The life of two scientists, creating a small home, in big mountains

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Bye Bye, Chain Link


I love the result of a good renovation, but I am not a fan of the “things have to get worse before they get better” aspect of reno. I do not mind the work per se. What turns me off, is the mess.


Oh, the mess. The dust of drywall sanding, the nails of doorway trims, the missing baseboards, the exposed electrical wires…I dread them all. And there is no exception now we are building a fence.

Although the fence build is mostly outside, it still turned our house into a dust bowl. We constantly track dirt, mud, and even concrete mix into the house, and the garage has been packed with posts, pickets, and bags of concrete. As the pickets went up, our yard increasingly became a dump ground. The old fence panels and trimmings from new pickets were scattered along the perimeters, rocks and broken concrete accumulated in the veggie beds, and shipping pallets were pilling up behind the garden shed.



And the leaves. Our crabapple tree shed its leaves in merely three days, which covered the entire yard. The leaves did mask some of other mess, but personally, I’d rather seeing rusty nails than feeling their existence under the leaves.


Aside from the construction mess, building new fence somehow made our yard feel smaller. This is a bit unexpected, since the new front fences enclosed a lot more space into the backyard. But the old chain link fences were still standing while the new fence was constructed, the view of both fences really made the yard feel like a maximum security prison.


It’s time for a mid-project clean-up!

Slav and I like things to be tidy. With the dirt work behind us, we decided to it is time for a mid-project clean-up. And when we say clean-up, we really meant it. We vacuumed, swept, mopped, and washed all the bedding and textures in the house. Slav loaded all the spent material and shipping pallets on his trailer for disposal, and I picked up rocks and scrap wood pieces around the yard. The leaves were raked, and our poor lawn can finally take a breath!


After cleaning up the construction debris, we decided to push further and remove the chain links. We have already demo-ed the chain link on the South side, which we used as temporary fence for a while. But on the North side, we have chain link running all the way along our neighbor’s wooden fence. Since the ultimate goal of the whole fence project is to de-chain link our yard, we felt like removing some of the chain links now would be a great “pick-me-up” in the middle of this long project.


Step 1 | Removing the northwest side chain link

We first tackled the stretch of chain links on the Northwest corner of the yard. It was sitting behind the HVAC unit, aligned with the back of the house. With the new northwest fence constructed, we no longer needed this portion of the chain link to keep the dogs in.


Removing chain link fencing is not difficult in theory. Chain link fence is composed of vertical posts, top rails, and chain links. All these components were held together by screws and wires, which can be cut off to disassemble the structure.


Most part of this stretch came off easily. We did have a lilac growing around the corner post, which I would like to save. The stems have grown to be intermingled with the chain link wires.



Slav carefully cut open the wires to free the lilac branches. It took a while but we did not lose any branches that had set buds for next Spring.


This lilac is now free!


The puppies immediately showed up and gave their new territory a good sniff:



Charlie was a bit unsure at the beginning, but quickly warmed up to the new fence and started wagging his tails.


This space made the yard feel a lot bigger. It is only 17′ x 20′ of space, but I think the magic is that it was tugged away. You cannot see this side yard from the back door. But as you walk around the corner, the side yard suddenly appears. It feels like a secret garden.


This most satisfying part of this demo was pulling the chain link out of the soil. There were so many weeds growing onto it and all of the root came right out with the wires. I was thrilled.


Yay for our first win!


Step 2 | Removing the Northern chain link and fighting with the Elms

Although satisfying, removing the chain link along the neighbor’s fence was a pain in the neck (and back, too).


We unfortunately have three elm trees growing in between the double fences, and if you know elms, they shoot suckers out at every height and in every direction, mostly through the chain link wires:




We worked as a team to tackle these trees. I clipped all the lower branches off with a sawzall, and Slav followed me to cut loose the chain links from the metal posts. He then removed the top rails and cut the vertical posts off.





Some of the vertical posts were embedded in tree roots. It was quite a bit of work to remove them. Slav had to dig down to expose the metal as deep as he could, then wiggle them out with a pry bar.




Usually at this point, the chain link should just fall itself. But in our case, the wires has carved deep into the tree trunk, and we had to cut around or off the tree trunk to free the wires.



Step 3 | Trash removal

To our best knowledge, this double fence situation has been going on for decades. Decades, guys. Not only the Elm trees were thriving in between the double fence, everything fell in between stayed.





We found kids toys, footballs, golf balls, rotten food, candy wrappers, Styrofoam cups, bubble wraps, shipping boxes, and plastic bags in between the double fence. We were removing them by wheelbarrows.


See the difference between the two sides of the tree trunks? I’ve done cleaning the trash on the left side, and the right side has not been touched.


This is the same spot after stump and trash removal:


Slav worked on cutting tree stumps to the ground when I was on trash duty. The whole 90 feet of it.


Annnnd…all cleaned up!


Step 4 | Decluttering the Northeast corner

Although the trash removal was undoubtedly the worst part, the real devil in the double fence was the Northeast corner, behind the shed.


There is a gap between neighbor’s fence and our back fence. And the previous owner’s solution? Stuff random things to block the gap. Can you see there was a mop stick in the middle? Whoever put it there had creative minds.


We began by pulling off layers of the crap stuffed into this corner. Wood pieces, some are rotten, table tops (?), cut into pieces, a mop stick, a piece of reflective (no longer) foam, and of course candy wrappers and random trash. Someone lived here really loved Reeses.


We finally saw the chain link. And the last barrier between the neighbor’s fence and our chain link is a piece of foam. It really puzzles me why anyone would choose to do somethings like this. It would have been much easier (and prettier) to just extend our back fence by a picket or two…


Thankfully the wooden fence behind all the rotten wood is in a pretty good shape. Now it can breathe from both sides, I think it will last just fine. This gives me a lot more confidence in the new cedar fence we are building – apparently cedar is truly rot-resistant!


By removing the debris we exposed the small gap next to our back fence and retaining wall (the sleeper in the ground), which we will patch cleanly with leftover cedar from our fence construction. I already have some ideas to dress this corner up. Space like this can quickly become a catch-all for unsightly things. I aim to keep it completely empty and clean so we will feel more inclined to keep it that way.

Step 4 | The final inspection

With all the chain link removed, we had an opportunity to take a better look at our neighbor’s wooden fence. The two ends of the fence do not look bad at all. The posts are pretty straight, and the pickets are holding up nicely.



However, the middle of the fence is in really bad shape.





As you can see, the Elm trees really did a lot of damage to the posts. They were lifted by the tree roots and started to lean. The elms also pushed some panels off their posts.


Our plan to deal with the issue is cut the Elm trees below the ground, so the current extended root/trucks will be out of the way of the panels. Then we will try to reattach the panels to their posts. We can also add support the leaning posts by adding a “deadman”-like structure above the ground. This wooden fence will never be completely straight, but at least it will not be broken.

At last…

Finally, after a three-day cleaning spree, we have our yard back:




No more leaves, no more trash, and no more chain links! Yes we had to pause the fence build, but it has been such a “pick-me-up” that we really needed. Sometimes, sanity outweighs progress. Do you agree?

It Starts to look Like a Fence


By the end of the week 3 of our fence build, Slav managed to put the horizontal pickets up to 4 feet high. It really starts to look like a fence!


Putting up pickets for a horizontal fence is quite challenging to us, which we anticipated when we decided to build a horizontal fence. Besides our lack of experience with fencing in general, the real devil lays between the pickets.


As you can see, the cedar pickets are not very precise. The general width of the pickets we use is 5.5″ (1″ x 6″), but the pickets can taper off on one end depending on the wood grain. To make the fence look good, the key is to keep the pickets leveled, and the ends aligned generally.


Another important factor for the fence to look good is the length of the pickets/panels. We chose to construct this fence by running 1″ x 6″ x 6′ dog-ear style pickets. This decision was made based on material availability and price, but also factored in the fact that horizontal pickets can sag if the span is too long. To work around the dog-ear style, we decided to set the post 5′ 10″ apart, which allows us to cut off the dog-ear portion of the pickets for a minimal look.


Because these pickets runs horizontally, there was a lot of pressure on setting the posts exactly 5’10” apart, so the 5’10” pickets can join in the middle of the posts. This will give enough space for the pickets to attach to the posts.


Another element that requires precision is the gap between pickets. We clamped the pickets on a post ahead of time to determine the desired gap for us, which is 1/4″.



During the construction, it is important to keep the 1/4″ gaps consistent throughout. The best way to do it is to prepare spacers, usually cut from scrap wood. Coincidentally, the wooden chopsticks we have is exactly 1/4″! So Slav simply stacked the pickets with a pair of chopsticks in between and built from the bottom up.



Slav took extra care to align the screws for a cleaner look. Love the man for his attention to details.


The unique challenge we face with our fence is the slope. You can tell from the picture below, the bottom picket in the front part of the fence basically lines up with the tallest picket at the back.


The steep slope not only calls for step-downs every 2~3 posts, but also requires that the bottom pickets to be scribed to fit the ground.


The void under the bottom picket was further filled with pea gravel. Our land is a bit lower than our neighbor’s so we had to install metal edging or use the veggie garden edging to hold the pea gravel back to place.




Charlie has been Slav’s sidekick during the build. He is such a daddy’s puppy.


Besides the long fence on the South side, we also constructed the bottom pickets on the Northwest side.


The slope on this side is every more dramatic – we had to step down two pickets (about a foot) for every post. Slav did a great job here with the bottom pickets:


A few words on how he attached the bottom: due to the slope we can only attach one end of the bottom picket to the downhill post. So he clamped the bottom one to the one on top:


And added a couple cedar blocks from the back.


These blocks were cut from scrap pickets and cost nothing to us. They are suspended in the air and the only thing they do is to connect the bottom picket to the one directly on top. They are completely hidden from the front and hardly noticeable from the back.

The fence here is 20′ long, so we decided to space the posts 5′ apart to avoid the need for a short panel. I think it looks quite sharp from the street:


I love that the new fence aligns with our neighbor’s fence/gate. I am always turned off by the misaligned neighborhood fence front. I understand that people prefer different styles for their fences, but having one forward and the neighboring one a few feet back just looks choppy to me.


We still have all the top pickets to add, posts to trim, and gates to build. But it is worth to take a pause and celebrate the completion of the bottom portion of our fence! It is a mini-victory indeed. Not only it is a big chunk of the work load (and our garage is finally ready for a car again), but also through which Slav has become familiar and confident with the construction. At the mean time, we cannot wait to get rid of this “pitbull behind the chainlink” view from the street.


Another good news? With the bottom panels completed, we felt comfortable to remove the temp fence erected in our neighbors’ yards. We are fortunate to have very supportive neighbors, who not only provided us space in their yards during the build, but also gave us all the time and patience (three weeks!) so we could work at our own pace and get things right. We have happy to finally return to them a cleaner space with a nicer fence to look at.


Although we attached the pickets from our side, the view from their sides does not look too shabby.



I’d say it is still a huge upgrade from the chain links, especially at the back corner:


This was how this corner looked like before:


Clean retaining wall, steady and sleek new fence, and most importantly: trash-free!


Slav even took time to connect the neighbor’s fences to our new post. He patched the gaps neatly with hardware cloth. Although not our responsibility, it is a nice thing to do for our neighbors.



Cappy was so happy to get her pee-pee spots back:


Slav will be working on the top panels this week, during which we should have crisp Fall weather and gorgeous colors. It is a great time to work outside before snow and clouds set in. Happy Fall, guys!


Concrete Days – Week Two of Our Fence Build


We spent our second week of fence build on setting all the posts – total 23 of them.

Day 1 of Concrete Work – Front Yard Posts

Neither of us had any experience setting posts or working with concrete. On the first day, we decided to take things slow. We also acquired a few tools that could help us newbies to get things right, including several clamps and this post/pipe level:


We spent an hour on our first post to get a “protocol” down. Starting by cleaning all the loose soil from the post hole and compacting the bottom of the post hole with a dirt tamper, we made sure the bottom of the hole was more or less level. Then, we set the post into the hole and made sure that it is straight.


The other two parameters to consider for the placement of the post were the distance between posts and the alignment. We set the first and the last post of the entire south portion first, then connected them with a string. All the rest of the posts had to align with the string with a preset distance in between, which is critical for constructing a horizontal fence. After all the parameters were met for a particular post, we drove a few stakes (cut from scrap wood) into the ground near it and clamped it into place.


After the post was stabilized by clamps and stakes, we proceeded to mix the concrete. For each 12″ wide, 2′ deep hole, with a 4″x4″ post, we used between almost 4 bags of 60 lb concrete mix. The 12″ auger we used to dig these holes tends to made the holes a bit wider than 12″, so we are using more than recommended 3 bags.


Slav hand-mixed all the concrete in a wheel barrel, two bags at a time, then shoveled it into the post holes.



I tampered the concrete mix with a scrap 2″x4″ to let all the air out as Slav filled the holes, then Slav floated the concrete to make the surface smooth. It is common to fill the concrete a few inches below the ground, so turf can grow on top and be continuous. We opted to fill the concrete an inch above the ground and slope the top outwards. This will ensure the surface water runs off from the posts as quickly as possible.


The first post was in after a whole hour of work. We measured, measured, and measured again before pouring the concrete. We were so nervous! This particular post sits at the front corner of the fence and dictates the placement of all others in both directions. It also will have a driving gate attached to it. To make sure it is strong enough to handle all the pickets and the gate, we chose to use 4″x6″ for this post. This post requires a 18″ wide hole. It took 7.5 bags of concrete for us to set just this one post – 450 pounds total!


By the end of this 12-hour day, we set only five posts. LOL. But at least we got the protocol down and Slav has figured out how many pounds of concrete his back can handle at once (120 pounds, ~ one Alison).


The picture below suggests how the southwest corner of the fence will look like. In between the two 4″x6″s facing the street, there will be the driving gate; between the 4″x6″ to the right and the side of the house, there will be a walking gate.


Day 2 & 3 –  Setting Rest of the Posts

Even with the protocol down, it still took us two more 6-hour days to set the rest of 18 posts. We opted to use 4″x6″s for the fence facing the front, and 4″x4″s for the rest of the fencing between us and the neighbor to the South. We ended up using over 100 bags of concrete mix, which is more than 6000 pounds! But this step is extremely rewarding – all of posts ended up to be super straight, strong, and aligned perfectly. It is quite a pleasure to put the most difficult part of the build behind us.


The only challenging part of the post work was at the back corner where the retaining wall is. Like most of the fence build, the last panel will be shorter than the rest, so we decided to split the difference between the last two panels to make the transition less obvious. We also need to place the very last post forward a bit to avoid the current corner post, which is holding the back fence.


The last post was set 18″ next to the current corner post:


The retaining wall here does not run forward enough to meet the new post. The soil here was contained pretty much by random sleeper pieces and rocks. We cleaned everything up and built a rock wall to extend the retaining wall.


Below is the other section of the front fence, which locates on the north side of the house. We decided to use all 4″x6″ here to combat the strong wind from northwest. We live in a wind tunnel where the Spring wind can get to 90 mph. Fences here can be blown down if the posts are not strong enough. Marking the west/east direction 6″ should give the posts enough strength to support the fence panels in high wind.


Day 4 – Drainage Solution with Landscape Fabric and Gravel

After the concrete dried, all the posts were rock-solid and ready to receive pickets. We decided to take an addition step, which is to lay gravel under the fence. The gravel will serve three purposes: first, it facilitates drainage away from the fence posts, bottom pickets, and the concrete, which prevents rot. Second, having gravel instead of soil under the fence can prevent dirt from being splashed onto the bottom pickets when it rains, so the fence should stay cleaner. Last, it is always hard to weed along the fence line. Having gravel under the fence can prevent weeds from ever coming up near the fence, making mowing and weeding a breeze.


After making sure that the neighbor on the other side is happy with the gravel idea, we got to work. Our neighbor’s yard is higher than ours, so I dug a shallow trench along the whole length of the fence on their side for the gravel to end. Our side of the yard is a bit lower, so we had to use garden edging to hold the gravel in place.

We also decided to run landscape fabric under the gravel to suppress weeds. I do not use landscape fabric in my garden beds, but I will not hesitate to use it under hardscape such as fence or dry creek, wherever I do not want anything to be growing. Time to take out my landscape fabric tools again:


I laid down the landscape fabric along the fence and cut out the portion I needed. Our veggie garden is only a foot and half to the fence, so I decided to cover the path between the fence and veggie garden completely.


Below is how I ran the landscape fabric – on our side, the space between the veggie garden and the fence, which extend all the way to the back of the property, was completely covered, and for the rest of the fence towards the front, I used a narrower strip to just cover the width of the concrete. In this way the front portion of the fence is centered above the gravel. On our neighbor’s side, the gravel will be a straight line.


We put down about a ton of pea gravel here – look how tidy it looks! We will not be walking on it much since the veggie garden next to it provides a wider and softer path. So it should be easy to keep the gravel clean. Well, I hope the pups got the message too. See these tiny paw prints? Apparently they have checked out the gravel. 🙂


The last step

The very last step we took before putting pickets up was oil all the posts. If you are building a fence and want to stain or treat the wood, do it before putting pickets up. It is a lot easier. We decided to only coat the posts with linseed oil, as we did on our back fence, so I spent a few hours oil these babies up. The oil brought out the color and the grain of the cedar and really made the posts look great.


What’s next? With all the posts set and treated, and the drainage rocks laid down, we are finally ready for pickets! We worked together to set a pretty sexy pattern for horizontal pickets, and Slav is tackling this task by himself as we speak.  This week marks the 3rd week of our fence build – how did contractors build fence (including demo) in just two days? I want their magic!

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