December 19, 2012

Building a cedar backyard fence

The week before Christmas might not be the time most people choose to demolish and rebuild a backyard fence. But that is exactly what I am in the process of doing. 

Our house was built in the 1980s and presumably the fence was too. The wet West Coast climate takes a toll on wood and the property's fences were looking tired by the time we bought the place four years ago.

A coat of paint would help, we thought. So I painted the 60-odd feet of wood panels about three years ago. It improved the look a little but not enough, and it certainly did not stem the rotting. Last year we removed the lattice from the top panels where it had not already fallen out on its own. A cleaner look perhaps but, again, far from enough.

The whole backyard needs work. Tim has spent much time and effort trying to turn the clumps of green and dirt into proper grass, including dethatching it, but so far it has not turned into the sea of lushness we had hoped for. There is also an old shed that has seen far better days, and it is waiting to be demolished to make room for a nice patio.     

Our dog, Luka, loves to play ball in the backyard which I am sure has not helped the condition of the "lawn", as he slides after his toys to fetch them. I recently read the term "pet-scaping", landscaping with your dog (or pet) in mind, something that I'd like to look into next spring.

This summer we got a quote to redo all of the property's fences and building some new ones and, not surprisingly, it was pretty expensive. We have plenty of other projects that are screaming for funds so it is a matter of prioritizing.

In the meantime, we had been keeping an eye out for fences we like. Tim and I both like clean, modern lines. Horizontal boards provide that look.

Our backyard is about 65 feet wide. It's deep too, though a large part is taken up by a steep ravine that houses plenty of tall trees. The back fence, which sits on top of  a retaining wall of about 4-1/2 feet, is there to keep bears out of the yard, and Luka in it. As we have found, a bear has no problem jumping our fence but at least there is an extra hurdle. Privacy is not an issue, and we like the green outlook.

As another summer came and went, we were too busy with other things to tackle the fence issue. Tim and I both signed up to do Ironman Whistler in Canada next August, which there means will be little time for big home projects in May, June, July, and August of 2013. A new fence would stay on the to-do list another year.

Tired of looking at this ...
Or so we thought. Last Friday, December 14, proved a fantastic sunny day. Perfect conditions to get rid of that hideous fence; I was suddenly completely tired of looking at it -- we see it from the kitchen, Tim's office and the dining room.

Tim was initially not enthusiastic about my plan; he did not want to be without a fence for months. What was I going to replace it with, and when? My initial plan was a temporary solution, using a 50-foot roll of 4-foot-high multipurpose fence attached to the existing posts with large ties, which would be a relatively simple and easy job.

Old shed in back will soon follow ...
After a little discussion, he agreed and I set about removing most of the panels, initially six 8-foot ones. It took me 3-1/2 hours of solid work, using both sides of a claw hammer, a hand saw and a square-tipped screw driver; the time included piling the wood in the shed.

Tim went out to get some large ties to attach the new fence, which we planned to do the following day as darkness arrives before 5pm at this time of the year. At night I decided to look into lumber, check more modern fence pictures, and before long there was a new plan: a modern wood fence, either pressure-treated or cedar.

After a Saturday trip to Home Depot where the sizes in stock were not the ones I had in mind, I went to Rona on Sunday while Tim was at a bike store. Plenty of cedar 1x6x8 planks at $5.49 each. They also had 1x4x8s, but were out of 1x3x8s, though those could be ordered and arrive in five days. No 1x2x8s.

Fence post
We had decided to keep the old 4x4 fence posts to keep the job manageable; they're still sturdy and anchored to the retaining wall. Besides, they are conveniently more or less 8 foot apart, measured from mid-post to mid-post. To improve the look, we decided to clad the front with a 1x4; in spring I'll probably paint the sides of the post in the same white as the trim of our house.

For the fence panels  I decided to use three 1x6s, and then add two 1x3s between each to add some visual interest, while keeping the design simple. I have never built a fence and am a novice carpenter, after all. Gaps of 2-1/2 in between each board, plus the size of each one (all half an inch shorter than their names, i.e. a 1x6 is really 5.5 inches wide) plus a 3-inch gap from the retaining wall will add up to a height of about 47 inches. Perfect.

Back to Rona with the plan. Once Tim and I loaded the Pathfinder with 18 1x6x8s and 7 1x4x8s, it was full enough; we picked up screws and paid a total of $148; the 24 1x3x8s we'll pick up later will add another $100. Not bad for a 48-foot cedar fence.

The first task was to cut the 1x4x8s to size; the existing fence posts are all a different height. I ran each new cedar piece along a post, marking the desired height with a pen, and then brought it back inside to hand saw it to size. To avoid splitting, it helps to saw both sides of the board.

To avoid splitting, start sawing at the back for a small groove
... then move to the front to finish the job
... et voila
My rather basic "work bench"
This process for seven 1x4s took less time than I thought, and screwing them onto their posts was easy; cedar is a soft wood. I only used two screws, one near the top and one near the bottom, as there will be more once the horizontal boards will be screwed into the cladding and post.
Side view, to be painted white in spring
Front view of cladded old post
The following day Tim helped with the two-person job of getting the 1x6x8s onto the posts, using screws, square screw driver, level, and a measuring tape.

Work is progressing well. Four panels are now in place, which will later get the four 1x3s -- two between each 1x6, and possibly another 1x3 near the bottom; the boards are level, the retaining wall is not.
Four eight-foot panels are up; four 1x3s will be added later 
To be continued ...

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