Saying Goodbye to the Sand Pit with the Help of YouTube

After we finished building our home on St. George Island and resumed summer RV travel in 2022, our big goal for the winter of 2022-2023 was to finish work on the exterior of our property. Mainly we needed to address the area that I had not-so-lovingly dubbed “The Sand Pit.” When we built our home, we chose to place it on the highest elevation area of the lot, which also happened to be mostly sand. One happy consequence of the siting decision was that we only needed to remove one tree to accommodate the house, and we were able to preserve a lush green swath of native plants featuring palmettos, slash pines, cabbage palms, oak, red cedar, ilex, wax myrtle, and more. At the end of construction, our house and driveway occupied about half the lot, the preserved vegetation occupied about one quarter, and the rest was a raw, unfinished area of sand occupied by a few exceptionally hardy weeds. It had no obvious purpose and no real function other than serving as a dusty shortcut to our mailbox. The area looked so abandoned that people would occasionally use it as a turnaround area off the adjacent road, to Ken’s infinite annoyance. To make matters even worse, it wasn’t tucked away out of sight, but ran alongside our driveway. The Sand Pit needed help.

 

 

Our first order of business when we returned from our 2022 summer travels was to develop a plan. We remain undecided on whether we want to put in a pool, so we knew our plan needed to preserve that option for the future. After lots of pacing around, measuring, and tinkering with ideas, Ken came up with a plan that enthused us both. We decided we should install a privacy fence to establish the space and get some relief from dust blown in from the adjacent dirt road, add a deck at ground level to use as a winter sun patio, add a few cabbage palms to create vertical interest and some shade, and leave enough room inside the fence to accommodate a possible future pool.

Armed with sketches and measurements, we started contacting contractors to get estimates. From this point forward, this project was a perpetual reminder that we live in a sparsely populated area with few choices in vendors. I knew of three potential suppliers for the palm trees: the guy who installed one tree on our side yard about a year earlier (Tom), the guy who installed a bunch of palms on our next door neighbor’s property last summer (Curtis), and the fabulous Tallahassee Nurseries. After a few short phone calls I learned that Tom had retired, Tallahassee Nurseries had no interest in taking on such a small job (they referred me to Curtis), and Curtis is a very amiable person in addition to being our only option. Curtis only makes the 1-hour trip out to our island when he has several orders, usually about once per month. Predictably, our first window opened the same day we were leaving on our short trip to St. Augustine in January. That pushed us out to the next trip, but at least by the end of February we could be excited about having three new palm trees to nurture.

 

 

In retrospect, the palm trees were the easiest part of the project. At the same time we were arranging for tree delivery and installation, we were interviewing a series of potential fence and deck contractors. A fence guy who came highly recommended by some friends on the island turned out to be very pleasant in person, but had recently suffered some serious health issues and split from his business partner. Since he never provided us with an estimate after several follow-ups, I can only assume he wasn’t able to handle the job. A few other leads from neighbors yielded no results. Finally we turned to our home builder, with some fear that he would offer to have his crew “squeeze us in” at some point, creating more potential delays. Happily, he gave us a recommendation for a handyman who turned out to be an engaging guy, skilled in several areas (including being a licensed electrician in case we wanted to add outdoor lights), and offering several good design ideas. His estimate was fair and we were happy to move forward with him once he finished up a few other jobs ahead of us. In consultation with our contractor, we agreed that we would go ahead and have the trees installed, and that the fence would be the first part of the fence-and-deck project. I confirmed with our local building department that no permit is required for a fence (??) and stayed in touch with the contractor. Somehow, the timeline of “I can start in a few weeks” never seemed to change. We got our hopes up when he asked us to select some materials, but the start date never actually changed to “next week” or “tomorrow.” We knew he worked part time as a bartender, and when spring break rolled around I knew we would be losing him to his other, better-paying job.

Eventually, after months of failing to make concrete progress, I cried out in exasperation, “This is ridiculous! We’ve done plenty of construction work with power tools before. We spent a month working with Habitat for Humanity.ย  We helped with the framing work on our own house. Surely we can build a wood fence ourselves!” Always skeptical of my hare-brained ideas, Ken simply replied, “Don’t call me Shirley.”

Eventually, I managed to convince Ken that we could tackle the job of building a wood fence. This, of course, is where YouTube comes in. From various RV repairs we’ve completed, we know that there is a YouTube video covering virtually any project, no matter how obscure. Building a wood privacy fence is so common that there are literally thousands of videos describing the steps. My best find was an entire YouTube channel created by a professional fence installer featuring voice-over commentary of DIY YouTube fence videos explaining what the amateurs did right and what they did wrong. It was solid gold. Thank you, Joe Everest the Fence Expert, for allowing us to learn from the mistakes of others. (Also, for entertaining me with a true layperson explanation of copyright’s fair use doctrine.) After about one day of scrolling through videos, I was completely confident that (a) we could do this and (b) we could do it better than half the clowns on YouTube.

I won’t bore you with all the different construction options we considered, but in the end we decided on a basic approach: 4×4 posts, 2×8 horizontal stringers, and individual wood pickets instead of pre-fab panels. With our research and measurements complete, it was time to order supplies. This turned out to be a three-step process. Our friends at Home Depot don’t deliver lumber to our area, so we ordered everything but the pickets from our local hardware store — the same place that delivered all the wood to build our house. We didn’t like their selection of pickets, however, so we picked those up ourselves at Home Depot in Tallahassee.

 

 

Fun fact: our truck bed holds exactly 192 pickets (8 across and 24 high), and the specs for the pickets say they weigh 7.5 pounds each. A full bed is 1,440 pounds, conveniently just under the truck’s weight rating of 1,500 pounds. For almost 200 feet of fence, we made two trips. It’s probably the closest we have come to reaching our truck’s rated limits, far more than towing our 7,500 pound trailer! The best part about this project is that it gave us an excuse to upgrade our tool kit. With the money we saved on labor, we more than covered the cost of a new cordless circular saw, impact driver, and drill, plus several batteries. Home Depot was happy to send those to us via FedEx along with a dozen pounds of exterior wood screws of various sizes.

Taking glamour shots of power tools is totally normal, right?

When it came to actually building the fence, our top concern was accuracy. We wanted everything to be as square as possible — square to the house and to itself. We also wanted the top lines to be really straight and not undulating. Our best tool for this purpose was string: string lines showing the fence perimeter to set the posts, and string lines between the corner posts to maintain consistent height of the posts. Our second-best tool was math. When setting our perimeter lines, we did lots of a2+b2=c2 calculations to make sure our corners were as close to square as possible. For those of you wondering when you will ever need to use geometry after high school, I am here to tell you that Pythagoras is your friend in fence-building situations. Our last critical tool was our type-A, perfectionist personalities. Every structural board in this fence was measured, custom cut when needed, and pre-drilled, and every picket was tested for fit to its neighbor, height, and levelness.

And now please enjoy a million photos of our process:

 

The most challenging part was getting the fence to connect to the area at the bottom of our stairs without actually being physically attached. We didn’t want to add any weight or new structural pressure on the house itself, but some clever cantilevering helped us complete the perimeter of the fence. Building and hanging the gate was also fairly challenging, with more engineering required than any other part of the fence. A simple but very positive upgrade was using leftover lumber to create a new post for our bird-feeder. Moving it off our stairs and into the newly enclosed yard area means we can see the birds much better from our windows, and we are less likely to disturb them when we come out the front door.

Overall, we’re happy with how it came out. And every time we see that there are some flaws such as warping or shrinkage, I sternly remind Ken that “Wood is a natural product.” Some final pictures:

 

 

Careful readers will note that our original plan called for a privacy fence, palm trees, and a deck. Well, by the time we finished the fence we decided it was too hot to start work on the deck. That part of the project is now officially postponed to the fall, when we will also install more landscaping around the fence.

A project for later in the year

For now, it’s time to get ready for summer travel!

 

13 thoughts on “Saying Goodbye to the Sand Pit with the Help of YouTube”

  1. Shannon and Ken You guys have real skills. I don’t think a contractor would have done any better. It looks great and fits the lot perfectly. A nice addition to your beautiful home and location. Also, your writing style is very interesting and fun to read. Very nice work! Bill

    Reply
    • Your kind words mean a lot to us — you know how much we admire your DIY skills! We’re pretty proud of ourselves for getting the project done, and we think it turned out great. Ken is probably worried about what I might try tackling next. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Reply
  2. Looks Great. Should have been an Episode on This Old house with Norm ๐Ÿ™‚ , but you guys Did a Great job !! , Also consider submitting a Marketing ad for “sponsored by Dewalt Power tools” ๐Ÿ™‚ — with the ‘galm’ Portrait Shot. Well Done !

    Reply
    • DeWalt 4EVA!! We love our new tools. You’ll notice from the pictures how I barely let them out of my hands. A good set of tools will make any project significantly easier. The only real question is what we do for our next major project.

      Reply
  3. You guys are rock stars. Seriously. This is so impressive! I agree, YouTube really is a treasure for DIY projects (and everything else), but you still have to have the wherewithal to get it done, and the willingness to do math (*shudder*), and you guys did it! Way to go! It looks awesome and I love your future deck idea. If you don’t go with a pool, or even if you do, I could also see a nice stone firepit surrounded by some Adirondack chairs. Maybe a hot tub? Perhaps a Tiki bar??? The options are endless… and now that you have a full complement of power tools, and the confidence to know you can build anything, the sky’s the limit!

    Great work!

    Reply
    • Thank you for the compliments, and for the good ideas! I think that letting the final part of the project plan marinate over the summer — especially now that we are so much more confident about what we can accomplish — will help us come up with something that’s even more interesting and useful than the original concept. A fire pit is definitely on my radar. Stay tuned. There are more construction posts in our future, but first we get to go traveling for the summer.

      Reply
  4. You already know that I think your project is fabulous from conception to completion, but I’ll say it again. Your project is fabulous from conception to completion! I think a pool would be heavenly, but I also know what a pain in upkeep they can be, so wouldn’t blame you if you went another way. Not jumping on projects right away, even when you so badly want things to be done, really is the way to go. There will always be those head-slapping oh-we-coulda moments no matter how carefully you plan, but so many fewer when you marinate a bit. Now, where are you going this summer?

    Reply
    • Thank you, thank you! Our two big sticking points on the pool are the maintenance and the fact that we generally don’t plan to be here in prime pool season (the height of summer). So maybe Laura is onto something with the hot tub. We’ll see how we feel in the fall, after we get back from a summer in North Carolina. You’ll have to wait for the next post to get the details on the where, the how, and the why.

      Reply
      • I always hated the fact that in the south, many places closed their pools for the season, the same as in the north. When we were in the Titusville area in Nov. 2020, we LOVED that the RV “resort” we stayed at had their outdoor pools (and hot tub) open. Of course, they were heated, but being able to swim in warm water with cool air is a true delight. BUILD THE POOL. And the hot tub. With a waterfall feature. And an otter.

        Ah, North Carolina! I’m shocked ๐Ÿ˜‰

        Reply
        • Closing pools must be a North Florida thing — in South Florida they are always open year-round. And I agree that winter is actually a pretty nice time to enjoy a heated pool. We are actually giving serious thought to a pool, but would probably need to add solar for the heater, which adds another layer of expense and complication. Now that I have otters to consider, it’s an even tougher call.

          Reply
  5. Wow!!! Your completed fence looks fantastic! I know you really didn’t want to take on that project, but I also completely understand how frustration with lame contractors energized you to do it. Nothing like living in the boonies to inspire that “can-do” attitude, LOL.

    Honestly, I think you guys did a much better job than any contractor would do. No one else would take the time to make sure that every fence board was level. Your perfectionistic tendencies serve you well. And your math and design skills, of course. The cool gate you designed is a wonderful finishing touch!

    You’re going to have fun building a deck and creating your outdoor space. A cozy fire pit? Definitely! A hot tub? Sure! Best of all, you won’t need contractors for those projects. A pool sounds absolutely wonderful, but I’d be scared after hearing the horror stories about Franklin County pool contractors. (Is that pool insert still standing upright in the front yard of the house on the island?) Glad you got your project completed before the hot weather arrived. We can’t wait to see you guys in the mountains! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
    • I know you understand exactly what we were up against in attempting to locate a reliable contractor for a relatively small project. And I agree that we were probably much more careful and deliberate than any contractor would be. The important thing is that we’re very happy with how it all turned out. I think we will eventually succeed in turning a very under-used area of the yard into a nice little retreat, no matter what we decide to add next. We are already really enjoying having a better view of the squirrels and birds visiting the feeder; the trick will be weaning them off the food before we head your way in a month.

      Reply

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