When we bought our house in 1998, our back yard came with what I would call an old metal dog fence; a sturdy, unsightly, somewhat rusted, waist-high construct of woven wire rectangles stretched between metal posts. Our yard is large and the fence ran down both sides and across the back. It was overgrown with ivy and weeds and leaned dramatically in places. The metal posts were each topped by metal ball and sunk deep in concrete at their base.
I could have hired a professional firm to remove the fence and build a wooden replacement. Professional fence-builders have good tools, established methodology, multiple laborers and can remove an old fence and put up a new one in a day or two. So I got a few estimates. Expensive. I also imagined some alternatives: a beautiful snaking brick wall, perhaps like Thomas Jefferson designed for the University of Virginia. Such a wall, it turns out, would not be remotely affordable.
So I had the excuse I needed. There is nothing I like more than a project, particularly one that involves the possible purchase of necessary new tools. Cautiously, I decided to tackle just the back of the yard first – the shortest stretch – about fifty feet.
It was fall of 2000, and business was slow because campaigns were in full gear. My first task was to remove the old fence. It ran along the boundary of our yard and the back alley. First, I used a heavy metal shear to clip the wire fence away from the poles. Each cut required a fair amount of gripping force, but there is something very satisfying about the twang of the wire as each piece releases in turn. It gets pleasantly tiring after lot of them. I had some difficulties with the bottom of the fence. In many places it had gone underground, or become tangled in plants and roots. I grabbed the fence with work gloves and pulled and twisted each section until it freed up. After removing each section of wire, I rolled it up and stacked those ugly rusted sproingy things for a later trip to the dump.
Next I turned my attention to the metal posts. I tried rocking them to loosen the grip of the earth around the concrete bases. Not much luck. I got out a spade and dug around the bases of one of the posts. It is fun to jump on a shovel, see it bite the ground, pry up a chunk of soil, and throw it aside. It was nostalgic; it reminded me of gardening. In many cases, I was able to free a post by a combination of much digging and rocking of the post. After enough effort, I was able to extract a post and its contrete-encrusted base from the ground. I then triumphantly stacked each removed post with the rolled-up fencing.
If I got up early and put in about an hour before going to work, I could remove two posts. This activity was therapeutic. An added benefit; an excuse to acquire a six-foot-long heavy iron bar to help pry under the concrete bases. For one post in particular, the original fence builder had used an unbelievably excessive amount of concrete – and had gone some 2 ½ feet deep with it. I exposed the base of that one with a lot of digging but could simply not pull it out. I ended up wrapping a chain around the underground portion, attaching it by another chain to the back of my pickup truck, and using that vehicle to rock and drag it out of the ground. The pickup-based extraction process attracted an audience of neighbors and came to a gratifying conclusion with modest applause.
I had decided to build the replacement fence out of cedar. No pre-built picket sections for me, and none of that horrifyingly green arsenic-laced treated pine. I ordered 4x4s for the posts, 2x4s for the stringers, and 1x6s for the fencing. My first mission was to set each new fencepost in the ground. For this I acquired and used a manual post-hole digger -- the kind that has two blades that pivot on long sticks that you thrust forcefully into the ground from eye level. You then pull the handles apart to grab soil, lift and dump the contents aside. It is great fun to repeatedly jam the post-hole-digger into the ground, developing an increasingly deep tube-shaped hole. It is fun except when you run into rocks and jar the hell out of your shoulders, which I did repeatedly.
If I got up early and put in about an hour before going to work, I could dig few holes. I also set up a tight string to make sure my holes were in line and to set an even slope for the tops of the fence posts. After I dug each three-foot-deep hole, I sank a wooden post feet into it, poured in water and dry concrete mix, plumbed it with a long level, used some external construction to fix it in place until it set, and admired my handiwork. In a matter of days, I got all the posts for the back stretch along the alley done.
Next I turned my attention to the stringers (horizontal fence ties). I believe in notching the wooden posts so that the horizontal 2x4 stringers can be set into the posts. The fence in question ran at a fair downhill slope, so I settled on a standard angle for the notches (three needed per post), and measured and marked each of them. I used an adjustable bevel-square to hold and mark the angle. I employed my a circular saw -- freehand -- to cut the top and bottom of the each notch, following the markings. I made repeated parallel passes with the saw between those initial cuts so that I could easily chisel out each notch. I found the notching to be very satisfying, and only struggled a little with the ones that were close to the ground because it hard to manage the saw. In almost all cases, the two-by-fours then fit like a dream across the notches. I fixed the stringers in place with screws and a power drill. That phase went quickly.
Now the fence was almost done. All that remained was the vertical fencing boards. I cut each to length, at an angle to match the slope of the fence on top on with my (power) miter saw. Each board required six screws, and an eight foot section needed about sixteen boards. That is a lot of screwing. If I got up early and worked on it for a bit, I could knock out a section and a half or so a day. I loved the look of the growing fence and the new cedar looked beautiful.
I finished the back fence that fall, including a gate to the alley. The next spring I tackled the northern side fence -- about three times as long as the back one. I thank my neighbor on that side for chipping in on the wood. By way of thanks and sociability, I built a gate between our yards so we could visit each other easily. In the following fall, I took on the southern side fence. That one had some complications, but in the end I had a fully enclosed yard. In the fall of 2004, I went back for more punishment and constructed a little extra fence along one side of my front yard. Even that took a while – I had forgotten how hard it was to dig postholes in rocky soil.
Did I exhibit good fence sense? If I employ a superficial calculation, not so much -- I produced one the most expensive fences around, and it is not as perfect as one done by a pro.
So why do I feel good about it? I had fun. I turned a mundane thing, a backyard fence, into something about which I am proud. I built it the way I wanted to;I know it intimately in all of its details. It provided an activity for me that was break from my indoor working life, and a pleasant escape from my busy thoughts. My yard is now much more “mine” than it would be otherwise. It provided another lesson as well; one than can be applied to many other activities. With a small amount of progress each day, in due time a very long fence will arrive.