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Knowing how to install a wood fence offers privacy and the chance to spruce up your home. Our guide takes you through the steps to install your very own wood picket fence.
Note: Before beginning any excavation, call your provincial utility information service to find out if there are any underground utility lines you need to be aware of.
The instructions below show you how to build a shadowbox wood fence. A shadowbox fence has pickets alternating on each side, offering some privacy but allowing you to look through the fence at an angle. A solid fence has all pickets attached tightly together on the outside only, blocking views and offering complete privacy.
This component-built fence, where you attach the pickets individually rather than in pre-assembled panels, will use 6-ft. pickets that are 5-1/2 inches wide. The space between the pickets will be 3-1/2 inches. The pickets on the opposite side will line up over the 3-1/2-in. space, creating the shadowbox effect.
Tip: While pre-assembled wood fence panels make installation faster, a component-built fence follows the contours of your yard better.
Layout Fence with String
The strings help you line up the posts. Batter boards allow you adjust the strings easily.
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.
Layout the Posts & Spacing
Mark the posts and spacing using stakes or marking paint. Typical spacing is between 6 and 8 feet on-centre (from the centre of one post to the centre of the next). Keep your tape measure level for accurate spacing.
The strings mark the outside faces of the posts. The centre points of the post holes should be about half the width of the post away from the strings, not directly under them.
Mark the String Positions
After establishing the post hole locations, use a pencil to mark the strings positions on the batter boards. For batter boards next to the house, transfer the string locations to the house in case you need to remove the batter board to dig. Remove the strings — this makes digging post holes easier. You'll reattach them before you set the posts.
Dig Post Holes
Dig the holes to size. Some codes might require the depth to be below the frost line — the level at which water in the soil typically freezes — to help prevent the ground from pushing up the posts (known as heave) during a freeze. Note that the frost line varies by region. The post hole diameter is typically about three times the width of the post.
Add a Brace to the Post
Add concrete mix to the post holes. You can choose between regular-set and fast-set options. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for mixing.
Layout the Rails
Mark the rail locations on the posts. For this fence, with 6-ft. pickets, the lower edge of the top rails will be 5 feet, 4-1/2 inches above the ground. The upper edge of the bottom rails should be about 9-1/2 inches above the ground. Indicating the locations for the lower edges of the top rails and the upper edges of the bottom rails makes it easier to see the marks when you position the rails.
Measure between the top and bottom rail locations to determine placement of the middle rail. The rail locations don't have to be exact, but should be close for the best appearance.
Tip: Run a string across several posts at the correct height to quickly mark 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.
Begin installing your rails. If you have short runs, such as next to the house or around gates, measure and cut rails to fit. Size them a bit long and attach to the outside faces of the posts with two screws at each post. If you're working next to the house, make sure the rails extend to the house, so the pickets will provide full coverage. Trim the other rail ends flush with the posts.
Attach rails for the rest of the fence. Stagger the rail joints on different posts to add stability. For example, with posts spaced about 8 feet apart, use 16-ft. boards as the top and bottom rail to span three posts. For the middle rail, use an 8-foot across two posts.
Rails along a run of the fence should butt together at the middle of posts. At the end of a run, install the rails flush with the edge of the corner post. The rails for the next run should overlap these rail ends and be flush with the rail faces.
As you reach the end of your fence, cut the final rails to fit as needed. Remember to let the rails extend all the way to the house.
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.
One of the keys to installing fence pickets is keeping the tops at a uniform height. For this fence, the bottom of pickets will be about 1-1/2 inches above the ground. There are a couple of ways to keep them at the correct height.
Tip: It’s helpful if the slope is uneven and changes frequently.
Keep in mind that pickets may have a slight green color from the treatment process, but it will fade over time.
Secure Outside Pickets
Starting at a corner, line up the first outside picket on the rails, flush with the rail ends. Use the 2x4 method above to position it at the correct height. Secure the picket with a pneumatic nailer, pneumatic stapler or drill, driving two fasteners at each rail.
Note: Use exterior-grade fasteners rated for pressure treated lumber.
Continue Installing Pickets
Assemble a spacer to simplify installation of the remaining pickets. Attach a short block of 2x4 to the back of a longer, straight 2x4. Hang the spacer on the top rail, against a corner picket. Install the next picket flush against the spacer to get the proper 3-1/2-inch spacing and to keep the picket plumb.
As you get close to corners, adjust the spacing of the pickets as necessary to make them fit. The final picket at a corner should be flush with the rail ends. If you prefer, you can use a table saw to rip the picket — cut along its length — to the correct width (if your pickets have a dog ear at the top, mark a new dog ear with a speed square and cut with a jigsaw).
Begin Installing the Inside Pickets
After you finish installing the outside pickets, begin installing the pickets on the inside of the fence. Overlap the outside pickets by 1 inch on each side. Plumb the first picket in a run with a level and position it at the correct height. On slopes, be sure to split the difference in height of the adjacent, outside pickets.
Continue Installing Pickets
Continue installing pickets, using your spacer and periodically checking for plumb. Use string or a 2x4 as you did on the outside pickets to maintain the correct height. If the ground is too sloped or uneven, use a short 2x4 board across the top of the pickets as a guide.
Cut the Pickets to Fit
Use a jigsaw to cut pickets to fit around posts as needed. On short runs, rip cut pickets as necessary.
Tip: If the contour of the ground immediately under a picket makes the picket too tall, turn it bottom-end-up and mark at the correct height. Cut the excess from the bottom.
Cut Horizontal Gate Rails
Measure the horizontal distance between gate posts and subtract the space needed for the thickness of the hinges and latch. Cut two horizontal gate rails to length.
Tip: The hardware for the gate on this fence required an additional build-out piece on the latch-side gate post. Check the requirements for your hardware. Cut and attach the piece if needed and take it into account when measuring for the gate rails.
Cut Vertical Gate Rails
Measure the distance between the top and bottom fence rails, accounting for the horizontal gate rails, and if needed, the thickness of the brackets. Cut two vertical gate rails to length.
Assemble the Frame
Assemble the frame with screws. Depending on the hardware, you may need to make small mitre cuts at the corners of the gate rails to allow for welds.
Install Middle Rail
Measure and cut a middle rail to run between the vertical gate rails. Install with screws.
Tip: If your gate will be over level ground, you can install the pickets before hanging the gate. If you're working on a slope, follow the steps below to get the best placement for the pickets.
Hang the Frame
To hang the frame, hold it in place and mark the holes for hinges. Drill pilot holes in the support board and attach the gate with screws. Don't attach the hinges to the end grain of the fence rails.
Install Latch to Post or Board
Install the post-side portion of the latch to the appropriate post or board. Don't secure it to the end of the fence rail. Line up the gate-side elements and attach them to the gate with screws.
Wait a few months before staining or painting to allow the lumber to dry completely. Pressure-treated lumber should be stained or painted every few years. Follow the product manufacturer’s guidelines for preparation and application.
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