A gate to last
PUBLISHED: 08:11 28 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:49 28 March 2014
Alan Beat makes a wooden field gate
It’s hard to imagine that any livestock holding could operate without gates of some sort to control the entrance into each discreet area of grazing, or to exclude animals from zones that are out of bounds. The more that grazing is sub-divided for effective management, the more gates become necessary. It’s true that temporary measures using wooden pallets, galvanised sheeting or electric fencing can be employed, and often are, but there is always the risk that sooner or later, livestock will break through, while anything that impedes free passage for the livestock owner soon becomes tiresome to negotiate on a daily basis. The traditional five barred gate that opens and closes readily, hung between two stout posts, is the only permanent solution to have stood the test of time.
Wood or steel?
Traditionally, field gates were made of naturally durable timber such as heart of oak or sweet chestnut. Oak made a heavy gate that lasted a lifetime. Lighter woods such as larch were easier to work and hang, but didn’t last as long. Today, the timber used can be any softwood, although larch remains the best choice, and is pressure treated with chemicals for longevity.
Galvanised steel gates are a modern alternative. Their weight and strength varies considerably with the wall thickness of the steel tubing used. I’ve noticed that owners of heavy cattle breeds generally favour steel gates as the strongest available choice. Pigs can chew through wooden bars over time, so galvanised steel can be a good choice where they’re concerned.
Aesthetics might also be an important consideration. Shiny steel gates can look appropriate around a concrete yard with modern buildings, but out of place in a traditional patchwork landscape of green fields with laid hedges, where a wooden gate blends in well with its surroundings.
Costs are similar for either material, although heavier duty steel gates are available at a higher price for cattle yards.
Make your own
There is a realistic alternative to buying ready-made wooden gates, and that is to make your own. The work involved is straightforward and any reasonably handy smallholder with standard DIY tools can do it.
There is a cost saving to be made here, as a gate kit of all the component parts can be purchased for rather less than the price of the assembled version. For example, a local supplier is currently quoting £50 for a standard 10’ wooden field gates, whereas the equivalent kit is available for £32, a saving of £18. Sawmills that sell only gates, but not kits, can often be persuaded to quote for the individual component parts at a reduced price that reflects their saving of labour costs. By shopping around, I’ve bought kits in the past at around half the price of the finished gate. Indeed, the one that illustrates this article cost just £17 at a farm sale, roughly one third of the cost of a new gate and a saving of £33 (these figures include the VAT).
To put this into context, over time, I’ve made and hung 12 field gates on our 16 acre smallholding. If we settle for an average over the years of half new price for the kit, then my cost savings add up to around £300 so far. When the smallholding runs on a tight budget, that’s not to be sneezed at.
A further advantage is the option of customising your gate to a non-standard size or style, to fit an existing opening or to solve a specific problem. Readers may remember my customising a pair of entrance gates in this way to prevent floodwater entering our yard from the road beyond (see February filldyke in CS February 2005).
Last but not least, there’s the satisfaction of seeing and using, on a daily basis, a gate that you’ve fashioned with your own hands. It’s part of the affinity and sense of place that develops between you and the land, difficult to define or explain, but which many smallholders learn to understand and value.
A gate kit includes the five main rails (also called bars or pales) of appropriate length, the hanging and latching styles, as the end pieces are called, ready mortised to accept the rails, and further rails for cross bracing purposes. The top rail will be of heavier cross section, at least 11/2” x 3”, than the lower rails which are 1” x 3”. The kit may include the bolts to fasten it all together, but often doesn’t, so check this when ordering. It certainly won’t include any fittings, so you also need to obtain top and bottom hinges with which to hang it, just as you would for a ready-made gate.}
The hanging and latching styles will be mortised to accept the gate rails. Ideally, these mortises should be properly cleaned out to square corners and full depth, otherwise you’ll have to do this with a chisel. The timbers should be free of any obvious faults or splits that could weaken the finished gate.
There are regional variations in the style of field gates and you will want to follow the pattern of your own locality. I’ve described here the sequence for a traditional Devon pattern, and this carries some refinements that may not be found in a mass produced product. For example, the dovetail joint between diagonal brace and hanging style makes a much stronger junction than a simple overlap that relies solely on the bolt passing through it. The triangle formed between this diagonal brace, top rail and hanging style is also very strong when a strap hinge is bolted through.
Admittedly, the false head is a modest compromise to the optimum design of full diagonal bracing, but it has the practical merit of enabling rails of the same length to be used throughout (otherwise the braces must be longer) and looking around here at some ancient gates, this design seems to have withstood the test of time.
Of the gates I’ve made in this way over nearly 20 years, the only repair needed so far has been the strapping of a broken rail, after a ram tried to break through to reach ewes in season on the other side. The was simply asking for trouble and I should have put a double barrier in place using a second gate or some hurdles. I notice, however, that the zinc plated coach bolts, as commonly supplied, are rusting and these may prove to be the weakest link over time, so in an ideal world, only galvanised fixings should be used.
1: Lay out the kit on a flat surface. Check that no component is missing, that all mortises are cleanly cut to full depth, and that fittings and tools required are to hand.
2: If necessary, mark out and rebate the top rail to fit the mortise of hanging and latching styles (on some kits, this is already done). Treat the cut surfaces with preservative.
3: Offer each rail to its mortise housing and check for fit. Plane the end of the rail if necessary for a tap-in fit, but not so tight that it might split the housing.
4: Fit the top rail and all four other rails into the hanging style. Position the style up against a solid support – for example, the base of a wall, or in my case, some heavy timbers at the base of a woodpile.
5: Offer up the latching style, locate all rails into their respective housings and drive firmly into place using a sledgehammer (gently!) against a protective wood block. Make sure that all the joints are fully home.
6: Measure the main diagonals of the gate to check for squareness. If one diagonal measures longer than the other, you have a parallelogram and not a rectangle. Realign the assembly until both diagonals are equal.
7: Drill 8mm holes through both styles to catch each rail at the centre of its mortise joint, but do not drill the hanging style at top and bottom rail joints just yet. Fit bolts, nuts and washers to the eight positions drilled and tighten. If bolts need tapping through, use a rubber or wooden mallet to avoid damage to the anti-corrosion surface plating.
8: Lay the first diagonal brace into position and mark it for a dovetail joint with the hanging style. Saw to these marks to form this joint.
9: Re-position the brace and mark the hanging style dovetail to suit. Make a series of saw cuts through the waste section to 1” depth (a circular power saw is really handy for this) and cut out the joint cleanly with a chisel.
10: Treat the cut surfaces of both members with preservative before assembling the joint. Drive the brace firmly home into the taper using a rubber or wooden mallet.
11: Drill 8mm holes through the dovetail joint and at the overlap of brace and three mid-rails, but do not drill the top and bottom rail overlaps just yet. Fit bolts, nuts and washers to the four positions drilled and tighten.
12: Turn the gate over and lay the false head into position so that it overlaps the first brace at the bottom rail. Check that the false head is parallel to the latching style and drill 8mm holes where it overlaps all five rails. Fit bolts, nuts and washers to these positions and tighten.
13: Lay the second diagonal brace into position and mark for butt joints against the hanging style and false head. Cut the brace to these marks with a saw and treat both ends with preservative. Re-position the brace, tap firmly into place. Drill 8mm holes where it overlaps all five rails (see overleaf). Fit bolts, nuts and washers to these positions and tighten.
14: Position the top strap hinge in line with the top rail, mark a packing strip of 1/2” thickness (in my case, but this may be unnecessary for a thicker top rail) and cut this to length. Turn the gate over, mark a packing strip of 1” thickness (I used the off-cut from the second brace) to fill the gap between brace and style, and cut to the marks. Treat all cut surfaces with preservative.
15: Position the top hinge carefully with the packing pieces and drill three 10mm holes through, but take care to drill these square to the top rail so that the bolts will pass through the existing holes in both arms of the hinge (I drill to half depth from either side to make sure). Fit 10mm bolts, nuts and washers to these positions and tighten.
16: Position the bottom hinge in line with the bottom rail and drill a 10mm hole through, but take care to drill this accurately as for previous point 15. (Here I’ve re-used an old farm sale bargain, bearing in mind that the bottom hinge is far less critical than the top, which must be good). Fit a 10mm bolt, nut and washer and tighten.
17: Stand back, admire your first gate!
This all looks more complicated on paper than it is in practice. Once you’ve made your first gate, others follow more easily.
I suppose it took me three or four hours to make this particular gate from start to finish, including tea breaks!
It could be done faster by paying less attention to detail, but small things can make a big difference to the longevity of a gate, and if your approach is going to be slap-dash, you might as well buy a mass-produced item in the first place.
This article is from the September 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine.
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