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

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A Back Fence Upgrade

This week, we continue making small upgrades to our house and garden. Since having completed the main floor guest bathroom, our focus has been fine-toning the details inside and outside the house. We patched holes and touch-painted, refreshed the hidden portion under the roof, fixed broken pickets on the fence, re-potted all the indoor plants, and filled dead spots in our lawn. These tasks are rather keep-ups and do not make into the blog, but they are necessary for preserving the hard work we put in initially.

Over the last two weeks, we started to see some cool weather, which made working outside a lot more pleasant. And it was the time I decided to give the back fence a face lift:

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Above pictures showed how the back fence looked like when we moved in. As you can see, the fence was finished with two different types of pickets, which aged into different colors. Shortly after we moved in, Slav gave the fence a good wash with our pressure washer:

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The washing effort made the fence look great for a while. But over time, the different types of wood started turning into different colors again.

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Challenges and decisions

The problem is that the older fence pickets are cedar, which age into a smoke grey, whereas the newer panels are treated wood, which maintain a much lighter and yellow color. The aging process of the cedar pickets happens very quickly – within a couple weeks, which makes it difficult to keep the fence look uniformed.

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We considered to rebuild the fence to match the horizontal fencing on the other side of the yard, but the current high lumber price puts our plan on halt. Besides, the back fence is actually pretty steady and functional, so it fees like a waste to rebuild just for a different look.

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We debated and discussed many times, and finally reached the conclusion to upgrade the look of the fence with minimal effort, before we have to rebuild for structure reasons. The rebuild will not need to happen until years down the road, and by that time, the lumber price should come down as well.

Painting the treated wood panels

To make the back fence look better, we first needed to stain/paint the lighter color panels to match the darker ones. It happened that we had some exterior paint left over from painting the gable, which are a dark grey color.

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I watered it down just a little bit to make the color a better match, and got onto painting:

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The painted pickets are a bit darker but over time, I think it will look similar to the naturally aged cedar pickets. Here is the same section of the fence before and after being painted:

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Close enough!

Installing the cattle panel

Next, I wanted to train the climbing rose up to the fence. We planted some climbing roses along the back fence in 2018. I did not train it up as I should have, due to our indecision of what to do with the back fence. now we have decided to keep the original fence for a while, I can finally lift the roses off the ground!

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The poor roses, they have been gobbled up by the pumpkins this year:

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I decided to train the climbing roses up onto the fence using cattle panel. I had done it with the front yard climbing rose with success, and I loved how steady these cattle panels are. In fact, we used them to create bean tunnels in the vegetable garden this year, and they look great with vine crops climbing on them:

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We got four 50″ x 16′ panels from Tractor Supply, my new favorite garden store! They have great seeds and soil, plus all the gardening/farming supplies you can think of. The best? They have little chicks year around in the stores. I love playing with the chicks every time I have an excuse to go inside.

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Slav secured the panels onto the fence pickets using metal staples.

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And they look nice! Plus I think they actually made the fence stronger.

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With the cattle panel secured to the fence, I can simply tie the branches of the roses onto the panel instead of trying to secure them onto the fence. It is a much easier way to train climbing roses, and once we are ready to replace the back fence, I can simply stake the panel up with T-posts and keep the roses in place.

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Training climbing rose

I spent an afternoon training the roses up. The most challenging part was separating them from the pumpkin vines and lifting them up. Even with long sleeves, long pants, and garden gloves, I got scratched all over my arms and legs! The awakening rose is famous for the strong thorns and I can tell you, they are no joke!

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But nonetheless, they are ON.

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The upgraded look of the back fence

Here is the upgraded look of our back fence, all in dark, covered by cattle panels, aligned with fruit trees and blackberry bushes, and soon with pink rose blooming all over! Do you like it?

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Two Trees Out, Two Trees In

Oh boy did time fly…It has been two months since I last opened the blog page. What happened? Work. Work, work, and work. In good news, Slav started a new job which he enjoys. But it sucked 200 hours out of him in just the first 3.5 weeks. 200 hours! I barely saw him in February. Luckily I was also up to my neck in my work – writing one manuscript and one grant proposal stole entire February away from me. Needless to say that we did not do a thing to the house/yard during this time.

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This is the latest picture I took in the basement after putting in a new egress window in. It was late January, right before our money-making jobs got in the way of our money-burning renovations. Since then, we devoted the last bits of spare energy into ski trips – priorities. ūüôā And before we know it, it was March!

March brought a sense of emergency – I’ve told you of my plan on planting more edibles this Spring, which is contingent on removing all the vegetation along the northern fence. This is the only portion of fence that does not belong to us, and it was in very rough shape:

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This photo was taken after we removed the chain link fence from our side. You can see the trees along the fence have grown into the posts and started to lift the panels off the ground. These are elms trees, which in Colorado are considered “trash trees” because they are invasive and easy to catch diseases. They likely seeded themselves and no one could get in between the two layers of fences to remove them in time.

These photos show what they look like during the growing season. Due to lack of care and diseases, The elm tree in the middle and half of the other two elm trees were already dead. In the second picture, you can see only the trunks of the middle elm tree because it had fell down.

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To eliminate the danger of them falling on the house or one of us, and also to save the fence, we decided to cut them down even through they are technically not our trees. But someone gotta do it. Right?

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Removing the chain link fence exposed the entire trunks of these elm trees for easy removal. To do it safely, we hired a licensed and insured tree company (Arborist Alliance) to remove the elm trees and the big stump left from the elm in the middle. We were fortunate to have a couple sunny days in between snow storms for safe operation.

Elm tree No. 1

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Elm tree No. 2

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Of course I took a day off to watch this exciting operation. I took zillions of pictures kneeling in melting snow + mud despite the weird looks from the crew members, only to find in the evening that there was no memory card in the camera. Oops. Anyway, I hope you still get the excitement with the blurry cell phone pictures below:

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A crew of five people arrived bright and early and started working. The tree on the right were brought down by cutting at the chest height, one trunk at a time. But the one on the left were cut down a lot more slowly and carefully due to its close proximity to the houses.

The one on the right was done in half an hour:

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The one on the left were cut down branch by branch, a couple feet a time:

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This crew worked like a well-oiled machine and very efficiently. Two crew members worked on the two elm trees while the third crew member assisted them from the ground. As the branches came down, two other members separated the branches from the main trunks with chainsaws, and brought the smaller branches to the wood chipper parked in front of our house.

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All the smaller branches were turned into wood chips immediately. Technically, the trunk of the tree and big branches can be chipped too. But we wanted them for firewood, so it worked well in both their benefit and ours to just leave the main tree trunks in our yard. They cut the tree trunks and bigger branches into 3 feet sections and stacked them neatly next to our firewood pile.

The task that took the longest was actually cutting down the elm tree on the left. It was not only because it was sandwiched in between our house and the neighbor’s house, but also that there were several big nests on the tree and potentially had wild life in them. Just like we guessed, one of them was used by squirrels. The mother escaped before a crew member climbed onto the tree, left two babies behind:

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We carefully transferred the babies and all the nesting materials into a cardboard box, then set the box near the tree trunks after all the tree work (with loud noises) was done. The baby squirrels were picked up by the mother within half an hour and relocated to another nest. No animal was harmed during our operation! Yay!

The crew arrived around 830 AM. By noon, the two elms were gone and the decris were mostly cleared out:

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After lunch break, the crew worked on stump grinding. They brought in a machine which has a saw blade running vertically into the ground to grind the stumps and roots into basically saw dust. Due to the close proximity of the stumps to the fence, they removed a fence panel to get to as much tree stump as possible.

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Grinding three tree stumps (one left from the elm tree in the middle which had fallen down) took about 2 hours with the machine and just one guy. Other members spent this time cleaning up in both our yard and our neighbor’s yard. All the debris was racked up and put into the chipper. At the end, the fence panel was nailed back.

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Even without the main branches and big tree trunks, the wood chips generated from our trees still filled more than one big truck load. I asked if they could leave some for us to use as mulch, and I got a big “Yes!” as the reply. It actually takes tree business money, gas, and time to dump wood chips at the city. So downloading some to customers was always welcomed. They kindly suggested to leave the wood chips from their previous job, which were all from a healthy tree instead of the wood chips from our diseased elms. So, just like that, we got a bunch of firewood + ~10 yards of fresh wood chip mulch, and in addition $100 discount for taking them off the tree crew’s hands. A win-win for both of us!

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10 yards of wood chips did not look like much, but it took Slav two days to move all of them to the backyard where I wanted. At the mean time, the two hazelnut trees came in early March. They were planted along but ~8 feet away from the wooden fence, in the middle of the sloped hill.

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Hazelnuts need cross-pollination to fruit, so it requires at least two different varieties of the hazelnuts trees. We ordered two dwarf North American native varieties, one called Jefferson, and the one called Yamhill.

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These hazelnut trees are supposed to get to 8~12 feet tall in 3~4 years. I expect them to provide some privacy year around between us and the northern neighbor, as they flowers in winter. They also should eventually provide shade to the mulched area below, which will create more forest-like micro-environment. But before they reach their mature size, we will use the space around them for wine crops such as melons and pumpkins, and for bushy crops including rhubarb, zucchini, and squash plants. These plants will keep the mulch moist and discourage weeds from coming up. It will be fun!

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Just like that, two elms are out and two hazelnuts are in. The berry garden is the next and I could not wait to get all the edibles into the ground before the real Spring comes!

How Much Does It Really Cost? A Closer Look into Our Horizontal Fence

Renovation cost can vary a lot. Before we started the DIY fence build, one very important yet hard-to-find information we sought after, was how much a fence should cost.

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We did request a few quotes from local contractors, but for many reasons I will explain below, no one could tell us how much it would cost to build the fence we wanted. We eventually chose to DIY, and budgeted based on our design, starting from the price of raw material. We ended up spending <70% of the average quote, and got a quality product that would have doubled the average quote.

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In today’s post, I’d like to share how much we spent on the fence in detail, and how different design and building technique may affect these numbers. It might be a number-heavy post, but for anyone who is considering a new fence, especially a horizontal fence, these numbers might be helpful.

1. The anatomy of a quote

We received four bidding from local contractors. For ~125 ft of 6′ cedar fence, the lowest quote was $4200, and the highest was just under $5000. However, these quotes are based on the most basic/standard cedar fence in our area: 4″ x 4″ posts, 2″ x 4″ top and bottom rails, and 1″ x 4″ pickets running vertically.¬†Chain link demolition and hauling away all the debris would have costed us ~$600 in additional ($5 per foot).

Slav visited a few lumber yard to get an idea for material cost. For a basic vertical fence descried above, the lumber and concrete would cost under $2000. We assumed that contractors will get some kind of discount price from their own supplier, which means 2/3 of the quotes (on average ~4500) was actually for the labor.

Of course labor costs – it would take a few guys two or three days of work to demo and rebuild. However, with five grand of expected spending, we did not want to compromise on the quality and the style of the fence. We wondered how much more we needed to pay to get a horizontal fence with better materials.

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2. Option for Customization and the Decision on DIY

The first thing we discussed with our contractors was the option of using thicker pickets. The ones offered by contractors are similar to the ones you can find in big box stores. They are 5/8″ thick and fairly light-weight. These pickets are likely to be harvested from farm-raised, fast-growing trees, so their wood grains are more likely to be coarse and the pickets are easy to split around the fasteners. Our back fence is constructed with this type of pickets, and many of them have already split and even peeled off from the rails. We would like to swap for better lumber, however, the contractors wanted to stick to their suppliers and were resistant to our request of using different lumber.

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The second question we had was the plan for building on sloped land. Using the fence above as an example, this section of the fence sits on a 1~ 1.5″ per foot slope. The usual way of fencing is to¬†following the slope, which means that the top of the fence would be parallel with the slope of the land. We would much more prefer a step-down look, but it would require cutting pickets to length, which in turn increases labor cost significantly.

The other dispute we did not expect regarding the front fences was the location of the posts. Also using the north front fence as an example, with 20 ft span and the common panel width being 6 ft or 8 ft long, we had to have a short panel on one end. We asked if we could space the posts evenly, but was told that this small customization would raise the quote significantly, also due to more cutting/labor involved.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the possibility of a horizontal fence. Running the pickets horizontally requires much more precision of setting posts, as well as cutting the pickets to length. Together it means a lot more hours of labor and results in much higher quotes.

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Without any promise of accuracy, quotes with customization were laid out and they sounded unreasonable. $8000, $9000, even¬† over $10000. The key reason is the labor of cutting pickets to length, which is inevitable for horizontal fencing. In the renovating world people say that one can only have two out of three things: cheap, good, and fast. At this point, we felt that hiring out may only get us the “fast” aspect. So DIY was the way to go.

3. How much we actually spent

We bought premium material from a lumber yard (without contractor discount) and did all the labor ourselves. At the end, we spent <$3200 (before tax) for materials and about 20 days of labor (one man). The permit fee is $65 in our city. It is hard to count Slav’s labor, but with the cash spending being 1/3 of the quotes for horizontal fencing, we consider this build a DIY win.

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The $3200 material fee includes all the posts, pickets, concrete, auger rental, and gate hardware. You can find the detailed budget here. and below is a quick break-down:

Demo ~200 chain link    $0 (DIY)

Auger rental (1 day)         $129.44 (from Home Depot, after tax)

Concrete (103 bags)         $267.80 (from Home Depot, before tax. We got contractor price for ordering 112 bags)

Screws, drill bits, post level, mason line, line levels, etc.  $114.88

Lumber (from Front Range Lumber. We did over-order and have leftovers. The numbers below reflect how many we actually used):

1″ x 6″ x 6′ pickets (285) $1558.95

1″ x 4″ x 6′ pickets (24)¬† ¬† $56.88

4″ x 4″ x 8′ posts (14)¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†$314.58

4″ x 6″ x 8′ posts (7)¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†$283.29

4″ x 4″ x 10′ posts (1)¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†$33.47

4″ x 4″ x 12′ posts (1)¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†$37.97

For constructing the gate:

2″ x 4″ x 8′ (4)¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† $38.68

2″ x 4″ x 10′ (2)¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† $25.42

EasyGate kits (3)             $89.94

Cane Bolts (2)                  $19.96

Optional:

T-post (12)                       $53.76

Post driver (1)                 $34.98

Landscape edging (~80ft)   $79.20

Pea gravel (one ton)              $34.95

4. Paying more for quality lumber

The lumber we bought is much more expensive than the big box store cedar. 1″ x 6″ x 6 ft cedar pickets cost $2.87 a pop in Home Depot, and if you buy in bulk, it can be as low as $2.73 per picket. We paid $5.47 per picket for 1″ x 6″s, nearly twice as much. But these pickets are 3/4″ thick (opposed to 5/8″ from the big box store), and nearly twice as heavy. They are harvested from naturally grew trees from Canada. BTW, the price of cedar was a lot higher nowadays compared to that of two years ago. Trump’s¬†tariff against Canada has raised cedar price by 70% in our area.

Interestingly, the price of the cedar posts from this lumbar yard was comparable to big box stores. Home Depot 4″ x 4″ x 8′ cedar post costs $23.72 and we paid $22.47 a pop for 4″x 4″s.

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5. Beefy Post, Stronger Fence

We used 4″ x 6″ posts instead of 4″ x 4″s for front fences. We live in a wind tunnel through which the northwest wind passes aggressively. So the fence facing west can always use more reinforcement. The two sections of front fence used seven¬†4″ x 6″¬†post total; and we paid $40.47 for each post.

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Contractors we talked to tried to convince us that 4″ x 4″s were plenty enough, and our neighbors usually use 4″ x 4″ as well. But based on our observation, there are plenty of falling fences in our neighborhood. Keep in mind that fence construction does not come with warranties – some company might promise a year of labor, which only applies to detaching pickets. Therefore, we decided that beefing up the posts on the west side is worth it.

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Our land slopes down at the back corner and required taller posts. We used one 4″ x 4″ x 10′ and one¬†4″ x 4″ x 12′ post here. This cost can be skipped completely if you build on a flat land.

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To decide how many posts we actually needed, we need to decide the spacing. We chose around 6′ because the horizontal pickets are likely to sag in the middle with longer span. Another important thing to consider is the actual length of the pickets. The 6′ pickets are not really 6′. They are always a bit shorter and there are some variation. So make sure you measure the pickets before digging the post holes. At the end, we spaced our posts 5’10” on center to accommodate the shortest pickets. This decision is completely personal. Decision like this might change the number of the posts for your fence.

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6. Bigger post hole means more concrete

Another detail that worth paying attention is the dimension of the post holes. 4″ x 4″ post calls for 12″ diameter holes, and a 4″ x 6″ post should be set in 18″ diameter concrete on the 6″ side. We were surprised when contractors advocated for 8″ holes, because “it should be enough” according to their experience. Although they might be right, but all these falling fence posts in our neighborhood made us wonder, “what if?”.

I think one big reason of under-dig is not for saving concrete, but for saving labor. Our area has very heavy and compact clay soil. Digging under 12 inches of soil is practically digging concrete. To do the right thing, we paid additional $130 to rent a hydraulic auger.

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Bigger post holes means more concrete to fill them. For 8″ holes and 4″ x 4″ post, you can get away with 1.15 bags of the 80 lb concrete, which means 92 lb per hole. We had to use 3.5 bags of 60 lb bags, total 210 lb, in one 12″ holes. This is not only because the void is much bigger, but also because we decided to bring the concrete all the way to the top of the soil to help with drainage.

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Besides the regular 4″ x 4″ posts, we also have seven 4″ x 6″ posts, which called for 18″ holes. It took 7 bags of 60 lb concrete to fill each of these 18″ diameter holes. Due to the sloped land, a few 4″ x 4″s on the back are much taller (12″ or 10″) and the post holes were proportionally deeper as well. In total, we ended up using 103 bags of 60lb concrete.

The good news is that we bought them in contractor price – the same $3.25 per bag concrete mix becomes $2.60 per bag when you buy 112 bags or more. It came out a lot cheaper (112 x $2.6 = $291.2) than buying exactly what we need in retail price (103 x $3.25 = $334.75)

7. Screws and Hardware

Using quality pickets, beefy posts and sufficient amount of the concrete, we spent double amount of the money compared to using standard materials and practices. But all these will be worth it now we have a long-lasting fence that should need less repairs. Quality lumber also improves the appearance of the fence – you can definitely tell these pickets apart from the ones from big box stores.

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We used standard deck screws and gate hardware. Each 1 x 6″ or 1 x 4″ picket was attached to the post with four screws, and each 1″ x 2″ was attached with two. This fence consumed 1400 screws, which cost less than $80.

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8. How much should horizontal fence cost?

In total, for 125 ft of the 6′ horizontal fence, including the pickets on the gates, we paid $2440 for lumber, including $670 for 23 posts, $1560 for 1″ x 6′” pickets, and $57 for 1″ x 4″ pickets (for creating the top pattern). For a standard horizontal fence, without the 1″ x 4″ pickets and 4″ x 6″ posts, you are probably looking at $2100 for 125 feet, which is ~$16.8/ft.

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We spent additional ~$200 for the two gates, which includes $64 for 2″ x 4″s, $90 for gate kits, and $40 for latches and cane bolts.

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One thing saves with a horizontal fence is that you do not need horizontal rails on each panel. That saved two 2″ x 4″s per panel, which can be costly as well. However, with the rails you only need two screws to attach each pickets, which we had to we used four screws for each 1″ x 6″s. For anyone who is considering a vertical fence, you can halve the screw cost but need to add the cost of 2″ x 4″s.

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Moreover, our building permit costs $65 and this price may be higher where you live. Including permit and tax, we spent close to $3400 on the fence. It is not cheap, but building such fence by contractor would have costed us three times as much.

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I hope this post is helpful for people who are considering horizontal fencing. Slav already mentioned that he would like to replace the back fence (another 90 ft!) next Spring. And with this experience, I am sure that the next round will be a lot easier and faster. Let me know if you have any questions!

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