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By Chris | March 5, 2008 - 2:11 pm - Posted in Decks & Fences, How To, Plans, Treated Wood

How to Build a Fence that Lasts

Building a wooden fence can be backbreaking work but, conceptually speaking, it is very simple. You choose your layout, mark your corners, stretch a string to keep your lines straight, set your fence posts, add rails, add a gate, add pickets, and you are done. Again, at its core…

Here’s some help if you are building your fence on a slope.

How to Build a Fence (the basic version)

  1. Choose Your Fence Layout
  2. Mark the Fence Corners
  3. Stretch a String Between Corners
  4. Set Your Fence Posts
  5. Add Fence Rails
  6. Add Gate
  7. Add Fence Pickets

How to Build a Fence that Will LAST

The main point of this article is about how to build a fence that will last. There are a few things you can do to build a fence that will outlast the other fences in the fence line. Your neighbors will be replacing old worn out fence materials while you sit atop your fence saluting their hard work and poor construction methods.

Building a long-lasting fence can also be broken down into a short list similar to the one above but with a few additional details…

Steps to Build a Fence that will Last

  1. Choose Your Fence Layout (same)
  2. Mark the Fence Corners (same)
  3. Stretch a String Between Corners (same)
  4. Set Your Heavily Treated or Coated Fence Posts
  5. Add 3 Fence Rails (not two) Using Screws
  6. Add a “Rot Board”
  7. Add Gate
  8. Add Fence Pickets Using Screws

fancy wood fence

 

The builder of this fence went for longevity using .60 CCA treated 6×6 posts and a “rot board.” The fence also looks beautiful because of the trim boards at the top and the fact that the rails and pickets are set inside and between the posts. This can be done using 4×4 posts but it looks funny because the posts are so small (relatively).

There are three main components of any project. In no particular order of importance, they are:

  1. Design
  2. Materials
  3. Construction

Each of these three components must be respected for any project to produce a strong and long lasting result. Building a fence is no different. Taking these components into account, here’s a brief overview of what you can do to build a fence that will outlast your expectations. It is easiest to analyze proper fence construction at the components level.

Think Longevity by the Piece

Design your fence with longevity in mind. A fence is only composed of four basic components:

  1. Posts
  2. Rails
  3. Pickets
  4. Fasteners

Build your fence so that each component supports, and is supported by, the components around it. Think about how you want the fence to look five years from now as you design it, buy your fence materials, and build it.

Fence Posts – A Strong Foundation

Posts rot at the ground line so protect against that. Use posts that are well treated and come from a reputable location. For the absolute best results, use posts coated with a polymer coating such as the ones produced by the folks at American Pole and Timber. They coat the bottom three feet of treated posts with a polymer coating that is guaranteed for 25 years. 4×4-8′ posts cost about $17 each instead of $8 but you will probably be able to use the posts again for your next fence – saving you time and headaches down the road.

Other long lasting fence post tips include:

  • Plant deeply – about 1/3 the height of the fence.
  • Tamp the bottom of each post hole to minimize settling over time.
  • Encourage drainage with a thin layer of gravel (a few inches is fine) at the base of the posts.
  • Level carefully to ensure the posts well aligned and straight.
  • Pack the dirt tightly around the posts after they are installed.
  • Cap, slant, or round the top of each fence post so water cannot accumulate.

Whether or not you want to set your posts in concrete is up to you. While concrete makes a post seem permanent I am not convinced it actually makes the fence last much longer and it definitely makes removal a real bear.

Along the same vein, you can also consider using larger fence posts such as 6×6’s. The look cool, are really strong, and are usually treated more heavily that 4×4’s. They also require larger holes and are very heavy so you will probably need help putting each fence post in place. Are they necessary? Probably not but they will provide an excellent foundation.

Fence Rails – Use Three

Rails sag over time and there two are primary ways you can combat this – build with your rails on their “edges” so you will have a stronger “depth-of-section” and use three rails so each rail supports less weight. A third option is to set the fence posts closer together. Always use treated wood. #2 grade treated lumber is great for a fence – cost effective and strong.

If you get nothing else out of this how to article, take this away – use three rails. Pickets have a weakness that shows up over time but is seldom considered when the fence is being built. Pickets have a tendency to warp. Using three rails dramatically improves the chances that your fence’s pickets will remain straight.

how to build a 3 rail picket fence

Use 3 Rails when Building Your Fence

Toenail your fence rails to your posts. Not only does it look better than butted rails but it leaves no spaces between pickets and rails where grass can grown and critters can hide. Birds and other nesting animals often build homes in the spaces between posts and pickets, especially in “neighbor friendly” fences with alternating panels.

fence rail types

 

I prefer to “toenail” fence rails because this method creates straighter lines and does not leave a space for grass, weeds, and critters to creep between the posts and the pickets.

Fence Pickets – Lift & Support

Most pickets come in 5/8″ thick but use 3/4″ thick pickets if you can find them. That would be the same as using 1″ nominal dimension lumber. Call around the local lumber yards. Yes, the will cost a little bit more but will last longer, warp less, and look better.

Make sure you use treated pickets. A good treated picket will last 10 years if maintained with the occasional stain. An untreated picket will last only a few years. This should not be a big concern because you usually won’t even find UNtreated pickets – there’s no point in making them. You can also consider cedar, redwood, or any other variety of “naturally resistant” wood species.

The best two things you can do to extend the life of fence pickets are to use a rot board and a three rail system. Again, if you take nothing else away from this article…use three rails. The rot board lifts the fence pickets off the ground where they are in contact with pests and moisture and keeps them aways from regular beatings by a weed eater. A three rail systems supports fence pickets more effectively to minimize warping.

Fasteners – Use Screws

Use screws for everything. Good deck screws such as Primeguard Plus coated deck screws do not rust and will not pull out like nails. Building your fence with screws minimizes warping and helps keep your fence solid and tight. When building your fence gate, use excellent hardware – not the cheapest kit you find. Use galvanized or zinc coated hinges and hardware to minimize rust.

Fence Maintenance

Now that we have gone over the basics of how to build a fence that will last, let’s look quickly at fence maintenance. There’s not a lot to do, really. Just spray the fence with a great high quality deck and fence sealer every few years and you should be great. A few of the best brands are Cabot and Wolman, according to a Consumer’s Report article as well as my experience.

Examine the fence occasionally for broken boards or sagging rails. If one rail is sagging, it is not properly supporting the components around it. Replace broken boards. Not only do they look bad but when they flop back and forth, they put unwelcome stress on the rails.

A long-lasting fence will cost a few dollars more up front but you will save money in the long-run because it will last longer and you might even get to re-use your fence posts. Most fences are still in service looooong after their aesthetic life died a slow miserable death. Another benefit of a well-built fence is that it will always look good.

11 Comments

  1. May 8, 2008 @ 3:44 pm


    […] posts coated at the ground line from American Pole and Timber. I mentioned these posts before in How to Build a Fence that Lasts because I have seen them up close and they are tough. They claim that posts coated at the ground […]

  2. June 9, 2008 @ 12:58 pm
  3. November 14, 2008 @ 12:16 pm


    […] for those of you perplexed by the question of how to preserve wood posts. Whether you are trying to build a long-lasting fence or other structure or trying to extend the life of existing wood posts you have options. Without […]

  4. March 28, 2009 @ 5:28 pm


    How does one get the plans for the fence with the trim boards at the top? Thanks.

    Posted by B Lupton
  5. March 30, 2009 @ 6:58 am


    Go to amazon.com or to your closest book store. There are many great books out there about fences.

    Posted by Chris
  6. April 26, 2009 @ 12:37 pm


    Chris,

    thanks for your help. this is invaluable to me as I plan my new fence

    Posted by michael Keaton
  7. April 28, 2009 @ 2:57 pm


    Glad I could help!

    Posted by Chris
  8. May 21, 2009 @ 10:48 pm


    […] you are the type that really cares about quality, you might also read about how to build a fence that lasts. Leave a […]

  9. February 21, 2011 @ 12:10 pm


    Mike,

    Awesome! thanks for adding! Everyone, thank Mike when your fence is still strong in 10 years.

    Posted by Chris
  10. May 2, 2013 @ 7:57 am


    This is very useful info. I have spent some weeks planning the fence I am going to build this summer, and plan to use this design. I realize this article is a couple years old, but I have a question, and it would be awesome if I could get a response. When it comes to attaching the rails to the inside of the post, you recommend toe nailing (I assume with an exterior grade screw). Is there any reason not to use a galvanized hanger bracket? That would make it much easier to precisely position the rail. I haven’t found an answer to this question anywhere online. Thanks.

    Posted by sean
  11. May 7, 2013 @ 2:17 pm


    I think brackets are great but the expense is not necessary with a little measuring. Send pictures, please. We’ll add it as an alternative.

    Posted by Chris

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