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19 October 2010

Embracing low-tech

Hanno and I are always looking for low-tech ways to improve what we do here so when Tricia and I stopped at a thrift shop the other day and saw a Coolgardie safe for $40, I grabbed it. I gave it a good scrubbing and now it's sitting on the kitchen bench. I'm going to use it as it was originally intended, to store food without refrigeration.

In the old days, before the introduction of electricity, Coolgardie safes were used to keep food, including meat, milk and cheese, cool. The safe is made of sturdy wire mesh on four sides with a tray at the bottom and top. The top tray held a pool of water, the bottom one prevented ants climbing up if the safe stood on the ground. The one I have has a handle on top to hang it in a tree or on a hook on a verandah. When full of food, hessian/burlap bags were thrown over the top, they soaked up water from the tray and when a breeze came through, this wet covering cooled the air that entered the safe, thus keeping the contents cool. This one has lost its trays but as I do not intend using it with the hessian bags, I'm not bothered by it.

I am using it to store my bread and cakes, as well as butter during the day. I'll put the butter back in the fridge overnight but the rest can stay out, safe from any flies or bugs that might wander by. I intend to put my homemade bread in a bread bag and put that in the safe to stay fresh and covered without the need of plastic or electricity.

It got me thinking about other low-tech methods we're currently using. I often use a broom instead of the vacuum cleaner. I soak stained clothes after adding my liquid soap to the stain instead of spraying with a harsh chemical. In winter, I place my rising bread dough, covered by a clean tea towel, in the sun to rise instead of turning on the oven for a few minutes to warm. Cooking in a solar oven would be another example of taking advantage of a low tech method to get a job done. Hand sewing instead of using a machine is another low tech method I often use. And, of course, all us knitters know the value of a pair of knitting needles and how often they outshine even the best high tech knitting machines.

What other low tech options are you using in your home? I'd love to expand on what we're doing here so I'm looking for clues in the comments today.


  1. Wow- I've never heard of one of those before! It sounds great!

    One of the low tech things we do in our house is, although we have a small laptop, we don't have a printer as we would hardly ever use it and the cost of it and cartridges etc wouldn't be worth it. So I got a mannual typewriter Free off Freecycle. It is an old 1970's model and works great. I only needed to get a new ribbon for it which was £3.

    I use it for letters and correspondance to banks, businesses etc. I love the old fashioned look of the letters and I always wonder what people think when they see the old fashioned text!

    I'l be really interested to see what other people use that is low-tech. I' always looking for ways to simplify our life. xx

  2. I'm a big fan of the following...wooden spoons, my box grater & drying racks.

  3. Thats so cool! We made a electric free "fridge" for use in cooler months here (In scotland)
    Loving this blog btw. Aussie friend sent me the link, happily trawling through the posts!

  4. I've been hand washing my dishes for years! Had a dishwasher for a very short time, but our hard water destroyed it after only 3 years. Now it is my potato bin!

  5. I strongly oppose the BF's desire to buy a laundry drier - even in winter it is possible to dry the laundry on the balcony and in our flat. It only requires the right combination of heating and airing. (Airing? Who knows...)

    And, maybe not low-tech but at least saving energy, I don't preheat the oven. A pizza, for example, yes the nasty deepfrozen kind, needs only 2 minutes longer when put into a cold oven. As opposed to at least 10 minutes of preheating.

    (The BF just added, "And you read books on paper instead of on the computer." *lol* )

  6. Oh, a Coolgardie safe... I've been looking for one of those too, so lucky find, Rhonda!

    Instead of switching on the electric toaster, sometimes we use a camp toaster for over the gas stove or wood fire. Wooden spoons and whisks and good knives are used (we don't have a food processor).

  7. I hang my laundry out, use homemade cloth diapers & cloth napkins. We take advantage of the heat in the summer months and the cold in the winter. We try to never buy something we can make and always look for used before we buy new.

  8. We got an electric teapot to heat our water instead of putting it on the stove to heat. Much faster! Here in the US most heat theirs on the stove or put in the microwave (when our microwave gives up the ghost we wont be buying another).

  9. What a wonderful find. And the price of great too. I do not have any low tech ideas however but I love the ones you included. You are awsome.

  10. A Coolgardie safe! Rhonda, what a great find. I remember as a child the ice man coming to our house to refill the ice chest....that's pretty low tech!

    Like others, I wash dishes by hand, hand my washing outdoors, don't have a food processor or mixer, and read books on paper.

    I'm about to embark on some soap making, and have a question if you don't mind. I read back through your posts on soap, and see you mention glycerine as an important ingredient that's removed, but you don't add it to yours...wondering why?

  11. My low tech practices include mixing and cutting items by hand. I also use a handcrank mixer as well as a wisk or spoon. I use a french press or my esspresso pot for coffee. We keep the kettle on the stove all the time, also useful for tea and cocoa, but when the leftover water cools I can use it to mist my mushroom kits. You need boiled water or water that has stood over night for them. Also great for topping off the fish bowl.

    I did make a solar oven and used it a couple times, but I just don't get enough full sun days. Either that or I sleep through them. I work nights. I cook popcorn on the stovetop and have hopes for a hand crank blender. For now I use a blending stick, which still keeps down on kitchen appliances and has multiple uses even if it isn't low tech. We hand wash most of our dishes.

    I also hand sew, crochet, knit, spin, and felt. I dehydrate in my oven or in a hanging mesh basket.

    Personally, my goal is to balance low tech with technology that I wont do without. Like our laptops that double as our televisions. Our TV's, DVD players, and game consols we could do without.

  12. I have never had a clothes dryer always hang out the washing on the line outside or over a rack indoors. My homemade bread (all we have eaten for the last 37 years) is risen in the kitchen or in the sun on the window sill. However I do use a Kenwood Chef mixer with the dough hook to make it.
    I make yogurt in a one litre Thermos flask not an electric maker.
    For watering tomato plants I cut off the bottom of a plastic bottle (cadged from friends) and stick the neck into the ground just beside the main stem - works wonders, is low tech and free.

  13. Hello Rhonda,
    I don't have a dish washer, nor a clothes dryer and I try to use the electrical items only if I really need to. Last night I was cooking up some apples and I put the skins and cores into a seperate saucepan after scrubbing them very well and cover them with water ans cook the up to make some apple juice. Nice and refreshing for the summerand so much better than soft or fizzy drinks. My grandparents moved into a new homeunit which had a dishwasher and she used it as a storage cupbourd for her good dinner set. I'm loving the comments today and look forward tousing some of the ideas people are coming up with.
    Great subject Rhonda.
    Blessings Gail

  14. Nanette, you don't have to add glycerine, it's in the soap naturally if you use the ingredients in the recipe. Commercial soap makers EXTRACT the glycerine from the soap to sell as a separate product.

  15. The one thing none of us seem to be able to give up is our computers, probable the most "high tec" of the lot. I knit, sew,hand wash the dishes, hang the laundry outside, grow all our fruit and vegetables, but don't ask me to give up my computer, I would have withdrawl symptons.

  16. Well, we are going to do it! My husband's job is at an end and we are going to build a sustainable house on some land that we own (no mortgage payments). We plan to add solar and some wind energy and live off grid. We are giving away most of our possessions. Every time I give something away, I feel just that much more unburdened. Besides the things (like the microwave) that we will just give up, we've spent alot of time looking for non-tech ways to do things. Probably, the most outrageous so far is a bucket and plunger instead of a washing machine. I'm so excited and I know that you and your other readers understand that.

  17. Quite a find Rhonda, i remember teaching about those in Social Studies. On hot days I used to take the kids outside with a wet towel to demonstrate how coolgardies worked.

    Low tech ideas? Other than the standard things I can't think of anything but you've got me considering the idea.

  18. I don't own electric can openers, mixers, meat or grain grinders, food processors or many other new electric gadgets, I hunt down their old elbow greese counter-parts and love them.

    What a nifty safe. They are much like a pie safe around here. Very pretty and useful too. I love the color!


  19. I like playing a game with the kids instead of watching TV. And going swimming or to the park instead of playing Wii. I enjoy using a broom instead of a vacuum most of the time, and hanging laundry to dry sometimes. Also, it's a joy to use actual books from the real library to learn about things, instead of only searching the internet for information.
    And of course, we aim to be walking whenever we can, instead of driving; and car-pooling when possible.

  20. im on the look out for one of those old carpet sweepers, you can buy a newer plasticy version for about $35 but im waiting to find a second hand original. hubby has the plans for a solar oven and has collected a few items for that. not so low tech but energy efficient is...we have some of those garden solar lights that we bring in at night, enough to light the path to the bathroom at night so we dont have to turn on the electric lights. and haha i leave my dishes to dry in the rack, is that just lazy or am i saving on my tea towels.

  21. I have Mennonite drying racks that are wooden and pull out from the wall by the cookstove to dry my clothes by night while we sleep. In the morning all is dry.


  22. We put our clothes drier in the shed to stop my son from using it. I kept it in case of emergencies, but in 3 years haven't used it. I store things in it now.
    We dry our clothes in Winter on a rack over the gas ducted heating vent in the floor and drape a sheet over it. Dries really well. Of course the Gas ducted heating unit is not very environmentally friendly but it is what we use to keep warm in a very badly designed house that doesn't allow any heat or light in from the low Winter Sun.
    We have a fire but as we won't buy wood (can't near to pay some one to chop down a tree so we can burn it) we don't use it often. Plus it pollutes as well. So thick socks and thermal underwear are the go.
    I have been to Coolgardie and a safe like yours must work very well in that extremely hot place in the desert of Western Australia.
    Dale Victoria

  23. Having the highest number of sunny days in the whole of Australia means that I have used our clothes dryer once in 3.5years. I hang clothes out on the line and just avoid the rainy days in winter (which was about 10 days this year).

    Low-tech irrigation is the pipe joined on to my washing machine that runs directly from the outside laundry, down the steps to the lawn, we just move it to the spot that needs it the most.

    We walk to the shops when the weather permits (soon it will be too hot - 34.c today so it's coming up).

    Low-tech exercise - running or walking. (no equipment needed)

    Low-tech food - raw from the garden

    Low-tech entertainment - singing, reading, crochet, birdwatching, conversation.

    Thank you for the pic of the Coolgardie safe (I live 200km from Coolgardie!) I'll be making one to stop the cats from pinching the bread etc off the bench!)

  24. I've been trying to switch to low tech as much as possible. I use a food mill instead of a blender, a hand beater instead of electric, and a carpet sweeper in place of a vacuum (it a new purchase, but it's great so far.) I hang my laundry to dry whenever possible.

    When it's cold, I put on wool sweaters, hats, and socks, and pull out the wool blankets. I also insulate the windows with plastic sheeting. When it's cool, I cover them with curtains to keep out the sun.

    Although it's not a necessity, more and more I'm trying to make my own music. A guitar at the end of the day, rather than a CD, is a lovely way to pass part of an evening.

  25. I recently bought a 1918 Singer hand crank sewing machine and it's brilliant. So gentle, and you don't need any electricity.

  26. I am possibly not making friends here, but... a modern dish washer with an "environmentally friendly" program option is the one way of doing your dishes and stuff which needs the least amount of water. And the use of electricity is not much more than using hot water from the tab.

    This is, in fact, one of the moments where technical stuff can help you "go green", if you buy right.

  27. The one thing I forgot to add to my list was my treadle sewing machine. I do alot of patchwork, quilting and general sewing and unless I have long seams (on curtains) I always use the treadle machine. Sounds soothing, calming to use and no electricity needed either. Sometimes I take the machine off its base and take it to use at my Patchwork group. I can sit anywhere as I don't need to be near a plug.

  28. The only thing I can add is that on very cool days my car is a terrific place to prove bread. My best investment for the kitchen in a knife that fits my hand and a heavy wooden board. With practice most kitchen cutting etc is easy.

    My father has dementia and I have heard a lot about the ice runs he worked on to earn money while he was at school.

  29. Yard and Garden Tip.

    Something I like to sweep my yard with is a woody branch out of the hedge, because the top has many smaller woody twigs, splayed out, which run into one central thicker stick. It's an instant yard brush, great for smaller sweepings in the yard and garden.

    Lil Bit Brit

  30. We are building a home using strawbales for insulation and mud for plaster. You can see it on my husband's blog:

  31. Hi Rhondda,

    I just wanted to say thank you for such a wonderful blog. I find it constantly inspiring, friendly, wise and non judgemental and full of commonsense advice.
    I particularly find your constant reiteration of 'there is no one way' something that chimes with my ethos as I strive to be simple, frugal (but I am a registered coffee addict) and sustainable in an urban setting.

    I live in North West England in a real old fashioned industrial revolution terraced house –yes our street is cobbled - with a backyard (in England a backyard is a 5m x 4m paved or concrete area usually surrounded by a brick wall). This is my back garden and although it's limited by space it's still an oasis of green as it's full of plant containers from small fruit trees to tubs of potatoes to a tiny herb area and loads of flowers. I'm lucky – this year I finally got an allotment so I can now produce fruit and veg to my hearts content. I share it with two friends so we divide the labour and produce and now we have a greenhouse (2nd hand from an old university friend) we're planning all sorts of fantastic crops for next year.
    Although I live in a city it's blessed with loads of parks and green space for foraging – most of the forage is for berries for wine making (16 gallons in the house at the last count ), which I can then exchange for other fruit for eating or more wine.
    I'm also lucky 'cos I work in the environment sector in local government so many of my colleagues also embrace sustainable lifestyles; in their own way of course; so I can buy free range eggs from an ecologist who has rescued some battery chickens and swap recipes for that glut of courgettes we got this year.
    Thanks to your wonderful recipe I can make my own soap and I hope to try liquid soap soon (time permitting). I can also sew and love making patchwork quilts and thanks to my infinitely patient sister, can finally knit – just. She's a marvel with knitting needles, who can actually create garments that people think are shop bought. Amazing.
    My next projects are preserving, canning and jelly making (I dream of an Amish type pantry full of lovely jars of deliciousness); and, hopefully, learning to make cheese – another of your countrymen has a great blog 'The Greening of Gavin', which gives great cheese making tutorials.

    I hope you don't mind me going on but I wanted to show there's loads of us out there striving to live a sustainable life while still having jobs and being part of our communities like yourselves – and that your blog reaches right around the world like a big hug and is an inspiration and wonderful teaching resource to us all.

    Thanks Rhondda.

  32. Hi Rhonda.
    I love that safe. I greww up in an old farm house that had one built into the wall in the pantry. It extended outside to a shady part of the house, and my mother used it often to keep butter cool. I loved the pantry in that old house. It smelt of years of home cooking. Although the kitchen also had a coal range which my mother wasn't so thrilled about. The house next door to use had one of these safes as well. You could see it from the outside, but they recently extended the house and the safe disapeared. I'm kicking myself that I didn't think to ask for it soon enough. I'll be asking my husband to put one on the plans if we ever get to build our own house.
    I can add to your list hot water bottles, and a spinning wheel.

  33. Hi Rhonda Jean

    I have recently purchased a hand cranked grain mill, hand cranked pasta maker, and a hand cranked meat grinder.

    I have an electric mix master, but I find it to big and cumbersome to always be pulling it out of the cupboard. I figure this way, by mixing by hand I am also getting a work out.

    We heat with wood, and I always set up a tv table stand near the stove to warm all my breads, and buns.

    Also when the wood stove is on, so is the coffee or water kettle.

    I do have a milking machine, but we milk by hand. The winters where we moved to four years ago here in Northern Alberta get down to -40 Celsius, and I find it was to hard on the machine, and it a pain in the butt to wash.

    I also have a clothes line. I also do not have a dish washer.

    In the summer, I cover the south facing windows in the morning, to help keep it cooler.

    It has been interesting to read the other comments. It sure gives a person some ideas to go low tech.



  34. Hi Rhonda

    I don’t remember how I came to your blog. I find your blog very informative and motivating. I keep coming back to your blog to see how you are finding new ways of simplifying your own life. You motivated me so much, now a days when I stand in the shopping mall queue, I double check my cart to see whether I had taken things my grand mother might not approve. That’s a way I am trying to simplify my life.
    I find Coolgardie safes a cool gadget. would you please give more details and more snaps to know how its build .

    Thanks a lot for being the leader..
    Wishing you good health,

    Anna from India

  35. No dishwasher here (never had one); no tumble drier - we line-dry our clothes and if it's wet outside, we have two "Betty Maids" which are drying racks hanging in the kitchen; my home-made bread is mixed/made by hand; I also have (ahem!) several hand-cranked sewing machines - they breed, I swear!!!

  36. Hi Rhonda Jean,
    I am discovering how low tech I really am. Everytime I go to the bank they look at me like I have 3 head because I don't bank on line. I like writing my checks and mailing my bills. I like going to the bank and using a teller not a machine. We have to have direct deposit but other than that I am hands on all the way.I still write letters by hand too.
    I got a new sewing machine and I don't like it. It has way too many bells and whistles for me. I like a basic machine.
    So yes I am low tech. No fancy stuff for me.

  37. My favorite daily low-tech tool is of my wonderful clothesline poles that my Dad built for me years ago.
    The smell of freshly line dried sheets is divine!

    Your safe is adorable! I love the name "Coolgardie safe"'s so descriptive. Our Americanized version of 'pie safe' may be primitive, but does not have the quaint ring that "Coolgardie safe" has. I have a new favorite word.

  38. Please let us know how the butter goes in the safe. My hubby likes spreadable butter so he leaves it on the counter. As soon as we begin to get slightly warmer days, the butter begins to smell slightly rancid after a couple of days.

  39. Joanne, the air temperature in the safe is the same as the air outside. I put the butter in the fridge overnight and bring it out again in the morning. It will take only 15 minutes or so to soften. Try that with your husband's butter.

  40. I'm rather surprised HOW MANY low tech things I do without even knowing it, as I read the comments... Electric can openers? Seriously?! :O In this line of thought, I'm probably very low tech when I use a dining knife to open homecanned jars (a simple skill I'm quite proud of having mastered, actually).
    At the same time, I'm sure I do a lot of unnecessary hi-tech things. Putting down the low-tech ones is very hepful to figure out what I do and what I could do!

    Never had a dishwasher, never had a laundry dryer (we hang the laundry to dry; and in the winter I use the heater to dry the small items if I need them soon :-). When I'm at school, I often wash my laundry by hand - my sister found out that you can just let it sit in the soapy water for an hour or so, and if it's not really dirty, that and some churning is all it needs.

    I have a simple hand crank blender here when I'm at school. I can beat egg yolks into wonderful snow with it, and what more could I ask for?

    Also, we'd had an old refigerator here. It died several months ago. Now we simply store the food in the pantry, which has a small window leading into the corridor and is cool enough in winter months - when we do not buy too much food, it keeps perfectly fine. Even milk! It saves a LOT of energy and money, too! Surely one of the advantages of living in a house that's 100 years old.
    Which reminds me, our regular house is about 200 years old and has thick walls that keep us cool in summer and keep the warmth inside in winter. More or less.

    In winter, we sometimes dehydrate apples on the heaters.

    I sew by hand. It's quite a meditative work. Speaking of sewing - a tailor's awl and sewn eyelets are low tech, and much better and more lasting, from what I could gather from costumer's blogs, than hammered metal eyelets.

    I guess washing my hair with soda and vinegar is also low tech...

    Father does a nifty little low tech thing that I used to know about, and then forgot about, and was reminded of recently. You know those little remnants that soap turns into after long use? Father has a 2-litre bottle with water where he puts those little remnants of soap - so it's a thick soapy water, almost like liquid soap, and he uses it for cleaning around the house.

    Haha, yes, and I use receipts from shops to write shopping lists on! That kind of does not fit anywhere...

  41. Wow, great find. I saw one on the weekend at a national trust museum and spent the afternoon talking to my grandma (96) about how they used to use them. They had theirs outside in a kind of reed hut where it caught the breeze, the breeze obviously is important for the cooling action. Grandma said it was cool enough to set a jelly, so I'm guessing that's pretty cool - although I'd never before considered a jelly needed to be refrigerated, just did that out of habit. I have been fantasising about a coolgardie safe ever since!!! I found this website that also shows a cooling system used in Africa.


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