Installing a Fence: (not so) Perfect Pickets and the Women Who Love Them

When we last met, the fence rails went up and my neighbors started wondering why I was turning my yard into a pastoral, split-rail wonderland.

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Darn, this is rather charming. Maybe I should just rip out everything and move away from the city.

One of my concerns with this fence was building it so that my house didn’t feel closed off. I host a regular stream of guests through AirBnB, and my goal is to offer a welcoming house to strangers from the moment they step out of the car. Therefore, I planned my fence about three feet tall with plenty of space between pickets. The main reason I wanted a fence at all was to help the garden seem a bit more contained – actually, the real reason it’s there is to keep dog pee and drunk feet off the flowers.

Now, do you remember how valuable hard work is? Let’s talk tedium! Because my fence was only going to be about hip high, and I’m trying to avoid bankruptcy-via-projects, I figured the pickets should be on the narrow side. It’s totally fine to use six-inch-wide pickets on a short fence, but for my cottage aesthetic, I needed something narrower.

I’m sure you can buy pickets that are three inches wide and three feet tall. Lowes even sells panels that are pretty close to suiting my needs. However, for less than half the cost (and better quality, according to the reviews), I could build exactly what I wanted. It just involved a ton of sawdust all over my body.

I bought over 40 standard, six-foot-tall, six-inch-wide, pressure-treated pickets that were on sale for $1 each. Then, before I even set the first post, I started cutting them down. It took forever, but it was kind of mindless work. A little meditation with nothing but the endless shriek of the circular saw in my ears.

First, I cut each of the boards in half, into three-foot-tall sections. That was the easy part, and the work went quickly.

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Lined up like little drunken soldiers – and my trusty speed square is peeking at the bottom!

Then I sawed each board into two three-inch-wide halves. That work went extremely slowly. I don’t think my saw much cared for the curves in the cheap fence boards. I actually sawed these in batches as I worked on the fence over a week or so because this was the tedious part.

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We draw the line. Then we cut the line. We draw the line. Then we cut the line . . .

But I finally ended up with a set of narrow, short pickets. Yay! But wait! All of the tops are uneven! Once again, I am faced with a few choices as to how to shape the tops of the pickets. Gothic is very pretty but way to intricate for me to cut a hundred times. A simple point is easy, but remember how we’re trying to make my yard welcoming and not like the land leading up to Vlad Dracula’s castle?

I ended up going for the tried and true dogear cut, using a pre-cut piece as a stencil. Then bzzt! bzzt! Voila, dogear.

Sooooo I know most people put up fence boards with nails. But here’s the thing:  I hate nails and avoid using them whenever possible. If I even look at a hammer too closely, I get blisters on my hands. Therefore, these puppies got installed with one 1 1/4″ screw in the top and one in the bottom. I spaced them three inches apart – the same width as the pickets – for an airier look.

My routine for several evenings involved heading to my front yard with a stack of pickets, Sir Speed Square, a beer, and some music. As much of a pain as cutting a bazillion pickets was, installing them was the nice kind of tedious where you step back and are proud of what you’ve done.

Are my pickets perfect and parallel? Pfft no. But I have to say, I’m pretty happy with the result.

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“That is one fiiiiiine fence,” you might be saying to yourself as you lick your lips (okay, maybe not that far). But wait! We’re not done yet.

See, this project is happening in the land of termites and rot. It’s a beautiful place that’s full of life, but that comes along with tons of bugs and micro-organisms. That poor little fence won’t last long without a stain or paint or a little raincoat covering it.

But covering the fence has been it’s own ordeal, so we’ll save it for next time!

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< Step 5:  Installing a Fence: Time to Get Railed

Step 7:  The Painting of the Pickets >

Installing a Fence: Time to Get Railed

A little over a week ago, we got started with setting fence posts. What’s the next step in building a fabulous barrier between your garden and the neighborhood stumbling drunkards? Fence rails!

I was running up against a bit of a timeline with these rails. As I work all day long, I can only devote some time in the evenings to the yard. But the rails were a priority because we were approaching a music festival that spans two weekends and brings hundreds, if not thousands, of drunk people to my neighborhood. Also, the weather’s only getting hotter from here.

After two trips to Lowes, I finally had enough 2x4s. You might remember the rough plan I drew off an Excel spreadsheet, but did you notice the numbers and letters between the purple fence posts?

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Those bad boys made cutting and installing the rails so much easier. I had two sets of A, two of B, and so on. Before I screwed them into place, I went around to all the fence posts and drew two lines – 1 inch from the top of the posts and 30 inches from the top – using my hand speed square. If you don’t have a speed square but want to do any kind of wood work, trundle on out to Lowes and get one. Speed squares are extremely handy for drawing straight lines, taking short (six inches or less) measurements, getting a rough idea of angles, and making sure two pieces of wood are meeting at a right angle.

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Or pop over to Amazon and have one sent to you.

For the first few years I lived in my house, I used a hand-me-down corded drill that had belonged to my granny. It was very basic but powerful and worked well as I fumbled through the basics of building. But a few Christmases ago, my dad gifted me a cordless Ryobi drill and circular saw and holy shebang, what a difference. On his excellent advice, I ordered a few spare batteries from eBay – it sucks to have your battery die in the middle of a project.

So I cut the 2x4s down with the circular saw, and while they were still on the ground, I pre-drilled holes with the cordless drill. I like to use star-drive exterior screws for just about everything because they don’t strip as easily as a Phillips head. Even though these are self-drilling, creating a hole first helps them immediately grip and head into the wood in the intended direction. Sometimes wood that’s a bit on the harder side will send a screw careening off in the wrong direction.

Once all the screws were partially drilled into the face of either end of the rails – two per side – installing them was as simple as awkwardly bracing them with my leg while matching the rails up with the lines I’d drawn on the posts. The easiest way I’ve found to set the rails involved drilling the screws in the following order:

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Also the maybe steps to a dance that was briefly popular in the mid-50s.

And voila! My yard looks like an experimental western project completed by a kindergartner.

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The rails were up for a few days before I started on the pickets. A neighbor came by and actually mentioned he thought I was trying to do a western theme. #awkyard

I normally alternate building posts with non-project posts, but the next one will be on pickets. Quite a bit of work has gone into something as silly as a thin board, a few inches wide and less than three feet tall. Those darn pickets deserve their own post, but I don’t want to drag out the fence part of this project too much longer.

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< Step 4:  Laying the Foundation for the Garden

 Step 6:  Installing a Fence: (not so) Perfect Pickets and the Women Who Love Them >

Fence Installation: the First Step (also, tearing out bushes!)

Last time in Operation: Chaos into Beauty, we ripped up the lawn. The next step is technically “flowers will be planted” and then, after that, “a fence will be erected.”

However, at this point, I realized the fence should at least start going up first, before I planted anything. Also, we’re going to take a segue, because I totally forgot to mention The Bushes previously.

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Seen here:  The Bushes.

The previous owner planted a low-growing gardenia on the outside corners of the house, with Indian hawthorn in between. How much Indian hawthorn? WAY MORE THAN I EVER IMAGINED.

I had to remove to bushes.

My original plan for the bushes involved gently digging them out and finding a new home for them. They’re good bushes – shiny green leaves, little berries that the bird enjoy. pretty white flowers – but I never liked the idea of having bushes right next to the house. First of all, it’s very common, and I want my house to stand out. Secondly, I’ve also heard that having dense vegetation next to your house invites pests to intrude and damage the structure.

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A charming home for all the neighborhood pests.

Several times during the Day of the Digging, I wet the ground under the bushes (it hadn’t rained in a week, so the ground was pretty dry and hard). The dirt was nice and soft, but holy bananagrams, these bushes were deeply rooted. I ended up using a large set of loppers to basically chop the bushes to the ground in order to dig them up. Fortunately, I chose to get rid of the bushes the night before garbage day, because they ended up just going out on the curb. Wasting perfectly good bushes pained me, but they were totally mangled by the time I cleared them out.

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I decided to keep the gardenia’s on either corner of the house, as they have less compact branches and a slightly funkier look than the traditionally round leaves of the Indian hawthorn.

Aaaaah, my house has breathing room now. And I really like the light brick skirt! I find it very charming.

So now onto the fence! Finally!

The overall plan for transforming my yard from grass into garden entailed several steps:  tilling, covering the tilled dirt with thick brown paper, and laying several inches of mulch on the top. Then, when I’m ready to plant, I’ll cut little Xs into the paper, place the seedlings inside, and put the paper and mulch back in place to minimize the chance of grass or weeds poking through.

I realized that if I planted before setting the fence posts, I’d be doing a lot of awkward rearranging of paper and mulch for the fence post holes. It made more sense to set the posts, then lay down the paper and mulch around them.

The fence will only be about three feet tall, but the home improvement stores don’t sell tiny posts. I ended up cutting eight-foot 4x4s in half with my circular saw (and yay! it was way easier than expected). As the posts were so short, I only dug about two feet into the ground. Then several inches of pea gravel went into the hole. Tamp down the the gravel and set the post inside to see how high it sits. To make sure my posts were even, I laid a 2×4, broad side flat, across the hole and measured from the 2×4 to the top of the post.

If I were a better blogger, this space would have a progress picture, but dangit, sometimes I just get so into the work that the rest of the world falls away.

Once the post was even (height-wise, as well as checking the sides with a level), I braced it with two narrow lengths of wood nailed to perpendicular sides. Then Quikrete Fast-Setting Concrete Mix went in until a few inches below the lip of the hole, to be followed by a gentle spray of hose water until the hole was filled. After ten minutes or so, the concrete started to set and the space between the concrete and the lip of the hole was filled with dirt.

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Eeeh, more or less like this, but much less neat. Source.

I spent the better part of a Sunday setting fence posts.

Fortunately, as they’re on the shorter side, they went pretty quickly. Unfortunately, I needed 15. I finished 10 that day and did the rest over the next day or two.

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Orange spray paint courtesy of the utilities company. Even though there was almost no way I was going to dig deep enough to hit a utility line, I still called 811.

I was extra fortunate to have some friends who volunteered to come over and help. They dug the trench that is slowly turning into a dry creek bed, to the left of the sidewalk in the above photo. My region gets some pretty heavy downpours during the summer, which overwhelm the soil under my porch’s rain chain. The dry creek bed will divert the extra water toward the street drain.

Around the time I set the last of the fence posts, exhaustion began to creep in. I was still doing my morning workouts (more on that in a future post), then working a full day before coming home to the front yard in the evenings. One of the downsides of being a singleton doing all her own work is just that – if I don’t do the work, it doesn’t get done! Especially on a large project, there’s only so much a human body can do each day, which is frustrating. Not only do I want to see the finished project, the weather will only get hotter over the next few months.

But for now, the days are sunny and warm and the nights are pleasantly cool . . .

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< Step 2:  How (Not to) Till Your Lawn

Step 4:  Laying the Foundation for the Garden >