Easy project: Wall-hung planters

Occasionally we stroll through one of Portland’s upscale grocery chains, on the lookout for a funky gift or an unusual snack. This time it was just before Mother’s Day, and my wife spotted some beautiful wall-hung boxes for succulent plants. “$35 a pop?!” I said (so romantic). “I can make three of those for that!” She has heard this tune before, but she has learned to trust me (mostly!).

I love these challenges. The boxes were just rough cedar boards with a few pieces of galvanized metal inside the front face to hold in the soil and let the plants peek out. So off to the home center I went, with only a few days before the big day. I found the perfect roughsawn cedar boards for the job (sold as fence slats), but couldn’t spot any sheet metal I liked for the front. So I decided to use wire mesh instead, backed by sphagnum moss, hoping it would hold in the soil and look cool. Lucky for me, it worked amazingly.

As for the boxes themselves, they couldn’t be simpler. My only trick was making them 11×11 so two 5-1/2-in.-wide cedar boards would cover the back. A tablesaw or bandsaw would be the best tool for cutting the wide cedar boards into the narrower pieces you’ll need for the sides of the box and the strips on top, but you could also do it with a jigsaw, or a handsaw and elbow grease. For those tools, mark a pencil line to guide you, and clamp down the workpiece on the edge of a table or workbench (vs. trying to hold it by hand).

As for chopping everything to length, I used my miter saw, but a jigsaw or handsaw would work there too. Here’s a low-priced handsaw that is really amazing, available at most home centers. It is a pullsaw, meaning it cuts on the pull stroke, so take the weight off it when you push it forward.

You’ll also notice that I used an air-powered nail gun to assemble the boxes, but a normal hammer and finish nails would work fine. You might want to predrill the top pieces to avoid splitting the wood.

The boxes were done by Mother’s Day, as promised, but not quite ready to hang on the wall. The last important tip is to leave your boxes lying flat for a couple weeks after you build them, to allow the succulents to root before hanging them up sideways. I was nervous when I hung the three planters, but it has been two weeks now and no plants have plummeted to earth!

Oh yeah, you’ll also need a mist bottle. Your boxes will need an occasional spray to keep the plants thriving.

Roughsawn cedar
One roughsawn cedar fence board is enough for each planter.
Nail boxes
After cutting the box pieces to width, I assembled them in minutes with my trusty brad nailer. A hammer and finish nails would also work fine.
Nail first bottom piece
The boxes are 11×11 in., so two full boards should fit nicely across the back (they are 5-1/2 in. wide).
Nail second bottom piece
I oriented the boards so they help hold the box joints together.
Add soil
Potting soil has lots of good fertilizer for happy plants.
Add moss
The next step was a flat layer of sphagnum moss along both sides, leaving an open strip where the plants will go.
Add plants
It was fun arranging the nine little succulent plants in the three boxes I made.
Cut the wire
I used wire mesh with a 1/4-in. grid, cutting it to size with my good snips. A wire cutter would also work.
Nail first strip
The mesh gets tucked under the leaves of the plants and should reach almost to the edges of the box. Then the strips get nailed down to hold it in place. The nails actually go through the mesh.

Nail second stripNail last strip

Attach hanger wire
To hang the boxes, I screwed little eyelets into the sides (drilling tiny pilot holes first), and then attached picture wire as shown: through the eyelets then wrapped and snipped.
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After leaving the planters face-up for a couple weeks outdoors to let the plants root in the new soil, I found a stud in the wall, drove screws, crossed my fingers and hung the boxes. So far, so good!

 

 

Choosing and installing replacement windows

Normally I like to do every last thing I can on my house. It saves money, and I just love the work. However, for the big job of replacing all the windows on my house, plus adding all new siding, I hired out the work to a trusted local contractor. But if you read on, you’ll find out how to choose the right materials and how to keep your contractor honest. You might even learn how to tackle the job yourself.

In an earlier blog, I installed a window in my garage, to give me a nice view and some natural light in my workshop space. So it bothered me a little to just watch the work this time! But it was a wise choice. My contractor has better ladders, more workers, and more know-how, and I just have too much work at the moment. That said, watching it happen, I realize that this is a job a lot of people could do.

In the milder climate of the Pacific Northwest, where I live, a lot of houses were built with just a single skin of exterior-grade plywood. No house wrap, and no siding. That’s the deal on the 1979 fixer-upper we bought in 2015. So adding windows is a little bit different than it is on a house with plywood sheathing plus siding. But not much.

Modern windows have a simple nailing flange all around the outside. You just sit the window in the rough opening, make sure it is level, and nail or screw that flange to the exterior walls. Done. In my case, we could simply nail that flange onto the plywood exterior, wrap everything with house wrap, nail trim boards around the windows, and then nail on our siding of choice, bumping it up against that trim.

For a house with existing siding, you would just need to work around that, cutting it back or removing some of it, or just pulling off the trim boards and replacing them afterward.

The problem on houses like mine is that those window flanges are nailed right onto the studs, and then the T1-11 exterior plywood goes on and covers them up. That meant we had to cut off a strip of that plywood around each window to access those flanges and remove the windows.

A word about choosing windows. We were getting rid of the worst possible windows, made of aluminum, another cheap signature of the era of disco and polyester. Terrible looks and terrible energy efficiency. The usual choice these days is vinyl windows, which used to be considered cheap but have gotten way better of late, with most offering the Energy Star rating. That said I went with Marvin’s Integrity windows, for a variety of good reasons. Made of a special type of fiberglass, they offer the best longterm value on the market.

Building experts agree that Marvin’s fiberglass is super-energy efficient and super durable, meaning it won’t warp or crack like vinyl sometimes does. Also, it expands and contracts very little, just like the glass inside the frames, meaning the seals all around that glass will not fail. And last, its mitered corners are crisp and clean-looking, unlike those melty miters on vinyl windows. Last the Marvin Integrity windows are available in a range of colors, applied in a thick fiberglass layer that promises a lifetime of service.

You could go even higher end, choosing windows clad with wood on the inside, but I’ve got plenty of wood inside my house, and I like the clean looks of the fiberglass interior.

Whichever windows you choose, the KEY to a good installation is making sure the windows are level and square, so they will operate smoothly, and then making sure the window is flashed correctly. Flashing is the overlapping layers of metal, plastic, or rubberized material that go all around the window, under your siding, to catch any water that gets under there, and send it down over the house wrap instead of letting it inside the window frame to cause rot and damage.

Anyway, check out the following pics to see the whole process. Next up will be applying the window trim and all the siding. I’ll do a whole blog to explain our choices on that.

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The first step is to pull out all the interior trim so you can measure the rough openings and buy the right-size windows. We have a lot of wide windows, so we went with sideways sliders.
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Next you need to get access to the nailing flanges on the outside of the windows. On my house, which just has a single layer of painted plywood on it, that meant removing a strip of that plywood all around. On a house with siding, you might need to remove the trim boards around the windows, or some of the siding.
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Once the guys could get at the flanges, they pulled all the nails and the windows came right out.
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To make a level surface for attaching the new windows, we had to nail on strips all around to fill those gaps we created.
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This is when the flashing happens, one of the most CRITICAL steps. It starts at the rough window sill, where an adhesive rubberized material is applied.
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Then, overlapping that bottom piece, the side pieces go on. The idea is the same as it is with shingles: You overlap them so they shed water as it drips down.
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Where he had to cut the material to get it into the inside corners, the contractor applied extra little adhesive pieces to cover the tiny gap.
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Now the new windows could slide right in! That extra flashing at the top will get overlapped by the house wrap, which will cover all the walls later and complete the water-shedding envelope. Trim and siding will come after that.
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Once the windows were shimmed level in their opening, and we made sure they slid and closed easily (a good check for squareness), the guys just drove screws through the flanges and the window was locked in place for life.
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Marvin even supplies little adhesive corners to cover the gaps where the nailing flanges fold outward and create a tiny gap. As I said, the house wrap is coming up next, which will cover all the edges of the window and ensure that water sheds downward not inward.

Japanese-style garden gate, pt. 2

With the gate frame done and the 1/2-in.-thick boards for the lower panel ready to go (go here for part 1 of this project), I was ready to assemble the whole door. Soon my awesome fence would have an awesome gate to keep my dog in! (Go here for the fence project.) That cool-looking upper grid would be too difficult to build before the door was together, so I saved it for later. I had a good plan for how to build it and hold it in place in its upper rectangle of space.

The first step for any glue-up is a dry fit, where you put everything together without glue, so you know all the joints will end up nice and tight and you have the clamps you need to get the job done. So let’s get to it.

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Mine is a big door, 4 ft. wide and 6 ft. tall, so I needed to use threaded connectors to extend my pipe clamps. Those let you use threaded plumbing pipe to make any length of clamp you need, using normal pipe clamp hardware that also screws on. I used the dry fit as an opportunity to rout the 1/4-in. roundovers on the inside corners of the frame. If I tried to do it when the parts were separate, it would be hard to know exactly where the horizontal rails meet the vertical stiles, and where I need to stop and start the roundovers.
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The first step before putting glue in the mortises (lots) and on the tenons (thin coat) was to insert the flat boards into the two lower rails. I popped a nail through the frame and into the top and bottom of each board, just to hold them all roughly in place as they shrink and expand through the seasons. If you really want perfection, you could mill tongues and grooves into the edges of the boards, or shiplap them, so no gaps ever appear later.
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Next I applied glue to all the joints and added the vertical stiles and the top rail, using the clamps to draw the pieces together. The nice thing about Titebond III, other than it being waterproof for outdoor use, is the longer working time it offers (at least 15 minutes) for tricky glue-ups like this one. Another good trick is squirting a bunch of glue into a plastic bowl like this one, so it is easy to brush on. When I’m done I just let the leftover glue harden, flex the bottom of the bowl, and pop it out. 
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Before I made the upper grillwork, I nailed some thin strips into the back of the opening, which will serve to hold the grid in place. Those L-shaped plywood pieces act as temporary stops for these strips, so you know exactly where you are locating them.
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Here is the amazing tablesaw jig that is the key to all the little half-lap joints I needed. As you can see at left, the vertical pieces just need two little notches top and bottom. I did those with the miter gauge, using the rip fence as the stop. But the four long horizontal pieces needed a ton of notches in them, all perfectly spaced. For that I made this little sled that I clamped to the miter gauge. I dadoed an extra strip into the base as shown, as a sort of key. Then, once you cut one notch in a strip, that notch fits over the key, positioning the strip perfectly for the next cut, and ensuring even spacing all the way down the line.
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Because I made all the pieces just the right length, the whole grid dropped right into place, letting me nail some more 1/4 in. strips in front of it to hold it in place. If I ever have to remove it or remake it, I’ll just pry out those strips.
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The finished grid catches the light beautifully. Note that the horizontal strips are 1/16 in. thicker than the horizontals (5/16 vs. 1/4) to create nice shadow lines.
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I love the way the whole thing works together. It will be even nicer when the cedar weathers to a silvery grey, much like the color of the galvanized fence panels. Pay no attention to the upper hinge. The upper rail of the fence got in the way. Perfectly imperfect–that’s what I say.

 

Japanese-style garden gate, pt. 1

When I replaced our old dilapidated wood fence with my own funky blend of wood and galvanized metal, I put a Japanese-style arch over the gate opening, planning to cook up an actual gate in the same style. I’ve learned not to rush the design stage, so I visited the excellent Portland Japanese Garden, took pictures of the gates I found, and also did some digging in Google images.

This gate, with falling ginkgo leaves pierced through the lower panel and a traditional Japanese gridwork pattern up top, is the result.

I’m now a proud owner of a PantoRouter, and I knew that the big, perfect-fitting mortises and tenons it produces would be perfect for my wide gate. Water and weather are hard on gates, and over the years they tend to sag. So I chose 1-1/4-in.-thick cedar for the frame, just thick enough to accommodate sturdy 1/2-in.-thick tenons but not an ounce heavier than it needed to be. I made all of the tenons the full 2 in. long that the PantoRouter allows. You probably don’t have that machine, so just make the the joints any way you know how.

Adding to the strength, I designed the rail widths for a single wide tenon in the two upper rails, and a two-tenon array in the wider bottom rail. A wider bottom rail also just looks good in a big frame-and-panel assembly, grounding it somehow.

All of this adds up to eight deep, thick mortises and tenons, four down each side of this wide door, plenty to keep it square over the years.

The details are up to you

I won’t go through every mortise-and-tenon step, but once you know how to make a big sturdy frame like this, you can design any gate you like.

I my case I filled the lower frame with 1/2-in.-thick cedar boards. Those are lightweight and would be easy to pierce with the ginkgo leaf pattern I had in my head. You can see how I did the leaves below. I didn’t want gaps to appear between the boards over the years, so I fired a brad through the frame into the end of each board, top and bottom. A single brad or finish nail will do in each spot, letting each board shrink and expand without moving around much.

In the next part, I’ll show you how I glued up the gate and made that cool grillwork for the top. It was a real blast working with those tiny pieces.

There’s the beauty, now here’s the how-to:

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I used single tenons in the two top rails.
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The PantoRouter nails the fit with no fiddling.
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I managed to fit two tenons into the lower rails. Again the PantoRouter is awesome, making double mortises and tenons as easily as single ones.

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To accommodate those boards that make up the lower panel, I needed to cut grooves in the vertical frame parts, from the lower mortises to the middle ones. 
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I went 1/4 in. deep with two passes, to get a 1/2 in. deep grooves.
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Bingo.
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The lower and middle rails needed grooves too.
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Bingo bongo.
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I found nice silhouettes of ginkgo leaves on Pinterest, scaled them on my printer, glued them to some cardboard, and cut out these two templates, which are slightly different sizes.
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Then I laid out the boards in their actual array, and played with the templates until I had the falling, windblown array I was going for.
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Enter my trusty jigsaw. To make it around these tight corners and curves, I dropped in my narrowest blade.
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Just drill holes for access, and make a series of cuts to shape each leaf.
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Sandpaper is the great fixer. I wrapped some 80-grit around a dowel to smooth out the bumps and tight curves. I also sanded away the whiskers at the edges. Stay tuned for part 2!

 

 

 

 

Welding, pt. 2: Adding wood to metal

I worked with an expert welder for an upcoming article for Woodcraft magazine, titled, “Welding for Woodworkers.” And that’s what I covered in my first blog. Now my part kicks in: adding a wood top to our steel frame, along with some finishing touches for the overall table.

Just as I thought, dealing with metal is simple compared to wood. Abrasive pads remove the last traces of high heat, plus any scratches, and a coat of paste wax is all the finish you need, evening out the sheen and providing a bit of protection from finger grease and corrosion. There are awesome plugs that you just bang down into the ends of the steel-tube legs with a rubber mallet, and they come threaded for adjustable feet.

avrsive-pads-remove-slag-and-heat-marksa-coat-of-wax-is-all-the-finish-needed-for-steelplastic-inserts-with-adjustable-feet-fit-into-the-steel-tubes

As for adding a wood top, that’s woodworking, and takes a bit more time. I went with Port Orford cedar, a hard cedar that grows only in the Pacific Northwest. It’s got nice organic character that goes well with the steel below.

I milled up two thick pieces to make a 1-1/2-in.-thick top, to match the thickness of the steel frame parts. Than I added a little rabbet around the bottom edge to create a thin shadow line that separates wood and steel.

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After prepping the surfaces, putting a nice roundover on all the edges, and adding a few coats of polyurethane, attaching the wood top was a breeze. Kari Merkl had already drilled holes through the upper frame pieces before welding the frame together, so now I just drove long screws through those into the top. The cedar is pretty stable but there is enough wiggle room in the screw holes to allow for any seasonal wood movement.

That’s it, a mixed-media table in the modern style! For the whole story, including a variety of different pieces made with similar techniques, see my upcoming article in Woodcraft magazine.

Embrace the imperfections in the wood and welding.jpgthe-steel-and-wood-work-well-together

Screw-on legs will turn anything into a table

The traditional way to add legs to a table is first to connect the tops of legs to a series of rails, creating a separate base. The top then attaches to that. That type of base demands high-skill joints like mortises and tenons to connect everything. Lucky for us, there are much easier answers these days.

A variety of companies now sell self-supporting legs that simply screw onto any top you have, be it a wood slab, butcher block, old door, old workbench top or whatever. In my book for beginners, “Build Stuff with Wood,” due out next fall, I show four of these leg systems. Here they are, attached to a variety of tops.

You can imagine the rest of the possibilities, I’m sure. By the way, to find out how I surfaced and finished the beautiful walnut slab that I used for two of these tables, go here.

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Ikea sells legs like these for $16 a set! You can buy them in four colors. I harvested mine from a beat-up old Ikea desk we had.
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I made a thick top by screwing and gluing together two pieces of plywood, trimming the edges, and rounding them with a router, and then screwing on my Ikea legs. Quick and easy! By the way, I finished this tabletop with spar varnish to stand up to the elements.
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The table came out great. Go here for the full how-to.
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I matched the umbrella to the chairs and table legs to create this outdoor oasis.
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These mid-century modern hairpin legs from Rockler.com are not cheap, but they are gorgeous. You can get a two-wire or three-wire version in various lengths and finishes. 
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Check out the finished desk. To find out how I surfaced and finished that gorgeous walnut slab, go here.
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Here is another amazing screw-on Mid-Century Modern leg set, from tablelegs.com. You buy the cleats and legs separately and they are unfinished. These are walnut, coffee table size legs, but they come in all different sizes and woods. I applied an oil-based polyurethane finish.
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Be sure to choose cleats that are shorter than your tabletop is wide. The cleats and legs simply screw on.
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This coffee table is just as nice as the desk. Wish I could have kept it this way but we needed the desk more.
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And last but not least is this plumbing pipe hardware, which I used to make a beautiful coffee table.
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Find out more about this project here.

 

 

Modern fence, pt. 3: Cover the edges and you’re done!

In this last stage of my DIY fence, I wanted to cover the screwed-down edges of the corrugated panels. You could leave them showing, but that’s too industrial looking even for me. We wanted the steel panels to be surrounded by clean wood edges on all sides.

My brainstorm here was to leave the panels a bit short at the top and bottom, and then rabbet the back of two more 2x4s to fit over those bumpy panel edges. I had to use the tablesaw for that task, so if you don’t have one you can ask a friend. Or just design the fence to work around it. One way to do that would be to attach the 2×4 rails and just screw the steel panels to the back of them. Let your neighbors look at the screws, or those lazy buggers can build their own fence!

As for me, I like the doubled-up 2x4s at top and bottom. It makes the fence stiffer and stronger.

The tablesaw cuts are pretty deep, so you definitely need a push stick or two to keep your hands safe, but the boards tend to guide themselves through the cut, believe it or not. If you have a riving knife on your saw (by splitter wouldn’t work for this) then definitely use it for some added peace of mind.

After the from boards are notched, you just cut them to length and attach them with long deck screws. That’s it! You still need to build some gates, but those can be as easy or hard as you like. Check the final photo for the easiest approach to gate-making: the Adjust-A-Gate kit available at all home centers.

And in a future post I’ll show how to make a super-custom gate in a Japanese style.

But let’s finish up that fence:

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This is where we left off. I intentionally left the panels short at top and bottom for the next step.
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To notch the back of the trim rails, which are just more 2x4s, I first made a 1/2-in.-deep cut at the centerpoint, more or less. Measure your panel overlap to figure this out.
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This tall cut completes the 1/2-in. deep rabbet that fits over the edges of the steel panels.
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Definitely use a push stick at the end of the cut to keep your hands away from the blade.
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The idea is that the notch is just big enough to fit over the panels while letting this 2×4 rail end up flush with the one behind it. The next step is remeasuring the distance between your fence posts and cutting these rails to fit between them.
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The bottom rail went on first. I drilled clearance holes in it for long deck screws, which went into the fat part of the board (not the notched part), and I felt underneath when attaching it to be sure the bottom edge of this rail was even with the one behind it.
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When attaching the top rail, again with long deck screws, this time I reached up top to be sure those edges of the two rails were even with each other.
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Last of all, I used my reciprocating saw and a long blade to cut the tops of the posts even with the top rails, completing the clean look.
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For my back gate I used the awesomely easy Adjust-A-Gate hardware from my local home center. This is the lightweight consumer version, but there is also a heavier contractor version for heavier gates. The hardware expands and contracts to fit a wide range of openings. You just attach a couple 2×4 pieces to it, and then your fence boards (or metal panels!) to those. The wire and turnbuckle keep the gate from sagging, and the kit comes with the hinges and latch too! I added a string so we could open the gate from the inside.