In other words, a goat rodeo is a chaotic situation, fiasco, or, more vulgarly, a shitshow–dictionary.com
I’ve been there. After thirty years as a goat owner, I finally gave up the unequal struggle just a few years ago. Anyone who thinks herding cats is tough should try similar with a significant number (this means “more than one”) capra hircus. What ensues could reasonably be described, from the get-go, as a “hircus circus.” I just love the little guys and girls–they are engergetic, appealing, engaging, terrific brush-clearers, and above all, smart, and their babies are among the cutest little creatures ever known to man–but the adults are much bigger and stronger than cats, and I’m getting too old for that line of work.
And now for something completely different:
I’ve made, from scratch, about half-a-dozen sets of farm gates over the years. Some of them, I’m inordinately proud of.
Others are quite nice, too. (This one isn’t entirely problem-free, as I hung the wrong gate first. Explanation, and how to avoid this faux-pas, further down this post. But it is pretty.)
And then there are the also-rans. Ones where almost everything seemed to go, or look, wrong (almost always due to ignorance, a lack of anticipation, or failure to think things through), or where they ended up costing me two or three times as much as I originally budgeted (same-same the reasons), or where I had to have at least one do-over (same-same, again). Those mistakes and the subsequent frustrations and–to be clear–satisfactions of vanquishing my enemy The Gate, as well as my desire to impart what I hope you’ll think are some helpful hints for one of your own future projects, are what inspired this post.
Here’s my latest gate. Date of completion, May 10, 2023:
It’s by no means a beautiful gate, although from this angle it probably looks the best it can. And, other than three hinge pins which I had to purchase because I didn’t have any on hand that were long enough, it’s made with stuff I had lying around.
Here’s my story, and–with any luck–some useful tips, almost all of which are the result of hard lessons learned through mistakes I’ve made over the years. If any one of them helps you, and/or I save even one of you from making any of the same mistakes yourself, then I’ll have done my job.
I’ve done some reconfiguring of the land (I have 30 acres, zoned agricultural) over the past few years, mostly with the aim of defining, and fencing, an area around the house that’s small enough for me to mow the lawn and tend the flower gardens, without being overwhelmed by the surrounding fields, which are left to the livestock.
Recently, I thought it would be convenient to open up an additional eight-foot gate in the (lovely) poplar fence close by the house, so that I could get small farm vehicles and machinery through it without going around three sides of a square every time.
Preparatory work involved looking to see what I had lying around that I could use to keep the cost down, and deciding to reuse as much of the lumber as possible, together with any hardware I’d salvaged from previous fencing endeavors and their subsequent take-downs.
At the end of this little exercise, I’d gathered two old gate frames I bought from Home Depot decades ago and which I had kept after removing the portion of gate/fence they were in, six or seven years ago. It doesn’t appear they’re available any more, but they were similar to this one. (This newer kit, which is considerably more adjustable than my own, is somewhat more flexible in its configuration, and might actually have suited this project better. But, reuse, recycle, retread, right? I used what I had.) I knew I’d have the boards I would remove from the section of fence, and I have plenty of scrap and leftover lumber of all sorts. I also had old fence hinge pins, and an old fence latch.
So I was ready to go.
I used a small circular saw and a hammer to cut through the rail boards on the fence and pound out the nails, thereby removing an eight-foot section where I was going to install my gates.
I cleaned off any dead leaves or loose detritus from the ground where the gate was going to go.
I got a four-foot level, a tape measure, and a marking pen, and evaluated the posts–one on either side–where I was going to be hinging and hanging the gate. I measured the distance between the posts at ground level and four feet up (the discrepancy in these two measurements is something of an indicator of how much trouble you might have levelling up. I looked at what was plumb–both side to side and above and below the gate, as reflected on the posts, and set the level on the ground, to check how level it is, and (very important) to identify run of the slope from high side to low side. I checked how “square” the posts were to each other, and recorded the height of each post on both the high and the low sides. (Since there are only two, you can always hang a gate, somehow. But the gate may not align perfectly with the run of the fence. As long as you know that, and are OK with that, fine.)
Helpful tip: If the posts are square (rather than round, as mine were) the degree to which the posts are square to each other is more important. Look at the first photo in this post, that of the driveway gates. I set those posts myself, so it was important for me to make sure that the posts faced each other squarely, so that a gate I hung between them would go straight across the driveway where I wanted it to. An existing fence which has square posts and which goes across undulating terrain, may not be so conveniently set up, and if the posts are very “un-square” a gate may not work at all.
Where It Gets Interesting
Think about what you’ve learned. And do the following:
- Get a piece of scrap lumber, something like a 1×4, at least the width of your gate opening. Attach it, temporarily, at ground level, to the post on the “high” side” of your opening.
- Use the level on top of the piece of lumber to level it against the second post (the “low” side) and screw it, temporarily, into the post at that point.
- Measure, ground up, to the bottom of the piece of lumber. This will give you the “fall” of the ground, over the length of the gate you’re trying to attach.
- Do the math as follows: If you’re putting in two gates (as in my photo above) and the “fall” is–say–four inches, then know that you’ll have to hinge the “low” gate four inches higher than the gate on the high side to make the tops of the gates somewhat level. If you only have one (eight foot) gate, the bottom of the gate on the “low” side will be four inches higher above the ground than it is on the “high” side.
- Think about what that means. If you’re putting in two gates, and your post on the “high” side is 48″ high, and your post on the “low” side is 48″ high, and you’re thinking of putting in a 48″ tall gate, then you need to make sure that you won’t run out of post when you’re attaching the hinges to the gate on the low side. So set your hinges in place accordingly.
- Make your gate(s). If you only need one, think before building it. Because if the distance between the posts is 91″ at ground level, and the distance between the posts at 48″ up is 95″, building a 94″ wide gate isn’t going to work!
- If you are installing only one whole-width opening gate, make sure you attach it to the post on the “high” side. Otherwise it won’t close.
- If you are installing two gates that meet in the middle (as in the photo), make–and install–the gate on the “high” side first. Otherwise, you’ll be digging yourself out of the mess you’ve created for days, and randomly, year after year. (This was the mistake I made with the “Garden Gate” in the photo above. If you look closely, you’ll see that the gate on the right had to be dug out of the dirt. That’s because I hung the gate on the left–the “low” side first, so when I installed the other gate with a desire to have the tops align straight, my only option was to dig out the dirt around the bottom of the “low” side gate which I’d hung first.
- When you attach the first (or only) gate–on the “high” side, leave at least a couple of inches clear underneath it on the hinge side. You’ll need that so it can open and close freely.
- NEVER, EVER, if you are hanging two gates which meet in the middle, measure what you think is the gate opening, divide it by two, and make both gates at once. Trust me. Unless you do this for a living, you’re not that good. Make one gate at a time, and measure, adjust and react as needed. Baby steps.
- NEVER, EVER start out by scribing plumb line on the “high” side post, drilling the holes for the hinges, and hanging your first gate right away. This is the point at which you will almost certainly discover that the other post, where you are going to hang the other gate, is so out-of-plumb (probably in the other direction) to the first, that you have no way to hang a gate on it that will end up even remotely straight with the first. Look at both posts. Think about the implications. And come up with a compromise. It will probably work well enough, and the hinge pin hardware is flexible enough to accommodate you and still ensure a pretty strong gate. The following primitive sketch tries to illustrate how you can go wrong if you’re over-enthusiastic:
- General Concerns
Depending on the sort of gate you’re making, and the materials you’re using, you have either more–or less–flexibility when it comes to width and height.
- Gates made entirely from scratch, usually from wood, have almost infinite flexibility when it comes to contouring the bottoms or the tops of each gate. All you have to do is make sure that the horizontal braces don’t interfere with your artistic endeavors. Gates made from a metal frame (as my gate in the “functional gate” image was, are constrained by the height and minimum/maximum width of the frame. Metal gate frames tend to want to support rectangular gates. Sometimes, this isn’t the most artistic solution, although cost, utility, and expedience can sometimes overrule art. And sometimes, that’s OK (as I decided it was in that instance).
- If you are dealing with posts which are seriously out-of-alignment (as I was here), the hinge pins you use are important. These are standard farm gate hinge pins:
- It’s something of a bent 1/2″ or 5/8″ lag screw, with a collar to support the gate hinge. You drill the appropriate-size hole into the post as straight as you’re able, and then screw it in and hang the hinge directly on it.
- These guys are great, but they rely for their strength on the ability to be buried deeply in the post, while not coming out the other side of it. If you have posts which are way out of plumb or square, and which require that some of them actual gate hinges rest four or five inches away from the post, they’re not very good, because they’ll wobble. That’s when you need these other guys:
- These are not screws. They are bolts. (So proud to know the difference, LOL. Thank you, men in my life.) And they come in quite long lengths. You drill all the way through the post, and then–with a nut and washer on each side of it, set up the hinge pin to the length you need in order to–approximately–level the gate, and secure it there. They’re rather expensive, and I had to use three of them to sort out my recent gate project, but they’re totally worth it in terms of the “time is money” continuum.
Helpful tip: This gate hinge pin hardware can be attached through the center of the post even if this seems “off” when you are looking at your (approximate) plumb line. I’ve found it helpful to stand looking down at the top of the post, set the hinge pin on top of the post, squint down so I can see where the pin needs to be set to the approximate right place, and then move it round so that the threaded part goes through the approximate center of the post. This rather primitive graphic, which shows how the hinge pin can be manipulated in order to end up at roughly the same place shows how this works. The first image shows that the “plumb” line is perilously close to the outside of the post, and therefore not strong. But you can move the pin and make it better:
Doing the Work
Once you’ve followed all (or most, or some, or none) of the advice outlined above, and you’ve got your lines scribed on the post, sort-of-facing, and somewhat plumb, and you know that you’ve got the hinges on the gates set in a position that you won’t run out of post on either side, it’s time to hang the gate! If it’s a single gate, you can hang it and be pretty much done, perhaps by installing an eye-screw on the second post and a chain on the gate to attach it as shown on one of my steel gates below (easy-peasy):
If it’s a two-gate instance, where the gates meet in the middle, then please consider this:
- Attach the first gate to the “high” post, a couple of inches above ground level on the hinge side. Adjust the hinges (see comments above on which are the best hinges to use depending on how plumb the post is) so that the top of the gate is fairly level.
- Now, it is time to consider the second gate. Here is what I do:
- Find two scraps of 1×4 lumber long enough to extend from the gate you just hung to within 1/4″-1/2″ of the second post. Temporarily attach them to the first gate, and move it into “closed” position.
- Mark the position that the hinge side of the gate will be, in order to hang relatively straight, on the second post. (Use a different color pen to the markings you made early on. That was theory, to give you a general idea of what might be going on. This is reality. Not being able to tell the difference between one and the other leads to madness.)
Measure the opening, top and bottom. Use the shorter measurement, minus a reasonable amount for the hinge/hinge pin gap as the width of your second gate. (You’ll make up for the longer measurement with the hinge pin, probably one of those bolts I mentioned above. Here’s an extreme example of how ugly (but still functional) this can get:
If you’re lucky, and if you’ve been striving for somewhat level and plumb gates, you’ll end up somewhere close to here (these are the old gate frames I mentioned. I assembled them first, before putting on the vertical struts:
They meet, reasonably plumb and square, in the middle! The top is reasonably level! Both gates swing easily because I hung the “high” gate first with a two-inch gap at the ground on the hinge side, so the gap on the “low” side is about six inches. And, by thinking about it first, and fudging–slightly–the facing plumb lines on the two posts which are severely out of alignment, I had enough post and wood to insert strong hinge pins for both gates.
All that was left to do at this point was cut the old fence rails to length and install them vertically on each gate, and find a few more bits of scrap to fill in the gaps. And that, with the addition of some old gate hardware, is how I ended up here:
Really the only thing remaining on the agenda is to pick up a cane bolt (sometimes known as a “drop rod”) of some sort from Home Depot (one of these sorts of things which attaches to one of the gates and then digs into the ground to keep things stable):
A Word to the Unwary:
When you’re talking about farm gates, there are not many unrecoverable mistakes. (There are a few, and as both an ingenue and a struggling parvenu, I’ve made them all. Thus, this post.) All that really matters, at the end of the day though, is that the gate serves its purpose and works for you. Tell the rest of the world to go hang if they don’t like it.
However, as I’ve grown older, utility and ease of operation mean much more to me than optics. When I was much younger, I was a great fan of something I dubbed (without any need for attribution that I’m aware of) “The Slumpy Gate.” Here’s the only–currently out of service–Slumpy Gate I have left:
It’s made up of 2x4s, with 2x6s on the hinge side, nuts and bolts through every place there’s an intersection of lumber, and lock-washers. This enables the slumping or rising of the gate to follow the slope of the terrain and (usually) makes it more compatible with the orientation of the posts. It solves a couple of problems (those), but adds another: weight. It’s terribly heavy. And opening and closing it is difficult as a result. So, aesthetically, it’s a win every time, because it follows the slope of the fence line. Practically, for the weak and aged, it’s a disaster. So, as someone on the downside of 65, and wending my way towards my eighth decade on this earth (for those of you getting over-excited, that means I’ll be 70 not too many years from now) #NoMoreSlumpyGates!