First published in 2000 on "Old House Chronicles" website
Article and Pictures Copyright ©2000 By Nina and Tom Stine
Oh the joys of pet ownership! We are the proud caretakers of two wonderful Labrador retrievers, and an adorable mixed-breed dog that was rescued from an abusive environment. Now you might think that three large dogs would have plenty of room to romp on a two-lot corner parcel in an old, small town. Well, you would be right, except that the area they want to romp in is the place we wanted to plant flowers. We had installed a radio fence around the yard, which has been a great way to keep them contained, but whenever somebody walks past, our angels have to let them know where the boundaries are. This would not be a big problem except that the plants and lights along the front sidewalk keep getting trampled. I guess the final straw was when the dogs trampled the strawberry patch out back by the smokehouse. Now I love my dogs, but I also love my strawberries, and it seemed that one or the other would not survive.
When we bought our 1890 home, we knew something was wrong with the view from the street. The old hedge was overgrown and unkempt, and although a part of the landscape, it hid the house from the street. What is the point of restoring a great old home if nobody can see it? We pruned and cut, and improved the look somewhat, but we knew it still wasn't right. With the addition of our large fishpond, we thought the addition of a fence by it might be a wise move. How does that old saying go, "good fences make good neighbors", or something to that effect.
Fence. The word brings many thoughts to mind. The old rusty wire fence along the street on the west side of the house, the chain link fence up the street, the barbed wire around a neighbors horse pasture (yes, in town), and the remnants of several old wooden fences. Fence had to be the answer to our problems, but what kind? It doesn't take much thought to come up with two options for a 100 year-old Victorian, iron, or that old traditional white picket fence. We've seen iron fence in some of the older towns around the eastern Missouri area, but not in the more rural setting of Montgomery County, and although there is reproduction fence on the market, from an economic standpoint it didn't seem fit our needs.
We knew that eventually white picket fence was in our future, but that involved even more decisions. What style? What size? What material? How much is this going to set us back? A trip to the home show was no help, all the builders and remodelers were pushing the new p.v.c. vinyl (plastic) fence. No maintenance, easy installation, it will save money in the long run, but I refuse to use plastic on my house. After all, we went to all the work of stripping the clapboards down to bare wood and painting from scratch when some people told us we were crazy. Vinyl siding will last forever and never needs paint, the same as vinyl fence, but is it worth the tradeoff if you lose the detail you wanted in your old house? Not to me. A trip to the mega-home center wasn't much help either. We looked at the split wood, rough finish, loose nails, and sloppy workmanship on the fence sections displayed, and knew this was not the answer.
By now you have most likely guessed our solution. Like so many things that need to be done around the old house, if you want it done right you'll have to do it yourself. All we needed was a pattern, some lumber, a lot of time, and we had none of the above.
The pattern popped up in the most unlikely way imaginable. One day to get away for an afternoon of enjoyment, Tom and I set off with a friend to go on a garden tour in a neighboring town. After a wonderful afternoon we returned by the back roads, through the creek and up the dirt road, when our friend said, "this is the house where my husband grew up" and into the drive we went. We chatted with the owner for a few minutes, and looking around we noticed the once lovely fence. Knowing that this was going to be our fence pattern, we got permission to trace the outline on a sheet of paper. Not too much later we found a gate that was left in front of an abandoned house in a neighboring town with the same pattern, so it must have been popular at some time in the past.
The lumber was the next item to attend to. Trips to the lumberyard and home center were unproductive, since anything that was good enough to use was out of our price range, and we weren't about to use inferior lumber to make a custom reproduction fence. The former owners of our home were in the lumber business many years ago, and the old building was still on the lot next door. It was in very poor condition, having gone from lumber yard/hardware store to junkyard, and finally storage for junk. When it came up for sale, Tom's parents bought it, and tore down most of the buildings to clear the lot for their retirement house. The shelving was salvaged, and although the boards looked shabby, we could tell that there was good lumber under all the nasty coats of paint and oil, so off to the workshop they went.
First all the nails were pulled, and for safety reasons a metal detector was run over them. Next they were cut to length on the radial arm saw, ripped to width on the table saw, and then run through the planer to clean them. You will be told not to run painted wood through a planer, but in this case it was the most efficient way to clean the paint off. A few precautions should be taken, since most old paint contains lead. A good vacuum system should be used, along with an approved dust mask, goggles and a long sleeved shirt and gloves for skin protection. The other options, sanding or stripping would be much slower, and more expensive, so getting planer blades sharpened was a good trade off. At this point we could see that we had lumber that could not be found except in a specialty yard. Most was heart pine, much of it quarter sawn, and it almost seemed too good to use for fence. For the stringers to fasten the pickets to, we chose some cypress that we had custom cut to rebuild our porch. It's a good thing we had extra cut so we wouldn't run short, because this seemed like a good use for it.
Next it was back to the radial arm saw to cut the points, then to the drill press to bore the half circles. For this operation a jig was made by screwing a few scraps of wood onto a piece of plywood to align all the pickets in the same position, and then using a forstner bit to take out the material. That left only the scroll to cut on the band saw, which made the process go pretty quickly, and as time permitted could be done in steps. We were lucky in that Tom's parents had completed their home and were moved in next door. Clair, who is quite handy himself had plenty of time on his hands, so he did all of the scroll work on the band saw, which saved us a great deal of time.
A quick sanding to take off the saw fuzz, and the pieces were ready for paint. It didn't take long to see that it would be a never-ending job to paint all these small pieces with a brush, so out came the spray gun. A good coat of high quality oil primer and the pieces were ready to assemble. It was a simple job to make some spacer blocks to align the pieces, and the finish nailer made quick work of the assembly. Back to the spray gun for two coats of quality acrylic latex, and the fence was ready to put up.
For the posts on this smaller fence, which is only 32 inches tall, we used pressure-treated 5/4 x 6 decking lumber ripped in half. We then set the height a couple inches off the ground so we can trim under it and keep the pickets from drawing moisture into the bottom. The plan was to end up with a 36-inch tall fence around the flowerbeds, and make the fence surrounding the property a little larger, we are thinking maybe 42 to 48 inches. We didn't want to make this smaller fence too permanent, so we cut the posts with a point on one end and just drove them into the ground 18 inches. In our clay soil that should be adequate support, and we can make it more permanent at a later date. Since the ground has a slight slope we wanted the fence to follow it, so we drove a post into the ground at each end, stretched a string between them, and set the fence at that height to make it level with the ground. It seemed important to make a neat-looking installation since we put so much effort into making the fence. When we install the taller fence around the perimeter of the lot we will have to use larger posts, and set at least the corners in concrete.
We feel we have created a fence that looks like it belongs around a century-old small town Victorian home, our flowers are finally protected, and the dogs are out of the doghouse. We will make more as we have time, and eventually plan to fence all the property and gardens.
Oh, by the way, the strawberries look great now. Anyone for fresh strawberry ice cream this summer?