TOP: Interlocking twisted timber scraps form the rugged and economical rip-gut fence. BOTTOM LEFT: The rip-gut tripod series building technique is interrupted by a gate, then resumes on the other side. BOTTOM RIGHT: The gnarly sticks and odd-shaped tree branches used to make the fence can be found littering any woodlot.
PHOTOS: RICHARD H. JOHNSON
The twisted, gnarly sticks that litter most woodlots usually find their way into piles of fuel wood, for the simple reason that there doesn't seem to be much else that can be done with them. And that's all right, I suppose, because folks can always use more firewood about the time the water starts to get stiff. However, should your wood crib already contain all the space-taking crooked limbs it can hold, you can use your "trash timber" to build a rip-gut fence or interlocking fence... a strong and inexpensive way to make sure your livestock "sticks" close to home.
Another Case of Makin' Do
I first ran across the strange-looking yard and field borders while living in a village in south-central Utah. The population of the town was listed on the map as 80, and - as I became aware of the region's local customs and colorful history - realized that here, indeed, was a place where people lived close to the land and made do with what they had on hand!
The area is mostly made up of small cattle farms, and nearly every family has a fair-sized piece of land. Cowpunching is still done on horseback, and only major transportation jobs are deemed worthy of the trouble of firing up a truck. In fact, it's just been in the past few years that the U.S. Mail has made the trip to town in a vehicle instead of by saddle bag.
However, farming at such a level produces its own breed of problems. For example, how can anyone fence a piece of land so the livestock won't get loose ... and do so within the budget of a small town farmer? We all know that dimensional lumber, fenceposts, wire, and the other hardware needed to build a sturdy barrier can cost a lot of money!
The obvious answer, of course, is to use the materials native to the area and develop a fence system that works!
Neither Wind, nor Cows, nor...
Local legend has it that a rip-gut fence is horse-high, hog-tight, and ox-strong, but — while I have to agree with the height and strength claims — I'm fairly certain that a clever pig could figure out a way to sneak through one of the woody stockades. (Come to think of it, though, a middlin' bright porker can dang near sneak through chicken wire!)
The name "rip-gut" is derived from the angry-looking fence top that appears as if it would surely rip the stomach out of any beast that tried to jump over it. However, according to the locals, that's never actually been known to occur. (No sane critter would attempt such a leap!)
The really fascinating thing about the "make do" fence is that it's constructed entirely out of knotty, twisted scraps of dead tree parts that otherwise would be considered useful only for feeding the stove. Nothing else (other than a short length of rope lashing on the initial group of posts) is added: no wire ... no nails ... nothing! The secret is all in the way the sticks are stacked in a pattern of interlocking mesh, so that neither a wild windstorm nor a commuting cow can knock 'em down.
Stackin' the Sticks
It's easy to put up a rip-gut, and the job itself is made even less difficult if there are two people working together at it. (The task can be accomplished by a lone fence-builder, if necessary ... it just takes about three times as long.)
To start with, sort all your available "lumber" into two different piles. The short pieces (about six feet long and as big around as your biceps) should total twice the number of long ones (about eight feet in length and somewhat "fatter" than the short sticks). In other words, since the supports work in sets of three, you need two smaller stakes for each big one.
There's no need to get fancy about your fence either. Leave the bark on the limbs, if you like, and don't be too fussy about trimmin' back the knots, forks, and other "personality quirks" of the wood. Remember, your rip-gut is supposed to be a very rustic and quaint-looking enclosure, so don't ruin the effect by trying to civilize it.
To begin construction, lay all your twisted timbers out along the perimeter of your land, leaving two small poles for every big one, and spacing the sets of three about two feet apart. And here's the really good news: You don't have to dig post holes or prepare the ground in any special way prior to erecting the fence! The finished enclosure will just stand on the earth's surface like a series of lopsided tripods!
The Tripod Series
To establish a starting point, determine the direction in which the fence is to proceed ... and set up the first tripod so that the legs of the smaller posts straddle your imaginary fence line and the leg of the long post stretches out along it, with the bottom end resting on the line.
Now the first tripod must be lashed together at the top to keep it from falling apart, but - once that's done - no further fastenings of any kind will be required. After your initial "tipi" is secured, the following pieces all interlock and hold each other in place.
The second three-legged component is built right on top of the preceding one, about two feet down the leg of the first long pole. Just place the two small posts across the long leg of the original tripod, and cross them so that they rest atop that member. Next, lay the long post that completes the second set parallel with the long post in the first set, and rest it in the crotch formed by the crossing of the short pair. This forms the second tripod.
What happens is that the short legs of each consecutive three-piece unit are supported by the long leg of the previous one, and won't fall down. (The supports are also held in place by the long pole that belongs to their set ... which, in turn, rests on top of them.)
As you proceed, all of the long posts should point in the direction of the intended fence line, and the process continues exactly in the same way from the second tripod on ... until you get to a corner.
When you do arrive at a turning point, simply build the last three-sided section in your straight-line series, and then lay another of the long, heavy poles in among the upward-jutting. forks of this last component but pointing in the new direction of the intended fence line. Then continue to build one three-fold structure atop another — just as before — using this first larger post as your beginning point. Every corner, regardless of what direction the fence turns or how radical the angle, is formed in exactly the same manner.
As you can imagine, installing gates in a rip-gut fence offers a whole different kind of problem, and you'll have to design any closures on your own. The easiest way is just to leave an adequate space wherever an entrance is desired, and construct some super-secure tripods where the fence stops and starts again (you'll have to tie the first tripod together when you resume your interrupted enclosure, of course). Then dig a post hole on each side of the gate space ... insert the posts ... build the gate ... attach it ... and you're finished.
When it comes to finding a job for odd-shaped tree branches and twisted timber scraps — and keeping your straying animals in their place at a minimum of cost — the rip-gut fence could prove to be the answer. As they say, it's ox-strong, horse-high, and hog-tight ... the last quality depending. of course, on just how clever your hogs happen to be.