Building a Z-Frame Gate

This gate is sturdy and easy to make. The more closely spaced the pickets, the stronger the gate. You will probably want to use the same pickets on your gate as are on the fence. But don’t be afraid to mix up designs a bit. A gate with a curved top adds visual interest to a straightforward fence. Choose your hardware along with the gate design. A T-hinge is stronger than a strap hinge, but a screw-hook hinge is the strongest, and makes it easy to remove the gate—simply lift it up.

Tools: Drill, framing square, circular saw, sabersaw, hammer.

Weight vs. Strength - A massive gate may be stronger in itself, but its extra weight requires heavy-duty hinges and may strain your posts. A lighter gate is easier to use, can be installed with lighter hardware, and looks less forbidding. Consider the use and abuse the gate will get. If kids will be hanging on it, you may want to build a stronger box-frame or sandwich gate. In addition, make sure the post is strong, and install heavy-duty hinges.

1. Lay out the pickets. Cut the pickets roughly to length (you will cut the tops off later) and lay them on a well-swept, flat surface. Space them evenly apart, with at least 1/8 inch space between them so the wood can expand and contract. If possible, space them so they come out to the exact width you want. If not, cut the pieces on either side. Avoid narrow pieces. Use a framing square to make sure the bottom corners are square.

2. Add bracing. Cut two 2x4s to the width of the gate, minus 1/4 inch. Taking care not to bump the pickets out of alignment, set the 2x4s on top of the pickets parallel to each other and about 4 inches from the bottom and the top of the gate. At each joint, drive in two 2-inch decking screws. Drill pilot holes using an alternating pattern to avoid splitting the wood. Hold a 2x4 diagonally from the top of the hinge side to the bottom of the latch side and mark for cutting. Cut and install it in the same way.

3. Mark a curve and cut. Turn the gate over and place it on a set of horses or a table so you can cut it. Make a compass out of a pencil and string to draw a curve on the top. Take care that the cut won’t go below the top brace on the sides. Cut along your guideline with a sabersaw and lightly sand all the edges. Paint the gate or apply sealer.

4. Prepare the posts. Plumb and brace your posts carefully. If the hinge post is not plumb in both directions, the gate will either close or open by itself and you’ll need to install a gate-closing spring. Firmly tamp soil around the base of each post or set the post in concrete.

Applying Finishes Before Assembly - Tom Sawyer discovered that it takes a lot of time to work a brush into all the nooks and crannies of a fence. Even a short fence soaks up a surprising amount of paint or stain. Unless you are like Tom and have gullible friends, your best bet is to finish the fence pieces before you assemble them. So, after the posts are set, cut the rails and screening, lay them out on sawhorses or another support system, and apply the finish of your choice with a roller or brush.

Use good exterior paint or stain. Both wood and metal must be primed first; this properly seals the surface so the top coating will hold up longer under exposure to severe weather. Spraying paint makes this job even faster, but the overspray wastes a lot of finish and may kill nearby vegetation if you’re not careful. You also must be careful to spray on calm days or you risk getting windblown paint on houses and cars parked in the area. Once your prefinished fence is assembled, you’ll have to go back and touch up spots that have been marred by hammer tracks, saw cuts, and other knocks and dings of assembly. Just to be on the safe side, apply a third coat to the tops of the posts and to the joints between the rails and posts.

Making a Box-Frame Gate

This gate is a bit sturdier than a Z-frame and takes a good deal longer to build. But don’t be afraid to tackle it if it is the look you want. This simple square or rectangular frame is braced by a diagonal member. The tricky part is the half-lap joint. A tablesaw or radial-arm saw will make this easier, but you can make a good-looking joint with a circular saw if you work carefully. As with all gates, start by making sure your opening is flanked by firmly set and plumb posts.

Tools: Circular, table-, or radial-arm saw; drill; hammer; carpenter’s square; tape measure.

1. Make a frame with lap joints. Cut the frame pieces. Set your saw to cut to a depth exactly one-half the thickness of the framing pieces. Experiment with scrap pieces to make sure this is precise. Hold one board on top of the other to mark for the joints. Cut to the inside of the line; make a series of closely spaced cuts in the area of the joint. Chisel out the remaining wood. Cut the other piece the same way. Dry-fit to make sure the pieces fit tightly. Apply exterior carpenter’s glue, clamp, drill pilot holes, and drive two 1/Cinch screws. Check for square as you work.

2. Brace the frame. Hold a piece of 2x4 in place, running diagonally, and mark for cutting. After cutting carefully, set it inside and fasten it to the frame by drilling pilot holes and driving 3-inch screws. The tighter this joint, the stronger the gate.

3. Attach pickets and hardware. Evenly space the pickets on the frame, or plan to cut the outside pickets a bit—avoid narrow pieces on the ends. Attach to the frame by drilling pilot holes and driving 2-inch screws, taking care that they don’t poke through.

Williamsburg-style closer - Here’s a disarmingly simple closing mechanism. Install a short post near the hinge post of the gate, attach a chain to both posts, and add a weight to the chain. The classic design uses a cannonball but you can use any object weighing 5 pounds or so—the heavier the weight, the more firmly the gate will close. Kits include faux cannonballs.

Building a Sandwiched Gate

Because the solid boards on this gate are placed diagonally, they help brace the gate. For the strongest design, use tongue-and-groove boards, but regular lx pieces with spaces between them work well. With a sandwich design, the gate will look the same from both sides. You may want to place a 2x3 or 2x4 cap on top of the gate for protection against rainwater. If not, apply plenty of sealer or paint to the exposed end grain on top. Prepare a working area for this project by sweeping debris from a driveway or walk.

Tools: Drill, carpenter’s square, circular saw, chalk line.

1. Build a frame and lay out. Lay out one set of 1x6 frame pieces. Nail or screw them together so they won’t come apart as you work. Set the diagonals on the frame starting with a 45-degree-cut triangle in the corner, and allowing the other pieces to hang over the edge. Drill pilot holes and drive 114-inch screws for all joints.

2. Cut edges, finish the sandwich. Drill pilot holes and use an alternating pattern for the screws, to avoid splitting boards. Chalk lines for all four edges. Set the circular saw blade so it barely cuts through the diagonals (not the frame), and cut carefully. Add the top sandwich pieces, drilling pilot holes and driving 2-inch screws.

3. Hinge the gate. Set the gate on blocks so the top of the gate lines up with the top of the fence post and the side is flush against the post. For a strap or T-hinge, hold the hinge in place, drill pilot holes, and drive the screws. For a screw-hook hinge, drill a pilot hole at a 45-degree angle into the post, screw in the hook, slip on the hinge strap, and fasten it to the gate.

4. Add a latch and gate spring. A universal latch clicks shut automatically. Put the gate in its fully closed position and attach the pieces with screws. If the gate needs to be openable from the outside, drill a hole and run a string through it. Install a gate spring if you want the gate to close automatically.

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