How to Build a Wood Fence – Simple Steps

If you are interested in building a wooden fence, you can learn how to build a wooden fence in this article. Here, you will get some great tips on how to build a wooden fence.

Preparing to Build a Fence

  • Check local codes and homeowners association guidelines that might govern fence style, size and placement. Codes may also specify post hole requirements.
  • Determine if a permit is necessary.
  • Know your property lines, and discuss your plans with neighbors along your proposed fence line.
  • Determine a layout that’ll allow you to use full pickets at the corners.
  • Plan gate post locations. Gate pickets should be flush with the inside faces of the posts. Plan your gate size to use full pickets.
  • Use graph paper to draw a plan for your fence. Note the post locations and gate locations. Some towns might require this plan for an approved building permit.
  • Consider gate hardware. Each set attaches differently, and you’ll need to take that into account for gate post spacing.
  • Find a helper. You’ll need an extra set of hands for this project.

Installing a Shadowbox Wood Fence

The steps below will show you how to construct a privacy fence on your own. The pickets on each side of this shadowbox fence alternate, providing privacy while allowing you to gaze through the fence at an angle. All pickets on the exterior of a solid fence are closely connected, limiting views and providing complete seclusion.

This component-built fence will feature 6-foot pickets that are 5-1/2 inches wide and will be attached separately rather than in pre-assembled panels. The pickets will be spaced 3-1/2 inches apart. The pickets on the opposite side will create a shadowbox appearance by lining up over the 3-1/2-inch area.

To learn more about different types of fencing, see our Fence Materials Guide.

Fence Layout and Post Locations

Follow these steps to mark the layout and establish the post locations.

Step 1: Mark the Layout

Lay out the fence using rope and batter boards. Run strings between the batter boards just beyond where your fence corners will be positioned. Maintain a 6-inch distance between the strings and your property line.

The strings assist you in aligning the posts. Batter boards make it simple to alter the strings. Watch Making and Using Batter Boards for additional information on batter boards.

 

PRO TIP: To square corners, measure 3 feet along one string and 4 feet along the adjacent string. The diagonal between these points should be 5 feet. If not, adjust the strings on the batter boards.

Step 2: Mark the Posts and Spacing

Stakes or marking paint might be used. The standard spacing is 6 to 8 feet on center (from the center of one post to the center of the next). For correct spacing, keep your tape measure level.

The strings are used to identify the posts’ outer faces. Instead of being immediately under the strings, the center points of the post holes should be about 1/2 the width of the post away from them.

Step 3: Mark the Batter Boards

After determining the post hole placements, mark the string positions on the batter boards using a pencil. Transfer the string locations to the house for batter boards close to the home in case you need to remove the batter board to dig. It will be easier to dig post holes if the strings are removed. Before you set the posts, you’ll reattach them.

Dig Post Holes and Set Fence Posts

Follow these five steps to dig your post holes and set the fence posts.

Step 1: Prepare the Holes

Dig the holes to the desired depth. To help minimize heave (when the ground pushes up the posts) during a freeze, certain rules may mandate the depth to be below the frost line — the level at which water in the soil generally freezes. Frost lines differ from one place to the next. The diameter of the post hole is usually three times the width of the post.

  • For holes next to the house, use a shovel, post hole digger and digging bar.
  • In open areas, consider using a power auger to save time and effort. See our Power Earth Auger Buying Guide to learn how to choose one for your fence installation project. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and watch How to Use a Power Auger for tips.

 

PRO TIP: Clear away the dirt you removed to prevent killing the grass. Save some to top off the post holes once the concrete sets.

Step 2: Reset the Layout Lines

Reset your layout lines using the marks you made earlier on the batter boards. These help you align the posts properly.

Step 3: Set the Posts

Fill the first hole with about 6 inches of dry concrete mix at the bottom. Place a post flush against the layout line on the dry concrete, but without pushing it outward. Make sure the post is plumb with a post level before adding braces to keep it in place. Set up the rest of your posts in the same way.

Step 4: Fill in the Holes

Fill the post holes with concrete mix. You have the option of choosing between regular-set and fast-set choices. For mixing, follow the manufacturer’s directions.

  • If using regular-set concrete, like this fence, make sure it’s thick like cake batter. Fill in the space surrounding each post (image to the right). Leave a few inches of concrete below ground level. To help with water drainage, slant it away from the post.
  • Pour the dry mix around each post to a few inches below ground level and add water if using fast-set concrete. At first, the water will sit on top, ultimately working its way to the bottom. If necessary, mix it with a stake, but don’t overwork it.

PRO TIP: Regular-set concrete mix takes a little longer to cure but is less expensive than fast-setting mix and allows time for adjustments. Fast-set concrete mix cures quickly, so you’ll have to make sure your posts are set in the right place before mixing.

Step 5: Finish the Holes

Let the concrete cure and then remove the braces and top off the holes with dirt. Take down your batter boards and strings.

Install the Fence Rails

Follow these five steps to install the fence rails.

Step 1: Mark the Rail Locations on the Posts

The lower edge of the top rails will be 5 feet, 4-1/2 inches above the ground for this fence, which will have 6-foot pickets. The upper edge of the bottom rails should be approximately 9-1/2 inches above the level of the surrounding ground. To make it easier to see the marks when you’re putting together the rails, mark the lower edges of top rails and the upper edges of bottom rails on the top and bottom rails, respectively.

To determine the location of the middle rail, take a measurement between the top and bottom rail locations and add one inch. The rail locations do not have to be exact, but they should be as close as possible together for the best visual effect.

 

PRO TIP: Run a string across several posts at the correct height to quickly mark the rail locations. For sloped areas, you can mark three to four posts at a time. If the area is relatively level, you can span more posts.

Step 2: Begin Installing the Rails

In the case of short runs, such as those next to the house or around gates, measure and cut the rails to the proper length. Make them a little longer than the posts and attach them to the outside faces of the posts with two screws, one on each side of the post. In the event that you’re working close to the house, make sure the rails reach as far as the house so that the pickets can provide complete coverage. Trim the ends of the other rails so that they are flush with the posts.

Step 3: Attach the Remaining Rails

Stagger the rail joints on different posts to increase the stability of the rail system. For example, with posts approximately 8 feet apart, use 16-foot boards as the top and bottom rails to span three posts with posts approximately 8 feet apart. The middle rail should be made out of an 8-foot board stretched across two posts.

If the rails running along the fence are butted together in the middle of the posts, the fence is complete. Install the rails flush with the edge of the corner post at the end of a run to ensure a smooth finish. The rails for the next run should overlap these rail ends and be flush with the rail faces, as shown in the illustration..

When you get to the end of your fence, cut the final rails to fit as needed to complete the job. Keep in mind to allow the railings to extend all the way to the house as well.

 

PRO TIP: In areas with a significant slope, use shorter rails rather than spanning several posts with long rails. Your fence will follow the contour of the ground more closely.

Step 4: Attach the Boards

At your gate posts, cut 2 by 4s to fit between the rails. Secure the boards to the posts with screws. When you install the gate, you’ll fasten the hinges to these support boards.

Step 5: Trim the Top Posts

Cut the post tops flush with the top rails on both sides of the fence.

Install the Fence Pickets

When installing fence pickets, it is important to keep the tops of the pickets at a consistent height. The bottom of the pickets will be approximately 1-1/2 inches above the surface of the ground for this fence. There are a couple of approaches that can be used to maintain the proper height.

Top String

  • In order to achieve the desired height, install corner pickets and nail a nail into the top of each picket.
  • String a piece of string between the nails.
  • While installing the pickets, make sure the tops of the remaining pickets are aligned with the string. Avoid pushing on the string while installing.
  • This procedure is most effective in areas where the slope does not change significantly.
  • Alternatively, for the bottom of the pickets, a string tied at the desired level can be used instead.

2-by-4 Guide

  • Set a 2 by 4 on its face so that it can be used as a 1-1/2-inch guide along the bottom of the structure.
  • Install each picket on the board one at a time as you work your way down the slope.
  • It is beneficial in areas where the slope is uneven and changes frequently to use this method of slope determination.

 

PRO TIP: Pickets may have a slight green color from the treatment process, but it’ll fade over time.

Step 1: Align the Outside Pickets

Install the pickets on the outside of the fence starting on the outside of the fence. Line up the first picket on the rails, keeping it flush with the rail ends, starting at a corner and working your way around the perimeter. The 2-by-4 method described above should be used to position it at the proper height. Pneumatic nailers, pneumatic staplers, and drills can be used to secure the picket, with two fasteners being driven into each rail.

See our Nailer/Nail Gun Buying Guide to learn about selecting and using a nailer.

 

PRO TIP: Use exterior-grade fasteners rated for pressure-treated lumber.

Step 2: Assemble a Spacer

The use of a spacer will make the installation of the remaining pickets much easier. To join two 2 by 4s together, attach a short 2 by 4 block to the back of a longer, straight 2 by 4. The spacer should be hung on the top rail, against one of the corner pickets. The next picket should be installed flush against the spacer in order to achieve the proper 3-1/2-inch spacing and to keep the picket plumb.

Step 3: Install the Remaining Pickets

Continue installing pickets along the run, spacing them 3-1/2 inches apart. Periodically use a level to make sure the pickets are plumb.

 

PRO TIP: On very short runs, you may need to adjust the spacing to use full pickets.

Step 4: Check the Spacing

As you get closer to the corners, make any necessary adjustments to the spacing of the pickets to ensure that they will fit. It is preferable if the final picket at a corner is flush with the rail ends. Alternatively, you can use a table saw to rip the picket to the correct width by cutting it along its length with the blade. If your pickets have a dog ear at the top, use a speed square to mark a new dog ear and cut it out with a jigsaw to replace it.

Step 5: Overlap Corner Pickets

As you turn a corner, be sure the edge of the first picket in the new run is flush with the face of the last picket in the previous run.

Step 6: Fit the Last Picket

Measure and rip-cut the final picket as needed to ensure that it fits properly and that the proper spacing is maintained.

Step 7: Install the Interior Pickets

After you have finished installing the pickets on the outside of the fence, you can move on to installing the pickets on the inside of the fence. 1 inch on each side should be left between the outside pickets. Plumb the first picket in a run with a level and adjust its height until it is at the proper height. When working on a slope, make sure to divide the height difference between the adjacent outside pickets.

Step 8: Align the Inside Pickets

Continually install pickets, regularly checking for plumb with your spacer. In order to keep the pickets at the proper height, use twine or a 2 by 4 like you did on the outside pickets. For uneven or inclined ground, place a small 2-by-4 board over the tops of the pickets as a guide for the pickets to prevent them from moving.

Step 9: Cut the Pickets to Size

The pickets should be trimmed using a jigsaw to fit around the posts as necessary. When running short distances, rip-cut the pickets as needed.

 

PRO TIP: To compensate for the curve of the ground directly below a picket, turn the picket bottom-end up and mark the picket at the proper height. Remove any surplus material from the bottom.

Build and Install the Fence Gate

Step 1: Measure the Space Between Posts

Measure the horizontal distance between gate posts and deduct the space required for the thickness of the hinges and latches. The result is the vertical distance between gate posts. Cut the length of two horizontal gate rails to the desired length.

 

PRO TIP: An additional built-out piece on the latch-side gate post was necessary to accommodate the gate hardware on this particular fence. Check the hardware specifications for your computer. If necessary, cut and attach the piece, and remember to take it into consideration when measuring for the gate rails.

Step 2: Measure the Space Between Rails

In addition to calculating the distance between the top and bottom fence rails while accounting for the horizontal gate rails, you should also determine the thickness of the brackets if necessary. Cut the length of two vertical gate rails to the desired length.

Step 3: Assemble the Frame

Screws will be used to assemble the frame. Small miter cuts at the corners of the gate rails to allow for welds may be required depending on the hardware.

Step 4: Install a Middle Rail

Measure and cut a middle rail to run between the vertical gate rails. Install with screws.

 

PRO TIP: If your gate will be installed over level ground, you can install the pickets before hanging the gate. If your gate will be installed over uneven ground, you must place the pickets first. In order to acquire the greatest placement for the pickets when working on a slope, you must first choose where you will be working.

Step 5: Hang the Frame

Hold the frame in place while you mark the locations of the hinge holes. To attach the gate, drill pilot holes in the support board and screw the gate in place with screws. Attach the hinges to the end grain of the fence rails rather than the middle grain.

Step 6: Install the Latch

In order for the latch to function properly, it must be attached to the appropriate post or board on the outside. Make sure it’s not attached to the fence railing at the very end. The pieces on the gate’s side should be aligned, and they should be screwed into place.

Step 7: Attach the Pickets to the Frame

Use a string tied to the adjacent fence runs as a reference to determine where to place the pickets on the fence.

Finishing and Maintaining Your Fence

You should wait a few months before staining or painting the lumber to ensure that it has completely dried. Every few years, pressure-treated lumber should be stained or painted to maintain its appearance. Follow the instructions provided by the product manufacturer for preparation and application.

 

Working with Pressure-Treated Lumber

Guidelines

  • Stainless steel or hot-dipped, galvanized screws are used fasteners and hardware labeled for treated lumber.
  • Pilot holes should be drilled in the ends of boards to prevent them from splitting when they are nailed or screwed together.
  • When it is important for the project, choose wood that has been treated for ground contact.

Safety

  • Wear a dust mask and eye protection when handling or cutting wood.
  • After dealing with treated wood, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly.
  • Sawdust and garbage should be disposed of in accordance with local standards.
  • Pressure-treated wood should not be burned.
  • Pressure-treated wood should not be used as mulch.
  • The EPA website has a pile more of related materials to read more on pressure-treated lumber and other wood preservatives.