Building A Picket Fence

Building a picket fence isn't as hard as it looks! Follow these simple directions and tips for a successful home project.

If your fence is going to border your property, the very first thing to do is find out exactly where your property lines are, and if there are any buried gas or power lines on your property. If you are not sure, contact your local building department for a free survey before you dig.

Once determined, plot your fence. Using small stakes and string, lay out the proposed fence, take your measurements, and calculate your materials list. Figure on putting your fence posts 6' to 8' apart. Starting with the corner post position, drive a small stake at each corner and stretch string from corner to corner. Set stakes at the exact position each post hole will be dug, taking care to align them in a perfectly straight line. You can also use spray paint to mark the ground at each post position.

You will need the following tools:

Power saw and drill.

36" level

Post hole digger

Shovel and bucket for mixing cement


Small hand saw

Dig each post hole deep enough that 1/3 the total post length is below ground - if possible, make the bottom of the hole a little wider than the top, if extra stability is needed. Set the post in the hole and throw a few inches of small stones at the base for drainage. Pack the posts with ready-mix concrete, and with the level, make sure they are perfectly straight and aligned. Nail scrap lumber or leftover stakes to brace each post true, and let them set for several days before continuing. Since the entire integrity of your fence depends on straight, solid posts, it is not wise to shortcut any of these steps!

At this point, you may build your picket fence panels and attach each panel to your posts, or attach the top and bottom rails, then add your pickets. You may find prefab picket panels at you local home store, which you simply nail to your posts with simple lap joints. However if the terrain is uneven or on a slope, it may be best to make your own panels, or attach the rails, then add pickets in the size and spacing of your choice, so you can fit it to the terrain.

There are several methods of attaching the top and bottom rails. The sturdiest - and most difficult - method is a slotted joint, where holes are cut through the posts, and the rails are slotted through the posts and secured with nails. This will give the most aesthetically pleasing finish on both sides of your fence, particularly if its purpose is purely decorative. Alternately, grooves can be cut into the surface of the post and the rails secured into the grooves. This also creates a sturdy and finished appearance. The easiest method is lap joints, wherein the rails are nailed to the post surface, with the joints centered on each post. This is equally sturdy, though will not give such a finished appearance on the inside of the fence. No matter which method you employ, always use galvanized nails to prevent rust and black streaks on the wood. If slotting or grooving the wood, liberally apply wood preservative in the joints to ward off rot.

No matter which method you use, take care to ensure your rails are level and aligned evenly. After you have measured your first post, cut a stick to the correct length and use this to mark each post at rail position. Use your level to check each rail before attaching each one. The bottom rail should be at least 8" from the ground. Not only will this prevent decay, but will be much easier to mow close to your fence.

At this point, you can cut your own pickets to the size and design you choose, or buy pre-made pickets available in a wide range of styles, from plain boards to fanciful cut-out designs. Use galvanized wood screws, and begin attaching your pickets. Use either a spare picket, or a block of wood to ensure even spacing. If you have animals or small children, take into consideration the danger of little heads getting stuck between the pickets and space accordingly, keeping the bottom edges of your pickets at least 2" from the ground.

You can finish the fence with stain or use a clear preservative to let it weather naturally. If you're really after the traditional "white picket fence" look, consider using a solid color oil base stain, rather than house paint. House paint will require three coats (one primer, two finish coats) and will be much harder to keep up. Also consider putting decorative metal or wood caps on your fence posts, both to preserve the posts and for a stylish finishing touch.

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