What makes wood fence so popular? First, it is extremely customizable. Next, it is affordable when compared to synthetic lumber or vinyl fence.
Multiple types of lumber and countless configurations make wood fence one of the most used styles today. Wood fence can fit almost any need you may have or want to achieve.
This guide will walk you through all the options of wood fencing. Learn the components, how they are installed, and what it takes to maintain wood fence.
Once done reading this guide, you will know more about wood fence than you ever imagined.
Wood Fence Terminology
Before we go into any further detail about wood fence, I thought it made sense to go over the parts and terminology of one.
In order to understand the construction of wood fence, a knowledge of the components is key. So take a minute to get familiar with the parts. I will be using these terms through the remainder of this guide.
Fence posts are the vertical supports that provide the foundation of a fence. This is where the fence panels or stringers attach too. A 4×4 wood post is the most common.
Posts used for gates can be larger. Posts made from steel are used when more strength is needed. Fence posts get concreted into the ground for most installs. However, some posts can be driven into the dirt.
The distance between each post is usually 8 feet on center.
Stringer or Rail
Stringers or rails are the horizontal pieces of wood that go between each fence post. 2×4’s are most common. However some sturdier fences will have 2×6 stringers.
On the flip side, some of the pre-made fence panels will have a smaller 2×3 stringer. The amount of stringers per section will depend on the height of the fence.
Pickets are the boards that attach to the stringers, usually in a vertical fashion. However, there are some styles of fence that have horizontal or even diagonal pickets.
Picket sizes come in a wide range of widths and heights. The most common widths are a 1×4 and 1×6. Sometimes the top of a wood picket will have a design cut into it.
Common styles of picket tops are flat top, dog ear, pointed, gothic, and French gothic.
Wood Fence Styles
Wood is rigid and strong. Well suited for construction. Making it a great material for building fences. Its versatility allows for many styles of fence.
If you can dream it, it can probably be built from wood. There are four main categories wood fence falls under. Picket fence, semi private fence, horizontal fence, privacy fence, and agricultural fence. Let’s explore the construction of each style.
Wood Picket Fence
Picket fence is any fence that has all of the pickets on one side of the stringers and has a space between each picket. The space or “gap” between the pickets can be any dimension.
The right ratio of space to surface material effects the way picket fences look. Picket fences most commonly use 1×4 pickets. A standard space between each picket is 2″. However, tighter or wider spacing is also common.
Some fences have wider, 1×6 pickets. The wider board covers more surface area. As a result, there are fewer spaces between each section.
Because picket fences have openings, shorter heights are common. Picket fences can be as short or as tall as wanted, keeping building codes in consideration. Generally, picket fences are 3,4 or 5 feet tall.
Wood picket fences are good for fencing in yards or gardens. They do a great job keeping children or animals contained.
Viewed as being un-intrusive to bordering neighbors. Corner accents or along sidewalks leading to a front door are common places to find picket fences in a front yards.
Some homeowner associations will only allow picket fences. They are the least expensive of all of the wood styles to build.
Wood Semi Private Fence
Semi private fences are fences that screen most of what’s on the other side of them. Generally starting a 5′ high and taller, semi private fences will normally have a space between the pickets. However, this space is usually closer together than that of a picket fence.
Most times semi private fences have spaces of 1″ or smaller. Pickets can be on one side or the other, and sometimes both depending on the style. Semi private fences use both 1×4 or 1×6 pickets depending on style.
Semi private fences are most common in backyards and around swimming pools. Many times used in a specific areas like next to a patios or around pool equipment. This is because they still allow a small amount of light and air to flow through the fence.
Because of this, they are also popular around dumpster enclosures where extra ventilation comes in handy. However, semi private wood fences are the least popular.
Most customers feel if they are going to have a taller fence installed, they want to take advantage of the height and go with a privacy fence.
Wood Privacy Fence
Privacy fences screen out whatever (or whoever) is on the other side. They normally start at 5′ tall and go up from there. 6′ tall privacy fences are most popular. However, 4′ tall privacy fences keep dogs from seeing happenings on the other side, and are common too.
1×4 and 1×6 are popular pickets sizes. Solid board fences have pickets on one side butted next to one another.
Shadow box or board on board fences have pickets on both sides of the stringers. The pickets overlap slightly. Also known as “good neighbor fence” because both sides look the pretty much the same.
Most other styles have a good side and bad side. The good side of the fence has the pickets attached to it. In most cases, they almost always faces outward. The bad side of the fence has the stringers and posts exposed.
Privacy fence is for blocking or screening something out of view. Backyards are a popular place to find privacy fences.
The days of knowing your neighbors is sadly over. People no longer want to see their neighbors, or have their neighbors see them.
Many restaurants and bars have private patios or dining ares surrounded by privacy fence. Small business often have privacy fences to keep storage areas outside private and secure.
It’s not uncommon to see one at the perimeter of a development either. Usually providing a privacy and sound barrier from a nearby road.
Take a drive to the country and chances are you’ll see a wood agricultural fence. Because these fences normally cover a lot of ground, the components used to make them are minimal.
Mainly just posts and stringers. Sometimes called board fence, corral fence or rail fence. They can have 3-5 horizontal boards.
Heights usually fall between 4 to 5 feet tall. Like all wood fences however, custom sizes are available. Split rail fence is another kind of wood fence.
However, not made from dimensional lumber, I will have a separate guide covering everything you need to know about split rail fences.
Agricultural fences contain horses or cattle. They are also common along roadsides leading up to front entrances of developments for purely decorative purposes.
A very simple and effective design, they are easy to build so most farmers or ranchers can handle the task of building them themselves.
Wood Fence Extras and Add-ons
By now I’m sure you are seeing a common theme here. Wood fences are customizable to look the way you want.
We’ve covered the most popular styles, although there are plenty more. Now, let’s take a look at some options we can add to a wood fence make then even more customized.
Wood Post Caps
Many people don’t like the flat abrupt ending of the post sticking out of the ground. In order to dress things up a bit, there are post caps.
Post caps for wood fence come in two main categories. A design or shape cut into the post is the first one. Hand tools can cut certain designs. Other styles require special machines to cut the shape onto the post.
A slip over cap is the second option. This style of post cap sits on top of the wood post. Both styles will require taller posts so the cap can stick out above the fence line. Slip over caps are popular because the post can be cut to the correct height after the fence is installed.
There are many post caps companies offering multiple designs from the very simple to ones with copper accents or lighting.
Lattice accents are when the upper portion of a fence has a section of lattice installed on it. Sometimes people want a little fancier looking fence. So they install lattice on the top 12-18 inches of it.
Building codes do take this into consideration when measuring the total height. So if maximum privacy is the goal, adding lattice will deduct from the amount.
Fences with lattice cost more. Taking longer to build and requiring more technique. Most lattice style fences are built between the fence posts. Trim pieces keep lattice in place.
When new, lattice accents look nice. Store bought lattice panels are flimsy. The fasteners used can rust quickly resulting in your accent falling apart before the rest of your fence.
Custom made lattice has thicker dimensions and lasts longer. But buyer beware, the costs of these custom fences can be overwhelming.
Scalloped or Arched Fences
Arching or scalloping is an option for most fence styles. This means they have a radius design, either upwards or downwards, covering the span of each section between the posts.
The distance of drop or rise determines how hard or soft the radius is. Most fences have 6-9 inches between the high and low point.
There are two ways to add a scallop or arch to a fence. Method one is to cut the arch or scallop into the fence. Completed after the fence is built. With this method, pickets loose their design or shape on top. The picket tops will flow with the shape of the radius cut into the fence.
The second method is to pre build the fence section with the scallop or arch incorporated. With this method, the top of the picket is maintained. However, a special table and jig for the radius will be required.
Types of Wood for Fences
Wood fence are built from different types of lumber. Some do a better job than others. Sometimes climate and geographical location can be a factor in choosing what type of wood you should choose to build with.
Other factors can be what style of fence you are building and its purpose. Lastly, your budget will most likely dictate what type of wood you choose.
Let’s take a look at the most popular choices of wood used to build fences.
Pressure Treated Lumber
The most popular material for wood fence and the least expensive option is pressure treated lumber. Most pressure treated lumber is yellow pine. Found at almost every hardware store or lumber yard.
It has a chemical pressurized into it to help repel elements. Best in climates with high rain fall, snowy winters, or shady areas where sun cannot get to the fence.
Current pressure treating practices use a copper bath which is arsenic free, safe around children or pets. A drawback to pressure treated lumber is that it comes “wet” from the manufacture. When the wood dries, sometimes warping or twisting can occur. Manufactures have perfected the treatment process to keep this to a minimum.
Pressure treated lumber works well for most fence installs. However, fences with intricate details or smaller trim pieces are better suited with another type of wood.
The second most popular lumber for fences is Cedar. There are multiple types from red and white to inland and coastal. For our sake we’re going to lump all cedar together.
Cedar fence is more expensive than treated. However, it does have advantages. Cedar comes kiln dried from the manufacturer. It doesn’t need to dry out like treated lumber. As a result, it stays straighter. A great choice for custom fence projects with less warping compared to treated lumber.
Cedar also has natural oils helping to repel elements. It falls short in shady or damp areas. A dry porous lumber, when not exposed to sunlight, it can wick and hold moisture. As a result, growing a mold or fungus.
Left unattended, mold causes rotting and decay in cedar faster than treated lumber. Cedar should not make contact with the ground. That is why most cedar fences use pressure treated posts.
Another type of lumber used for wood fence is redwood. Redwood has even more natural oils in it making it naturally weather resistant. More durable than cedar, it provides for a longer lasting sturdier fence.
It will cost you though. Redwood is at the top of the list in regards to price for wood fence. Mainly because it’s only found in one area on the west coast. Redwood fences are built to last and require little upkeep due to their natural resistance to weather.
Wooden gates allow access to your fenced in area. Normally they match the style of fence built. They can be built to fit almost any width. The wider they are, the heavier they will be.
Heavy wood gates can cause multiple problems. Sagging is when the weight of the gate makes the gate drop in height. As result, the latch side no longer lines up.
Heavy gates also put extra strain on the hinges as well as the hinge post. Gates that do not swing and latch correctly are cumbersome and can become quite a chore to open and close.
Metal braces are available from some manufacturers to prevent gates from sagging. They screw into the corners of the wood framework giving the gate extra support.
Larger wood gates have steel frames instead of wood frames. The welded tubular steel is much stronger. In some cases it can even be lighter. The welded corners prevent the gates from sagging. This make for a much more reliable gate.
Whatever the extra cost, It’s my belief that a steel framed gate is well worth the investment. One drawback to steel framed gates is that the frame doesn’t match.
Galvanized frames have a silver color. Painted or powder coated frames blend in better but still will not match like a wood framed gate.
How to Install a Wood Fence
There are two ways to build a wood fence. “Stick built” is the first method. Stick built fence means you nail stringers and pickets up one board at a time on the job site.
The materials used in this method are usually better. Stick building allows the fence to follow the contours of uneven grade better.
Stick built fences requires more labor. However, it is considered the better method of installing a fence.
The second method is to purchase pre-made fence panels or sections. Fence panels save a lot of time and labor. Most times they are built with materials with lighter materials as compared to stick built fences.
Lumber thickness is downgraded because the fence panels need to be carried while fully assembled. Let’s take a look at the installation process using both methods.
Setting the posts
Setting posts is the first step when installing a fence. Most installs have posts set in concrete. Typical spacing for wood fence posts are 8′ on center.
Pre-made panels come in 8′ lengths. Dimensional lumber like 2x4s used for stringers, also come in 8′ lengths. So fence posts are more efficient when set 8′ apart.
Post holes are dug by hand with post hole diggers or with an auger. Once dug, concrete is used to set the posts and allowed drying time. A few days is necessary. Be patient.
If the concrete bond fractures around the post even slightly, water will be allowed to seep between the post and concrete. If temperatures drop below freezing, that water freezes and expands, cracking the footer. Not until next spring will you realize you have issues with your posts.
It’s recommended the concrete harden for 5 days before moving onto the next step.
Installing the Stringers or Rails – Stick Built Method
Installing the stringers onto the fence posts is the next step. Stringers attach to the posts using nails or screws.
Fence height determines the number of strings per section. Fences that are 4′ tall or shorter use two stringers per section. Three per section for 5′ and 6′ tall fences. Taller fences of 7′ and 8′ may require four stringers.
Most fences have the stringers attached to the outside of the posts. Some styles of fence have the stringers mounted in-between the posts. “Fence brackets” are used in these situations. After all of the stringers are nailed up, it’s time to start laying out the pickets.
Installing Wood Pickets – Stick Built Method
Installing pickets comes last. Distribute the correct amount of pickets per section between posts. Stringers provide a place to lean pickets.
There are two methods to set the heights of pickets. The first involves running a string line. Pickets are attached to the stringers at the ends or corners. Anywhere the fence line changes grade will also require one.
Then string line is then ran across the top of the pickets. The string line provides a visual guide to set the height of the pickets.
A second way is to use a jig that sits on the top stringer. The jig sticks out above the stringer at the height you want the pickets to be. A horizontal piece extends to one side providing a stopping point when you raise a picket.
After each picket is nailed two the stringer, the jig gets moved to the side and the process is repeated.
Setting the Picket Spacing – Jig Method
When nailing up a solid board fence, spacing is easy. Every picket will be butted up next to each other. If the fence requires a space between pickets, there are two methods to do so.
Going back to the jig that we used above to set the picket heights. The same jig should be built to the width of the space you want between each picket. As you move the jig over each time you nail up a picket, it not only sets the height but also the space.
The space between the pickets stays uniform until you get to the end of a fence line. At that point you may need to adjust the spacing slightly to get the desired look.
Setting the Picket Spacing – Mathematical Method
Uniform picket spacing between posts is achieved using some math. “Face pickets” will be installed first. Face pickets cover the joint between the stringers where they meet on the post. They should be directly inline with the post. When stringers are built between posts, no face pickets are needed.
Next, measure the distance between the face pickets. Determine how many pickets you would like to install between the face pickets and subtract the their total accumulated width from the original measurement.
Take the remaining measurement and divide it by the the number of pickets plus one. This will tell you how wide each space should be between pickets.
Installing Wood Fence Panels or Sections
Installing fence panels are easy as long as you set your posts to the correct measurement. The stringers of the panels should cover half of each post set. Cut sections are normal at ends and corners.
Because the fastener you use will have to go through the stringer and picket at the same time, a long screw or nail will be necessary. Just repeat the process from post to post and your fence will be up in notice at all.
Wood Fence Maintenance
Maintenance free. It’s the latest buzz word in the fence industry. But just how much maintenance does a wood fence require?
Maintaining your wood fence is optional. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to. Your fence will pay the price however. The sun is the hardest element on a wood fence. Not only does it dry out the lumber, it also bleaches it out. This makes the natural color of your fence fade.
Some people like this look. Others don’t. Treated lumber will turn a dull gray. Cedar fence turns a silver color when it fades. Some homeowners actually desire the silver color. The truth is, if you don’t want to do anything to your wood fence at all, then don’t.
Under normal conditions, you should still see 15 to 20 years of life from it. For more longevity however, you’re going to have to do some maintenance.
It’s a Fence Not a Deck!
Maintaining wood fence isn’t like decks. Fences don’t hold water or snow. Fences don’t have foot traffic. Flat surfaces like decks get exposed to sunlight most of the day.
Even in open areas, only one side of the fence is going to be exposed for part of the day. Then the other side, due to the suns natural rising and setting. All reasons fences don’t take as much maintenance as decks.
In areas where the sun bleaches out a fence, it may only need to be stained or sealed every 3-4 years.
Shady areas promote mildew or mold growth on fences as a result from staying damp. Fences in these areas should be pressure washed frequently to prevent rotting or decay.
The climate you live in, type of lumber used to build your fence, and exposure to elements effects how often you need to do maintenance on your fence.
Clean Your Wood Fence
Cleaning your fence is the first step in the maintenance process. Whether it’s a stain, a paint, or a water sealer, before you can apply any product to a wood fence it has to be clean.
A pressure washer is the preferred method. There are some chemical cleaners you can add while washing your fence. However, under normal conditions, straight water will be fine.
Only clean the surface. There is no need to over wash. Don’t get too close to the fence with the pressure washer wand. You don’t want to gouge or splinter the wood.
Check the weather in your area. You’ll want to make sure the fence has a day or two to dry out. Once clean and dry, it’s time for the next step.
Stain or seal. Don’t Paint Your Fence
Staining a Wood Fence
When hearing stain, you probably envision the color of an old dresser or table. But modern stains come in almost any color under the rainbow.
Semi transparent stain allow for wood grains to remain present. Opaque stain allow for a solid colored fence. The option is yours.
But why not paint your fence? Paint sits on top of wood. Stain soaks into wood. When paint dries out it chips or flakes. The next time you paint your fence you’ll have to scrape the loose paint before doing so. Imagine what a chore that will be.
When stain bleaches out from sunlight, simply just stain over it. Staining your fence is a much better option. It only takes a brush or roller. However, a sprayer will save you lots of time is you have a lot of footage to cover.
Sealing a Wood Fence
Sealing your fence is the best option in areas where there is more moisture than sunlight. A water sealer actually helps repel moisture away from the wood. This helps prevent rotting or decaying of the lumber.
Sealing your fence every few years can drastically extend the life of your wood fence. Even though sealers are clear, they will darken the color of your fence when applied.
If you want to keep the natural color of the fence while giving it extra life, use a good sealer. Apply sealers just as you would stain.
Do Both at the Same Time
If you’d like to change the color of your fence while also adding a sealer to help extend the life of it, you can. There are sealers on the market that also include a stain mixed with the sealer called a toner.
You can often find these products with a cedar or redwood color toner. With these types of products, you het the best of both worlds.
Because of style, height and lumber options, wood fence is the most widely selected fence for consumers. A wood fence can fit the almost any need you may have.
Whether you choose to install one yourself or have professionally installed, you are now armed with the knowledge to choose the wood fence for your application.
For those of you who prefer a maintenance free fence, checkout our vinyl fence guide!!!