2015-04-29

Rivercane Rondezvous

Directly after the SAR conference in southern VA, Jess and I continued south toward Georgia (stopping for a night to sleep at a nice trail-head in her truck Jane). Actually, as it happened we ended up in Damascus, a town neither of us has been in since we hiked through it on the AT in 2009, and hitched to and from 2 weeks prior to go to trail days, a big backpacker party held there every year. Anyway, it was nastalgic and fun to drop by again.

Anyway, onwards we continued to Rivercane Rondezvous. This is a primitive skills gathering, actually the oldest continuous running primitive skills gathering (this was it's 30'th anniversary). I went to it's sister gathering Falling Leaves in the fall, run by the same EarthSkills folks. I saw a couple of faces I know from the west coast gatherings actually, a lot more I met in the fall, and met plenty of new people as well.

(Two brave people start the main fire with a bow-drill in front of the whole camp)
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As we've mentioned before, these gatherings focus around primitive skills generally with two different ideas in mind.

One is to understand how people used to do things, by trying to do them yourself. This is called Experimental Archaeology. If archaeologists often find tools and come up with theories for how those tools were used. Surprisingly these theories are rarely tested by actually trying to do it, and seeing if a) it works and b) it leaves the same marks on the tool or whatever the tool is used on as the historical artifact. People 10,000 years ago were no dumber than us now (probably smarter actually), so you can bet they found reasonable ways to solve their problems. This can be a pretty interesting aspect as people fiddle and around and try and figure out how things used to be done.

The other is simply to actually do them. Many people who come to these gatherings have an interest in gaining the skills themselves, keeping them alive, passing them on, and actually using them. I'm fascinated by experimental archaeology, but for me it's mostly a secondary.interest compared to understanding how I can actually do things now. The two naturally feed in to each other of course, if we can't get the tool to work the way we expect quickly and efficiently now, it's pretty reasonable to assume we've missed something, and chances are they had a good method so if we can figure it out I'm pretty interested in using it now.

Hickory day
I've made 2 bows in the past, both from bow-staves someone else cut and split out of a tree. The first class I went with was on felling and splitting bow-staves out of a tree. They had already dropped the hickory tree (something I've done before), but we talked about that some. Particularly safety, and how to choose the right tree both for the ecology of the forest so as to make the forest healthier by cutting, and for making good bows. We talked a lot about the way to split the wood so as to maximize the good bow-staves we get out of it, and then actually split them out.

There was some wood left though that was no good for bow-staves. So that afternoon I decided to use it. I went back. Using a folding saw and an axe I cut out two hickory splitting wedges. I then used those to split out some short tool handles for some hammer and hatchet heads I got at a garage sale a while back.

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I'm letting those handles cure now, but there are few things more satisfying than going in to the forest with an axe and saw, making the other tools you need, and leaving with tool handles.

I also grabbed another hunk of tree to make a sledge. It's quite dangerous to hit metal with metal, and always better to hit metal with wood or wood with metal if that can get the job done. For this reason wooden hammers are really useful (also, they are free). So since I had a tree sitting there, I decided to make one. Here's a picture of my lovely friend posing with it (not quite complete) and a coyote fur.


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Well, I had to pull the bark off the handle to make this, and hickory bark is extremely useful flexible stuff, so I took this and bent it to make a basket. After 3 attempts at this (and 3 chunks of mucked up bark) and a little advice from others, I finally got it to work. I then took some long pieces, peeled the outer bark off, them, and used the inner bark for rings inside and outside the top, too bind those rings in to place, and to sew up the sides. Sadly I didn't take a picture of it though, and I traded it away at the trade blanket the next evening, so here is a picture of a similar basket I found online... Sorry to whoever owns the photo.



If you haven't gathered this yet, hickory is a really cool tree, being a great wood for bows, handles, baskets, and bindings.

The hickory basket, the splitting, or the sledge could all be individual posts, and may be eventually. There's a lot to talk about there.

Plant walk(s)

We had a super cool guest come to this gathering, Samuel Thayer. Jess and I have long been fans of his edible plant books, and of the 5 or so books I kept while living in the truck, two of them were his, so it was quite exciting to go on a plant walk with him. We were both fan-girling and squeeing a bit OMG!

I learned a bunch of new plants. I wasn't aware, for example, that you can live off of slipper elm bark! Crazy! Green briar tips are delicious. Mulberry leaves are tasty when young. False nettle is delicious. The best part of bur-dock root is the middle third. Etc. We also bought some delicious dark maple syrup from him... awesome!

Sharpening

This is embarrassing to say, but I didn't know how to sharpen knives and axes before this gathering. I *thought* I knew, but the simplicity and speed with which a friend and instructor taught me to sharpen tools was amazing. I just ordered a new set of diamond stones, and I'm really looking forward to having all of my tools perfectly honed and stroped. Maybe I'll write a post about sharpening at some point. I screwed up while trying to split out some wedges for wedging handles in to tools and buried my wonderful gransfurs brux axe in the mud, UGH! He had it sharper than it was when I got it in about 5 minutes.

Tracking

In my last post I talked about track aging, and how I wasn't as good at it as I wanted to be, so I decided to practice. I boxed off an area so others wouldn't step on it, then layed down about a track a day, tracking exactly when I layed down each track, and the weather. This way I could go back and stare at the tracks and try and set in my head what tracks of various ages look like after particular weather patterns, at least for this particular soil and vegitation. It was really really interesting. If you look hard you can pick out the ping tracking tape I tied to the sticks at the first print of each track. Each print was marked with a stick at the heal for the whole track, so I can find them again easily.

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Tree Climbing
One of the instructors trims trees as a side-job sometimes. I happened to wander by and saw their climbing setup that was basically a mitchel rig using prussiks. I had to break out my frog rig using prussiks and share how that worked. He then taught me how to ascend into a tree using only 1 rope and no other gear at all.

Traps

One of the instructors had recently been to Africa, hanging out with the Bacca and the Bantu peoples. Despite problematic language and cultural barriers he learned 2 interesting trap sets that no-one in the US seemed to have ever seen before. One of them in particular is amazingly simple and elegant allowing these people's to live trap animals as large as deer without dangerous deadfall traps. It's elegance rivels the promontory peg or the Paiute dead-fall trap. Amazing!

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This trap is based on a springpole. I don't think this information exists on the internet at all, so I'll try and do a write-up of this trap sometime soon, maybe I can make a set and take really detailed pictures of it. .

Shelter Building

I took a class in building a debris shelter. I was hoping to pick up more tips on sleeping out without gear in colder weather, e.g. below 40F. It turns out the instructor hadn't done this. Still, we built a debris hut and I picked up some tricks to help keep a debris shelter dry enough to really sleep in, like keeping the sticks you lean against the main limb from going above that limb, so they don't catch rain-water and funnel it in to the shelter. Sadly, I didn't get quite enough leaves on it to sleep in it in the rain-storm that followed as there were other things to run off and do by then, but I'd be a lot more confident trying it now..

Music
In the evenings people would party, dance around the fire, and play music. I had my guitar and had a great time jamming with various folks. Jamming has never been my strong suit, but you've got to learn somehow! It took me a while to find the spots around camp with the right vibe, but it happened eventually. It'll be easier next year.Awesome awesome people.

Tree down, OH NO!
This hickory tree fell on a friend's camp, and on their tent, in the middle of the night! As luck would have it they were out of the tent right at that moment, and they weren't killed, but it was scary. Amazingly the tree looks perfectly healthy. The camp at large harvested the tree for wood and bark, as it was a wonderful... ah... windfall if you will.

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Jess and I have some bark in the garage that we harvested off of it actually, for doing bindings on projects in the future. I'm really glad my friend was okay.

More pictures

Here's some folks carving bows from bowstaves
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The big field near the entrance. That TeePee in this photo was made by the owner, who's also an instructor. She taught me a bit about TeePee Poles, and pitching TeePees.
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Our camp, including my tarp made of a sheet and linseed oil, posted on this blog a little while ago. I only slept in it part of the time, as there was an ant mound far too close by.
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A beautiful evening viewed from our camp as the sun set over the hill
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Conclusion
This is only a tiny taste of the goings on at a gathering of this sort. Every time I go I learn new things, and more important I get inspired with a whole new set of ideas about what to try and go do, and how little it takes to live happily.

VA SAR conference

In the interest of understanding search and rescue in Virginia and getting an idea of which team to join I went to the Virginia Search and Rescue conference. I was one of 2 people not associated with a team, but they were welcoming and awesome regardless. The conference is basically 4 days of classes related to search and rescue. Also, they bring out all the cool toys.

I'm not sure which groups were involved (helicoptor groups are usually not directly part of volunteer search and rescue, but work closely with them), but they did a demo/practice of a couple of water pickoffs by helicoptor. Below is a photo of a litter (with a person on it) that they lifted up out of the boat below.

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That shiny picture though has nothing to do with what I actually did at the conference. Though each time I watch a helicopter work it teaches me something about how to interact with them should I ever be involved in a helicopter rescue.

Lost person behaviorI spent the first 2 days learning "lost person behavior" from Robert Koester  who literally the author of the book on using statistical models to predict where to look for missing people. The book is creatively named "lost person behavior" .

The idea is that he, with the help of a lot of organizations and people has, and is continuing to gather a huge database of where various people are found and in what conditions. He can then take this data and split it up in to various groups like altzthiemers walk-aways, children under 4, downed airplaines, fisherman, etc. The statistical models tell us, for example, how likely someone is to be near a "linear feature" (e.g. a road or a river). How far away from the Point Last Known they are likely to have gone, etc. If you can bucket a person properly you can then use these statistics to help guide your search efforts and find people faster.

That was a pretty cool class. It's dry material, but fascinating. The book is available online, but it's not something you'd read for fun, or even read at all, it's intended as a reference guide to help search base direct a search. http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Person-Behavior-search-rescue/dp/1879471396

TrackingI spent most of the rest of the time taking some tracking classes from the pre-eminant tracker in Virginia. This is man tracking, for the purpose of trying to save people, and came in form of tests. In the first test we were given 4 basically perfect shoe prints in sand, a set of 20 2 foot boxes, and 2 hours. Each 2 foot box had either one of the 4 shoe prints in it, a different shoe print, or nothing and we had to identify which. We started by looking at the 4 shoe prints. Once we moved over to the 20 boxes we weren't allowed to go back. So this is a matter of recording the shoe prints so you (or other people) could identify the shoe reliably, and then trying to actually do it.

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This is a nice easy to identify shoe, you can pick it out pretty reliably by a single lug in many cases. I managed to lose my measuring tape though frustratingly enough, and one of the shoes he used in a tracking box was this same pattern but in a different size.. so I missed those 2 boxes. Otherwise I actually did really well. Well enough that I'm thinking I might be worth pursuing becoming certified as a tracker for search and rescue.

We also did track aging. We were given 5 sets of tracks (around 8 or 10 steps long), and asked to identify how old each set of tracks were. We were also told they were less than 72 hours old. I did okay, but not well. I was consistently off by about 10 hours, and got one just completely and utterly wrong. This exercise was done on vegitation actually, and I realized I'd never practiced aging on vegitation (having learned my tracking in California and the Sonoran desert), so that's something to work on.

Lastly, we did less totally SAR related stuff... identifying what made various marks. Still, understanding that those 4 holes in the ground is dog sign, that funky track that's a little too close together is actually from a tractor, or that the sand configuration indicates that it rained recently can be extremely helpful.

I also went on an edible plant walk and learned a couple of new things, which was pretty cool.

Other stuff
I also did a little navigation refresher, and in the evenings I nerded out with folks on radios and the like, and we generally had a good time. I'm figuring out exactly what to do about joining a team, but I think I'll have it worked out in not too long. Virginia really really has their act together compared to most states. The training to become a basic ground pounder is standardized across the state and the next one is this fall, since I can't be active until that, there's no reason to push too too hard, but I want to figure out what team I'm joining in the next few weeks and start courting them.

Generally it was a blast. The people were great, and I learned a lot. Jess spent the whole time off with the dog people training Beau, who's making great progress. I'm really excited to work with the groups here.

2015-04-05

Wheeling trips

Today I went to Flagpole Knob near where I live. And a couple of weeks ago I went down to Big Boys Playground with a couple of friends and we messed around there.

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I actually got up this. This isn't part of the main trail, just something on the side of the trail that's fun to play on.



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We had a good time.

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I was messing around with going door-less for the first time. It's a pretty interesting sensation. Humans perceive inside spaces as much larger than outside spaces. Removing the doors turned my Jeep into an outside space, and suddenly it felt 2 feet narrower... crazy.

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Most of the trail was pretty easy, The photo above was one of the harder spots.



Big Boys Playground

Big boys playground has some good mud holes. The folks I went with had a pure trail-toy, an old toyota with a huge lift on it, so we had a lot of fun with that in the mud. I actually went through the spot he's in though as well and didn't get stuck.

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Here's their YJ going through that same hole

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And here's the YJ after we pulled it out, it ALMOST made it, but not quite

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My Jeep is in the background there. I actually winched the Toyota once as well, after they'd been playing in a deep spot. Though, the Toyota made it through another mud hole where it was clear up to the body. It's got an old 22R in it, something like 90 horsepower. He had it floored the whole way through the mudhole.

We tried the heck out of this spot, but with the mud on the rocks, there was just no way it was going to happen without some big tires and lockers.

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This is a slightly different spot

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Knock on wood, I haven't broken anything on my Jeep while wheeling yet. On Jane I once backed in to fallen tree which slide between the exhaust system and it's mounts, and I screwed several of the mounts. The exhaust is actually still tied on with para-cord - my hack at the time has held on this long. Jess knows about it.

Anyway, besides that *to date* I've avoided destroying anything (the dent in my front bumper doesn't count). It's part luck for sure. I'm also pretty careful despite occasionally trying some harder things.

Note, BTW, that the places I'm going here are frequented by vehicles. The first is a National Forest trail that's designated for this sort of use, and excepting just a couple of spots where people stop to play around on rocks or in a muddy spot, it's a strict trail that we didn't stray from. The second place is an offroad park. It's basically an old farm that someone has put to this use. So... if you're curious, I'm not tearing up random places in the forest, just keeping some nice roads from getting too overgrown to use :P.

2015-04-03

DIY: linseed oil treated cotton sheet tarp

Living in Virginia I ran in to some civil war re-enactors a little while ago. As I was looking at their stuff I got interested in the raw materials the used for rain gear, tarps, bags, etc called "tarred canvas". Tarred canvas is called that because it's literally canvas coated in tar. This material is very tough, and highly waterproof. Unfortunately, it also has an extremely unpleasant odor.

Upon doing a bit more research I discovered that the term is also used for basically any water-proofed canvas. For example, canvas that's been painted. Traditionally this was done with lead paint as the lead allowed the paint to flex rather than crack and fall off.

A 3'rd type I eventually discovered is linseed treated canvas. This fascinated me. Linseed oil is edible, and frequently eaten as a dietary supplement. It's also frequently used as a treatment for wood to help protect it from water.

Considering this, I decided to give it a try. I went to a thrift store and found a densely woven cotton sheet. I went to a hardware store and got a can of boiled linseed oil (boiled to make it thicker) and a can of mineral spirits. The mineral spirits thins the linseed so it comes out even when you treat the sheet with it, and then just evaporates off.

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You mix these about equal parts. For either a double sized sheet I used 1 quart of each. Mix these in a bucket, throw your sheet in, and swoosh it around a bit, working the mixture into the fabric and making sure it gets on all of it. Amazingly, the photo below is what was left in the bucket when I was done. If I squeezed the fabric though I could squeeze some out, so it wasn't going to hold much more.

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You need a double-clothes-line, if it touches itself as it's drying it kindof sticks and is annoying to deal with. So you want to hang it so no part touches itself. I suggest using clothes-pins to help keep it in place, something I didn't think of until half-way through it drying. Note that it takes a couple of days to dry, and if it rains the top flat part is going to collect water, which would be annoying.

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Last night I rigged up my new tarp by setting rocks against it and tying around the rocks. I made the mistake last time I was testing a new tarp material of doing all the sewing first, and I decided not to repeat that mistake.

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It wasn't an extra hard rain last night by any means, but I'd guess that it rained from around 2am until I got up this morning around 8, and there was a decently hard spell in the middle. There was no drip-age at all, and little dampness, the inside side of the tarp was the tiniest bit damp, but less so than I'm used to with plastic tarps. I would definitely use this as a tarp in the future and not worry about it.

The fabric feels like it might even work as a poncho. It's hard to know what the whicking behavior will be, so that will be an interesting test. That test is going to take some sewing first.

One downside of this tarp is that, being made from a double-sized sheet it's not quite big enough. It's okay, but I would like to have at least another foot of length on the tarp. I felt the need to stake out the middle of one side as well as the 4 corners, even for one person. I believe going to a queen would actually resolve this, and make it large enough to fit two people instead of one.

I'm really excited by this material. If I made a tarp and a groundcloth, and one of those doubled as a poncho (assuming the wicking works out not to be a problem), and the other doubled as bag I roll my gear in and diamond hitch to my pack frame, I could potentially get rid of most of the gear I have that needs to be plastic, opening the door to a more primitive style of backpacking. One remaining item is my sleepingbag, although I recently discovered that leaves will often work so I might be able to do some trips without it now. The last plastic item is shoe soles. After much consideration it's unlikely I'll ever give up rubber shoe soles, but if that is the only modern material I carry on some trips, that could be pretty cool.

UPDATE

My mother pointed out something really important that I forgot to mention. Linseed oil soaked cloth will spontaneously combust if not fully dried before folding, or even wadding up. I know someone who nearly burned down their house with a linseed soaked rag they tossed on the floor. So be careful.

Also, Linseed oil fumes are pretty hard on you, and this should all be done outside. Be careful you get the oil pretty dry before you crawl into such a shelter as well, to help reduce the fumes.

The above is true for linseed oil itself. But note also that "boiled linseed oil" is usually not pure linseed oil, so it has stuff in it besides what you would eat. Pure linseed oil is a common dietary suppliment, so it's safe to assume it's no big deal to get on your hands. Boiled linseed can be pure, but usually isn't. Usually it's actually got other not so great stuff thrown in there to help it harden. There's a more complete explanation here: http://www.instructables.com/answers/Linseed-oil-health-dangers/. When I've finished spoons and the like I've used pure dietary linseed oil, purchased from a health-food store. It's annoying and takes a lot of coats.

FURTHER UPDATE

Before doing this, please read the following post with more experiments:
http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2015/11/linseed-oil-for-homemade-oil-cloth.html

ANOTHER UPDATE
I don't recommend using the methods from this article at all, this is a dated experiment now. If you just need it to stop rain while not touching anything, get 800 threadcount sheets, and don't treat it at all. If you need it waterproof while touching something (like a poncho) use this method instead:
http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2017/02/waterproofing-cotton-poncho-experiment-2.html. Lastly, for tieouts, grommets like these: http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2017/02/myog-plasticless-backpack.html wear better than tieouts do.

2015-04-01

DIY: PVC bike rack

The trails around here are just too perfect for it, so I finally went out and got a mountain bike recently. 5 minutes up the hill by car and I'm at some of the best mountain biking I've ever seen, but I have a job and in the evening I want to spend my time on the trails, not climbing that paved hill. IMHO, this is what cars are for. So, I needed a bike-rack.

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I've got a Jeep wrangler. I wanted to be able to swing the door open without the rack in the way so I didn't want to deal with a hitch rack. This was my plan from the start, and I installed new hinges on my swing gate as one of my first modifications, to accommodate the weight of a bike-rack and bike in addition to the large tire. When I went looking for a tire-mount bike-rack I quickly discovered that a decent tire-mount bike-rack starts around $200. That's insane for what amounts to a couple of aluminum pipes bent in a pipe bender, a bolt or two, a little rubber, and some webbing. I thought about making one and decided eh, I really just want to throw money at this problem and solve it.

But then I started reading more details and found that NO tire-mount bike-racks would fit my 33" spare tire with low backset rim. So, not only would I have to pay $200, but I'd have to modify it even still! That was just too much.

So, one day I went down to home depot (or maybe lowes, whatever) and stared at their pipe selection. I had originally been thinking metal, but when I saw the PVC I realized how much better it would be. It's lighter, easier to cut, easier to bond, and won't scratch the finish on my car, rim, or bike-frame. This means no need for all the complex rubber doodads, no hours of hack-sawing, etc. Perfect. Standing in the store I came up with a somewhat complex design involving a hinged bar that would lock open, like you have on the lid of a trunk, to hold the whole thing rigid. I bought all the stuff I needed for ~$30.0. Beat $200 by quite a lot!

A few days later I grabbed the stuff and just started building. With PVC you can test fit everything which is super helpful. So, I did only the most minimal of sketching and measuring and then just went by eye. I got it half-way built and realized my idea wasn't going to work. The hinged bar sitting at a 43 degree angle between the horizontal and vertical bars was going to hit the bike-frame... duh. Then I looked at what I had and realized it didn't matter. I didn't need the brace at all since the rope hold it at the right angle. I had made the design far more complex than it needed to be. In the end I only used maybe $15 in materials, probably a bit less. I drilled 2 holes in the wrong places, but that's fine..

This evening I finally took it for it's first spin, just over the ridge for a nice evening ride. Because of my bike's very tight frame geometry it's a little bit harder than optimal to get on and off, I have to tip the wheels towards me, seat away from me quite a bit to get it over the "hook" at the end of the bars. Still it's well within reason, and it means it's really secure once it's on, which is awesome. I tied it on, but just for comfort, I didn't really need to since it has to turn almost horizontal to come off. Seems like a fair trade.

So, if you're looking for a cheap bicycle rack, here's a dead simple design you can build in an afternoon. The construction is pretty self-evident from the photos.

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There are a few interesting details though. Note how the top bars sit over the tire so that the rear cross-bar is actually behind the tire. This means the rack is stable and kindof "on the tire" before you even tie it on. That's nice as it makes mounting it really easy.
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The P-cord holding it on is tied to the top with double constrictor hitches on both sides, effectively making them permanent.

At the bottom under the tire I have an alpine butterfly in each side that I use kindof like a truckers hitch to help me get it tight, then I just tie it off with 2 half-hitches.

If you've never glued PVC together you may want to look it up. Note that I test fit everything and then knocked it back apart with a hammer. For the final fitting after gluing I also knocked it together with a hammer. Be careful as PVC can shatter, I did in fact shatter one elbow, a rubber mallot or a block of wood between the hammer and PVC may be in order. To actually glue it you use 2 different products. First you use a prep, then a glue. I used these

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Note the of the materials in that picture, one is purple. It tends to run all over. So now I have white pipe with purple streaks covered in mud. Fine, and functional, but I decided it was worth a tiny bit of effort to make it not super ugly.

Most paint won't stick to PVC. I went to a hardware store and simply asked what would work and they pointed me at this stuff. It seems to have bonded okay, we'll see in a few weeks. I spent as much time painting it as I did building it. I did a lot of coats trying to get good coverage.

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Oh, one more heads up. Note that I'm a small person, my bike has a tight geometry, and it's a 650b (meaning not that large of wheels). My bike's rear wheel comes out flush with the right fender. A bike with a more horizontal top-tube would have less trouble with this, but that gets offset by larger bikes or bikes with more open geometries. This property is not particular to my rack design at all and is relevant for any rack carrying bikes cross-ways on the vehicle, but it's a consideration. I personally hate having stuff hanging out to catch on trees and the like. So think it through for your bike and your vehicle. One advantage of making things yourself is you can make them custom for your needs.

No doubt I should throw some legal disclaimer in here to not be an idiot, bla bla bla... So... you know, be careful and try not have your bike and/or rack fall off your car, it'd be embarrassing. If you don't know knots, maybe use truck tie down straps or something.

So, there you go. A functional bike-rack for ~$15 bucks. Makes you wonder how they get away with charging so much doesn't it?