This is the first in a short series of posts in which I cover the build of a raised bed with a difference – not your typical four-sided square or oblong but a combination of interconnected individual beds of differing sizes and heights – using WoodblocX. The WoodblocX web site has lots of information and instructional videos but a number of my regular readers have asked what’s it really like for the average person rather than the experts. So I’m coming at it from the angle of not a complete novice – this is my fourth WoodblocX construction – but the reality of a 64-year-old with all the aches, pains and things that accompany older age. I hope to show you how really easy it is.
All images in this series are clickable if you want to see bigger versions.
What Is – or Are – WoodblocX
Think back to the Lego bricks you, or your friends, played with as children. Bricks that locked together to build all sorts of things. Back then, we didn’t buy kits to make particular things – planes, spaceships and wotnot – we bought packs of different sized and coloured bits of plastic and let our imagination run riot for hours. WoodblocX are like that; different sized pieces of wood that fit together in whatever way your imagination takes you. You can buy kits to make simple raised beds. You can design your own “edifices” or, with the help of the WoodblocX designers, sketch out an idea and they will turn it into reality. This design service is free and friendly and I’d recommend you take advantage of it.
Don’t just think of raised beds, though. Retaining walls, steps, ponds, kerbing – all can be made with WoodblocX. They’re far more versatile and a lot easier to work with than sleepers.
This is the range of WoodblocX components. They’re referred to as “blocXn” where “n” is the number of holes (with the exception of blocX10 where there are six holes as the other four would be superfluous. All wood is pressure treated. The standard guarantee is 15 years. Five years ago it was ten years because that’s how long WoodblocX had been around then.. I won’t be surprised if, in another five years, they’re tallking about 20 year guarantees. And, of course, the wood – pine – all comes from sustainable sources.
In addition to the basic blocX there are capping pieces – shown on the right and bottom of the photo which go on top to complete the construction. The design service will work out the capping you need, including pieces angled for corners or curves.
The long ground stakes are hammered in through the bottom layer to fix it firmly to the ground,
Angle plates add strength to corners.
The black pegs (dowels) hold the various layers together. Once these are knocked into place, they lock together and make it virtually impossible for things to come apart (it is possible to take a bed apart but it will take a lot of time and effort). Because, once finished, you have something as strong as the proverbial “brick s***house”. Oh, and the dowels are made from recycled plastic.
Everything you need will be delivered to your door on a pallet. WIth full instructions if you’ve used their design service. It really is easy and you’ll be surprised how quickly you get from start to finish.
The hardest part is shovelling the soil in afterwards.
The Tools You Need
You won’t need many tools. The photo shows the contents of a toolkit you can buy along with your components if you don’t already have them. The dowel cutter is optional but, as you will see, there could be a lot of dowels to cut off when you reach the top. The instructions refer to using a saw but a dowel cutter will save you heaps of time and effort.
You may think the bag is superfluous but it does make a difference – use it to hold a stock of dowels to speed up the process of shoving them in where needed without faffing with a little hole you’ve punched in a plastic bag. You’ll need a lump hammer rather than an ordinary round hammer because of the size of the face of the head.
And the gloves are elasticated so they’ll fit snugly on my large hands as well as on Gill Heavens’ little ones.
Some of the extra tools I list are merely needed because I’m being ambitious. In this build, I’m including an irrigation system so that I can connect a hosepipe to water everything rather than lug lots of watering cans or stand around holding a hose. At 64, I’m entitled to think of labour-saving. I’ve also decided to line the raised beds with pond liner. This is NOT necessary but, from experience, it will make an aesthetic difference that I’ll explain when I get to that stage. WoodblocX recommend that you use a liner if you will be using manure or similar to fill the bed. The staple gun is to hold the pond liner in place until the construction is complete; again not necessary but as I’ve already got a staple gun I’ll use it to make things a bit easier. You could use nails and a hammer. The landscape fabric is to cover the ground inside the beds. Again, not necessary but it will separate the soil in the beds from the soil underneath. In my plans there’s a reason for that.
A Stanley knife may come in handy but you’ll have one of those already, won’t you? A sledge hammer will help to whack ground spikes into very hard ground.
More About Dowels
Dowels come in bags of 25 (so you’ll usually have more than you need so don’t worry if you break one or whack one in where it’s not needed) and are the WoodblocX equivalent of those little round studs on the tops of Lego bricks. Each bag also includes a green tube thing which is used to whack the dowels into place.
The dowels themselves are in two parts (occasionally you will find, in a pack, a dowel that is separated into the two parts). They can easily be pulled apart too. This is useful when it comes to the bottom layer of blocX in any bed. The assembled dowels protrude slightly below the bottom of a blocX so if you are mounting or assembling (some bits may need pre-assembling) on a hard surface, it helps to remove the pointy bit, called the wedge, from the dowel. I do this as a matter of course before putting the dowels into the bottom layer of blocX. The absence of the wedge in the bottom layer doesn’t impact on the strength of the eventual assembly.
Essentially, you place the dowel (the right way up – notice the arrow) into a hole in a blocX, place the green tube over the top of the dowel and, with a couple of whacks of the hammer, knock it into place so that the ridge in the middle of the dowel is flush with the top of the blocX.
The tube will eventually distort from all the whacking (especially if you don’t hold the hammer properly – it’s like the nail that bends if you don’t hit it right) but I find that a single tube is usually good for whacking more than a single bag of dowels. Once it distorts, discard it and use a new tube. The diameter of the tube means that you won’t get far using an ordinary round-headed hammer. This is where the extra surface of the square lump hammer makes the difference. You’ll go through the tubes far more quickly if you don’t use the right hammer.
For every layer above the bottom, leave the dowels assembled. The point will whack into the top of the dowel under it. The bottom dowel then opens out to firmly fix the two levels together (notice the “crack” in the top of the dowels that allows this).
You don’t need a dowel in every hole of every blocX. The construction plan will show which holes need dowels.
Properly assembled, a WoodblocX structure is firm and solid. One of my readers (Lora) is a bit nomadic but she could use WoodblocX to create a temporary structure. It will still be pretty strong but can be dismantled more easily. Just assemble the entire construction without the wedges (the pointy bits). Though if you do this, when dismantling have a plan. Number every bit before you take it apart so you can reassemble the right way later. If you might want to permanently reassemble something you initially build temporarily, keep the wedges in a box or somewhere – when you permanently reassembly your WoodblocX thingy, pop the wedges back in.
Do a Quick Hole Check
Sometimes, the drilling process of the holes isn’t perfect. How often have you sawn through a piece of wood and ended up with a spike in the corner of the cut? It happens.
In the photo on the left, you’ll see that the hole on the left is clean. You will encounter the odd hole which, like the one on the right, isn’t. Most of the time, the “spike” of wood won’t matter but sometimes it will be enough to stop the dowel being hammered in flush to the top of the blocX.
Flush is important as, otherwise, the blocX won’t sit tight together and this can mean that the next layer develops a tiny tilt which will be exaggerated as you add further layers to the build. It only takes a few seconds to remove the spikey bits. Sometimes you can simply pull them off – it doesn’t matter if a sliver of wood from around the hole also comes away. Other times, a quick trim with a Stanley knife will be needed. Don’t worry if a little bit of wood falls into the hole when you do this. It won’t get in the way.
Of course, you don’t need to worry at all about holes into which a dowel is not destined to fit.
A Little Note of Caution
Don’t assume anything! This is in no way the fault of WoodblocX but ….
I’ve mentioned ground spikes. These go into the bottom layer of blocX at strategic points to hold that layer in position. The spikes are like foundations. They go 13 inches (unlucky number) into the ground below the blocX.
Regulations specify that cables and suchlike should be a metre under ground which is way more than thirteen inches. In my career as a property manager I often found that whoever built whatever cut corners. It happens. I’ve found underground electric cables that are simple domestic-type twin-and-earth when they should be armoured cable. I’ve also encountered cables that are NOT A metre underground. Like a three-phase electricity supply into a building that was TWO INCHES below a concrete floor (we were cutting a channel into the floor to lower the runner of a security grille that impeded wheelchairs). Had not a lump of concrete broken away by sheer chance, we’d have ended up in serious trouble; even death!
A while back I was digging a trench to accommodate some pre-planted hedging troughs. Slicing down with my trusty Sukoppu, I very nearly severed the phone cable into the house that was a mere eight inches below ground. A contractor was jackhammering a neighbour’s drive up to lay a new one and it was sheer luck that a lump of old drive came away before he cut through the main water pipe into the house, laid mere inches below ground. At least we think it was the water pipe; it could have been a gas pipe. It was yellow. Potable water pipes are usually blue.
It always pays to know where your phone/gas/electricity/water service pipes are, or should be!
Of course, these little inconveniences aside, you may encounter the unexpected underground, particularly with new build estates. I’ve dug up a toilet bowl from the back garden! When we were removing the stump and roots of a tree as part of the preparation for my present build, we encountered a large lump of solid concrete that nearly put paid to the stump grinder. If that happens to you, it’s almost always possible, with a bit of careful thought, to reposition a ground spike into an otherwise vacant hole in a blocX. Just remember that the spikes are the foundations for your build so relocate sensibly rather than simply leave one out altogether.
Enough advance info. The WoodbloxX web site has loads of useful stuff. If you still have questions, pay them a visit.
It’s often said that preparation is nine-tenths of the job. My next post in the series will cover preparation. I’ve already covered most of the preparation in previous SIxonSaturday posts but I’m going to pull things together so you get an idea of some of the things to think about before you start your build.