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.

| June/July 1993


Designed and built correctly, a wood fence looks as if it grew in the right place.


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.

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