When we bought our house in June 2010, we said that building a fence to keep the dog in was one of the first things we were going to do. That first summer, it turned out that packing and unpacking, buying furniture, painting over the the pink and baby blue rooms, reinforcing the joists, attempting to climb Mount Rainier, and myriad other small projects took precedence. That was OK, we’d build a fence as soon as the weather got warm in 2011.
The weather in 2011 turned out to be pretty perfect for climbing. Brian and I climbed a ton, got to the top of some awesome peaks in the Cascades, and pulled some hard climbing moves at crags in the North Cascades. Brian also travelled for work a crazy amount in 2011, and when he was home, it seemed more important to do something fun instead of dig holes.
These all seemed like good reasons for why we weren’t building a fence, but eventually we had to admit that we hadn’t built the fence mostly because we didn’t know how to set fence posts in concrete and were worried that our fence was going to turn into a giant time suck because we’d constantly be working around mistakes like fence posts that weren’t square. This is where our hero, Dale, comes in.
Dale’s been telling us for a while that putting in fence posts is easy, but we were having trouble believing him. He gave us a fabulous Christmas present this year, though- some fence consulting time with him. He came over, dug some holes with us, told us exactly which brand of concrete mix to use, and helped us tie strings and hold up levels, and now we have a perfect row of fence posts along the side of our house.
Here’s Dale’s recipe for perfect fence posts:
- posthole digger (believe me, you don’t want to do it with a shovel)
- Quick-set concrete mix, such as the red bags of Quikrete (the ones that set in about 15 minutes, not the 24 hour ones). Plan for about 1.5 bags per post.
- 4×4 pressure treated lumber, with enough extra length to bury 18″deep
- water- a garden hose is good
- pea gravel
- tape measure
- plumb bob
- rebar or stakes
- permanent marker
- a call to your utilities two business days in advance
- Once your utilities have been marked, dig 18″ holes where the corners will go (both endpoints of a straight line). We figured out where these would be by measuring 2 feet in from our driveway. Just make sure they meet your local setback rules. If you’re using pre-made panels, you’ll want to make sure they’re the right distance for an integer number of them, unless you have a plan for cutting a panel in half.
- Put 2-3″ of gravel in the bottom of the hole.
- Fill about a third of the hole with water.
- Put the post in the hole, and make it square with the direction of the fence. I did this by standing directly in front of it, with respect to our house, and telling the guys which way to twist it. This is probably the most imprecise step.
- Make the post plumb (use the level for this), and fill the hole halfway with the dry concrete mix. At this point you have a few minutes to wiggle the post around to make it perfect.
- Fill the rest of the hole with dry concrete mix and pour in water. Check again that it’s perfectly square and plumb. Ta Da! One post done.
- Do the same thing with the other end post.
- Let the ends set long enough that the posts don’t wiggle (a couple of hours), and tie a string the each end. You want the string nice and taut and as level as possible.
- Measure how far it is between the end posts. Make a note of whether you’re measuring from the outside or inside of the posts. If you aren’t using pre-made panels, this is the time to figure out exactly how wide each panel should be. We already had a model of a single panel, but we had to tweak the dimensions a bit at this step. If you’re putting a gate in, don’t forget that your gate might be a different width than the other panels. Don’t forget to include the width of the fence posts.
- Re-check your calculations from step 9. Have someone else do the same calculations, and compare numbers. Really, it’s worth it.
- Now that you know how wide each panel will be, measure from the end posts where each additional post will be, and mark it on the string with permanent marker. Make a note of whether you’re measuring to the middle or the right or the left of the post.
- Drop a plumb bob from the mark on the string and hammer in a stake or piece of rebar at that spot. Do this for all the marks. Stand back and check that everything looks right.
- Now you get to dig holes and place each additional post. It’s pretty much the same as the first two posts, but now you get a guide for what’s square (the string), and you’ll need to measure the distance from the last post, to check that you didn’t get a bit off while digging. This means that you’ll want to set the post in the hole before you put the gravel, water, and mix in, and make a quick measurement and check if the hole is too far forward or back from the string. It’s no fun to have to re-dig the hold after you’ve filled it with water.
- Stand back and admire your work before moving on to fabricating the panels.
That was kind of a lot of steps, wasn’t it? Actually, the work goes quite quickly, especially with more than one person. You should be able to put in 10 posts in an afternoon. Brian pointed out to me that it’s hard to really get a grasp on how straightforward the process is until you do it yourself.
Another note- people seem to thing that you can’t build fences in January or February because the ground is frozen or the holes will fill with water. That might be true in some places, but the ground in Seattle is rarely frozen, and if you live on a hill (like most people in Seattle), the holes probably won’t fill with water. If you’re not sure, go dig a hole and see what happens.
Coming soon will be another post on the fence panels, but here’s a sneak peak: