Building a better frame

We’ve built lots of frames here at the ranch. We’ve filled lots of frames. The condition of the soil is so poor it will take many, many years before it is rehabilitated enough to be able to plant directly in the ground. Until then, it’s frames for us. This is quite handy when we get the occasional tropical storm through the area that may dump up to two feet of rain and flood out areas where we may have planted were the soil better.

The problem with wooden frames is the wear and tear of extreme seasons. The wood will eventually rot after a few years, or warp or crack to the point where a board has to be replaced, resulting in another trip to the big box store for replacements. Since we use one foot deep beds, requiring two six inch wide boards, we also have the issue of the horizontal seam not being exact, letting dirt escape or weeds to grow through the opening. What we needed was a better mousetrap.

We found one: using 8′, 26 gauge 5V crimp roofing panels. They’re about $19 apiece, and 26 inches wide. This means cutting down the middle seam yields two 8′ long pieces, slightly wider than one foot. By contrast, the 1x6x8 boards run about seven bucks apiece, resulting in a cost of about $28 for two sides at one foot tall each. Replacing boards when needed increases that cost over time. Replacing the roofing metal will likely never be necessary, so in the both the short and long run this will wind up being the better option for us here. In addition to the metal, we needed balusters to form the supports. A single baluster is currently 89 cents, and they come in a bundle of 16 2x2x36 sticks. For our purposes, once again we cut them in half, as we only need 18 inches, so one bundle of balusters yields 32 for bracing. On the left you can see some lengths already cut for the second frame run and some balusters at the end; on the right, an uncut sheet. All of it had to be moved again thanks to the rain that hung around after the first frame run had been completed and the second was in the early stages.

If the store offers it, I’d highly recommend getting them to do the first long cut on the metal sheets. If they don’t, then you’ll need a way to do the cutting yourself. In our case, we have a Dremel Sawmax as well as a sidegrinder, both of which have metal cutoff blades available. The Dremel will go through quite a number of blades if you’re doing a lot of cuts as we are. The sidegrinder blades are a little larger than that of the Dremel and so last a bit longer to get the cuts done, but still require quite a few. There are other cutting tools available and other blades; you’ll need to use what you have or can get and what you feel comfortable using.

First step after cutting the sheets and the balusters: determining how many 4′ lengths are needed to form the end pieces and/or fit pieces will be needed to meet the length requirements of the frame. Out front, I’m beginning the replacements with some 4′ by 20′ frames. For this frame run, that means three pieces of sheet metal cut down: four 8′ lengths and two 4′ lengths for the sides, and two 4′ lengths for the ends. The end result will not be 20′ in length, as there is some loss due to the overlap required to join the pieces together. That means cutting some of the 8′ lengths in half to get the shorter pieces.

Next step: attaching the balusters. After cutting them into 18″ lengths, these go on the outside of the sides, secured with metal to wood screws.

For the joints, because we’re replacing existing frames where there is already dirt in place, I put the bracess on the inside of the sheets, securing them with screws from the outside. If I were doing this in a run where there is nothing in the way, I’d put the joint posts on the outside, just as with the bracing.


The cut down balusters are lined up just under the top seam of the metal (the side opposite the lengthwise cut, as that cut edge will be sharp, sharp, sharp) and attached.

This leaves a six inch hang from the bottom of the frame. What to do with that? Bury it, to provide even more support.

To bury the ends of the braces, I augered out holes using an auger attachment for my drill. I had to order one online, as when I went to Home Depot, the workers who glommed around us trying to help either had never heard of an auger or couldn’t conceive of one that could be attached to a drill. Apparently they’ve never planted a lot of bulbs before. One genius suggested we go rent one from another store where they have rentals, and I didn’t bother to try to explain to him we didn’t need a huge honking, gas-fed, 1-2 foot diameter auger for this. We just needed one that would give us a 1 1/2 – 2 inch diameter that only had to go about six inches or so deep. Fortunately, a quick search at Amazon resulted in exactly what we needed.

The balusters are attached about every two feet or so on the sides, with the corners and joints being slightly closer together as they represent the weak parts of the structure. For the 4′ sheets, I used two, and on the 8′ lengths I used three. This does not include the corners or joints: on the whole, each 4′ x 20′ frame run used  28 pieces, which is 14 full length balusters cut in half.

After lining up one end, augering the holes, and getting the end piece situated, I started on one side. Line up the side with the end brace, mark the places where the holes needed to be augered, auger them out, sit the side into place and ensure the bottom is seated firmly and that it is straight, backfill the holes where the braces are, and then site another baluster into place to mark the joint where the next piece will be attached.

At the end of the line, put in the end side joint, but do not seat that end yet: go back to the original end and repeat the process for the other side. Why do this? To make sure that both sides are about the same length (same loss ratio) and because it’s simpler to adjust one 4′ end than it is to adjust a 20′ side to make the last connection.

Replacing a frame that already has dirt wound up to be interesting. On the first frame, toward the end, I wound up with some bowing, due to the way the dirt line went. On the second frame, I shoveled the edges of the dirt into the center and measured the width when doing the second side, to make sure I was 4′ from the side that was done in order to preserve consistency. The second frame turned out to be much better than the first and took less time, even with the additional shoveling to move dirt out of the way. There are benefits to refining the process, even if the tropical storm blew in after I’d already dismantled the existing frame and I had to wait for the waters to recede before I could begin augering and seating the frame pieces. The left side shows the standing water where the side pieces would eventually go for that next frame run. The soil held its shape amazingly well without its framing, given the amount of rain we had.

Over time, I want to redo all the frames we have in place. Out back, we have eight rows, most of which are 4′ wide by 48′ long – a total of six individual frames butted up against one another. Each of those frames requires six 1x6x8 boards, resulting in 36 pieces of lumber. By contrast, replacing them with metal sheets will require 6.5 sheets: six sheets for the sides, and half a sheet for the ends.

In the end, some of the balusters will no doubt need to be replaced, as although they are designed to be outside, they are not really designed to be buried in the soil (or in mud, as the case may be). However, the cost of these versus replacing entire boards for a wooden frame – particularly if the board that requires replacement is on the bottom, rather than the top – will be less both in terms of dollars and aggravation. It is a bit of work to do the replacement of wood with metal, but in the end, well worth the effort. In addition, if for whatever reason they need to be removed, the steel is recyclable.

Total cost for one 4′ x 20′ frame run with metal: 69.07 for the sheets and balusters, plus screws, plus tax. Same frame run with wood: 84, plus exterior screws, plus tax.

2 thoughts on “Building a better frame”

  1. What a great idea! I never thought of using metal to replace our old wooden frames. This how-to post may come in handy. Thanks Annette.

  2. I must admit, the idea is not original with me. We took a little trip toward central Florida to a farm/preserve, and they had raised beds made of all sorts of material. The largest ones, though, were made like this, out of sheet metal. Their bracing was even with the ground, rather than anchored in it, like I did mine, and they seemed to be holding up well, but I wanted to give it all a little more structural integrity, to make sure it all stayed put. Plus, this will give me a way to anchor a horizontal foothold between the braces here and there, so I can stand “on” the frame to reach the center of it, instead of trying to balance on a thin metal edge. With the wooden frame, I just step on the edge – I only need an inch to balance, after all – but of course these are much thinner and one slip means a pretty nasty cut.

    I may take my rubber mallet and tap the top edges down and in, to roll them so the top edge isn’t an accident waiting to happen. I’ll definitely be doing that on the ends where my irrigation lines will begin the run down the frames, to avoid any slicing of the tubing. Those lines always move a little, even if they’re anchored at points along the way, since they absorb the pressure of the water starting and then go slack when the water stops. That back and forth would add up pretty quickly since they’re only 1/4 inch drip lines, and I’d rather not trade repairing frames with repairing water lines.

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