How to Build a Wood Fence: A DIY Guide

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A green greenhouse in a backyard with a wood fence and wood dining table

While the number of designer fences made from aluminum and vinyl is booming across the United States, the wood fence is still the most popular type, according to 2019 data from Improvenet. Wood is a material that blends with any landscape, and while wood isn't the least expensive of fencing materials you could choose, it's one of the most DIY-friendly, especially if you opt for building your fence with slats and rails rather than premade panels. Champion Fence notes that the standard 6-foot privacy fence — an example of a board-and-stringer fence — is the most popular style in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and while Tulsa isn't exactly a trend-setting city, the same is undoubtedly true across most of the country.

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Wood fencing looks best when it's left unfinished or coated with a semitransparent stain or a clear finish, and the only two commonly available wood species that can last for any length of time unpainted in rain and sunlight are redwood and cedar. Because cedar is more abundant and less expensive, it's the most common choice for fencing slats, and it has natural reddish and brownish hues that rival those of redwood.

Wood Privacy Fence Styles

A privacy fence is one that you can't see through, and short of using solid wood fence panels, which require accurate placement of the fence posts, you can use slats in three different ways to meet this requirement:

  • Board to board: The slats butt against one another. This is the most basic and least expensive option, but gaps develop between the slats over the years as the wood shrinks. One way to counter this is to install 1x3 battens over the gaps.
  • Tongue and groove or shiplap: The fence slats are milled to fit together. This style eliminates gaps, but the slats are more expensive.
  • Shadowbox (board on board): Slats are installed alternately on both sides of the fence rail with a gap between them that is narrower than the board width. This blocks a head-on view through the fence and has the advantage of making the fence look the same from both sides, but it's probably the most expensive design, and it makes the fence heavy.

You want the fence to be tall enough to provide privacy, but constructing it taller than you need is a waste of money, and it may violate local ordinances. The standard height for a privacy fence is 6 feet, but 4 or 5 feet could be sufficient if the land slopes away from the outside of the fence.

Finally, consider how you want the top of the fence to look. The most common and easiest option is to cut the ends of the slats square, but you can also add curves without much extra effort. Another option is to install a 2-foot-top trellis on the top for vines to grow.

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Overview of Wood Fence Installation

The three components of a wood fence are posts, rails and slats. Posts are set in concrete, typically to a depth equal to a third of the total length of the post. The post has to be deep enough to support the fence — a privacy fence is heavy and resists the wind — and you want the bottom of the post to be at least 6 inches below the frost line to prevent heaving in the winter. Typical post material is 4x4 pressure-treated pine or fir.

Standard post spacing is a little less than 8 feet, which ensures that you can use standard 8-foot 2x4 lumber for the rails. A Detroit contractor posting in Brick + Beam Detroit recommends a spacing of 7 feet 8 inches, but this may vary somewhat with the slope of the land and the presence of obstructions in the fence line, such as tree roots. After you set the posts and fasten the rails, you fasten the slats to the rails with a nail gun or screws. The simplest design has all the slats butting against one another on the outside of the fence.

You need to know where the property lines are so you don't encroach on a neighbor's property and so you observe the proper setbacks. You also need to call 811, the "call before you dig" hotline, to determine the locations of underground utilities before you dig any holes. Finally, avoid having to tear down your brand-new fence by checking with the building authorities before you build to ensure your fence design conforms with local ordinances and get a building permit if one is required in your community.

Things You'll Need

Image Credit: Thomas Faull/iStock/GettyImages

How to Build a Wood Fence

Step 1: Lay Out the Fence Line

Drive stakes into the ground to mark the positions of the corner and end posts. Stretch string lines between the stakes to represent the fence line. Measure the distance from this line to the property line to ensure you're conforming to the required setback, or the minimum distance a structure should be from the designated property line (often 6 inches). Drive a stake for each of the gate posts, which can be anywhere along the fence line as long as the spacing between them is enough to accommodate the gate you plan to install.

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Step 2: Dig Holes for the Corner, End and Gate Posts

Now that you've verified the fence line, remove the string and dig a hole for each corner, end and gate post. The hole should accommodate at least a third of the total length of the post, so for a 6-foot fence, you'll need 9-foot 4x4 pressure-treated posts buried 36 inches deep. Dig the holes an extra 3 inches deep for drainage gravel. Posts come in 10-foot lengths, which leaves you some extra length above ground that can be trimmed later.

You can dig the holes with a post-hole digger, but it's easier and quicker to use a rented digging auger. The diameter of the holes should be three times the width of the posts, says Quikrete,.) or about 12 inches for a 4x4 post.

Step 3: Set the Corner, End and Gate Posts in Concrete

Fill the bottom of each post hole with 3 inches of drainage gravel, place the post in the hole and use it to tamp down the gravel. Mix a batch of concrete as directed to a consistency that's stiff enough to remain on the shovel. You'll need about one 60-pound bag of concrete per hole, and it's best to mix it in a wheelbarrow.

Position the post so it is aligned with the fence line and fill the hole about a third of the way with concrete. Plumb the post in both directions using a 4-foot level and then pour more concrete until the hole is two-thirds full and check with the level again. After making adjustments, fill the hole to ground level and plumb the post one last time. Let the concrete cure as directed.

Step 4: Mark the Line Posts

Drive a nail partway into the bottom of each corner, end and gate post that faces the outside of the fence and stretch string lines between the nails. Using a 100-foot tape measure, mark the positions of the line (intermediate) posts and spray the ground on the inside of the line with marking paint to mark their positions. The spacing between the last post in the line and the opposite end or corner may be shorter than the others, which is fine.

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Step 5: Set the Line Posts

Dig a hole for each line post, drop in gravel and set the post with its outside face touching the string line and parallel to it. Pour concrete into the hole and plumb the post in both directions. Then, let the concrete set.

Step 6: Make Marks for the Rails

The top, bottom and middle rails should be parallel when the fence is on level ground. If the ground slopes gently, the rails can follow the slope. On steep slopes, it's often best to step the fence sections, keeping the rails level. Make three marks on each post that will support a rail, marking at 6 inches, 30 inches and 54 inches above the ground. Draw a line across the post face through each mark using a speed square to denote the bottom of the rail.

Step 7: Cut and Install the Rails

Measure the distance between each set of posts before you cut the rails because the spacing may not be uniform. Cut three rails from 2x4 cedar lumber to the measurement using a circular saw. If the ground slopes by more than a few degrees, it's best to angle the saw blade to the same angle and cut opposing bevels on the ends of the rails so they fit flush against the post faces.

Fasten the rails to the posts with galvanized steel angle brackets, attaching them to the undersides of the rails and the post faces with 1 1/4-inch deck screws and a drill. Be sure to line up the bottoms of the rails with the lines you made on the post.

Step 8: Cut the Posts

The tops of the posts can be flush with the top rail or 2 inches above it depending on your preference. Mark the cut line with a speed square and cut with a circular saw, or because this can be a challenging cut to make with a circular saw, use a reciprocating saw. Install decorative post caps if desired, which help prevent rot. Solar post caps with lights also can add a nice touch to your summer evenings out in the backyard.

Image Credit: thyegn/iStock/GettyImages

Step 9: Fasten the Slats to the Rails

Because the slats butt together, you only have to plumb the first one, and it should be plumb if you line it up with the edge of an end or corner post, but double-check it with a level. Avoid ground contact by keeping the bottom 2 inches off the ground, which will bring the top of a 6-foot slat 2 inches above the top rail. Nail or screw the slats into all three rails as well as the post with 1 1/2 -inch galvanized finish nails or deck screws using two fasteners per rail.

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Install each of the remaining slats, butting against the previous one with its top and bottom edge flush. The slat should be plumb, but it helps to check and make adjustments periodically, as the slats tend to go out of plumb because of imperfections in the wood. Rip the last slat in the line to the proper width to bring it flush with the end, corner or gate post using a circular saw.

Step 10: Build and Hang the Gate

Construct a frame from 2x4 lumber that fits inside the gate opening with a gap of about 3/4 inch to ensure it swings freely. Attach fencing slats to the gate frame so that their tops and bottoms are at the same level as the fence slats. Some builders like to hang the frame and attach the slats afterward to make this easier. Hang the gate on heavy-duty gate hinges, install a latch on the opposite side and test the gate to make sure it opens and closes easily.

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references

Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker.com.