Design and Build a Wood Fence

Learn how to plan, design, build and finish a wood fence that will add function and appearance to your home.
by John Vivian
June/July 1993

FENCE BUILDING: Nail the fence pickets onto the horizontal pre-cut rails, checking to make sure that the pickets and rails are square and plumb in all dimensions.
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To keep in what you want kept in and keep out what you want kept out around your place, you need a good fence. Steel mesh, barbed wire or electric livestock fence is fine for "the back 40." But for around the house, the paddock or a road-fronting pasture, you should fence with honest wood. Granted, a wood fence is harder to design and install; it also costs more and takes more maintenance than heavy-gauge galvanized steel.

But let's face it, when properly designed and built, a wood fence looks almost as though it grew right in place. However, no matter how excited you are to get your fence up, don't begin setting posts before you sit down and plan your fence design thoroughly. "Good fences make good neighbors ..." wrote Robert Frost in his famous poem Mending Wall, and this stanza has become the motto of the commercial fencing industry. Ironically, the curmudgeonly Frost was not writing about fences at all, but about the barriers that we erect between ourselves.

The poem also says: "Before I built a wall I'd ask ...what I was walling in or out ...And to whom I was like to give offense." So, plan your fence to "give offense" to no one.

First, Get Ideas for Your Fence

Start by going to the library and taking out several books on fences to gather ideas. On your way over, take a fence-viewing tour of your neighborhood. Check styles, heights and colors; determine what types go with which houses; determine what fencing seems appropriate in town and what in the country; measure size and placement of boards in several local pasture fences if you plan to run a horse or two. The idea here is not to deviate from your neighbors' expectations so drastically that your fence will make you appear disdainful of local ways.

Besides, the configuration of local fences has been worked out over the years to match local climate, materials and sensibilities. Next, discuss your plans with the neighbors, particularly those whose properties abut your own.

Open views across property lines are communal property, and a fence may be resented as an intrusion. It's most politic to tell people why you want the fence and to ask for advice as to the best design for the use. Few will object; after all it is your place. Still, potential objectors will be pleased about being consulted. Next, visit your local municipal offices to check zoning ordinances and building codes, and see if you need a building permit or special dispensation from zoning law—a "variance." State laws prohibit "spite fences" of over 6' in height. Many historical districts restrict fences to styles appropriate to their time.

Building codes, established to maintain a property's structural integrity and value, will specify foundation and materials for any fence considered a structure—typically an over 6' solidly boarded fence in a high-wind area. Municipal zoning law can specify dimensions and grades of materials and fasteners, minimum widths of gates, the minimum depth posts must be sunk, and more. And many municipalities have rules to assure public safety and convenience.

They legislate set-back—the distance a fence must be from abutting property lines or a public way—and limit the height and opacity of fences at corners or road junctions to prevent them from blocking motorists' view across the intersection.

Plan Your Fence

Get some square-ruled graph paper and draw up a scale plot-plan of your property (use paper with the smallest squares you can find and have one square equal to anywhere from 1' to 5'—whatever scale will fit your land). Include sidewalks and roadways, and then ink in property lines. Mark the distance of your house from property lines, as well as drives, trees, gardens and outbuildings.

Carefully measure and draw (in dotted lines) setback lines and other applicable zoning regulations as well. In pencil or using strips of paper, lay out your preliminary fence plan. Lacking zoning-determined setbacks, give yourself plenty of leeway.

Locate a fence line at least 1' in from sidewalk edges, a good power-mower-width from the line between an abutting neighbor's lawn, and your own (keep the strip mowed yourself), 3' or more in from the ditch running along a country road, and a good 6' inside your property line in field or woods. In the plan, include drive openings (8' minimum), walk gates (3' to 4'), and farm gates wide enough to accommodate animals or a tractor (10' to 12'). If a building permit is required, an ink version of this plan will be part of your application; draw carefully. To start, assume that each fence bay will be 8' long.

Locate posts at gates, drive edges at corners, and at each turn in the fence line. You can adjust bay length later when you decide materials, design and lay out the fence on the ground. With the plan in front of you, meet with housemates and pretend you're all living with the fence through a year of carrying in small children, groceries, etc.—or building that horse barn you've long yearned for.

Be sure the fence doesn't interfere with day-to-day life or with the occasional major project. Also, think twice before cutting off wildlife trails, blocking shortcut school paths, or fencing out a neighbor who hikes over for coffee once in a while. Finally, go into the woods and cut a supply of 5'-long saplings, or buy a $5 bundle of dime-a-board wood lath.

Get a ball of twine too and erect a stick and string mock-up of the fence by running the string along the ground—around the house and any other high-traffic areas. Cut a point in one end of the sticks, hammer them in every 4' to 6' along the proposed line, and wrap the string around their tops. To make a string-and-stick mock-up gate: staple together a square of lath, brace it with an angle, and tie to mock-up gate posts with twine—it'll be floppy but will serve. Live with the prototype for a while and make changes as experience dictates. All this may seem like planning overkill, but some things can be learned only from a full-scale mock-up.

Making a Fence

The fencing urge in North Americans harks back to the days of the frontier and land rush. A property owner's need to stake out his or her parcel and set it apart from the rest can come on in a heady rush. Too many country people are tempted to get a fence up quickly by purchasing prefabricated sections of split-pole picket or stockade fence at a discount building supply-house for $8 per 8' section (called a bay) and one line post, installing it themselves—often by just pounding in the scrawny little vertical members.

But such fence is cheap for a reason: posts and the rails that run horizontally between them are thin and warpy, and pickets or other vertical "infill" boards are merely wired together or stapled on little 2 x 2 rails. These are barely worthy to even be called fence. You don't need to be an experienced carpenter to build flat-board fence; it requires only elementary, straight-cut carpentry, a strong back, and a careful hand at design and measuring. Most styles of residential fence can be built from stock lumber available at any building-supply outlet or fencing contractor.

Designing a Fence

With your plot-plan decided, sketch out a scale plan of the fence design. Again, use square-ruled graph paper and draw your front gate and at least one full bay. Nearly all fences consist of a frame made up of vertical posts anchored in the ground and horizontal rails fastened between them—with or without vertical "infill": butted planks, spaced pickets, solid panels of plywood, or other sheet goods fixed to or between the rails.

In your plan, draw in the frame; then add infill over it, either by drawing boards on the paper in pencil or cutting them out from paper. Draw each post and picket or other vertical board to scale, so you can select the most economical board lengths and draw up an accurate bill of materials. Most important, drawing helps you get your rail length and infill board spacing correct.

At this point, it's a good idea to take a steel tape-measure and notebook to a lumber yard and record dimensions of possible materials. You'll find that 6' boards are a true 6' or more in length but that 2 x 4s actually measure 1 3/4" x 3 3/4", and 6 x 6 posts are a fraction of an inch smaller all around than their "nominal" size. Record "actual" measure and use it in drawing your fence to scale. Design your fence to resist sag by arranging flat-board rails up on their sides—with the narrow dimension facing up, the broad dimension facing out.

If installed broadest side up, any board that's wider in one dimension than the other will give in to gravity and bow down in time. If using 2 x 4s left un-infilled or carrying lightweight, well-spaced pickets, never have rails longer than 8' between posts. A 6' minimum is better if using heavy pickets and is essential to prevent sagging if building a high, fully-boarded fence. Using 2 x 6 rails installed on their sides, spacing can be greater if the infill load is not too great.

I was once chastised by a Northern California fence contractor for publishing a recommendation to use an 8' rail if building with 2 x 6s. "Six-foot rails are the minimum," he maintains. Of course, he was used to building 6'-high, fully boarded redwood fences along the windy shores of San Francisco Bay. Rails can be simply nailed on the inside or outside of posts, their ends butted tight together.

This makes a quick and easy farmer ranch-style post and rail fence. However, such rails hold any infill affixed to them out away from the posts, making the fence look flimsy and amateurish. This design is (only marginally) satisfactory for an infilled fence if the frame is to be hidden from view by planking of solid butted boards. You're better off setting rails between posts. For a fully boarded fence, align front of rails with the front edge of posts. For spaced-board infill or if you want posts to stand out from fully boarded rails, align back of rails with the back edge of posts.

Or, if you want posts to stand out as a vivid design component, rails can be set into notches sawn in the back of posts so that front of posts protrude an inch or so beyond the outer face of infill boards. On paper, match your infill size and spacing to rail length. The length of rails supporting butted boards will be a simple multiple of infill-board width. (Remember, nominal 6"-wide boards will probably measure an actual 5 1/2" wide.

You'll be able to squeeze 13 of them into 6' rails set in as the rail boards come of the lumber pile—without having their rough-cut, dyed ends trimmed off. Better is to design the fence with rails to be trimmed from 6' (72") to 66" so they'll hold an even dozen boards.

Extra Precautions

Spacing Pickets 

Spacing pickets is an art. Length of rails must equal total width of pickets, plus distance between pickets, multiplied by the number of pickets plus one (to allow for spaces alongside posts at each end of each bay).

Pickets can be spaced anywhere from half their width to their full width apart. The narrower space looks better to my eye, but you be the judge. Just work out the rail length accurately and prove it by "building" a bay to scale on paper.

Your fence tour and books will have suggested possible ornamentation for posts. Square post lumber is rough-sawn; to look finished, it is best boxed in with 1"-thick-finished lumber. Tops (filials) of posts can be arrows, knobs, or tulip-shaped, and either pre-cut separates or sawn into post tops.

Or, square-cut post tops can be capped with three wooden squares of 1" thick lumber—the bottom one an inch larger all around than the post, the middle one the same size as the post and the top one an inch smaller than the post.

A decorative rail of 1" x 1" wood trim nailed on 4" or so below the cap finishes the treatment nicely. As with the stick-and-string mock-up, take your time and try out every idea under the sun that appeals. It's a lot easier to change your mind on paper. Try 4", 6" and 8" line posts in different heights, and boxed and unboxed; also try different rail lengths and infill designs.

Fence Materials

Design your posts from any sturdy wood—round, square or rectangular—that's 5' or 6' long, so that approximately 1/3 of their length can be buried forever. Rails too can be round, square or rectangular, any stock that's long enough to make up into 6' to 10' lengths. Four or 6" rounds or squares are the most common posts and 2 x 4s or 2 x 6s the most common rails, but don't ignore recycled post stock if you can find it.

Two x four studs from house remodeling can be de-nailed and converted into fence rails. Pickets and post-boxing on one gorgeous fence I know are made from strips of naturally weatherproof teak decking removed from an ocean-going yacht that was being scrapped. This 75-year-old wood has been kept looking good as new with nothing but an occasional soaking with boiled linseed oil. A simple, elegant fence that is suitable, as is, for the yard of a farm or ranch house—or that can serve as the framework of a fence of any infill design—is made from 5"-long, 4" or 6"-square posts with their lower two feet buried, and with rails of 6' lengths of 2 x 4s or 2 x 6s. Un-infilled, it looks good stained a woodsy brown, treated with a sealer or sealer/stain to age to a natural aged cedar-gray or painted a crisp clapboard white.

Fence Woods

Best and most elegant woods for fencing come from evergreen softwood containing resins that naturally repel molds, termites and other boring insects. The best known is California redwood; heartwood of this tree will last for 25 years or more without treatment.

But, being in demand for outdoor furniture, siding, decks and railings on upscale homes, redwood is expensive. Also, this wood doesn't tend to last as long in regions outside of California. Not quite as costly, but not cheap—and often hard to locate because it is sold primarily to outdoor furniture and fencing manufacturers—is Western white cedar (most of it from Canada).

Aromatic red cedar, cherry and a few other resinous furniture woods would make good fences, but are better used in cedar chests and dining-room tables. Red cedar and cherry are extensively used on both the East and Pacific coast. Wood that's good for naturally long-lived fence posts—and that you might find in your own woods or at a local rough cut sawmill—include black locust, the mid-western nuisance tree (with its huge, messy but inedible fruit), the Osage orange, catalpa, red mulberry and sassafras.

Old-timers prolonged the in-ground lives of fence posts by charring the ends in an open-pit fire. Then they'd sprinkle rock salt into the hole as soil was being tamped around the posts. The char and salt lasted and kept bugs honest for a good while. You can do the same with your homegrown posts—just don't add salt anywhere near the garden or young fruit trees.

But don't plan to dig a pit and soak your own posts in chemical preservatives. Once common "Penta" and creosote pose environmental and human-health hazards, and the Environmental Protection Agency has restricted their use to professionals. Rails and infill boards can be cut from large, straight specimens of these rot-resistant tree species as well as hemlock, white pine and the oaks. But the latter woods will need periodic treatment against airborne molds and should be stained lest they discolor.

Do not use common hardwoods or conventional dimension construction lumber for fence. When new to the country, I built a big, wire-roofed flying pen for chickens from poultry netting strung on a frame of sturdy sugar maple saplings. Within two seasons, the posts rotted and snapped off at ground level. Pine and spruce lumber will build into sturdy homes, but—left outside—will discolor to an ugly brown before rotting, unless stained and treated periodically with fungicide. But, with a stain, spruce will last as long as 12 to 15 years. The most economical fence stock you'll find is pressure-treated (PT) lumber—those bilious, green-dyed beams, round posts and flat boards you find stacked outside most lumber yards. Made from construction-grade soft woods such as Southern yellow pine or Douglas fir, PT is saturated through with CCA, a copper-arsenic compound that is a mild, but long-lasting poison and repellent to bugs and molds. It should be noted that environmental purists worry that CCA—which slowly leaches out of the wood over the years—will harm nearby plants.

While the risk of any significant environmental damage is minute, don't ingest edible plants grown close to your fence (better safe than sorry). Also, you should always wear a respirator when cutting PT wood. For the longest-life, get posts that haven't just been dipped in green stuff, but are certified to have been pressure-treated to 40 pounds per cubic foot.

While many fence companies will guarantee 40 to 50 years for PT fence life, it's probably closer to about 20 years—still a long time. It doesn't matter if the wood is still dripping wet; indeed, wood is fresh-cut and true when it goes into the pressure tank and you are better off nailing it up wet and straight than waiting for it to dry and warp or twist. Do beware of cut-rate PT lumber from roadside wood yards, however. Small, local processors have been know to skimp on treatment. Buy name brands or take the word of a well-established lumber yard.

Expect to pay approximately $6 to $7 for an 8', 4" square PT post (due to skyrocketing prices of this past spring), and $12 for a 6 x 6 x 8. A 2 x 4 x 8 length of PT rail stock will cost a dollar and change, a 2 x 6 x 8 perhaps twice that. When choosing lumber, don't be afraid to pick through the piles, insisting that a new bundle be unstrapped if you can't find enough good wood.

Look down the long, narrow edge of a board to detect warps and twists. Reject any boards with large cracks, loose knots or black rot holes in them. PT wood will bleach to a lovely ashgray in time, or—after drying for a season—will accept any stain or paint. You will not find 1" nominal (actual measure 3/4") PT to build into infill boards, but many yards stock "5/4" (actual thickness 1") boards in varying widths. Square or round-edge ("eased") deck flooring in a 6" width makes a good board fence—especially if you find a large supply of picked-over long boards that you might get at a discount, then trim out the bad sections.

Or, you can use 3" or 4" pickets pre-cut from cedar, redwood or no-name imported wood that comes as is or pre-primed in white. Posts must be PT or naturally rot-resistant wood. PT wood is also best for rails and infill, though any strong, sound wood will last if kept out of contact with the ground and if treated with sealer or mildew-proofer. But if you plan to paint your fence, you can scrounge rails and infill boards by looking in demolition dumps, around remodeling projects, and in building materials recycling outlets. Random widths and even thicknesses look fine when infilling a fully boarded or a "shadow" fence—where boards are spaced apart about half their widths on both sides of the rails, boards on one side covering spaces on the other. This design lets air flow through, but if high enough can offer an effective barrier for privacy.

Fasteners

Buy 2 1/2" or 3" hot-dip-galvanized common (with a large, good-holding head) 6d or 8d nails, or for the power driver, same-size, self-tapping deck screws of galvanized steel or the new silver rustproof alloys. To fasten thin trim boards, get galvanized finish nails with small heads that disappear into the wood.

Bill of Materials

Now, figure how many infill boards you'll need per bay. Multiply this by the number of bays plus gates for running feet of infill stock needed. The number of bays and gates multiplied by two or three equals the number of rails. Posts needed equals the number of bays and gates (plus one if fence does not make a closed loop around the property.) If you use posts for corners and gates that are a size larger then the line posts, adjust accordingly and add in two sister posts per turn in the fence if you intend to reinforce corners.

Figure the most economical, waste-free way to buy lumber: for 4' infill boards, buy 8' 12', or 16' boards—whichever is cheaper per running foot, not 10s or 14s, which would leave two feet of waste. Don't try to convert your list to "board fee," a measure of the square footage in a tree used by timber cruisers and a few lumber yard clerks who delight in confusing do-it-yourselfers.

Take your itemized list, including fasteners and gate hardware, to several building supply outlets and price the fence out. Be sure to find out if delivery is free to your place (it usually is, up to a certain number of miles, with large orders). And, don't be afraid to ask about upcoming sales. Also look into bargain-priced "packages" consisting of nothing but raw lumber and a plan; some may save you considerable money.

Layout and Construction

Now, take a ball of stout hemp (nonstretching) twine and a supply of 24" wood stakes to your fence line. Sink stakes a foot deep at your gate posts and corners, and stretch the line taught across their tops. If you have the confidence, measure along the line to locate post holes. One foolproof method is to lay out the actual fence framework along the line—spacing posts with one trial rail cut to measure as determined in your plan.

If you come to a corner and are running short, you can adjust by subtracting the space taken by an infill member or two (or width of a picket plus space between pickets) from adjoining bays. If long, add a bay and reduce length of all bays to make space. If you decide to compensate in only one or two bays, locate shorts at the corner rather than gate end of the flight of fence.

Now, beginning at the gate posts, dig post holes, set stakes and build the frame of the fence one bay at a time. Tack-nail rails to posts (using small nails that aren't hammered in all the way).

Lacking a tractor and auger, you can dig post holes with a clamshell posthole digger or a spade. Sink posts 1/3 of their length. If soil is soft, compact sides of the holes by jamming a 2 x 4 in the bottom and waggling it hard against the sides. To discourage wet induced rot, guarantee drainage at post bottoms by putting a 6" layer of gravel at hole bottom, tamping especially well, using a tamping bar and setting the bottom few inches of the posts in tamped gravel as well.

Use a carpenter's level to assure the post is plumb in all dimensions and add soil in thin layers, tamping each well. For the most stable gate and corner posts, set the post in 6" of gravel, then pour a concrete collar around the next 6". (Mix a bag of dry concrete premix and pour in the hole, bulking the collar by adding in rocks if you have them. Be sure post is plumb and let concrete set for a day before topping with tamped soil.)

Again don't submerse the bottom of the post into the cement; this would trap moisture and result in accelerated rot. Now, build fence one bay at a time. You'll have to remove the guideline to dig post holes, but to locate each line post precisely, replace it and align it tight, straight, and even with the outer edge of the corner stake and all posts already in place.

Infilling

With the frame in place, put on your infill. A fully boarded fence should go up quickly. Just be sure all infill boards are spaced with tops the same distance from the top of upper rails. To do so, measure and mark all boards at the same time with a pencil line along the inside where the tops meet the top of rails.

To space pickets, measure and mark spacing along both rails. Or make a spacer, a picket-length board the precise width of the space between pickets with a "T" nailed on square at the back edge to rest on the top rail.

Let it ride along the top rail, pressing it loosely between pickets as you nail them on. To keep pickets from splitting, drill single 1/8" pilot holes for nails through pickets where they meet top and bottom rails. With 3" or wider boards, set two nails into top and bottom, each 1/2" or so from board sides to prevent splitting. Then tack on all infill boards of the first flight or two; don't hammer nails home till the spacing is correct. If spacing still comes out uneven, fudge the error by removing boards and spacing them a bit closer or farther apart. Correct the error in further building.

Cut cap and foot rails, trim to measure and install them one bay at a time. If you pre-cut them all, you are sure to find that some are too long or too short simply due to variations in post width and final bay dimensions. All joints between boards should be snug, but not so tight that they exert pressure as they swell and contract in the weather—which will tend to loosen nails or bow horizontal members over time. Nail with a pair of 6" nails.

Finish

Painting fences is a laborious chore that must be repeated every five years at minimum, or each time you paint the house. Paint must be gotten into cracks, on undersides of cap rails, and onto all sides of pickets. It's just not worth the hassle. Worst of all, paint actually accelerates rotting. Instead try a solid color stain.

A good oil-based stain will look great and protect a wood fence for a good four to seven years. Sealers and sealer-stains required by pine, spruce and other common building lumber don't need meticulous re-application, but they must be renewed periodically. If you use a clear-coated finish, go to a reputable, well-experienced paint retailer and ask for guidance for the finish that best matches your lumber and climate and will keep your wood from fading.

Best bet is to choose wood that doesn't need a finish, such as redwood or cedar, or pressure-treated wood. These will all weather naturally to a pleasing gray. A quick and occasional treatment with deck preservative will enhance its longevity.

Fence for Stock

Sheep can be contained with a shorter fence, but boards should be closer-spaced so they can't get their foolish heads caught in the cracks. A 4'-high, three-board fence will hold them. A hogtight fence should be 4' high, with 8'-high, 8"-square posts sunk 4' deep and spaced 6' apart. Leave no space between thick boards. The bottom board should be of Pressure Treated lumber, buried 6" deep so hogs can't root under it.

Any fence can be made to contain smaller stock than it is designed for (including small children) by stapling 4" or 2" wire mesh or poultry netting on the outside. To prevent gnawing of top boards (cribbing) or leaning by horses, or to keep hogs from burrowing, run electric fence on ceramic insulators along top, middle, or bottom of the fence. Keep wires taught, and cut or mow grass or brush so the wire is not grounded.

The only wooden fence I have ever seen that effectively contains goats is on a dairy goat farm was made with 16'-high, smooth wood planks that were arranged vertically so that goats couldn't get a hoof-hold, and sloped slightly inward.


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