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The white picket fence may be what we all dream of, but who says you need the whole thing? A crisp white garden gate provides the same feel. Install it at the head of a path, leading to a garden or your front door, and flank the posts with tall plantings. Though there are more styles than we care to count, choosing one could be as easy as researching historic designs. In fact, it may be necessary; some localities enforce historical accuracy, which is how we landed on this design in Bellport, New York. Luckily, This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers's approach applies to a variety of styles. Follow along to see how to build a gate that won't get you pilloried by the locals.

Shown: Devonshire Twisted Ring Gate Latch, about $49, and 16-inch Old Fashioned Heavy Reversible strap hinges, about $110 a pair; Walpole Woodworkers

How to Build a Garden Gate Overview

Illustration by Gregory Nemec

Day-to-day timeline

  • PREP DAY: Install the posts (Steps 1 & 2).
  • SATURDAY: Cut the parts and build the gate (Steps 3-11).
  • SUNDAY: Attach the hardware and install the gate and post caps (Steps 12-16).
  • Size your gate to the width of your path, allowing room for the postholes on either side. Our gate is unusually wide, at four feet, but you can easily adapt the cut list to a narrower size by adjusting the width of the horizontal pieces.

Garden Gate Cut List

  • Stiles: 2 @ 35 inches
  • Top rail: 1 @ 47½ inches
  • Bottom rail: 1 @ 42½ inches
  • Crosspiece: 1; trace to fit
  • Filler block: Rip 1x3 to fit between pales; ours was 2 inches
  • Rip 2 ½-inch-wide stiles from 5/4 decking.
  • 1x5 cedar brace: 1 @ rip to 4 inches wide, length cut to fit
  • Using a circular saw, rip edges at opposing 30-degree angles.
  • 1x3 cedar pale: 4 @ 38 inches
  • 1x3 cedar pale: 4 @ 39 inches
  • 1x3 cedar pale: 2 @ 40 inches
  • 1x3 cedar pale: 1 @ 41 inches
  • Shape the tips of the pales, then cut them to length.
  • Apron board: Rip one to 4 inches wide by 47½ inches long.
  • Apron strip: Rip one to 1½ inches wide by 47½ inches long.
  • Using a circular saw set to a 5-degree bevel, rip a 5/4 deck board into two pieces to create both the apron board and strip.
  • 6x6 treated post: Cut two to the desired height while maintaining a portion that's at least one-third the total height of the post that will be buried. For our design, we used 6-foot posts and left 4 feet above ground.

Step 1: Dig the Postholes

Photo by Kolin Smith

Use stakes and a mason line to plot two holes evenly on either side of the walkway so that, center to center, they create a line perpendicular to the path. Dig each hole 6 inches below the frost line or far enough to sink one-third of a post, whichever is deeper. Make the diameter three times the size of the post.

Step 2: Wrap and Set the Posts

Photo by Kolin Smith

To prevent rot, wrap the sections of post to be buried with self-adhesive flashing, from near the bottom to just below ground level. Use the posts to tamp 6 inches of drainage stone into their holes; place them, and add another few inches of stone to hold them plumb. Pour dry concrete mix into one of the holes, filling it to just below the flashing. Add water until the mix is saturated, and stir it with a stick. Before setting the second post, use a board and a level to make sure the posts are the same height. Hold the board up to their faces to make sure they're not twisted. Allow the posts to sit undisturbed overnight, then sand and prime them.

Step 3: Assemble the Frame of the Gate

Photo by Kolin Smith

Rip the top and bottom rails to 4 inches and the stiles to 2½ inches. Cut the top rail 1 inch shorter than the span between the posts to get a ½-inch gap on each side. Cut the other three pieces to length, then prime all four. Once dry, align the stiles beneath the top rail, like legs. Drive 3-inch stainless-steel screws at an angle through the edges and up into the top rail. Fit the bottom rail between the stiles 5 inches from their lower ends. Drive screws through its edges and into the stiles, as shown.

Step 4: Mark the Crosspiece

Photo by Kolin Smith

Rip a 2½-inch-wide crosspiece from a 6-foot board and prime it. Mark a centerline at each end of the crosspiece, slip it under the frame running from the latch location to the lower opposite corner, and position the centerlines at the corners. Now simply trace the inside of each corner on the crosspiece, as shown.

Step 5: Cut the Crosspiece

Photo by Kolin Smith

Using the circular saw, cut along the corner marks. Prime the exposed ends. Fit the crosspiece into the frame and use a drill/driver to send 3-inch stainless-steel screws through its edges and into the frame.

Step 6: Bevel the Brace to Make the Gate's Trim

Photo by Kolin Smith

Set the circular saw to a 30-degree bevel and rip one edge of the brace. Now set the saw's fence to 4 inches and rip the other edge at an opposing 30-degree bevel, as shown, to make the wider face 4 inches. Prime the brace.

Step 7: Install the Apron

Photo by Kolin Smith

Cut the apron to the width of the frame. Set the circular-saw blade to 5 degrees and rip a 1½-inch strip off one edge. This cut produces the beveled apron and a slanted cap for it. Prime both. Position the apron on the front of the frame, flush with the bottom of the stiles, and drive 1 5/8-inch stainless-steel trim-head screws through it and into the frame. Position the cap with its beveled edge against the frame and its narrow edge against the apron's bevel, as in the diagram at right. Screw it into the apron.

Step 8: Create the Pales

Photo by Kolin Smith

Cut the face bevels. You'll bevel all four sides of the tips to shape the gate's vertical slats, or pales. At the top, make a hash mark ¼ inch in from each edge. Set the miter-saw blade to 45 degrees and place a pale on edge against the fence. Align the blade with the mark and cut the bevel; flip the board and do the same on the opposite edge, as shown. Cut all the pales the same way.

Step 9: Cut the Edge Bevels

Photo by Kolin Smith

Lay each board flat on the saw. Keep the blade at 45 degrees, line it up with the point where the bevel meets the edge, and clip the corners, as shown. Once you've shaped all the tips, cut the pales to height by beveling the bottoms at 5 degrees, to match up with the slanted cap of the apron. Prime the pales.

TOH Tip: Use a combination square with the blade depth set to ¼ inch to quickly make accurate cut marks.

Step 10: Install the Pales

Photo by Kolin Smith

Center the tallest pale on the frame, with the bevel at the bottom mirroring that of the apron cap but not quite touching it. Leaving a tiny gap is critical to staving off end-grain rot; a paint stick makes a perfect spacer. Using a drill/driver and 1 5/8-inch stainless-steel trim-head screws, attach the center pale to the top and bottom rails. Then take two of the shortest pales and attach them flush at either end of the frame. Evenly space the remaining pales in descending order between the center pale and the ends. Cut a block equal to the width between pales and use it as a spacer. Attach the pales. Finally, screw a filler block between the first two pales for the latch.

Step 11: Finish the Gate: Secure the Brace

Photo by Kolin Smith

Lay the brace across the pales, beveled-side up, in line with the top rail. Use a hammer and 1 5/8-inch stainless-steel siding nails to attach it. Next, paint the gate, posts, and caps.

Step 12: Add and Secure the Post Caps

Photo by Kolin Smith

Using a caulk gun, apply adhesive to the post caps and press them in place on top of each post. If there's any play, be sure to center the caps.

Step 13: Shim and Level the Gate in Place

Photo by Kolin Smith

Prop up the gate on scrap blocks between the posts, at least 2 inches above the highest point in its path, apron-side out. Shim it level, and use a level to check your work. Be sure to keep an even gap on each side. Center the gate on the posts, then shim it in place between them.

Step 14: Position the Hinges

Photo by Kolin Smith

Hold the strap hinges and their lower pin cups up to the back of the gate, in line with the top and bottom rails. Mark their screw holes on the gate and post.

Step 15: Attach the Hinges

Photo by Kolin Smith

Lay the gate flat, and align the strap hinges with their marks. Drill pilot holes into the frame, and screw the straps in place with their included fasteners. Install the lower pin cups on the post and slip the pins into them to hang the gate. Check to see that it stays level through its swing; if it does, install the upper pin cups to lock it in place.

Step 16: Add the Latch and Stop

Photo by Kolin Smith

With the gate closed, position the stop on the post below the brace. Drill pilot holes and screw it to the post. Working from the back, position the latch assembly on the top rail and post, mark their hole locations, and drill a hole for the spindle and pilot holes for the fasteners. Finish by mounting the latch and corresponding hardware.