Thursday, February 7, 2013

How To Build a Basic Picket Fence

In early December 2012, a storm knocked over about 40 feet of 50 year old fence between our house and the neighbor's.  The insurance estimate was about $500 for the shared cost so with a $500 deductible, it didn't make sense to go through insurance.  As a result, I worked out an agreement with the neighbors that in exchange for them covering all the supplies, I would build the fence.

I decided to build the just-as-basic-as-you-can-get six foot picket fence seeing as the old fence was basically a rustic version with thinner pickets and because I work in tech, not construction.  The new fence was literally going to be, drop the fence posts into the ground, cement them in, put 2x4's between the posts and nail or screw the pickets to the 2x4's.  That easy.  For the most part, if basic tools don't scare you.  If that's the fence you want to build, hopefully this should be fairly comprehensive.

These were the basic steps I took (materials/tools list with links at the bottom) starting with Day 1:
  1. String out mason's line to demarcate where the fence will stand
    • Since I had posts to mark the ends of my fence in place, I simply put in a nail 3/4 of the way in about 1-2 feet off the ground on one post, wrapped the line around the nail, pulled it taut to the other post, slipped the line level on, put in the nail where the line was level and wrapped the line around the nail.
    • It's handy if the mason's line is at the preferred height of the bottom 2x4 for the fence

  2. Mark where the posts should go in, about 8ft apart

  3. Using a post-hole digger (and digging bar, if it helps), dig a hole for each post about two feet deep; the holes can be fine tuned once all the holes are finished

  4. Once all the holes are dug, place the posts into each hole and determine the preferred height of the post; for posts that are too tall, dig some more and for posts that are too short, throw in some rocks or dirt you've dug up 
    • At this point, some tutorials suggest putting rocks at the bottom of the hole which give moisture a place to run off into, if that means anything to you
    • The precision of the height of the posts need only be as precise as you can visually stand

  5. Now that the posts are in and at the right height, use the post level to make sure the fence posts are level bracing the posts in place by screwing in extra wood on multiple sides
    • Make sure the posts are rotated so that they are square with the mason's line
    • I ended up using the pickets from the old fence (about five feet long) as the braces and ended up using three pickets per post, two in opposite directions and one perpendicular
    • Because the pickets were thin enough, I used the 1 1/4in screws to temporarily attach them to the post at a height that created a good angle which braced the other end against the ground
    • Theoretically, you could use the new pickets as the temporary braces if you don't have any extra wood lying around and don't mind mind a little more wear and tear on them and an extra screw hole
    • Once the braces are in, you can use a mallet, hammer, or your fist re-level the posts if anything shifted

  6. With the posts level, open a bag of concrete and begin pouring in the dry mix into the hole, about a quarter of the bag; add water, mix with a stick; repeat until entire bag is empty with appropriate amount of water or the hole is filled; repeat for each post
    • The amount of water doesn't have to be precise as extra water will be absorbed in the ground
    • The consistency of the cement should be thick and viscous, but if it's more watery, it will simply take longer to dry
    • Feel free to check the level and rotation of the posts as the cement is incrementally added; the more cement that is in the hole, the harder it is to re-level or re-orient
That's about all I could really do for day 1 as I had to wait for the cement to dry.  I also wasn't even comfortable measuring the distance between posts for cutting the 2x4's because of the potential for the posts to move while the cement was drying.  These were my steps for Day 2:
  1. Using the level mason's line at the height of the preferred height of the bottom 2x4 frame, mark the posts where the 2x4 should be, measure the distances between the posts, cut the 2x4 to size, and screw them to the posts using the 3in screws.
    • In general, one measurement to one side of the post should be fine, but for more precision work, both sides of the post could be measured to account for any post deformity
    • Screwing the 2x4 to the posts can actually be done with one person by using an extra, appropriately long 2x4, wedging it into the ground and up against the post at the right height on one side, fitting the cut 2x4 between the post, resting it on the propped 2x4, manually holding it up on the other side, and screwing it in
    • Screwing the 2x4 to the post means screwing the screw in at an angle
    • I screwed each side of the 2x4 to the post from the bottom and the top; for the top screw, I screwed at an angle closer to the side of the 2x4 the picket was going to be attached to in order to hide the head of the screw a bit more

  2. Once all the bottom 2x4's are in, reset the mason's line at the preferred height of the top 2x4s.  
    • Because one of my existing posts was much shorter, the height of my top post could be no taller than that shortest post - I was fine with the look of the posts standing a bit taller than the top 2x4

  3. Repeat step 1, installing the top 2x4's

  4. Now that the basic structure of the fence is in place, the pickets can be installed; choosing which side of the fence the pickets should be attached to, using the 1 1/4in screws, screw the pickets to the frame into the 2x4's; repeat until the pickets cover the length of the fence
    • For each picket, I used a standard level along the side of the picket to make sure the picket was vertically level
    • Depending on what kind of pickets are being used, one way to make sure the height of the fence stays uniform is to make sure the height from the top of the top 2x4 to the top of the picket stays the same
    • For each picket, I used two screws for the top 2x4 and two screws for the bottom 2x4
    • Screwing into the top 2x4 is pretty easy to eyeball, but the bottom 2x4 is more taxing because it is lower to the ground making it harder to eyeball screw into it; for slightly easier screwing for the bottom, a rafter square can be used against the side of the picket squared to the bottom 2x4 to easily see the correct line
    • Making sure each picket is completely flush with the previous picket was sort of a losing battle because cheaper pickets are not so precisely cut; the wood also expands and contracts with moisture so if more privacy is desire, overlap the pickets (but this means more of them)
    • Save the pickets that are more deformed or have knot holes in them for places where the imperfections can be more hidden (like towards the back of the yard if applicable)
It wasn't all smooth sailing for me as there were a couple issues I ran into:
  • There were posts on either end of the 40 ft negative space which meant I should have only needed four posts in-between. The post on the far side of the yard was pretty new and in good shape, but the post on the near side of the yard was pretty rotted through.  I didn't feel comfortable using it for load-bearing so I needed to figure out where to put another post.
  • This ended solving itself because as I measured out where to put the posts, I discovered that the cement bases of the previous posts were already there.  Not wanting to dig out the existing cement bases (because it seemed like a ton of work), I decided to offset the posts by a foot which allowed me to also place a new post about a foot away from the rotted one for extra support in that section of the fence.  This meant that there would be one section of 2x4's that would be a bit shorter and the trimmed pieces of wood were long enough to be further trimmed to fit between the old post and the new post about a foot away. 
  • I had a tree on my neighbor's property with branches that came onto ours at a height lower than the fence.  To solve this, I made a general measurement per picket that would allow the branch through and used a handsaw to cut out the appropriate pieces.  Ultimately, I only needed to cut a piece out of one picket and shorten another entire picket to make the appropriate opening for this branch.

Finally, here is a list of materials and tools I used for 40 feet of fence:
Hopefully the extra info is more helpful than not.  Good luck!

1 comment:

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