Q&A / 

Picket Fence

picket fence

This fence runs for 120 feet along my property line. It makes for a great backdrop for flowers and low bushes.

DEAR TIM: I would like to have a decorative wood picket fence on my property. What are the biggest obstacles one must overcome when building a fence? What kind of lumber should I use? How do you install a fence in a straight line? Paula B., Dry Ridge KY

DEAR PAULA: I surely can understand your desire for a wood fence. My wife and I have one. It was a joy to build. Probably the biggest fan of my fence is my neighbor. She uses the fence as a backdrop for her flower garden. The solid color of the fence does a magnificent job of showing the color of her flowers and plants. You may want to consider extending your fence to your garden area.

Rocks, zoning laws and specialized saws are probably going to be your biggest obstacles. Fences can be blown over by strong winds. Certain areas of the country require that fence posts be embedded to minimum depths in the soil. This prevents the fence from being blown over. Rocks can be hard to overcome when digging fence post holes. You may have to use a long iron spud bar to break them while digging.

Zoning restrictions can limit the placement, height and type of fence. Some localities make you put the best side of the fence towards your neighbor's property. You should really check your local zoning office before proceeding with your fence construction. Be sure to survey your property line if you are placing the fence on a boundary line. Many a fence has had to be moved because of this oversight!

If you decide to construct a picket fence like mine, you better have access to band, radial arm and miter box saws. I needed all of these to make the decorative cuts on my fence posts and pickets.

You can save money and time if you standardize your fence sections. 12 foot long treated 4x4's can be cut into two equal pieces. Each 6 foot length will create a 4 foot post when buried 2 feet into the ground. Using 8 foot long treated 2x4's for the horizontal beams allows you to standardize this portion of the job as well. Redwood or western red cedar is an excellent fencing material. Locust makes a superb fence post if it is available.

The pickets need only to be 3/4 inch thick. The width of and spacing between pickets will be controlled by your individual design. My wife Kathy chose to use 1 and one half inch wide pickets with a 1 inch space between them. I think she was mad at me that day. She knew it would be nearly impossible to repaint the sides of the pickets at a later date.

I like to dig the fence posts as I build the frame for the fencing. This method insures that I don't make a mistake when laying out the fence posts. There is little room for error if you decide to use standard length material as I did.

You start the project by stringing a line an inch away from where you actually want your fence posts. If you build right up to the string and each post accidentally pushes the string, the fence line will wander. By holding the line away from the fence line you can get the fence perfectly straight.

I suggest that you install the fence posts and the horizontal beams first. Be sure the fence posts are plumb. After this is complete, stain, paint or seal this portion of the fence. Precut all of your pickets and pre-stain or pre-paint these as well. Use hot dipped galvanized nails or stainless steel nails to fasten the pickets to the beams. If you are careful, you will only need to do minimal touch-up painting to complete the job.

If you want to get some swell ideas for fences, then Wooden Fences is a must for you. It contains incredible photos, illustrations and instructions for constructing wooden fences and wooden gates. You will not be disappointed with this book.

This next book contains incredible photos, illustrations and instructions for arbors, pergolas, trellises and just about anything else you can build with wood for your landscape. Wait till you check out the glossy color photographs! They are spectacular. They are crisp, colorful and show you details that are tough to describe with words. You will not be disappointed with this book. You must buy a copy of Landscaping with Wood, a neat paperback book published by Taunton Press.

Author's Note: I received a great email from Jim S., Harrison, OH. Below is his comment regarding fence posts.

"I would like to offer you a suggestion on your comment about fence post setting depth. Fence post should be set below the frost line. You can ask any plumber what the level of the frost line is in any area and that is the minimum level the post should be set. If they are not set below the frost line they will "heave" up as the freeze/thaw cycle occurs. As you drive around you can see fences that are out of line and often it is because the post were not set to the proper depth or in the case of end post not braced properly. In the Cincinnati area, I set post at least 30" in the ground. I grew up on a 320 acre farm outside of Brookville, Indiana (just east of the Brookville Reservoir dam at the top of the hill) and I set hundreds of fence post over the course of my late childhood.

With Regards,"


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