In early 2008, an elderly woman drove her car through our back yard and took out a chain link gate. Her vehicle raced across the lawn, just missing a beautiful 30-year-old tangelo tree and a water fountain, eventually crashing into a fence where the corners of four properties met. Her insurance company paid us fairly to cover the total cost of damages, and so began my Great Gate Project.
Back then, I thought about building the new wooden gate myself, but I didn’t have the time. I thought it might be more sensible to ‘hire a professional.’ I know this magazine is read mostly by professionals, and I don’t mean this as criticism of the entire industry, but believe me, not everyone who says they’re a professional is professional.
For example, when my contractor’s crew started installing the flat 5 1/2-in. boards across the gate frame, they started on the left side and ended with a small 2-in. strip of wood on the right side, near the latch. I asked them to redo the boards, so they’d be centered—that didn’t earn me any friends. Of course, by the time I realized the workmanship was questionable, they were setting the finish. I later learned that that wasn’t the only area where quality was sacrificed for speed.
After three years, the gate started falling apart, and the warranty was long expired.
|The concrete footings were crumbling, and could be broken with my bare hands.
|The posts were out of level, and the gate was dragging on the ground, despite my continuous adjustments.
Rather than contract with the same company again, I decided to re-build the gate my way.
I started by drawing plans for the upgrade in Google SketchUp. The design was much more structural, with a stucco wall extending off of the garage and a stucco pillar on the hinge side of the gate.
The main challenge was dealing with the varying angles and grades. After many weeks of measuring, planning, thinking, and drawing, I came up with my final measured drawings of the foundation and wall structure.
Some of you might be thinking: “Wow, if I spent that much time designing a simple gate, I’d never make a living.” You’re probably right! Fortunately, I wasn’t trying to make a living building this gate—I just wanted it to last.
I chose to build the wall out of traditional wood framing instead of concrete block, because I’m not that experienced with block, which turned out to be a good decision. When I went to Building and Safety to get a permit, and showed them my plans, they told me that I didn’t need a permit for a wood structure fence—but I would need a permit if it were concrete block!
The first step was excavation. This required a bit of irrigation work, jack hammering to get out some of the old concrete, and lots of digging. The total depth of the footing and stem wall was 25 in., but I dug a bit deeper to get to undisturbed soil. I then back-filled with 3/4-in. crushed gravel.
I set up shop in my garage and got to work on the forms for the foundation. These were extremely challenging due to the multiple angles. Plus, I wanted to do a monolithic pour of the footing and stem wall, which meant that a set of forms for the stem wall had to sit on top of the footing forms.
|First, I set the forms for the footing.
|Next, I set the forms for the stem walls. I used #5, 5/8-in. rebar, drilled and epoxied into the garage foundation.
|My calculations were for just under a 1/2-yard of concrete. I rented a ready-mix trailer from a local equipment rental yard, which made things a lot easier.
|The forms made it easy to screed the concrete level and smooth. I set 1/2-in. j-bolt anchors, and let the foundation cure for 48 hours before starting framing.
Most TiC readers probably already know that a wall that’s simply bolted to a foundation will never be rigid enough to hold a gate, but, being new to construction, I had to learn the hard way. I should have set a steel post at both sides of the gate, right into the foundation, and then framed around the posts. I didn’t know that. So, I re-worked the design.
|The new design required an addition to the foundation, which changed the freestanding wall into an “L” shape. More digging…more rebar…more forms…and more concrete.
The next step was two layers of Grade-D building paper and 20-guage, self-furred stucco netting, which was installed with 1 1/2-in. staples with a 1-in. crown. None of the staples were installed on the flat horizontal surfaces of the wall tops, and they were kept 2 in. down the wall from the top edge.
Also note that I didn’t install a weep screed. I specifically chose not to install this detail because it simply wouldn’t have looked good with our house, which was a 1927 Spanish Revival. I did, however, continue the lath onto the foundation, which was attached with Ramset nails.
|With building paper and lath installed, the project was ready for stucco.
|The scratch coat came next.
|Then came the brown coat, which brought the thickness out to the same level as the existing garage wall.
|Finally, the topcoat. Our house had a skip trowel texture, so blending the new section to the exiting stucco was relatively easy.
I kept the wall moist for 72 hours while the stucco cured. Additionally, the stucco had to cure for at least 28 days before painting. I chose not to use a colored topcoat, because our house was painted.
|Brick was set in a 3/8-in. bed of mortar. A masonry saw was used for the handful of angles.
|Grout was completed the next day, and the brick was washed with muriatic acid.
Finally! It was time to build the gate! I have to admit that during this whole process, my wife and I hadn’t decided on the gate design. We couldn’t even decide between wood or wrought iron, which meant that I couldn’t install the proper jambs. Of course, I didn’t want that decision to hold me up, so I stuccoed the entire wall.
Ultimately we chose a wooden gate—with mortise and tenon joinery and floating panels. For a wooden gate, I would have preferred to install the jambs before the stucco, and then key the stucco into a rabbet at the back of the jamb, but that’s not how things worked out.
Even though I have a pretty good shop at home, I felt that I needed more space, and a few tools I didn’t own, like a bandsaw, so I used a local professional wood shop that a friend of mine uses to build furniture. The shop had three table saws, one of which was an Altendorf sliding table saw. This was an absolutely awesome machine to use! They also had a hollow chisel mortiser, oscillating spindle sander, oscillating edge sander, bandsaw, and many more fine tools that aided in the gate construction.
I chose Vertical Grain Douglas Fir, because it was readily available without special order. Honestly, I wanted to build the gate out of Cedar, but it was special order, and I couldn’t wait.
The gate design was to be strictly mortise and tenon joinery without any fasteners or pins, and the center panels would float in a dado. There would be a total of four rails, which I designated from the top down as: Top Rail, Top-Middle Rail, Bottom-Middle Rail, and Bottom Rail. The two Middle Rails would have standard tenons. The Top and Bottom Rails required haunched tenons, because of the dado that ran the entire length of the stiles.
I started by milling the 2×6 stock for the stiles and rails. The first step in the process was smoothing one edge on a jointer. The next step was smoothing a face on the jointer so that these two surfaces were square to each other. After this, I ran the opposite face in a thickness planer to achieve my final thickness of 1 3/8 in. Finally, the last edge was ripped on the table saw to a width of 5 1/4 in.
The next step involved setting up a 1/2-in. dado blade on the table saw to cut the dados in the stiles and rails. These were cut to a depth of 3/4 in. The inside edges of the stiles, both edges of the two Middle Rails, and the top edge of the Bottom Rail had a through dado cut in them. The dado in the bottom edge of the Top Rail was not cut at this time because of the curve—this will be discussed later in the article.
The setup was simple: install a 1/2-in. wide dado blade, set the blade height to 3/4 in., and set the fence to 7/16 in. away from the blade. Each piece was cut once, turned end-for-end, and then cut again. This ensured that the dado was perfectly centered in the workpiece.
After cutting the dados, it was time to start drawing and creating the curved template for the Top Rail. I had to create the template before cutting the mortises in the stiles, because it would indicate exactly where the Top Rail and Top-Middle Rail would be.
I laid out the radius-to-rail the Egyptian way: I drew it full-scale on a piece of 1/4-in. plywood, so I could get the right curve. I didn’t have a specific radius in mind for the curve, so I set up trammel points on a long piece of scrap stock and played around. The final radius I chose was 36 in. I drew the bottom curve, and then moved the pivot point vertically up the centerline 5 1/4 in. to draw the top curve. From there I drew horizontal lines perpendicular to the sides, one at the apex of the top curve and another at the bottom points of the bottom curve—these are labeled as Top Line and Bottom Line in the following diagram. I also drew vertical lines 5 1/4 in. in from each side to represent the width of the stiles.
Once the template reached this stage, the template was cut exactly on the two outside parallel lines, which represented the gate width. I cut the template a few inches above and below the Top Line and Bottom Line. The exact distance away from the Top and Bottom Lines didn’t really matter, because the template would eventually be cut later at the curved lines.
The gate was six feet tall at the top of the curve, so I measured six feet up from the bottom of each stile. I then placed the template on the stile with the Top Line aligned with the six-foot mark. Next, I marked tangent points at stiles A & B.
I also measured and marked the layout of the tenons on the template. There wasn’t any exact science here. The tenons on all of the other rails were 3 in. long, but the top rail was special because of the curve. I settled on a length of 2 in.—the deepest I could go into the stile and still leave a fair amount of material near the top edge.
I cut the plywood template with a jigsaw and smoothed the curves on an 8-in. oscillating edge sander.
Using the template, I marked the tops of the stiles, then measured and drew the exact location of the Top Rail mortises based on one of the lines drawn on my template.
The next step was to mark the location of the Top-Middle Rail, but this was where I made a serious mistake. I referenced off of the lines at Point B on each stile to find the location of the Top-Middle Rail instead of at Point D. Unfortunately, I didn’t discover this until too late. In fact, it was at the time of assembly, during glue-up, that I became aware of my mistake. (I’ll talk about this again later in the article.)
These reference points and lines allowed me to measure down the stile to find the location of the Top-Middle Rail, which was 5 1/4 in. below the Top Rail. The Bottom-Middle Rail was located and marked by measuring 5 1/4 in. up from the top of the Bottom Rail.
With this information, I was able to lay out the exact locations of all the mortises with lines drawn on the faces of both stiles. Afterwards, I transferred the lines to the edges, which were ultimately referenced when cutting the mortises.
Mortise and Tenons
I used an Oliver #91-D Vertical Hollow Chisel Mortiser to cut the mortises. (Unfortunately, I didn’t take pictures of that process.) With the mortises completed, I went to work on the rails. I cut them all on a chop saw to a length of 35 3/4 in. (29 3/4 in. for the length of the rail between the stiles, plus 3 in. for each tenon). I cut the Top Rail to the same length, even though its final length would be 2 in. shorter because of the 2 in. tenons. Having equal-sized rails made it easier to maintain perfect layout tolerance on the center sections.
I cut the tenons on a table saw using a dado blade, and I set a rip fence as a stop for the tenon length. After making the initial shoulder cut, I moved the material away from the fence and removed the remaining waste. I used a band saw to cut the haunched tenons (see photo, right).
For the curved top rail, I just traced my template onto a glue-up of 2×6 stock, which was wide enough to get the full radius. I cut the top rail with a band saw and sanded close to the line with an oscillating spindle sander. I smoothed the stock using a Stanley #113 circular plane.
|All of the rails are complete, with the exception of the dado on the bottom, concave side of the top rail.
|To cut the dado in the radius top rail, I used a 1/2-in. slot cutting router bit with a ball bearing guide mounted in a router table.
Tongue and Groove Panels
The panels were milled from 1×6 lumber to a final thickness of 1/2 in., and a width of 5 1/4 in. The final width of the panels would be 30 3/4 in., and would be made up of seven individual boards. This would allow for 1/2 in. of expansion. Each board was tongue and grooved and glued together. The tongues and grooves were made on the table saw, but I started by milling the grooves first.
I cut the tongues next, keeping the board oriented vertically with the face up against the fence. An alternative method would have been to cut with the face against the table. Either way would have worked, but a zero-clearance insert was mandatory when cutting it in a vertical fashion. Also note that a featherboard was used when cutting both the tongues and grooves.
|Using a dado blade and a zero-clearance insert, both sides of each board were cut with the same setup, resulting in a tongue perfectly centered.
|Bevels on both sides of the groove edge were cut on the sable saw with the blade tilted to 45 degrees.
|Bevels on both sides of the tongue edge were cut with a shoulder plane.
|When assembled, a simple V-notch groove was formed between each board.
|The individual boards were glued and clamped together using Tightbond III waterproof glue.
The next step was assembling the gate.
The gate was glued and clamped, using Tightbond III waterproof glue. The center panels floated within the frame to allow for expansion and contraction throughout the seasons. However, I used a small bead of “Big Stretch” acrylic latex caulking on the bottom edge of each panel, on both sides of the gate, where it fit in the dados. This will, hopefully, inhibit any water from getting down into the dados.
The stiles were left long during assembly, but after the glue set-up, I trimmed the stiles and the Top Rail close to the line with a jigsaw. I then clamped the curved template onto the gate directly on my cut line, and used a flush trim router bit with a ball bearing guide.
|Because of a through-dado on the stiles, a haunched tenon was necessary on both the top and bottom rails.
Gate installation was relatively easy. I installed the jambs on the stucco walls using 1/2-in. lag bolts. I used two 4-in. ball bearing hinges and an exterior door lockset from Emtek. I didn’t want a traditional gate handle. The jambs were installed to the wall using four lag bolts on each jamb that were recessed into the wood and plugged. The recess was cut with a forstner bit, and the plugs were cut with a plug cutter, then trimmed flush.
After two coats of stain, the gate was finished (below, left). Once I put a bit of paint on the stucco (below, right), the project was finally complete.
Once completed, we received many compliments from neighbors and friends who all stated the new gate and wall looked as if they had always been a part of the house. We agreed.
Along the way, I learned a lot, and would have done several things differently:
- First off, I wish I had built the gate 1 3/4-in. thick instead of 1 3/8-in. thick. This is for two reasons: 1. The gate is warping. 2. A thicker gate would have allowed me to use better hardware.
- I wish I’d fixed the design flaw of the free-standing wall earlier…while in the design stage, not the concrete stage. That would have meant a lot less stress.
- And speaking of stress, when it came time to pour the concrete, I ordered a half-yard. My calculations were just under this number, but I should have ordered 3/4-in. of a yard. I was freaking out during the pour, worried that I’d run out of concrete. But scraping the drum gave me just what I needed.
- Finally, I should have done a full mock-up of the gate, or at least drawn the full-size gate on plywood. As I mentioned earlier, I made a glaring error: My drawing and initial idea was for the top and bottom panels to be of the same height where they meet the stiles. Unfortunately, I laid out the mortises incorrectly and didn’t notice it until after the glue up when I stood back and said “Ugh!” Of course, my wife said they looked fantastic, and no one but me knows the truth.
I made sure to disclose at the beginning of this article that I’m not a professional contractor, nor do I work in the industry. But I am a very serious do-it-yourselfer. My day job is in the film industry. I’m a sound mixer and I work on a swing shift, which starts at 3:30 in the afternoon. That allowed me to work on my project for several hours a day before I went “to work,” as well as over a few long weekends. In all, the entire project took about eight weeks—which, I know, will sound like a long time to a lot of TiC readers. But I really enjoy doing this type of work myself—not only is the final product fulfilling, but every step along the way was rewarding—even the hard-learned lessons. And I definitely welcome any and all feedback—I relish the idea of learning “the easy way.”
I would like to thank Peter Vogel for his patience and guidance with building the gate. Peter is an exceptional woodworker and artist. Additionally, I would like to thank Kirk Giordano, of Kirk Giordano Plastering, Inc., for his informative videos. Kirk’s videos show his level of expertise and professionalism, which aided me considerably in completing my project.
• • •
Mike Boden is a re-recording mixer at 20th Century Fox, where he has worked since 2005. With over twenty years of experience in the film industry, Mike has also held positions at Universal Pictures, Sony Entertainment, and several other smaller studios.
After college, Mike noticed that his mother’s home was in need of some serious repairs. Mike decided to tackle them himself, which served as a great entry point into the craft of woodworking and construction. From there he bought his first home in 2001 and embraced the opportunity to build many upgrades himself, which included a laundry room remodel, French doors, skylight, cedar closets, interior doors, landscaping, pergola, and much more.
Woodworking and construction offer Mike a gratifying counterpoint to sitting in a dark studio, mixing audio. Mike dreams of someday having his own dedicated woodshop instead of a shared garage.
When not working at the studio or on the house, Mike enjoys traveling with his wife, cooking, playing with his three dogs, and photography. His photography portfolio can be viewed at www.mikeboden.com.