I replaced my back fence a couple of years ago but I didn’t replace all the fenceposts; most of them were still there and seemed OK. Only a very few were rotted off at the ground. Since that time, a couple more have broken as well as one section that had come loose during a storm. This reminded me of all the little things you learn when you actually do something that are never covered in the books that describe how to do things. It doesn’t matter how much detail a book goes into; that only gets you so far so here are all the things that I learned:

1) You will eventually drop the drill bit you are using. It will vanish into the grass never to be seen again. Since you were just using it, it follows that you will need it again and since it is now missing, you will have to go buy another one.
2) Your drill battery will die mid-way through the job. Plan on this so you can take a break and perhaps go to the hardware store and buy a new drill bit.
3) It’s not so much the air temperature as the sun beating down on you that kills you. Shade is wonderful.
4) When you are cutting wood at eye level or above your head, the breeze will blow just so that the sawdust will drift into your face and eyes. Later when you go inside to shower, you will find sawdust in the bottoms of your pants pockets.
5) Firemen are busy people. There is a fire/ambulance station near my house and as I stood outside for about six hours, I heard a siren at least four times.

This job was fairly straightforward but that doesn’t mean that it will go easily or quickly. In particular, when a fence post has rotted away, you have to either dig out the old concrete lump or just move over a foot or so and dig a new post hole. Having done both at one time or another, I recommend the latter. However you will then be in a position (so to speak) where your rails will meet up at the wrong place. You will therefore have to patch them together with something. That part is easy if you have any wood around at all so I will gloss over that.

I started digging a post hole but not until I had cleared away a lot of vines and stuff from the other side of the fence. A great many people will move into a house and plant stuff right up next to the fence so that when you need to replace the fence or get to it for any reason, you have to fight with a lot of random plant material which has built up because things were planted so close to the fence that nobody could ever get back there to clear things away. That also contributes to rotting. All up and down the fenceline I saw bushes planted no more than two inches away from the fence that were now pushing on it and providing a place for debris to collect rot-inducing moisture.

By this time I was pretty tired from patching another section as well as the ‘gardening’. About eight inches down I hit a layer of what people around here call “hard pan”; a layer of tightly packed clay that is just slightly less hard than sandstone. It does not “clang” when the post-hole digger hits it but otherwise feels just like hitting rock when the shock is transmitted through the handles to your arms. I dug away at it with whatever I could lay my hands on; first a crowbar which was no good. I also tried sharpening the post-hole digger blades with an angle grinder. That is always fun since it generates a shower of sparks but although that helped, it was not enough.

I sat down in the shade to drink some water and think about the problem. As I did I felt a pain in my leg from where my knife had opened up in my pocket and was now stabbing me. I guess I’m glad that I never sharpen that particular knife. It is one of those “assisted opening” type so that you can use it with one hand when the other hand is occupied. Not a switchblade since you have to exert some force to open it – just assisted. It has a safety lock which I had put on but somehow the safety had been turned off and the latch pressed in my pocket by the car keys. Note to self: you don’t need car keys to work in the yard.

It then hit me that I had recently bought a nice set of auger bits. I therefore had my old ones lying around with nothing to do – I had tried to sharpen them before (and had succeeded with some of them) but they were an odd collection of sizes so I had bought new ones. One of them was about an inch in diameter and I could never get it sharp so it hit me that it would still probably bore through clay. It had the old tapered shank but I got it into my drill chuck enough so that it would turn and started boring. It actually worked pretty well; I drilled a series of holes in the hard pan until it was deep enough that I couldn’t get the drill any further. I could then use the post-hole digger to get the loose dirt out. The auger which had previously been blackened by age was now shiny.

It still wasn’t deep enough but that’s all I had. I needed to get it about another four inches deeper but did not have the energy or the tooling to do that so I gave up and put a post into it and concreted it in. I’m a scientist by trade so I’m pretty out of shape – I can only do so much of this so I went in and that was that. I got up Sunday morning and hung the panels back up.

During all this, I discovered that the post next to this one is rotted too. So now I have to do this all over again.
I did have an opportunity to use only my recently acquired-or-refurbished hand tools. Except for the cordless drill that is – I’m never giving that up. I was out early to beat the heat and my wife rightly would like me to avoid waking the neighbors with a power saw so I used my hand saw to cut all the wood that needed to be cut. This worked out great – it’s slower than using a circular saw but not that much slower and the cuts are not much rougher (now that the saw is sharp and properly set) and it was pretty fun. Also quieter which is a big plus in my mind – I’ve never liked loud noises. It’s nice to be able to listen to the sounds all around and there is a lot to listen to besides barking dogs. I heard something that sounded like a duck quacking which I could never identify; other than that, I enjoyed the sounds of nature without having to don ear protection.

Now my upper body is sore – particularly my hands. Time to recover and go at it again since my final lesson learned is that I (and probably everybody else in the world) really need to get outside and be more active. It is silly that digging one post hole would make me so tired. I need to get outside regularly and do something – perhaps set about amending the soil and planting some things that might eventually break up that hard pan.

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