All About Wood Fences
These traditional enclosures define the character of our homes and our relationships with neighbors. The experts at This Old House help find a fence to suit your property, your budget, and your style
There are plenty of practical uses for a fence: to gain privacy, safely corral kids and pets, block wind and noise, and prevent unsupervised dips in a swimming pool. But the right fence also makes a strong aesthetic statement, improving a home’s curb appeal.
Going back 400 years, the favorite residential fencing material in this country has always been wood. In 2007 alone, Americans put up 59,000 miles of it, enough to circle the globe twice, and then some. Why wood? It’s inexpensive and lightweight, to be sure, but so is chain link. The main reason is that a wood fence can easily be shaped to give properties character and individuality. You can choose from dozens of styles, including linear post-and-rail and crisscrossing lattice, as well as myriad picket patterns and post-cap designs. And you can stain the wood to make it pop out or recede from the landscape as either a vibrant or subtle frame for what’s behind it.
On the following slides, see some of the forms a wood fence can take, and learn the basics of buying, installing, and maintaining it. Take the time now to carefully consider your choice; if you follow our tips, you’ll be looking at that fence—and enjoying it—for many years to come.
Anatomy of a Picket Fence
Four basic components create this wood barrier.
1. Cap: Protects post’s vulnerable end grain from the weather.
2. Rail: Connects the posts and supports the pickets.
3. Post: Supports all components; for stability, bury at least one-third of it in the ground.
4. Picket: Mounts vertically on rails; often has a pointed tip.
Wood Fence Vitals
How Much Do They Cost? Four-foot-tall picket panels run about $3 to $75 per linear foot uninstalled, depending on style and wood species. Six-foot privacy fencing: about $4 to $100.
DIY or Hire a Pro? Are you an accomplished DIYer with a strong back, a yen to dig, and plenty of time? Go for it! But hiring a pro gets the job done quicker.
How Long Do They Last? About 20 years, if made of rot-resistant wood. Then posts are usually the first to go; panels survive longer because they typically don’t touch the ground.
How Much Maintenance? Posts should be plumbed and tamped every three years or so. If the wood has a coating, the schedule varies; clear toners and waterproofers need annual refreshing, semitransparent stains last three to four years, and solid-color stains go five to seven. Paint is not recommended.
Fence Types: Picket
Best for: Front yards, gardens, pool enclosures.
Usually 3 to 4 feet high, these fences are named for their widely spaced pointy-topped pickets, which discourage climbing and shed raindrops.
Similar to shown: 4-foot-tall pointed-top cove panel, about $24 per linear foot in red cedar;
Fence Types: Vertical Board
Best for: Nosy neighbors, wind and noise protection.
Overlapped or butted edge to edge, tall vertical boards ensure privacy. They also block the wind, a good thing in winter but not so much in summer.
Similar to shown: 6-foot-tall shadow-box panel, about $30 per linear foot in redwood;
Fence Types: Lattice
Best for: Gardens, decks, patios, pools.
Crisscrossing strips of lath obscure the view while allowing air and light to pass through. A perfect screen for climbing plants.
Similar to shown: 4-foot-tall lattice panel, about $59 per linear foot in white cedar;
Fence Types: Post and Rail
Best for: boundaries, enclosing fields.
This inexpensive fence, traditionally used for penning livestock, also makes a bold demarcation between properties.
Similar to shown: 4-foot-tall paddock fence, about $8.25 per linear foot in treated southern yellow pine;
Fence Types: Louver
Best for: Pools, decks, parking pads, patios.
Vertical louvers or staggered boards afford privacy when viewed straight on but allow airflow and open views from the side.
Similar to shown: 6-foot-tall open-louver panel, about $21.50 per linear foot in redwood;
A. Southern Yellow Pine: A thrifty choice that has to be treated to resist rot and insects and to remove sap. Knotty. Shown: 4-inch-by-4-foot French Gothic picket, about $3.70 per linear foot; The Home Depot
B. Douglas Fir: This strong, northwestern softwood is stable and sap-free in clear, vertical-grain cuts. Less rot resistant than red cedar and redwood. Shown: 2½-inch-by-3-foot Acorn picket, about $29 per linear foot; Blue Ox Millworks
C. Redwood: Premium western softwood that’s stable and sap-free. Clear grades like this are costly. Shown: 2½-inch-by-3-foot Windsor picket, about $37.50 per linear foot;Blue Ox Millworks
D. Eastern White Cedar: Grows from New England to Minnesota. Stable and sap-free with small, tight knots. Shown: 1½-inch-by-4-foot Nantucket picket, about $27.50 per linear foot; Walpole Woodworkers
E. Cypress: From southern swamps, this tan relative of redwood is stable and sap-free. Can have small, tight knots. Shown: 3-inch-by-4-foot Gothic picket, about $17.50 per linear foot; Duluth Timber Co.
F. Western Red Cedar: A Pacific Northwest wood with superior rot and insect resistance. Stable and sap-free. Shown: 1½-inch-by-4-foot Illinois picket, about $6.50 per linear foot; Amendola’s Fence Company
What’s whitewood? A catchall term for inferior species of spruce, pine, and fir used in cheap fence panels. Unless treated to deter rot and insects, they have about half the life span of woods that are naturally rot resistant.
Man-Made Materials: Vinyl
Hollow PVC posts and rails reinforced with metal or wood inside.
Pros: Warranties from 20 years to lifetime; needs only an occasional wash.
Cons: White and shades of beige only; has a plasticky sheen; gets brittle and cracks with age.
Cost: about $12–$50 per linear foot for 6-foot-tall uninstalled panels
Man-Made Materials: Wood Composite
Boards made of a sawdust and plastic blend with solid wood posts and rails.
Pros: Warranties from 20 to 25 years; comes in a variety of woodlike colors.
Cons: Posts must be set in concrete every 6 feet, which means extra digging and installation expense.
Cost: about $15–$50 per linear foot for 6-foot-tall uninstalled panels
Man-Made Materials: Ornamental
Steel, aluminum, or fiberglass made to resemble wrought iron.
Pros: Lifetime warranties on fiberglass and aluminum, 10 to 20 years for steel; paint it any color; strong.
Cons: No privacy; all posts set in concrete; steel rusts.
Cost: Starts at about $25 per linear foot for aluminum or fiberglass; about $16 for steel.
Get off-the-shelf panels, build your fence from scratch, or let a pro do the work.
Prefab: A DIYer can find ready-to-install panels at home centers, lumberyards, and fence suppliers. Home centers tend to have the best prices; fence suppliers usually have better quality woods and the biggest selection of designs. The downside: Fence panels, typically 8 feet long, are heavy and unwieldy, and it might take several trips to move all the material to your property. On grades that slope more than 1 foot in every 8, there’ll be large, irregular gaps at the bottom.
Assemble it yourself: Building a fence the old-fashioned way—stick by stick with wood from a lumberyard or fence supplier—gets you a custom barrier that follows uneven terrain. Your choices of woods and styles are limited only by your budget. This is also the most time-consuming option and will cost more than prefab panels because you pay a premium to purchase wood by the piece. Use these handy formulas to calculate how many panels and posts you’ll need:
Distance between two corners (in feet) ÷ 8 = Number of panels in a single fence run
Number of panels + 1 = Number of posts in a single fence run
Hire it out. Having a professional do all the heavy lifting and digging is the fastest and easiest way to get a fence installed—and the most costly. Pros offer the widest choice of stick-built styles, as well as panel fencing, and can create almost any design you dream up. If your property is sloped, they can even customize panels to follow the grade.
A series of X’s fills the gap between the top and bottom rails. A ball-shaped detail on the post cap and where the crosspieces intersect adds a touch of formality.
Similar to shown: 4-foot-tall fence in stained white cedar, about $38 per linear foot for uninstalled panels;
Thin horizontal boards bent around vertical spacers create attractive shadow lines with gaps between each course to permit airflow. Must be built on-site.
Similar to shown: 6-foot-tall fence in redwood, about $30 per linear foot for uninstalled panels;
Designs: Wall Topper
Orderly pickets perched atop an existing stone wall create pleasing contrasts between light and dark, and smooth and rough. Posts fit over steel pipe anchored in the stone.
Shown: 4-foot-tall Westchester picket panel in stained white cedar, about $75 per linear foot for uninstalled panels;
Roof structures add Asian flavor to tall vertical-board panels and protect post tops from the elements.
Similar to shown: 6-foot-tall custom redwood panel, about $46 per linear foot for uninstalled panels;
Weaving flexible twigs over vertical shoots turns an inexpensive, sustainable resource into a rustic-looking fence. Left natural, wattle lasts about eight years.
Similar to shown: 6-foot-tall hurdle-style panel in willow, about $17 per linear foot for uninstalled panels;
Fence Etiquette 101
“Good neighbor” fences look great on both sides. But for fences with visible posts and rails on the back and tidy boards on the front, be sure to face the framework toward your house. Out-facing framing is unsightly and makes the fence easy to climb, compromising your security and privacy.
How High Should a Fence Be?
Decide based on how you plan to use your fence.
Corralling kids or pets: Three to 4 feet prevents wandering but is low enough to leave the view intact and to chat with neighbors.
Enclosing a pool: Code requires 4 feet, minimum. The maximum space between pickets is 4 inches.
Maintaining privacy: Six feet, maximum. Many communities require a permit and engineering plans for anything higher.
Controlling deer: Seven feet discourages casual browsers, although persistent bucks can clear 15 feet.
How to Anchor a Post
Soil: TOH landscape contractor Roger Cook sets posts on a 6-inch base of ¾-inch crushed stone to encourage drainage. Then he fills around posts with the soil from the holes, minus the topsoil, and packs it down every 6 inches. In sandy soil, he mixes in gravel so that it will pack more firmly. In clay soil, which doesn’t drain well, he packs only gravel around posts.
Concrete: Roger uses concrete only for gateposts or when rock stops him from digging deep enough, one-third of the post’s length. Concrete is costly—each post requires two or three $5 bags—and slow, as posts must be braced until the concrete sets.