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Wood Privacy Fence

I was minding my own business one day when my next door neighbor approached me. He was thinking about building a privacy fence across the bottom of his yard and asked if I was interested in continuing the fence across the bottom of my yard as well. While hesitant at first, I was intrigued by the uncommon design he was considering, and agreed the venture.

The Design

My neighbor was responsible for the design of the fence. He based it on one that he found in a book but made some modifications. The key elements are outlined below:

Post Dadoes

We milled dadoes in the posts to accept the fence boards.  We used a router with a 5/8 inch straight bit with the final depth set at 1/2 inch. A spiral bit would have been better.

Using 1×2 runners attached to the router to act as edge guides, we milled the dadoes slightly wider than the 5/8 inch required for the boards. That allowed for some seasonal movement,

Hindsight being 20/20, we should have made the dadoes deeper as well to allow for more movement.  After three years, I had to replace several boards that popped out of the dadoes because posts had twisted slightly.

Protecting the Posts

We treated the dadoes with end-cut preservative. To protect the posts in the ground, we coated the bottom three feet of each post with creosote.  [Update: creosote had not yet been banned. It is no longer available for homeowners to purchase in Canada, the US, the UK or the EU]

We set the posts in 3 foot deep holes with crushed stone at the bottom to allow for drainage.  The posts were anchored in place using concrete.  We used 1×2 boards tacked to the posts and tacked to stakes to brace the posts while the concrete set.  2×2′s or even 2×3′s would have made better temporary bracing.

Important note:

Concrete will shorten the life of the fence. Wood expands and contracts, cement does not. Because of this, the wood fibers will become crushed and the posts will weaken and rot prematurely.

An article from an issue of Canadian Home Workshop Magazine (date unknown) suggested the following: For a longer life, the fence posts can be anchored in place using pea gravel, which will drain water away from the post, permit the wood to expand and contract without crushing it, and allow for easy replacement of posts that do become damaged.

[Update: There are now expanding polyurethane foam products for anchoring fence posts. These products will set within minutes. However, they are much more expensive than concrete, and, being relatively new on the market, they don’t yet have a proven track record for long-term durability.]

The Bottom Rails

We used 2x4s for the bottom rails. The rails are positioned on the flat and were originally fastened to the posts using 3 inch screws toe-nailed from the sides and top. After 3 years, a couple of these rails needed replacing because of damage from the screws. Now the top and bottom rails are fastened to the posts using fence brackets for a stronger connection.

The Fence Boards

The fence boards were cut the length of the distance between the posts plus a little more than the depth of one dado. We used 1 1/2 inch finishing nails nailed head first into the edge of each board (3 per board). The nails act as dowels to pin the boards together. The theory here was that warping would be minimized and any warping would take place in the same direction. Using wood dowels or milling tongue and groove edges would have accomplished the same thing. But the nails were quick and easy and seem to have worked well. We double checked the measurements of the fence boards every third course or so, adjusting our cuts to compensate for any posts that were not perfectly vertical. There is very little room for error with this design. All cuts were protected with end-cut preservative.

The Top Rails

We fastened the top rails in the same manner as the bottom rails by toe-nailing them to the posts using 3 inch deck screws. Three years later, I installed fence brackets for a better connection.

Cutting the Posts

The tops of the posts were cut to the same height using a circular saw. We tried using a guide, but found that it was easier to cut freehand. While we used a speed square to mark the cutting line, neither of us thought of using the square as a guide for the saw.

Finishing Touches: The decorative scroll

My neighbor designed the simple decorative top board.  To make the template, he used a hole saw to cut out the middle of a fence board board.  He then cut the board in half so the design would be symmetrical.

The rest of the design was drawn freehand and cut using a jigsaw.

We lined the template up with the middle of the board to trace the pattern and then flipped the template over to trace pattern on the other half.

Because we cut all the boards with a jigsaw, no two boards are exactly the same.  If we were opting for perfection, we could have made a full size template out of quarter inch thick hardboard and used a flush trimming router bit.  But when it comes to fences, rustic is good.

The ends of the decorative top pieces fit into the dadoes. They are attached to the top rail using dowels and exterior wood glue (on the dowels only).

Finishing Touches:  The molding

The moldings were milled at the router table from fence boards ripped to width at the table saw.  The moldings are fastened to the underside of the top rail using 1 1/2 inch deck screws in pre-drilled holes.  No attempt was made to conceal the screws which are not very noticeable.  The molding serves two purposes:  it looks good, and it conceals the space between the fence board and the top rail.

Finishing Touches: The post cap

I used pre-assembled post caps consisting of a ball on a base plate.  I drilled a pilot hole in the center of the bottom of the base plate and screwed in a dowel screw (threads at both ends, no head).  Then I drilled a pilot hole in the center of the top of the post and screwed the cap in place.

Finding the center of the post and cap was simple:  just use a straight edge to connect opposite corners.  The center is where the lines intersect.

The end result of our labour is a fence that is a little bit different than the styles that most people tend to build.

Final thoughts

Wood fences, though more stylish than their chain link cousins, carry a hefty price tag.  Not only is the initial cost more, but they do require periodic maintenance (stain, or water seal) and will likely need the occasional repair.  We used pressure treated wood.  Cedar would have been considerably more costly.

Wood fences also take longer to construct than chain link since they require more prep work (treating cuts with preservative, etc).

Simply put, a wood fence is a lot of work.

The design of our fence allows for some seasonal expansion and contraction.  And we made sure we treated all the cut surfaces with preservative.  Unfortunately, we set the posts in concrete, so the fence will likely not last as long as it could have.

One final note:  this is a solid panel fence and as such it does not allow much air flow.  Depending on the size of the yard, I wouldn’t recommend it for more than one side, or else the yard will not get much of a breeze.

This project was completed in the summer of 1999. Since we moved in 2003, I have not seen the condition of the fence first-hand. According to my former neighbor it was still in good shape more than ten years later (2010) and in need of minor repairs in 2013.  It is highly unlikely that the present owner has done any maintenance to the fence since buying the house.

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