Building a Boardwalk

Reader Contribution by Allan Douglas
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Springtime in the Smoky Mountains means warmer temperatures, greener scenery and rain.  Lots of rain.  Some years we get a few weeks of heavy, almost non-stop rain, other years we get a couple months of lighter rains.  Either way spring time means we’ll be dealing with erosion and mud.  On the monsoon years the quarries do a lot of business with folks seeking rock to repair washed-out driveways.  We’ve had one area that has been a consistent problem for us every year, heavy rains or light rains.

There is a long, horseshoe shaped driveway that comes up from the hard road, loops in behind a mobile home, then goes back down to the road.  The mobile home and driveway behind it are on a shelf cut into the slope to provide a flat spot.  In spring, rain water runs down the mountain side onto the driveway and collects there, making the area really mucky despite a thick layer of gravel on the drive.  Some years, when the rains are heavy the ground saturates so no more will soak in, then water comes cascading over the ridge at the top of the cut-in and flows across the driveway like a river – often taking all the gravel with it.  Even on light rain years the area between the mobile home, which is now my workshop, and the embankment gets sloppy fast and stays that way for weeks.  This was enough of a problem when it was just me going to and from work, but now we are providing foster care for dogs, and the pens are in this area too.

This year I decided to do something to get us all up out of the muck.  I built a boardwalk.  This is not a piece if high-end architectural engineering, nor is it fine craftsmanship.  There were three criteria it needed to meet: 1) It needed to keep us out of the mud, 2) I needed to build it quickly, 3) It needed to be cheap.

The proper way to do this would have been to drill several dozen post holes, set short posts in them with concrete, determine height of the posts to get the decking flat and level and cut the posts off at the right heights, notch the posts to accept joists then lay planking across the joists.  Have you ever tried to use a post-holer in muck?  That doesn’t work so well, especially not in our red clay.

What I did was to lay landscape timbers in as sleepers, using pavers as support in the lowest spots, then cutting some old barn wood to use as decking.  This barn had been built by sawing whatever trees were at hand into lumber, so we have a mix of red oak, white oak, poplar, pine and a little walnut, but once it all silvers from sunshine it will match up closely enough.  The boards are not consistent in their thickness and are wildly random widths from 3″ to 14″.

I did not want to take the time to plane the lumber to a consistent thickness, so I just watched to be sure I didn’t let it vary too greatly board-to-board.  I did rip at least one edge of each board to get the long edges reasonably parallel so the planks didn’t go angling off to one side or the other – especially in the long narrow walkways.  And I did buy a 5 pound box of decking screws to be sure they don’t rust out right away like most screws would.  I used screws rather than nails so I could easily replace planks if they rot or break.

Looking from the Guest Quarters (dog pen) out toward the workshop.  The metal steps lead up to where we store firewood under cover.  That hairy glob on the left would be part of my arm – I was up against the chain link of the Guest Quarters and taking a tricky shot without being able to see through the view finder.

 The one missing piece at this point.  I need to locate a board that will fill this 12″ x 43″ space to join the deck and the lowest step.  There are no more boards that wide in the stack I was working out of, but I have two more outside of the dog yard.

Standing on the boardwalk near the Guest Quarters looking back toward the shop.  All that lumber leaning up against the loading dock is rejected lumber that is too rotted or split to be of any use.  I’ll chunk it up and store it for firewood next winter.  The pile I was working off is on the left at the end of the dock.  About 1/3 of what was there is left.  I’ll move that out to the piles behind the house – some other day; I’m very tired just now.

Standing on the loading dock looking back toward The Guest Quarters.  The pen itself and an area in front of it are floored with 2″ of pea gravel.  A gate at the end of this pad allows access, entering in front of the Guest Quarters then the boardwalk connects the entry pad (pea gravel) with the two sets of steps.  Beyond the loading dock the driveway rises a bit and has a good crown to it, so it is not a problem like this stretch is.

It took me two and a half days to build this project – some of it in the rain – and cost a total of just under $50 for landscape timbers and screws.  The end result undulates a little as it follows the contours below, but it’s not a problem.  The dogs love it!  As they go galloping along the board walk it makes a satisfying drumming sound that makes them sound even bigger and more powerful than they are.

Marie wants me to build a deck around the front steps of our home – THAT will be built with proper footings and construction, I assure you.

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