Monday, May 12, 2008

The Fence Trilogy - Pickets and Swoops

In March, I built a fence with friends. See Preps and Posts for the first part of the story and Rails and Gates for the second. This is the third and final chapter in the ongoing saga of a man, his friends, and their fence. Welcome to...Pickets and Swoops.

Originally, Mike was concerned that the pickets would warp, so he wanted to screw in every picket to prevent warping. When you're dealing with almost 400 feet of fence, screwing in every picket would be a nightmare... so I convinced him that using ring-shanked nails, plus having 6" wide pickets instead of the 4" pickets he used before would help reduce the warping and save on cost and time. Now I'm not saying that there won't be any warping, but if there is, it should be only a few boards, and they would warp whether nailed or screwed.

Mike worked that first Friday that we were going to install pickets, so Roberta and I worked on the fence without him. We finished the right-side front, and the right-side side before it got too dark to work any more. We also measured and cut one arch--we kept calling them "swoops" for some reason--so that we could be absolutely sure that the upward arch is what they wanted.

The next morning, Mike joined in and we got all the pickets up on both the fence and the gates. One thing I hadn't planned on was time to get materials from the driveway to the work site. And since the backyard had a major hill, it was often a serious undertaking to get things up to the back of the fence. Fortunately, the house backs to a road, so Mike would have us load up his truck and he'd drive material to the top and we'd unload it there. But way back by the road wasn't grassed yet, so the trade off was to drive things up but get muddy taking it from the truck to the site, or to stay clean and have to haul it up the slope. We usually took the muddy route.

Remember when I called Roberta the best gofer ever? When I got there on Saturday morning, she had counted how many pickets were used in a fence section and carried bundles of pickets up for each section, making it so that Mike and I had material right there on hand and never had to break rhythm to go load pickets. How's that for service?

Cutting the swoops went...well, it was up and down. No pun intended. Okay, I'll admit it...pun intended. Roberta and I had marked all the swoops beforehand using a long piece of PVC pipe, so all Mike and I had to do was cut on the line. He started at one end of the fence and I started on the other, and the plan was to meet in the middle. Well I finished the right-side front and right side and was well on my way into the back when the blade on my reciprocating saw started going dull. Then I looked over and saw that Mike had finished the left-side front and was two sections into the left side--way behind where I thought he should be. It turns out that he was using a fine-toothed blade meant for cutting metal, which was leaving a nice edge on the fence, but was cutting exceedingly slowly. Also, he was at a part of the hill where he had to reach about 2' over his head to saw, which made for less-efficient sawing too. After a short conference and a popsicle break, I resumed from where I left off and Mike went to get new blades--Roberta was busy gathering the cutoffs.

I don't know where he went, but Mike came back with wickedly long jagged-toothed wood blades. F. Krueger's Hardware or somesuch, no doubt. But those things sure sped up the process! Mike went to work on sawing off the 4x4s and I finished up the fence and helped Mike on the 4x4s. If you've never sawed through a 4x4 with a reciprocating saw, I highly recommend it--it's great fun! Not quite as fun as the jackhammer, though.

With the swoops and posts cut, all that was left was to take pictures and pack up! All in all, it was a great project. Parts of it were fun, parts of it were...less than fun. Roberta was the ever-hospitable hostess and kept me well-supplied with fruit popsicles and cold drinks. Mike worked hard and fast, often despite having worked a night shift the previous night, working on 3 or 4 hours sleep.

And with the money they saved by taking back the extras, they bought materials to build an add-on mini-deck to their existing deck, and built it the next day! Gluttons for punishment, I guess. But come to think of it, that mini-deck looked pretty good. And my deck isn't too different from theirs...

The Fence Trilogy - Rails and Gates

In March, I built a fence with friends. See Preps and Posts for the first part of the story. This is the continuation concerning rails and gates.

Since Roberta wanted the finished fence to have domed arches like those on a fence down the street, we went on a field trip, and we brought a measuring tape. We measured the distance from the ground to the top of each of the three rails, then from the top of the top rail to the top of the arch. Back at Roberta's house, I took a 2x4 and made a "story stick," by transferring the measurements we took to the 2x4 as if it were one of the posts. (Thanks to Mr. Norm Abram for that little tip. It saved a lot of time, since we never had to remeasure rail heights!) Then, Roberta marked every single post while Mike and I measured, cut, and nailed up the rails. This was the first place where my air compressor and Porter Cable FC350 nailer came in handy... My Delta 10" miter saw helped, too.

Roberta, Mike, and I developed a pretty good rhythm that day--and most of the work days!--and we just banged through it.

We dodged rain the entire month and every Friday and Saturday work session were contingent upon the weather, but usually we got a good bit of work done before the rain came. One Saturday morning, I came over early despite the rain and worked on the gates--there would be three in all. Since the posts were up, we knew the gate widths, and since we had the story stick, we knew the rail heights, so we built the gates in the garage. Roberta had purchased a metal bracket kit comprised of braced right angles with the hinges welded on. It was really pretty easy to work with, except for a few blobby welds that threw off the rail length measurements since the rails couldn't butt up all the way to the end of the metal.

Gate installation was pretty straightforward. Mike held the gate while I screwed it up. In, I mean. Screwed it in. Oh, and I really need to get new batteries for my cordless Makita drill. I've had that drill since...2000? Yeah, those batteries last about as long as Data's blinders from the Goonies.

So with the rails and the gates up, the pickets and arches were all that separated us from a job well done.

The Fence Trilogy - Prep and Posts

March was a busy month for me, especially on the weekends. See, my coworker and friend, Roberta, moved into a new house a few months ago and expressed interest in having a fence put in. When she mentioned the estimated cost, several things happened simultaneously:

First, I thought of the fence I put up two years ago at my current house, and how it wasn't so bad... Building a fence is a lot like pregnancy in that it never seems as bad as it really was When you're looking back at it a year or two after the fact.

Second, I thought that since I have all the tools already--or almost all the tools--that I wouldn't even need to buy anything to help her put it up.

Third, I thought that I'd be a good, helpful, well-tooled friend and offer my assistance and equipment to Roberta if she wanted to do this herself.

Now, I know that not everyone would have the time, energy, or desire to build their own fence; however, Roberta seemed like the do-it-yourself-and-save-a-buck-or-two kinda gal, so I piped up. I mentioned that, if she was up for helping me, and if my wife agreed to let me "go play" for a few weeks, that I'd contract with her to put up her fence for a lot less than she'd find commercial bids. Spouses were consulted, schedules were arranged, and we agreed to fence.

The first thing I did was obtain estimates for fence length. Since Roberta lives about 20 minutes from me, it was easier for me to work with estimates than drive down to her house, take measurements, and drive back. Plus, the measurements were to be for planning material purchases and for estimating schedules--they didn't need to be down to the inch.

Next, I got my Excel on. I planned the exact number of posts, bags of cement and gravel, rails, pickets, and nails, according to the estimated fence lengths, and added 10%. (You never want to buy exactly the amount you need on a project of this type or size or you'll kill yourself and your schedule with multiple trips back to your home center to pick up one board here, one box of nails there...) For things like posts, rails, and cement, we ended up with almost exactly 10% left over. Pickets...we ended up with an awful lot of extras. But that just meant that the fence was cheaper to build than anticipated. :) Oh, and while I was estimating quantities, I hopped onto and found part numbers and prices, too. That meant that I wouldn't have to go with Roberta and her husband, Mike, to do the shopping, and that they could go whenever they had time.

Speaking of which, I need to say that both Roberta and Mike were a dream to work with. From Roberta buying fruit popsicles especially for me for break times, to Mike renting a jackhammer to bust up rocks in the post holes (and if you've never had the occasion to use a jackhammer, I must recommend that you FIND an excuse, because they're way fun!), to Roberta being the best--and stronger than her slight frame would convey--dang gofer ever, they were just fantastic.

With the plans made, the materials bought, and the underground utilities marked, the work was ready to begin. On that first workday, I brought my 100' measure and we staked out the fenceline. Every 7' 11" or so, we spraypainted the ground for a post marker, planning in three 4' wide gates. Then, we dug. Fortuntately, we had a two-person, gas-powered auger to use, because hand-digging almost 50 post holes would have taken forever! On the whole the digging went quickly, with the exception of four of the holes, which had to have rock broken up in order to get them to an acceptable depth. We did those with the aforementioned jackhammer. With the holes dug, it was relatively straightforward to set the posts.

Mike bought a corner level, which was a long, L-shaped level with levels on two sides so that you can check a post for level front-and-back at the same time as side-to-side. It's a marvelously handy tool to use, and I recommend it heavily! So Mike leveled the posts while I poured in the dry concrete and Roberta watered it heavily. We let those posts set for a week.

Next up were the rails and gates.

Father and Son Campout Food

Every year, my church puts on a Father and Son campout in the Spring. It's usually put on for a whole region, or stake, which consists of several congregations, or wards. The stake would arrange for breakfast for everyone--it was bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches or cereal--but left each ward to take care of dinner individually.

When the campout was announced over the pulpit, it was presented as a fend-for-yourself dinner with the stake providing breakfast. But since I knew I'd be cooking in a dutch oven (DO) anyway, and I figured that a fend-for-yourself dinner might frighten off a few of those less adventurous souls who might like to come, I volunteered my services as a chef. I got approval, I got a budget, and I went shopping. Oh, and I begged and pleaded and managed to borrow two 12" DOs from ward members, which was good because I didn't have near enough cast iron to serve the 20 or so people that planned to come. Whew!

The menu was Apricot Chicken Divine, 60-in-a-12 (biscuits), and Cinnamon Roll Apple Cobbler. (Most of the recipes came from a Dutch Oven Yahoo! group.) I did as much of the prepwork at home that I could, like pre-boiling the chicken, measuring and combining sauces, cutting apples, etc., so I could cut the hands-on time at camp to as little as possible.

After hurdling a minor snafu--I couldn't get the charcoal lit!!--dinner came off great! It was loved by both dads and lads, and I heard from a few wives on Sunday that their husbands kept raving about the chicken. :)

Apricot Chicken Divine
Note: This recipe doesn't have to be made in a dutch oven--it can also be done in a large, lidded, oven-proof casserole.

(At-home prep:) Cut chicken into large pieces and pre-cook. Measure flour and salt into a gallon-sized zip-top bag. Combine preserves, mustard, and yogurt in a zip-top bag.

Preheat DO for 10 minutes with 10 coals below and 14 coals above.

4 Tbsp. margarine
4 Tbsp. cooking oil
10 chicken
3/4 c. white flour
2 tsp. salt
1 c. apricot preserves
2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 c. nonfat yogurt
4 Tbsp. slivered almonds

Shake chicken in plastic bag with flour and salt until coated. Melt butter and oil in DO. Place chicken in single layer in the DO. Combine apricot preserves, mustard and yogurt; spread it on the chicken and bake.

Bake for 30-45 minutes, rotating DO 90° and lid another 90° every 15 minutes to prevent burning.

When warmed throughout, sprinkle the almonds on top.

60 Rolls in a 12

Preheat 12" DO (a "deep" DO is better) for 10 minutes with 9 coals below and 15 coals above. (About 350 degrees F, although most of the heat is coming from the top to prevent burning on the bottoms.)

6 tubes refrigerator biscuits (totaling 60 biscuits)

Liberally spray inside of DO with cooking spray. Arrange biscuits on end in concentric circles (you'll probably get three circles) with narrow sides facing the center of the DO. Faces of the biscuits should face each other. Jam them all in there--they'll fit.

Bake for 30-45 minutes, rotating DO 90° and lid another 90° every 15 minutes to prevent burning.

Cinnamon Roll Apple Cobbler

Peel and slice apples. Place apple slices in a large bowl. Combine caramel topping and flour and pour over the apple slices. Toss with a fork to mix.

Separate cinnamon rolls and cut into quarters.

Preheat 10" DO for 10 minutes with 8 coals below and 12 coals above. (About 350 degrees F)

8 cups apples, peeled - sliced
1 jar caramel ice cream topping (12 oz)
1 Tbsp. flour
1/2 cup pecans - very finely chopped
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 pkg. refrigerated cinnamon rolls (8 or 10 count)
6 Tbsp. margarine - melted cooking spray

Place the apples into DO that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until the apples are just tender.

Combine the pecans and brown sugar in a small bowl. Dip each piece of the roll into the melted margarine and then roll in the sugar nut mixture. Arrange the pieces of roll over the top of the apples and bake until the rolls are golden brown and the apples are done, approximately 8 to 10 minutes.