How to Build a Picket Fence
By Eric Slatt
The picket fence has been a country farm to manor estate mainstay of the American landscape since before the American Revolutionary War. While the white picket fence has become a sign of prestige and landownership, many small farmers instead used what resources they had to make their own version of this fence that served both a utilitarian and aesthetic purpose.
When we were finally able to purchase our home in the country, I wanted to make a kitchen garden near the house for my wife. Being a small landowner with limited resources, I needed to build a fence that was not only inexpensive and functional, but also pleasing to the eye. I dove in to do some research.
This fence was modeled after the kitchen garden found at the boyhood home of President Andrew Jackson, located at Andrew Jackson State Park, near Lancaster, South Carolina. The fence was built using natural wood found on the property, and tied together using hemp rope.
The gate is a replica of one originally used on the 150-year-old barn on our farm.
You can build this easy fence using simple hand tools and a few basic knots. Directions for the knots are below.
Preparing your project
First, determine where you want your fence. Drive small wooden stakes into the ground at the fence corners and where you want your gate. Once you have your corner stakes in the ground, take some of your twine or line that you will use to build your fence, and string it between the corner stakes to help keep your fence line nice and straight.
To figure out how many fence posts you will need, measure the perimeter of your fence outline and divide by five. Remember that you will need two fence rails for every fence post.
When cutting the fence posts and rails, use the straightest wood you can find. The fence posts should be about 4 inches in diameter and 7 feet long. Rails can be from 2 inches to 4 inches in diameter and 6 1/2 feet long.
How to build a picket fence
Starting at the gate location, dig postholes 2-to-3 feet deep along the guideline every 5 feet. A 3-foot hole will give you a sturdy footing for your fence, with a standard aboveground height. Work your way around your fence line until you get back to your gate opening. As you finish each posthole, install a fence post. This will keep you or anyone else from stepping into an open posthole.
Once all the posts are installed, it’s time to install the fence rails. Again, you will want to start at your gate opening. Work your way around your fence line installing the bottom rail about 1 foot above the ground. Using heavy baler twine or nylon mason line, lash the rails to the posts using a square lashing knot (directions for a square lashing are below). The tighter you make your lashings, the sturdier your fence will be.
There are two types of line you can use. The baler twine gives your fence a more rustic look and feel, but will need to be replaced every two to three years. Mason line is made of white nylon. While it does not give as much of a rustic look, it will last for years.
Once you have the bottom rails tied, tie the top rail about one foot below the top of the fence posts, starting at the gate.
When you have finished lashing the last top rail, it’s time to step back and admire your work. Take the rest of the day off – you earned it.
Installing the pickets
You will need a lot of pickets for your fence. You will use about four pickets for each foot of fence length. For pickets, we used suckers that grew up out of tree stumps scattered around our property. You can also use downed limbs or other brush you may find lying around your property. Look for straighter pieces of similar size.
The pickets are attached individually to the rails using a diagonal lashing. Tie each picket as tight as you can. Tying them individually will allow you to replace individual pickets as needed.
Building your gate
The gate is a simple and effective affair, made from scrap lumber. I have found that used 2-by-4s work the best, but you can use whatever lumber you have. Start by installing a fence post 4 inches out from the posts at your gate opening. Determine where you want the bottom rail to be, and nail a 2-by-4 between the posts on each side of the gate opening. Work both sides of the opening to keep the gate rails level. As you finish each set of rail supports, place your rail on the supports to show where your next set of supports will go. Keep working up the fence posts until you have reached the desired height. You now have a functional, rustic gate.
I use this type of fence for all of my garden and livestock gates, and they have held up well against both weather and livestock.
Maintaining a rustic fence
As with all wooden fences, your fence will need maintenance. How often you need to replace the wood will depend on the type of wood you used. Periodically, check and replace any knots and pickets that have broken.
Building and maintaining this fence will take some time, but the finished fence will be a source of pride for you, and it will be sure to attract attention from your neighbors and friends.
Eric Slatt owns a small farm outside of Kershaw, South Carolina, where he raises heritage livestock along with heirloom vegetables and herbs.
Baler twine or mason line
Scrap 2-by-4 lumber for the gate
Fence posts and rails — preferably ones made of cedar.
Pickets — Either green sucker growth on tree stumps, or cut out of your brush pile.
Tie these basic knots
See the Image Gallery and then click NEXT to view a how-to diagram for these basic knots while reading through the steps.
1. Place a loop around the pole, with the working end of the rope on top.
2. Run the working end around the pole once more until you meet the place where the ropes cross.
3. Pass the working end under the cross. Pull to tighten.
1. Tie a clove hitch around one of the poles.
2. Make three turns in each direction with the rope, tightening the joint as you wrap.
3. Frap the joint twice, as tight as possible. (To frap means to wrap the rope between the poles — in front of the back stick and in back of the front stick — and then pull tightly.)
4. Finish with a clove hitch.
1. Tie a clove hitch on the vertical post beneath the horizontal rail.
2. Wrap in a square fashion (behind the back pole, over the front pole, etc.) about four times around the poles.
3. Frap the joint a couple of times, as tight as possible. (To frap means to wrap the rope between the poles — in front of the back stick and in back of the front stick — and then pull tightly.)
4. Tie off the rope using a clove hitch.
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