This week I’ve decided to write about a different kind of outdoor activity: building fences. When Amy and I bought our house, we knew beforehand that all three fences and our deck would soon need replacing. Well, three and a half years later, and we are finally fixing fences that are literally falling down, and getting worse each winter.
We decided to start with two fences: the fences we have with neighbors we knew would help us. The third fence is perhaps in the worst condition, and we might try to patch it if we can, but on the other side is a fence-to-fence jungle that will not be easy to navigate. I’m not sure how much we’ll be able to do, and we may let that fence continue to deteriorate in the interim.
So we focused instead on our back fence and the other side fence. To the back, we had the lovely Matt and Kathryn. And to the side, we had John, Catherine, and their three kids. Both are great neighbors and were on board with sharing in the costs and efforts. Actually, Matt is skilled and experience with fence building and his guidance really made the whole project possible. In fact, while I helped take down our back fence, but he put the new back fence up on his own, and has helped both with guidance and even getting his hands in there on our side fence. He helped both with his labor and his truck in getting the old fence to the dump. We joke about how he has left a “Matt-size hole” in our back fence so that he can pop back and help us when we run into trouble.
Now, this was my first time building a fence, and boy was it an undertaking. I spent several evenings researching, buying, and moving wood. Plus, a 3 day weekend over Memorial Day and a subsequent 2-day weekend tearing down and then rebuilding the new fence. The process has been amazingly challenging, but at the same time very rewarding. I would love to do more work like this, but not while also working full-time.
Step 1—The Tear Down
The adventure of rebuilding a fence starts with tearing the old one down. That is hard, yet fun work. It involves mostly hammers and sometimes a crowbar, articulating saw, and a shovel. Especially when the previous fence builder planted every single post in concrete. Some of the old posts broke off right at the concrete layer (likely where water pooled, unable to get past the concrete). Some could be wiggled and dug out. And some we just cut off and left the concrete there for someone in the future to deal with.
Concrete provides an interesting obstacle to fence replacement. And given our ground soil, I was sold on no concrete by the time we were done pulling down the old fence. Many of the posts we placed just to the side of the old concrete so that we didn’t have to deal with digging up each section. Two of the chunks came up with the post, two had to come up because they were corner posts, connecting other sections of fence, and the fifth had to be jackhammered to pieces and pulled out a bit at a time.
And the tear down is not the end. Thanks to Matt, we were able to tear down almost the entire fence and haul it away on the same day. This, unfortunately, meant moving that fence three times. Once we knocked it down, we had to move it to the driveway. Once it was all in the driveway, we had to move it to the truck, then move it again once we got to the dump. And it took two truckloads before we’d gotten rid of it all. It was tough work, but little did we know, that would be the quickest part of our build.
Step 2—Digging Holes
Once the old fence was down and away, the next step was to begin digging holes and planting posts. Now professionals might measure out the entire length of fence and dig all their holes first, then plant posts, but we were noobs, and still trying to figure out where we had to dig out cement and where we could just leave it. So with three of us, we combined the next 2 and a half steps into a single process: dig a hole (step 2), then while two of us planted a post (step 3), a third would move on to start the next hole (step 2 again). With 8-foot crosswords, the goal was to dig holes just shy of 8 feet apart, then cut down boards to fit each section.
That plan was great in theory, but somehow we ended up with two sections a bit over 8 feet apart, unfortunately resulting in another run to the lumber section of Home Depot. (In the end, we made four separate visits to Home Depot plus had one delivery of wood to our house. Not exactly the apex of efficiency.)
Additionally, we ran into all kinds of challenges with the holes. Roots got in the way. Compressed rock and hard dirt layers were difficult to cut through. We found an old wire, perhaps for a hot tub, running along part of the fence line. And of course, there was the concrete (step 2.5).
Step 2.5—Breaking Up Concrete
The other hiccup we ran into during this step was all the concrete we had to deal with. We quickly realized we would have to dig up at least three chunks of concrete where posts met other fences or gates. One such concrete mass was huge. Solidly buried in the ground—even after digging 2 feet down all around it—our neighbor John finally decided it was time to rent a jackhammer to break it apart. Conveniently, we also used that jackhammer to break down three of the other pieces, so that Amy and I could slowly stick them in our garbage to dispose of them.
Everyone jumped in to help break down concrete. John, Amy, and even the kiddos! It was a huge piece of concrete, but with some hard work, we broke it all down. Some of the smaller pieces we used to fill the hole back up again (just like rocks to help add stability to the ground), but the rest will be slowly extricated Shawshank Redemption style.
This caused us to hit a slow down on the post-planting, which ended up jumping Amy and me ahead to step three while John worked on the biggest piece of concrete, once holding his gate up. We could have gone around it for the fence, however, it made a lot more sense to plant a fence post right next to John’s gate for added stability and to make life easier for him. And we had plenty of other things to work on as well.
Step 3—Planting Posts
Putting up the posts once you’ve dug the hole is a bit of a tedious task, but not bad when you have people to share the load. First, you have to make sure the posts are level and in a straight line. There are two tools to help with this: (1) a piece of string and (2) a level.
Tie the string to the two ends of the fence, and run it along the length. You can keep it up which allows you to line each pole up against it to keep them straight. Be sure to tie the string to the outside and make sure each post is against the string without pushing it off of the other posts.
The level is perhaps obvious, but there are a few tips here. First, be sure to measure all four sides of the post, as posts are not perfectly straight. Nor is the top. I kept up measuring them as we were filling in the hole until I felt the post was pretty solid.
As the hole was filling, I’d also check the orientation of the pole, eyeballing it to ensure it was still lined up with the poles to either side and had not twisted at all.
Lastly, you had to make sure you were giving the post a good foundation, we filled the hole slowly, using extra boards and an unused tool handle to tamp the new dirt layer by layer, as we added it. The tamping had a tendency to move the pole, especially at first, so the pole holder had to be diligent in checking measurements and angle.
Step 4—Running Crossbeams
When you’ve gotten to the crossbeams (also called stringers), you are over the hill. The hardest part of building a fence is digging the holes. Now precision replaces brute force. Here is where the old adage—measure thrice, cut once—comes in handy.
You begin with your brackets. There are two brackets for each crossbeam, two crossbeams for each gap between posts. The first decision you want to make is how much space above and below your pickets. You don’t want too little, otherwise, your boards don’t have good support. Nor do you want too much, otherwise the tops of your pickets are likely to break off in heavy winds. We left about 9 inches above and below, and that is where we planted our first two brackets.
Once you have your first brackets in, grab a 2×4 and place it in the bracket. You’ll also need a level, square, and wood pencil. Place the level onto the wood (I found it convenient to have a small 6-inch level that I could keep in my tool-belt), and lift the wood along the post until it is level (also make sure it is securely sitting all the way in the bracket on the other side). Now, with the help of the square, mark both the bottom of the 2×4 on the post and where the 2×4 needs to be cut. Repeat this process for the second bracket, and remember if you use the same 2×4 both times, mark which line is the top and which the bottom. It’s unlikely the length of the top and bottom will be exactly the same. Posts are not completely straight, and even a fractional angle in the post could amount to anywhere between a 1/8 and 1/2 of an inch difference.
From there, finish that post by using the square to draw the level of the bracket around the post to the other side. Note here, that if your yard slopes, you may need to raise or lower the brackets on the other side to meet the slope. You can install the second brackets now (we well as install the next set if you like). Then, go to cut your 2x4s. Repeat this process down the line.
For me, this was the most enjoyable part. It was repetitive in a zen-like way but required precision and measurement as well. It was the most like building something.
Step 5—Hanging Boards
The final step, once all your posts and crossbeams are up, is to hang your boards (also called pickets) from your fence frame. This is the easiest part, made slightly harder if you want the pickets both flush with the ground, and also squared and leveled at the top. The basics are, take a picket, put it against the two stringers, and use two screws to attach the top and two to the bottom stringers. You can use nails if you prefer, but nails are more likely to come out, and much slower if you don’t have a nail gun.
As you are placing them, be sure they are evenly spaced (even more than posts, these thin wood pickets are often not straight). Use a level if needed.
If you want them flush and level, you will need to measure and cut excess wood as you go down the like. Avoid putting them all up and trying to cut all the boards at one on the fence. You will likely end up with a wavy pattern (it’s very hard to keep a saw straight when holding it 6 feet in the air).
Step 6—Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow
The most bittersweet part of the entire fence building process was when the fences went back up, and suddenly we were once again walled off from our neighbors. It’s too easy for us to hide away in our homes, and the opportunity for us all to come together in this fence building projects has been far more valuable to me than the fences themselves.
One of Robert Frost’s oft-misquoted poems, “Mending Wall,” ends with the words “good fences make good neighbors.” Especially in recent years, it has been used as an adage to support the building of walls like one between Mexico and Canada. But those who quote that poem would do well to read it.
Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
from “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost
Our fence doesn’t have quite so deep a meaning. And we are building it as much for the resale value of our homes as anything else. But the quote does still ring in my ear, now that our fences are back up again, as a reminder not to let those fences isolate me from the neighbors I’ve spent several weekends getting to know even better.