Before you start
If you feel as if you're living in a fish bowl when you're lounging on the patio, we've got the solution. This simple, airy screen will block all but the most persistent prying eyes. It'll even block heavy wind, but it's open enough to allow light and cooling breezes through, so you won't get that hemmed-in feeling you'd get from a solid wall or fence. Our privacy screen is 12 ft. long and about 7 ft. tall at the highest point. But you can adapt the length or height to your own needs or even mount a similar design on an existing deck (see “Deck-Mounted Privacy Screen.”).
If you've ever built a simple deck, trellis or just about any other wooden garden structure, you have the skills and tools to tackle this job. Most of the carpentry work just entails cutting standard boards to length with a circular saw and then screwing the parts together with a screw gun. In fact, if you stay focused, you can expect to finish the whole project in a relatively sweat-free weekend.
In this article, we'll show you a foolproof layout technique using the horizontal rails to guide the post positioning and screen assembly. With this simple system, a robust novice can build this project. You can easily adapt it to any screen size. We'll also show you a new technique for setting solid, rot-resistant posts using dry concrete. And we'll demonstrate a simple method for making the curved, three-board top using spacing blocks and scribing the curves with one of the top boards (Photos 10 - 12). To build your own screen, you'll need a circular saw, a screw gun and a sharp chisel, as well as a “clamshell” posthole digger and a 2- or 4-ft. level for digging the four postholes and plumbing the posts.
We chose to build our screen from rough sawn cedar because we wanted its decay-resistant qualities and rough look. The total materials cost was about $400, but you can spend less by substituting smooth-faced cedar, treated wood or even conventional framing lumber. Whatever you choose, use treated wood for post parts that are in the ground so you won't ever have to worry about rot.
You May Need a Permit
Chances are remote that you'll need a building permit, but check with the building department to make sure. If you need a fence permit, it'll include a list of fence rules that your screen has to follow. If you live in a development that has building covenants, submit plans, placement information and color selections to the architectural review committee. Showing it the photos and drawings in this article along with information on the specific spot for your screen should be adequate. Don't skip this step or you may end up restaining or even tearing down your new screen.
Be sure to call to have the underground cables and gas lines marked before you dig any post holes. Most states have a single toll free number you can call to get all the utilities marked. You can ask the building department for the number, call the nationwide Dig Safely hot line at 411. Mark the screen's position on the ground with spray paint or stakes before the crew comes. Call ahead of time; it generally takes two to three days to have utilities marked.
Planning your privacy screen
We built our privacy screen on a level site, but you can build a similar screen on just about any slope. For it to look best, keep the rails level and then follow the slope with vertical pickets that are a consistent distance from the ground.
Build your screen any length you wish. However, the longest material you'll be able to buy is 16 ft., so for longer screens, you'll have to splice the rails and top caps. If splicing is necessary, plan it so the joints fall near the post centers, and splice opposite rails and overlying top cap layers to fall on different posts. Add or delete posts as you wish, but stick with our system for laying out post locations using chunks of 2x6 posts and 2x2 pickets to get the spacing right. However, keep the post spacing less than 4 ft. for a highly rigid, wind-resistant screen.
We don't recommend building a higher screen, especially in high-wind areas. But lower screens are sometimes preferable if you'd like to see over the top while standing but want more privacy while seated. Build a shorter screen using the same spacing techniques we show but reduce the distance between the upper and lower rails. The top cap for a shorter screen may require a gentler curve because it'll be difficult to bend the wood without breaking it. Try a test bend.
If you hear the wood crack or it takes too much force to make the bend, simply cut the middle posts shorter until the wood bends without trouble. If you don’t want to fuss with the bend or want to match other horizontal elements in your yard, consider just cutting off the posts and screwing on a flat top cap of solid 2x8.
The sandwich post design we show features long-lasting treated wood below grade and attractive rough-sawn cedar above (Figure A). If cedar isn't available at your lumberyard, you can substitute any other wood for the above-grade materials or build the entire screen out of treated wood. All framing materials, treated and untreated, will last longer and look better if you stain everything, especially the cut ends.
When you're selecting your lumber for the top cap pieces, pay special attention to get sound 3/4-in.boards for the top cap pieces—no cracks, splits or large knots. When you're bending the boards, knots or cracks may cause them to break under the stress (Photo 10).
Screws are the best way to put together a strong, durable screen. But read the box to make sure you select ones that are designed for decks. Other fasteners may corrode and leave ugly “bleed” marks on the wood after a short time.
Lay out and notch the rails
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Photo 1: Mark the post and picket locations
Clamp the four 2x4 rails together and mark the post and picket positions (see Figure A). Cut off the remaining ends 6 in. beyond the last post.
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Photo 2: Finish the cutouts with a chisel
Cut the 45-degree bevels on both ends. Flip over the rails and cut a series of 1-1/2 in. deep saw kerfs at the post locations, then break out the wood and flatten the bottoms with a chisel.
Before you dig the postholes, lay out and notch all four horizontal rails as shown in Photos 1 and 2.You'll use the rails for positioning, spacing and anchoring the posts, and later for placing the 2x2 pickets.
Lay out the rails by measuring 6 in. from one end and then use a 2x6 block as a template to mark the first post notch. Use a 2x2 block to mark a gap, then a picket, another gap and so on for nine pickets. Mark the next post notch and then continue marking the rest of the pickets and posts. After the last notch, measure 6 more inches and cut the rail to length. See Figure A, Detail 1, in the addendum at the end of this story for help. Cut off the corners at 45 degrees on both ends of each board, then cut out the notches as we show in Photo 2.
Dig the holes and set the posts
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Photo 3: Drive stakes to mark the postholes
Position the privacy panel postholes by laying a rail on the ground and driving two stakes behind it. Then drive stakes 2 in. away from the centers of the post notches to mark the postholes.
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Photo 4: Pour gravel in the post holes
Dig 8-in. diameter, 3-ft. deep postholes. Reposition the rail over the holes, then screw the rail to the positioning stakes and pour 6 in. of gravel into each hole.
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Photo 5: Set the post bases in the post holes
Preassemble the 2x6 and 2x4 treated post bases and set them in the holes, nesting them into the rail notches. Plumb each post and temporarily screw them to the guide rail.
Lay the straightest rail on the ground and shift it until you find the screen's best position. Then drive stakes to hold it in place and to mark the postholes (Photo 3). Set the rail aside and then dig 3-ft. deep x 8-in. diameter postholes at each notch location and pour about 6 in. of gravel into each hole. Build the treated wood portion of the posts first (Figure A).Measure the hole depth and then cut the outer 2x6s to project about 6 in. past the top of the holes, but let the 2x4 center posts run full length. You'll cut all the post parts to length later. Preassemble the treated posts with 3-in.deck screws.
Keep the fasteners 8 in. or so below the top of the 2x6s to avoid hitting them with a saw blade when you're trimming them to length later. Reset the guide rail (Photo 5) and use it and a level to position and plumb the posts in each hole. After each post is positioned, hold them in place with temporary screws driven into the guide rail.
Set the posts in dry concrete
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Photo 6: Cut the 2 x 6 above grade
Pour dry concrete into each hole until it's 3 in. below grade. Mark and cut the 2x6s about 3 in. above grade.
To avoid waiting for concrete to set up, you can fill around the posts with dry concrete mix rather than pouring wet concrete. That way, you can continue with the rest of the carpentry work and maybe even finish the project in one day. Keep the top of the dry concrete a few inches below the top of the hole. (You'll need about two 60-lb. bags per hole.) When you're done working for the day, simply flood the top with the garden hose and the concrete will set up overnight (Photo 13).
Don't worry about trying to saturate the mix. Over time, the underlying concrete will absorb enough moisture from the ground for complete curing. Mixes that are labeled for “post,” “quick” or “fast” are the best ones to choose. But if all you can find is regular premixed concrete, that'll work fine too.
Tip: Before you cut off the post tops, drive two screws through the 2x6s above the cut marks. They'll hold the pieces in place so you don't get bonked by the cutoffs.
Screw the parts together
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Photo 7: Make the posts perfectly plumb
Screw the cedar 2x6s to one side of the 2x4s, then level and screw the two back rails in place using Figure A for the height details. Plumb and brace the posts in both directions.
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Photo 8: Attach the pickets
Cut the 2x2 picket top caps to length and screw them to the 2x6 posts. Then push the pickets against the top cap and screw them to both rails using your layout marks as a guide.
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Photo 9: Set the front posts in the precut notches
Attach the front cedar 2x6 posts using the precut notches in the front top rail as a guide. Secure them with 3-in. screws every 6 in.
You'll be amazed at how fast the rest of the screen goes together. That's because you've already cut the notches for the posts and marked the picket locations. It's largely just a matter of screwing all of the parts together as we show in Photos 7 - 9. It really helps to prefinish all the parts before laying out the rails and doing any assembly. We stained everything with two coats of solid stain before any cutting, and stained the notches and freshly cut ends before assembly for even more protection. That cuts down on painting inside crevices and cutting in, particularly if you have a two-tone color scheme like ours.
Cut off the treated 2x6s about 3 in. above grade (Photo 6), screw the 2x6 cedar outer posts on one side of the 2x4s, and then screw two rails to one side of the posts using the heights we show in Figure A.
Level the rails and sight down them to make sure they're straight before screwing them to the middle two posts. Then plumb and brace the two end posts in both directions as we show in Photo 7. The rails should hold the center posts plumb as well, but if you have any stubborn ones, plumb and brace them, too. The dry concrete mix will let you make minor adjustments.
Cut the 2x2 picket caps to length so they fit tightly between the 2x4s. Then screwing on the 5-ft. long pickets will go fast. Just push them against the top picket cap and use the marks on the rail to guide their placement (Photo 8). Finally, screw on the other post parts and rails. You'll have to fudge a bit to get the 2x6s to match the rail notches. You may have to drag an assistant away from an episode of the Simpsons to help you hold the 2x4 rails and wiggle them into place.
Bending the top cap boards
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Photo 10: Mark the top cap locations
Attach temporary blocks on each end post and prop up a long 1x4 on a 16-in. block halfway between them. Mark the post heights.
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Photo 11: Cut the posts from each side
Transfer the lines to the other side and cut off the posts from each side. Finish the 2x4 center cut with a handsaw.
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Photo 12: Attach the top cap boards
Cut the corners on the 1x8 top cap board, center it and screw it to the tops of the posts. Repeat the steps with the 1x6 and 1x4 caps using Figure A for the lengths.
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Photo 13: Fill the dry concrete holes with water
Fill the holes with water and let the panel sit overnight. Remove the braces and touch up raw wood and screws with finish.
Bend the 1x4 top cap board to simulate the top curve and to determine where to cut the posts. Center a screw on the end blocks so they can pivot while you make the bend. It's good to have the Simpsons fan on hand for this step too.
You'll find it awkward to hold the spring-loaded 1x4 in position while reaching and scribing all four posts. Transfer the marks around to the other side of the posts with a square and then cut off the posts with a circular saw and handsaw (Photo 11).
Center the 1x8 top cap and screw it into each post with a pair of 2-in. deck screws. Center and screw down the 1x6 and 1x4 top caps to the posts, adding screws wherever gaps appear.
Figure B: Deck-Mounted Post
Deck-Mounted Privacy Screen
If you have a deck that makes private gatherings feel like neighborhood events, don't fret. This privacy screen adapts easily to most decks. That's because most decks have a single rim joist that's the same thickness as the center 2x4 of the post. In most cases, you can easily remove an existing rail, notch the decking and straddle the rim joist with the outer 2x6 of each post.
Brace the rim joist with blocking to at least the second and third joists back to stiffen it as we show in Figure B. Lag screwing the end posts to an existing rail and the house will also greatly stabilize the screen.
Deck sizes vary widely, so to fill a side of a deck with a privacy screen, you'll need to work out the number and spacing of posts as well as the finished height on your own. But a 7-ft. tall screen may look too high on a smallish deck. A shorter height of 5 or 6 ft. will still give you reasonable privacy, especially when you're sitting at a table. Keep post spacing between 3 and 4 ft. if possible.