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I made a sketchcast about how to build a wood bulkhead and I wrote about how to build a wood retaining wall but I might have assumed too much about how much you know about the bulkhead materials I listed. They are slightly off the beaten path from “regular” building materials you’d find at your local hardware store so here is a breakdown of basic wood bulkhead materials.

Wood Bulkhead Materials List

Building a wood bulkhead is similar to building a privacy fence. You have posts (pilings), rails (wales), and pickets (sheets or sheeting). A bulkhead typically has great horizontal force applied against it, though, so it has more structural requirements than a fence. In order of front to back (water side to ground side) the parts of a wood bulkhead are:

  • Pilings (can be round or square)
  • Wales
  • Center Match (sometimes call “sloppy tongue & groove”)
  • Filter Cloth
  • Tie Rods
  • Deadmen
  • Top Cap
  • All the required Hardware (nails, screws, spikes, nuts, washers)

Attention: First, the materials required for YOUR wood bulkhead might be different from those I am showing below so please have your bulkhead designed and specified by a professional builder and/or designer. Also, be sure to use the proper materials for the best longevity. Using cheap materials to save money NOW is only wasting money in the long run. Use properly treated wood, galvanized or stainless hardware, and make sure the bulkhead is installed properly.

Treated Pilings

You can use round or square pilings. It is totally up to you. You might want to match your neighbors’ bulkheads or you might be concerned about costs (round pilings cost less). Either way, use properly treated wood – 2.5 pcf in saltwater and a minimum of .60 pcf in freshwater. For brackish (mixed fresh and salt) water, go with 2.5 pcf.

Round pilings - small ones

treated 6x6 timbers


Wales are the horizontal boards (like the rails on a fence). Most wood bulkheads have two but some will have three or more. Wales are connected to the land-side of the pilings and will have the center match sheets nailed to them. A very common size used for wales is 3×8. You should use the longest lengths possible to minimize joints, which can become weak spots. You should be able to find 3×8-20’s from most marine construction suppliers. Many other sizes are commonly use depending upon the sizes of the bulkhead and the forces applied to it. I have seen wood bulkheads with 8×8 wales.

treated 3x8 rough lumber for wales

Center Match

Center match are sometimes called “sloppy tongue & groove” because the joint is a little loose to allow for swelling in the water so the edges will not break with regular expansion and contraction when the boards alternates between wet and dry.

Center match is usually nominal 2×10 with actual dimensions of 1.5″ x 8.9″. That is, because of the groove each board only spans 8.9 inches – very important to factor into your bulkhead materials list. I have heard of numerous people making an extra trip to the dealer (or paying for another delivery) because they were 5 pieces short of center match.

treated 2x10 center match

Filter Cloth

Filter cloth is kind of like a very thick felt. The purpose of filter cloth is to stop silt and dirt from seeping through the spaces between the center match while allowing water to drain and relieve hydrostatic pressure from the bulkhead after a rain – it helps maintain a cleaner appearance and keeps soil behind the bulkhead where it should be. While some people use plastic for this purpose, I truly believe a quality geotextile filter cloth is better because it allows the water to drain. Filter cloth is cheap – use it.

Geo-Textile Filter Cloth for a Wood Bulkhead comes in rolls

Tie Rods

Tie rods support the structure from behind to keep it from falling forward (into the water). Tie rods will be connected to the pilings on one end (via hold drilled from the front to back of each piling) and to deadmen on the other end. They are simply long rods with about 12″ of threads on each end for a nut.

Builders usually use tie rods that are about 3 times as long as the exposed height of the bulkhead being built. For example, a 4′ tall wall will commonly use 12′ long tie rods. The come in diameters including 1/2″, 5/8″, 3/4″, and larger. Some people use cables instead of tie rods but tie rods are stronger and they can easily be tightened if needed.

galvanized tie rods


I have no idea why deadmen are called deadmen but I can make up some good stories about medieval times and using what you have to protect the castle if you want. 🙂

Dead men are treated posts – round or square and often cutoffs – used to “tie back” the bulkhead and support it from behind. Like the rest of the materials, the size of the deadmen used should be based upon the overall height of the wall and the load it bares.

new dead men.  These might be cut in half for a small wall.

Top Cap

Most top caps are made using a regular S4S 2×12. While they are not required, top caps will provide a little more structural integrity while giving the wall a more finished appearance from above.


Use galvanized or stainless steel hardware when building on or near water. Screws are better than nails but more time-consuming. Generally, you will need the following hardware for your bulkhead:

  • Tie Rods with 2 nuts and 2 washers for each
  • Spikes (60 penny nails) to attach the wales to the pilings
  • 16 penny nails (or larger) to attach the center match to the wales and the top cap to the wales
  • Staples to attach the filter cloth to the center match

The materials list for a wood bulkhead is pretty simple and short. The bulkhead materials listed above will work for most wood bulkheads or retaining walls built around residential locations. If you need a reliable source for wood bulkhead materials, call the people at Building Products Plus in Houston, TX who let me take the pictures above in their yard. They ship nationwide so you can call them from anywhere.

Here’s a simple sketchcast from WoodScience (became Lumber Talk) on how to build a wood bulkhead.


  1. February 13, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    will a wood bulkhead last longer in freshwater than saltwater and if so, roughly how long
    I am trying to see if I need to install a vinyl sheet bulkhead, I have a place on toledo bend
    Thank you

    Posted by Floyd Goodman
  2. February 13, 2009 @ 10:45 am


    That’s tough because it’s not really an apples to apples situation. Consider these things:

    1. Saltwater is harsher than freshwater BUT you use wood with stronger treatment for saltwater (2.5 pcf versus .60pcf ).

    2. Saltwater often has rougher conditions overall – more wave action, salt, more wind but a freshwater place can have rough waves and wind, too.

    Vinyl WILL last a lot longer than wood on Toledo Bend. Call Eric Lincoln at Building Products Plus in Houston (the company mentioned above). Eric has about 15 years of experience supplying materials for projects around Toledo Bend (and throughout Texas). (713) 434-8008.

    I hope this helps.


    Posted by Chris
  3. September 19, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    I am purchasing a home on Lake Houston which has a boat house and bulkhead do you know of anyone I could contract to inspect it. Also do you know if Lake Houston has any wood boring marine life that may attact the pilings and where I might find informaiton on this subject.

    John Campbell

    Posted by John
  4. November 6, 2009 @ 6:14 pm


    I missed this one – sorry for the super-late reply. I go wakeboarding on Lake Houston a few times per year. There are a number of people around to inspect it for you. Call the guys at Building Products Plus and they will recommend someone good for you – 713-434-8008. I don’t know of any special wood boring stuff in the water in Lake Houston. Overall, I think it’s a pretty clean lake. .60 treated pilings should be fine. If you are paranoid or just want them to last forever, use the poly coated pilings from the guys at Building Products Plus. You’ll notice from reading around this blog I am a HUGE fan of poly coated wood.

    Thanks! Enjoy your home (which you are probably already in by now)


    Posted by Chris

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