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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.

| March 2014

  • Figure 1 — Virginia zigzag fence complete.
    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 4 — Stakes in "lock."
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 5 — Stakes in angles.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 6 — A stake and rider fence.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 7 — A pole fence.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 8 — Withe.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 9 — Withe in place.
    Illustration 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 14 — Log posts.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 15 — Stump fence.
    Illustration courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
  • Figure 16 — Wicker fence.
    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

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.

Purchase this book from the GRIT store: Fences, Gates, and Bridges.

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.
5/15/2018 9:20:02 PM

I use the plans at WWW.EASYWOODWORK.ORG to build my own DIY projects, especially this fence – I highly recommend you visit that website and check their plans out too. They are detailed and super easy to read and understand unlike several others I found online. The amount of plans there is mind-boggling… there’s like 16,000 plans or something like that for tons of different projects. Definitely enough to keep me busy with projects for many more years to come haha Go to WWW.EASYWOODWORK.ORG if you want some additional plans :)

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.

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