How To Build A Picket Fence

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Adding a picket fence is a simple decorative addition that can greatly increase the curb appeal of any house. Properly done, they can be a beautiful addition to any yard.

Tools Needed For Building A Picket Fence

  • post-hole digger
  • crushed stone or gravel
  • quick set concrete
  • mortar trough
  • hoe or shovel for mixing concrete
  • pressure treated 4x4 posts
  • 2x4 rails
  • pre-cut pickets
  • tape measure
  • pencil
  • circular saw
  • 4-foot level
  • drill motor
  • 2-1/2 inch galvanized screws
  • galvanized nails
  • hinges
  • gate latch hardware and hinges

Get started by measuring the length of the new fence. Drive a stake at each corner of the new fence and stretch a string line to determine where each post will be set. Decide on the height of the new fence and whether you will use precut pickets. Plan to set fence posts every 6 to 8-feet apart.

how to build a picket fence how to build a picket fence

Choosing Wood For A Picket Fence

Fence posts should be made from pressure treated 4x4 material to resist water and termite damage. Fence rails and pickets can be untreated pine lumber but will need to be properly sealed, stained, or painted to survive winters and rain.

How To Install Posts For A Picket Fence

Fence posts should be set with 1/3 of their length buried in the ground. Using a posthole digger, dig the hole 3-times the width of the post. For a 4x4 post dig the hole 12 inches wide. Shovel several inches of gravel in the bottom of the hole for proper drainage. Align each post with a level and stake in position with a 1x2 length of scrap wood and a stake. Move to the next post and do the same. Check the alignment and height of all posts with a tight string between the corner posts at the top and near the bottom. It is very important to keep all posts in alignment and plumb, as this will impact the look of the final fence. Mix the concrete and fill the postholes slightly above the ground line. Taper the concrete at a 45-degree angle above the ground so that water and rain runs away from the posts. Allow the concrete to harden overnight. Remove the bracing and stakes. Check the post height again. If any post is too high it can be cut off with a circular saw.

Attaching The Rails Of A Picket Fence

There are several ways to attach the fence rails to the posts. The rails can be pre-drilled at a 45 degree angle and screwed to the post with 2-1/2 inch galvanized screws. Or, cut a dado or rabbit into the post front edge and screw into that surface. Some choose to use metal joist hangers and nail the rails to those. It’s quicker, but fences without exposed hardware always seem prettier and better constructed. Rails should be set with the long side facing the post. In other words set the rails vertically not horizontally. The top rail should sit flush with the top of the post. The bottom rail sits 6-inches above the ground line. Be certain to use two screws at each rail end.

Placing The Pickets

Keep the pickets off the ground or grass. Allow at least a 2-inch gap between the bottom of the picket and the ground. This makes it easier to mow or trim under the fence. And, keeping the pickets off the ground will prevent wood rot and termites invading the fence. If you are using post caps, nail those in place first. If not, place the first picket in front of the post. Then, layout or space the pickets across the rail to the next post. Most picket fences will have a space between pickets equal to the width of the picket itself or a little less.

Align each section for picket spacing and then nail or screw the pickets to the rails. Use galvanized screws or nails to prevent rusting through the paint or stain. A handy tip for aligning pickets is to cut a dozen or more scrap blocks to the width of the pickets and rest them on the rails between the pickets to keep the spacing consistent. And, check every second or third picket with a level to keep them plumb while attaching the pickets. If there is a gate planned for the fence it should be framed and the hinges hung and aligned before attaching the pickets if the hinges are to be hidden. If the hinges are exposed, attach the pickets then attach the gate.

Decorative Options For Picket Fences

There are many decorative details that can be added to a new fence. Wood post caps are available in dozens of profiles. There are even copper versions that add a wonderful patina as they age.

Pre-cut pickets are available in a number of profiles as well. Some of the popular shapes are dog-ear, dagger or spear point, gothic, round top, and curved top. Look around the local home center or lumberyard for the latest offerings.

Last Updated: April 22, 2012
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About Bill Washburn William "Bill" Washburn has a BA in advertising from the Art Center College of Design and has taught at the University of Southern California and Northrup University. Writing from a well-connected studio in the rural foothills of the west coast, he is a frequent speaker at local art associations and has published numerous articles discussing periods of art history and the fundamentals of drawing and painting. William is a master gardener who grows his own culinary herbs, organic heirloom vegetables and a variety of fruits. He writes frequently about his gardening experiences on his website Pioneer Dad. He is an accomplished advertising writer, fine art painter, and art director with more than 20 years' experience. 

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