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Border Control

More than just old-fashioned pickets and chain-link, today’s walls and fences can be functional works of art.

By Mike Rosen-Molina; Photos by Aengus McGiffin

Jonathan Logan is hard at work, putting the finishing touches on a new wall in Uva Jakobs’s El Cerrito yard. A few short weeks ago, this yard was nothing but a sloping tangle of juniper brambles. Now a neat wall of weathered Napa basalt holds back the slope to make room for a level yard, complete with a gravel path that winds through the grass.

One large stone at the base of the wall protrudes just enough to form a bench. "This wasn’t in the design," says Logan, owner of Dynamic Stone in Oakland. "As I work, I’ll find ways to make things more artistic."

Many of us may think of fences and walls as merely property line markers or ways to keep trespassers out. The truth is, a wall can be a thing of beauty—whether it’s expertly crafted ironwork, hand-carved wood, or solid, sturdy stone. Around the Bay Area, stonemasons, woodworkers, and fence-makers are finding ways to combine function with creative flair.

On the Fence

In the beginning, the American West was all wide-open spaces, but over time that’s been replaced by fenced properties. In the 1800s, free-range ranchers had trouble controlling their grazing herds of cattle. The animals might wander off with the wrong herd, graze in neighboring farmers’ fields or trample crops, leading to angry disputes between neighbors.

In 1874, Illinois farmer Joseph Glidden patented a barbed-wire design, forever changing the development of the American West. Cattle could push over a rough wooden fence, but adding prickly barbed wire discouraged them from any escape attempts. Wire fences were cheaper to erect than other kinds of fences and made it affordable to fence much bigger areas than before. Barbed-wire fences kept different herds separate, leading to the expression that "Good fences make good neighbors."

Fencing wasn’t immediately popular with everyone, though. In the late 1800s, barbed-wire fencing in the Southwest led to disputes known as the range wars between pro-fence farmers, who wanted to keep cattle from wandering onto their property, and free-range ranchers, who saw fencing as cutting off their access to watering holes and other public resources. Courts decisively settled these disputes in favor of farmers, and created heavy penalties for cutting the wire in a barbed-wire fence.

Homeowners and public spaces naturally prefer something a little less dire and more aesthetic, choosing stone, wood, or metal over wire.

Rock and Heavy Metal

To be sure, a fence’s appearance does depend in large part on what it’s meant to do. One intended to keep the local kids out of your garden might still be low enough that you can chat with your neighbors; a sound-proofing wall will be high and solid enough to give complete privacy. For many, a fence means security above all. And for that, no material beats metal.

While strictly utilitarian, metal fences often have pickets and feature decorative circles between the top two rails, and the tops can be speared with many different types of finials, typically in iron or aluminum.

Iron fences can also become distinctive with color: Using a vinyl-based powder, applied like spray paint, iron can turn any shade of the rainbow. Dark green and brown are common choices, but nothing is more popular than simple jet-black.

Depending on the environment and climate, an iron fence can last forever; most manufacturers include a ten-year guarantee. That durability makes iron attractive to many people, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only material with such longevity.

In recent years, more homeowners have begun to appreciate the natural look of stone. In the past, people built their garden walls with exotic stones from foreign locales, but now many masons prefer to use local stones—both because of lower transport costs and because they more naturally blend in with California landscaping.

Logan finds that rock can last even longer and looks just as good. "Basalt suits a lot of landscapes around here," he says. "The colors work well with Mediterranean-style homes, which are common around the Bay."

Behind Jakobs’s house, Logan has started work on a second wall, a low, two-foot retaining wall along the edge of the driveway, to divide it from the backyard. Logan, who usually sources his stone direct from quarries, starts building from the bottom, piling larger rocks and then filling in the gaps with smaller stones.

Logan’s tools aren’t that different from those used by stonemasons in centuries past; he still uses a simple hammer and chisel to cut and shape his rocks, a wheelbarrow, and shovel. Although modern technology like diamond-blade saws have revolutionized the stone business in the last 50 years, most tools used in dry-laid and dry-stacked stonework—Logan’s specialty—are still low-tech compared to those used in most other craft and building trades.

Logan does not use mortar to paste the stones in place, relying instead on a careful fit. "Gravity really holds the stone in place," Logan says. "Each one has to be properly cut and placed."

Even without cement, a well-built dry-stacked wall can last for centuries. Think of the British Isles, where for some 5,000 years traditional dry-stacked walls have been used to mark boundaries between pastureland, fence in livestock, and clear rocky soil for planting. In the Peruvian Andes, the ruins of Ollantaytambo, one mile from Machu Picchu, feature enormous Incan temples made from near-perfect interlocking stones without mortar.

In fact, for many modern masons, old ruins provide an excellent source for suitable stones. In England and many other parts of the world, the foundations and chimneys of older homes were built with a combination of stones, mud, and chunking stones. Once abandoned, these piles of rubble become ideal building materials for modern masons. Even here in the New World, many Bay Area stoneworkers love to work with the basalt stones found in old walls and field markers around the Napa County wineries.

Logan, too, appreciates the authenticity of a good stone wall.

"I don’t like concrete," he says. "It’s too unnatural. Some people will make a concrete wall and stamp imitation stone patterns onto it. Working with real stone might take longer, but the result is more authentic."

Water Retention

Some walls aren’t built to keep people out, but rather to hold back the very ground itself. In hilly areas, retaining walls are essential to keep slopes intact and protect homes, particularly during the rainy season. Steep slopes make gardening and yard work difficult, so many people choose to build retaining walls to terrace their property.

The simplest retaining walls can be no more than a few slats of pressure-treated plywood, but for a long-lasting, aesthetically pleasing look, stone or redwood are often the materials of choice. Redwood can last over 25 years, and stone, depending on the elements, can last much longer.

"Redwood used to be the most effective wood," says Larry Korn, owner of Mu Landscaping in Berkeley. "In 1970, most redwood came from old-growth forests. The rings in the wood were closer together, so it was more resilient to pressure. But we just went through those like a buzz saw. Today, it’s mostly second-growth redwood, which are younger with fewer rings. It’s prohibitively expensive in most of the Pacific Northwest, so cedar is much more common now."

The biggest danger, of course, to a retaining wall’s survival is the pressure it withstands. The material behind the wall—whether earth, sand, stone, or water—wants to "flow" downhill due to gravity, creating a constant pressure behind the wall. Traditionally, what kept a retaining wall standing was the mass of the wall itself and the degree that it sloped into the soil being retained. Some retaining walls are "arched," using corners or buttresses to stabilize the structure. Others use "dead-men," heavy objects anchored to the wall and buried in the soil several feet behind it. Proper drainage behind the wall will reduce or eliminate the hydraulic pressure and increase the stability of the retained soil. Today, many contractors reinforce the earth behind a retaining wall by placing a synthetic textile mesh called a geogrid into the soil as they replace it behind the wall.

Changing Styles

Building a new wall or fence can be an opportunity to add a complementary style to an existing home.

Lou Dixon’s home in the Berkeley hills is an old, brown-shingle, California cottage-style Craftsman, with a view of fog-shrouded San Francisco across the Bay. Since moving in six years ago, Dixon has added hints of Asian architecture as a tribute to his Japanese wife. A red cedar fence, with bars of copper and bamboo, hems in the Dixons’ deck and ends with a wooden tea table/futon platform, good for camping outside and stargazing.

Dixon owns Bio Friendly Gardens, a landscaping company specializing in walls, fences, gardens, and water features. Among his more unusual projects is a huge outdoor turtle habitat built for a veterinarian in Orinda, complete with ponds and waterfalls, and home to over 150 turtles and tortoises.

Animals seem to inspire many homeowners to build fences—either to keep pets in or curious wildlife out. "People want to have beautiful gardens," Dixon says, "but there are so many deer around here that they need a way to keep them from eating their plants. Other people want to maintain the architectural integrity of their houses, so they’re looking for something that will fit in artistically."

In other wall-building projects, Dixon tries to incorporate elements from the house itself. Dixon built the wall that surrounds Whitney Davis’s house in Berkeley, a white, Mediterranean-style villa with dusky brown shutters and a brown tile roof. The stucco wall around his front yard is a recent addition, less than a year old.

"It started out as just a fence," says Davis, a professor of art history at U.C. Berkeley. "And it sort of mutated into a wall. The amazing thing is it’s a new wall but it looks like it’s been here for years."

Besides artistry, the environment is another concern for homeowners thinking of erecting fences.

"Green building is a huge new trend," says Dixon, whose projects often utilize recycled materials—wood and metal elements bought as scrap from second-hand sources like Urban Ore and Ohmega Salvage. On his own property, Dixon estimates that 70 percent of the additions he made to his home were leftovers from other projects.

Point of Entry

Fences and walls may be designed to keep people out, but they’d be useless if there was no way to get in. Every fence needs a gate, which can become the focal point, so it’s important that it fit just right.

John Novak, owner of Orinda-based Arcadian Gates, says that he asks clients a series of questions to find out their goals. "Do they want more privacy? Or do they want something more open? If they have masonry walls, would they want a more solid gate?"

Novak handpicks the kiln-dried wood, making sure to use only vertical grains so that the gate won’t warp or bow over time. Like all outdoor fixtures, gates must survive extreme weather conditions. Redwood, cedar, mahogany, and tropical hardwoods make for the best gates, although these woods are becoming harder to get. Mahogany is a beautiful wood, and because it’s heavier and denser than other woods it’s more durable.

Arched gates are the most popular design, fitting nicely into both wooden fences and solid walls. An arched gate consists of a solid lower panel with a picketed window at the top.

"You want the gate to be the centerpiece, the stunning entry into the yard," says Novak.

In Orinda, Novak designed a double-entry gate with flanking fence panels for Stanley and Maxine Johnson, to match their old redwood fence.

"It adds a great deal to the land," says Maxine Johnson. "Everyone who sees it comments on how handsome it is. We had this old gate for 40 years, and it was time to get a better-looking entryway."

"The biggest challenge is getting a new gate to fit in with an old property," says Novak. "Many times there’s an existing fence in place. I consider the style of fence or wall and the rest of the property, so every installation is different, every gate is custom-made."

For all parts of the structure, both gate and fence, the most important thing is durability. Well-made fences, walls, and gates—whatever the materials—can last for years and years, and every craftsman hopes to see his creation withstand the test of time.

Bio Friendly’s Lou Dixon began noticing different and exciting styles of architecture in his overseas travels in China, Europe, and South America. He was impressed with the stone gardens he saw in Japan, but what really surprised him was that some of the gardens were over 400 years old.

"That blows your mind," says Dixon. "It’s such a symbol of permanence. If they’re made right, they can last forever." l

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Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay freelance writer who has a hedge fence, so the opossums still get in. His work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, and Davis Enterprise.

Resources Box

All American Fence Corp., Danville, (925) 743-8583; www.allamericanfencecorp.com. All types of fencing, including ornamental iron, security, pool enclosures, and wood fencing for both residential and commercial customers.

Arcadian Gates, Orinda, (925) 253-1781; www.ArcadianGates.com. Handcrafted wooden gates built to owner specifications.

Bio Friendly Gardens, 1177 Cragmont Avenue, Berkeley, (510) 843-5232; www.biofriendlygardens.com. Landscape design and construction, stonework, woodwork, and water features.

Creative Iron, 926 High Street, Oakland, (510) 532-2200; www.creativeiron.com. Ornamental and security iron fences and structural steel fences.

Creative Iron Works, 2960 Chapman Street, Oakland, (510) 261-7705. Ornamental and security iron fences.

Chris Hecht Landscapes, 510-654-9994 www.chrishechtdesign.com

Davis Fencing, 4846 Spaniel Court, Concord, (925) 685-6783. Chain-link, dog runs, and security, vinyl, and deer fences.

Dynamic Stone, 2445 24th Avenue, Oakland, (510) 409-4398; www.dynamicstone.com. Custom-built water features, patios, free-standing and retaining stone walls.

Handyman Matters, 4100 Redwood Road, Suite 191, Oakland, (510) 531-4300; www.HandymanMatters.com. Brick work, fence, and gate installation and repair.

JB Fence Company, 855 San Leandro Boulevard, San Leandro, (510) 339-6371; www.jbfence.com. Wooden fences, gates, and arbors. Maintains its own lumberyard and milling facilities.

Ken the Handyman, 510-407-5272, 925-363-9343; www.kenthehandyman.com. Plumbing, electrical work,
draining, painting, and fences, available all over the East Bay, including Berkeley, Richmond, and Albany.

Mu Landscaping, Berkeley, (510) 547-4996; www.mulandscaping.com. Landscaping company specializing in flagstone patios, retaining walls, brick work, irrigation, and garden carpentry.

North American Fence Company and Supply, 511 23rd Avenue, Oakland, (510) 436-0755. Ornamental and security iron and wire fences.

R&J Ornamental Ironworks, 689 Louisiana Street, Oakland, (510) 638-5708. Ornamental and security iron fences.

Quality Fences, 37927 Von Euw Common, Fremont, (510) 796-5864. Chain-link, vinyl, wrought-iron, and redwood fences, arbors, decks, and patio covering.

E.L. Olson Construction, 41568 Howe Street, Oakland, (510) 654-5685. General contractor for kitchens, bathrooms, remodeling, and fences. Specializes in Japanese-style fences and decks built to owner specifications.