Wooden Privacy Fence
Building your own wooden privacy fence is a fairly easy DIY project that can save you money! A wooden privacy fence project can be broken down into three basic phases:
- Digging the post-holes is the most difficult phase. Depending on your soil conditions, this can be easy or it can be hard. You never know until you dig the first hole.
- Setting the fence posts, is the second most difficult fence-building phase. Mixing concrete in a wheelbarrow is not too hard, but moving the bags of concrete from point A to point B, can be strenuous.
- Setting the rails and pickets is the fun part - you finally get to see the results of your hard work.
My fence project was to replace a 100' section of an existing wooden privacy fence, that I built on the west side of my house over 20 years ago. The design of my new fence is slightly different than the old one. I stuck to the common six-foot wooden picket design, but made some changes to the structure to avoid some of the problems that developed over time on my first fence.
My Wooden Privacy Fence Project Scope
- Leave the existing wooden privacy fence in place while I dig and set the posts for the new fence. Dig the new post holes next to the existing wooden posts to avoid having to dig up and jack-hammer the concrete from the old holes. This allowed me to take my time digging the new post-holes while my old fence continued to stand and secure my property.
- Three 2x4 rails (#1 grade pressure treated). Two rails are common for 3/4" thick pickets, but I'm adding a third rail to help prevent the 5/8" thick fence boards from bowing between the top and bottom rails. Two rails would have probably been okay, but three are better.
- Use #2 grade 5/8" thick x 5.5" wide cedar pickets. I used 4" wide pickets on my first fence, which is perfectly acceptable, but I thought I would try the 5 1/2" wide pickets on my new fence. Using wider pickets results in fewer gaps between boards along the 100' stretch of fence.
- Use galvanized metal posts instead of 4x4 wooden posts. They don't warp and are actually a lighter weight material, thus making them easier to work with. Galvanized posts are a little more expensive than 4x4 wooden posts, but in my opinion the advantages are worth it. The 4x4 posts on my first wooden privacy fence warped after only a few months in the ground.
Note that using 4x4 pressure treated posts for your fence is a perfectly acceptable design. But if I were planning to use wooden fence posts again, I would make sure they are center-cut #1 grade pressure treated.
Getting Started - Digging Post Holes
Note: Before digging a single post hole, call 811 (in the US) to have an official come out to your project site and locate any underground utility lines. It might take them a few days to complete their work, so make sure you include that in your schedule. Locating underground utilities is a very important step that must not be left out!
As mentioned earlier, the post-hole digging phase is the most difficult part of building a wooden privacy fence. My soil conditions could be classified as medium-hard. The ground was about 70% dirt and 30% rock. Most of the rocks I ran into were about the size of tennis balls or smaller, but in two or three of the 13 holes, some were as big as footballs. Below is a list of essential post hole digging tools:
- Post Hole Digger
- Digging Bar
- Shovel (I use a short 'Round Point' with a 'D-Handle')
- Work Gloves (If you don't wear gloves while handling the digging tools, blisters will soon appear.)
As noted in the project scope - dig the new post holes beside the existing ones. This way I could keep my existing privacy fence in place while I took as much time as I needed to dig the new holes.
I put on my gloves and began digging each new post-hole with the shovel. I dug a 1-foot diameter hole about four to six inches deep, then switched to the post hole digger. If the ground was too hard, or if I ran into rocks, I used the digging bar to help break up the soil and pry the rocks loose. If the digging bar didn't loosen the ground sufficiently, I would add a little water to the hole. Some holes were easier to dig than others - that's the nature of post-hole digging.
I dug each of my post holes at least 12" in diameter and about 18" deep. Some soil conditions might require the holes to be deeper. Check your local building code to determine the required footing sizes for your fence posts before you start pouring concrete.
The post-holes took about an hour each to dig (on average), but I often had to wait a week or two between diggings due to weather. Finally, after an extremely cold Winter and wet Spring, I got the last post-hole dug by the first week of May.
List of Materials
I estimated that my new 100' wooden privacy fence project required approximately 218 pickets, 13 posts, 13 post caps, 39 post brackets, 39 rails, 5 lbs of 1 1/4" deck screws, 5 lbs of 2" deck screws, and about twenty 60 lb. bags of concrete. Here's the list:
|Fence Posts||2 3/8" x 8' Galvanized||13|
|Post Caps||2 3/8" Bullet Cap||13|
|Post Brackets||Simpson PGT2||39|
|Rails||2x4 @ 8' (PT)||39|
|Pickets||6x5/8" @ 6' Cedar||218 (Approx.)|
|Concrete||60 lb. bag||20 (Approx.)|
|Deck Screws||1.5"||5 lbs|
|Deck Screws||2"||5 lbs|
Note: I did not purchase the complete list of materials at one time. I purchased them only as I needed them, so I wouldn't have to store them for extended periods, or pay for them before they were needed.
Setting the Galvanized Fence Posts
With all of the post-holes dug, the next step was to begin installing the 2 3/8" diameter x 8-feet long galvanized posts.
As mentioned, I did not purchase all of these materials at one time. In fact, the complete list would not fit in the bed of my Toyota Tundra. On top of that, I knew that it would take me a week or so to set the 13 posts in concrete, and I wouldn't need the other materials until the posts were ready. I drove to the lumber yard and only purchased what I needed to set the posts: the 13 8-foot galvanized posts; the 39 brackets; the 13 post caps; and six 60 lb bags of concrete.
I knew six bags of concrete would not be enough to set all of the posts, but I didn't want to buy any more concrete than I could mix in a day. I also wanted to see how far six bags would go before I purchased the balance - the plan was to not have any extra bags of concrete laying around in my garage when the job was done.
I placed one of the 8' galvanized posts into the first hole (at the point inside the hole where I wanted the post to be). Next, with a 2x4 block placed on top of the post (to protect it from the 4-lb sledge), I gently pounded it vertically into the ground, just enough so that the post could stand plumb, and on its own, while I mixed the concrete.
To make things easy for myself, I moved the bags of concrete (one at a time) directly from the tailgate of my truck to my wheelbarrow. Once loaded, I wheeled each bag of concrete over to the location of the hole before mixing it.
I used 60 lb. bags of concrete, because they are easier to carry than the 80 lb. bags.
I mixed the concrete with a minimum amount of water so that, once in the hole, the concrete would have enough integrity to hold the metal posts plumb and in place without requiring any temporary supports. I shoveled the thick-mixed concrete, from the wheelbarrow, into the hole and around the post. Afterwards, I frequently (and carefully) checked the post with a level to ensure it remained plumb before the concrete hardened.
The first 6 bags of concrete were enough to set 4 posts. The next day, I bought 8 more bags and set another 5 posts, then made another trip that same day, and bought 7 more bags to set the remaining four posts.
Once the posts were firmly set, I slipped three Simpson rail-brackets onto the top of each post, and positioned them along the vertical length of the posts as indicated in the diagram above, then aligned the tabs, left and right, so that they lined up with the adjacent posts. Once they were aligned and spaced properly, I secured the locking screw on each bracket to hold them in place. Finally, I loosely placed the post-caps on top of each uncut 8-foot post to prevent rainwater from getting inside, until I could determine where to cut the posts (the last step of the project).
Installing the Rails for the Wooden Privacy Fence
With the posts set in concrete, the next phase of the project was to tear down the old fence and install the new one. On Friday, June 11, the forecast called for high temperatures in the low 90s with a 10% chance of rain. There would probably not be a better time to install the rails and pickets before the summer heat kicked into high gear.
I took off from work about 11:00am that Friday and made a trip to the lumber yard to pick up the first batch of pickets, rails, and screws. I didn't want to purchase any more fencing than I could install that afternoon, so I bought half of the 2x4 rails (18), about half of the pickets (100), and 5 lbs of 1 1/2" deck screws.
When I returned from the lumber yard, I began dismantling just enough of the old fence to install my new rails and pickets.
I cut the (roughly eight-foot) sections of the old fencing in half to make them easier to manage. Once the fencing sections were removed and stacked up neatly in my back yard, I cut the remaining wooden 4x4 posts off at the base with a reciprocating saw (Sawzall).
With nothing but the new posts set in concrete and rail-brackets secured in place, I began measuring, cutting, and installing the 2x4 rails.
The new 2x4 rail material was #1 grade and quite straight, but if you look down the length of any 8' board, you'll always find a slight bow. Place the bow upward between posts.
If you don't have a helper to hold up the other end of the long 2x4 rail, you can drive a nail halfway into the top of one end of the rail, then bend the nail over, so that it can hang onto the top end of the previously installed rail, until you can secure the other end with 1 1/2" deck screws.
With the rail brackets securely attached to the galvanized posts, and the 2x4 rails screwed to the rail brackets, it was time to install the fence pickets.
I planned to pull the fence pickets straight from the bed of my truck, rather than unload them to someplace else first. That would mean moving the material twice. If you can avoid doing that, it will save you some work.
Installing the Pickets on a Wooden Privacy Fence
It is worth noting that, on my fence, not any three posts were installed on level ground or in straight lines. The first half of my fence follows the edge of the curving (and continually descending) concrete sidewalk, while the second half of the fence makes a rounded-turn to return back to the side of my house.
Given my design, instead of stretching a string-line on the top of one long stretch of fence posts (to keep the tops of the pickets aligned), I ran the string-line from post to post and installed the pickets one section at a time. Each of the sections were slightly different than the others.
I finished setting the rails and pickets on the first half of my new wooden privacy fence on Friday before dark. After I put away all of my tools and cleaned up the scrap material from the sidewalk, there was just enough daylight left to enjoy a couple of beers, while I appreciated the work I had accomplished.
Finishing the Wooden Privacy Fence Project
On Saturday, I woke up early and drove back to the lumber yard to purchase the remaining rails, another 5 lbs of screws, and 100 more pickets. I knew I would be short a few pickets, but planned to pick them up on Sunday, once I determined the exact number I would need to complete the job.
When I returned from the lumber yard, I set up my operation on the sidewalk, as I had done the day before, and began removing the rest of my old wooden privacy fence.
Even though I was tired from Friday's work, Saturday's work went smoother, once I had established a rhythm of productivity; measure the rails, cut the rails, drive and bend a nail at the end of each rail, mount a screw on the end of my cordless drill, rest the bent-nailed end of the rail on the previously installed rail and screw the other end in place through the post bracket, add the remaining screws, repeat for the other two rails, then move on to the next section of rails.
Once all of the rails were in place, another level of productivity began with adding the remaining pickets; add a temporary picket at the location of the next post (to determine the height of the inner pickets) and drive a nail or screw half-way in from the top of the two outer pickets, stretch a string-line between the two pickets, add a 1/4" spacer under the string at each end (see diagram), load a nail-bag with 1 1/2" deck screws, begin attaching the inner pickets (holding them 1/4" below the tight string-line and checking them for plumb using a 4' level) until the temporary picket is reached, remove the temporary picket and attach it again to the next post.
At the end of Saturday, as anticipated, I would need to purchase another 15 pickets to complete the job. On Sunday morning, I grabbed a fast food breakfast and picked up the remaining pickets. After they were installed, I had one remaining task to do:
Cut the Tops of the Galvanized Posts
I removed the loosely placed temporary post caps from each post and measured down approximately 5" from the top of the nearest fence picket and made a mark on each post using a carpenter's pencil. I attached a metal-cutting blade to my reciprocating saw (Sawzall) and cut each post. Then, I reattached the post caps and permanently tapped them down onto the posts with a hammer.
The project was now complete.
Wooden Privacy Fence Building Tips
Use a nail bag to hold your screws or nails while you are attaching the pickets. If you hold your cordless drill (or hammer) with your right hand, position your nail pouch so that you can get to the screws with your left hand. You can also use a nail gun to attach the pickets.
Put your fasteners in one of the top pockets of your nail bag so that you don't have to dig deep for them. This doesn't seem like a big deal, but after you reach for 10 lbs of screws over a two-day period, you notice the effects of repetition.
Don't add any space between pickets when installing them. Unless your fence pickets are completely dry (and they rarely are), attach them with no space between. I attached mine as tight as they would go and still, only two days later, ended up with close to a 1/4" gap between some pickets.
If you have any thoughts or suggestions regarding the building of a wooden privacy fence, please share with us!
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