The Lost Pickets

October 2, 2011 Comments Off on The Lost Pickets


A picket fence wraps around the front and one side of our house, adding a touch of character to the property. Normally I’m no fan of fences in the front yard of homes, but if you live on a corner lot it does make some practical sense. Pedestrians are notorious for cutting across the corner of yards rather than following the sidewalk, saving themselves that extra 10 seconds of walking. Side yards adjacent to streets or sidewalks also tend to attract more casual trespassing, for whatever reason.

We bought our house in the late spring, so the vegetation in the front and side yard was in full expanse after a wet season. Along one portion of the side yard there were tall weeds – lemon balm – obscuring much of the fence. While it was clearly overgrown, there were more pressing issues to deal with in the first few months of owning an old home, so those out of control weeds fell off the radar. In the late fall when everything started to die back, we went to hacking the lemon balm and, much to our surprise, there was a gaping hole in the fence construction. While the posts and rails were along that stretch of fence, there were no pickets. Lemon balm spreads horribly so we wanted to remove it permanently. Of course this meant another project to put on the list – putting up the lost pickets (55, to be exact).

Of all the projects we had planned for the house, I figured this would be one of the easiest. Buy the pickets, set up a level string, and screw them into place. Between the big-box home centers and all the small shop lumber yards in the area, surely someone would have our style of picket. It was simple in design – a standard 1×4 board, 3′ in height. The point at the top was not a simple 45-degree inverted “V”, but it had a gentle curve to it. I’ve seen it referred to as “stockade” style in few places. I took one of the pickets to five or six different places with no luck. The last place I visited, the guy at the counter started shaking his head the moment I strolled through the door. He explained that one guy in town sold that style, but he’s long since gone out of business. This project just got a little more involved. Over the winter months I bought 30 or so 6′ 1×4’s. A few months back – when summer finally arrived – we set out to replace the pickets.

I set up the chop saw to quickly cut them all to length. For the curved point at the top, a better equipped woodworker would have several options. A bandsaw would work, but I currently lack one of those. A jigsaw – yes, but my hated cheapo version of that tool jitters all over the place. It might also be a little awkward to reference its base on the end of board. A router table with a guide bearing bit would do it – but I’ve yet to build (or want) a router table. I did have a guide bearing bit, however. My first attempt at the curves was to use a router freehand, using one of the existing pickets as the guide for the bit. There are a few things I dislike about routers. One is the noise. Two is the dust. Three is the set-up time that always takes twice as long as you think it will. After fussing with the bit height for a few minutes, I plowed through the first picket. Working in a counter-clockwise direction, as the bit passed the point and cut “down” the board, it lifted the soft cedar fibers, spelching the grain. Great. I could have worked both sides towards the point, but that would have required a more dangerous climbing cut on one side. Long story short, I gave up on the router. I decided to do them all by hand. No dust, no noise, and I could work inside for all of it.

Standard 1x4s from the home center usually have one somewhat rough side, and one really rough side. I used a block plane to de-fuzz the really rough side. These were going to be painted so only slighty smooth was good enough. After tracing the shape of the point on a picket, I used a rip saw to cut most of the waste. Then it was a little rasp work to quickly work to the line on each side, forming the gentle curve. The soft cedar made the work go surprisingly quick.

I then eased the edges with a cornering tool, and gave all the surfaces a quick once over with some 120 grit sandpaper. I then repeated those steps 54 more times. Judy gets all the credit for making them look good, as she primed and painted each one over several days. The fence is now complete, except for the strangely missing gate (future blog alert).

A 300 mm Ryoba is overkill for this size board, but it's currently my best rip saw.

The Shinto saw rasp is a great tool for the money.

Pickets going up!


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