Handmade Hatch

A rustic gate made with materials harvested from your woodlot is a perfect finishing touch to your heritage fence.

By Karen Keb

Illustration by Ray E. Watkins, Jr.

Illustration by Ray E. Watkins, Jr.

Structures like gates can make use of tall thin saplings or other trees that might otherwise just seem a nuisance. With that in mind, walk your wooded areas or fencerows in search of materials.

Long-lasting gates can be constructed with almost any tree species, since they will not generally be in contact with the ground. Species like Osage orange and white oak are both strong and decay resistant, and they are relatively easy to work with hand tools when green.

Harvesting Materials

For the gate’s uprights (standards) select saplings that are 3 inches in diameter and cut standards about as long as your fence is high. Before the billets have time to dry out, carefully split them down the middle (from top to bottom) using a splitting maul, froe, wedges or better yet, a combination of all three. If there is any curve to the billets, you can make creative use of symmetry if you split the standards along an axis perpendicular to the curve.

The gate’s rails (horizontal), pickets (vertical) and diagonal brace can be harvested from split saplings about 2 inches in diameter or split from larger diameter materials as above. If the saplings are of a fairly decay-prone species like hackberry, peel the bark from the gate pieces to slow the process.

Mortise and Tenon

Working on the split faces of the gate standards, mark mortises about ¾ inch wide by 1½ inches long about 3 inches from the ends. Using a drill and chisels, chop through mortises—a slight narrowing taper from marked side to opposite side will make crudely chopped tapered tenons fit tightly.

Using a hatchet, cooper’s axe, one-handed adze, drawknife or other handy tool, pare down the ends of your rails to form tapered tenons about ¾ inch by 1½ inches in cross section at their inboard ends. Fit these tenons into the mortises you cut into the standards in the step above. Pin the rails into place with nails—be sure to bore pilot holes for the nails or risk splitting the relatively thin wood.

Finishing Touches

Lay this rectangular frame on a level surface and square it by measuring its diagonal dimensions. When the diagonal measurements are identical or close to it, the frame is square enough. To keep it that way, cut a diagonal brace to fit tightly in the crooks formed by the intersection of the standard and rail on the bottom of the hinge side and the top of the latch side of the gate. Fasten this brace in place using nails and/or wire. Using a branch with a small Y at one end and whittling a V at the other end can really strengthen your gate’s diagonal brace.

Split sufficient pickets to make your gate as tight as you need it to be. Arrange the pickets symmetrically to take advantage of any curves or tapers in the pickets and nail them to the rails and diagonal brace; again, be sure to bore pilot holes if there is any risk of unwanted splitting.

Finally, attach the wire using staples, install the hinges, hang your gate and enjoy for years to come.

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