By Steve Maxwell
Have you got plans to build a gazebo, deck, dock, swing set or rural mailbox post? The real-world tips you’ll get here will make your big outdoor projects better.
Outdoor Projects Trick#1: Setting Posts
Whenever possible, it’s best to set posts directly into soil without concrete. Why? Bare posts resist rot better than those set in concrete. Soil-set posts are also less likely to heave upwards with frost. The only exception to this is when a post needs to withstand significant sideways pressures without support from neighbouring posts or structures. Railing posts at the bottom of a set of deck stairs, for instance, are one example where setting posts in concrete makes sense. Concrete is an excellent way to eliminate the loose soil that invariably surrounds soil-set posts. Some kinds of playsets with swings and climbing bars need concrete-enhanced posts, too. As long as the concrete is poured against undisturbed soil, it will support that post without any movement.
Just be sure to use props to support the post plumb while the concrete cures, and dig the hole tapering slightly larger at the bottom than the top, to minimize the chance of frost movement. Also, don’t let a “muffin top” of concrete ooze out of the top of the hole, either. Frost loves to push upwards on this, ruining the accuracy of your post positioning and encouraging frost heaving each spring.
Outdoor Projects Trick#2: Make Pyramid End Cuts
I started adding this visual detail to the ends of six-by-six and eight-by-eight timbers about 25 years ago, and I’m still doing it now. The angle of the four cuts that create the pyramid isn’t critical, but I find that 15 degrees from square looks ideal. Swivel the foot of your seven-and-one-fourth inches circular saw to this angle, mark square lines around all four sides of the post, then follow up with four angled cuts.
The waste won’t fall off if you’re working with posts as big as six-by-sixes and eight-by-eights since standard saws don’t cut deep enough. That’s why you need to complete the cuts with a full-size handsaw (I prefer one with a Japanese tooth pattern), so the cuts meet at the pointed centre of the pyramid. There’s no need to saw all the way through. The sawn facets of the pyramid look rough at this stage, but it’s easy to refine them with an 80-grit abrasive in a belt sander. Precision is key. Keep the sander flat and steady, then work one facet at a time until they’re all smooth and come to a single point.
The images here show the steps I use to make pyramid ends on six-by-six and eight-by-eight timbers.
Outdoor Projects Trick#3: Use a Level to Get Things Square
As the size of any outdoor project gets larger, hand-held squares become less and less useful. Even a small error with a framing square can mean a big mistake when assembly lengths are measured in feet, and this is where a level can help. Make big parts plumb or level and they’ll automatically be vertically square or parallel to each other. For parts that need to be levelled over distances longer than about eight or 10 feet, a laser level or water level is more accurate. You’ll still need a square and pencil for laying out cuts and such, but levels make more sense when tasks get large.
Outdoor Projects Tip#4: Use a Ship’s Auger to Bore Big, Deep Holes
Big, long bolts are a key part of joining many outdoor projects, and installing them involves boring big, deep holes. This is where ship’s auger bits can help—named after shipwrights who often had to drill large holes through thick wood, the name of the tool lives on even though ships today are made with plate steel and electric welders.
Although you won’t always need to drill 18-inch-deep holes, this is a good general-purpose length to get. I use half-inch, three-fourth-inch and one-inch bits most often for my outdoor projects. All ship’s augers are self-feeding, thanks to a steeply tapered screw at the tip. Although these bits will draw themselves into the wood without any help from you, they can be over-eager. Stop and reverse the bit after every three or four inches of drilling to clear shavings from inside the hole. If you’ve got a lot of holes to drill beyond the reach of an extension cord, consider a gas-powered drill. They’re small, light and surprisingly powerful. Also, whenever you boreholes for carriage bolts, choose a bit that’s the same size as the bolt shank – no larger. You’ll need to hammer the bolt in, but that’s okay. The friction is useful for holding the bolt as you tighten the nut over a flat washer.
Big, outdoor wood projects don’t require the precision of fine furniture, but they do let you extend your craftsmanship in a way that you’ll see and use almost every day of your outdoor life. Whenever I get the mail, fill up the bird feeder or see my wife, Mary, using the clothesline supported by a timber frame assembly here at our place, the trouble is more than worth it.