When Life Imitates Work: The Fence Project

Jim Bolek Fence Project

I Have Not Lost My Marbles

By Jim Bolek

When my wife Sheila and I restored our house 27 years ago, we built a block wall around the backyard to keep in our dogs and kids, and keep out other dogs and kids. But we wanted to be good neighbors, so the wall was only four feet tall. (We had small kids and non-jumping dogs.) We could talk across the fence, keep tabs on yards when neighbors weren’t home, see their dirty laundry, and so on. Nude sunbathing was out, but that was rarely an issue.

All was fine for 25 years until we adopted a young German Shepard we named Show Low. Show Low was a happy dog who loved to explore the yard and, we discovered, explore the neighborhood. I usually heard about this at work when I would get a call from a neighbor saying, “Jim, Show Low is in our back yard. Eating our flowers.” Cajoling, yelling, long chains, crying…none of those things worked. An electric wire and chicken wire fencing did work. It kept her in, but the yard looked like a cheap prison facility. (Show Low’s German Shepardness added to that.) So we decided to raise the fence.

Jim Bolek Fence Project

Jim and Sheila Bolek and Show Low

But, being a creative type and wanting to burn through some money, I didn’t want to just add block for the extra two feet. That would be too easy. Instead, I wanted to do something that would be more transparent (and more fun). I was intrigued by the idea of doing something with perforated metal and clear marbles. I did some research on marble colors and sizes, and drew up how it could work. I sized the marbles so they would fit in the holes in standard perf and sandwiched them between two sheets, using SignComp extrusions to hold it all together. I got samples of all the parts (Thanks, SignComp and McNichols Company!) to confirm it was possible.

Drawing of Jim Bolek Fence Detail



(Fence detail: Marbles sandwiched between two sheets of perforated aluminum)

Gretchen Cherrill from Airpark Signs & Graphics in Scottsdale was a huge supporter of the project. She and her crew helped to work out some of the fabrication details and cut the materials to size for me. Later on, they installed the panels on the walls.

I drew up plans and started gathering old signs to integrate into the designs. My concept was that many of the segments would incorporate a painted or porcelain sign, expanding upon that sign’s message. Based on my drawings, I created a spreadsheet to estimate the number of marbles of each color I would need. It turned out to be about 60,000 marbles. My original source couldn’t handle an order of that size, so they sent me to the manufacturer. A quick transfer of funds through PayPal, and a few days later a pallet showed up in my driveway.

My wife and I rigged up a tent in the driveway (good thing we don’t have a home owner’s association), set up sawhorses and perf aluminum, and started placing marbles.

Jim Bolek Fence Project


We rigged up a tent in our backyard and began building the fence panels.

My drawings gave me a good idea where the colors went, but it wasn’t until I could assemble a segment and stand it on its side, step back, and look at it, that I could really evaluate whether everything was where it should be. This worked fine for the first panel, but when I tilted the second panel it was like a giant Pachinko game. Every marble slid down. (Hey, gravity works!) The Airpark guys thought that might happen, and I was prepared for it, but still, starting over sucks.

To keep it from happening to the other panels I added small stainless steel flathead screws about every 18 inches or so, right down the middle of each panel. I don’t even see them anymore. There are nine panels total, including one alongside my driveway.

Jim Bolek Fence Project

We incorporated old signs into the panels.

We added “wings” to the sides of each panel to add stability when they were anchored on top of the walls. As they stand, they can be torqued pretty hard and are very stable. It’s monsoon season right now, and they’ve gone through a couple of dust storms with winds up to 50 miles per hour. Everything is good.

I still have some marbles left. Probably about 12,000 or so. I had to buy full boxes with no returns, so I may stage a marble contest at the next SEGD conference.

Jim Bolek Fence Project

Oh, and right before we started putting up the panels, Show Low decided she was done with her fence jumping. Figures.

Editor’s note: Jim Bolek is a senior environmental graphic designer with JRC Design, Phoenix.

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Jim Bolek Fence Project

The translucent effect is especially nice at sunset.

Jim Bolek Fence Project

Found sign elements add to the dimensionality and the fun factor.

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