The Simple Fence

Posted in Monthly, This Old House at 9:09 am by Pasha

By Pasha Holiday

Ever wonder how the heck all of the old geezers got so smart? How is is that all of the 60-year-olds seem to know so much more than us about life? Why is it that when we are putting in a new light fixture we call dad, when we are planting a garden we call mom and when we are looking for the answers to life, we reach to nana and papa?

I found the reason, tapped into the great fountain of knowledge that until now has been illusive to me. The reason why 60-year-olds know more than 30-year-olds is the same reason why 80-year-olds know more than the 60-year-olds; because they have been there and done that. As my mother’s favorite catch phrase, “Education will never be at the mercy of experience,” drums in my ears, I know one thing for sure: She is totally right.

In the past seven months of gutting and rehabbing a 105-year-old home I have learned more about carpentry, plumbing, patience, strength and the ability to let go of the uncontrollables than I had in all of my previous 29 years. And the reason is simply this, because I now have the experience of doing it.

So many of the renovations came with research, and then, of course, trial and error. The Home Depot book tells you to plumb your kitchen sink one way, but really a house this old has its own way. Research, gushing water and the most crucial point, just doing it until it works, is the real reason our sink drains water. With our new wooden fence, it was much of the same.

Since we found this little house, the husband has been talking about ripping out the old, gnarly chain link fence that surrounded it and replacing it with a wooden privacy fence. One of his (much older) buddies has the experience of building many fences in his lifetime. So once the ground thawed and the metal scrappers in our neighborhood had hauled off our old fence, we called in Dave and got the lowdown on how to build our own little barrier to the world.

It starts like this, buy the material (basically concrete, lumber and screws) and get it delivered to your doorstep. We bought all of the materials at Menard’s, which is Chicago’s basic lumber yard. The only hitch is that when the delivery comes it is on a big pallet and since we live in the city we cannot exactly leave it outside to be stolen. Make sure you have a couple of hours and strong adults to haul it all into the basement or garage. And expect to be sore the following day no matter how tough you are. The material list for building a fence is below.

The first step to building a fence is plotting and then digging holes for the fence posts. Start by putting in fence posts at the corners. Snap a line with string and put fence posts in every seven feet, or less if you have tough angles, as we do. Since our yard and fence is not exactly square, we had to put posts in about every 6 feet in some areas.

To put in the posts, dig a hole with a post hole digger 20 inches, at least, into the ground. Ideally 24 inches but in some spots you are lucky to make it to 20. Digging the holes for the posts is the most labor intensive task in building the fence. Man boobs beware, this will burn them off in no time. Once the hole is dug (and yeah, all the obstructions, rocks, bricks, roots, etc. do have to be pulled out) use a level to place the post in the hole and fill half with dry concrete mix, half with water. Once the water soaks in, fill the hole to the top with the concrete and soak with water. Repeat for all the posts.

Take a day or two off to recover from setting the posts and to let the concrete fully dry.

Next it is time to set the 2×4x8 cross beams. Between each of the posts, three cross beams need to be screwed into the post, which eventually will hold all the pickets. Roughly at two feet, four feet and six feet, screw in each of the cross beams with all weather screws, again using a level. Cut the cross beams down to fit, this will vary depending on how far apart the posts are set so measure each cut. All of the cross beams should line up together. Make sure to leave the space where your gates will go.

The final step is to screw in all the pickets. We used a cheater tool to keep the fence level at the top, which does not necessarily mean level at the ground, where it is naturally uneven. A cheater tool is simply two pieces of wood screwed together in an L shape so each picket measures the same distance from the top cross beam to the height of the fence. Put six all weather screws into each picket, two at each cross beam. This task is easily done with three sets of hands. One person measures and sets the pickets, the other puts the initial three screws in to secure the pickets. these two people continue to put pickets in place quickly down the line. The third person is the gopher, continually replenishing the picket supply and following behind the two man crew to finish off each picket with the final three screws.

We built a six-foot privacy fence in back and a four-foot picket fence in the front. We spaced the pickets in front using the same cheater tool, always measuring the same distance apart.

The results are astonishing! We have a professional looking fence around our home’s perimeter in a total of about five days and for around $1200. We still need to build the gates, or rather learn how to construct them from our pro friend. And we still need to cut down the posts that stick up over the fence. But in all we were able to leave town with the security of a great, big, as perfect as it is going to get, fence!

I feel my brain power for how to do this that or the other thing vastly increasing with each project we do in this old home. While not for the faint of heart, I now can’t fathom not buying a fixer upper and learning all these things. And I truly hope that one day, when we are the old geezers, our children call on us to ask how to do just about anything. And my old brain will look back fondly and remember the experiences that made me smart and knowledgeable. And then, our children can learn for themselves.

Material List for a Fence

Stage 1: set the posts,

1 4×4x8 post for every 8 feet of fence.
1 80 lb bag of concrete per post
1 post hole digger
200 feet of string/twine
1 level

Stage 2: building sections,

3 2×4x10 for each section
fence pickets are 5 1/2″ so if you have 100 feet of fence you need just over 200 pickets
Big Box 3″ all weather screws (per 100 feet)
2 large box of all weather 1 5/8″ screws (per 100 feet)

You will need a circular saw
and drills preferably cordless


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