Many people with several acres eventually want to raise livestock. To contain animals on a pasture, you will need a good fence. (For the pros and cons of various types of fencing, see Types of Fences for the Homestead. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS) The following fencing tools will help you build a good fence and maintain it over time.
If there’s a tool that’s most necessary for fence-building work, it’s something with which to dig postholes. Even if you plan to use metal T-posts — which you can just pound into the ground — you will need to dig deep postholes for the corner posts.
The easiest way to dig postholes is to use an auger powered by a tractor or built-in engine. An auger is a large shaft with spiral grooves that works like a giant drill bit for boring holes into the earth. If you don’t own an auger, you can rent one from a home-improvement store or see if a neighbor has one you can borrow. Tractor-driven posthole augers can quickly create the standard 8-inch-wide, 36-inch-deep holes required for corner and line posts in most soils.
Rocks are the bane of the fence-builder’s existence. Even medium-sized stones in the soil can stop the progress of a large auger, and may break the shear pin in the process. And unless the size of your auger specifically fits the diameter of the post, the posts won’t always fit well in their holes. That is why it’s a good idea to equip yourself with posthole-digging hand tools, at least as a supplement to any power auger.
If your fencing project is small, then hand tools might be all you need. The most basic fencing tools for digging postholes are a long-handled shovel to loosen and remove soil, a heavy 6-foot pry bar to break up clods of earth and to tamp around your post, and a posthole digger. This tool is essentially two opposing shovels connected by a fulcrum. Fiskars makes a model with handles specially designed to dig deeper holes (see photo in Image Gallery).
Setting your wooden posts perfectly plumb might not boost fence life by much, but the fence will look better. A post level makes this task easy. Strap the post level to the post (using large rubber bands), center both bubbles as you hold up the post and then fill in the soil around the outside. For wide holes, an 8-pound sledgehammer can be used to tamp the dirt and make your corner posts secure, or a long-handled poker or pry bar can be used for tamping down the soil around each post. Farmers often make homemade tampers from discarded automobile axles, as well. Because of the extra strain exerted on corner posts, it’s important that the tamping job around them is done well. As you fill the dirt back in around the post, tamp well after every few inches of added dirt.
On wire fences, you can minimize the work involved in setting wooden posts by substituting metal T-posts between corners. In the time it takes to set one wooden post, you can put 20 T-posts in the ground using a post pounder. In many locations, you can run a quarter-mile or more of barbed wire or woven wire fence with only T-posts for support and wooden posts at the corners and along the fence where more tension is needed. A sledgehammer might seem like a good tool for installing T-posts, but sledgehammers are heavy and sometimes dangerous.
You can buy ready-made T-post pounders, or you can make your own. I made one using a piece of 2-inch-diameter, 48-inch-long steel pipe with a solid section of steel rod welded into the top; the rod should be at least 8 inches long to create enough weight and strength to drive in the post. Some factory-made models have handles, but a large-diameter pipe is easy enough to grip. To use one, slip the completed pounder over the top of your T-post, set the post upright and then lift the pounder up and bring it down hard over the top.
A few fence builders have devised ingenious methods for mounting a post pounder on the bucket of their front-end loaders. This makes it possible to push the posts into the ground with the bucket in a few seconds, but it’s considered unsafe by tractor manufacturers.
T-posts are easy to install, but they’re difficult to pull out later — soil grips the rusty surface with surprising strength. A post puller is the best tool for removing a T-post. This is a lever-actuated tool that grips the T-post and pulls it out as you lean back on the handle.
If you’re installing a wire fence, then you need tools to unroll, snip and tighten the stuff. Woven wire simply unrolls along the ground during installation, and you can easily slide an old broom handle through a roll of barbed wire so it unspools while you walk or drive the fence line. But high-tensile wire is a different matter. The coils are larger in diameter, and the wire itself is rather springy and tangles easily. That’s why fence manufacturers invented the “spin jenny,” a low-friction revolving spool that accepts standard wire coils, allowing you to unroll wire as needed when building a fence. The jenny sits on the ground while you walk away with the wire end in your hand. It ensures kink-free, twist-free wire that’s easy to handle, which can eliminate frustration and save time.
Fence pliers help you cut, bend and pull wire. Fences that include staples (mostly woven and barbed wire) are best tackled with a set of full-feature pliers with cutting notches or edges, a spike for pulling up staples and a hammer for driving them. If you’re dealing with a high-tensile fence or a wooden rail, then a simpler design will do fine. In this case, look for pliers that have cutting capabilities (those with cutting notches are easier to use and last longer than those with cutting edges), and large, serrated jaws that can grip the wire.
You can tighten wire fences of all kinds mechanically, and dozens of different fencing tools are available for the job. Mechanical tighteners for woven wire are the most elaborate because they simultaneously grip multiple strands of the fence during the tightening process. Another solution for tightening woven wire is to sandwich the wire between two 2-by-4s, bolt the boards together and anchor the assembly to a stretcher.
At the other end of the spectrum are high-tensile fence tensioners (see photo in Image Gallery). These gadgets that resemble spools are so simple and inexpensive that they stay on the fence wire permanently. Whenever a fence wire sags, just eliminate the slack using a ratchet handle that you connect to the tightener. You also can use tensioners on barbed wire or smooth high-tensile wire.
If you have electric fence insulators to install on wooden or plastic posts, consider using a cordless drill to drive deck screws instead of traditional hammer-driven nails. Screws hold better, and they’re easier to remove when you have to replace a broken insulator. Today’s cordless drills can work easily from morning until lunchtime on a single charge (see Cordless Drills and Drivers).
The best tool collections grow in response to real needs. My advice is to buy a few, work with them for a while, then buy more based on what you learn.
9-gauge Black Fence Wire
There’s a good reason you’ll find twisted strands of metal fence wire at work on farms everywhere. It’s the most useful, least expensive way to mend and marry all kinds of items. Perhaps the most useful fence wire of all is the oldest — 9-gauge, black annealed wire. It’s surprisingly soft given its one-eighth-inch diameter, and it’s virtually impossible to break, no matter how tightly you twist it.
The closest competition is 12.5-gauge galvanized wire. It’s cleaner to work with than the black stuff, but it doesn’t have the same strength. You can simply twist with much more tension using 9-gauge wire. Try the same thing with 12.5-gauge wire and it’s likely to break.
Fencing Tools for Building a Gate
If you want your gates to endure, don’t let them hang from hinges under their own weight. Instead, install a five-eighths-inch-diameter carriage bolt or length of threaded rod in the nonhinged gatepost for the gate to rest on when it’s closed. This takes the strain off the fence, which would normally get stretched out of kilter trying to support the gate. You can do an even better job by installing a gate wheel along the bottom. This provides continuous support to the gate through its whole arc of travel, making it easier and safer for children to open and close.
Installing gate hinges and supports almost always involves boring large-diameter holes through wood, and a drilling tool called a “ship’s auger” can’t be beat for this kind of work. Ranging from three-eighths inch to 2 inches in diameter and 8 inches to 2 feet long, this self-feeding bit effortlessly chews through the largest gateposts. The only catch is that you need a strong drill to drive them — 18-volt cordless drills are just barely powerful enough; 24-volt units are ideal.
Contributing Editor Steve Maxwell has been helping people renovate, build and maintain their homes for more than two decades. “Canada’s Handiest Man” is an award-winning home improvement authority and woodworking expert. Contact him by visiting his website and the blog, Maxwell’s House. You also can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook and find him on Google+.