Almost every wooden fence is built on a framework of upright posts and connecting rails, or stringers. This simple skeleton can support a range of fences that will meet practically any need. A fence of nothing more than posts and rails makes a clear boundary marker, adapts well to rough or rolling terrain, and covers the most ground with the least lumber. Siding nailed to a post-and-stringer frame can take the shape of a low picket fence to decorate the border of a front yard or of a tall board fence (page 203) to ensure privacy or keep children and pets within bounds.
In all of these fence styles, your first concern is the quality of the building materials. Assemble the fence with pressure-treated lumber or naturally decay-and insect-resistant woods, such as cedar or redwood. All are more expensive than construction-grade lumber, but they will last longer. Fasten the elements with hot-dipped galvanized, aluminum, or stainless-steel fasteners, which will not rust and stain the fence.
Protect your eyes when hammering nails, using a circular saw, or operating a router. Wear gloves when handling pressure-treated lumber, and add a dust mask when cutting it.
The fence of this type shown on the following pages is made of 1-by lumber, face-nailed to 4-by-4 posts. For a three-rail fence, set the posts 36 to 42 inches high. For a four-rail fence, make the posts 48 to 54 inches high. To protect the top ends of posts from rot, top them with plastic or metal caps or with an angled cap rail.
This type of fence is built in a wide range of styles. If you cannot find prefabricated pickets you will have to cut your own. A picket fence can be any height but is usually 3 to 4 feet, with l-by-4 pickets projecting about 6 inches above the top stringer.
The tops of picket fences can be cut into any number of original shapes. The best tool for a relatively short fence is a saber saw or, for mass production, a router equipped with a flush-trimming bit.
With tapered rail ends that fit into mortised posts, these fences are sturdier than post-and-board fences and almost as easy to install. With this fence style, the posts are not all set first—they are placed in their holes as the fence is assembled. Prefabricated mortised posts and tapered stringers are sold by lumber suppliers in a variety of styles.
Building a post-and-board fence
Trim a 1-by-4 or 1-by-6 to extend from a corner or end post to the center of the second line post. Nail this board to the posts with 2½-inch galvanized common nails. Trim the board for the next course so it fits from the corner to the center of the first line post, then nail it in place with the aid of a spacer cut to the appropriate length (above). This will result in staggered joints that will make for a more rigid fence. Work toward the opposite corner, attaching boards cut to span three posts until you need short pieces for ends. Finally, nail metal or plastic caps onto the posts.
Beveling the posts
Prepare each post for the cap rail by sawing a 30-degree bevel at the post’s top end before you set the post in the ground. Set your circular saw to cut a 30-degree angle across the post about 3 inches from one end (above, left). The saw will cut only partway through and you must finish with a handsaw. To prepare a corner post, make a second cut at a 30-degree angle across an adjacent side (above, right). To set the posts, refer to the instructions on page 192.
Marking the cap rail
With a helper, hold a 1-by-6 in position on top of a corner post and a line post. Have the helper set one end of the board at the center of the line post while you mark the underside of the board along the angle of the top of the corner post (left). Mark the matching cap-rail board to fit across the other angled face of the corner post. With a combination square, transfer the marks to the other face of each board to facilitate sawing.
Cutting the cap rail
Set your circular saw to cut a 30-degree angle. Saw the rails along the marks you made in the previous step (right). Fasten one of the cap rails with 2½-inch galvanized common nails to the corner post and line post, aligning the tops of the rails with the top edges of the beveled posts. Place the other cap rail in position and test the fit (inset). If necessary, trim the board with a block plane.
Installing the stringers
Stringers can be installed face down as shown or on edge. The former method is more prone to sag under the weight of the fence while the latter one is more likely to bow from wind pressure. For the bottom stringers, trim 2-by-4s to fit between each pair of posts and secure an angle iron to each end with 34-inch galvanized No. 8 wood screws. Attach these stringers to the posts about 8 inches above the ground: Drive screws through the angle iron and toenail the 2-by-4s with 3½-inch galvanized common nails. Cut the first top stringer to length to stretch from the corner post to the middle of the first line post. Miter one end of the board at 45 degrees so it will match the stringer on the adjoining fence line. Drill two clearance holes in each end of the stringer, then fasten it to the posts with 2½-inch No. 8 wood screws (left). Continue to install stringers in this way, using long 2-by-4s to span as many posts as possible. Cut the pattern in the top of your pickets (below); if you have purchased precut pickets, go ahead and attach them.
From the simple rounded shape to more complicated patterns, the gallery above shows just a sample of the possible forms of picket tops you can cut yourself. The first step is to design the pattern on paper. Then transfer it to a 1-by-4 board and cut out the shape with a saber saw. Sand any rough spots. You can use this as a template to draw the pattern on the picket stock before cutting out each one with a saber saw (page 200). A faster method would be to cut the shape out of ½-inch plywood and use it as a router template (page 201).
Cutting a pattern freehand
Outline the template pattern onto a picket, then clamp the picket to a work table. To keep the saber-saw blade from binding in the kerf, make release cuts from the edge of the picket to the tightest turns. Align the blade with the beginning of the cutting line, then feed the saw into the stock, guiding the tool to keep the blade on line (right). Smooth any rough spots on the picket with medium-grade sandpaper.
Attaching the pickets
Make a spacer to help you set the height and spacing of the pickets: Cut a piece of scrap wood to the same length as the pickets, then rip it to the desired width of the gap between the pickets. Attach a cleat to the spacer so it will hang from the top stringer at the correct height. Drill two clearance holes in each picket at the spots where they will contact the stringers. Set the first picket against the edge of an end post and align its point with the top of the spacer. Plumb the picket with a level and secure it with a 1¼-inch No. 6 screw. Continue in this manner (above), checking with a level every few pickets to make sure they are not straying out of plumb.
Cutting along the template
Outline the template (page 199) on the picket, then cut out the pattern roughly with a saber saw staying about ¼ inch outside the line. Align the template over the picket stock and clamp the assembly to a work surface. Fit the router with a top-piloted flush-trimming bit and adjust the cutting depth so the bearing will be in line with the template. To make the cut, slide the router toward the picket until the bearing touches the template. Move the router around the picket against the direction of bit rotation, keeping the bearing pressed against the template.
Vinyl fencing offers several advantages over the traditional wooden version, the main one being longevity. Most manufacturers offer at least a 20-year warranty on their fences; some even guarantee them for the life of the original owner. Available in a huge variety of styles, vinyl fencing requires little upkeep. And at the end of its useful life, it is 100 percent recyclable. All these advantages come at a price: vinyl fencing may cost more than a comparable wood fence. However, in the long run, the maintenance-free nature of the product can make it an economical option.
Building panels of pickets
Panel frames are built of 2-by-3s so that the pickets will fall flush with the outer face of a 4-by-4 post. If you want a stronger frame and do not mind the pickets sticking out a little from the posts, use 2-by-4s. Build rectangular frames of 2-by-3s to fit between each pair of posts. For each frame, cut pickets to the length of your longest picket and drill clearance holes where they will cross the stringers. Plan to situate the bottom stringers 8 inches above the ground. Lay one picket in the middle of the frame and check it for squareness to the stringers with a carpenter’s square. Lay out the remaining pickets evenly spaced, and mark their locations on the frames. Secure the pickets with 1¼-inch No. 6 galvanized wood screws.
Marking a curved pattern
On the first panel, measure down from the top center picket the desired depth of the curve and drive a nail. Drive two end nails at the top of the picket panel, each a distance from the central nail equal to half the panel length. Tie a length of mason’s line to one end nail, pull it around the central nail, and fasten it to the other end nail. Remove the middle nail. Keeping the line taut, pull a pencil along it to draw a curve on the picket panel (above). Mark each panel this way and cut the curves with a saber saw.
Installing the panels
Position a panel between the posts. Rest it on a pair of 4-by-4 blocks so the tallest picket is at the desired height. Clamp the panel to the post at each end. Drill several clearance holes into the frame then fasten it to the post with 2½-inch No. 8 wood screws (above). If the panel sags over time, add another 2-by-3 under the top one, positioned on edge with its face against the pickets.