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Building Custom Gates

Between 1980 and 1994 I moved ten times—one fixer after the other, and a few rentals, too (fixers aren’t always profitable, even for a carpenter). When I moved into my current home, I promised myself I’d stay a while, and one of the first projects I wanted to tackle was replacing the gates. I accomplished the first goal, but it took a while before I got to the gates.

My old gates. (Note: Click to see a larger image of my dog. You can also click any other image to enlarge it.)

Now, more than fifteen years later, having replaced all the doors, re-piped the whole house, installed exterior French doors in place of the old worn-out patio doors, and refinished the hardwood floors (of course, I still haven’t done the kitchen or the bathrooms!), I finally got around to replacing those freakin’ gates (see photo, right).

Design & Dimensions

With all the books I have on architecture, I toyed with a dozen different styles—mostly craftsman and mission style designs. In the end, after considering the perspective of my latest dog (he has a low viewpoint), I came up with a design that combines both styles, probably more than anything because of the different types of materials.

Craftsman-style homes are known for including wood, brick, stone, steel, brass, copper, tile, concrete—an assortment of different materials. I used Western Red Cedar for the stiles, rails, and raised panels; 5/8-in. thick TimberTech boards for the flat panels; copper plumbing pipe for the viewports; teak for the keystone latch; and mahogany for the interior latch handle. My reasons for the different materials were simple—that’s what I could get my hands on.

I used my video camera to capture most of the process of building the gates. Here’s a fairly thorough collection of those videos. (The text of the article continues below the videos.)

Sealing

When it came to picking the finish, or sealer, I didn’t think twice. I called Joe Wood and asked him what he uses. Joe specializes in designing and building gates, arbors, and decks. In fact, it was Joe who recommended I use Western Red Cedar. His advice for the finish, hands down, was Penofin. Joe said Penofin was easy to apply, easy to re-apply, and would last two or more years. I liked all three characteristics—I hate finishing! So I went with Joe’s advice.

Before assembling the gates, I sealed most of the parts—especially the parts that weren’t glued into place—like the panels, along with the edges of the interior stiles and rails.
After the glue-up, and once the clamps were removed, I scraped off the hardened glue and sanded everything down to 220 grit, paying particular attention to any areas where the sealer had dripped or bled through.
I drenched the stiles and rails and wood panels with Penofin. I left it on for about fifteen minutes, then wiped off the excess with rags.

Installation

I let the gates sit and dry for about a week, then tackled the installation, which was a lot easier than you might think. I’ve hung a lot of doors, and installing a pair of gates is no different than hanging a pair of doors. In fact, it’s a lot easier: there are no head jamb reveals to worry about, and the gaps between the gates and the posts don’t have to be the thickness of a nickel!

I started by screwing a couple of short 1x4s across my old gates, removed the hinges, and pushed them forward about a foot—I didn’t want my dog running out into the street while I was hanging the new gates. That left me room to install the new posts. I fastened one post to the stucco wall of the house, and the other to the side-yard block wall, using polyurethane adhesive and lags with lead shields on both posts. Yeah, I used about a tube of adhesive on each post—why not? It’s cheap insurance.

Before tightening up the bolts, I cross-strung the posts, to be sure they weren’t cross-legged.

I didn’t have to get them perfect, just close, which was a good thing—since the 1994 earthquake, the block wall on the left is about 1 1/2 in. out of plumb. You’ll notice I also fastened a temporary 2×4 with pocket screws from post to post. More about that in minute.

I set a temporary block under each post, to be sure they wouldn’t sag before the adhesive dried, then tightened up the bolts (see photo, right).

Gate hinges aren’t exactly like butt hinges, something I learned in a hurry. I thought I’d be able to mount the hinges like a butt hinge, so the leaf on the post would be covered by the edge of the gate. But the barrel of the hinges, and the backset of the screw pattern, wouldn’t allow that option. Of course, I didn’t realize that until after I had the gates clamped temporarily to the horizontal brace (see photo, below). My plan was to adjust for any remaining cross-leg by moving the hinges in and out on the posts. I was so certain of my plan that I even took pictures of the process.

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize the problem with the hinges until after I went through all those steps. To make the hinges work, I had to mount them flat on the inside face of each post (see photo, left). After mounting the hinges, I moved the 2×4 horizontal brace out far enough to allow room for the gates, then clamped the gates to the brace, adjusted the height of the gates (so they were aligned horizontally and the gaps were even and parallel), then fastened the hinges to the back of each gate. At least that part of my plan worked!

The Latch

I’ve always hated gate latches. Period. I wanted a latch that wouldn’t need adjustments every time the seasons changed; one that wouldn’t bend or dig into the gates; hardware that could be adjusted down the road—in case the gates settled excessively.

I saw a program on television—I think it was a cartoon—where a keystone was used as a decorative backboard on a hotel room door (see photo, right). The room number was mounted right to the keystone. I liked that a lot. I shot a photograph of my television screen! I knew I’d use that detail somewhere, but never realized how nice it would work as a latch on my gates.

The problem was, I couldn’t figure out how to mount it so it would rotate and clear the stationary gate. I guess I’ve spent too much time with standard hardware, which is center-bored. I sent an early drawing to Todd Murdock and he sent back this—honest.

(Click here if you want to download the SketchUp drawing of the latch; Click here if you want to download the SketchUp drawing of the gates.)

It wasn’t long before I gave up on the copper idea—I didn’t have any copper lying around my shop, but I did have some teak. Todd taught me how to print the drawings from SketchUp full-size on my photo-printer. I glued those drawings to each layer of the gate using 3M Super 77 contact cement (another trick Todd taught me!), spraying the adhesive on the templates only—not the wood—so it would be easy to remove the paper.

I cut each layer out on my band saw so the corners would be sharp and the edges crisp. Following the lines on the printed templates was very easy.

I used my TS 55 and guide rail to cut all the kerfs, which was also easy. Because each layer covered the preceding layer, I didn’t have to worry about stopping cuts on the lower layers.

Before applying the glue, I wiped all the surfaces with lacquer thinner—I read somewhere that because of the oil in teak, glue won’t adhere unless you clean the wood first.

Instead of buying custom-welded parts, I picked up all the stuff I needed to mount the latch at a local plumbing supply. I used a 1 1/4-in. threaded nipple that was 3 1/2 in. long for the shaft, threaded the nipple into a mounting ring, and fastened it to the teak with screws and polyurethane adhesive. Permanent.
In the second-to-last photograph below, you’ll notice a short piece of 1 1/4-in. PVC, too. After I bored a hole through the gates for the latch, I inserted that PVC into the hole as a sleeve, figuring the soft Western Red Cedar would last longer if the galvanized shaft wasn’t touching it.
For the interior handle, I picked off another challenge. Jed Dixon has been teaching me to use a spokeshave, and Keith Mathewson has been urging me to use hand tools and break the surface of wood, so I laminated two 3/4-in. layers, cut the handle to shape on my band saw, then carved and shaped the handle down from 1 1/2 in. at the shaft to 3/4 in. at the teak catch. A single set-screw threads through the handle and penetrates the shaft (top of handle); and a galvanized cap tightens the handle and latch on the gate.

The final product:

Comments/Discussion

45 Responses to “Building Custom Gates”

  1. Ruud

    Nice job Gary especially the latch.
    I have seen lots of your content online, keep up the good work.

    Greetings from the Netherlands.

    Reply
  2. Ben

    Sweet looking gates, Gary.
    But I gotta ask how many hinges you used per gate.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Three–two at each of the top-rail locations and one at the bottom rail, so the hardware reinforced the mortise-and-tenon joints, too.
      Gary

      Reply
  3. Brad Kerley

    The handwork on that interior latch looks great. (along with everything else)

    Reply
  4. Bill Thomas

    I like the dog.
    Nice gate too.
    Fifteen years – I need to show this to my wife. She thought twelve years for the closet window was a long time. LOL

    Reply
  5. David Pugh

    Gary: We’re used to the fact that you are a raving genius. At least I expect that with your fabulous carpentry skills. But then, just when I was feeling comfortable with that, you come along and demonstrate your terrific fluency with Sketchup and video production. All of this by means of helping us to do a more professional job. It’s getting to be a bit much but it’s sure fun to watch you do all this. Thanks Gary !

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      David,
      Todd Murdock did all the neat and tricky Sketchup Drawings for my gates. And he taught me a few great woodworking techniques, too–like laminating those patterns onto the three layers of the latch.

      Reply
  6. Kreg mcmahon

    Great how to article and really enjoyed it and
    The new gates are awesome. Won’t recognize your house next time I stop by ! Now all the neighbors will want to hire you now for there gates!

    Reply
  7. Jesse Wright

    Gary,

    Amazing article, and video production! I really enjoyed seeing this all come together. Thank you for the inspiration and encouragement you have given me to build and make my own Greene & Greene style garage doors. If if wasnt for you sharing this with me over a year ago I would still be head scratching..Thank you!

    Reply
  8. mgfranz

    The workmanship of the gate is excellent and the quality of the finished product is truly superb, But I have to ask, you are going to paint it aren’t you? Cause the way the materials flow, the grain or the layout of the overall boards assembly that looks appealing to me. The boards do not match, there is no concentric grain matching going on. It actually looks like a hodge-podge of stuff you had laying around.

    While I will be one of the first to admit that there are times when I will build something out of scrap paying around, a showcase piece like this should have some visual style included, which sorry to say, you missed.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      MG,
      You are right! They do look like a hodgepodge of grains and wood/composite colors and textures. I wanted a mix of materials, but….I guess I should have done a much better job of picking out the cedar, but I was distracted most of the time by other things–like my day job, the fun of cutting the mortise and tenon joints, trying to figure out how to get that patina on copper. And I’d never bought Western Red Cedar before, especially in the rough. I’d be able to see the difference in the grain colors now, but I sure couldn’t when I picked out those boards. I was overwhelmed by how thick and straight and flat they were. Fortunately, WRC fades as it ages and eventually goes grey. The gates have already lost several color tones…thankfully.

      Reply
      • Dan Apgar

        Maybe you could have stained all the boards first to even out the darks/lights.

        The gates look great though and I love that latch!

        Thanks again Gary!

        Reply
  9. clueless

    Mr. Katz,

    When you bored the hole for the PVC sleeve in the stationary gate, is the hole perpendicular to the gate or is it at an angle? I was wondering about clearance of the galvanized nipple through the PVC sleeve since it is approaching on a radius. How did you do the layout for this?

    Thanks for posting and you have a nice, clean, bright work shop!

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Clueless,
      The hole for the pvc sleeve is a standard face-bore hole drilled perpendicular through the lock rail. There’s no angle. The galvanized nipple slips right inside it.

      Reply
  10. Sancho

    Nice job Gary,

    How’d you know I’ve been wanting to build a gate for my house.
    The doggie windows in the bottom are awesome.

    Reply
  11. Stephen

    What is that mortice jig called? I would say from the look of it that is not new. Even so I would love to track one down. What a sweet device!

    The gates are great. I really like the look and the latch rocks!

    Thank you for the great article.

    Reply
  12. michael

    looks awesome gary. glad my wife doesnt read these emails, or i would be building a new set of gates…
    michael

    Reply
  13. Ed Latson

    Gary- Try to imagine doing what you do without Festool……pretty interesting article. Also a very good segue between traditional layout and computer aided layout.

    One product we absolutely cannot do without here in Vermont is: Vermont Natural Coatings….professional interior-floor or furniture & exterior coatings–all made with the cheese byproduct whey (think old fashioned milk paint); plus professional wood tints and just released an absolutely fantastic barn red exterior stain (think Vermont/New England classic red barn color) and an exterior wood cleaner….

    http://www.vermontnaturalcoatings.com
    Very good article Gary…Your format is – hands down- my favorite source for new information. It’s an excellent marriage of old and new. Also…do you have the accessory leg braces for the Festool work table? I had to buy the brace for my table–really helps to lock in and take out the wiggle. Ed

    Reply
  14. Kevin Zale

    Wow. Another side of Gary, just a guy with a long to do list who loves his dog.
    Nice job on the gates.

    kevin

    Reply
  15. Kevin Stricker

    Hey Gary,
    Great to see the final results, you have been teasing us with videos on this for a while. I thought I would mention a trick I found for making domino glue ups less frantic. I pre glue the domino into one of the mortices then wipe off the squeeze-out. Now when you go to do the assembly you only have to deal with 1/2 of the work.

    I always learn something new watching your videos, especially the sketch-up ones. Keep up the good work and thank you for your huge contribution to carpentry as a trade with your website and roadshows.

    Kevin

    Reply
  16. Sean

    Gary,
    I’ve used Penofin finishes till I discovered SIkkens. Especially with cedar (due to it’s natural oil and tannen content) the sikkens products will far surpass the penofin in longevity and looks (your gates are beautiful regardless).

    Just a thought. Try sikkens next time.

    Reply
    • Craig A. Polley

      I’ll second sikkens. Here in Oregon… lots ‘o cedar. First coat: seal and color. Second coat: Everything evens out. Third coat: golden.

      Reply
  17. Keith Mathewson

    Very nicely done Gary and great explanation of the whole process including the design work in Sketchup, but what I particularly like is the view port at dog height. I never would have thought of that but I’m sure every dog with a fenced yard wishes there was one!

    Reply
  18. Tim Raleigh

    Gary:
    I always learn something watching your Sketchup videos. You must be the reason Todd has not posted any new Sketchup videos ;-)
    Thanks.
    Tim

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Tim,
      VERY perceptive and completely true. Todd has been working on a large project that should be published in TiC soon…

      Reply
  19. Jeff Saul

    Gary,
    Terrific, I am spending my retirement my our house into a “Home”. I learn something from each of your videos and truly appreciate these step by step processes. I look forward to receiving your TiC emails each week.
    All the best,
    Jeff

    Reply
  20. Rob Potter

    Thanks for a good article, Gary. The videos were great; it’s nice to watch a carpenter work and pick up some little tricks and different methods. I especially like all your jigs.
    Also, I had never seen a lock mortiser in action before. Very cool machine. Thanks again for sharing.
    -Rob

    Reply
  21. Kirby

    Gary, now I don’t feel so guilty about the repairs not getting done on my house. Nice to see your dog. Didn’t see him in the after picture.

    The videos were excellent. I almost needed a table of contents for this article. It read/sounded like a book! Keep up the rich tradition of our wood working heritage.

    Kirby

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Kirby,
      Jake is there in the after picture–a black shadow looking out the lower right porthole…his favorite spot.
      Gary

      Reply
  22. Joe Adams - Deep Creek Builders

    Gary,

    Wonderful design and workmanship as always. I am in awe of the custom latch. Just amazing!

    I’ve done a lot of work with Western Red Cedar and learned a long time ago that you need a semi-transparent stain to even it out the tonally. I use Sikkens Cetol SRD Semi-Transparent stain. Cedar can vary dramatically from board to board and this helps to create a nice even color but you can still see the grain. They have lots of color options and you can even custom blend them like I do.

    Like most carpenters, I love building but hate finishing. With this product, I run the boards through my drum sander at 80 grit to knock off the mill glaze and then use a small foam roller to apply ONE coat on all sides. In three to five years, you can freshen the finish by doing a light cleaning and then recoating with the same product.

    I’m currently working on some Arts & Crafts tapered columns using Western Red Cedar for the house I’m building for my Mom. I’m taking pictures along the way so maybe I can do a TIC article when I get them finished.

    Once again, great job on the gates. (And what a good dog!)

    Reply
  23. Fishwill

    Gary: Another thought: a brass cap instead of galvanized – might work with the style of the rest of the latch and gate. I have been using a lot of brass and copper in my A&C work and not only does it add a bit of class, but also it ages nicely.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      GREAT SUGGESTION! I’ll look for a Brass cap!! That will look really nice.
      Gary

      Reply
  24. Steve Christopher

    Outstanding project !
    I am blocking this from my wife though. I can hear it now, “Gary travels for the shows, publishes a online magazine, runs a business AND still gets stuff done on his house”
    Thanks Gary! :)

    Reply
  25. Harry Conway

    Gary, Kinda new here, where do you get this side clamps and dogs for your hold down bench setup

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Harry,
      Those black clamps are from Festool. They are extremely useful. They’re called Clamping Elements. I use them frequently. In the Bessey Clamp article, I modified one of them to work with the Auto-Adjust Toggle Clamp.
      Gary

      Reply
  26. Zak Steigmeyer

    Nice project.

    I built a set of similar size gates recently, so I’ve got a few comments- some things I did/found while building gates.
    First, a matter of taste- well, smell actually- Penofin works great, but I don’t often use it because the smell (which stays around much longer than you’d think) is often unpopular. If you can’t smell it anymore, it’s probably time to recoat.

    I used a simple router template for the mortises, and loose tenons for all the joinery, and West Systems epoxy for all the joints- one really nice thing about the epoxy is that you can fine tune the open time by using different hardeners, and you can use it in colder weather than pva or polyurethane glues. I also used the epoxy to coat all the hinge fasteners into the wood- the epoxy soaks into the softwood, and increases the strength several times. Large gates deal out a lot of abuse to hinges and hinge fasteners.

    For hinges, I had 1/4″ thick backing plates with weld-on hinges made, almost the full height of the gate. The weld on hinges are rated at much higher loads than any butt hinges I could find, and I didn’t want strap hinges on these gates. They could be powder coated, but in this case rust is the desired outcome.

    I love the custom latch! thanks for the article. Here are a few pictures of my gates and the process I used. These gates were made entirely from an old redwood deck that I removed and replaced at the same house. Boards were planed down and laminated back to 2 1/2″ thick- a few nail holes show here and there, but it adds to the character.




    Reply
  27. Adams

    My only question is why no color matching on the wood, was that customer preference? I love the pictures and the functionality of the product but I don’t dig the fact that one gate has all the blonde wood and the knots. Its still super cool.. you did good dude. I love your work, not saying its bad or wrong by no means.. Keep on keepin on.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Matthew,
      I didn’t color match the wood because I didn’t know I should, didn’t know how to, and have never done it before. I looked at the wood and thought “look how pretty the colors are,” but never considered what they’d look like assembled. Then I realized it wouldn’t matter as the gate aged and it all turned dark reddish grey, which it’s doing now that’s a year has passed since I hung the gates. But like most things I do, I learned some good lessons.
      Gary

      Reply
  28. Sam Marsico

    Gary,
    Will the bit from your mortiser fit into the plunge router? I’m envisioning using two of the festool edge guides – one on each side – to center/guide the router making mortises. Great work from both you and Zak.

    Reply
  29. DLE Property Services

    Okay it has been several years, how are your gates hang’n?
    If it’s like most of the gates I’ve seen they eventually sag. And the latch doesn’t line up. or worse the gate(s) drag the ground.
    So I’d be interested in knowing how well your joinery is holding up.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Sad to say….I moved two years ago! And I LEFT THE GATES THERE!!! :)
      I did go by for a sneak peak about two months ago and they’re still hanging exactly as they were, and the same latch is still there. So the current owners must enjoy the gates and the latch as much as I did…well, almost. After all, they didn’t build them.
      Gary

      Reply
  30. Barry

    Great work, very detailed.
    Question: I used vertical grain fir to make a nice courtyard gate only to have it warp considerably and even cause the frame to break. I used several coats of exterior polyurethane to seal and it still warped when the rains came. I don’t know what to do after the repairs to prevent this again. Can you help?

    Reply

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