“The grass is always greener on the other side–that’s because we can’t see over the fence.” (Marsha Hinds)
I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that much of my woodworking involves making replacement parts, particularly for things that go outside, around the garden. The biggest replacement so far has been to rebuild a 14-metre section of our neighbour’s fence.
Our neighbour moved into her house when it was built in the 1960s. One of the things her late husband did on moving in was replace the default, wire fence/concrete pillar boundary with a more substantial and significant wooden one. This wooden fence lasted an impressive 45 or so years, but the time had finally come for it to be ‘refreshed’.
I was keen to have a go at the replacement, knowing that we would benefit from the result as much as our neighbour would. I would do the work on her behalf for no fee and we’d split the cost of the materials. I had earlier built a couple of gates for the sides of our property, and they had lasted a decade or so by this point (and someday I’ll write a blog post on their construction). I was pretty sure I could make something here that would last.
My technique would be to copy the previous construction, allowing a few modifications to correct issues that became apparent as I dissembled the old work. So, I should begin with a simple sketch of the structure:
The fence would comprise upright posts rising to about 2m in height. There would be three rails strung across the posts to which overlapping featherboard slats would be attached. A line of gravel board would be placed along the bottom of the fence, to keep the featherboards off the ground. Gravel boards are rough sawn and pressure treated wooden boards, heavily impregnated with wood preserve to make them last for years in close contact with bacteria and microbe-laden soil. Fence posts are similarly treated with preserve to allow them to be buried deep into the soil and last for many years.
Putting posts into the soil marked the first change over the previous fence. As mentioned, the boundary was originally marked with a wire fence strung between concrete pillars. The wooden fence had been created by bolting wooden posts to these concrete pillars, then building from there, so the old wooden fence posts never actually went into the ground, and so had much less risk of rot. However, there were two problems with this construction:
Firstly, the gap between concrete pillars was very wide – about 3.5 metres between each. This seemed like a very long stretch for the rails, and sure enough, as the rails had weathered, so they had bowed and distorted to affect the structure and reliability of the fence. There were several points in the middle of these stretches where the feather boards were holding the rails in place rather than the other way around.
My solution would be to put wooden posts with the concrete pillars where they were present, and to insert additional wooden posts halfway between each pillar. This would give better support for the rails and reduce the likelihood they would sag or bow.
The second problem with the concrete pillars was that one of them had shifted quite dramatically out of line. It leaned at an angle and had pulled the rails out of place, causing a bow in the fence line. Removing the old fence caused the pillar to shift further, suggesting it had been held up by the fence rather than it being the thing that held the fence up. This pillar would not be suitable for the new work, and it would have to come out…
It remains the heaviest thing I have ever dug out of the ground – back-breaking! – and that’s compared to the roots of several fully grown trees. (and that reminds me; I should write something about tree-removal some time. Woodwork is not all constructive, sadly.)
So, I got busy with clearing away the old wood. Most of it was properly rotten, though some bits could be salvaged. The most salvageable wood was in the featherboard, which would come in handy elsewhere around the garden – we had recently had a wood burning stove fitted and I had plans to build some wood stores. The featherboard could be used for roofs and covers to keep the fire logs dry as they seasoned. (Another project to write up sometime.)
Next, I needed some holes in the ground, to take the new fence posts. The neighbour had a concrete path that ran right alongside the fence. This was helpful as it gave me an immediate guide for the posts’ locations, and I could concrete them in right up to the surface, so they would not need to be in contact with the soil. Concrete can funnel some water against the wood, but this can be alleviated by standing the post on gravel in the base of the hole, which will allow water to drain rather than be trapped in a concrete trough.
To make the post good and stable and able to support the weight of a windy day, you need to set it down to a depth that is at least a third of its height. So, a 2m high fence will need posts at least 2.6m long, sunk to depths of about 66cm. Appropriately, my local wood yard sells posts in 2.8m lengths, so I had enough length to play with.
Now I can assemble the posts and rails. Some posts would be embedded in the ground, some bolted to concrete pillars. All were cut to a consistent height to keep a nice straight and level construction. I realised the top of the posts would present their end-grain to the skies, and could rot easily, so I cut these to an angle to allow rainwater to drain away. I gave these ends a thorough extra coating of wood-preserve to hopefully increase their lifespan.
The rails and gravel boards would need to run the entire 14 metre length of the fence. Obviously, there would need to be joins from time to time. I arranged for the joins to coincide with the fence posts so that they would get a little more protection from the elements and would have less chance to flex and weaken. For the rails, I cut half-laps, while the gravel boards were butted up against each other. Again, I was careful to thoroughly wood-preserve every end to give as long a life as possible.
Then it was time to nail the feather boards into place. This was simple work, though there were a lot of them. One end of the fence connected to gateposts at the front of our houses, the other end disappeared into a hedge that neighbour had established over many years. Wielding a hammer inside a hedge isn’t easy so I reverted to screws for the last few boards – no-one would notice…
And that was that. I built this fence in 2013 and, aside from a little weathering, it still looks pretty good and strong today. If it can last until I’m retired to a bungalow at the seaside, I shall be happy.