How to Build a Wood Gate

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A carefully constructed, Z-framed gate is the crowning touch for your wood fence.

Everyone who comes to your home handles an example of your carpentry twice per visit once when they open your gate and once when they close it. Take your time to build a gate that speaks well of your skill. Hang it square and plumb so that it opens and closes effortlessly, stays latched, and it will support the gate swinging impulses of two generations of kids.

As suggested in “Design and Build a Wood Fence” a gate’s hinge post should be buried the greater of 3′ or one-third of its length deep in the ground and anchored in packed dirt. The latch post too should be well-anchored, and both posts should be perfectly plumb in all dimensions, with perfectly parallel inner faces so that the framework of your gate describes a perfect rectangle. The horizontal members of a gate are called rails, just as in a fence. But the verticals aren’t posts; they’re stiles. Pickets are still pickets, and infill is infill. Just as you drew up a detailed plan of your fence, draw up one for the gate. Its design should compliment the fence, but needn’t copy the bay design precisely. Try out some variations. Unless you have a plan that demands a deviation from the pattern, locate rails at the same levels as your fence rails. The tops of pickets on a gate, however, are often trimmed to form an arch. Gate boards will always look good if they are the same size and have the same spacing and ornamentation as the fence infill–but, try out variations on your plan.

A Z-Frame Walk Gate

The most sturdy gates have a rectangular frame with a diagonal brace running from the top of the latch post to the bottom of the hinge post. Weight of the gate presses down and into the hinges, compressing the wood. If the diagonal was installed the other way, the weight would pull down and stretch the brace. First, pick out your gate hardware. Easiest to install and adjust are eye and pintle sets that simply screw into pilot holes drilled into the gate’s hinge-side stile and hinge post.

The eye goes into the post, the L-shaped pintle into the gate, and the eye simply slips down over the pintle–and and can easily be removed if necessary. Sturdy and simple, eye and pintles come in an attractive black wrought iron. You can also get black throw bolts or thumb latches to match.

You can also select butterfly-style, black-iron strap hinges with H-shaped flanges that screw onto the outside to ornament an out-opening gate. Or, to save money, choose heavily galvanized doorstyle butt hinges that must be inset a fraction of an inch into the wood of the gate post. Do not economize with the flimsy, lightly zinc-plated hinges and latches found in shrink-wrapped packages in hardware stores.

The screws that come with them will rust in a week, the unplated hinge pins in a season, and the plates will discolor within a year. And don’t plan to protect the metal from rusting with paint; you must have seen gates with white-painted hinges bleeding through the paint, creating streaks of rustred on the wood. For frame wood, pick warp- and twist-free, straight-grained boards without any knots or cracks.

Cut and fit the pieces of your gate in place rather than in a shop. Despite your best efforts, posts may not be square to one another, and you certainly want the gate to fit perfectly. To shim (or level) the stiles, creating pivoting room between gate and post, buy a bundle of cheap wood roof shingles. (Once you have them, you won’t know how you lived without them in your home maintenance chores).

First, cut two stiles so they are the exact distance between the top edge of the top rail and the lower edge of the bottom rail of your fence (unless different on your plan). Rough-cut the horizontal rails so they’re a tiny bit longer than the distance between the inner faces of the gate hinge posts at the level of top and bottom fence rails. Cuts are square and plumb. Using the power driver and easily removed drywall screws, tack a piece of infill board to the narrow side of a hinge stileone pair of long edges of the boards even with one another–so you can attach it temporarily to the post.

Locate the stile on the post (wide side of stile board facing the inner face of the post so the outer faces of both gate and fence-infill boards are even).

Selecting Hinges

If using butt hinges for a gate that opens in, attach them to the stile and post, using a chisel to cut insets. Locate hinges with the hinge pin on the inside face of the stile and the cylinder formed where hinge plates bend around the pin that juts beyond stile and post.

(This way, the gate will open fully so it’s flat against the fence.) If the gate is to open out, locate the hinges on the stile and post so that pins face out on the outer edge and adjust the infill so it doesn’t interfere with the gate opening to a good 90° angle from the fence.

If using eye and pintle hinges, drill X” pilot holes through the stile and into the post at the center of (and perpendicular to) the stile, and 4″ from the top and bottom of it. Screw in the eyes through the hole. For butterfly-type hinges that will be screwed to the outer infill boards, draw the outline of the stile on the post and tack the stile board into the outline. For final installation, insert longer screws than those that come with most where the hinges are located over frame members (so the screws will penetrate into the frame).

Where hinges are located over thin infill, replace screws with through-bolts; fasten with self-snugging bolts over large flat washers. Now, decide on the joint you want to make between stile and rail. A simple butt joint is easiest, but weakest. Cutting meeting ends of boards at a 45° angle is better. Cutting notches out of each board is better yet. Use a power circular saw or hand saw (a thin but solidly reinforced sharp back saw is best) to cut Y” square notches out of the outside of the top end and the inside of the bottom of each stile, and the reverse in rails. Mark and cut carefully so the sides of the notches are perfectly square. With pilot-drilled, 4″-long drywall screws through the shingles, fasten the latch stile to the latch post so top and bottom are even with the fence rails.

Run screws back out so the stile is held !” from the post; wedge tight with shingles. At top, bottom, and middle of the stile, insert 3″ shingle splits from each side, between stile and post; push together so that the stile is immobilized and wedged tight parallel to the hinge post. Attach the stile to the post with hinges. Tap rail boards between posts and align with the stiles. Mark ends with 45° or notch lines; remove and trim ends and joints. Replace trimmed rails and fasten to stiles. The top joints can be fastened with two long drywall screws.

The bottom will be inaccessible, so support the bottom rail tight against the stiles with bricks or wood blocks and shingles; pilot drill and insert screws from side of stiles down into rails. Trim a length of rail stock for the angled brace so that you can hold it diagonally against the side of the gate frame. Mark the outline of the joint; remove the brace, and mark margins of the cut all around the ends. With saw, plane, or rasp, trim the ends of the brace so it fits snugly; you needn’t fasten them because the brace will be held in place by corner braces or infill.

Cut and use drywall screws to install infill on the gate (it will provide bracing for joints as well as attach the diagonal brace). Be sure the end infill boards are fastened securely to stile and rail at joints. Measure carefully and insert a pair of screws into the angled brace through each infill board.

Removing And Re-hanging

Remove the gate and insert long screws through the bottom of the lower rail and up into the stile to secure the bottom joints. Put eye screws into the inner top of the hinge stile and then inner bottom of the gate stile. Then, using small cable clamps, attach a length of stainless-steel wire cable with a turnbuckle in the middle of the upper quadrant. For added strength, cut 6″ triangles of outside-grade Y” plywood, and screw them at each inside corner. Then use a chisel or circular saw to cut out a Y” of wood from the inner face of each corner so that the angles are smoothly inset into the gate. If your gate is not infilled, put in- set plywood angles on both sides.
Re-hang the gate and tighten the turnbuckle so it is snug. Install your gate latch on either side, and then screw a sturdy wooden cleat at latch level, or a length of overlapping infill onto the outside of the the latch post. By doing so, the gate won’t swing out so far that it strains the screws holding the hinges to the post on in-swinging gates, or blocks pedestrians walking along your fence on an out-swinging gate.

If it looks as if the gate might crush plants when if it opens too far, sink a stake into the ground to catch it. For added strength, run a length of turnbuckle-equipped stainless steel cable between the top of the gate post and the bottom of the adjoining line post. Tighten the turnbuckle so the wire is taught. Finally, if you want a self-closing gate, you can attach a rustproof gate spring to the gate post and bottom rail. (Do not use spring-loaded self-closing hinges meant for screen doors. They will rust quickly.)

Or, do it the old-time way; on the outside of the gate, rig a galvanized chain between the middle of the angle-brace and a point 3′ into the fence so that the chain rests just above the ground when the gate is fully open. Then, run a weight (a sash weight, holed brick, or old-time cannonball gate weight) to the middle of the chain. The weight will tend to pull the gate closed. If you keep the turnbuckles tight, grease or oil the hinges periodically, and paint the gate wood with a preservative as needed, it will last for a generation and more.

A Stile for Snow

A stile is best for an infrequently-used but important crossing in snow country, where a conventional gate would be snowed closed for months at a time. Best built at a sturdy corner, it consists of an opposing pair of stairs (one going up, the other down, as they say). For most fences, 3′-wide steps to the top rail will suffice. The top step should be double-deep, opposite a similar step on the other side. Support each stair with a pair of three-step stringers–the inside one should be fastened to the fence rails, the outer one supported at bottom by a short post and at the top by a post that extends a yard higher than the fence. A hand rail should be run across the fence between the pair of posts supporting the stairs. If built at the corner, and flights on both sides of the fence rise to the corner post, an extension of the corner post can offer a third baluster for a wideboard railing.

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