Building A Fence From
Bruce W. Maki,
At our project house in Grand Rapids, Michigan we needed a place
for dogs to run around unsupervised and do their business. Simply
tying the dogs to a chain has never been an option because with
multiple dogs the chains would get hopelessly tangled. Besides,
we've always been opposed to tying dogs to a lead
and leaving them. So we built a simple 4 foot tall fenced enclosure.
We ended up building about 70 feet of picket fence at a cost of
about $300 in materials and about 25 hours of labor.
||These two photos show the area to be fenced in
for a dog kennel.
Don't laugh too hard at this junky little house... it's in a
great neighborhood and the price was right. And the 1/3 acre lot has
about 40 mature oak trees. Eventually a proper home will replace
this chunk of dozer-bait.
||Prior to this, I assembled 7 sections of 8-foot
picket fence (view that article).
I started the fence a few inches from the corner of the
house. Note the stack of pre-made fence sections nearby.
|The first section of fence was only 4 feet long.
I set the fence next to the post to determine where to lop off
||I strapped two torpedo levels onto the post.
This neat blue rubber strap has holes so you can set it at
different lengths. These cost a dollar each at Big Lots.
Years ago I bought a plastic level just for making posts plumb.
It strapped onto the post and had two built-in vials. But it was
terribly inaccurate, so I returned it to the store. Maybe someday
I'll try another similar product, but for now I'll stick to
strapping my accurate levels to the post.
|Hint: If you place the levels like this, they
won't work right at all.
After I installed the 4 foot fence section, I installed a garden
gate which I had built the previous summer. Since I'm not going to
be doing any gardening this summer I decided to yank out my old gate
and donate it to this project.
The General Procedure Of Installing Fence
The first step in the routine was to lay out the position of the
next post hole. I did this by using an 8-foot 2x4 as a yardstick,
and simply measuring out 8 feet away from the previous post.
||I marked the approximate hole location with
blocks of wood. Since the ground was still frozen I had to use
a pick-ax to break up the dirt. It took upwards of 30 minutes
to reach unfrozen soil. This was hard work. Waiting for spring
is much easier!
|Once through the frost, digging was much easier.
I used a pair of post-hole diggers to excavate a hole to about
3 feet deep.
A hint: Using a permanent marker, I made some lines
on the handles of the post-hole diggers to indicate depths of
3 feet and 4 feet.
Once the desired depth was reached (I made most of the holes
about 3 feet deep) I used a 4x4 post to tamp down the disturbed
soil. Tamping is necessary or else the soil will be compacted later
and the post will settle. (See the notes at the end of this
||I placed a post in the newly-dug hole.
Then I set a section of fence in place and held it with a
pair of blue rubber bungee cords.
||I sighted down the fence rail to make sure the
sections were aligned properly.
|I set a 4x4 treated post in place and checked to
see if everything would line up.
Since this post is not at a corner, I made the rails
stop at the middle of the post. This way, the next section can
also be attached to the post.
||At some point in the installation process the
fence section must be checked for levelness. I usually had to
add some scraps of wood to shim up one end (red arrow). Most
of the time I leveled the fence before I completely
back-filled the post hole, although this photo shows the hole
already filled in.
||Positioning The Post:
I set the post in the hole and clamped it to the fence.
Then I used a 2-foot level to check if it was possible to
plumb the post in the current hole.
It's necessary to check plumb in two directions.
If the hole location was carefully laid out then I could proceed
to the next step: filling in the hole. But sometimes the post would
hit the side of the hole, and the fence could not be aligned and
made plumb because the hole was not dug in the right location. In
these cases I had to pull out the post and expand the hole. And the
dirt on the bottom of the hole must be tamped after any soil
disturbance, or else the post will settle.
||With the fence sections still aligned, I dumped
about 4 inches of soil back in the hole.
|I used a 2x4 to tamp down the soil. This will
hold the bottom of the post from moving.
I found that I could push the fence posts into a plumb position,
but they would not stay there by themselves. Since I did not have a
helper most of the time, I simply let the posts lean as I
back-filled the holes. I would add 4 to 6 inches of dirt and then
tamp the soil while simultaneously checking for plumb. I used the
blue bungee cords to strap the 2-foot level to the post. And I only
had to check for plumb in one direction, because the Quick-Grip
clamps held the post plumb in the other direction (i.e. they kept
the post from moving towards or away from the previously installed
It also helped to tamp the soil extra-hard on the side that the
post naturally leaned towards. Theoretically, you can plumb any post
or stake by just hammering the soil to make the object lean the
||Once the post hole was filled and tamped, I
installed these Simpson Strong-Tie steel brackets to connect
the fence to the post. I used Simpson's Strong-Drive screws to
attach the brackets.
While Simpson also makes galvanized nails for their Strong-Tie
line of products, I never use hand-driven nails on fences, because
the hammering just loosens up the posts. Besides, this fence will be
removed later when the major remodeling takes place.
||At the other end of the section, I also
installed the metal brackets, on the top and bottom rails.
Other Methods Of Attaching Fence Sections:
In the past I have used 3 inch deck screws or long lag screws to
attach fence sections to posts, by driving the fasteners through the
rails (before installing the pickets) or through the pickets and the
rails together. Lag screws hold well but are extremely time
consuming to install, as a pilot hole, a clearance hole, and
sometimes a counterbore must be drilled.
This is the first time I have used these angle brackets to
install fencing. I have used them for deck framing, but I'm not 100%
certain they will hold up here. They do allow some flexing. If I
notice any problems I will certainly update this article.
||We made some 45 degree corners in the dog
kennel. At all corners I made the fence section reach all the
way to the edge of the post (instead of only reaching halfway
across the face).
I also installed these 45 degree corner blocks, so the
fence rails would have a flat pad to seat against, and to
provide a right angle for the metal brackets.
|As with other sections, the fence at the corner
was held in place with a rubber strap.
||Where the fence section met the garden gate, I
made the section flush with the gate's post. Otherwise
the gate would not open fully.
I used smaller metal brackets here, and positioned them
This attachment method is what I had in mind when I started
planning this fence, but I later changed my mind.
||This photo shows how the gate (foreground) is
flush with the fence (newer wood in background).
The post looks crappy because it was salvaged from a fence
that was torn out, so it's probably 20 years old. But it
didn't go in the landfill.
||I installed the gate latch hardware.
Amputating The Fence Posts:
|Since I used 8-foot posts and the holes were 3
feet deep, I had to cut the top off of each post.
||I made a mark a few inches above the top rail
and cut with a circular saw. But the saw cannot cut all the
So I finished the cut with a reciprocating saw.
Flat-top fence posts will not last as long as posts with an
angled top, which sheds water more quickly. Later I might cap the
posts with a small pyramid-shaped block of wood.
||When digging holes near the trees I often
encountered large roots. Sometimes I was able to cut out the
smaller (under 1 inch) roots with the post-hole diggers. But
larger roots require more power. We bought this pruning blade
for a reciprocating saw, and it worked great for cutting
roots. Dirt is the "kiss of death" for saw blades
(especially chain saws), and this blade did get a little dull.
But at $4, we could afford to discard it later.
The other options for removing roots are:
- An axe. This does not work in deeper holes.
- A chain saw. Fast, but rapid dulling of the saw chain makes it
- A hand saw. Cheap, slow, and hard work.
The Final Product:
||It's not going to win any design contests, but
the fence serves its function.
||The dogs seem to like it.
|This little critter can't even begin to
squeeze between the fence boards.
||We ended up with a larger-than-intended kennel
area behind the garage. But from my experience with dog
kennels, this will give the critters more places they can
dedicate as "drop zones", if you get my drift.
|I had to cut off about a foot from the last
section, so I left the ends of the rails exposed to maintain
the proper gap between sections.
||This is the design mistake I made. Where the
sections join together in a straight run, the pickets are
side-by-side. I should have made the sections like the photo
above, or made them with half a space at each end. (See Assembling
Fence Sections for more discussion of this design
|The corners look okay, though, because they
ended up with a small gap.
Soil Compaction Is Necessary!
Failure to compact the soil is a often-ignored task with
do-it-yourselfers, and even with contractors. I have seen numerous
building problems caused by soil that was not compacted. Too many
people think they can just shovel dirt in a hole and then build on
it. If you read up on foundation problems, you'd see how much
importance is given to carefully compacting soil, even when just
backfilling beside a structure.
The proper procedure for back-filling is to add 4-6 inches of
soil and compact it. For large projects a vibratory compactor
can be rented. But for small areas, like post holes, I simply use a
piece of wood. Sometimes I tamp the soil with my foot first, and
then pound it with the end of a 2x4. The soil must be moist, but not
soaking wet. If I can't make a ball from a handful of dirt, then it
is too dry, and I sprinkle some water on the area. Around here this
is only a problem during prolonged summer dry spells.
The Backyard Builder - Projects For Outdoor Living,
1990, Rodale Press.
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What's New Project
- Cordless Drill/Driver
- Circular Saw
- Reciprocating Saw with
- Shovel, Pick-Ax
- Post-Hole Digger
- 2-Foot Level
- Quick-Grip Clamps
- Rubber Bungee Cords
- Treated Lumber:
- 2x4x8' Rails
- 1x6x12' Pickets
- Posts, 4x4x8'
- Deck Screws
- Metal Angle Brackets
- Pan Head Screws