Build Your Own Picket Fence

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A low picket fence adds curb appeal and a cozy sense of enclosure to a front yard or entry area without blocking views to or from the house. Building a custom picket fence from scratch is a great do-it-yourself project. The small scale and simple structure of the basic fence design make it easy to add your own creative details and personal touches. In this project, you’ll see how to cut custom pickets and build a fence using standard lumber.

 

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Overview

The quintessential symbol of American hominess, the classic picket fence remains a perennial favorite for more than its charm and good looks. It’s also a deceptively effective boundary, creating a clear line of separation while appearing to be nothing more than a familiar decoration. This unique characteristic of a welcoming barrier makes the picket fence a good choice for enclosing an area in front of the house. It’s also a popular option for separating a vegetable or flower garden from the surrounding landscape.

Building a custom picket fence from scratch is a great do-it-yourself project. The small scale and simple structure of the basic fence design make it easy to add your own creative details and personal touches. In this project, you’ll see how to cut custom pickets and build a fence using standard lumber (plus an easy upgrade of adding decorative post caps). As an alternative, you can build your fence using prefab fence panels for the picket infill. You can also buy precut pickets at home centers, lumberyards, and online retailers to save on the work of cutting your own.

Traditionally, a picket fence is about three to four feet tall (if taller than four feet, a picket fence starts to look like a barricade) with 1 x 3 or 1 x 4 pickets. Fence posts can be spaced anywhere up to eight feet apart if you’re using standard lightweight pickets. Depending on your preference, the posts can be visible design elements or they can hide behind a continuous line of pickets. Spacing between the pickets is a question of function and taste: go with whatever spacing looks best and fulfills your functional needs.

What You'll Need

Tools:

Circular saw
Drill
Power miter saw
Sander
Line level
2-ft. level
Hammer
Spacer
Eye and ear protection
Clamps
Paint Brush or Sprayer
Tape Measure
Work gloves
Pencil

Materials:

Mason's string
Lumber (4 x 4, 2 x 4, 1 x 4)
Deck screws (3 1/2, 2")
Galvanized or stainless steel finish nails
16d galvanized common nails
Wood sealant or primer

Post caps (optional)

 

Step 1

Choose a fence plan

Highlighting the posts (top) gives the fence a sectional look, and the rhythm of the pickets is punctuated by the slower cadence of the posts. To create this effect, mount the stringers on edge, so the pickets are flush with—or recessed from—the front faces of the posts.


Step 2

Install and trim the posts according to your plan

Install and trim the posts according to your plan. In this project, the pickets stand at 36" above grade, and the posts are 38" (without the post caps). Set the posts in concrete, and space them as desired—but no more than 96" on center.


Step 3

Mark the stringer positions onto the posts

Mark the stringer positions onto the posts. Measure down from each post top and make marks at 8 and 281⁄2" (or as desired for your design). These marks represent the top edges of the two stringer boards for each fence section.


Step 4

Install the stringers & determine picket spacing

Install the stringers. Measure between each pair of posts, and cut the 2 x 4 stringers to fit. Drill angled pilot holes, and fasten the stringers to the posts with 31⁄2" deck screws or 16d galvanized common nails; drive one fastener in the bottom and top edges of each stringer end.


Step 5

Cut the pickets

Cut the pickets to length using a power miter saw. To save time, set up a stop block with the distance from the block to blade equal to the picket length. Tip: If you’re painting the fence, you can save money by cutting the pickets from 12-ft.-long boards of pressure-treated lumber. In this project, the pickets are 32" long; each board yields 4 pickets.


Step 6

Shape the picket ends as desired

Shape the picket ends as desired. For straight-cut designs, use a miter saw with a stop block on the right side of the blade (the first pass cuts through the picket and the block). If the shape is symmetrical, such as this 90° point, cut off one corner, and then flip the board over and make the second cut—no measuring or adjusting is needed.


Step 7

Prime or seal all surfaces of the fence and paint as desired

Prime or seal all surfaces of the posts, stringers, and pickets; and then add at least one coat of finish (paint, stain, or sealer), as desired. This will help protect even the unexposed surfaces from rot.


Step 8

Prepare for picket installation

Set up a string line to guide the picket installation. Clamp a mason’s string to two posts at the desired height for the tops of the pickets. Note: To help prevent rot and to facilitate grass trimming, plan to install the pickets at least 2" above the ground.


Step 9

Install the pickets

Install the pickets. Using a cleat spacer cut to the width of the picket gap, set each picket in place and drill even pairs of pilot holes into each stringer. Fasten the pickets with 2" deck screws. Check the first picket (and every few thereafter) for plumb with a level before piloting.


Step 10

Add post caps (optional)

Wood post caps (with or without metal cladding) offer an easy way to dress up plain posts while protecting the end grain from water. Install caps with galvanized or stainless steel finish nails, or as directed by the manufacturer. Apply the final finish coat or touch-ups to the entire fence.


 
 

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