One of the all-time great spring and summer projects is building a fence. Fences define your space, accent your home, and can do wonders to dress up the exterior of your property. They are also relatively easy, offer a wide range of design opportunities, and provide lots of personal satisfaction at the end of the weekend.

If a new fence might be on your list of projects this year, there are a few preliminary considerations to research prior to buying any lumber:

  • If the fence will be on the dividing line between two properties, do you know exactly where the property lines are? Research city or county property records, talk with your neighbors, and even hire a surveyor if necessary.

  • Are there any restrictions you need to know about? Some municipalities and homeowner’s associations have rules about heights, design, materials, and other aspects of fence building, so check with all the local authorities first.

  • Have you talked to your neighbors? There’s an old adage that “good fences make good neighbors,” so discuss your design ideas and intentions with adjacent property owners prior to getting started.


There are literally hundreds of ways to design and construct a fence, so once you have the preliminaries out of the way, the fun can really begin. With so many possibilities out there, you might want to take the time to drive around different neighborhoods and get ideas, visit your local lumber yard or home center, and maybe grab a fencing book or two at your local library or book store. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Split rail: Split-rail fencing is easy to build and looks great even as it weathers. In the traditional, “Abe Lincoln” style, 8-foot long rails simply stack on top of one another, with the rows of rails laid out in slightly alternating angles to give the fence stability. A more updated version uses short, predrilled posts set in the ground, with the rails then slipped into the holes. Split-rail fences are especially well suited for low, decorative fences up to about 3 feet in height.

  • Open rail: Open-rail fencing is another easy and attractive fence. Use 4×4 square or 4-inch round pressure-treated posts set in the ground, and then construct the fence using 2×6 lumber nailed horizontally to the face of the posts, with approximately 6 to 10 inches of space between the rails. Open-rail fencing makes a nice decorative low fence, or can be built up to about 5 feet high for horses and other animals. For dogs and other smaller animals, you can add a wire mesh over the rails.

    Open-rail fences look really great painted white, but they require periodic maintenance. You might also consider using brown pressure-treated 2×6 rails, which cost a little more initially but are more attractive and weather much better then standard fir lumber. Another alternative is white or colored vinyl fencing, which has the same open-rail look with virtually no maintenance.

  • Picket Fences: Picket fences offer some wonderful design and decoration possibilities for creating a low fence. Traditionally, narrow boards–called pickets–with pointed, angled, or other decorative tops or cutouts, are installed vertically over horizontal rails. The boards have a space between them that is equal to approximately one-half to one full-board width, and the fence is typically painted white. There are lots of pre-cut wood and vinyl pickets available, or you can make your own out of any suitable lumber.

  • Solid Fences: This is the traditional “backyard fence,” typically 5 feet in height and with solid fencing to provide privacy. Ideas abound for this type of fence, but the basic design includes round metal or 4×4 pressure-treated wood posts set in concrete approximately 6 to 8 feet apart, horizontal rails of cedar or pressure-treated 2×4 or 2×6 lumber, and vertical or diagonal cedar or treated lumber fence boards. Many lumberyards carry pre-built fence sections, which include the rails and fence boards and are simply attached to posts set in the ground.

  • “Good-Neighbor” Fences: A variation of the solid fence, “good neighbor” fences are designed to be equally attractive from both sides–an especially important consideration if you’re sharing the cost of the fence with a neighboring property owner. With the traditional style of solid fence board attached to rails, you can simply alternate the fence boards so that one section faces your property, and the next section faces your neighbor’s, etc. Another variation utilizes posts and rails that have a slot running down the center. The fence boards fit into the slots, locking them firmly in place and centering them between the posts so that the fence looks the same on both sides. Fences of this type, with the slotted 2×4 rail, can have a tendency to sag between the posts, so a short post extending down vertically from the center of each rail will do wonders to keep the fence sturdy and attractive over time.

Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at

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