Friday, August 19, 2016

Building a Batting Cage

Seven years ago I began researching how to build a batting cage. I didn't need one, I just wanted one. Life moved on and that project was shelved. Now the project is back and I have a batting cage.
My son is a little young to really need a batting cage, but it's a good enough excuse and this cage is good for anything involving a ball or throwing projectiles (but not grenades). A standard full size baseball net is typically  14'x70'x12' tall. In high school and higher levels, the distance from home plate to the pitching rubber is 60'-6".

I started a design in Sketchup.
Measurements at home plate.
This gives you a visual as to how the cage is constructed. With a shorter cage, you could get away with only three frames. You can find netting in various sizes. Build your frame to the dimensions of your net. Go as big as you can. No one ever wishes they got a smaller net.
The net should NOT be taut. The slack allows it to slow the ball down
without bouncing it back at you.
Each frame is inserted into a sleeve. The sleeve is
embedded into 18" of concrete. If you are doing wood
construction, ignore the sleeves.
Bracing is required at each end frame.
My framing is 16'x60'x11' tall. It's a reclaim project I cut down. The actual net dimensions are about 14'x58'x9.5' tall.

Through the power of  connected friends, I stumbled upon a deal for this cage. It's galvanized 1.25" I.D. plumbing pipe and elbows, and it comes with the net, chain, and all snap clips.
If I was building this from scratch I would use treated 4x4 16' poles just for the cost. A treated 4x4 lumber cage would have cost $350 for the lumber alone. You will still need eye bolts, chain, and snap clips.
Galvanized pipe gets expensive, and fast. A new galvanized cage, excluding the net, would be $1200.

This depends on how big you want to make your cage.

Treated 4x4 lumber is the cheapest option. You will want 16' long horizontals, and optimally 16' verticals, though you could get 12' to save cost. The lumber has to be treated. Space the frames 15' apart roughly, and determine if you want a 30', 45', 60', or 75' cage. The reason to go 75' is so that you have a high school and major league regulation distance of 60'-6" from home plate to the pitching rubber.

With treated wood, I would recommend through bolts and cleats for the vertical to horizontal connection.

Assuming a 75' long cage. You'll need (10) verticals and (5) horizontals. The end frames need to be braced. You can run a diagonal out from the cage to a short post embedded in the ground or to the middle of the next frame. I ran it from the top of one to the other. It's not the strongest option, but it's sufficient, and if you need clearance it's the best option.

You need (15) eye bolts, (30) snap links, (15) 16" lengths of chains. Stainless is the best way to go, you can save money and get regular steel, but it will rust.

Get (10) 50 or 80 pound bags of concrete for each post hole. All posts need to be set in concrete. At best each pole will be 2' deep, and rule of thumb is to plant 1/4 of a pole in the ground. Since planting a 16' pole 4' in the ground isn't going to happen, the added mass of concrete helps stabilize the post.

Since I used galvanized frames and got such a good deal, this cage is going with me when I move. I sleeved each vertical, so thus you'll need (10) sleeves and (10) 1/2" x 3" long bolts if you go the galvanized route. Sleeving it allows me to remove it later.

I used 1 5/8" galvanized fence posts to brace each end frame. I spliced (2) posts together for each brace with 1/4"x2" long bolts and used (2) end caps and (2) bracket to attach to each brace. I bolted each end cap to the post with 1/4" x 2.5" long bolts.

I painted everything just to make it look new with Rustoleum rubberized undercoating.

The netting came with the set up. You can find fish nets on ebay, but I expect that will induce a lot of headache to make it work. Nets can be as expensive as $800 new.

I bought black #36 twine to repair my net. It had developed a few untreated holes from the previous owner.

I added black plastic coated wire to hang the net and keep it off the ground when not in use.

A reciprocating saw to cut posts or chain.
A pipe wrench to loosen or tighten galvanized poles
A file to smooth the ends of cut metal.
Wrenches for tightening bolts
A drill press if you're drilling through galvanized poles.
A ladder to reach the snap links
Wheel barrow and shovel to mix concrete

I started with an existing cage that needed to be moved. I cut the poles off at the ground/concrete base. I brought a battery powered reciprocating saw and a spare battery, but that didn't last long. I ended up cutting half way through the poles with a hack saw and using gravity to snap them off.
When I got it back home, the poles on one side were 13' tall and on the other 12' tall. I cut all the poles down to 12' using a reciprocating saw.
The used frame.

It includes chain and snap links.
I will embed the lower 12" of each pole into a galvanized 24" long sleeve embedded in concrete. I don't want to have to cut these poles and lose height again if I move, and burying just 12" isn't enough.

I used post hole diggers to dig (10) 18" deep holes. I spaced them at 15', but shifted one set as the cage is next to a gate that I still need access to. My spacing works out to (4) frames spaced at 14' and (1) at 19'.
Use post hole diggers for each hole.
Use tape to mark on the post hole diggers how deep to go.
With post hole diggers 18"-24" is about as deep as you can go with a hole this narrow.
I used a scrap piece of pole and taped off 18" so I knew exactly how deep to dig each hole. 
A scrap piece of pole helps determine specifice depth.
The sleeves are 2.25" O.D. galvanized fence post. I had 1.75" O.D. fence posts that were a perfect fit that  I used on (4) posts, but with such strict tolerances, removing the frame and re-inserting could be tricky. I used the 1.75" because I had it on hand. Measure from the top of the frame down 11' or whatever your dimension is. Tape off the measurement so you know how far the sleeve should extend up the pole.
Mark the poles so you know where to drill the bolted connection for the sleeve.
A 1/2" bolt connects sleeve to pole.
I used a level and a laser to level each sleeve side to side. I set a block of wood with a laser on one sleeve and then determined where I need to raise or lower the other sleeve. It's inexact, but close enough.

Since a few of my sleeves were a little shorter than 24", I filled in the hole to make up the difference.
My yard slopes down about 20" from front to back and I can't fix that.
You want to make sure that the top of the sleeve and bolt is at least 4" above ground level.You want the concrete to slope away from the post, other wise you will collect water at the pole.

I bolted the sleeves to the frame with a .5" hex bolt, aligning the sleeve and frame and drilling through. I then erected each frame in the hole. This is a two person job.
I did the math before I started digging. A 9"x18" hole will accept an 80 pound bag of concrete.
Rule of thumb is to embed 25% of a post or pole in the ground. With 12' long poles, I would need to embed 3' and that's too far to dig. The concrete adds mass and stability to the frames since the holes are only 18" deep.
The base of each pole needs concrete.
To plumb the poles, I made a brace from scrap 2x2's and a 2x4. It's a two-sided brace that will help keep the post plumb while the concrete cures. Bags of concrete keep the legs of the brace in place. I tied the braces to the pole, and in a few cases added a second brace to maintain plumb. Use a level to make sure the poles are plumb before and during concrete pouring.
Scrap wood creates a brace to plumb each pole.
I mixed the 80lb bag of concrete with 5 quarts of water in a wheel barrow. You want the concrete to have a  mashed potatoes consistency. While the bag recommended no more than 4 quarts, it just wasn't enough.
A wheelbarrow and shovel can be used to mix the concrete.
The concrete needs to be moist, but not too moist. In this image the concrete is too dry.
This is the perfect consistency for concrete. You want it just wet enough, but not too wet.
Optimally the concrete should create a dome so that water doesn't collect at the pole. I taped the bolt and nut before shoveling concrete to keep them clean. The concrete needs to dry for 24 hours before any amount of strain or stress is put on the frame.

Ensure the pole is plumb with a level, then shovel concrete into the hole.
The temporary bracing ensures the pole stays plumb.
Smooth out the concrete with a shovel and create a nice dome shape leading to the pole.
Each end frame is braced to the next frame as the net pulls on the ends the most. I used standard 1-5/8" galvanized posts with a splice in the middle. They connect at the top of the cross brace as the cage spans a double gate that I will still need to access.
I was going to brace the top of the end frame to the bottom of the adjacent poll, which would be stronger.
I used standard fence post brackets, but I bolted the caps to the poles to maintain rigidity. I used 1/4" bolts.
Each end of the cage is braced to the next frame for additional support.
Before hanging the net I painted all the poles with black undercoating. It's rubberized and makes the frames look new. I made all of the chains and clips 16" long. This seems like a good length, with plenty of play for the net. The net sags about 18 inches so the highest part of the net is 9.5' and the lowest part is about 8'.

The net isn't hard to hang. Three eye bolts are bolted through the horizontal galvanized pipe at each end and the middle. A snap link connects to the eye bolt and another snap link is at the end of the chain.  The net has thicker rope along the edges and down the middle for hanging to each snap link. My cage is a bit shorter than my net.  I picked up the slack at each end by doubling hanging the net, and I marked where I hung it with yellow duct tape so when I take it down and put it back up, I won't have to adjust it, I'll know the right spots to hang it. I have an affinity for details and made sure each side was hung from the same spot and the net hangs evenly down the cage.

You don't want the net to be taut. The slack allows it to stop the ball and not bounce. A taut net would reflect the ball back. I eyeballed it and hung it up. It looks good, so we'll see how it works. After a week of playing in the cage every day, the dimensions seem fine. The net stops the ball well, and it doesn't bounce back.

I did need to repair a few holes. I used black #36 twine. I used a hitch knot for repairs as I read that was recommended somewhere along my research. Where possible I did a half hitch on two separate sides to the strong can't move up and down or left and right.

I don't think this net has ever been patched.

My knots aren't pretty, but they get the job done.
I will also add foul lines to the net. I'm not sure where I will put home plate yet. It's easier to pick up balls if you hit closer to one end or even against one side. With the possibility of adding a pitching machine at one end, I may want to move it to the far end. That and no one at my house needs to practice throwing at a 60' distance just yet.

I added wire so that  I can hook and loop the net when the cage is not in use. Moisture, critters, etc will deteriorate the net quicker if it's resting on the ground. This allows me to drop it and pick it up rather quickly. The loops are at each corner and centered between each pole. This is standard plastic coated 14 gauge wire.
Hook and loop wire to pick the net up when not in use.

I thought about creating 2x6 wood slats that fit between the poles as ball stops, but haven't gotten there yet. I want to use it and see how necessary that will be. After a week, putting them at each end is the only place I'd put them at all, and I haven't really had any problems with the balls escaping more than a foot. Lowering the net on the backstop end would help this also.

I got a canvas backstop with a strike zone opening to catch balls that came with the cage. I hung that off the net one one end. The canvas will protect the net and provides a great visual and backstop to practice pitching. Definitely a great addition to the cage.

An L screen is also recommended as it protects the pitcher when throwing to a batter..

It is recommended to take the net down in the winter due to snow. Snow adds a lot of weight and can buckle the frames.

I may have come across an Iron Mike pitching machine deal. It's going to take a fair amount of work as it's in essence a barn find. That rebuild will be it's own post. It's the equivalent of finding an old car in a barn and everything needs replacing to make it work. Stay tuned!
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