How to Build Wood Fences

Learn how to build wood fences that will last a lifetime using the simple methods and tools of generations past.

Virginia Rail Fence

Figure 1 — Virginia zigzag fence complete.

Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing

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Fences, Gates, and Bridges (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011), by George A. Martin, is a timeless treasure filed with practical guidance for building long-lasting fences, gates and bridges. First published in 1887, allows anyone that wants to build their own structures using traditional and proven methods. This excerpt from Chapter 1, “Rail and Other Primitive Fences,” illustrates how to build wood fences in a variety of ways.

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Types of Wood Fences

Virginia Rail Fence

The zigzag rail fence was almost universally adopted by the settlers in the heavily timbered portions of the country, and countless thousands of miles of it still exist, though the increasing scarcity of timber has brought other styles of fencing largely to use. Properly built, of good material, on a clear, solid, bed, kept free from bushes and other growth to shade it and cause it to rot, the rail fence is as cheap as any, and as effective and durable as can reasonable be desired. Good chestnut, oak, cedar, or juniper rails, or original growth heart pine, will last from fifty to a hundred years, so that material of this sort, once in hand, will serve one or two generations. This fence, ten rails high, and propped with two rails at each corner, requires twelve rails to the panel. If the fence bed is five feet wide, and the rails are eleven feet long, and are lapped about a foot at the locks, on panel will extend about eight feet in direct line. This takes seven thousand nine hundred and twenty rails, or about eight thousand nine hundred and twenty rails, or about eight thousand rails to the mile. For a temporary fence, one that can be put up and taken down in a short time, for making stock pens and division fences, not intended to remain long in place, nothing is cheaper or better. The bed for a fence of this kind should not be less than five feet across, to enable it to stand before the wind. The rails are the best cut eleven feet long; and the forward end of each rail should come under the next one that is laid. The corners, or locks, as they are called, should also be well propped with strong, whole rails, not with pieces of rails, as is often done. The props should be set firmly on the ground about two feet from the panel, and crossed at the lock so as to hold each other, and the top course of the fence firmly in place. They thus act as braces to the fence, supporting it against the wind. Both sides of the fence should be propped. The top course of rails should be the strongest and heaviest of any, for the double purpose or weighting the fence down, and to prevent breaking of rails be persons getting upon it. The four corners of the rails nearest the ground should be of the smallest pieces, to prevent making the cracks, or spaces between the rails, too large. They should also be straight, and of nearly even sizes at both ends. This last precaution is only necessary where small pigs have to be fenced out or in, as the case may be. The fence, after it is finished, will have the appearance of figure 1

, will be six rails high, two props at each lock, and the worm will be crooked enough to stand any wind, that will not prostrate crops, fruit trees, etc. A straighter worm than this will be easy to blow down or push over. The stability of this sort of fence depends very largely on the manner of placing the props. With as the distance of the foot of the prop rail from the fence panel, and the way it is locked at the corner.

Laying a Rail Fence

It is much better, both for good looks and economy, to have the corners of a rail fence on each side in line with each other. This may be accomplished by means of a very simple implement, shown in figure 2. It consists of a small pole, eight feet long, sharpened at the lower end. A horizontal arm of a length equal to half the width of the fence from extreme outside of corners, is fastened to the long pole at right angles, near the lower end. Sometimes a sapling may be found with a limb growing nearly at right angles, which will serve the purpose. Before beginning the fence, stakes are set at intervals along the middle of the line it is to occupy. To begin, the gauge, as shown in figure 2, is set in line with the states, and the horizontal arm is swung outwardly at right angles to the line of the fence. A stone or block to support the first corner is laid directly under the end of the horizontal arm, and the first rail laid with one end resting on the support. In the same way the next corner and all others are laid, the gauge being moved from corner to corner, set in line of fence, and the arm swung alternately to the right and left.

Stalking and Wiring

A neater and more substantial method of securing the corners of a worm fence is by vertical stakes and wires, as shown in the figures 4 and 5. When the lower three rails are laid, the states are driven in the angles close to the rails, and secured by a band of annealed wire. The work of laying the rails proceeds, and when within one rail of the top, a second wire band is put in place. Or the upper wire may be put on above the top rail. Annealed wire is plentiful and cheap.

Other Types of Wood Fences

A Fence of “Stakes and Riders”

A very common method with the “worm” or “Virginia” rail fence is to drive slanting stakes over the corner in saw-horse style, and lay the top rail into the angle thus formed. The stakes, resting on the rails and standing at angle, brace the fence firmly. But the feet of the stakes extending beyond the jagged corners formed by the ends of the rail are objectionable. This is remedied in part by putting the stakes over the middle of the panel—at considerable distance apart—and laying in them long poles horizontally. In this case the stakes should be set at an angle as to prevent their moving sidewise along the top rail, which should be a strong one. These stakes and long riders are frequently used to raise the hight of low stone walls. Figure 6 shows a fence nearly all composed of stakes and riders, which is straight and requires fewer rails than a worm fence. First, crotched stakes, formed by the forks of a branching tree limb, a foot or more, are driven a foot or so into the ground at a distance apart corresponding to the length of poles used. The bottom poles are laid into these, and two stakes, split, or round poles, are driven over these and the next poles laid in. Then two more stakes and another pole, and so on as high as the fence is required. This will answer for larger animals, and be strong and not expensive. For swine, and other small live-stock, the crotch stakes may be replaces by blocks or stones, and the lower poles be small and begin close to the ground.

A Pole Fence

A fence which is clearly constructed in a timbered region, and calls for no outlay whatever, besides labor, is illustrated at figure 7. The posts are set in a straight line, having previously been bored with an inch augur to receive the pins. When they are set, the pins are driven diagonally into the posts, and the poles laid in place. It would add much to its strength, if the poles were laid so as to “break joints.” A modification of this fence is sometimes made by using withes instead of pins to hold the poles in place. The withe (see Slideshow) is made of young sapling or slender limb of been, iron-wood, or similar tough fibrous wood, a strong loop made at the top, through which the butt is slipped. When in place, the butt end is tucked under the body of the withe (see Slideshow).

Fences for Soil Liable to Heave

The main point in such fence is either to set the posts and place a pin through them near the bottom, so that the frost may not throw them out, or to so attach the boards that the posts may be re-driven, without splitting them, or removing the rails from the fence. The latter is, perhaps, the best plan, and may be accomplished in several ways, the most desirable of which is shown in figures 10 and 11. The post, h, is driven in the usual manner, and a strip of board, g, is fastened to it be three of four spikes, depending upon the hight of the fence. A space just sufficient to insert the ends of the boards a, e, figure 11, is left between the post and outside strip, the ends of the boards resting upon the spikes. Many miles of this fence are in use. It looks neat; besides any portion is easily removed, making a passage to and from the field.  A new post is easily put in when required, and any may be re-driven when heaved by the frost.

Where iron is cheap, a rod about three-eights of an inch in diameter is cut in lengths of about seven and a half inches, is bent at right angles. After the boards are placed in position, the hooks should be driven in so that they will firmly grasp the boards and hold them in place. The general appearance of the finished fenced is shown in figure 12, and is one adapted to almost any locality.

A much better method is to fasten the boards temporarily in place, and then bore a half inch hole through both boards and the post, into which a common screw bolt is then inserted and the nut screwed in firmly. The two ends, should, however, be put on opposite sides of the post. One bolt thus holds the ends of both boards firmly to the post, as shown in figure 13. With this style of fence, old rails or round poles may be used instead of boards.

More Primitive Fences

In the heavily timbered parts of the country, where the settlers a few years ago were making farms by felling and burning the huge pine trees was constructed like the one shown in figure 14. Sections of trees, about four and a half feet long and often as thick, were places in line and morticed to receive from three to five rails. This style of fence could be used by the landscape gardener with fine effect for enclosing a park or shrubbery.

In the same regions, when a farmer has pulled all the stumps from a pasture that slopes toward the highway, the stumps may be placed in line along the road with the top ends inside of the field. The gaps between where the stumps can not be rolled close together are filled with brushwood. A portion of this fence is shown in figure 15.

Where other material is costly, or not to be obtained, the wicker fence, constructed of stakes and willows, is much used. In the far West it is to be seen in every town, generally built on a small embankment of earth from one to two feet deep. In this climate, with occasional repairs, it lasts from ten to fifteen years. Figure 16 shows the style of construction.  

Throughout the forest regions is found the staked and ridered brush growing on the line where the fence is constructed. Figure 17 illustrates a few rod brush fence—such fencing being met with our Southern States.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Fences, Gates, and Bridges and How to Make Them by George A. Martin and published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2011. Purchase this book from our store: Fences, Gates, and Bridges.