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Getting Off the Fence Project

Filed in:Scott

Getting Off the Fence Project

June 23rd, 2006  · stk

Summer Season in Full Swing the Hammer

As a "jack of all trades" and retired geophysicist, Scott often takes on handyman projects, both to earn side money and to get the satisfaction of building something with his hands. (Of course, there's now the hopeful outcome that he'll lose some of those winter pounds he's put on too!) ;) This project, for our friends Dan and Jen, is a new fence across the back of their lot and a fence replacement down the side, shared with their neighbor. They have a large lot and it's something like 200 feet of fence, all told.

Dan has asked to work with Scott, both to learn about fence-building and to help defray some labor costs. This is not a problem and Scott likes working with home owners. It's more fun to work with someone else. Dan only has Monday afternoons and Friday's free, so it'll be a multi-week project.

To learn how to make a better wood fence and follow this project, read on

We met Dan and Jen through our landlord, Ron Berezan. They bought an older, 4-story home in the "Little Italy" area of Edmonton, close to Commonwealth Stadium and just across the alley from where our Ron & Laura live. It was build in 1910 and like most older homes, needed some work. Ron was the one who recommended they give me a call. (Thanks Ron!)

I've been doing a bunch of odds and ends work for them, since last summer. I've replaced fascia boards on the second floor, installed bathroom faucets, redesigned their kitchen wall faucet, added a range exhaust hood and fan, painted, drywalled and mounted their pellet stove exhaust pipes. Now that the weather has turned for the better, the focus is on the yard, a perimeter fence (for security, privacy and containment for their golden lab, Harrah).

The grass may be greener on the other side of the fence, but you still have to mow it.

As fences go, it's not elaborate, as they're wanting an inexpensive, generic, six-foot-high, fence. To save costs, they want to use a few existing ( non-vertical :-\ ) posts. The fence itself, will consist of pressure-treated, 4x4 posts and 2x4 cross-beams, with 6-foot high, S1S Spruce 1"x6" slats. Still, I'll build it to last, by adding four upgrades, which most fencing companies skip.

(1) New 4x4 posts will be cemented in place. This minimizes ground-to-wood contact for the most important part of the fence - where the posts meet the ground. The concrete will extend above grade and be sloped it away from the post, to shed water. The result: posts will be firmly set and provide long-lasting, solid structural support for the rest of the fence. I'll use pressure-treated 4x4's, which costs only pennies more than untreated lumber, but provides years-worth of protection from insects, mildew & decay.

(2) Support brackets will be used on all cross-beams. This will strengthen the next most important part of any fence, cross-beam connections. Typically, contractors will toe-nail 2x4's to the posts. Bad! Toe-nailing is the weakest kind of attachment because you're nailing with the grain of the wood, at the ends of the lumber, where decay firsts occurs. Brackets means one can cross nail, further from the ends and (important) provide vertical support for the cross-beams. The end result is that the cross beams will be more secure and better supported, translating into a much longer life-span.

(3) Structural attachments will be made with deck screws, not nails. Screws provide a much stronger attachment, compared to nails, as the surface area of hold increases considerably. In addition to superior hold, there's less stress on the fence components, during construction, as there's no POUNDING involved. They can also be removed easily, if repositioning is necessary or in the unlikely event that a fence panel needs to be removed.

(4) Bottom cross-beams will be flipped on-end for a no-sag fence. The long-axis of a 2x4 provides more than twice the structual support as the short-axis, which keeps it from sagging, under the weight of the slats, over time.

Bet you never thought that building a fence was so involved? LOL. Well, leave it to the retired geophysicist to over-engineer a fence. Believe me though, these are tried and proven techniques and they're often overlooked by contractors and fence companies (who just want to bang things up quickly and move on). These small changes can make a HUGE difference in the longevity of a fence. I know. I've replaced and repaired more fences than you can shake a stick at and most were failing (prematurely) because of problems that these techniques address.

With material costs for lumber increasing and labor costs going up, doesn't it make sense to spend 10-20% more and get a fence that lasts fourteen years, as compared with seven? I think so.

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Updated: 25-Jul-2006
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1.flag Aaron In Okanogan Comment
Thanks for the tips on the perfect fence. I'm an apprentice carpenter myself and I've been looking for some Ideas. I was mostly contemplating the saddle or into the concrete. How deep did you set your 6' posts into the concrete 2' or is 4? overkill? If you have the time to answer your response would be appreciated, Thanx
2.flag stk Comment
Aaron - Not sure if it's the "perfect" fence, as I might choose metal posts, over pressure-treated. But to answer your question, I typically shoot for a minimum of 2' depth for the holes (anything over 2' is good, but it depends on ground conditions, etc.)

Remember to dump a shovel or two of concrete into the hole FIRST, then set the post, which (again) minimizes the ground-to-wood contact with the post, at its base. (Also, I try to widen the hole at the base, in case of frost heaving).

Eye-veh ... so much to remember! (Thankfully, I now live on property that has no fences) :D

Hmmm ... I never did get photos of the second fence (ended up banging it out ... and got hired by the neighbor to do HER fence too)! Busy ... busy! (Seems like hiring retired geophysicists to do handyman work is "all the rage") :p
3.flag Aaron In Okanogan Comment
thanks for your quick response stk. Going a little wider at the base of the hole to avoid frost heaves is something I did not think about. I will also price out metal posts. I do plan however to take things up a notch and pour footings and a 6"to 8"wide and 16" deep form wall possibly wider at each post to hold my posts firmly in the ground, with the concrete sloped away from the posts of course. I am building this fence for my beautiful girlfriends parents new home, my girlfriends father happens to be a city building inspector so the fence has got to be the bomb, lol. Thank you again and good luck with your future endeavors!
4.flag stk Comment
Aaron - The funny bit is that I learned about the frost-heaving technique while building fences in Texas!

From your sentence, I'm not sure if it's your girlfriend that's beautiful, your girlfriend's parents or their new home? (I'll bet it's your girlfriend!) :p

LOL @ building inspector. Good luck with your "inspection"! ;) (If you think about it, send pictures of your finished fence!)
5.flag Aaron In Okanogan Comment
Funny to have gotten what might be some of my best fence building suggestions from a retired geophysicist, as I work with carpenters for a living. I wrote this the previous letter first thing this morning before work and was sloppy with my commas I guess, lol. Lets just hope my carpentry is better than my grammar. Thank you again for the suggestions and I will do my best to send pictures as I am looking forward to building something I can be proud of as I have been building condos and commercial buildings for the past couple years. Cheers stk!
6.flag Jc Comment
Hey good job!
Did you guys leave a slight gap between boards for the wind?
I can't tell from the photos.
7.flag Jr Comment
can you tell how far from ground bottom cross beam should be?
8.flag Another Idea About Concrete Base Comment
if you don't want tne post to be on ground level, cut a 5 gallon bucket around the outside centre depending on how high you want the cement to be , place cut section of the bucket over the post and press into the ground around the hole , so when your concrete hardens you'll have your post away from the ground level. looks nice too!!
9.flag Darren From Nl Canada Comment
a gap in the fence is a really good idea, wind is unpredictable! also try not to put your fence bottom too close to the ground, want to avoid rot if you can!!