Saturday, May 03, 2008

Post Post Posting

I finally decided to get my finger out and replace the newly-snapped fencepost today.

While I was at it I thought I'd add three new fence rails to the back of the panel that joins the two broken fenceposts1 and nail the pailings to them in situ as opposed to doing the job right and dismantling the fence panel and rebuilding it. I assembled a small kit of tools consisting of:
  • My 14v battery-powered drill fitted with a quick-change chuck
  • A quick change screwdriving bit
  • A set of quick-change drill bits
  • A freshly-sharpened chisel
  • Mr Hammer
  • Mr Hammer Drill2
  • A ginormous hammer drill bit
  • A box of galvanised, resin-coated 3½ deck screws
  • A box of hot-galvanised fourpenny common nails
  • A spirit level
  • A couple of pencils
  • Mr 25' Tape Measure
  • Mr Chopsaw c/w brand spanking new carbide-tipped blade3
  • A couple of those one-hand-operated pump-to-close clamps with yellow jaws

The Plan: It was now 10:30 am. I would unhook the 8-foot long gate from the post, then unfasten the screws and allow the post to fall over. I would use Mr Hammer Drill and the ginormous hammer drill bit to dig out the rotted stump from the concrete, leaving a socket into which I could drop the new post. I would unscrew the hinge pins from the old post and screw them into the new one before rehanging the gate. I would clamp Pressure Treated 2x4s to the fence rails and screw them into the posts at each end with deck screws. I would nail the pailings to the new fence rails thus formed with hot-galvanised fourpenny common nails. I would pack everything up, shower and go for lunch.

What happened: I unhitched the gate and undid the fence panel. The fence post fell over. I did a bit of drilling, but it turned out the stump of the post was entirely replaced with soil, which was a bugger to scoop out of the socket as the hole was a little narrower than my hand. I slotted the old post into the socket in the concrete pig I had poured around the original post some 12 years ago, to see if my "drop in post" theory was sound. It was. Or rather, it was until the weight of the post broke the concrete away from the patio slab and then cracked it through. The Plan was toast.

I pulled out all the fragments of concrete I could, but just as I suspected, there was enough concrete still securely embedded in the ground that I could'nt just dig a new post hole. It took a pickaxe, a sidewalk scraper, a mattock, a clamshell post hole digger and some of my most carefully hoarded antique swear words to get the bloody stuff out of the hole, which had grown to about a foot in diameter owing to the various adits I had to sink to loosen the damn concrete from its bedding.

I then made a quick dash to Home Despot and bought the best looking cedar post and three unbent, non-twisty Pressure Treated 2x4s and it was time to start rebuilding before the threatened rain happened.

When putting a fencepost in the ground you have three major choices.

You can dig a hole, prop the post up in the position you want and pour in concrete to anchor it in place. This was what I'd done before, but now had discovered was contra-indicated for cedar posts.

You can pound in a metal socket-on-a-spike affair and drop a sawn-off post into the socket. This worked well for a couple of places on the fence I put in between me and Crazy Joe. I did it that way because there were tree roots preventing a real post hole being sunk. You cut down the post because you don't need 18 inches-2 feet of post in the ground. You need a bit of the post for driving in the spike too. You put a block of wood in the post socket and pound on it with a sledgehammer (which I didn't have, but The Rule4 meant I could have one if I wanted it badly enough) until the spike, itself between 18 inches and three feet long depending on the design, is completely driven into the ground. Then you mount the post in the socket and tighten the socket's collar bolts and Bob's your Uncle. I couldn't use this method because I had doubts the post would be secure enough to serve as a gatepost.

That left the standard method of digging a hole just big enough for the post, dropping in some gravel for drainage followed by the post itself, then the earth that will support the post firmly. In order for the post not to loosen up, it is crucial to pound the earth until it drums when you hit it. The only way to get this sort of packing is to pound the earth as you go, using something thin enough to get in between the post and the hole sides and flat enough to squish the earth down. I usually go with either a piece of 2x4 or a piece of 1x1 for tight spots. Here the hole was bigger, but I had to get behind the post to pack the earth under the slab that had collapsed during concrete removal ops.

The earth itself was no problem even though I had to make up a few cubic feet lost to excised concrete blobs since I still had piles of it left over from the time I ordered topsoil for Project Put Up The Bloody Swimming Pool You Idiot5 and Mr Brain had used a moment's lack of attention to detail to inform me that there are 9 cubic feet in a cubic yard instead of the customary 27. I had stashed this earth around the property cunningly disguised as molehills and explained the inferred size of the moles that made them as the inevitable result of the Love Canal and Three Mile Island ecological disasters, along with certain regrettable side effects of the Staten Island landfills.

I managed to get the new post bedded in place with only the usual wrist sprains from having to pound earth with a sawn-off 2x4, and began the removal of the hinge pins from the old post.

These are basically an L-shaped piece of iron. One leg is the pin on which the hinge sits, the other has a huge screw thread milled into it and forms the anchor. The thread in question is over a quarter of an inch in diameter and about three inches long, and they have to be put into tight pilot holes because the cedar is soft and you don't want the pins letting go of their grip by stripping the thread of the hole. Needless to say, this meant that it was extremely tedious with a capital teed to get them out of the old post. I ended up using the stem off an old ladder-type truck jack as a tommy-bar, slipping it over the pin to form the lever. Because the resulting affair drew out a circle some three and a half feet in diameter, life didn't get very much less tedious after applying this solution, but I did get the pins out.

I used the gate to guestimate where the new holes had to be and drilled them into the post. I made the bottom hole a bit bigger than the other two (three hinges on this gate) because I knew I wouldn't have the room to swing my tommy bar - the drive was in the way. I reasoned that the top and middle hinges would take the lion's share of the strain anyway. It actually worked out rather well, apart from straining my elbow and shoulder rather more than I can stand these days. Then it was time to rehang the gate.

I heaved. I hoed. I cursed. I swore. Eventually, I constructed a cunning machine I call "the bloody great pile of wood under the gate" and used it to hold up one end while I wiggled, dropped and finally engaged the hinges on the pins at the other. I estimate this would be an easy job for three or even two people at a pinch. It almost killed me doing it alone (Mrs Stevie and The Stevieling were off playing miniature golf). Still, it only remained to nail up some 2x4 fence rails and I was done for the day.

The rails in question had, of course, to be cut to length since the panel they were for was less than full length. For this I used the newly re-bladed chopsaw, a venerable veteran of my outdoor construction projects. I almost cut my fingers off because since changing out the blade from the original high-speed steel one that essentially rubbed its way through the wood, I'd only cut maple, a considerably harder wood than the pine the Pressure Treated 2x4s are made from.

The new blade cut through the 2x4s effortlessly. I mean that quite literally. I was expecting, from several years working on PT wood with the saw, to have to supply some small amount of oomph with my right arm. The new carbide blade went through the wood like a hot knife through molten soft ice-cream. There was literally no resistance at all and the entire 3½ inch cut took about a tenth of a second6. I was totally unprepared for that and almost fed my hand into the saw as a result. I did some manly grunting at my new mastery of all things Pressure Treated and got back to work.

I got the first and most important rail installed under the original so it would support the weight of the panel, drilled out the pilot holes and screwed it into place. Then I got busy with Mr Hammer and nailed the fence to the rail at each pailing. No w the fence was secure I could mount the next two rails with a bit more ease.

Unfortunately, while I was drilling one of the pilot holes I snapped off one of my quick-change bits.

I was mad about that. First off, the bit simply hasn't been worked that hard. I was making pocket cuts that involve starting the hole then carefully swinging the drill to an angle of about 45 degrees. The drill was still factory sharp and shouldn't have failed, but it did. The problem is that I don't think I can obtain single quick-change bits from this manufacturer. I'll probably have to buy an entire set if I want to replace it, and I do. The quick change drills snap into a hexagonal socket and lock in place. They can be released by pulling on the outside of the quick change chuck. It saves valuable time and you don't get drills slipping in a poorly tightened chuck. One of the most wearying facets of a job like this fence thing is the need to keep swapping between a drill and a screwdriver, or between two drill bits. Some people use two drills, but that just means more to put away after the job is done. These quick change fittings are one of the best ideas I've personally used in over two decades of tooly stuff. Oh well.

By the time I'd managed to get everything back on track and finished the nailing I was groaning from all the muscle pains and I barely made it up the stairs to the shower.

Still, the fence looks good now.

  1. The one I'm about to describe the replacement of and the one in the corner that I don't want to get involved with. Keep up!
  2. It's a drill that hammers. The best of both worlds
  3. It turns out that in normal operation the saw should not fill the room with clouds of choking blue smoke and leave scorch marks on the workpiece
  4. No Tool, No Job
  5. Project title kindly supplied by Mrs Stevie
  6. Memo to self: Only carbide blades from now on. Steel ones are not in the same league.

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