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.


  • Figure 5 — Stakes in angles.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 17 — Brush fence.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Learn how to build lasting structures with George A. Martin’s “Fences, Gates, and Bridges,” now filled with full-color illustrations for everything from functional fences to decorative bridges.
    Cover courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 10 — End view of fence.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 11 — Side view of fence.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 12 — Fence with iron hooks.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 13 — Horizontal section.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 2 — Homemade gauge implement for keeping fence corners in line.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 3 — The fence begun.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 14 — Log posts.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 7 — A pole fence.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 6 — A stake and rider fence.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 4 — Stakes in "lock."
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 15 — Stump fence.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 1 — Virginia zigzag fence complete.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 16 — Wicker fence.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 8 — Withe.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 9 — Withe in place.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • A neater and more substantial method of securing the corners of a worm fence is by vertical stakes and wires.
    Photo by Pixabay/DonaKirby

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.

Virginia Rail Wood 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 Wood 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 Wood Fence

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.



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 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.

ElizabethSagarminaga
1/21/2015 5:10:41 AM

I love this post! Lots of great information for anyone looking into putting some fencing on their farm and yard. Wooden gates can be custom built to your size and tastes. They can add a beautiful finish to a wooden-post fence as well. They are easier to build yourself from reclaimed wood. I deal with California Fence Company that provides the best in quality wood fence installation and repair with best fencing services in your budget. Thanks for sharing with us.






Live The Good Life with GRIT!

Grit JulAug 2016At GRIT, we have a tradition of respecting the land that sustains rural America. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing to GRIT through our automatic renewal savings plan. By paying now with a credit card, you save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of GRIT for only $16.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and send me one year of GRIT for just $22.95!




Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters