Saturday, August 11, 2012


No, not that antiquated and stylized athletic event that most people ignore except every four years. Fencing as in that vertical dividing barrier between two places. That things that separates the inside from the outside. Robert Frost.

This spring, a section of our fence fell over. Not surprising when you look at the state of the posts:

I don't know what vintage the fencing of our house is, but I suspect that, if it is a decade old, it can't be much more than that. The whole perimeter of our back yard fence is gradually falling away; a good push would knock over a section. It all needs to be replaced eventually. The section that fell over is the most acute, however, because without it Jasper is able to wander off and roam the neighborhood, something that he is getting quite bold about. After dallying for a few months, I decided I really needed to get to it.

However, I didn't want to just to driving down to Home Depot and start piling 5" round posts into the car. For one, I don't actually like the look of such fencing. For another, the materials are cheap - I would be surprised if they would last ten years stuck into the ground. Instead, I resolved to figure out another system that would have some more longevity. I like the notion of metal posts with wood attached to it. Most such systems use the round metal posts from chain link fencing and some brackets. Effective, yes, but not particularly attractive from the inside of the fence.

I eventually discovered this product from Master Halco. The PostMaster system uses a top-hat shaped extrusion of galvanized steel. The flanges of the section have holes on 1" center, which makes hanging the wooden fence sections fairly easy. Because the posts are rectilinear, cladding them in wood is pretty easy. They claim that the metal posts are stiffer than wood and hold up better in wind. The posts should last upwards of twenty years in the ground - long enough that the wooden fence sections may get replaced once or twice in that time.

There is a bit of a price premium going this route compared to a conventional wooden post: about 10-20%. I figure it is worth it for the longevity. This does, however, raise an important point: fencing is expensive, no matter which way one goes. Twenty dollars per foot, uninstalled, seems to be the going rate. It makes me look with some dread at the long perimeter of our back yard.

Still, summer was wearing on and Jasper was getting increasingly rambunctious, so I bit the bullet and set out to use the PostMaster product to at least replace the front fence. The only problem was that this is not a retail product: the only way to get it is through a fencing contractor/distributor. I gather that this is not regarded as a typical DIY, weekend handyman product. It took some time to get it lined up, and two weeks for the distributor to receive it from Master Halco. The local fencing distributor/contractor had himself never used it. About two weeks ago I received the materials: metal posts, pre-cut fencing sections, and other accessories for putting it all together.

The fence sections I set aside: those won't go in until the very end. The first real order of business is to set the metal posts. After laying it out with surveyor's string and stakes, I broke out the post hole diggers and started going down. The metal posts are seven feet long - more than half of which going into the ground.

The first post I did is actually in the middle of the front fenceline - the one that the gate will hang from. This actually receives a double-post because of the cantilevered load. After digging down I packed in a few inches of gravel, then located and plumbed the post. Some stakes and guy wires keep it in place.

Next came some concrete. I went back and forth about whether to use concrete or not. Using it definitely yields the best and most lasting results. It is also more or less permanent. Skipping it reduces the overall cost, relieves some headaches during the installation, and allows for revision down the road. But I worried that the posts could work themselves loose in just packed earth, so each is receiving 2-3 feet of concrete.

The process of familiarizing myself with the layout, digging the first hole, and setting this first post took about four hours. I also encountered a torrential downpour while filling in the concrete. The subsequent posts have taken 1-2 hours apiece. Compared to the first post, these other posts have the added complication of needing to be in a straight line with respect to the gate post, at the same level, and placed just the right distance away. I have managed, but it takes time.

Combined with a hectic schedule (moreso this week, as Hilary is out of town) it is no wonder that, a week into the installation (months into the actual project), I have only set four of five posts, and installed none of the actual fencing. I'm getting closer, though, and will post pictures of the finish. So far, I'm pleased with how it's going. This may end up being the solution for replacing the rest of the fence, though I wouldn't hazard what the timeline for that job might be.

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