How to Build a Privacy Fence

Updated: Jun. 09, 2023

Tips for planning, designing and constructing a wood privacy fence.

FH05APR_FENPLA_01-2 how to make a fenceFamily Handyman
This article will help you avoid major pitfalls and costly mistakes when you're planning and installing a privacy fence. We'll show you the tricks and techniques that pros use to get a beautiful fence that'll meet your needs and fit your landscape. These ideas will save you a ton of time, headaches and money by ensuring your DIY fence is done right the first time.

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How to build a fence: Make sure a privacy fence actually delivers privacy

privacy fence ideas

Consider fence height

Make sure the fence provides the privacy you want as you learn how to build a fence. Consider if you want a 4 ft fence, a 6 ft fence or an 8 ft fence.

You may build a 6-ft. high privacy fence only to find that the next-door neighbors can easily see over when they’re lounging on their deck. Or you may find that your 6-ft. tall privacy fence only needed to be 4 ft. tall because surrounding areas slope away from your yard. Either way, you’re wasting materials, money and time building a fence that doesn’t suit your yard. You can even consider attaching fence toppers to the top of an existing fence to make it taller.

To determine how to build a fence, consider how high a privacy fence needs to be, and other privacy fence ideas. It’s also a good idea to have a helper walk around the perimeter with a cardboard screen cut to the height of your proposed fence. Sitting and standing, follow the view above the cardboard as it’s moved to determine the amount of privacy your fence will actually provide as you decide how to build a wood fence.

You can quickly decide how high your fence needs to be or whether it’s impractical to build a fence high enough to screen your yard. Then consider alternatives such as fast growing dense trees or bushes that aren’t subject to the same height restrictions as fences. Or, if you have a patio or spa you’d like to seclude, build a privacy screen just around that area.

Space your post just under 8 ft. apart

privacy fence ideas

Get the spacing right

Keep the fence posts 8 ft. apart or less to keep the fence from sagging as you plan how to build a fence.

Fewer posts will save you some digging, but in the long run, wind and gravity will make you pay for it in your privacy fencing.

The more posts you have, the stronger your outdoor privacy fence will be. A good rule of thumb is to space posts just under 8 ft. apart to make sure your fence doesn’t sag. That’ll also give the fence enough strength to stand up to wind, and you’ll be able to use 8-ft. rail material economically. The best way to lay out the posts while you determine how to build your fence is to drive stakes to mark hole locations exactly 8 ft. apart. The post thicknesses will give you the few inches of fudge factor you need to allow for variations when you’re building the panels in between the posts.

Plan on at least three horizontal 2x4s or two 2x6s to support the weight of each fence panel. Scrimp on horizontal material and you may wind up with panels that sag even if they span less than 8 ft. between each post.

Apply for a fence-building permit and learn local rules as learning how to build a fence

Permits and regulations

Learning how to build a fence means you need to understand local ordinances, regulations and building codes before installing your fence, or you may have to take it down.

There’s more than one reason to get a fence-building permit from city hall. Build it in the wrong place or too high and you may wind up being forced to tear it down. And fences are so prominent that if you build without a permit, chances are you’ll get caught and will have to buy one anyway—and pay a fine. When you apply for a fence permit you’ll get a copy of the rules that apply to fences in your area. It’ll include required setbacks from property lines, sidewalks and roads, as well as allowable heights, which will usually vary from front to back yards.

If you live in a development that has its own private regulations, check with the association or planning committee too. Its rules may be even more stringent than the town’s or city’s rules. Some regulations even include color or material selections. You may have to provide a sketch for design approval if you want a backyard wood fence.

Find the property lines before you build

Find property stakes with a metal detector

Identify your property line by finding the property stakes before you build a DIY fence.

Pound wood stakes over the property stakes

Mark your property line with wooden stakes.

privacy fence ideas

Mark the fence line

Drive stakes and run string to mark your fence line.

Guessing at your property lines is taking a huge risk. Get it wrong and you may wind up tearing down a costly DIY fence to move it off someone else’s property.

Begin with a plot plan to help you home in on the property stakes that mark the corners of your yard. You can generally go to city hall and buy a photocopy of your plot plan if you don’t already have one. Don’t assume your lot is perfectly square or rectangular, either. Lots can be wedge shaped or have unusual jogs, especially in newer developments. Anywhere your property lines make a change in direction, there will be a property stake to mark that point.

Rent a metal detector to help you find the exact location of your iron property stakes. They’ll be buried up to several inches below grade, so if the detector beeps in different areas surrounding the suspected stake location, it’s a good idea to do a little excavation to make sure you’ve found the stake and not a lost quarter. As you find the iron stakes, pound wooden stakes directly over them. Then use the stakes to lay out the fence line at the proper setback.

Plan at least two fence gates and make them extra wide

Plan for two fence gates

Make extra wide fence gates to accommodate lawn equipment.

Ever live in a house where the gates were too small or in the wrong place? Then you know what a hassle it is walking around half your property to access the yard or shoehorning wheelbarrows or whatever through too-small fence gates. Spend some time thinking about access to your yard. If you have a neighbor you like to visit, would like to access your back yard from both sides of your house, or would like easier access to the park behind the house, it’s worth adding more gates.

Pedestrian access can be handled with 3-ft.wide gates. But lawn tractors, wheelbarrows and garden carts call for more spacious 4-ft.wide gates or even double 3-ft.gates for a full 6 ft. of access.

Make one entire fence panel removable

Have a removable fence panel

A removable panel allows you to drive a truck or heavy equipment into your yard.

As a contractor, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to take down a section of fence for delivery of materials or for heavy equipment. When possible, we’d hoist stuff over the fence, but it was always difficult and sometimes we ended up damaging the fence, the materials or even some back muscles.

One thing’s for sure. At some point you’re going to need to get something really big into your yard. Perhaps it’s heavy equipment to move soil around or dig a pool. Maybe a couple of times a year you’ll want to deliver a load of firewood or mulch with the pickup. Be prepared. Plan on having a removable panel in the area of the yard that’s most accessible from the road or alley.

You can make a removable panel by simply toe screwing the rails to the adjacent posts. But for panels that’ll be removed frequently, small joist hangers or pockets made from angle iron will be more convenient.

Vary the fence design to suit different needs

privacy fence ideas

Consider different fence designs

Change the privacy fence ideas design to meet your needs.

A solid, high fence may wall off prying eyes, but it also walls you in. And such a boring, monolithic and material-intensive design may not be all that necessary. Your fence doesn’t have to be one continuous design, height or even material. For example, if your yard abuts a wooded area, perhaps an inexpensive, low chain-link fence will do the job so you can keep the dog in but enjoy a view of the woods, too. Perhaps on either side of the house facing the street a nicely designed, handsome fence with a welcoming gate is called for. And on the side of the yard facing the neighbor you’re not too fond of, a 6-ft. high, low-cost, utilitarian privacy fence will do the job.

Altering fence styles or configurations to match different parts of your yard can be a successful strategy to keep down the cost of materials and lighten the labor load. It can even make the yard more interesting. Plan on higher fences to guard privacy and lower ones to keep the price down and improve the view.

Required Tools for this How to Build a Privacy Fence Project

You don’t need any tools for planning the design of how to make a fence, but you will need tools for installing it.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time for your how to build a fence project. Here’s a list.

  • Stake
  • String