To make fence work well, give it a good gate, finish


June 12, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

A wooden fence can be a joy to a homeowner, offering security, privacy and beauty. But it probably won't work without a good gate, and it won't last without a good finish.

A "good" gate needs several things: It needs solid side posts as anchors; it needs a reinforced structure to keep it from sagging; and it needs appropriate hardware so it swings freely and latches securely.

Putting a gate together is a lot like putting in a fence. First decide where it goes, set the support posts, then build the gate and install it.

Determine the placement and width first. A gate for a sidewalk into a backyard, for instance, should be about 3 feet wide, so trash cans, wheelbarrows, lawn mowers and tricycles can pass without slowing down. The gate should have a half-inch clearance on each side where it meets the posts.

The support posts have to be solidly set in concrete to withstand the stress of repeated opening and closing. While the support posts for a wooden fence need only be set 2 feet deep, gate supports should be set 36 inches to 42 inches deep.

Dig the post holes with a shovel, then with a post-hole digger to the determined depth. When the holes are dug, place the posts in them and install braces -- pieces of 1-by-4 that reach from the middle of the post to the ground on two adjoining sides of the post. Use a level on two sides of the post to make sure it is plumb (straight up). Getting the posts plumb is especially important when they're intended to support a gate; if they're off, the gate may never swing or close properly.

When the posts are plumb, press the brace ends into the ground to hold them and pour concrete around the post, to a depth of 2 inches from the top of the hole. Let the concrete harden for 24 hours.

While the concrete is setting up, build the gate. If you used pre-assembled fence sections, cut a section out of a spare piece for the gate.

The frame of the gate should form a Z, with the diagonal board running from the bottom hinge to the opposite upper latch side. That should keep the gate from sagging on the latch side. If you're building the gate from scratch, cut the Z pieces, place the gate boards on top and screw them through the front with galvanized screws. A pre-assembled section will have horizontal boards at top and bottom; cut the diagonal piece and screw it to the upper and lower rails with galvanized screws.

Buy hinges heavy enough to support the weight of the gate. Hinges for outdoor use will be non-rusting or coated. In most cases, two hinges will be enough, but if your gate is taller or wider than average, you may need three.

Attach the hinges to the gate, then mark the posts, pre-drill the holes and screw the hinges to the post. If the posts were plumb, the gate should open and close smoothly.

There's a wide variety of hardware for latching gates: simple slides bolts to complex locking mechanisms. What you buy will depend on how secure you want the gate to be.

If the opening in the fence is for a driveway, you will need a much stronger frame, or a double gate. If you decide on a double gate, consider putting in a concrete "stop" at the center (basically a tiny ramp) to support the ends of the gates where they meet. Besides relieving stress on the gate structure, this restricts the gates to swinging only one way. Install the posts the same way as for a sidewalk gate, allowing extra depth to support the extra width. (No driveway? Measure your widest vehicle to determine the gate size.)

Much fencing wood is pressure-treated -- treated with chemicals to resist insects and rot. If you use pressure-treated wood, be sure you:

*Wear work gloves to avoid cuts and splinters.

*Wear a dust mask to avoid inhaling particles.

*Don't burn scraps.

All pressure-treated wood needs to be "finished" with a wood sealer and preservative. Sunlight is hard on pressure-treated wood, so use a preservative with UV protection. Whenever the wood starts to crack or look gray, spray on a cleaner and treat again with preservative.

You may be planning to paint or stain the fence to match trim or house colors -- even pressure-treated wood can be painted. Prime with an exterior oil-based primer and apply two coats of stain or paint.

You may be told fence wood "will wear to a soft gray finish if left unpainted." But it will wear, split and sooner or later have to be replaced. A wooden fence will last pretty much forever if it's kept painted.

Think of it as character-building. Randy has memories of painting and painting and painting the white picket fence around the house he grew up in. It was a regular chore and, unlike Tom Sawyer, he could never con his friends into helping.

Next: Protect your house from lightning.

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