Raised Garden Beds... En Masse

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    A Not-Quite-Sleepy Workshop..

    Working with sleepers is something that actually started my wood working insanity. Many people think about the obvious issues like size, and weight that sleepers bring to any DIY project. However, when space is limited, it can be extremely challenging when the entire workflow must fit within the modest dimensions within my humble "workshop". You'll see that I'm employing two different saws here. The mitre saw is to cut my sleepers to size, and the band saw is used to create lap joints for my "off cuts".
    Wren and I recently used a few sunny days in winter to cut the more woody, willful, and hardy plants back to something approximating a garden. The time line is surprisingly short because we need to start planting a few things now in order to get ready for spring.

    Sounds simple enough.... right?

    Since the great pestilence of 2020 (a.k.a: Covid/Corona Virus/etc) struck, I've been busy keeping myself entertained. I've currently got no less than five projects in the pipeline.. Exactly none of them help the garden to get ready for spring.... So what's a particularly wayward Ham supposed to do?

    Add yet another project that requires a complete reconfiguration of the workshop, divert resoures and time away from the other projects, and build not two garden beds.. but five, all at once.

    While this is certainly not my most complex project in terms of construction, it's certainly the most involved as a process.

    Aside from spending days rearranging the mess (ahem, I mean, workshop) and making room in the workshop to both store and work with the sleepers that arrived yesterday. There's a lot more to do. Some of it includes:

    • Rip up some of the existing irrigation system.
    • Build five garden beds out of sleepers.
    • Disassemble several stone garden beds.
    • Move new beds into position.
    • Transfer soil from stone beds to new sleeper beds.
    • Run a new irrigation system zone to these new beds.
    • Use stones to pave the paths between the beds.
    • Fill beds with soil, adding compost and mulch where needed.
    • Planting seeds and seedlings.

    But I'm getting ahead of myself.... let's get back to that wood working stuff.

    Normally, I'd just buy some 2.4m sleepers, use the full length and cut the ends in half to make a 2.4m x 1.2m bed. Practically no waste, and simple. Unfortunately, in this case, that won't work.

    Ok, so five garden beds, to fit in our narrow yard, between the fence and the foot path need to be 1650mm long (1500mm in the sides, and 2x75mm thick ends holding the bits together, and the overall bed needs to be 1200mm wide. This puts everything within arms reach (60cm) from either side.

    It doesn't sound ideal to have less garden bed for the amount of wood being used. However, the ongoing maintenance gets a lot easier if I take a narrower bed approach. Also, given the space constraints, it's better to have more smaller beds for easy access, crop rotation and pest management than a few larger beds.

    So cutting 1500mm long lengths from 2400mm leaves a remaining 900mm from each sleeper. By combining two 900mm offcuts with a lap joint, I could make a 1500mm length with an overlap of 300mm... but I wasn't hugely enthralled with the idea of having two thin pieces of wood overlapping in the middle of a long length, which may encourage some outward bowing when the wood slowly rots away.

    More offcut.. but less waste....

    Instead of making the longer sides of the garden bed from the combined offcuts, I chose a somewhat extreme measure.

    If I want two 900mm offcuts (which would measure 1800mm end to end) to make the shorter 1200mm piece, the overlap has to be substantial. Which if my maths is correct (1800mm-1200mm = 600mm). I'd need to cut 600mm of each 900mm length down to half-thickness. Now since the sleepers are 75mm thick, (adjusting for the kerf.. where the saw turns wood to sawdust), I should have roughly 35-36mm thick planks, roughly 598mm long, and 200mm wide. That's a useable size to work on making a small table top. Much better for my needs than blocks created by simply shortening one end down.

    Making the shopping list....

    So, by stacking two sleepers on top of one another to get a bed height of 400mm or so, that needs 4x 1500mm pieces (for the long sides) and 4x 1200mm pieces (for the end pieces) per bed. I'd need 20 sleepers just to get the 1500 lengths for five garden beds. It takes two 900mm offcuts to make one 1200mm end piece, so I should get 10x 1200mm end pieces from 20x 900mm scrap lengths. That means I need 5 more sleepers cut in half (1200mm) to get the remaining 10 x 1200mm ends needed to complete all five garden beds.

    Total number of sleepers: 25

    I also get 20 hardwood planks: 595mm x 200mm x 35mm (approximately) for any future projects that might need a small table top, or shelf.

    Getting the cuts done:

    The biggest problem with large, and very heavy pieces of hard wood is the fact that you have to move it. My circular saw can't cut 75mm deep, and even my table saw can only cut up to 75mm thick at the very most. However, the mitre saw is my tool of choice for cutting sleepers. It does a beautiful job, and I can be reasonably sure that the cuts will be pretty darn close to 90o... or 45o if I need to mitre my corners. However, these are sleepers, so they're not exactly straight, true, or have any illusions of being anything other than being "rough sawn". So precision isn't exactly what we're looking for here.

    Moving 20-odd sleepers, isn't something many can do alone. They can weigh between 40-75Kg. Proper lifting techniques will be important.

    I used the mitre saw to clean up ends, trim excess lengths off, and of course, cut to size. I then used the bandsaw to "re-saw" the lap joints out for each of the 20 offcuts.

    Then it's simply a matter of applying my timber-preserving oil of choice, and then assembling half of the frames, (the lower level of each bed) and moving it into position. You might be wondering..

    "Why only half?"

    I can use the flat concrete floor of the garage to align the wood frames, drill holes, and assemble. If moving the assembled frames into the final position is too hard, then I can disassemble them for moving and then reassmble. Once the bottom layer for each garden bed is in place, I can simply use the flat lower frame to align the parts of the second layer by sitting the parts on top, and assemble "in situ". By moving the upper frames one piece at a time, I make moving the timber much easier.

    What was it like in reality?

    In reality, I actually found that there wasn't a nice way to unscrew the assembled pieces. The screws would jam if the wood shrunk around it, or if the other joints put tension on it after installation. In either case, removing the jammed screws was impossible, and was more likely to snap the screw rather than remove it.

    So I just made all the frames in the garage, and with either the help of my in-laws, or when they weren't available, using a trolley and sheer force of will, managed to put them in place. If any pieces weren't well coated in protective oil, I gave them an in-situ touch up as needed.

    ...More to follow. However, that will switch to my gardening section since the wood working part is done.

    Raised Garden Bed En Masse 2

    Stay safe and happy wood working/gardening.

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