Knock, Knock, Who’s There?

There are days when you just don’t want to get up to answer the door, let alone the front gate. You just know it’s going to be some hawker of cheap goods, some religious pitch-person, some scammer after your hoarded gold, so why bother? Or maybe Aunt Hildy with her constant carping about how you owe your (fill in family member name here) better care/money/love/sympathy. And if the only form of defense is the gate and the door, well, keep the shades drawn and the TV off, and enjoy your scotch in peace, right?

Of course, you COULD install a camera and a speaker by the gate. And think of the fun – you know who it is, you can let in folks you want to see, and exclude those you don’t while telling them you have rabies or some such repellent disorder they certainly wish to avoid. And watch the looks of disgust/disbelief/worry/anger cross their faces from a nice comfortable distance. You could even make yourself sound like a recording, which causes its own sort of confusion for the receiver. But there’s the cost, which really isn’t that bad these days, and the message that you are somehow more exclusive and important than the poor saps trying to gain your attention. Though you can always justify it based on those horrible home-invasion movies that make it seem as though we are all under siege all the time.

It helps to remember why you put in that gate in the first place – to define the boundaries, to control who enters, to welcome but equivocate simultaneously. The castle gate is opened for friends, not foes, but must avoid turning one into the other. So consider the cameras and the speakers, but mount them as low-profile as possible. Consider making the area around the front gate as friendly as possible, using landscaping tricks to border the gate with greenery, vines and/or archways for framing (which also make mounting cameras easier, BTW). And if you plan on using a recording for those times when you are really not there, get your dog to bark in the background on the recording – dogs are the best security deterrent you can get. And even on a recording, it sends the right message to the unwelcome, while reminding the welcome that at least someone is home!

Iron and Steel

As I have said several times now, if you are mostly concerned about security, then metal is going to be your best choice for fence and gate materials. But you don’t have to settle for ugly, just because it’s iron or steel. Aluminum? Meh. But even that can be OK if you paint it. In fact, unless you are using galvanized or otherwise coated metals, a good base of rust/corrosion preventative covered by several coats of highly weather-resistant paint will offer many years of beautiful duty. This is especially critical if you live in a moist climate, and even more so if you live near an ocean, as the salt air will not be your friend. A great example from Mrjom’s Blog, on his Iron Gates page, shows just how far you can take a gate design and still offer security:


An excellent example of meta-art!

There are a great number of possible metal gate designs, limited by imagination, and of course, budget. But the act of creating a fence and gate are part of the long-term infrastructure of a property’s life, and need to last and remain enjoyable for many, many years. Both wood and metal can offer these solutions, but care and upkeep will vary. The quality of materials, the ease of maintenance, and the relevance of the design are all equal factors to the value of the investment.

After all, you don’t want to be coming home one day, and wonder why you ever decided on this particular design. Unless you are a billionaire – which most of us are not – in which case just tear that sucker down and have yourself a do-over. And when you are done there, come on over and do mine, what say?

The Essential Hardware Questions

Self-closing or manual? Automatic, motion-sensors, keyed entry? Antique or modern? Simple or ornate? Child-proof or strictly open-gate? Anyone trying to build a gate will have to address these questions, and more. There is so much in the way of gate hardware that it can be quite daunting. But there are some very practical limiting factors that will help narrow the choices.


For example, should your gate rationale be mostly security, then you are less likely to be concerned with the ornate (not saying you won’t, just saying it probably won’t hold as much of your attention as the security angle.) In this instance, the quality and type of locks and latches, hinges and supporting posts will have the upper edges of your attention. You may also wish to go as far as security cameras. It helps to know that when it comes to security, your selections of hardware, height of the gate itself, and materials chosen for the gate will all contribute to the security image you wish to project. Nothing like a combination of metal, electronics, and pointy things to convey “no trespassing.” But if you desire to have all that security, but make it more subtle in appearance, remember that your components still have to be up to the task. An un-climbable fence is a waste of money if your gate is a push-over.


But let’s say security is less your concern, and art is your primary goal. Here, you begin with your esthetic considerations, and your hardware then has to meet those self-imposed standards. Your latch should be compatible with your hinges. You may want self-closing hinges, which make good sense when you have kids, and their attention span has yet to meet up with the needs to close a gate. You may be looking to design an ultra-modern gate, and here you may wish to seek out an artist who can create exactly what you want, though there are many makers of artisan hardware around today. Just remember, it’s not likely to be cheap.


In fact, budget, as in most things associated with our dwellings, is a consideration – the better hardware is not going to be as cheap as what you can buy at the big-box stores or the local hardware emporiums. But it is important to keep in mind how much wear and tear a gate can sustain over its lifetime. Are you building for the next five years? ten? twenty? One hundred? Eternity? Durability usually wants the highest quality available. And the moving parts get the worse end of the deal. So consider heavy-duty hinges and latches. Spring-loaded self-closing hinges especially, as the springs need to keep doing their job for a long time. Remember too that all the hardware, metal, and wood are going to be exposed to the weather 24-7, and that means rust, corrosion, paint flaking, warping, sagging, etc. Just like us, in fact!


As for coatings, especially on wood, don’t skimp here. Make sure the wood is clean and dry before starting to apply stains or paint. Use an air compressor or canned air to thoroughly clean all the dust from the surfaces. Apply your undercoats in thin applications, and permit them to dry as long as you can before the next coat. Be sure to use a light steel-wool to dull the surface between coats. Use at least two undercoats, more if you’ve the patience. On your top coats, use the best quality paint or sealers you can find. While it is nearly impossible to find oil-based anything today, at least pay for the top quality available. Never use indoor-rated coatings – that’s like asking nature to pop you in the snoot, right? Remember the coating protects the wood against moisture first and foremost. Dirt, wind, blowing dust, kids kicking the gate, dogs jumping up on the gate, etc., all abrasions will slowly but surely erode the coatings, and you will need to periodically revisit this important task. Remember – your gate protects you, so you need to protect your gate!


Remember to choose hardware compatible with your regional weather issues: if you live withing twenty miles of an ocean, be sure the metal parts can withstand salt air. If you live in a tornado zone, make sure your gate is wicked-witch proof – that sort of thing.


The choices you make for the overall design will of course affect the hardware choices. So should your design be for a heavy gate, make sure you select hinges and latches that can handle the load. By the same token, visual weight also needs to be considered – a trim appearance of the body of the gate will not be well served by overly-heavy hinges. It’s all about balance.


And speaking of balance, you can actually make your gate self-closing without spring-loaded hinges, merely by hanging the gate so that it always swings closed on its own. This takes some skill, as you don’t want the hinges to be working against one another. If you are unclear on how to do this, consult an expert. Otherwise, you will wonder why your gate doesn’t work quite the way you intended.


Remember, a gate is more than the sum of its parts – it is the sum of all you intend it to be, do, remain for a long time. Do it right the first time, and you will always enjoy your gate, whether you are leaving, or coming home!

Gates – Metal, Wood, Other

Most gates today seem made of metal rather than wood. There are many reasons for this – metal outlasts wood by a considerable margin, metal offers greater security potential, and metal requires less over-all maintenance. But there is a charm in wooden gates that is difficult to replicate with metal. Metal does have the added advantage of being more sculptural, but a metal gate on a wooden fence is not the best pairing, as they say down at the wine bar.


Wooden gates have to advantage of visually tying a fence together, and making the fence a part of the home it fronts. Few homes have metal fences, at least not those fences we find attractive, and even fewer homes have metal fronts, so wood is, in my view, the preferred material for front pedestrian gates. Metal works just fine for driveway gates, but as we are mostly focused here on The Front Gate, wood will be spoken more often than not. As for other materials, there are some gates that successfully employ glass, terrazzo, and other elements to add artistic points of interest, but all of these require a base material that is structurally sound enough to perform the daily functions of a gate. So, we’re back to wood, it seems.


At the most basic level, a gate may merely continue the fence motif. Functional, yet unimaginative.


Most ready-made wooden gates take this approach, and that is fine as far as it goes. But if one settles for generic, there is little that sets your gate apart from the hoards across the world whose gate screams, “Big Box Store.” But a custom gate, one that at least makes an attempt at bringing your own esthetic out to the neighborhood, will gain you respect, and perhaps not a little envy. I go by the belief that we all have the perfect gate somewhere inside us. We shouldn’t be afraid to show it off to the world!


Make the world see through your gate.

The Gate is Open

This project depends on you - and your photos of gates. Great gates, different gates, unusual gates, non-obvious gates. Be sure to include your contact information, permission to use your photo, and a name for proper credit where credit is due! Be a part of the Gate Project.