Fencing in the new year
January 26, 2006
It happens about once every three years or so. A powerful Pacific storm pushes its way across California and batters the heck out of anything that isn't tied down. Levees crumble, rivers flood their banks, hills turn into mounds of muddy glop that slide over roadways. This year's version of the winter beast blew in on New Year's Eve, a cruel reminder that Mother Nature always has the upper hand in her battle with humans for master of the planet.
It was a little past 10 a.m. that gloomy Saturday when the evil wind began to blow. We were just getting the morning started, contemplating how we would spend our final day of 2005 with all of us at home. Glenn was in the middle of his weekly football picks call with brother Sean when the power went out. Then he looked out the patio door to see a large portion of our back fence come tumbling into the yard. Moments later, it was joined by a second panel. Eighteen years of wind, rain, sun and sand had taken their toll on our tired wood fence, and all it took was one good storm to make us realize the folly of our ways in not replacing it sooner.
When the torrents of rain temporarily subsided, we dashed outside and did our best to push the fallen panels back into place. Fully assembled and sopping wet, they felt like they weighed a ton. Roni pushed, Glenn pulled, and Ben helped guide us as we righted the rotted sections and tacked them back up to what was left of the 4x4 posts they had been attached to. With nothing more than some brad nails and prayers, Glenn reassembled the twisted, broken boards and hoped the patch job would weather the rest of the weather. Naturally, it didn't.
Sunday morning, New Year's Day, brought more of the same. Only this time the storm played havoc with the fence that separates our yard from our neighbors to the northwest. Once again Glenn found himself battling the elements and improvising repairs as he struggled to save what he could. One panel collapsed, scattering a dozen fragile redwood planks into the neighbor's yard. While we worked to resurrect it, the storm rose in intensity and the rest of the fence began to sway as post after post snapped off at its base. It was like watching the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike trying to hold back the flood. Meanwhile, one of the back fence panels we had reattached the previous day came down again.
When at last the storm clouds abated we took a hard look at what we had left and reluctantly agreed we couldn't put off a new fence any longer. What the storm hadn't blown down it had left weakened and cockeyed. One more good gust would almost surely render us fence-less. With that, the Great Fence Project of 2006 was born.
After a few days of measuring, re-measuring, cogitating and researching, we found ourselves combing the lumber aisles at Home Depot in search of enough wood to replace 100 feet of fallen fencing. Some $2,000 later we had scheduled a delivery that arrived, somehow appropriately, on Friday the 13th. With Ben at school, Roni and Glenn together managed to transport 200 fence boards, 10 posts, 51 rails, and a few miscellaneous other items from the driveway to the back of the house where they now occupy most of the patio. That doesn't include the 14 kickboards and 64 50-pound sacks of concrete that Ben helped us move the following day.
Having never attempted to build a fence ourselves, we grabbed a book on the subject and learned all we could. The most important lesson we took from this was: build it straight. Not an easy task, even with the mason's twine and level we used.
The back fence is divided into five sections, each consisting of three 8-foot panels. Three of the sections are entirely in our yard, one is about three-fourths on our property, and the remaining one about two-thirds. It will require some discussion with the neighbors before we attempt the latter two sections, but there was nothing holding us back from the other three, which were in the worst shape.
Starting with the worst section, step one involved breaking down the old wood, which didn't take long considering that Ma Nature had done most of it for us. We removed all the nails and stacked the old boards in a discard pile near our evergreen ash tree. Once the old fence was gone, the next step was to dig out the concrete footings for the original posts and set the new ones. The original builder used about a hundred pounds of concrete per post, which we decided was woefully inadequate given our sandy soil and strong Delta winds. So we went with about 350 pounds seven bags of concrete per post, and installed 10-foot pressure treated 4-by-4's.
With the posts in place, next came the rails. We used pressure treated wood for all our framing. Each panel got three rails, which were attached to the posts using metal brackets. Each fence section is separated from its neighbor by a concrete block pillar, and each pillar has a 2-by-4 bolted to it. We loosened up the rusted bolts with a squirt of WD-40 and the nuts slipped right off. We cut new 2-by-4's, drilled them, then reattached them with the original bolts.
Once the frame was set it was time to attach the 2-by-6 crown that spans the entire 24-foot section. This is where we discovered what can happen when your posts aren't perfectly aligned, as our first section wasn't. We had one maverick post that was off just enough that it left us with a slight buckle in the finished section. And this was after we had checked and rechecked the post before setting it in concrete. Sigh. Fortunately we were able to compensate and didn't have to dig the post out and start over.
Up to this point our project involved little more than copying the design of the original fence. But we have learned over the years that redwood doesn't fare well in an area where sand drifts constantly blow up against it. The sand gets wet and then the wood rots. Consequently we had hundreds of 6-foot fence planks with ragged feet. Hoping to avoid a similar problem with the new fence, we opted for 5-foot planks and finished off the bottom foot with pressure treated kickboards on which the planks rest. These we screwed onto the bottom rails so that one day when the boards need to be replaced and they WILL need to be replaced we can simply take the screws out rather than wrench them off with a hammer.
We've decided that the kickboards look really cool, but they also represent a somewhat radical departure from the look of the original fence that surrounds our subdivision. We're hoping that others will follow our lead when it comes time to replace their fences, but we suspect most will opt for the least expensive mehtod, which this definitely wasn't.
With the kickboards in place, all that was left to do was attach the planks. Our 8-inch wide planks were wider than the 6-inchers that were originally used, but we followed the same overlapping pattern of the original so the effect is basically the same. Weather slowed down completion of the first section. The second section went up much faster and with no alignment problems, taking about 12 hours from start to finish. Along the way we have had people ask us for our old wood, and one guy wondered if we had bought all our supplies because he claimed he was opening a lumber store and wanted to give us a deal. There are still three sections to build as of this writing. We'll keep you posted on the progress.
Despite the torrential rains and heavy winds that took down our fence, we've actually been spoiled by warm weather so far this winter. So much so that we were all caught off guard by the rain that greeted us Christmas morning. It has been our tradition to leave the outdoor holiday lights on all night Christmas Eve (to help light the way for Santa, of course), and there is something reassuring about going to bed and seeing that warm, motel-like glow through the front hallway as you drift off to sleep. But when we awoke sometime around 3 a.m. to pitch blackness, we suspected that the Grinch who decapitated our wicker snowman earlier in the season had returned to put a damper on our Christmas Eve light display. A damper had, in fact, been cast upon us, but it came in the form of a heavy rain that infiltrated our surge-protected electrical plugs and caused a massive short circuit.
The indoor lights worked just fine, however, so we had the tree all ablaze for the opening of Ben’s stocking and the unwrapping of presents. Santa proved very generous this year. Ben received the Nintendo DS videogame system he had been wanting since last Christmas, along with a couple of game cartridges to go with it. He also received a rock tumbler, which due to a lack of a can of vasoline he has yet to be able to use. Glenn was happy with his gifts of several writing books, a CD and DVD, a sweater, and a calendar of wind farms that Roni lovingly assembled from photos she found on the Internet. Glenn, who has long been fascinated by the wind, had said it would be the perfect calendar if someone could find one for him, and so Roni titled it "Glenn's Perfect Calendar." It now hangs in a place of honor in the writing sanctuary.
Roni was surrounded by Texas-themed gifts, reflecting her enthusiasm for the Lone Star State. There was a gift pack of chili and hot sauce, bluebonnet-scented air freshener, whimsical signs ("Texas stories told here some true"), and a blanket imprinted with iconic images of Texas. But her favorite gift by far was the treadmill she received. Roni has made her goal for 2006 to get in shape, and she lobbied Santa long and hard to deliver some exercise gear under the tree. The machine was a little too big and heavy to put in her stocking, but it did show up in the writing sanctuary when she went back to check on things there later on Christmas morning.
The best present we gave ourselves this year wasn't really a Christmas present at all. For the past several months we had been shopping around for a new mattress to replace the queen set we've been sleeping on for nearly 15 years, and the week after Christmas we finally found one that suited both our budget and comfort level. Taking advantage of year-end closeout sales helped shave a few hundred dollars off the final cost, which left us with enough extra to add on a pretty nice headboard and footboard. It was all delivered to us the afternoon of Jan. 5. We knew going up to a king-size mattress would take up more space in our bedroom, but we'd had no idea until we saw it all assembled just how huge it would actually be. The frame is what takes up the most space, plus it raises us up about three feet from the floor. Roni says only half in jest that she needs a ladder to climb into the thing. New pillows and bedding set us back a bit more, but the cost was definitely worth it now that we have more room to spread out at night. The Englander mattress features a memory foam top that is supposed to contour to your body and provide for a more comfortable rest. Now that we’ve been on it for a couple of weeks we are beginning to feel how the whole system works. Ariel has figured out how it works, too. Before, she liked to sleep at the foot of the bed and crowded Glenn’s feet. Now, she likes to sleep at the foot of the bed and still crowds Glenn’s feet, only now her sleeping area is much fluffier. Wonder how long it will take the memory foam to conform to a five-pound feline?
We’ve all been up to our writing projects during January. Glenn and Roni are both working on manuscripts for novels in progress, while Ben has taken up correspondence with a pen pal from Missouri. This is made easier by the fact that he finally got his computer repaired at the end of December after having been without one for nearly a month after the power supply blew out. Ben has been reading a lot in school, His class recently finished off "Caddie Woodlawn" and has been watching the nature video "A Home for Pearl." For the past several weeks his class has been making Chinese dragons for the upcoming Chinese New Year.
Glenn has been enjoying a little notoriety this month thanks to the broad distribution an article he wrote on Saguaro National Park has received through the KRT news service. The article originally appeared Nov. 27 in the Contra Costa Times travel section. It has since appeared in publications in such far-flung cities as Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Nashville, Chattanooga, Wichita, Kan. and San Diego. A Google search will turn up several sites online.
That's about all we have to share this month. The first signs of spring are beginning to appear, so hopefully by next month we'll have blossom photos to share. Enjoy your February.
Glenn, Roni and Ben