Posts Tagged ‘fence building’

Well the big project is done.

It is a fine 6-foot side yard privacy fence atop a well-built concrete knee wall that keeps the wooden fence above the grade of the neighbors’ yard, which varies from 7″ higher than our property at the front to 16″ at the back.  The wall is 53-feet long, supported by an 8″ x10″ footer reinforced with rebar.  That baby ain’t going anywhere.  I built it for eternity.

It replaced the most rotten, crumbling, too-short falling down fence you ever saw, which was a completely inadequate division between my private backyard homestead and a really obnoxious neighbor.  The lady and her kids are quite nice, but this guy is loud, dumb, and intrusive.  I’ve had ample opportunity to develop a deep-seated dislike of his personality just listening to him blaring his weirdness from 20 feet away.  He yells at the kids and the dog.  He’s mean to my favorite neighbor lady friend on the other side.  Then he pokes his head over the falling-down fence and tries to start a conversation with me at 7 am when I’m in my pajamas with pillow face.  I had to build this fence, people.  It was a matter of survival.

Tearing down the old fence didn’t take all that much muscle, as the termite-eaten boards were light as a feather; it just had to be wrangled apart, posts wiggled out, and the whole load driven to the landfill.  But living without a fence between the two yards, no matter how lame a fence it was, is not acceptable in suburbia.  So I bought what seemed like a vast length of shadecloth fabric, affixed grommets to the top and bottom edge, and strung a construction screen from conduit poles to work behind.  It worked pretty well although it didn’t completely block line of sight, and blew over a couple of times during heavy rain and winds, but served the purpose of separating the yards and keeping the neighbor kids from just wandering through.

Then the digging commenced.  I planned to form a 10″ x 8″ footer centered on the property line, and once the fence was down it became clear just how much excavation that would require.  Plus, the ancient bougainvillea bushes on the neighbor’s side had been planted right next to the old fence line and were terrifically overgrown, so they had to be radically trimmed (ouch!) and as the footer trench was excavated, roots sawn through and removed.  Lotsa roots. 

It probably took me the better part of two weeks to get the fenceline cleaned up and ready to form for pouring the footer.  The fabric screen went up and down several times, needing moved back as the dimensions took shape and the need for more space to work became apparent.

As we have no frost level to speak of here in San Diego, I started my footer right at ground level and only made it 8″ deep.  Which is still overbuilt for this light-duty application, but that’s how I like to do things.

  The top of the form is nothing more than oiled 2 x 4’s fastened together and plumbed to stakes.  A  jig built from two 10″ crosspieces and a short board made setting the level and width of the far side relatively easy.  Once the form boards were in and level, I finished digging out the remaining 4 – 5 inches, ran rebar down the length, and fixed 2×3’s along the center to form a key slot for the wall to bond to.

One of the biggest challenges I encountered was working around the edge of the 16-foot slab that the previous neighbors had poured right up to the old fence.  We called a friend over to cut it even with the property line and I poured the footer underneath it, thinking I could somehow form the wall around the dang thing and incorporate the edge within the new concrete.  As I got closer to wall construction I decided the slab needed cut back again, and the new cut edge became one side of the form for the first, low wall section.  Of course, I had to buy a honkin’ saw to get the job done.  Every girl needs a worm-drive Milwaukee saw with diamond blade, don’t you think?

First wall section (about 23-feet long, 7-inches high) formed and ready for concrete:

Front wall section poured, Thanksgiving weekend.  I needed to get the front part of the fence and gate built and the backyard closed back up before we left on our December trip, so I worked at it very steadily and took advantage of the holiday weekend.

The project got a huge boost toward completion when my sister arrived for a week over Christmas and offered to help finish the rest of the wall.  What a great Christmas present!  The weather cooperated, amazingly, and we targeted New Year’s Day for the big pour. 

January 2nd, we poured the last section, the 16-inch high portion.   I lost count of the number of bags, sorry to say.  It was a LOT of concrete though.

I was very pleased with how it turned out, and it was a great learning experience.   Although I’ve done a few concrete projects before I’d never built a concrete wall, and figured this out bit by bit, reading books and adapting instructions to fit my particular situation.  The forms held well, the posts are aligned and plumb, there is rebar running through for strength, and it looks great.

In addition to forming and pouring concrete, the fence boards got two coats of stain, both sides, prior to putting them up.  It is much easier to paint a fence before it’s built.  But it was a patience game, since there were too many to lay out all at once and painting one side at a time meant flipping twice, allowing for drying in between.  Several nights of drizzle set the paint job back until I learned to cover the freshly painted boards with plastic overnight.  The job seemed endless, but I persisted with it, working by worklight in the evenings during the week, and was able to finish building the fence atop the wall by January 6. 

(I never know what vertical reference point to anchor these perspective photos to.  The fence is straight and plumb, as is the house, really.)

I am glad it’s done, and glad it turned out well.


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Yikes, nearly a month gone by without an update.  So much for that New Year’s resolution to post more regularly!

Truth is, I’m out of the habit, and spending an awful lot of time projecting, so free time is truly limited.  One habit I have gotten into, though, is working at least an hour a day outside after I get home from work, often by halogen worklight.  It has really helped me wrap the big fence project up, but it cuts my evenings short inside, leaving just enough time to cook and eat dinner before I have to drag my old bones to bed.

And of course once enough time passes, it can be difficult to find an entry point back into the journaling stream, so much has gotten done and should be reported on.  This fence project, for instance, which none of you’ve heard a thing about but I’ve been working on since mid-October.   I wish I would have written about it a little at a time as it was progressing, instead of leaving it to the end to describe start to finish.  There’s a trick to that I have yet to learn.  It doesn’t help that I’m not a speedy writer, and these days my thoughts are more scattered than ever, so sitting down and capturing a day or two’s worth of happenings seems to be a huge challenge.  I doubt I’m alone in this, though.

But, the side fence is finished, glory hallelujia.  I learned to pour concrete walls and gained a lot of confidence in my ability to see a major project through from just an idea to completion, the product of my own labor.  Yes, I had a little help, but most of the work was mine, and the result delights me to no end.  I’ll give a proper rundown of the whole thing start to finish in a separate post, complete with pictures.  Tonight, I want to just get back to updating, and move forward.

Most weekends I make a to-do list like the one above, starting it bleary-eyed over a hot cup of Saturday morning coffee and adding to it as the day progresses.  I put everything on it I want to get done, whether it seems like too much or not.  I find the challenge of lining things out helps me use my time better, keeps me motivated. 

I didn’t get everything done on my to-do list this weekend, but I came darned close, as you can see.  Last weekend I built a firewood rack and set it up on the New Fence side of the house; this weekend we picked up a half-cord of firewood, two trips in my little truck, which looks to be more like 3/4-cord, so I had to build another rack this morning to unload the second truckload.  Got all that done before noon, in time to listen to the 2nd half of Praire Home Companion that I missed yesterday.  I just about fell asleep out on the back patio listening to the radio, so I went in and took a 30-minute nap.  That wasn’t on my list, but I needed it.  Naps are good.

I’ve started a Ladies Fitness Club with the girls at work, more of a support group than anything, prompted by the need to help one of our top Sailors get back within bodyfat standards after her pregnancy.  She and her husband just bought a house a few blocks from us, so I’ve talked her into getting together to walk her dogs out on the chapparal trails as often as we can.  We started today.  It’s good to be out moving my body again like that.  And the dogs are great therapy.

Leftover meatloaf-and-home-canned-veggie shepherd’s pie tonight, a fire in the fireplace, blog post nearly done.  Good weekend.

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Plumbing the hinge post

We dug 12 post holes in all; four large enough for gate posts, eight fencepost-sized.  Not by hand, of course, or at least not entirely by hand.  The PTO-operated posthole digger with a 9- and a 12-inch auger did most of the work, but Kentucky Jack digs postholeshas its share of rock, which resisted the machine’s auger tip and had to be busted out by hand.  The old-fashioned way, with the tools you see here, and lots of elbow, back and arm grease.  Once the buried layer of rock had been punched through, the auger was able to finish the dig.  I’d say of the 12 holes, only 3 were uncomplicated by a 4-inch layer of rock that lies about 12-inches beneath this area.

A few lessons learned:

1) Lining up post holes is easier said than done.  Check them after they’re dug by propping the posts up in the holes and stringing a line across their tops, if you want the fenceline to be straight.  We measured and flagged every one, but they all had to be adjusted before the posts were set.  Posthole diggers are not precision instruments.

2) Body weight helps when using the spud bar to break rock.  Get the guy to do that part.

3) Don’t even think about digging postholes or setting posts without a spud bar.  Tool of choice, nonpareil.

As for plumbing the posts, the approach varied from the textbook version of using a level since our posts weren’t milled perfectly uniform from top to bottom like store-bought posts would be.  Cedar trees taper and are larger at the bottom than the top – how to plant a post plumb then?  Skidder had the solution, learned from prior experience; a stake laid across the top of the post with a line and plumb bob hung from the end gives a vertical reference through the post’s center.  Viewed from two different angles 90 degrees apart ensures a perfectly plumb post.  Worked like a charm.  I’ll plumb all my posts this way from now on.

farm fence and gates

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fence posts almost

Building a fence out of your own trees isn’t the easiest way to do things.

 My li’l ole fence out front along the road has garnered many compliments because it looks damn nice, and really stands out among the pressure-treated, milled lumber, commercially-installed versions in the area; but its true beauty in my view is its humble, local origin.   And that it was built by my own hands.  From my own trees.

Most folks around here probably think that viewpoint’s a little off.  Too much work, nicer materials right down there at Lowes; why go to all the bother.  I admit, it would have been much easier just to call someone out and pay them to slap something up.  It would have met the minimum objectives as well, which was to keep vehicles from driving up to the house and shop building, thus making the place more secure.

But it wouldn’t have been a thing of beauty, or have the potential to last 25 -30 years like this one will, or given me any of the satisfaction I’ll feel every single time I lay eyes on it and remember how we built it from cedars and hardwoods cut off the hill above. 

Arguments for saving time and effort aside, I’m just not interested in paying someone to do work that I enjoy doing and can do well myself, especially on a project that designs itself as it goes; nor am I at all keen to buy mass-produced, trucked-in, chemically-treated materials when I have raw materials in abundance in my own backyard.

Sounds a little pious, perhaps too idealistic, I suppose.  I will readily admit that this commitment to doing my own work and using my own materials as much as possible has its drawbacks, not the least of which is the multiplication of effort and time in any project equation.  But I’m pretty stubborn, and not afraid of slow, hard work, and so I accept that building something from scratch means doing things “the hard way” with hand tools, sometimes, and a great deal more effort than needed with “modern” methods and commercial materials.

I may not be able to take this approach every time.  The porch, for instance, was built with pressure-treated lumber, after much thought and deliberation about the pros and cons of using non-treated lumber in that climate for that type of application.  But my pasture fences will need to be non-toxic, in the big scheme of operating a certified organic farm, and so this small section was a test bed for my ideas of how to use locally harvested, untreated posts in the Kentucky soil without compromising on fence longevity.

What I didn’t know before Skidder and I took that first walk up the hill to survey for materials, was that I had a good number of mature eastern red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) at their climax of growth potential, having been overtaken by taller hardwoods and fairly begging to be made into fence and gateposts before their wood began declining as they lost the battle for sunlight, water and nutrients.   And while this tree is not a true cedar, but a member of the juniper family, it does have superior rot-resistance – especially in the red heartwood – not as much rot resistance as black locust, but more than any other hardwood species I might have had to use.

We took four 8 – 9″ gate posts and nine 6 – 7″ fence posts off the south-facing hill just around the corner from the shop.  I believe I felled a total of eight trees, for the posts.  One was quite large, leaving me a lovely 10-foot timber that will make some fine slabs for sign-making and bench-building.  Skidder pulled most of them down the hill by herself while I cut.  We worked furiously in the morning rain, thinking it might go on all day and wanting to get the logs down to the shop so we could peel them inside.  But the rain stopped as we finished, which wasn’t a bad thing. 

Next:  peeling with spud and draw knife.

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