Thursday, July 26, 2012

Grinding our own Flour

Our last post told about our wonderful oat roller. As that purchase worked out so well, the next experiment on our grain processing journey was to purchase a wheat grinder. Once again we did some research, but our purchase this time was not as smooth running.
Retsel Hand Powered Wheat Mill
We wanted to keep things as simple as possible and decided on a hand cranked wheat grinder called Little Ark, purchased from Retsel in Dandenong, as a 60th birthday present for Heather.  One reason we chose this model was because we were told it could be attached to an electric motor if we wanted to go down that path in the future. The package, which included the handmill, steel grinders, stone grinders, 2 pulleys and a v-belt was fairly pricey, but the machine was a simple well-engineered design.

When we got home we eagerly unpacked the unit and put it together. In our minds we could already smell the beautiful aroma of bread baked from our very own freshly milled grain. We soon found out that it took far too long to mill enough flour for a cake by hand (and was very tiring as well).
The motorisation kit

So we set about converting the Little Ark to a motorised unit. We had all the gear necessary except for the motor (A very important component). We had been told that the cheapest source of a motor was to extract one from an old washing machine. Often people throw out machines with good motors when they start leaking, when the electronics that control the washing cycles fail or perhaps the gears seize up. I confidently told Heather that we would pick one up from the side of the road within the next few weeks.
Our second hand washing machine motor

In Victoria, we have a wonderful system of recycling called roadside collections. Each Shire has their own system, but generally it involves residents putting unwanted household goods on the roadside for collection by contractors (who hopefully recycle them). Although it is frowned upon by some, these collections are a goldmine for people like us, who have an obsession for re-using things. We spent the next month scouring roadsides on every trip we made. We came across every conceivable type of household product but no washing machines. Suddenly old machines were as rare as hen’s teeth!

We kept looking over the next few months and eventually came across one. We took it apart, attached the motor and turned on the power. To our relief the motor happily turned the grinder. However when we placed grains into the hopper, the motor didn’t have enough torque to turn the stones that ground the wheat. It just stopped. It was time to begin our search again, but this time for a stronger motor.
Our grain processing bench with storage shelves 

Over the next twelve months we came across several more machines. In each case we ran into problems. Usually it took around half an hour to get the motor out before we found out what the problem was. Some didn’t work, others were not strong enough, whilst others had shafts that were too big for our pulley wheel. It was important for the motor to have a small pulley on it which then drives a larger one on the grinder to gear the process down so that grinding stones are not turning too fast. If the grinding surfaces turn too fast, the stones and the wheat become too hot and the flour quality is severely reduced.

In an act of desperation we called into a shop that sold second-hand washing machines, thinking they might be able to help us source the perfect motor for our job. This idea came to an abrupt halt when they told us that for many years washing machine technology has advanced beyond the sort of motors we were looking at. Our only hope was to pick up an old machine with a suitable motor.
The grain mill in action -how easy is that!

By now we had almost given up on the project and the grinder was packed away. However, by chance we mentioned our dilemma to Heather’s brother Graham and he said he might be able to help. He took us down to his shed and pointed out a shelf at the back. There, underneath a few other things were two electric motors. Suddenly our grain grinder dreams were reawakened.

These motors were larger than the ones we had tried before so everything looked promising. We found some brackets to hold the motor in place, and rigged them up so we could slide the motor along  to tension the drive belt. We flicked the switch and tipped some grain into the hopper. It worked well at first- a bit too well. The stones were turning too fast, and then they stopped. The big pulley on the grinder was slipping on its axle.

This was a whole new problem. To solve it we had to get the pulley off the drive shaft. No matter how hard we banged it, it wouldn’t budge. So once again we lost our enthusiasm.

Freshly milled flour
By now Heather’s 61st birthday had passed but she still dreamed of a day when we would be grinding our own flour. Then one wet day when we didn’t have anything else to do, she suggested we have another go at getting it working. This time after a few well placed whacks the pulley came off. The slipping problem was a result of the small worm screw in the hub of the pulley not aligning with the flat spot on the shaft. Out came a file and a new flat spot was created and the whole lot put together. We added an old light switch to the circuitry to allow us to turn it on safely and away it went. To slow it down we placed an intermediary pulley in between the other two. This brought the rate down to about 100 turns per minute which is just right.

For a very professional finish, all the gear was mounted onto a solid bench (discarded by a member of the family) that also holds our oat roller. We turned the drawer space underneath into a convenient storage area for grains and equipment. The final modification needed was a cover to fit over the grinding stones to direct the falling flour downwards (instead of flying sideways). Heather made one out of an old ice cream contatiner and it works a treat.
Time for coffee and cake (made out of fresh flour of course)
Wonder of wonders now a cup of flour takes only a couple of minutes to grind and this is far less tiring than doing it by hand. It is all 18 months late, but at last Heather has got her birthday present. Perhaps we should start working on her 62nd birthday present now- she might just get it by the time her birthday, comes around in 2 months time!

PS. We purchased our Survival Ark Mill from Retsel in Dandenong. Their web address is


The Potty Knitter said...

Great post! Very educational. As I mentioned on you oat roller post, I got my self a little Schnitzer set up, which included the stone mill to mill flour. As there is only Ian and I these days, I have managed to mill enough for my flour needs by hand so far. The mill is set up on the kitchen bench and if I need flour I fill the hopper and turn intermittently during the day to bake in the evening. I am interested in how you find the bread made with your stone ground flour. My usual recipe results in a heavy loaf, about half the size of my usual one. Whilst it is delicious I'm looking for ideas to 'lighten' it up a bit. Love your blog!

Andrew and Heather said...

Sounds like you have a good setup with your Schnitzer. At this stage we haven’t got past making cakes for our morning cup of coffee, but certainly are aiming to move into bread soon. Some time back we were given a recipe for a Swedish Rye loaf that a friend used to bake and we reckoned it was the best bread we had ever tasted. We’ll have a go at this and let you know how it goes. I would like to get our own sour dough culture going because we love sour dough bread. Hopefully in the next few weeks we’ll find out how our stone ground flour performs.
As far as bread making goes we have big L plates on!!!!

Dayla said...

Hi there,
great post, very informative. I looked into buying a grinder a couple of years ago as I wanted to make flour out of my huge harvest of pumpkins. Drying it first in the dehydrator and then grinding it up. But I couldn't find anything that the manufacturers said would work.
Have you thought about grinding pumpkin into flour?

Andrew and Heather said...

Thanks for the comment Dayla. We hadn’t got round to investigating pumpkin flour, but knew pumpkins could make excellent scones. We had a search on the internet and the best source of information we could find was . Apparently after dehydrating the pumpkin a food processor can be used to produce the flour. We have now added this to our list of things to do when we have an excess of pumpkins.
At the moment we have plenty of pumpkins in storage. Our focus has been on long keepers so that we can have pumpkin most of the year. Family members are given pumpkin and any excess are sold every now and then at our local organic food market. (Queensland Blue have proven to be the best keepers for us.)

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