How to Build a Fence

Good fences may make for good neighbors, but we like to think that a good fence can be so much more. A well-built fence can buffer wind, keep kids safe, and deter unwanted critters. Aesthetically speaking, a fence can give your property that coveted 'dream home' look.

Don't be fooled! Building a fence-even a pre-sectioned one as described here-is no easy task. Like painting, putting up a fence is all in the preparation and planning. Your success will rely almost exclusively on methodical planning, measuring and re-measuring, and an endless source of patience.

  • Stakes
  • Mason's line
  • Pre-sectioned fencing
  • Galvanized screws
  • Stainless steel fasteners
  • Hammer
  • Tape Measure (the longer, the better)
  • Posthole Digger
  • Shovel
  • Cement
  • Gravel
  • Tamping Bar
  • Cordless Drill
  • Saw

Building Codes and Permits

Before you even think of heading to the home improvement store, research your city's ordinances on fences and walls. Every city has regulations on how high a fence can be, its distance from the street, etc. You may even be limited on materials. Check and see if you need a building permit. If you do, you will need to submit a construction plan along with a few other forms and submit them to the city for approval.

Notify Thy Neighbor

Second to the city, you should talk to your neighbors before embarking on this project. Before you break ground you must be absolutely certain of your property lines, and if you aren't, a surveyor can help. There may be a chance that your fence will obstruct your neighbor's view or they are unhappy about it abutting their property. It's better to get all of these things out of the way before you buy materials, or worse-a legal battle begins.

Pick Your Picket

Choosing your fence depends solely on what you are using it for and your climate. If it's to keep children away from a pool, then it must be kid-proof. If you live in a windy place, a gust of wind could flatten your handiwork in a matter of seconds. Also, though it seems like a wind buffer, the wrong kind of fence can make wind around your home worse!

Determine the direction your fence will be facing and make note of the trees and shrubbery in the area. Shop around and ask a lot of questions at the home improvement store; the salesperson will be able to tell you the type of fences that are right for your yard and climate.

Jane Tip:While browsing for fences, make a note of their size. When it's time to lay out your fence, you will be way ahead of the game.

Notice what styles and types of fences your neighbors have. It's likely that they are all roughly the same style. Comparing may help your decision as well as keeping in tune with your neighborhood's character. It's also a good idea to verify property lines before you build, if your fence is defining your border with your neighbor.

Jane Tip:Check your local building regulations regarding fence; some towns limit the height of fences. Don't forget scale. A small fence in front of a tall house will look unusual and vice versa.

Wood Fences: Choosing Lumber

If you are opting for a fence made of wood, you may have the option of pressure treated or non-treated lumber. Treated lumber will be more expensive but is less apt to rot. Cedar, redwood and cypress are all high-quality wood that will not decay.

Jane Tip: If your fence is unfinished, you may want to treat or paint it before you start digging. Remember Tom Sawyer?

Laying the Fence Out

It's essential to lay out the fence correctly. This is much easier if your fence is a straight line. If your fence is enclosed, meticulousness and accuracy are key! A misstep in this department is similar to dropping a stitch while knitting-it will ruin the whole thing and you will have to start from the very beginning.

  1. Determine the fence's border by marking the four corner posts with stakes. Use the stakes to lay out the corners for the fence. Drive the stakes and use the stakes to tie your mason lines to. Use these lines to set the posts, level and plumb the posts and set the corner posts in cement. One these posts are set, plumb and level, then you can measure the distances and move the mason line to the posts for the fence line.
  2. Measure the distances between the posts from the top of the post.
  3. Run the mason's line between the posts, tying firmly to each post, suspending about 5 inches off of the ground. Make sure this line is straight as this will guide you later when you erect the fence.
  4. Determine where you want your gate to be. Then, measure the distance to this point from its posts.

Draw a diagram of your desired fence area, complete with measurements and then bring it to the home improvement store. This will tell the salesperson how much and exactly what size fencing you will need. You may want to alter the size of the fence so you won't have to trim it down.

Digging in the Dirt

Jane Tip: Before you start digging, make sure you aren't going to hit any pipes, electrical wiring or other buried debris! Your utility company will be able to tell you what lies beneath the yard.

If you have only a few holes to dig, use a posthole digger and a shovel. If you anticipate many holes, it may be in your best interest to rent an auger. An auger is a power-tool used for digging holes and because of its force you will need a helper to control it.

Once you add the concrete, you will have to brace the posts with 1X4s to keep them straight. First, drive short stakes in the ground on two adjacent sides of a posthole. This will serve as the anchor to the 1X4s.

  1. Dig the holes approximately 6 inches deeper than where the posts will fit, as the posts will want to sit at least 2 ft. into the ground, or approximately 24-30 inches deep. The width should be roughly two or three times the diameter of the posts.
  2. Fill the hole with 3-6 inches of gravel.
  3. Place post squarely in the ground.
  4. Add cement until it creeps one inch up the post.
  5. Tamp the post to knock out any air bubbles and secure it in place.
  6. Plumb the post in all directions and in line with your mason line. This will ensure a straight fence down the whole run.
  7. Brace the post with 1X4s.
  8. Read the instructions on the concrete for drying times and make sure the post is secure before you add the panels.
Jane Tip: For a watertight seal, apply butyl caulk around the fencepost once the concrete is dry.

Next, determine the distance from your new post to where the new one will be and mark it with a screw driven through a piece of paper so the spot is easy to see. (Be sure to take into consideration overlap; it will probably be just slightly shorter than your panel) Dig the next posthole here, following your measurements and mason line. Marking paint is a great tool for this as well; mark a single spot with orange paint down the line, then dig at these spots.

Jane Tip: Buy stainless steel fasteners and galvanized screws to assemble your fence if they aren't included. (And they probably won't be) They are made to last a long time as well as withstand the elements.

Once you have two posts secured in concrete you can attach the panel, making it flush with your mason line. Secure at the top and the bottom rails with galvanized screws.

Repeat mounting posts and adding paneling until you have encircled your space, leaving room for the gate. (For instructions on how to install a gate, click here)

Troubleshooting: If you get to the last piece of your fence and it's too long, you can trim it with a saw to make it fit. Unless it's a major mistake, no one is likely to notice. You can also disguise it with a plant.

The Scoop on Slope

If you are looking to erect a fence on a sloped piece of land, it's basically the same as installing it on level ground. You will want to ensure that the rails run parallel to the ground and that you measure everything carefully. Stepping up the fence in increments is another possibility, that way the fence rails are all level, just at different elevations.

Jane Tip: These directions apply for slight slopes. A major hill is probably best tackled with special fence.
  1. Determine the corner posts and stake them.
  2. Tie the mason line to join the stakes, securing firmly.
  3. Determine post positions, ensuring they are lined up with the mason line.
  4. Instead of measuring from the top of the posts, measure from the center for accuracy.

The Road Ahead

To keep your fence in looking in tiptop shape, re-apply a coat of finish within the first year and then every two years thereafter. It may need a coat of paint every couple of years, depending on your climate. To clean, use a pressure washer.

You also may need to reinforce joints here and there over the next couple of years, as the elements take their toll.

Whether your fence serves practical purposes or is strictly aesthetic, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you put it up yourself!

Article DIY Projects Reference
Article Lifestyle Reference
Article Basics Reference