two people - one holding the bag open,
the other filling it with a shovel or a bucket - works, but it's slow,
ridiculously messy, and frustrating. If you're working by yourself with
a shovel in one hand and a bag in the other, it's next to impossible.
You're far better off developing a system and setting up a smooth
& efficient production line to keep your bags moving.
There are a
variety of approaches, which we'll briefly touch on. All of
these can be done by one person.
use a wooden stand and a cut-off inverted
traffic cone as a funnel.
One person holds a bag up over the open end
of the cone, while the other dumps the fill material from a five-gallon
bucket. A third person uses a toilet plunger to force the wet fill down
into the bag.
Depending on how ambitious we feel, three people can crank out up to
100 bags an hour. One person can use this by stacking bags, cinder
blocks, shoveling dirt, etc. under the cone - this raises the empty bag
enough that it can fill without falling over & dumping its contents.
- On pages 221-224 of their book Earthbag
Building, Kaki Hunter and Donald Kiffmeyer describe how to construct a
folding metal bag stand out of thick, flat metal stock. Similar to the
frame of some laundry hampers, it holds a bag open & can be
used by one or two people. image
- Another contraption which looks brilliant
(fills six bags at once; we haven't tried it yet) was designed by River
Oak Ranch in Fargo, ND and featured on the website instructables.com.
can see the step-by-step instructions and view a video of it
in action here.
come with tie strings attached. In the case of building (if the bags
are going to be plastered over), you generally don't need to tie them. You can just give the neck a
twist, fold it
under, and butt this end of the bag securely against the sewn end of
the adjoining bag.
If you want or need to secure your bags, you can use the ties - though
they're often flimsy & a nuisance. We prefer to use zip
ties or wire ties.
Grab bag by
neck with one hand & grab the seam on the bottom of the filled
bag with the other
hand. Invert the bag, letting the fill run down towards
Shake bag, distributing dirt uniformally.
Fold top of bag under
& lay in
place (butting this end up against the seam edge of previous bag).
Give bag a good shaking
to ensure even
distribution of dirt (bag should be roughly rectangular).
Continue laying bags,
every 3-4 laid bags & checking your work with a level.
what makes this
fun is that this is an organic process. Shaking &
& patting your dirtbags is something that comes easy.
master an almost intuitive ability to
make corrections when
irregularities pop up. Once it "feels" right, start tamping and use your levels. If things start
getting wanky, you can use
your tamper to make corrections - whack a little more here, a little
less there, and using it laterally (horizontally) to even up the face
Doors & windows:
Doors will need to
frame. You'll prop this in place (use your level!) and then, as each
course meets the frame, you'll tamp the bags securely. For additional
strength, you can drive nails or screws into the sides of the frame to
twist the courses' barbed wire around, or incorporate gringo blocks
(see "getting started"). As you work your way up, check the door to
make sure the frame isn't askew and causing your door to bind - you
don't want to have to undo everything & start again. When the sides
of the frame are bagged in, you'll add a load-bearing lintel to the top
of the door's frame and then stack & tamp your bags across the top
Conventional windows (that is, windows that open) will usually come
with a frame. You may want to insert a load bearing sill (wider than
the window) where your window will go. This sill, if it projects out
far enough, will make a shelf that you'll be glad to have when you move
in. Then install & pack your bags around it as described above.
Finish up with header on top, and finish your bagging.
Windows without a frame need not require a sill or a header, if they're strong enough to
sustain the weight of the bags on top. If they're round, you can leave
one bag out of your course, insert your window, then pack your bags
around it with each successive course. You'll find this easier to do if
you only use 1/2-filled bags so you can smush them into shape.
wire: As mentioned elsewhere, start using 12"
- 14" wire
strips between bags if your wall or structure is above 3 feet. We
recommend two strips of barbed wire
After laying a bag, firmly twist the bag to "seat" the barbs
before moving on.
Think of these as reinforcing pillars every 6-10 feet or so along the
length of a wall. Don't underestimate the importance of
buttressing long, high walls, and
on a plaster / stucco overlay to give such a wall the significant
structural strength you'll want when the kids are
climbing on it. Rule of thumb for buttresses is 6" perpendicular to
wall for every foot of wall height.
bags: Using these bags
requires working quickly, under dry conditions, and then
plastering them as soon as possible.
You should build a stem wall (bags filled with gravel, etc.)
them above ground level to prevent moisture from
We can't emphasize this enough. Frequently check your work in all 3
are something you don't want to have
apart & reassemble (especially if you're using barbed wire), so
get it right the first time. Is your course running straight
(end to end), or starting to drift? Is the course the same height at
both ends? Are the bags starting to slant inward (towards
you) or outward
(away from you)?
Check the wall itself periodically with a beam level to see
starting to cant
towards or away from you. If you stay on top of it, you can
self-correct with the next bag. We talk about this a little more on the
page. Of course, if you want undulations or sinuousity, that's
something different. The point is to pay attention & make sure
things are going as you intended.
Some people spread the work on
bigger structures over a year or two, which also allows
the cost out.
You should consider it mandatory to either tarp &
secure your work as you go along, or slap some base plaster on your
bags to protect them. Because our New Mexico sun & altitude are
so hard on polypropylene
bags, they will start to disintegrate after a few months. Strong winds
carry abrasive sand as well, and can do a number on your hard work.
bags are equally prone to weather, as well as dampness, insects, soil
bacteria, and critters. So, again, keep your work covered.
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