August 22, 2013

A tiny stretch of fence, in Red Cedar

There used to be a dilapidated stretch of fence with a gate at the end of our driveway, to close off the back yard. Some years ago it rotted past the point of any use as an actual barrier, after spending a while being reinforced with plastic chicken fence. Early this spring Becky asked me to make a functional fence + gate there of some sort, so we can let Buster (2.5yrs old) hang out in the back and not have to worry about him escaping if we go up to use the bathroom or fetch lunch.

I fairly quickly put in some pressure treated 4x4s,

screwed up more plastic chicken fence, and repurposed a section of garden lattice as a kind of gate. However, I had plans to do a nicer job on the fence, and use it as a test bed for some ideas about how to redo the fence around the whole property.

Last weekend I finished up with the nicer version of the fence and gate, and I'm pleased with how it turned out. The lot is made from clear vertical grain ('CVG') western red cedar, purchased at Anderson McQuaid. A&M is not usually the cheapest place to get stock, but their pricing on CVG red cedar is actually not bad; cheaper than two lumberyards I called, and a bit more than an internet supplier in another state. Anyway, this was not a tremendous amount of wood, so I figured the convenience of A&M was worth it.

Western red cedar is a lovely wood to use for exterior projects. It is grown sustainably in the pacific northwest, mainly in British Columbia, and there is reported to be more red cedar forest now than there was 100 years ago. It is not in fact technically part of the cedar family, but rather part of the cypress family. It is highly rot resistant, straight grained, and with few knots. Of course that was especially true for the CVG grade I bought, which is the absolute cream of the timber industry. The wood cuts and carves wonderfully, and is surprisingly strong for its very light weight. An added bonus is the sublime smell released when working it. It doesn't seem to gum up blades and bits too much.

On the down side, it is quite soft and takes dents and other marring easily. The end grain is pretty rough when exposed unless cut with an exceptionally sharp, fine toothed blade. The preferred hardware material for use with cedar is stainless, but I already use stainless torx drive screws whenever possible. It can also be tricky to paint, but I've so far had good luck with some one coat exterior stuff from Behr that advertised its compatibility with cedar. I opted not to paint this fence; while I am not in love with the gray color exposed wood weathers to, I am even less excited to have to scrape and repaint fencing. I'm using this same wood to do the trim on a tiny back porch exit, and the paint is doing ok so far. Maybe we could think about a solid color stain for the future; I don't have much experience with that class of finish so I don't know how suitable it would be.

In the vein of using this stretch as a lab for trying out some ideas for the full fence, I set out to design the fence panel itself. Becky favored a picket style, feeling that the less formal look went better with our un-fancy Victorian two family than a more formal close spaced square spindle fence panel might. We both thought it would be cool to have something unusual at the top of the pickets however. At some point I had seen a sort of round eye design at the top of fence pickets, so I tried out something like that. Wanting a little more interest, I added some slight relief carvings to give the appearance of a loop with a half twist.

Post Covers
The post covers were made by milling a rabbet and matching groove on the edges of the face pieces.
These were glued together using waterproof yellow glue.

After assembly, a bevel was added to match the design I'm working out for the porch trim.

The routed bevels were given a lamb's tongue stop treatment with a chisel.

I made up 5 post covers, one of which was painted to be the terminal post of the back porch handrail (not shown in the below picture).

Post Caps
I happened to have some 5/4x8  spanish cedar around, so I tried gluing two layers of this together, then chopping squares from it. I got a tenoning jig for the table saw to cut the top bevels, but my saw can't put the blade up far enough to cut the whole bevel, which is probably just as well from the standpoint of possible undercutting of the clamping pressure zone in the jig.

So I cut four sides, rotating 90 degrees between cuts, then finished it off with a japanese saw

and a couple minutes with the hand plane.

Plus a little sanding, and I was happy with the results.

We'll see how the glue joint stands up to weather, but I think for the main fence I'd rather use 2x stock in CVG red cedar and not have the glue joint. Spanish cedar is an amazing wood, but I was sad to find out that it's tropical, and thus much harder to feel good about using it. The caps are held onto the post covers with pocket screws on the post covers, which are later hidden by an inverted mahogany basecap molding from A&M.

The fence rails are 5/4x4 red cedar, toe screwed with stainless screws long enough to get into the inner post.

Then a small piece of spanish cedar molding is put over the screw heads with stainless 15ga nails.

I think for a 2.5m long fence panel, the 5/4 might not be strong enough to support an adult climbing on it. I'm now thinking I would do two 19x90mm pieces; one on either side of the pickets, both top and bottom.

When thinking about a fence design, Becky favored a rectangle section picket style rather than some of the more formal looking square element styles you see around here. We both thought it would be neat to put something a bit unusual at the top of the picket. As I mentioned above, I took a cutoff piece and started fooling around to work out a circular design, then copied it to the other pickets.

I had a 35mm forstner bit from putting cup hinges in another project, so I drilled  through holes with that after marking from the test piece.

then bandsawed the outer arc

 and sanded to smooth it out. I used a sanding disc in the table saw, then a finish pass with the palm sander.

Eased the edges with a small roundover bit in the router table

Now for the carving. I have almost no carving experience and limited tools for it, so I tried to think of something that wouldn't take much skill, wasn't too complicated, and could be done quickly even by me. This little relief detail is what I came up with, which makes it look like the top circle has been twisted around by 180 degrees on the picket. I think it looks pretty good and with some practice they go quickly. First I score with a marking knife.

Then some quick chisel work to define the reliefs

Usually a second pass with the knife is needed to free up hanging chips left from the chisel work.

Each top gets four little relief details.

This was an early one, so its a bit rough. Later ones got smoother and faster. I still gave each one a few swipes with the sander at the end.

I did fear that this was going to be too much work to do on all ~500 pickets that the full fence would require, but since it was for this tiny section I figured I could do some gratuitous and unpractical labor as an experiment.

Finally I finished the fenceposts and put them up. Each is secured with two #8 flathead stainless wood screws in both the top and bottom rail.

I can tell you I am now pretty quick at the chisel details. I made about 25 pickets for this project, each one has four carved relief sections. By the end it was taking me about 5 minutes to do all four for one picket. I'm also not shooting for the same level of work that I would if I was making indoor furniture. This is a fence after all, not furniture for the Queen!

Thinking about scaling up and doing 500 posts, I think the outside arc shaping is the biggest challenge. I tried to whip through the last set of pickets on the bandsaw, but you still have to be pretty careful and rushing makes them misshapen. So I think the thing to do is get the kids to help me build a small CNC router to do the round profile, then chisel the details by hand. Might even be possible to rough the reliefs in with the CNC, then finish them by hand.

It wouldn't be hard to build a little stepper motor type tabletop machine using some junk I've got sitting around. I could do two or three picket ends at once. Some alignment pins or even just lines on the bed, and some Staco clamps to hold the work in place lower down the picket out of the carving area. We'll see.

While doing fencepost ends (which happened over a period of months on and off), the kids would often come down and want to do some woodworking.

They are very young, but enjoy trying out the tools and experimenting with wood.

Red cedar scraps are well suited to this. By the way, japanese saws are great for kids.

Violet helped me drill all the inner holes

then sucked up the wood chips with a hose from the dust collector.

Just in case you are wondering, I do have the kids put on safety glasses (and usually earmuffs too) if we are using a power tool. So Violet would have put on her glasses in the drill press picture before we actually started drilling. I don't make them wear glasses when using hand tools.

With the fence put up, it was time to turn my attention to the gate. I decided to try to make this from 5/4x4 red cedar, just like the fence rails. I made up a square frame, and put in half laps using a router table, bandsaw, and chisel.

 These were glued together with epoxy.

After the epoxy was set, I trimmed and planed a bit to clean things up, then cut and fit the cross brace.

The cross brace is secured on each end with three #10 stainless screws set in counterbores in the outer frame. The counterbores on the top and sides of the frame are plugged for looks and to help keep water out.

Earlier this year when I thought this was going to be a quicky project, Buster and I bought some gate hardware at home depot. The hinges are nice and sturdy, but are galvanized.

The latch is stainless, but not very heavy duty. Note the plugged screw holes on the top rail in the picture below.

Hopefully this gate location is "temporary" until we execute our dream landscaping on the yard. When it comes to house projects, temporary for me means between one and twenty years. This hardware will probably be fine for many years in any case.

The gate swings easily and feels sturdy enough. I thought about putting a tensioned cable brace on the other diagonal, but I decided it is probably not necessary. I'll have to see what happens when kids are hanging on it and swinging. The gate is much more user friendly than the old section of wood garden trellis we were hanging on lag screws to act as a gate prior to completion of this project.

I'm quite pleased how this section of fence turned out. Yes, it took some time to build. But now I get to look at it and feel good about it every time I am in the back yard

 or drive up the driveway

Note the chicken fence at left, where I still am working on the handrails and balusters for the tiny back porch!

It would cost some thousands of dollars worth of wood to do the entire 75 meters of fence. But we have quotes from two commercial fence companies for this project which cost up to 10x what I estimate the wood would cost in clear red cedar. I still want to have someone else put in the posts, but I think it will be fun and rewarding for us to put up the fence sections.


Steven T said...

Fantastic. I am jealous. You have been working hard. Great workmanship.

mssewcrazy said...

Very nice fence and gate that you made. It is really neat how you added the details and built it. And of course Violet being such a helper she deserves some credit too. I can see she is intent on the project and working hard with the drilling and the shavings vacuum.