…“Good fences make good neighbors”
Robert Frost, Mending Wall, 1914
Fences DO make good neighbors but having actual good neighbors goes a lot further towards making good neighbors. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think about writing a post about fences because I think their primary role is to keep the outside out. No, in my neighborhood, that’s what shotguns and democratic party yard signs are for. The reason I wanted to write about fences is because their role is changing – at least the when they are used in modern design.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of the word fence is as follows:
a barrier intended to prevent escape or intrusion or to mark a boundary; especially: such a barrier made of posts and wire or boards
Okay, that sounds like the definition of a fence but that isn’t the way we approach “fences” anymore. The image that comes to my mind upon reading that definition is that the space that is being defined is enclosed by the fence – like a prison yard. Doesn’t seem very appealing and for the most part, prison yards aren’t appealing. There is a fundamental shift happening when we design fences where we are trying to use them to define edges or planes instead of defining spaces. It might seem like semantics but I assure you, if I had a better vocabulary and could describe it better, you would be sending me the tokens of your appreciation in $10 increments.
“Love your neighbor; yet don’t pull down your hedge.” – Benjamin Franklin
Because more and more of our designs are about extending the inside into the yard, we want to design our fences to read more like walls. This allows us to create a visually pleasant and viably usable exterior area while trying to capture that random 10′ of side yard space. One of the ways we avoid our fences actually looking like fences is to use alternate materials and/or different scaled components to build the fence.
Another method for having fences read like walls is to turn the boards horizontal. Sounds like a simple little trick…and it is, but it works really well. There are things to try and avoid when turning your boards horizontal – the main thing being the joints where one board ends and another begins. You have to stagger the boards in order avoid having your fence look like is was built out of fence panels from aisle 12 – not that there s anything wrong with that. Yes, there is, what am I saying. It isn’t always about how expensive a thing is, it’s about putting in a little time to think about somethinga bit differently. But I suppose that’s where I come in.
The other problem when not staggering the boards with trying to deal with the warping and cupping of the boards all happening in the same place. It really destroys the look that this is a continuous plane. If you look at the picture at the very top of the post, you can see that they didn’t stagger the boards – so there is a vertical material line every 6 feet. They also didn’t put a pressure treated base board at the bottom so that they could sink it into the ground. If you have a small dog, or even one that sorta kinda likes to dig, the bottom of that fence wall is an open invitation for a doggie jailbreak. See? It’s the little things. It’s a great looking fence wall but it won’t ever be able to go down into the ground and provide a safe enclosure for their pets (if they have any). And if they pile the dirt up against that bottom board to address the gap issue, that board will rot…and quickly.
What I have put together here is a crude series of diagrams to show how you can build an extremely durable and long lasting fence with horizontal boards. I have built this fence before and while it isn’t the cheapest fence you can build, it is on the same expense level as a board on board fence.
#1 – this is a sacrificial board and needs to be pressure treated since it will be in contact with the ground. When I call this a sacrificial board, I just mean the lowest level board will get trashed by weed whackers and will also receive the most amount of water damage.
#2 – metal posts are definitely a way to go but they add the most cost. Generally, the metal post needs to extend 1/3 of its total length into the ground – i.e. a 6′ fence will need to extend a minimum of 2′ into the ground. The last project I priced out had a 10′ metal posts and their cost, plus the labor to dig the hole and the bag of concrete brought the cost of each post to roughly $65. Yikes! It adds up quick but set properly, they will last the length of your fence and are worth the expense. In the diagram above, I have the posts sets at 4′ centers but generally, you can get away with 8′ centers.
#3 – 2×4 horizontal rails which will eventually provide the medium for attaching a secondary vertical rail.
#4 – Viola! Secondary 2×4 vertical rails! Since we are designing a fence that will have horizontally oriented dress boards, we need a stable surface to attach them. In this case, unlike the metal posts which are on 8′ centers, the vertical rails are on 3′ centers. Yes…I know that they don’t align with one another. Relax Grasshopper – there’s a good reason for this. By placing the more expensive posts at a greater interval and using traditional horizontal rail placement, we can then place the vertical rails at an increment that works out with standard size (and cost effective) 6′ 1x dress boards. We can achieve our “wall” look by staggering the ends of the boards so that the joints are not one right on top of the other.
#5 – 2×10 cap – this is an important piece because it protects the end grain portion of the vertical 2×4 rail from long-term water damage. We also use a 2×10 cap, sometimes even a 2×12 cap so that the edges can extend enough in the rear direction so that it will cover the top of the metal post.
#6 – 1x dress boards – in the diagram above, I used 1×6’s but you are only limited by your imagination. when installing 1x boards horizontally, you can make a jig that is essentially a straight line of 8 penny nails so that as you stack on board on top of the other, you have provided the board’s room to expand and contract without buckling.
This is the finished product – or at least one of countless possible patterns. If you wanted to reduce the expense, you could use wood posts (instead of metal posts) and nail the boards directly to them – it’s what we see most often on DIY fences. The fence I showed above is a fence that is appropriately priced for a modern home and itis designed to last more than 10 years. We also specify that the boards be seasoned, then they are dipped to apply the stain rather than having the stain sprayed or painted on after installation. This little step by itself will extend the life of this fence by a factor of 3 over a non-treated fence and probably twice that of a stain applied by spray.
This fence post could go on and on – and it probably should have stopped about 800 words ago but despite the possible probable sky-high boredom, I could easily continue. But I won’t.
If you have good pictures of your fence (or one you like) send it along, I really would like to see it.