Building a garden gate

To many people a garden gate may be simply a movable part of a fence, convenient for getting through to the other side. Others may think of a gate as something that should be especially attractive, as the focal point of a garden or an invitation to enter. Ornate or simple, all gates must meet one common requirement: They have to work. Just a few miscalculations or a little bad workmanship on a gate, and you end up with one that doesn’t close, or worse, one that won’t open in wet weather. How do you go about building a gate from scratch? What are some of the difficulties you’re apt to encounter? Here are answers to these and other questions that may arise.


Generally speaking, you put in a gate because you have to get through a fenced area, so its design is normally dictated by that of the fence itself. By using the same materials for both and the same design, you can make the gate blend right into the fence. By altering the design slightly, you can make the gate stand out without creating a sharp contrast with the fence. It’s a good idea to make a sketch of the design you’d like and show it to someone at a lumber yard who knows carpentry. He can tell you whether your plan is feasible, how much it’s likely to cost, and whether there is a way to make the job easier by changing the design slightly.


The choice of materials to use for a gate should be based principally on their ability to withstand the weather and the wear and tear a gate gets over the years.

The latch. Although it may seem like putting the cart before the horse, the first thing to consider is the latch. In most cases you have to build the gate around the latch, unless it’s a simple hasp or hook and eye. Check with your local hardware and lumber supply stores. They usually carry many different types of latches .

Hinges. They all have their advantages as well as drawbacks, but any type will do the job if it is big enough and if you use screws and nails that are long enough.

Be sure to select hinges with a weather-resistant coating – cadmium, zinc, or galvanized – unless you plan on painting them; otherwise, they’ll rust.

Gate posts. To withstand the weight and pull of the gate, the posts have to be set securely in the ground. Tamped earth may work well for fence posts, but not for gate posts. Set them deep and in concrete . Use 4 by 4 redwood or cedar as they are more resistant to rot than other woods.

Other grades of wood can be used for gate posts if you treat them with a preservative. Some of the most commonly used preservatives are pentachlorophenoi, copper naphthenate, and creosote.

Creosote is fairly effective if properly applied, but has some unpleasant traits that make it unpopular with many gate builders. Principal objection is that the treated area can never be painted over. Many people also object to its heavy, medicinal odor. However, these drawbacks may not be important if you are building a gate in the country or one that is rustic and un-painted in the city.

Pentachlorophenoi has an appealing quality to the home-owner because it is clean and odorless. Also, when applied with a clear oil, it leaves no stain. After treatment, evaporation from the treated areas leaves each tiny wood cell wall lined with a permanent elastic film. As a result, the usual cracking and swelling changes which normally take place in aging are fairly well controlled.

Copper napthenate is non-corrosive, therefore eliminating the possibility of injurious effect on plantings. Commonly available in a green color, it may be used as a green stain. Paint may be applied over it, for the color does not come through paint, but it should not be applied over existing paint or varnish.

The method for treating gate posts is simple and inexpensive. Usually only 30 inches of the post is treated, which takes care of 24 inches below the soil and 6 inches above. Before treatment, pierce the post all around the 24-inch mark to allow the preservative solution to soak in even further. Ordinary 50-gallon oil drums can be used as containers for the treating solution.

After 24 hours of soaking, the post will have an unbroken ring of treated wood, penetrating at least one-half to three-quarters of an inch.

Choosing the lumber. A variety of materials is available for gates. On the West Coast, redwood, cedar, and fir are the most widely used. Under heavy stress, screws and nails may pull out of redwood and cedar more easily than out of fir.

Be sure to check the lumber to see that it isn’t warped. It doesn’t take much of a curve to throw a whole gate frame out of line. Sometimes you may have to go through a half dozen pieces before getting a straight one. Also check to see if the lumber is seasoned. If it is green, let it dry out for at least a month before you use it. Lay the boards on blocks to let the air circulate freely around the wood. Make sure the blocks hold the boards flat; if they sag, they may warp.


Most wood gates have 2 by 4-inch frames covered with some type of siding. You can use lighter frames if the siding is exterior plywood or other light, one-piece paneling material. These won’t sag, but they usually need support to keep them from bowing, and to give you a place to fasten hinges and latches.

Assuming you are using the standard 2 by 4 frame and 4 by 4 posts, first measure the distance between the posts (take the measurements both at bottom and top). Leave at least ½ to % inch between the latch post and the gate frame . This allows space for the gate to swing without nicking or binding the edge of the post. A tightly fitting gate may look neat, but chances are it won’t open easily.

If you’re not handy at keeping track of fractions and other measurements, use a straight 1 by 1 garden stake as a guide. Holding it level between the gate posts, mark off the latch post, the ½ to 1/2-inch swing space, the gate frame member, hinge space, and the hinge post. You can build the gate frame using this as your only guide.

Make sure you cut square corners on all frame members. Check the ends you don’t cut, since they’re not always cut square at the sawmill. It’s always a good idea to drill screw and nail holes. Use a bit that’s slightly smaller in diameter than the screw or nail. Include a water-resistant glue on joints when you assemble. Use galvanized or other treated hardware that won’t corrode and discolor the wood.


A gate must be rigid or it will sag. The most commonly used brace is a 2 by 4, set diagonally from the bottom corner of the frame on the hinge post side to the top corner of the latch side. This actually pushes up the frame from the bottom of the hinge.

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