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Glerups. More than just great slippers

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They were a gift. What’s not to like, natural rubber soft soles, strangely rounded in form and a pure wool upper. Nice choice of colours. It took a while to get used to the rounded soles but make no mistake, these are comfy slippers.

They fit very well and are clearly well made with quality materials and as a consequence they are not cheap. But you generally get what you pay for.

After just three months use I noticed that one of the soles was wearing strangely inside under the ball of my foot. Strange because the other slipper was just fine, its shape had moulded to my foot with a noticeable ridge under my toes but no visible wear that I could see.

So I wrote to Glerups and explained my problem. I received a very prompt and kind reply. Glerups were very sorry I had a problem. What size was I? They would send a new pair in the post today!

Now this is what I call customer service. A company clearly proud of their product and a company who remembers who pays the bills, namely the customer. Problems occur. Things go wrong. We make mistakes. We are only human. It is how these problems are dealt with that matters. Glerups did not try and blame sweaty feet or rough skin (neither of which I have by the way), they simply did the right thing and sent out a new pair. The upshot of this is that here I am writing this blog post to share this positive experience.

So thank you Glerups for your supremely comfy shoes and most of all for your excellent customer service. If only other companies were half as good.

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Draper F Clamp review

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At the end of the day, no matter how bad a clamp is, so long as it can tighten on your work it will do. Maybe there is a lot of play in the thread, maybe the jaws mash up the wood but that is solved with a piece of scrap under it before tightening. But a clamp which will not clamp is as useless as a chocolate fireguard.

In my collection I have over 50 various F clamps, some I have had for decades. they all work. I should say, they all clamp. Some have the round plate missing from the end of the thread, some have terrible play. Some are cheap Chinese and very flimsy but they all tighten.

I needed ten more F clamps for a current job so while I was ordering from a company called FFX in the UK I decided to buy a few more. They did not have a huge range of clamps but I didn’t need anything fancy, just a small clamp which clamped. They offered F clamps from Draper, a well known British company known for making good tools. Or at least that has always been my experience. And so I ordered ten.

The first thing to tell is that half of the clamps would not tighten! Badly machined in the slot which slides up the shaft which is so thin it doesn’t offer much of a surface for the jaw to grip on. In the end I had to file out the slot to try and get them working properly but even that did not help much.

These clamps are cheap and have plastic handles which might be robust but when you consider the damage plastic is doing to the eco system wouldn’t a wood handle be better? The joke is that you can’t put enough pressure on the clamps anyway so why it needs such a strong handle I do not know.

Once I started looking I realised that this product is just awful. there is NOT ONE THING good about them unless you like the blue colour. Where do I start?

Clamping. As previously stated they don’t. And even when you think they do, they don’t. Clamp up your work and leave it. In the morning all the Draper clamps are loose. they can only maintain the lightest of pressures. This is actually worse than a clamp which doesn’t work because it lulls you in to a false sense of security and the very real possibility of a future glue failure. Fail no: 1.

Sanding: Normally when I am sanding a piece of wood I clamp it to the work top to hold it. The Draper clamps are useless at this because the vibration of the sander is enough to loosen the clamps. Pathetic: Fail no:2

For a while I was almost impressed with the plastic tabs fitted to protect your work from damage but like the rest of the clamp I was soon to be disappointed. The round piece which goes on the end of the threaded part looked well located. These always have a habit of falling off. I have never known any clamp manage to hold on to these. Of course after a couple of tightens with the clamp, the plastic stretched and the protectors fell off.  Fail no: 3

Plastic protectors falling off is so normal that I cannot confess disappointment but what did upset me was the state of the metal under the plastic. The round part at the end of the threaded part is made from a thin piece of pressed steel without a flat base!!! This is the most basic thing to get right with a clamp. If the jaws are not flat and full they will more easily mark the work piece. Think of a stiletto heel on a wooden deck. Fail no: 4

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Nasty. Once the plastic protector goes, and it will you’re left with a material damaging piece. Even with the cap on it still marks the wood.

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Two similar clamps. Draper on the left. Both tightened as well as I could to the same pressure. The clamp with a solid base has hardly marked the surface at all while the Draper one has left a huge dent.

Missing in the design is a decent sized tab at the top of the jaw, something to stop another clamp sliding down if you are using them clamp on clamp. These clamps were clearly not designed by anyone who has ever worked with wood. They probably copied some poorly tested existing design. Fail no: 5

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The Draper clamp has a small tab but it’s way too small to be effective when clamping clamp on clamp. The Axminster clamp on the left has a good sized tab.

The threaded part is very short. This would be fine if the jaws didn’t need so many turns to get them to tighten and what doesn’t help this is that the shaft of the clamp is too flimsy, no wonder the sliding jaw can’t get a grip on it, it has no surface area and on the clamps which do work, they bend alarmingly which is no problem in itself but with the bend comes a change in angle and now the clamp is no longer exerting a purely downward force but is effectively trying to slide the piece, just what you don’t want from a clamp. Unlike a more robust clamp, these simply stay bent. fail no: 6

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A shocking amount of bend. Note how the pressure is no longer downwards. Plus the clamp stays bent so now it always pushes the work down at an angle.

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The Axminster F clamp under the same pressure. It does bend slightly but unlike the Draper one, it springs back straight afterwards.

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Here you can how the shaft is now bent and note also the short amount of thread compared to the Axminster version. The wood handle is more comfortable and most importantly, not made of plastic.

I might have forgiven the plastic handle if these clamps had actually clamped but as the rest of the clamp is so bad I cannot forgive it. If we are to use plastic in this world we must make sure it is not for single use or dubious products. fail no:7

How many fails is that? Far too many if you ask me for such a simple object. I wrote to Draper and they did admit they found the same non clamping issue on some of their other clamps and offered me some replacements but whether these will be any better is yet to be seen. No doubt Bert Draper (the founder) is turning in his grave as Draper celebrate their 100 years in business. Perhaps back then they had higher quality standards than they do today but if they carry on selling clamps as bad as this I very much doubt they will see another 100 years. If this is the best Draper can do when it comes to clamps what can I expect from their other products?

I did not even know it was possible to design and make an F clamp so badly but you live an learn. I think the most telling fact really is that even the nastiest clamps in my collection do that one thing which is truly needed from a clamp. they clamp. Everything else can be dealt  with but a clamp that won’t clamp is nothing more than a strangely shaped paperweight and an annoyance every time you see them because you know they don’t work.

Perhaps these companies do not understand the grief that selling a bad product causes the client. Apart from the fact that the clamps don’t work and there are not enough to do the job you bought them for, it is all a waste of my time and a waste of theirs. More needless transportation of goods being sent and returned. The company reputation takes a beating and here is one customer who is unlikely to buy another Draper product again.

It is possible to make a good clamp. I have several and the latest ones from Axminster (ones I had to buy because the Draper ones didn’t work) are a very good example of a well engineered clamp that works well with progressive tightening, smooth action and most importantly of all good clamping force that does not drop off spoiling your work.

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Really not very much to commend these clamps from Draper. They are without a doubt the worst clamps I have ever used in over 30 years and as a boatbuilder you can be sure I have used a hell of a lot of clamps in that time! If Draper would like to know what constitutes a good clamp they need look no further than the Axminster one.

There’s just no excuse for allowing such a poor product to be sold.

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Yonex Astrox 2 Badminton racket review

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Without a doubt the nicest racket I have ever played with. It’s light and yet powerful with good accuracy and control. As a racket to play with I have no complaints at all. I really like it.

However it comes with a serious design flaw which almost defies belief. Yonex who have been making quality rackets for years have zero excuse for such a ridiculous oversight. I cannot imagine what they were thinking. In the quest for extra performance in an ever more competitive market they have addopted new technology in spades. On the shaft it proudly proclaims: Nanomesh Neo whatever that means. Full graphite racket and a rotational generator system. Plus it says Isometric.

No doubt all this high tech makes for a better racket but if basic design principals are ignored what does it all mean if the racket is rendered unusable because of a design flaw in the racket?

Frankly I find it inexcusable and utterly pathetic. So what is this flaw you ask. It’s simple. at the top half of the racket there is a small channel moulded into the racket’s frame and this is there to allow the strings to sit in it and so be protected from chafe should the racket touch the court, a fairly common happening even if you are very careful.

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Not easy to photograph but the white string at about 2 oclock is easy to see. What is harder to see are the blue strings which despite being less than 0.7 mm thin still protrudes. Standard thickness strings would be proud all along the top of the racket. The depth of the channel simply isn’t deep enough to offer the strings any protection at all.

On the Astox 2 this channel is very shallow and as a consequence the strings protrude beyond it and are instantly vulnerable to being damaged. How did a company like Yonex make such a ridiculous mistake? Only Yonex can answer that one but after just ten hours of extremely careful playing the strings broke. They broke because once, just once I touched the court with the racket head. I only touched it lightly but it was enough to lightly scratch a proud string and that weakness led to the string breaking a little while later.

When I got the racket I noticed this straight away and knew that it was going to be an issue so I placed a thin strip of insulation tape along the strings in the vague hope of protecting them from accidental damage. Of course even this tiny strip of tape affected the head weight so I was not happy doing this especially on a brand new racket.

Further more I chose some hybrid strings which are not even 0.7 mm thick so would protrude even less than ‘normal’ strings. The channel is clearly no where near deep enough to allow the strings any kind of protection. To put this problem in to context, I also have an old Babolat which is probably about ten years old and the strings are old but still not broken. the head is scratched and abused and yet the channel is deep enough to protect the strings from the inevitable wear and tear that a racket experiences. Draw your own conclusions. 10 years with one racket. ten hours with another.

To say that I am disappointed would be an understatement. One thing is for sure, my next racket will be chosen on more practical principals and it won’t be made by Yonex! It beggars belief how such an established manufacturer can allow such an oversight.

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We don’t know what we don’t know

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George Santayana said it best. If you do not learn from the past you are condemned to relive it.

In the old days engineers learned by trial and error. When Kingdom Brunell designed something it would be based on past experience with a healthy safety margin added on just to be sure.

Today we are much more aware of the qualities of many materials and their interaction with one another. Over the years there have been many famous examples. One was the yacht of King George? which was made from aluminium over steel frames using monel rivets. Thanks to the electrical interaction of these dissimilar metals in salt water the boat was beyond repair and was broken up just months after its launch.

Another classic example was that of the DeHavilland Comet, the world’s first commercial jet airliner. It was a lovely looking aircraft but they had a tendancy to fall out of the sky for no apparent reason. Eventually the problem was discovered. The window apertures had been cut out with square edges. Over time the movement of the fuselage caused cracks to appear in the corners. These went un noticed until at high speed the crack became big enough to allow the air to get under it and then it would rip the outer skin from the plane.

The remedy was simple. Don’t cut square corners in openings. As soon as the corner was slightly rounded, the stress areas went away and there were no more problems.

One might think that today, mistakes like this that have happened before and been well documented wouldn’t happen again. That stories like the ones above would be taught in the very first year at engineering college. However it would appear not. Although we have gleaned an astonishing amount of information about materials designers are still making the same basic mistakes.

Don’t believe me? Have a look at your laptop computer screen, if it’s not a Mac and made of plastic chances are it has square cut corners. Take a real close look. Do any of those corners have slight cracks? Isn’t that amazing. On my Asus laptop I have cracked corners. On my partners Lenovo, cracked corners and even on my old Kindle. Yep, you guessed it, cracked corners.

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It astonishes me that this important and basic knowledge has been forgotten. What are they teaching designers in schools these days?

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Things to do in Limousin ‘Heart Break Town’

Looking for something interesting to do with all the family in the Limousin? How about some Western Theatre French style?

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Take a ride around Heart Break Town on a horse drawn carriage.

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The carriage is made from an old car!

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Go back in time at Heart Break Town. A different pace of life

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Get made up as an Indian

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Nicolas show you how to make a bow and arrow using just basic tools

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It’s all done by eye!

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‘Magic Cloud’ will entertain you in an Indian style

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Step inside a genuine Tipi

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Story telling and magic show inside a Tipi

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Beautiful horses everywhere

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The make up stand in the Indian Village

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One of the horses gets a manicure (hooficure?)

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Plenty of horses in Heart Break Town

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The actors arrive…

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Indians attack

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Great riding skills

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Much galloping

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The riders…

If you would like to learn more or visit check out their Facebook page. They are in Fontcaval, 23190 Lupersat

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Traditionally baked French organic bread

For me there’s nothing quite like picking ripe fruit from a tree with your own hands and eating it on the spot. For some reason it always tastes better than the fruit you buy in a market or other shop. The same is true for fresh baked bread. There’s nothing quite like it. What could be better? Well I’ll tell you, organic fresh baked bread that has been baked in a real traditional bread oven. Add fresh laid eggs and salted butter and you have one awesome lunch. Simple but delicious. In fact delicious doesn’t quite do it, there must be a better word to describe such a wonderful indulgence.

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Even before the loaves are cooked you just know they are going to be GOOD.

It might be an indulgence for me but it’s work for Virginie and Yannick. On a bright sunny and very warn July day in La Creuse in the centre of France it’s no joke to be loading a brick lined traditional bread oven with dried twigs and branches until the whole oven is evenly heated to over 400 degrees Celcius! Virginie’s day began at 05-00 and the bread finally came out of the oven some 6 hours later.

Once the oven is up to temperature, the ashes are removed and the stones are cleaned down. The bread, made from organic flour from just a few kilometres down the road is placed inside in neat rows and the metal door is sealed to keep the heat in. What do you think they use to seal the door with? Yep, you guessed it, some bread dough rolled up! Very clever. This is such a natural product that there is no waste, even the dough used to seal the door gets eaten by their aged dog Banjo. He loves it and it might just be the secret to his long life.

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It’s a labour of love. Maybe that’s the secret to why this bread just tastes better than any other that you can buy anywhere.

After just 35 minutes the door comes off and the bread is removed. The smell of fresh baked bread makes you hungry. Even though I had vowed not to eat another thing after my meal the previous night (when I was invited to share a beef bourguignon but that’s another story) I could not resist Virginie and Yannick’s offer of eggs and bread for lunch. I was not disappointed. Amazing how such a simple fare can taste so damn good when the ingredients are of such high quality and so fresh.

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Loaves going in to the oven. The door is sealed with dough and 35 minutes later the most delicious bread comes out.

Virginie works with a type of co-op where artisans sell their wares at local markets. Of course this bread is not cheap how could it be? But I think it compares very well with the best bread you can buy anywhere else especially when you consider that it doesn’t go stale or mouldy for ages. Naturally I had to buy a loaf and although it’s huge I dare say it won’t last very long. It’s just not possible to have just one piece. It’s deadly. So good.

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After 35 minutes these beautifully browned loaves are ready for eating. It might be an old and primitive way to bake bread but the end result justifies the effort. No question.

A 50 km round trip for a loaf of bread might seem extreme but it’s worth the effort and anyway Virginie and Yannick are lovely people so any excuse to go and say hello is welcome! My only fear is that by the end of a summer here in this beautiful neck of the woods I am going to be 20% heavier than I was in the springtime. Oh well, it will have been worth it!

If you happen to be in La Creuse and want some awesome organic bread baked the traditional way you can find them hard at work on the weekends in a little town called Sannat not far from Evaux les Bains. Worth the trip! ninyan@hotmail.fr

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Stunning French mill for sale

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‘Come and eat with us chez nous’ said my new friends Jean Francois and Cristelle. Nothing could have prepared me for where they lived. My jaw dropped and my eyes opened wide. I was speechless, those who know me know how rare that is. I was simply blown away.

Let me try and paint a picture if I can. We drove down small roads through stunning countryside, rolling hills splattered with brown cows, through forests of pine and along narrow lanes so little used that the centre of them was green. After a while we broke out into a clearing, over a bridge. ‘We’re here’ said Henri, park anywhere.

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Towering over their granite house is a viaduct, an extraordinary structure which is now condemned but it’s still imposing and makes an impressive backdrop. The sound of the river is constant, a wonderful white noise that immediately relaxes you and makes you start looking for a hammock to chill out in.

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The river is fed through various channels which can be opened or shut depending on the need it then runs under the three story mill house where its power can be harnessed to produce 12kw! of power from a massive cast iron turbine in the bottom of the mill.

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Way back in the 16th century the mill was granted unlimited and free use of the water in the river by the king of France himself. That law is still in force today making this mill an extremely unusual and unique property. The use of water in France is heavily regulated but thanks to this ancient law the owners of the mill can do what they like with it.

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There are no neighbours. All one can hear is the constant and soporific burble of running water. It is an absolutely stunning spot. It’s about as close to heaven as we mortals are ever likely to get.

Jean Francois and Cristelle had a calm, peaceful and laid back demeanor and I can completely see why. I suspect I would too if I lived in such an amazing place. Over baked oysters! I asked why they wanted to sell and it’s easy enough to understand, with the kids grown up and flown from the nest they are looking for a place a bit smaller.

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Over the years they have done an extraordinary amount of work to the place and it is in excellent condition inside and out. Jean Francois is a surveyor so you just know the property has been restored not only well but to all the French norms. Cristelle is a remarkably talented interior designer with a unique touch which really makes their house a home.

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Personally I think they are mad to sell the place but I do understand. So how much will it cost to own this absolutely awesome and unique place? They are asking 1.2m€ which is a pittance for what it is. Sure, there are cheaper places in the region but how many mills like this do you think there are? And how many of those are for sale? Answer: None!

What an incredible family get away home this would make or perhaps a gite or perhaps the original mill could be reinstated. There is so much potential especially with unlimited use of the water running past. The river runs all year around. The house gets sun all day long.

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In this ever more crowded and noisy world places like this are fast becoming extremely desirable. I’d buy it myself but I’m about 1.19m€ short! Jean Francois and Cristelle are super people and willing to discuss all reasonable offers. They are in no hurry and I can understand that too. I’m not sure life after such an awesome place will ever be the same.

For those who don’t know the Limousin area of France I can tell you that a more beautiful area can scarce be imagined. Secluded but not isolated. Welcoming people and stunning countryside and wildlife. If you love nature and peace and quiet you will feel very much at home.

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Please email info@woodenwidget.com and I’ll be happy to pass on your enquiry to them. I wonder who the lucky new owners will be.

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Dometic HS2460 hob sink review

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When I was designing the Slidavan I needed a small stove and sink combo. There wasn’t much of a choice for the small size I needed so it was an easy  decision to buy the Dometic HS 2460 sink and two burner hob.

It certainly wasn’t cheap at nearly 300€ especially for what it is, a piece of pressed stainless steel and a couple of fittings. But as there wasn’t really anything else in the size I wanted I decided to buy it anyway. At least it would be good quality and well made for that price.

Right up front I have to say I have rarely been more disappointed in a product or more appalled by a company’s pitiful after sale service. I can’t even say service because there is none. A more shocking example of incompetence would be hard to find.

Clearly Dometic has grown too big and it has become inefficient, the people who work for them obviously don’t care about their work as a consequence. Harsh words? Judge for yourself.

When I unpacked the hob I noticed that on each hob a screw was missing. I searched in the box and found a couple of small pieces of threaded metal. I took the burners apart and what I found was that one of the screws had sheered clean off. There’s only one way this can happen and that is by a poorly trained person who assembled it using way too much force. The screws are tiny. They only need doing up, they don’t have to be tightened so much that they sheer! That’s just shoddy assembly.

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Missing sheered off screws, flame coming out the screw hole and a small of gas. Not very safe really.

The fact that this glaring fault was not noticed by quality control demonstrates a complete lack of care and understanding. The stove is basically unusable as gas escapes from the screw hole and is poorly burnt so there is a smell of unburned gas. Hardly what you want in a small well sealed space. It’s dangerous, there’s no other word for it.

No only that but because the burners are not working correctly the flame has blackened the bottoms of all my pans which means that soot ends up on a work surface and then on my clothes so thanks Dometic. One ham fisted assembler, a blind person on QC and I am put in danger and my pots are black.

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It’s not the bottom of my kettle that’s curved, the grill the pans sit on is laughably bowed and when I move about the caravan they rock on the hob. It is extremely annoying and the sure sign of a product assembled with no care.

This is just the start. One of the most annoying things about this stove is the way the pans and kettle rock on the hob. Why do they rock? They never rocked before on my Force ten stove. They rock because the grill they rest on isn’t even vaguely level. As I move about the caravan the pans rock and it’s extremely annoying. And all because of shoddy design and assembly.

Why is the finish coming off the metal grill already? I’ve only had the thing a month so I can expect that to go rusty in time.

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Paint cracking off the grill part already.

One of the knobs is very stiff and hard to turn, it makes it extremely difficult to regulate the flame.

The rubber grommets fitted to the grill are pointless, or at least the ones on my stove are? They are supposed to pop into the pressed stainless top but some ham fisted (oh did I say ham fisted again?) assembler forced them into the extremely sharp holes and tore the skirt of the grommet so it cannot locate. Absolutely pointless.

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I fail to see the point of grommets that don’t fit in their holes. This one has been forced and is now damaged. Pointless.

Shall I mention that the manufacturer’s name printed on the top is already wearing off? I couldn’t care less if they have their name on my stove but it’s just another indication that this stove has been built down to a price. It’s cheap. It’s all cheap. I know caravan stuff needs to be light but come on Dometic, it has to last a few years too.

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A few weeks old and already the name is wearing off. I couldn’t care less about that but it is yet more proof of how poorly made this stove is.

So generally I’d have to say I am pretty disappointed with this stove and as I have to look at and live with these faults every day I am annoyed every day. 300€ is a lot for a piece of stainless with some knobs on it.

But what is worse than all this by far is the dreadful service I have (not) had from Dometic. Like most companies who do not want their customers contacting them they do not supply an email address nor a phone number just a stupid form (I hate forms) to fill out.

So I duly filled out the form and wrote my message. Did I hear anything back? Did I f***. Nothing annoys me more than a company who gladly takes your money and then ignores you. It’s just completely unacceptable. So I wrote again. What more can I do? This time I was annoyed and I actually did eventually get a reply.

Of course, no word saying they were sorry for the hassle, just a short rude email asking where I am. 1 out 10 so far. I replied and then heard nothing. Eventually I got a reply saying that my message had gone to Mexico hence the delay. I cannot say I am surprised. Dometic have clearly got so big that they are inefficiency personified. Absolutely pathetic. That was the last I heard.

A month has passed and I am no nearer to getting any kind of intelligent response from them. All I wanted was for them to send me two small screws and a couple of grommets. It would have cost them practically nothing and would have kept this customer happy but they couldn’t even manage to find my message or say they were sorry so I don’t hold out any hope at all that I will be able to get the spare parts I need.

It’s a joke. Pure and simple. If you are thinking of buying Dometic and like me you don’t have much choice then check your stove over very carefully before you buy it because if you have a problem you’ll just have to live with it because there’s no way of getting any sense out of Dometic which when you think about it is incredible really since they have no excuse to not receive your email as it’s a form on their own website!!

So as usual in these situations I fixed the thing myself. I found two screws, they don’t screw in because the old part of the screw is snapped off in the casing but the do at least stop the unburned gas from escaping and blowing the roof clean off my caravan. I threw the grommets away as there is no point them being there if they cannot be fixed in place. I cleaned the bottom of my pots and life goes on.

Since Dometic are incapable of helping me, despite taking my money I decided to write this review so that others can make an informed decision before spending their hard earned money on one of these weak, poorly assembled and designed stoves.

The sink is fine but there’s not much to a sink is there?

Completely pathetic. Absolutely inexcusable service (or lack of it) and a shoddy product. Really not much to recommend is there? One of the most disappointing products I have ever bought and without question the WORST after sales service of ANY company I have ever dealt with in over thirty years. Shameful. Absolutely pathetic.

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Designing the Slidavan telescopic ‘pop up’ caravan

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Design is such a fascinating subject. So much can influence a design, from the thoughts and experiences of the designer to the things that either they or the marketplace dictate. Often there is legislation to consider. All of these things can have a massive effect on the end result.

More even than this though is the aspect of practicality. This is at the very heart of design. For me it’s the overriding criteria for a design. Of course I don’t mind if it looks cool or funky at the same time but I find that if you design something practical so that it just works it’s easy for people to understand and a simple working functionality is clear for everyone to see.

Take the 2CV, a simpler more practical car could hardly be imagined and yet this tinny, slow little car caught the imagination of the world. But you can be sure, no matter how cute it was, if it couldn’t get you from A to B then it would have failed as a design. I’m not saying the Deux Chevaux was a great car but no one cared about that because it simply worked and this simple fact is enough to endear people to a design.

In designing the Slidavan I confess I focused pretty much exclusively on practicality. The bottom line is, it’s all very well designing a fancy caravan with a nice flowing aerodynamic shape but it just adds complication to the build and the fitting out and at the end of the day you still have to drag this massive lump through the air at great expense and some trepidation. Woodenwidget is all about offering plans that allow anyone to make a boat, bike or caravan. If the initial design is too complicated then the plans will be too.

If I couldn’t make the Slidavan aerodynamic, I could at least make it reduce in size when it was being towed, this makes much more sense to me. If you can make the caravan the same size and height as the tow car you can cut down on drag massively.

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Working on the practicality aspect again it seemed to me that the best way to get maximum interior volume and ease of build was to use a simple box shape. You get more in it and fitting out the interior is made much simpler as every angle is square. Ok, so a box is not great looking so it needed a simple way to disguise it. The answer was a curved roof.

This is perhaps the most complicated part of the Slidavan but it’s worth it because it puts a round shape on the top of the box which isn’t much I know but that one curved surface makes all the difference and draws your eyes away from the boxyness of the design. The curved roof also looks lovely when you are inside. What better than to look up and see curved varnished beams spanning your little home.

There is also a practical reason for having curved beams and that is because it is a good way to get extra headroom without paying a penalty for it. By lowering the sides, it helps the box to be longer, more rectangular and less like a cube. Again, it’s just a small thing but all these little things add up.

Curved beams, although a little time consuming to make, give so much to the design that it’s worth the extra effort. In any case, the end curves are cut out of the panels so don’t need beams and there are just a few in between and as they all share the same curvature, only one gluing jig is needed.

The down side to a curved roof is the difficulty that it brings to adding holes or hatches which are designed to go only on flat surfaces but quite honestly not having holes in a roof is a very good idea for lots of reasons. As nice as it might be to lay on your bunk looking out at the stars through a big hatch, the truth is condensation will form on a cold night and there is nothing more unpleasant than having a big cold drip of water in your ear at three in the morning. Ask me how I know.

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Also by curving the roof it reduces the chances of leaks as water cannot rest, it has to roll off. It does make using the roof for storage a bit more complicated but it wouldn’t be hard to make a simple framework over the whole lot if you wanted to. Solar panels are now available in flexible form so they could be laid over the top easily enough.

The Slidavan has two large windows, one in each side and another in the door at the rear so plenty of light comes in. There isn’t really a need for a hatch in the roof and since most of the heat is lost from warm air rising it seems to me that a hatch is just a good way of letting heat out of your space on a cold day.

All in all, not being able to put a hatch in the roof did not seem to me to be much of a sacrifice considering the advantages and great look of a curved roof somewhat reminiscent of a bow top gypsy caravan or a classic wooden yacht. One final advantage is the fact that a cloth roof is also very light and it always pays to reduce weight the higher up you go. It improves stability on the road.

The design, as all good practical designs often are, was born of necessity. I wanted a simple place to camp but I wanted comfort and space but nothing I saw on the market did anything for me. Everything was too big or too heavy. By researching caravans I discovered the rules and laws. What I discovered was that there are no special requirements for trailers under 500 kilos. They don’t even need brakes!

Normal caravans are so heavy that they need to be licenced and controlled. Your insurance will go up, you need special mirrors and you’ll drive so slowly that you’ll drive other road users quite mad. But what if you could make a caravan that weighed less than 500 kilos all in? Well, there are a few out there but they are all expensive, the cheapest I saw was about £4000 and it was just a cheap fibreglass moulded shape, too big to tow and yet too small to stand up or cook in. Some of the more expensive small caravans I saw were as much as £12000 but they had the same problems.

Teardrop campers seem popular, I suppose because they are small and relatively aerodynamic but there’s only a bed and if you want to cook, you have to go around the back. Maybe these caravans are designed for Africa or Australia or other rugged places where it never rains. Well I’m from Europe and it rains here so any caravan I wanted had to be big enough to stand up and cook in.

Obviously I considered a camper van but they are so expensive to run and they just sit there most of the year doing nothing which is a pitiful waste of money and resources. Plus they cost a fortune to buy and if they’re small enough to be economic to use, they’ll be too small and compromised inside.

Having discovered the laws about trailers it led me to thinking, why not make a lightweight caravan that simply bolts to a cheap naked trailer? So I began looking at ways to build a simple and light caravan. Having a simple box shape means making it couldn’t be easier. All I had to do was come up with a light and structurally rigid way of doing it.

The simplest, cheapest, lightest and easiest way I could come up with using easy to find commonplace materials was with was a sandwich of plywood over panels of extruded polystyrene to create a rigid, lightweight, tough, cheap and yet well insulated structure. One thing you do not want in a small space is condensation and this is why caravans are more comfortable than tents, because they are insulated.

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Here you can see one of the interior bulkheads being assembled. Note the wooden framework with the extruded polystyrene between the battens. A batten needs to be fitted everywhere a fastening will go. Another sheet of 3mm ply will be glued to this to complete the panel.

The down side to this system is the need for a very large and flat surface to make the panels on as twisted panels would stop a smooth telescopic action and the top section might jam. The other down side is that the framework needs to correspond to the window cut outs and interior pieces like bunks.

The first problem was easy enough to solve. The floor panel is large enough to use to assemble and glue all the other panels on. So long as you get the floor level it is easy enough and since the floor is made directly on to a square and flat trailer chassis it’s all good. As for positioning the interior framework well that’s just a question of pre planning where everything is going to go. Another big advantage to this system is that you really don’t need much space to build a Slidavan, although you do need a doorway wide enough to get the caravan out after it’s made! A single car garage is quite adequate.

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Here a panel is being glued. Weight is added to hold it down while the glue sets. The white panel with the curve on it is the jig for the roof beams. It is there to help add weight to ensure a good glue bond.

Experience comes in to design as well and having lived on a boat for over a quarter of a century I have learned a thing or two about small space living so I ought to be able to come up with a comfortable and yet practical interior design. The Slidavan is minimal and traditional in design. A bunk each side with the floor in the centre of the caravan under the highest part of the roof of course.

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The door at the back is just obvious. I don’t know why caravans so often have a side door. How can you load a bicycle or a sailing dinghy in from the side? The Slidavan can carry from 100 kilos of extra weight so why not use it to transport your toys at the same time?

How to raise and lower the telescopic top took a little while to work out. I thought it would be nice to have an electronic top that went up with just the flick of a switch but there is no easy way to do this and it adds weight, cost and complexity. Far better to have a simple separate system that is not attached to the caravan at all.

There was a caravan from many years ago called a Hi-Lo and it used a hydraulic cable system which lifted the four corners and I am sure it worked very well but the complexity and weight ruled out such an option for the Slidavan. I had to find a better way.

As the Slidavan is symmetrical it made sense to simply lift the upper section from the centre. So one of the curved beams is placed centrally and a lifting device placed directly under it. I couldn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work so I set about experimenting. At first I used a simple 10 mm threaded bar but the threads were too fine and after a few operations it seized up. That would never do. Whatever system I came up with had to be reliable.

These days it’s possible to buy almost anything so I did some research and found what is called a leadscrew. It’s basically a threaded bar but with a greater pitch and squared off threads. It is designed to handle large loads. It’s exactly the kind of thread that you might find on a car scissor jack. I had hoped to be able to use and modify a car jack as they are easy to find and cheap. However the lift of the Slidavan’s upper section is 700 mm and no jack I could find had that kind of range. 

So the final lifting mechanism is a 12 mm diameter leadscrew with a 3 mm pitch. That means that for every revolution the upper section would lift 3 mm. A bronze nut was bought along with the leadscrew as it is much less likely to gall. This was fitted in to a wooden tube and cross brace. The whole lot operated with a battery powered drill. A thrust bearing is needed to take the force and the weight and this came from the head race of a bicycle. Perfect.

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It takes a couple of minutes to set up the lifting mechanism and less than a minute to raise the upper section the full distance. This is fast enough for anybody. Once the upper section is up four bolts are fitted to hold it in position and the lifting mechanism is then removed and stowed under a bunk. The lifting mechanism weighs just three kilos which is very light considering it is lifting about 100 kilos.

The overall length of the Slidavan is logically dictated by the length of a sheet of plywood but of course not every country uses the metric system and although the sizes between Imperial and Metric plywood is similar is isn’t the same so the plans had to take in to account the fact that Imperial ply is 62 mm shorter. Oh the demands on the designer. But no worries, I would never want to alienate anyone from building a Slidavan so even if you use Imperial materials you can still build yourself a Slidavan.

So with all the design issues solved it was time to make a Slidavan. I bought a new naked trailer from a French company called Norauto. It cost a very reasonable 500€. It has a track of about 160 cm so I would build the Slidavan over the wheels. They also sell a wider version so if you wanted you could build a Slidavan and place it between the wheels. It does mean that the Slidavan would be a bit narrower but of you were looking to go off road the extra stability that the wider trailer offers would be perfect.

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The building of the Slidavan was straightforward. You can make a panel a day so it would take nine days before all the panels were made. Since it doesn’t take that long to make a panel it made sense to laminate a roof beam a day to save time.

All of Woodenwidget’s designs are light weight. There are a lot of good reasons for this. Using less weight means less materials. Less materials means less waste and lower cost. When you’re making a folding dinghy you want it to be as light as possible otherwise it just makes handling it a pain. A caravan can be heavier but you will still pay for a cavalier attitude to weight reduction. Every single thing that goes in to a Slidavan adds weight. A screw might only weigh a fraction of a gram but multiply that by 1000 and suddenly you’re looking at a kilo or two. It is quite shocking how quickly the weight adds up. So it just makes sense to keep this in mind right from the very start of the design process through to the end product.

There are loads of other considerations of course. How would the gap between the panels be sealed? How would the top section be held to the bottom during transporation. One by one these issues were solved always by first looking at the lightest option and only accepting a heavier solution if a lighter one could not be found or would not function correctly.

In the end the Slidavan structure including the full interior came in at just 200 kilos which isn’t too bad at all. The trailer weighs about 100 kilos so the Slidavan has an unladen weight of about 300 kilos. The law states that you can tow a unbraked trailer with a gross capacity of 500 kilos so 300 kilos leaves a massive 200 kilos of payload if required. However not all cars are able to tow this much weight.

For example, Bernie my trusty Panda 4×4 1.2 litre with just 65 hp is allowed to tow 400 unbraked kilos so that reduces the pay load to 100 kilos but that is still an awful lot of gear and in any case it would be far better to put stores and such like in the tow car and try and leave the Slidavan as light as possible.

Towing the Slidavan is a doddle. You can feel the extra weight when pulling away and going up steep hills but otherwise it’s all too easy to forget you’re towing a caravan! But as the Slidavan is no wider or higher than Bernie if I go for a gap with the car I don’t have to worry that the Slidavan won’t fit. On the road you can zoom along, even through the bends. The low centre of gravity keeps the Slidavan following like a trusty Spaniel. Not once has it felt even slightly dodgy. Even at speed on the motorway. Even being passed by big lorries is no problem. It hardly moves at all. It’s very reassuring. I have been blown about more in other cars without a trailer.

Theory is all well and good but the proof is in the pudding as they say. I have no idea what that means but it sounds good. Proof that tucking the Slidavan in behind the tow car comes in many forms. From the excellent stability under all conditions and from the way the front of the Slidavan stays clean while the rest of it can get quite dirty especially in the rain. But the best proof of all is the barely noticeable increase in fuel consumption

Since I have owned Bernie I have never managed to average better than 7.4 litres per 100 kms (or about 38 mpg) the Panda 4×4 was never a very economical car with it’s lofty stance, fat tyres and 4 wheel drive system but after 1000 kms of varied driving I was surprised to see that my average had barely increased to 7.7 litres (36 mpg) and that’s not just towing the Slidavan that’s with a well loaded car. I would have expected a slight raise in consumption just carrying the extra weight so it looks like the Slidavan hardly affects fuel consumption at all which is fantastic and sure proof that the concept is sound.

One thing I did do which may have made a large difference was to move the Slidavan closer to the car than a normal trailer or caravan. For some reason there is always a very long gap between the front of the caravan and the back of the car. I was not sure why this is done but perhaps for two reasons. One, to give more articulation when going backwards and two, so that you can open the tailgate of the car without it clobbering the caravan.

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What I can tell you is that I can still easily open the tailgate and even on full lock going forwards in the tightest circles the Slidavan does not get close to the car. And as for going backwards, well why bother? When your caravan is so light, why not just unhitch it and move it by hand? It’s too easy. I believe it is because I moved the Slidavan closer to the car that the fuel consumption is so good. Because it’s so tucked in it in effect becomes an extension of the car. Of course there is skin friction but the bulk of the air is deflected by the car. Result.

So the Slidavan looks cool, tows well, doesn’t increase fuel consumption particularly and is good at speed on the motorway. What is it like to live in? Well I have been traveling and living in the Slidavan for a few weeks now and I must say it is a very nice place to spend time. One day it rained all day. And I mean it rained. Did I care? Not a bit of it. Totally dry and warm. The double glazed windows didn’t even steam up. With its high attractive ceiling you don’t feel cramped or claustrophobic at all. Everyone who sees the Slidavan say the same thing and words like: Massive, spacious and huge are used.

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This amuses me no end as the Slidavan is a very small caravan but it doesn’t feel small. This is partly because of the high ceiling which runs the full length of the cabin and the large windows which let in a lot of light but also it’s because the front panel is painted white. The white panel was done so that it could be used as a 60” projection screen! But another advantage is the way it reflects light around the cabin.

Lighting is achieved by a strip of LEDs hidden behind the forward beam. You can’t see the strip and the light it gives off is excellent and because it reflects off the white wall it illuminates the whole Slidavan very well. The white wall also adds a feeling of spaciousness while the wood panels offer warmth and ambience. It’s a nice contrast.

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The bed is luxury epitomised. Each single bunk is easily wide enough to sleep on but if you want a massive, spacious and very comfy double bed simply drop in the two seat backs between the bunks. Now you have a 1.6 m wide bed six feet long.

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There is a table which attaches to the forward mounting bolts and is very strong and stable. It can be removed in seconds by undoing a couple of wing nuts. The galley area is on the left hand side. It’s nice cooking by the double stable door and looking out. There’s a sink and two burner hob all in one fitted and it’s more than enough.

If you want you could fit another work top on the other side but I decided to leave it open and fit a small shelf instead. As it turns out it was a good move. It gives more options. If you wanted a shower you could hang a curtain and use that area. Or you could put a cold box or a chemical toilet there. There is no shortage of storage in a Slidavan with massive space under each bunk. It’s fair to say that you’d probably exceed the gross weight long before you filled up all the cupboards.

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Along the way everyone is fascinated by the Slidavan and perhaps a little jealous too. After all they have to crawl along towing their one ton (or more) caravan. They need a bigger car, wider mirrors, their caravan needs special insurance and a log book plus caravans are one of the most disliked forms of transport on the road. They simply cannot go fast, they can’t go up hills, they can’t drive down narrow lanes, they can’t go off road and they are a nightmare to manoeuvre. None of these failings apply to a Slidavan that’s because on the road it is a small trailer yet in the campsite it is a spacious, comfy and fully insulated caravan. Truly the best of both worlds.

So if you want a Slidavan you’ll have to make one. It would make a great winter project in time for adventuring the following summer wherever you want to go. With its high ground clearance, narrow stance, light weight and low centre of gravity you could take a Slidavan to places no one would dream of taking a normal caravan!

It takes about 200 hours to build a Slidavan and if you buy all new parts it might cost about £3000 to make. That’s a fair chunk of change but see if you can find anything even half as good to buy for double that. This is cheap caravanning! One of the things that has quite shocked me is the sheer cost of a caravan and the equipment you need. I thought yachting was expensive but caravanning is not so far behind. So the Slidavan and a small tow car is one way of reducing the costs enormously and if you buy secondhand parts you could reduce the costs dramatically.

To learn more or buy plans please visit woodenwidget.com and if you do buy plans we will plant five trees on your behalf.

Happy camping

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Gradulux venetian car blinds

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The sun is brutal in the Med and any car left outside will suffer from sun damage especially the interior. The rear screen on the Fiat 850 sport is very angled so the sun beats in mercilessly. A simple though ugly way to protect the seats is to cover them but it’s far better to stop the sun coming in in the first place.

Many sports cars use a slatted black plastic cover that fits over the back window and it can look very cool. The Lamborghini Miura has and it looks great. This might look great on a 60s supercar but somehow it didn’t seem to be quite right for the Fiat.

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It occurred to me that I could make my own set of louvres but while researching this I came across a few pictures of an old French product from the 60s. Further searching revealed that Gradulux blinds were still made by a little company in Perpignon in southern France.

Their website is simple and there isn’t too much useful info to look at and no way to buy online but there is an invitation to contact the company. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I emailed to see if they made one for an 850 Sport. To my surprise I received a prompt reply. The price with tax and delivery was about 150€ which is not cheap but there is no way I could make something as nice for so little so I ordered one.

Being an old school company without credit card facilities meant I had to send a cheque in the post! Something I had not done for a very long time. About ten days later a small package arrived containing all the bits needed to fit your blind in your car.

Depending on the size of your back window there are two or four vertical supports to fit to the rear window. It’s dead simple as you just pop the end of the support under the window rubber at the bottom and then slide the top tab in. This simple system is surprisingly effective. Then the bent metal slats are popped in to the rests on the supports. Simple. It took all of five minutes to fit the blinds.

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They look really nice and can be adjusted so that they do not restrict your rearward vision at all. The blinds cannot be closed completely as you can with a similar blind in a house but they can be orientated in the opposite direction enough to be able to cut out headlights behind you.

It’s too early to say whether they will rattle with a window open at speed but the slats are well fitted and the vertical uprights are stiff to move without any play. There is no reason why they should make noise.

As far as period mods go, the addition of a Gradulux blind in the back window is a good one. It looks pretty rad and best of all keeps the sun off the seats and heat out of the car but if you want one they sometimes come up on Ebay for the Citroen DS or you’ll have to do it the old school way and send a cheque but somehow even this seems appropriate when you consider the product.