By Renee-Lucie Benoit | Feb 16, 2021
The first thing we needed to do after moving onto our dream farmstead, even before we’d completely unpacked, was to build some fences. We already had horse pens, but our dogs and kids needed to be kept in, and wild critters kept out of, our backyard. So, there we were during the hottest days of August, sweating and pounding with all our might to drive in T-posts that bent instead of going into the ground.
We’d discovered that a hardpan clay laid beneath our property on the eastern slopes of California’s Mendocino National Forest. This ground wouldn’t willingly receive a fence post until the spring rains came several months later.
That’s when we decided to build a fence that didn’t require postholes. Although it’s relatively easy to build fences with vertical posts sunk into the ground, and they use the least amount of material, sometimes the situation demands a different approach. Fortunately, there are many ways to build a fence. I once built a classic zigzag split-rail barrier using discarded wooden fence posts. This fence wasn’t suited to holding large livestock, though, and wild burros were constantly rearranging the rails. Stone fences are another classic posthole-less enclosure suited to areas with plenty of rocks, and they can be made without mortar. One way to use stones is to create a stacked rock stanchion inside a wire cylinder, and leave room while stacking the rocks for places to receive the rails.
But the best enclosure without posts for livestock, in my experience, is the buck and rail fence, also known as “buck and pole,” or “jack leg.” Although buck and rail fencing requires more material than a standard fence, you won’t need to dig postholes, and the resulting barricade will be sturdy enough to contain large animals.
The Buck Starts Here
The “buck” on this style of fence is formed of two crisscrossed poles arranged in an upright “X”; these function like a fence post, but they aren’t dug into the ground. The rails are the horizontals. The first step in building a buck and rail fence, as with any project, is to gather the materials. You can purchase buck poles and rails at any farm and ranch store or lumberyard. If you live in an area with an abundance of cedar or pine, you can build the fence with lumber harvested from trees growing on or near your land.
Ideal bucks are about 5 feet long and 5 to 12 inches in diameter, with 8 inches being the most common. Rails vary from 10 to 20 feet long and from 4 to 6 inches in diameter. Any thinner, and the rails could split when nailed, and will be susceptible to bending or breaking under the weight of heavy snow.
If you’re making the rails 5 feet long, plan on placing a buck wherever the rails join and overlap. This type of fencing works best on level ground, because both bucks are typically cut the same length. If you plan to use a buck and rail fence on a slope — just not a steep slope — make the downhill buck longer than the uphill one.
You can use either seasoned or green wood, although the latter will be heavier to handle. Use a 60d common nail for construction; 40d common nails are acceptable for extra-small pole ends.
If you have a gas-powered generator on a portable tool trailer, you’ll be able to build the fence at the location you need it. You can construct the bucks in a shop by yourself, but when you get out in the field to add the rails, you’ll need a second person to hold the bucks until the rails have been attached. If you don’t have a helper, you’ll need a way to brace the bucks.
After you’ve prepared all the poles for the bucks and rails, the next step is to cut notches into the bucks so each pair can be nailed together securely. A 60-degree angle is generally used for standard bucks. If you’re building in a windy area, use a wider angle, such as 80 degrees, for additional stability. As you’ll be joining a number of buck pairs, it’s best to create a jig for the angle you settle on. The width of the notch should match the diameter of the rail, and the fit should be snug, with the notch depth about 1⁄3 of the buck’s diameter. Secure the join with nails.
Once you’ve assembled a number of buck sets, you can prepare the rail poles. I’ve seen many rails nailed right onto the buck, but it really helps if you cut another shallow notch where they come into contact. A notch the width of the rail, cut into the buck, will prevent rotation or twisting of the rails and keep the weight of snow or climbing creatures from pulling out the nail.
Now, you’re ready to assemble the fence. Working with a helper (or two), raise the bucks into a vertical position and place rails into the “V” of the bucks; nail the rails into position. Overlap the ends of these top rails by at least 6 inches. If the rails are homegrown, position the largest ends so they’re pointing in the same direction, and always overlap the narrow ends of the next rail.
After the top rails are installed, add 1 to 6 rails to the side of the bucks where you’re anticipating the most pressure from livestock. The number of poles you add should depend on the type of animal pressure you expect. Sometimes, a pole or two are used for strengthening on the opposite side. If you use more than four rails on one side, consider adding a cross-brace to the buck legs about 1 foot above the ground. A 3-inch-diameter brace will keep the weight of the rails from spreading the buck legs over time.
Also, many fence builders prefer to add brace poles between the bucks on the side opposite the rails; position these brace poles so they cross from the bottom inside of one buck to the top outside of the next buck. Braces can easily be added after the rails have been attached to the bucks. On level terrain, you can plan on installing a brace every tenth rail.
Additionally, fence builders in high-wind areas will anchor every tenth buck, sometimes with wire stretched between the buck’s mortise and a buried rock. If your fence passes over soft ground, you can stabilize it by attaching a pair of skids on both sides of the buck, at the bottom of the legs.
A gate, corners, and other finishing touches will depend on your situation. Building any type of fence isn’t an easy task, but a little ingenuity and perseverance will deliver a functional and beautiful barricade that’ll do the job for years to come.
Renee-Lucie Benoit currently travels the West in a 26-foot travel trailer with her husband, cat, and two dogs. She’s looking forward to finding and settling down on their next farmstead.
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