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The Fence Post

Wednesday, July 11, 2012
The astute reader might recall that I bought a house about two-and-a-half years ago. When I bought the house I knew that the fence would need replacing. Despite, at the time, being only 4 years old, it was obviously in terrible condition. In a decision with far-reaching, expensive, and often painful repercussions, I resolved to rebuild it at some point in the future. I planned on the summer of 2011 for the project. Since it's the summer of 2012 and I'm just now writing this, it's a safe assumption that it didn't happen then. No, after patching together a couple parts of the fence that fell down over the winter, I finally started this project in May of this year. My plan was to take a week off of work to build a retaining wall and a fence. I'd worked out a schedule and a rough budget ahead of time; I'd arranged for friends and family to help with a guideline on what I'd need, and when I'd need it.
Hofstadter's Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.
It started a week before my "vacation", when my brother and I took down the existing fence. It took a matter of minutes to knock the old fence down; most of the 4x4 posts had rotted, even being pressure treated, and broke off easily enough. (I'm pretty sure pressure treated wood will still rot, especially when it's buried under a foot of soil that's almost always moist.) What took the most time was disassembling the fence; we took off the existing boards, rotted though many of them were, and set them aside.

Then came trench time. I'd allocated a few days to dig a trench and build a retaining wall. I'd planned on a 12" wall running the length of the property, with a small trench filled with gravel on which this could sit. This is where the plan fell apart.

First, I couldn't rent an appropriate trencher. The ones I saw wouldn't dig wide enough and there was a one-foot elevation difference between the two sides of the trench. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we ended up having to take out all the existing concrete that had been used to build the old fence, and there was more of it than I'd thought. It turns out that, for a fence that had been built in 2006, it had already rotted and been repaired in a couple places. Rather than learning from their mistakes, whoever repaired it simply left the concrete in place and dug another hole next to it, using longer 2x4s on one side of the new post and shorter 2x4s on the other. We ended up taking out over 15 blocks of concrete that had been used.

At this point I really figured out that there are several reasons the fence was falling down. I'd initially attributed it to people bumping it with their cars and just being a cheap fence, but neither of those were accurate. I realized, after taking it down, that the builders had been using the fence as a surrogate retaining wall. In soil that practically never sees the light of day, I found that the fence had slid out from the house somewhere between six inches and a foot at various times as the extremely moist soil slid away from my house. The only phrase I can come up with for such bone-headed thinking and execution is "malicious incompetence". The people who built this fence not only did a terrible, ineffective job, but in doing so they made it harder to do right later.

The trench wasn't finished in a day. It wasn't even finished in three days. As I got futher into it, I realized that I needed an 18" wall instead of a 12" one (effectively adding 50% to just the cost of the wall.) Then, not only did I have to line the trench with gravel (which I purchased from the excellent Oregon Decorative Rock store), I needed to rent a compacter in order to really flatten it. (Kudos to my adventure buddy for helping me with both the realization and execution of this.)

A trench, freshly dug (by hand)

After digging a trench that was at least 14" wide, 6-7" deep (on the short side, 20" deep on the tall side), and 110' long (the lenght of the property, plus wrapping around in the front yard a little), and then lining it with gravel, the time came to put in the retaining wall stones. This, I might add, happened Thursday, which my original schedule labeled as "the day to build a fence."

I had four pallets of retaining wall stones delivered. Each pallet had 45 stones; each stone was 16" long, 12" deep, 6" tall, and weighed 60 pounds. My buddy, my dad, and I started building the wall. It became quickly apparent that I'd ordered far too few stones; we'd need at least another pallet's worth. After putting the initial 180 into place, we ran to Home Depot, rented their truck, and took another pallet home... then went and returned the truck, driving home with 16 more blocks. In the end, we put down over 14,400 pounds of retaining wall that day. That was a very, very hard day, but, in the end, the wall looked amazing.

The best-looking retaining wall you've ever seen.

While digging the trench, I'd also measured out where I was going to put the fence posts and pre-dug those holes (much easier to do when most of the soil was already out of the way. With the wall finished, it was time to attend to the fence posts. While the original posts were simply a 4x4 embedded in concrete, I went a different direction. My dad recommended steel brackets embedded in concrete, to which I would bolt a 4x4. It sounded like a lot more work, but I took his advice. Why? Because he built a fence that way 25 years ago, and, as of last year, it was still standing. (Update: I checked on it while I was writing this post. There was a new fence in place, but it looked to be built using the original brackets that he'd embedded in concrete so many years ago. That longevity, combined with the fact that the rebuild was undoubtedly easier, was why I took his advice.) 

So I spent the next two weeks after building the retaining wall pouring concrete. I used cardboard tubes 10" in diameter and 2' deep to hold the concrete where I wanted it. I poured about 150-160 pounds of concrete into each hole, and I had 11 holes to fill. Yes, that's over 1500 lbs of concrete, all mixed and poured by hand. This phase of the project I did alone. I did try one shortcut - on one post, I tries using quick-setting concrete, as someone had recommended to me. I was not happy with the results and didn't use it again; more on that later. It was a brutal project; the bags of concrete, at 80 pounds, were ungainly to move around and a lot of work to mix and put in place; on the last day I was able to put 9 solid hours of work into the project and filled the last 5 holes, embedding and leveling the brackets as I went, making sure, on the advice of my neighbor, to check and re-check and make sure I had no more than 8' between each bracket.

The concrete wasn't easy.

While the concrete dried and set I took a week off and only spent a few hours moving dirt from the piles around my yard to start filling in behind the wall and around the concrete. It was nice, light work - at least, it felt that way compared to the previous weeks. 

Then the vacation was over. I had to start building the actual bones of the fence. I started with the 4x4s. Portland city code allows me to build a fence 6' tall at my property line without a permit. Since it's based on the elevation of my property, and the retaining wall merely retained earth (versus adding elevation), I only needed 6' posts. I ended up purchasing 6 12' pressure-treated 4x4s, and Home Depot was kind enough to cut them in half for me. A few days later, I rented another Home Depot truck and got the 2x4s I thought I'd need. 

It was a sunny 4th of July, almost a month after I started my project, that the time came to put the 4x4s in place. My coworker, her husband, and my brother all came to help me out. We were able to put the wood in place faster than I'd thought we'd be able to. It was only when we were trying to mount the 2x4s that I ran into a problem. Although the brackets were 8' apart and the 4x4s were level and vertical, somehow I ended up with an 8'2" gap between posts 3 and 4. I was NOT pleased. Ultimately, however, we were able to finish the bones that day.

The bones of the fence being built.

The weekend following the fourth, I put up the boards on the fence. Partially due to re-using the old boards, partially out of concern based on the pressures of the wind and the loose soil, I decided to build (for now) a "good neighbor" fence, which would allow wind to pass through with little obstruction. It took merely hours (maybe eight, total) to put the boards up and then be able to call my fence project, for now, "done".

The finished fence.  It looks so much better!

Of course, there's more to do. I plan to extend the retaining wall in the front yard, do more landscaping, put down barkdust, install a plant or two, and perhaps replace the used, half-rotted boards with something newer and nicer-looking. But, for now, I was able to close this project out, over a month behind schedule and more than $1,000 over budget (roughly another 50% of the original budget.) 

Here's a before-and-after picture. The "before" comes from February 2010, when I was buying the house. You can't see the further decay that happened over the following two years, but you can see, in the "after" picture, how nice it looks now.

Old fence vs. new fence

Final stats: 
  • Retaining wall length: 110 feet 
  • Retaining wall blocks used: 241 
  • Retaining wall weight: 14,460 pounds 
  • Tons of gravel in the trench: 2.75 
  • Concrete mix used: 1545 pounds 
  • Fence boards re-used: 174 
  • Man-hours: in excess of 96 
  • Total calendar days start-to-finish: 42 
  • Total Project cost: in excess of $2,288.30


Anonymous Aunt Chris said...

All your hard work paid off! The wall is amazing and look at the muscles you now sport, especially in short sleeved shirts!! Big bonus there!

5:23 PM, July 22, 2012  
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