Overview: Project scope, design and key tools
Good fences may make good neighbors, but an ugly, flimsy or poorly built one won’t make anyone happy. This fence, on the other hand, is durable, handsome and sure to please everyone. Rules in most regions require that the best sides face out (toward the neighbors), but our fence is designed to look good from both sides.
We used treated 4x4s for long-lasting posts and “sandwich” construction for the panels for strength and easier assembly. This fence isn’t cheap compared with the cost of a fence built from preassembled panels from a home center. But this fence has thicker, higher quality wood, more detail and better fasteners than any store-bought selection. And we designed it so anyone who can handle a circular saw and level can build it.
In this article, we’ll show you how to line up and set posts, build sturdy panels and construct elegant, no-sag gates that are wide enough for a lawn tractor to pass through. We’ll also share tips on achieving solid footings, secure connection and fastening methods and staining that’ll ensure trouble-free decades of service. This project doesn’t require a pickup load of expensive tools either. Aside from the standard posthole digging implements and basic carpentry tools, you’ll only need a circular saw, a screw gun and a 4-ft. level. But to really speed up assembly, get a 15-gauge trim nailer with 1-1/2-in. galvanized nails to nail on the pickets and panel boards (Photos 11 and 12). The nails hold everything together until you permanently screw the upper and bottom rail pieces together (Photo 13). A table saw also comes in handy for ripping panel boards to width where needed (Photo 11).
Step 1: Get design approval and mark property lines
Start with city hall. Most likely you’ll need to apply for a fence permit from the local building inspections department, so begin by picking up the application along with the local fence regulations. The regulations will include setback requirements from your property lines to the fence and maximum allowable heights. These details will likely vary for front and backyard fences and can even be different for houses on corners or adjacent to busy streets, so study them carefully. You’ll probably be required to submit a fence plan with the completed application. The plan should be a dimensioned overview of your property that clearly shows your property lines along with your proposed fence outline and its heights and distances from the property lines. Any other details that are required will be covered in the regulations or permit application.
If you live in a “planned” community or subdivision, you may also have to submit the same information to a planning committee for approval. The committee’s regulations can be even more rigorous than the city’s and may govern materials choices, colors and even the final design. Ignore regulations at your own peril. Build a fence without either planning committee or city approval and you risk having to tear it down and rebuild it.
Mark your property lines Start by finding and marking your property stakes. One will be found at each corner and anywhere your property makes a jog. You can either find the stakes on your own or hire a surveyor. It’s not hard to find and mark them yourself by renting a metal detector and scanning the areas where you think they are. If the detector indicates one, dig down to make sure it’s a steel stake instead of some other buried metallic object. A good tip is to go to city hall and ask for a copy of the “Certificate of Survey.” It will show the exact stake locations.
While you’re waiting for the permit, call to have underground utility lines marked. (The building department will have one number for you to call to have all lines marked.) Everyone but the cable company marked their lines for us, and guess what? Shortly after starting the postholes, there was no more History Channel for a while.
Figure A: Fence Assembly Details
Note: You can download Figure A and enlarge it in Additional Information below.
Step 2: Lay out the fence posts
Photo 1: Establish the corners and mark posts
Stretch a string line along the fence line, using “batter boards” to establish the corners. Drive stakes to mark postholes every 6 ft.
Photo 2: Dig the post holes
Dig 8-in. diameter postholes about 3 ft. deep with a clamshell digger. Draw the exact edges of each 4×4 post on the string with a marker.
With permit in hand and your property lines staked, begin laying out your post locations. String your lines 1-3/4 in. away from the fence center line to mark the edge of the 4×4 posts (Photo 1).Drive stakes every 6 ft. to mark the center of each posthole. Set aside the string and dig 3-ft.deep, 8-in.wide postholes; tamp the bottom of each hole to firm up any loose soil; and pour about 6 in. of gravel into each hole. Then reattach the string and mark the exact post locations at 6-ft. increments (Photo 2).Mark one side of each post rather than the center so you can line up post edges when setting them (Photo 2).
Strive for evenly spaced posts, and don’t forget to position posts spaced to fit each gate size. The object is to space all posts about the same distance apart, which may mean adding or subtracting a full panel and lengthening or shortening the other panels. In our case, we added short, slightly different panels on both sides of the gate to make up the difference in the side part of the yard (opening photo). Our fence design will work well for any fence panels up to 8 ft. wide, but you’ll have to adjust your materials list accordingly if you choose a panel width other than 6 ft.
Step 3: Set the posts
Photo 3: Plumb and brace the posts
Drop the posts into the holes and align one side along the string and the corners with the marks. Plumb them, bracing them in two directions.
Photo 4: Anchor posts with concrete
Mix concrete and fill each hole. Mound the concrete about 1/2 in. above the ground level and slope it away from the post. Let it set overnight.
Plan on enlisting some help for this step, since it’s practically impossible to set, plumb and brace posts on your own. Rest each 10-ft. long 4×4 on the gravel base, and then screw a couple of 1×4 braces near the top of the post and drive stakes into the ground near the end of the braces (Photo 3). Line up the post edge with the string line mark and plumb the post in both directions while your helper screws the braces to the stakes. This takes some patience. Most likely you’ll have to unscrew the braces and make fine adjustments. Take your time: Nicely aligned posts make for a professional looking fence. When each side is complete, stand behind one of the end posts, shut one eye and look for posts that are misaligned— there are bound to be a couple of rogues! Perfection isn’t necessary, but fix any posts that are more than 1/2 in. out of alignment.
Posts that flank gates demand extra care during plumbing and bracing. It’s nearly impossible to build smooth-swinging gates between posts that are out of plumb or misaligned.
With everything aligned, mix concrete and pour it around each post, heaping it about 1 in. or so above grade (Photo 4).Use a trowel or wide putty knife to smooth and slope the top slightly away from the post to shed water. Wait until the next day so the concrete can set up before you move on to the next step: building the panels.
Prestain the wood for durability and a clean look Make no mistake about it: Staining your fence will take nearly as long as assembling the panels! Stain the wood before cutting and assembly and you’ll not only get a cleaner look with better coverage but also save hours of staining time. You can coat all the edges super fast before the boards are installed.
One way to speed up the process is to use a roller with a 1/2-in.nap sleeve. Pour a couple of gallons of stain into a 5-gallon pail and hang a roller screen ($3) from the side of the pail to load the stain onto the roller. Lay out the boards on sawhorses and stack five or so boards side by side on edge to roll several edges at once, then flip them over and stain the other edge. Roll out both of the flat sides and roll out any runs. Then set the boards aside on a couple of long 2x4s to dry. Apply the second coat. To help your fence last rot-free for years, brush stain on the edges and ends of the boards after cutting. That’ll keep water out of the end grain where most rot begins.
It takes a lot of stain to cover rough-sawn cedar. Figure on about a gallon of high-quality latex stain for every 12 ft. of fence.
Step 4: Level and install the lower rails
Photo 5: Add pairs of 1 x 4s to the posts
Nail 8-ft. 1x4s to the panel sides of the posts as shown, using pairs of 2-in. siding nails spaced every 8 in. Allow 1/2-in. clearance at the ground.
Photo 6: Mark the lower rail height
Hold the 2×8 against the posts 10 in. above the concrete and scribe both ends. Cut the rails to length, minus 1/8 in. for clearance.
Photo 7: Install the rails with metal angles
Screw 2×3 angle brackets to the center of each post as shown using 1-1/4 in. joist hanger screws and a 1-3/4 in. spacer block. Then screw the bottom rails to the metal angles.
Our panels average 6 ft. high, depending on the grade. That’s high enough for visual privacy but low enough so you can visit with neighbors through the “jail bars” near the top. You can vary the height if you wish, but you’ll have to figure out the best length of 1×6 and 1×4 panel boards to buy for cutting efficiency. Likewise, the spacing between the ground and the panels can be higher or shorter depending on your needs. In our case, we kept the bottom about 3 in. above the top of the grass. Make it less if you want to keep micro dogs in (or out) of your yard. If easy mowing is a priority, make it slightly higher than the wheels on your lawn mower.
Get started by nailing 1×4 cedar boards to the insides of the posts (Photo 5).Don’t nail higher than 6 ft. Otherwise you may hit the nails with the saw blade when cutting the posts to height. Leave at least a 1/2-in. space between the concrete and the 1×4 to keep the bottoms from rotting.
Make marks 10 in. above the post bases and then hold the 2×6 bottom rails even with the marks and scribe lines using the posts as your guide (Photo 6).The bottom rails follow the slope of the yard, so this establishes the exact cutoff angles. Cut the 2x8s to fit and use them as patterns to cut matching 1×8 bottom rails to install later (Photo 13). Screw angle brackets to the posts 2 in. below the marks (Photo 7) with 1-1/4 in. joist hanger screws. Then screw the 2x8s to the brackets using the marks as a guide for the proper height.
Step 5: Lay out and cut the top rails
Photo 8: Cut the top rail curves
Bend a knot-free 1×2 on a 6-ft. 1×8 to make a smooth curve. Cut the curve with a jigsaw and use it as a template for the upper 1×8 rails.
Photo 9: Level and mark the posts
Mark the posts 6 ft. above the concrete, leveling between posts. Cut the curves on the upper 1x8s, hold them in place and mark their length. Cut them to length, minus 1/8 in.
Photo 10: Screw on cleats for the rails
Predrill and screw a 3/4 x 1-1/2 x 12-in. long cleat to each side of the posts below the top rail mark. Space them 1-1/4 in. from the edge opposite the framing clips below. (See Figure A.)
Next, mark the top of the fence panels on each post (Photo 9). There’s no magic number for height unless you have a perfectly flat yard. We strove for an average height of 6 ft., but some areas were less, some more, because of the contours of the yard. Between each pair of posts, use a 4-ft. level and straight board to mark each post. Step panels down or up to accommodate grade changes and keep the height about 6 ft. If you’re unsure, tack boards to the tops of each pair to simulate the panel heights before settling on final heights.
Lay out a top rail, cutting a 1×8 pattern for the top rails as we show in Photo 8. Use a knot-free 1×2 as a guide to create a smooth curve and then cut it with a jigsaw. (If you have more than one panel width, make separate patterns.) Then draw the curves on all of the top rail 1x8s and cut them out. Center the rails between the posts even with the top layout marks and then scribe and cut both sets (front and back) to length for each panel (Photo 9).
Screw 12-in. long 1×2 cleats just a little below the layout marks with three 3-in. deck screws (drill pilot holes first to prevent splitting).
Step 6: Install the top rails and fence panels
Photo 11: Add the top rails and paneling
Screw the top rails to the cleats on the 1-1/4 in. side with 1-1/4 in. deck screws. Cut a 1×6 fence board to length, center it between posts and tack it 2 in. above the lower edge of the upper rail. Add other boards according to the pattern, spacing each about 1/4 in. apart.
Photo 12: Nail up the 1×2 pickets
Cut 12-in.-long 1×2 pickets. Center and tack the first one, then space the others with a 1-1/2-in. block and tack them. Use 1-1/2- in.-galvanized finish nails driven at an angle.
Photo 13: Add the second rail boards
Screw the other halves of the top rails to the 1×2 cleats and center picket. Then screw the 1×8 bottom rail board through the panel boards into the 2×8. Use 2-in. deck screws.
Screw one pair of upper and lower rails to the cleats with two 2-in.deck screws at each end (Photo 11). Cut a 1×6 panel board to length, center it in the panel and tack it into place with a couple of 1-1/2 in. galvanized finish nails at each end (Photo 11).Be sure to angle the nails when driving them in or the tips may project through the other side. After you’ve driven in the first fence board, check the other side to make sure you’re angling them enough. Then cut and tack the rest of the boards into place using a carpenter’s pencil as a spacer and alternating 1x4s and 1x6s. (We also alternated rough and smooth sides so the fence would look identical on both sides.) Most likely you’ll have to rip the end boards of each panel to width.
Cut and install the top 1×2 pickets (Photo 12).Then screw the last two top rails and the bottom 1×8 rail into place with two 2-in.deck screws into the 1×2 cleats at the end and then into the rails on the other side spaced about every 6 in. These screws clamp all sections together.
Step 7: Cut the posts and add the trim
Photo 14: Cut the posts tops
Mark the posts 4 in. above the top rail. Then set a circular saw to cut about 1-1/2 in. deep and cut from both sides. Finish the cut with a handsaw.
Photo 15: Install post trim and caps
Cut 1x6s to post length and nail them over the exposed faces of the 4×4 posts. Use pairs of 2-in. siding nails driven every 8 in. Cut 1×4 top caps to length and nail them on with 2-in. siding nails. Then cut and bevel the post caps and fasten them with two 16d galvanized casing nails driven at opposite corners.
Cut the posts to length 4 in. above the panel tops (Photo 14) and add the 1×6 facing on both sides of the posts (Photo 15).Finally, add the 1×4 top caps and post caps (Figure A and lead photo).
Step 8: How to build the gates
Photo 16: Cut and assemble the frame
Mark and cut the curved top gate rails the same way as the fence rails, minus 1 in. Cut and assemble the rest of the frame parts as shown in Figure B. Square them by measuring diagonals and adjusting the frame parts until the diagonals are equal.
Photo 17: Add the panel boards
Cut 45-degree angles on one end of two 1x6s and lay the points in the lower corners of the frames. Mark the other ends and cut and nail them in place. Cut and nail the rest of the boards, spacing them about 1/4 in.
Photo 18: Screw on the trim
Cover the board edges with a second frame. Fasten it with a 2-in. screw into each panel board and two at each end. Flip it over and screw the other side the same way.
We give the dimensions for our 6-ft.wide double gate in Figure B. But in reality, it’s unlikely your gate will be the same dimensions. When you build your gate(s),be sure you make your double gates about 1 in. narrower (both gates together) than the opening (or a single gate about 3/4 in. smaller) to allow for opening clearances. The key to our no-sag gate is using panel boards that are angled at 45 degrees (Photo 17).Each functions as a brace to keep the panel from sagging over time. The outer frame on each side also overlaps in opposite ways at each corner to make the gate even more solid. Cut and assemble the gate frames on a flat surface using Photo 16 – 18 and Figure B as guides. If your gate is the same size as your fence panels, you can use the top rail pattern to mark and cut the curved top. Otherwise you’ll have to make a new pattern. Push both sides together and square them as a unit by shifting them until the diagonal measurements are equal (Photo 16). The frames are fairly pliable, and it’s easy to do if you have a partner to anchor the corner opposite the one you’re pushing against.
To panel each gate, begin with 1×6 boards cut with a 45-degree angle at one end (Photo 17).Once you scribe and nail the boards, the frames will be rigid and you can simply fill the panels by scribing and cutting the rest of the boards. Use the assemblies to measure and cut the frame for the other side of the gate, remembering to overlap the ends in the opposite direction. Screw the parts together with 2-in.deck screws. Predrill when driving screws near board ends.
Figure B: How to Build a Gate, Assembly Details
Note: You can download Figure B and enlarge it in Additional Information below
Step 9: Hang the gates
Photo 19: Space and hinge the gates
Space the gates 1/2 in. apart on the ground and screw two 8-ft. boards to each. Prop the gates in the opening, space them and screw the boards to the posts. Attach the hinges and foot stop. Set the foot stop pipe and attach a 1×4 gate stop to the fixed gate, leaving a 1-in. overhang. Attach the latch.
Photo 19A: Close-up of foot latch pipe
Drive the pipe into the ground with a maul.
Here’s the secret to hanging gates successfully. With the gates spaced 1/2 in. apart, screw two 2×4 or 2×6 “holding” boards to the gates, overhanging the ends several inches. Then carry the assembly over to the opening and rest it on blocks at each end. Be sure to block the gates high enough to clear the ground when they swing open. Once you center the assembly in the opening, it’s simple to mount the hinges to the posts and gates (Photo 19).
Finish by installing the rest of the hardware. If you choose double gates, it’s best to “fix” one side and leave a “people” side that opens for everyday pedestrian traffic. Plan on using a foot latch to anchor the fixed gate when it’s not needed (Photo 19). Screw the foot latch to the bottom edge of the fixed side and then, with the gates closed, drop the “foot” and mark the ground. Drive a 12-in. long, 1-in. thick chunk of PVC piping into the ground with a maul. The pipe will fill up with soil, so it’s best to pull it out every few inches of driving and remove the dirt before driving it farther. Our latch operates similarly to a front door lockset. It can be locked from the inside or left unlocked.
Required Tools for this Project
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
- Circular saw
- Drill/driver - cordless
- Hearing protection
- One-handed bar clamps
- Posthole digger
- Safety glasses
- Speed square
- Table saw
- Tape measure
You’ll also need a shovel, stringline, air-powered finish nailer and a power auger.