier because even the Formstone has been applied level relative to the tilt.

Sadly, whoever owns that lot has better plans than preserving this oddity.  The demolition notice has been posted since June.  One day biking home I decided to see if it was still standing only to find the demolition in progress.

leaningTowerDemo1By the following day this was all that was left.

tilthousedemoThat’s not the end though.  We had an eye on this since the demolition notice was posted for one reason.  This house was 12′ wide and would therefore have longer joists than most other houses in the neighborhood. Just the length we needed for our last shelf.  I hauled one out just after this photo was taken and after a little work we had our shelf.  A small reminder of our 2nd favorite house in Upper Fells Point.



Adventure Room (Part I)

Siri and I met through Couchsurfing (happy hours) in DC.  Hosting guests has been an important part of our lives before and since. When we bought a house, we knew we needed a guest room to host CSers as well as friends and family.   We were its first guests moving into the 3rd floor outside of Iris’s room as we finished the 2nd and 1st floors below.

With so little square footage, we needed it to be a flexible space as well.  The idea was and old style study / library.  The shelves will store our books about travelling, oddities collected while travelling, and Baltimore history books for guests to learn about our city. There will also be a huge map of the world which will fold down, revealing a full size mattress for guests.  Everything you need for your adventures.

We’ve been storing 4×8 sheets of furniture grade plywood in the shack for months.  Part of spring cleaning was to put it to use and get this room built.  It’s not cheap though.  About $50 per sheet and I didn’t want to ruin any making up my mind.  As usual, its time for Sketchup:

Bookshelves3Bookshelves4It looks like everything should be about 12″ deep in order to fit the mattress in between with a few inches to spare.  This should also save on materials as well as a 4×8′ sheet cuts in to 12″ sheets very efficiently.

Next step is to cut some wood.

It’s Spring! Lets Get Some Fresh Air


Not quite done in this photo, but this is the last of it. I’ve pointed or relaid every brick in this 10×5′ column from the roof to below and including the basement floor.

Finally I’m done bricks. I finished Sunday morning. I started repointing these bricks September 2013.  Its been nearly 600 days…. not continuous, but it has been the dusty cloud looming over us for a long time.  19.5 months.  Time for something else for a change.  Luckily spring is here, the weather is great and we can do things outside.  Last weekend I did these 2 small projects.


First up was our herb garden. Last year we started a few, but this year we want way more.


Second task was to put up the weather station Siri’s dad had gotten us for Christmas. What old man’s life is complete without a wireless weather station?

Now that we’re finished with the repointing, what are we going to do with all the leftover brick and sand?  Last year it was pretty fun to have beers with friends around our fire pit. Why not make it better?  We remembered killing a patch of grass under and around the fire that didn’t really grow back.  That led to a muddy area around the fire and muddy feet going into the house.  Also, our old fire pit had rusted through completely leaving only the outer ring.  New fire pit was a lucky but easy find from Adam: a massive old wok set in our old rusted out fire pit and surrounded by bricks.  Now how about the rest?


I’ll dig out a circle around the fire pit…


I’ll fill it with the leftover sand…


and I’ll temp in bricks in concentric rings and fill in all the gaps with sand.

But now I have all this dirt! I think I’ll make more garden space next to the shack.  I can also use it to grade in a little fall so water flows away from the shack when it rains.  Should be pretty easy for the grass to grow back in too, but I’ll throw down some seeds to help it along.


Bonfire Season Has Begun!

It was all worth it though. Its better to sit around than ever.



Since last year though, I had heard a bit of controversy has developed on the legality of fires in Baltimore.

Baltimore code (308.1.4) says Charcoal burners and other open-flame cooking devices shall not be operated on combustible balconies or within 10 feet (3048 mm) of any combustible construction or property line.”

Luckily we’ve got this big yard and, as you can see in this Sketchup drawing, we can get away with it in one little spot.  We also need to be cooking because the rules for decorative fires says 15 feet.  So while we have it in a different spot now, to keep the fire and noise further from the houses, we could move it if need be if someone raises a stink.


Only a tiny spot where having our fire is legal.