Removing and Building a Fence

Our latest home project was the removal and installation of a fence. I will be writing this entry mostly so I can remember every step I did. This will be helpful if I ever have to make repairs. So, I will go into extreme detail on purpose. Here is what the backyard looked like before our projects:

I like to begin with this image because it shows how far we have come. I have written about various projects we have done in the backyard over the years. We removed the pool pictured above, refinished the deck, built a patio (and used the reclaimed / scrap wood to make raised beds), and this past weekend finished up removing and building a new fence. Here are some images of the fence from various angles and times of year of the vinyl fence we wanted to remove:

Free Wood!!

Tracy’s parents moved out of their house a few years back and her dad brought his pool fence with him knowing someone might want to build a fence someday. Here is the glorious you-can’t-park-in-the-garage wood pile:

5 stacks of 20 board (hard to count them I know)

With this much free pre-stained wood, how could we say no? If you saw my shelf building project, you will know how long it can take to stain stuff, especially in a high humidity like where we live. Originally, this wood was meant for Tracy’s brother’s yard; however, all of their neighbors built fences (nice ones) leaving this wood for our house. Here is an image of the fence in its original glory:

The original fence was made as a Shadow Board fence. We did not keep this fence style for 2 reasons:

  1. The bushes behind the fence would have made screwing this together extremely difficult
  2. We needed to cover 55 feet and would have fallen short on boards if we shadow boarded

Pictured in the center is the original fence builder, in all his late 90s glory.

Fence Research

There were a few areas I needed to research before beginning this task:

  1. Alignment
  2. Depth
  3. Setting

Other topics came up that needed research, too; however, each topic can be filed under one of these three points.

Aligning Posts
This part is what I was least confident in. As a weekend wood warrior I can say I am not always the most accurate with measurements. I have to measure things five or six times to be sure, and even then I am never sure. While my research in this area showed me all kinds of gadgets and gizmos that can help you align your posts, I chose to use the string method. While it has problems (wind, snags, animals) it is a tried and true method.

Fencepost Depth – The Post War
Watching about 20 or 30 YouTube videos on building fence (yes… the pros say “building fence” not “building a fence), I realized there are varying opinions on how to handle the buried part of the post. You see, when you put a post in the ground and surround it with concrete, the very bottom part of the wood will be exposed to the soil. So, what do you do?

Well, everyone is mostly in agreement on 2 key points:

  1. You must research where the frost line is in your area and dig about a foot or so below that to prevent Frost Heave which is when the cold dirt pushes your fence out of the ground.
  2. The less dirt that touches wood, the better.

Dirt can affect the post in 2 major ways. The first 6 – 8 inches of top soil has microorganisms that can degrade and rot the wood. This is solved by creating concrete above the ground so the dirt isn’t touching the post. The second way is the bottom of the buried part of the post can become rotted by water because it is exposed to the dirt.

This is where the disagreement between professionals occurs. Do you let the bottom of the buried part of the post…

  1. …be concreted in/over?
  2. …sit on a bed of gravel?
  3. …touch the dirt?

If you try to encase the post inside of a concrete shell, it will not be exposed to dirt. However, rain water can still reach the bottom by flowing in the space between the wooden post and the concrete. If you seal in the bottom with concrete, you create a cup for the water to collect. Flowing water is fine because flowing water will not rot a post. But stagnant water is very bad. Therefore, since I had never used concrete before, I decided not to try this method.

If you allow the post to sit on a bed of gravel, the debate then becomes “Well how much gravel?” One guy suggested 4 inches of gravel. Well, a heavy rain can collect more than 4 inches in a hole and one again we’re back to the idea of a cup filling with water, which is bad. Others suggested different amounts up to about 1 foot of gravel. I decided using tons of gravel would work but then I have to dig an additional foot below the frost line and buy a bunch of gravel.

Therefore, I went with the third option: let it be exposed to the dirt. This way the water can drain out, there is no cup formed to retain stagnant water, and no fence lasts forever anyway.

Post Setting
I came across 4 ways to set posts. I have no doubt there are many more ways. But they were

  1. Pour concrete in, do not add water, and let ground water solidify the concrete over time.
  2. Pour concrete directly into the hole with the post, add water, mix, and use the trawl to even it out.
  3. Pre-mix concrete and fill the hole evenly with quarter-shovel amounts.
  4. Use expanding foam.

A friend of mine owned a construction company before he retired. He told me about the first one above and said he doesn’t recommend it. I did see YouTube videos with people doing this – seems like a bad idea so I didn’t do that. Although, I do wonder if settling cracks in the concrete are less using this method.

The second method above is what I went with. It is likely the most common way people set posts. However, I also used Form Tubes or Sonnotubes (more on that below).

The third method is probably the best method. However, I do not have a wheel-barrel (I know it is “wheelbarrow” but around here we reject that word) and didn’t want to buy one for this project. But, this is definitely the best way to do it if you want to be the best ever.

The fourth way looked fun but I am not convinced the foam can hold the fence in place properly – it isn’t heavy enough. When learning about frost heave, I remember also learning that fences in hurricane zones much be a certain weight and depth. I have a hard time believing people in hurricane zones use expanding foam.

Fence Prep

With my research out of the way, I then collected all the supplies I’d need for the job:

In this first image the tools are as follows:

  1. Finishing nails (top left)
  2. Deckmate deck screws (two kinds)
  3. Safety equipment: Gloves, hat, protective glasses
  4. String
  5. Stakes
  6. Small trawl
  7. Measuring tape
  8. Drill
  9. Level
  10. 3 lb. Sledge Hammer (Optional)
  11. Hand saw (Optional)

The above 6 images feature the following tools:

12. Hand Tamp (optional)
13. Farm Jack / High Jack (optional)
14. 40 lb 14-foot chain (optional)
15. Form tubes / “Sonnotubes” (optional – bottom left)
16. Clamps (I used 6 clamps – bottom right)
17. Concrete (pictured below)

Project Actual Cost

The costs below include the amount of things I needed to install 55 feet of a wooden fence. Taxes are included but not listed separately in some cases. Several prices are also already higher if you follow the links below because there is high inflation, low wages, and all the companies raise their prices YAY!!!! Anyway…

Finishing Nails – 1 box – $5.98*
3 Inch Deck Screws – 1 box – $41.97* (link is to a smaller set of screws… can’t find what I bought)
2 Inch Deck Screws – 1 box – $37.47
String – 1 roll – $10.37
High Jack – 1 – $87.36
Chain – 1 14-foot-long chain – $39.99
Form Tubes – 4 for $16 (got 8 total) = $32 (these come with several tubes within the main tube)
Concrete – 30@5.97 = $179.10
Copper Cappers – 10@3.97 = $42.08
Dumpster Rental – 1@$385
Eight foot 2x4s (w/ weather shield)- 16@7.18 = $121.78
4×4 Post – 1@10.38 = $10.38
Picket & Post Wood – Free

*The finishing nails and 3-inch deck screws were actually purchased during my most recent shelving project. Therefore, I can half those costs to $3 and $20.

Total Actual Cost = $968.53 or $970

Project Professional Cost

Based on my research, here is what the cost would have been if we hired someone and had to pay for all the lumber, too:

Pressure Treated Wood – $432 – $642
Labor – $1,735 – $3,000

Total = $2,167 to $3,642

I derived these prices from the following sources:
Google: Suggests the average fence cost is around $3,000 in the USA.
Google: Suggests a 55 foot fence costs between $13 – $50 per foot (I averaged that to $31.5 x 55 feet)

Savings = between $1,197 and $2,672

In addition to our $970 cost, we also now own a 14 foot chain, which has always been a life goal of mine, a high jack, and experience.

Beginning the Project

Use this image for reference regarding different parts of the fence:

Step 0 – Hire Managers
Before beginning, we had to ensure we had proper oversight for the whole project. Therefore, we hired a manager and an assistant to the manager:

For most of the project, one or both of these guys would sit here watching us. We paid them with food, belly rubs, and friendship.

Step 1 – Picket, Rail, and Post Removal
The vinyl fence was pretty easy to remove. I used a reciprocating saw (not pictured above) and took the entire 55 foot vinyl fence down in about 2 minutes (no joke). That part was pretty fun I will admit. However, a circular saw would work, too. A hand saw wouldn’t be as fast but also wouldn’t wear you out because the vinyl cut quickly. If you were removing a wooden fence, it would certainly take more time.

Step 2 – Concrete Removal
Most people will leave concrete in the ground when building a new fence over an old fence. However, I discovered there were 3 previous fences built before (counting the vinyl fence I was removing). This means I had to remove 1200 – 1500 lbs of concrete. There was just no way for me to continue to avoid all the concrete. This slowed me down by about 3 weeks.

One of the most obnoxious parts about this was nearly all of the concrete posts were done slightly differently. But the worst of all was a single post where they poured concrete about 2 feet wide around the post and only 1 foot deep. This post was unbelievably heavy for me to move. No one pours concrete 2 feet wide on both sides of a 4 inch wide post.

Before we moved into this house, we saw on the Facebook profiles of the current owner that their pool had collapsed and it knocked down part of the fence. I have a feeling the crazy concrete pouring was probably an attempt to fix the fence that crashed under the sudden rush of water. Anyway, the kids next door might have learned some new words from me as I was expressing my rage at gravity, heavy things, and 3 decades of fence builders passing the buck to me.

Now… I am sure an experienced fence builder would agree that having to remove the concrete from 3 previous fences is annoying. But, it had to be done. I am not a tall person and I am by no means the strongest person in the world (but don’t tell Tracy I said that). So, I found this task quite difficult. So much so it was slowing me down and I was struggling.

So I did some more research and this is where the High Jack (“Farm Jack”) and 40 lb chain come in. I didn’t take pictures of this part because I hadn’t remembered to take pictures yet. But here are the videos I found that showed me how to do this:

These videos saved my life. It did add to the expense of the project; however, I didn’t pull my back out and wind up in the hospital either. The first posted video above is good because it also shows various ways to remove a post, and the positives and negatives of each method.

Did I mention there is an entire row of bushes behind our property? Initially, I thought this was going to be a problem causing a lot of roots. However, it wasn’t. The biggest roots actually came from the various weed-trees the property behind us allows to grow up through the bushes. Their landscaping company simply trips them, instead of removing them. Those suckers had massive bright orange roots that were about 5 inches wide in on instance. That slowed me down, too. But, I have enough saws and clippers that they were never an issue for very long.

Lastly… I shall note it is particularly annoying to struggle to remove all these chunks of concrete, fence posts, and roots when this is sitting in your front yard the whole time due to water main construction:

My mantra started to be “I am the bulldozer” to cope with the fact that this thing is sitting outside taunting me the whole time. We also currently have 2 fire hydrants (not pictured) because they haven’t removed the old one yet. Anyway, we look forward to the days where our yard is not a parking space for bulldozers.

Step 3a – Stabilizing the Posts
I do not have pictures of this part (sorry). However, there is nothing unique about what I did versus what others do. So, if you want to see what setting a post looks like, just go to YouTube. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Dig a 2 or 3 feet deep hole
  2. Insert the Form Tube or “Sonnotube”
  3. Put the post in the center of the form tube (in my case, it was a 4 inch post)
  4. Stabilize the post
  5. Constantly make sure the post is plumb (ie: “level”)

There are many methods to stabilizing the post. It depends if you are working with someone or alone. If working alone, you can nail wood legs to the post. Then, nail wooden stakes to those legs so they can secure the legs to the ground. Each post will need 2 of these. This will prevent the post from moving when you pour concrete. However, it is far easier to have someone hold the post and watch the level. That is what I did.

You cannot possibly check too many times to ensure the post is plumb. If you check too few times, you will not notice the shifts that can happen.

Step 3b – Setting the posts with Concrete
One a post is stabilized, you can pour in the concrete. As stated, I used form tubes (the giant yellow cardboard cylinders pictured further up). These give a nice shape to the poured concrete. They also help you more easily calculate how much concrete you need to buy. They also help you if a mistake occurs.

One thing I did, because I mess up numbers a lot (we suspect I have dyscalculia which would explain a lot of my math issues over the years). Anyway, the fence I made would have been fine with 1 bag of concrete per hole. However, I used 3 bags per hole. Yep… over engineered the fence by 3x. But… it is definitely stable! So, I am not complaining.

Step 4 – Fix your Dumb Errors
After we set all the posts, we noticed that 3 of the fence posts weren’t right. One was too far back, one was too far forward, and one was tilted about 1/8″ on its X-axis. So, these problems needed to be corrected. I corrected them all by letting the concrete solidify for an hour just to be sure. Then, I dug a trench in the ground next to each one and corrected them. Being in the form tubes meant they could stand on their own. If I didn’t use the form tubes, this correction task would have been brutal.

Turning the X-axis post was the most difficult fix. But, eventually I managed to turn it.

I cannot express enough how using the form tubes saved me. I am a little surprised no professional contractors in YouTube videos ever brought up this benefit of Form Tubes / Sonnotubes. It was probably the best thing I discovered on my own with this project.

During this step, you also use the hand trawl to create a curved top to each post’s concrete. That allows water to drain downward away from the wood. Just make it into an inverted cone shape.

Also, I was mortified with myself when I saw these cracks in the concrete:

It looks like a wicked crack. However, my research indicates that nearly all concrete gets cracks like this after settling. I tested it by spraying water on it and the water is not draining through some massive crack. Therefore, this is normal.

You can also see a right angle in the soil at the bottom of the above image. That is from the hand tamp I bought for the patio project. It helps compact soil and does a nice job for small projects.

Step 5 – Affix Post Toppers
Because these fence posts are reclaimed wood from Tracy’s dad’s fence, I wanted to make sure water was diverted off the top of the fence. There are a lot of different toppers you can buy and you can even cut the fence post at an angle to encourage water flow. But, I went with copper toppers:

There are a few ways to mount these on top of the pole. I think the most popular way is to glue them. I went with finishing nails. The reason is because these will be behind the fence and there is a line of bushes. So, if one fell off, I would be less likely to know. Therefore, I wanted to ensure they stay on. Since they are made of copper, they were easy to puncture with the finishing nails and they will turn green over time.

Step 6 – Cut and Affix the Rails
Our posts were not all perfectly spaced apart. There is maybe 3 or 4 inches of variance in different places. The reason is because of the amount of concrete I had to remove. Essentially, I didn’t want to

  1. remove 3 fences worth of concrete
  2. refill every hole with dirt
  3. wait for all the dirt to settle and become homogenous again
  4. and then re-dig holes

Instead, I decided to use the holes that were dug. The trade off here was the fence posts couldn’t all be equidistant from the previous post which is visually ideal and I have to measure everything individually and cut it (also, I’d bet you couldn’t tell they were off a little bit anyway). Therefore, I set up a quick wood cutting station:

Note on Safety
Note that those buckets are filled halfway with sand and are very stable. I would not cut a board like this if the buckets were empty.

When cutting these boards, it remained clear that the circular saw was having trouble getting through the last quarter inch of the weather treated boards. I believe this was partly due to needing new saw blade and partly because the weather treated boards were still retaining a bit of moisture from the treatments, which made the wood a little more flexible. Therefore, I used my backsaw to finish them out (for a cut that thin, most saws would be fine to use I think).

With the hard part now over, affix your rails. There are a lot of ways to do this. The way I chose to do it was borne out of being very new with fence building but also because we were using fence posts that were 20 years old already:

This image makes the posts look angled; but they are straight up and plumb.

As you can see, I staggered the rails instead of making them go straight across. My reasons for doing this are probably insufficient in the eyes of a contractor. However, here they are:

  1. Some of the wood had natural splits in them. This allowed me to avoid those spots in at least 3 instances.
  2. One 10 foot section will receive more wind than the rest. I felt this would offer a little more protection and stability against the wind.
  3. If I ever have to repair the fence, I can remove a top and bottom rail and, since I don’t have access to the opposite side, I will be able to put them back in place very easily.

A contractor would likely get big eyes at this decision. But if I wanted a contractor I’d have hired one! haha. If there is a problem with this structure, we’ll find out in a year or two. But, it seems very stable, especially since there is 150 lbs of concrete per post.

The process of putting the rails onto the posts is pretty simple. So Tracy would not need to constantly hold up each board, we clamped them to the posts while she held the board in place with a level. I used 6 clamps to secure 3 boards at a time before drilling:

On a final note… I was getting quite sore by this point and bending over to get the screws out of a small bucket was bothering me. So, I used a corner clamp from my shelf building project to hold the screws for me on the top rail:

That is an Ehrler’s Ice Cream bucket… they make the best orange sherbet (I say “Sherbert”).

Step 7 – Affixing the Pickets
I do not like that they are called “Pickets” – I prefer “Planks.” But, whatever… We began affixing pickets by making two jigs:

As you can see on the “Low” jig, we put a foot that can hold the bottom of the board level and at the same height as all the other boards. We needed two jigs because of how I staggered the fence rails. If you make your fence with rails straight across, you would only need one jig. Here the jig is in action:

You can see that the end board is being held up with the jig in place, which rests on the rail behind the boards. This allows the bottom boards to align to the same height off the ground. We built the bottom of the pickets about 8 inches off the ground for 3 reasons:

  1. We don’t want the pickets to touch dirt as it will rot the wood.
  2. The daycare behind us is not very good about killing the weeds that grow up through their bushes. So, now I can reach under and saw any weeds that may grow to push against the fence.
  3. The raised concrete posts required us to be at least 4 inches off the ground.

We continued in this fashion as you can see:

On the top rail in the second two images above, there is also a half-inch wide piece of wood with a tiny clamp affectionately referred to as “Clampie.” This was easier to do than make another jig and kept the board spacing pretty even. Since a lot of the boards were not perfectly straight, being able to clamp and unclamp the small piece of wood was very helpful.

Step 8 – Throw everything away
Once all the pickets were screwed in on the top rail, we began throwing everything in the dumpster we rented the day before. The reason we did this step before affixing the pickets to the bottom rail was because the dumpster was due to be retrieved the next morning. So, we took a break from affixing the boards to get rid of all the junk:

You will notice that the landscaping around the light post currently looks bad. Why? Because when they backed up this dumpster into the driveway they destroyed the mortared-rock fixture that was installed slightly over top of the driveway. We were not upset about this because we want to get rid of it – it can make it tough to back out of the driveway as the mortared rocks were about 6 inches onto the driveway.

In the second picture, you can see all the unused and rejected wood, part of the old pool fencing, and other junk from past projects that had been stored up over time. However, what you cannot see is the horrible 2 foot wide concrete post. That SOB was extremely heavy and more than I could lift. But, because the vinyl posts were hollow, I was able to put two 10 foot 2×4’s inside of it to create a lot of leverage. That made throwing that concrete beast away very easy. No pictures because we were trying to be very careful. It worked though – thanks leverage!

Step 9 – Affixing Pickets to the Bottom Rail
Once all the pickets were screwed in at the top and all the junk was thrown away, I went back to screw in all the bottoms of the pickets into the bottom railing:

The fence is now mostly complete. I have two things left to do:

  1. Remove the cardboard form tubes from around the fence post concrete with a razor blade.
  2. Even out the top of the fence.

I need a new circular sawblade before I can even out the tops of the fence. Basically, you just walk across with the saw, keeping it level. I might actually skip this step since the boards are mostly even and may opt to just handsaw the few boards that are less cooperative.


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