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In my neighborhood you’ll find fences of almost every possible (wood) construction, from basic no-gap picket fences (like mine) built with the cheapest pre-assembled panels and 4×4 wood posts that builders could source to mega-buck 8′ board-on-board fences with outside-the-yard metal posts and fancy cap/floor finishing. Certainly if one had an unlimited amount of cash to spend, the latter would make a lot of sense. But how do these fences really rate in terms of value? And what features, if any, make more of a difference than others when it comes to function and longevity? I have a few ideas, but as I’ve owned exactly one fence (which is cheap and rotting, by the way), I thought it’d make more sense to ask TM readers who’ve maybe experienced a little trial and error.

That said, it seems to me that the board-on-board fences don’t seem to experience the same sagging problem that I see with picket fences. Mine is only six years old, yet the crosspieces are already bowed heavily, which means the boards themselves look staggered as hell. Some of my neighbors have simply capped theirs, adjusting the cap to hide the stagger, but that strikes me as a somewhat lame solution, at least if you’re planning to stay in the house. Does anyone happen to know of any other advantages to the caps in terms of functionality?

Footers look really nice, but won’t they pretty much rot at the same rate as the fence itself? I figure the only way to really make a difference when it comes to rotting would be to pour a concrete footer around the entire fence line, which (while cool) would be incredibly expensive. There’s got to be a better way to deal with this. Maybe clear out the undergrowth and treat the ground?

Clearly metal posts make a lot more sense. My wood posts have rotted out pretty heavily, and during heavy rain/wind combinations a couple of them have even started to lean. Still, I wonder if selecting better quality wood might make wood posts last a bit longer.

Finally, any recommendations on fence material? The only options I see here are cheap-ass-whatever-they-got-cheaply or cedar.

Thanks in advance for your ideas, and if the response warrants it, maybe I’ll follow up with some additional research and posts. I’m not in a position to do anything for myself fence-wise right now, but I’ve seen a lot of people go through the process, and I think a little sharing on this subject would do a lot of readers (including me) some good when it does come time to do it ourselves.


33 Responses to What Fence Construction Offers the Most Value?

  1. Adam says:

    Try using Ipe wood and you’ll never need to build another fence again. As long as no one runs it over or it isn’t taken out by a hurricane.

  2. Don mccracken says:

    I rejuvenate older panels with a treated 2X4 along the top cord. Really extends the life of the panels and eliminates most of the sag. I really have to dislike you to put wood in the ground.

  3. Damien says:

    I expect the more open structure pictured left to be better at protecting from the wind and to dry up faster at the same time.

  4. PutnamEco says:

    If your going to put pressure treated wood in the ground make sure is rated for below grade use. Most of what you’ll find in the big box stores is not even rated for ground contact. I’ve even seen some wood that was advertised as “fence posts” that was marked not for ground contact.
    Basket weave fencing does not seem to have a sagging problem, as well as shadow box fence with the pickets horizontal rather than the more traditional vertical pickets.
    Lattice fencing can be done cheaply. and if done right is easy to repair.

    Regular old cyclone fence lasts for ages, with no maintenance.

    Wrought iron can last centuries with a little maintenance.

    A lot would depend on what your goals are for the fence. Value for privacy is altogether different than value for keeping livestock/pets confined. Value for longevity
    would depend on how much your willing to expend on maintenance/repair.

    • Ron says:

      FYI, Ornamental fence isn’t the same as wrought iron and if you can find wrought iron it isn’t cheap. Pay close attention to the quality of the ornamental fence. Much I see is trash.

      I installed chain link in my late teens. Be sure and review the liturature, it’s easy to make it look like crap. My boss always had us place the top rail so there was exactly 1/2 a diamond above and the post cap would just touch the top rail clamp. Now that you know, look at fences and you will see what I mean. So that means setting the posts at just the right height. We would mark them with a lumber pencil to be placed the the top of the concreat. If you are going to use privacy slats and you live where there is wind, the posts MUST be set deeper. Not fun seeing a fence lying on it’s side. “No, I’m not going to put in privacy slats, I don’t need the extra deep posts.” We would often, darned if I can remember the term right now, pull out and replace a wire “needle” to slope the fence by dropping the fabric 1/2 a diamond as necessary. IMHO a fence looks much better when it does follow the terrain. But then in the CA High Desert we set fence on a lot of hilly terrain.

      I need to install a fence too, so was happy to see this. I am leaning toward metal posts and wood. Installing a faux cover to make it look like a post. FWIW, my enighbor has saging 2X4 rails set with the narrow flush to the boards. The toe nailing is pulling out everywhere. I suspect with the quality of wood we have these days, Simpson brackets and screws are just a given if you want it to last.

  5. Rich says:

    With ipe, you better enjoy that fence because you won’t be able to afford any other improvements for a long time after paying it off.

    Around here (Southern CA) it’s usually cedar or redwood. I am currently in the middle of replacing our rotted pressure treated posts that I put in 10 years ago. This time I’m using metal Postmaster posts; hopefully those will last longer.

    As for footers, I’m not sure what you mean there. Your description seems like it might be different than what I’m used to, which is a treated 2×6 seen next to or on the ground. If they’re pressure treated (and the fence itself isn’t) , they tend to last longer than the fence wood would in that ground contact application. Otherwise you’d have an unsightly gap at the bottom. Also, it occurs to me that if there is a separate footer it can be replaced separately as needed.

  6. kdp says:

    If privacy is not a concern, you might look at using welded wire livestock panels. I did something like this (http://tiogapahandyman.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/images/Handy_fence_002.114121436_std.jpg) to fence in my 8,000 square foot backyard. It was relatively cheap ($1,200) and went up in a weekend and a half.

  7. browndog77 says:

    Chain-link fencing is really durable, fairly easy to install, and can be adapted to privacy use in various ways. It isn’t cheap, but you likely won’t be replacing it in your lifetime either, with a bit of maintenance.

  8. Mike47 says:

    Ten-foot galvanized steel pipe posts set 3 feet in concrete, Simpson brackets, 2×4’s spanning the posts in both flat and edge configuration (3 per panel), deck screws, dog-ear cedar boards. The posts will outlast the wood. Left 1″ gap under boards to discourage termites.

  9. blitzcat says:

    A second for livestock fence. It was cheap and completely stopped the homeless people from coming in my yard.

  10. Ambush27 says:

    I find concrete doesn’t really help prevent wood posts from rotting they tend to rot at ground level the most not below ground where the concrete is. Cedar lasts great for fence boards, after many years it will rot where it touches the ground though. But if your using wood posts the boards will outlast the posts and you can always rebuild the fence with the same boards and just cut the rot off the bottom. Chain link is reasonably inexpensive, very durable and easy to install. But most people don’t like the look in residential settings. With wood put your cross pieces vertically like joists or they will sag.

  11. Mike S says:

    The purpose of the caps is that rot occurs more quickly from the end grain. As the top of the pickets begins to rot, pits form in the end grain, which hold tiny puddles of rainwater after every storm. The water-soaked wood then rots. Wood in any other orientation to the vertical has less tendency to pit, holds less water, and doesn’t rot as quickly. For the same reason, it pays to protect your posts w/a cap too.

    By ‘footer’ I assume you mean the board running horizontally under the end of the pickets. It’s a sacrificial board. By either being in direct contact w/the ground or splash-up from storms, wood down there rots much faster. It’s easy to replace a single, well-rotted, horizontal 1×4 vs. a dozen pickets rotted only at the bottom. You can replace that board 2-3 times before the pickets are trash.

    A fence w/the tops and bottoms of the pickets protected can last for 20+ years here in Houston. Properly set posts (no contact w/dirt) w/caps installed can frequently be re-used once. Unfortunately most contractors rarely bring the concrete above grade while setting a post, and so the post comes into water/soil contact at grade and rots.

    Cedar looks nicer and lasts a bit longer, but is weaker than treated lumber (i.e., easily damaged) and significantly more expensive. Not worth it in my opinion unless you like the look.

  12. Mike S says:

    Almost forgot – The reason your crosspieces are sagging is either a) the posts are too widely spaced, and/or b) the crosspieces have been installed wide-side up. I’ve never seen a fence with eight foot spacing between posts and crosspieces installed skinny-side-up sag.

  13. Brau says:

    Under the bottom crosspiece, I dadoed a 1/4″ notch and set a piece of HardiPlank under it down into the ground. This stops the sag and blocks weeds growing under the fence … and the HardiPlank doesn’t rot. (I would have used plastic lumber but @ $40/8ft it was too expensive.)

  14. Angelbane says:

    I have 2X6 Pressure treated footer and the pickets are about 2in off the ground and not a single slat has been lost to termites.

    I would go with metal posts … I have had 3x 4×4 pressure treated posts corkscrew and tear themselves from the rest of the fence.

  15. Gary Z says:

    In our area ( N. TX.) there are several choices for fences. Starting with posts, wood 4×4 rated for below grade, 2 3/8 galv. posts and a steel formed post that makes mounting the cross bracing easy. I used some used oil drilling pipe that can be purchased at various salvage yards. It has a 1/4 inch wall and is very durable. I sank them two feet with a bag of crete. I used 2x4s for the cross braces and mounted them so the crown is up, making it kind of a pre-stressed beam. On the front fences that can be seen from the street I did a board on board with a cap. The sides and alley I just did a standard fence. The wood I used is cedar on the front and pressure treated on the rest. Most of the boards came from Lowe’s cull lumber area and was bought for about 1/2 price. There were a few boards with splits, but I used those as fillers. The best fence preservative I found is Behrs Oil Based. Goes on easy with a garden sprayer and last a couple years.

  16. John says:

    Sometimes it just bad installation that causes posts to rot or lean. I have metal posts (installed by builder before I bought house), and most are leaning. I suspect they are not placed deep enough or the bottoms are not bell shaped. I added a small section with metal posts a few years ago, went 36″, bell shaped – solid as a rock.

  17. Dale says:

    Ditto Mike47’s comment. Although I used 8 foot posts, 2.5 ft in the ground with 6ft fence pickets. My fence is 11 years old and looks great.

  18. mnoswad1 says:

    Good suggestions here, I’m convinced that metal posts are the way to go.

    btw………dog-eared fences look like amateur suburban junk.

    Pay for a shadow box and cap it yourself. Plus all fences should not follow the contours of the ground.
    A fence is an architectural element that should be level, plumb and square.

    You wouldn’t build a house on a slab that just followed the lay of the ground, fences and hardscaping should be treated the same.

  19. fred says:

    Vinyl fencing – mostly white – but sometimes beige – seems to have taken over the market in my area. To me – just like vinyl siding I think it adds a certain touch (tacky) – but I sub out fencing and I stay at arm’s length from any decision-making about what to install.

    • mnoswad1 says:

      If had any influence in the design guidelines of a neighborhood , I would ban vinyl siding and vinyl fencing.

      That crap looks horrible.

      “Vinyl is final” as they say, but Its the final nail in the coffin that says this neighborhood is on a serious decline.

      • EW says:

        To play devils advocate, what do you recommend as a vinyl replacement with similar durability traits? Again, I dont have a horse in this race, just trying to become more educated about various alternatives.

        • mnoswad1 says:

          I like old school cedar shakes, even board and batton (if done with a good dose of trim boards, but fiber-cement coverers all the bases now, it has Fire resistance, solar gain resistance, tactile durability…(Soccer ball kicking against the house resistance).

          The idea of wrapping a house in a sheet of plastic…..uggh, leave that to the trailer park looking neighborhoods.

          Budget is important, but so is the visual integrity of a structure. Even a midwestern split level can be made to look pretty good with the right siding, or can bring the whole neighborhood down with a cladding of beige vinyl.

  20. ddt says:

    vinyl sucks to repair, and not good for really cold climates.

    ipe is a lovely wood, so it is a waste to put it on a fence. Out of all the things you look at while in your backyard, why would you invest all that money into a fence, let alone such a beautiful wood into something which is all about function. I understand the longevity of it, but for the same price you could use metal posts and composite boards.

    A lot of installers put the PT posts into the concrete. Bad idea. Yes it is PT, however it’s in direct contact on all 4 sides with concrete, and with talking with a few engineers they said it is likely it will rot, however, if you wrap it with blue skin from the bottom to 6 inches above the concrete, it’s no problem, which will work in some fence building situations.

    • SCWetherbee says:

      I’m no expert, so this is a nickels worth of my 2 cents. I would never put fence posts in concrete, it’s just not necessary, and it makes it harder to replace if someone hits it with a truck or bobcat (it happens). My PT posts have been in the ground for about 15 or more years, the posts are solid, the fence is rotten. I even had to take out a post and two sections of fence to get a big piece of equipment in, try that when they’re in concrete.

  21. John says:

    We also used livestock wire for our fence because of the ease of installation and price. However, my wife wasn’t happy with the look and lack of privacy so we bought ivy plants which have filled in quite nicely and block out quite a bit for more privacy and a softer look.

  22. john says:

    If you want to make the fence last a long time then you should paint it with a high solids stain. When I replaced the old rotten fence in my yard I used “seconds” grade panels that a lumber yard had. The panels all had minor cosmetic blemished, knots, or pock marks but they were 50% cheaper and you can’t tell the difference once painted. The paint claims it has a 20 year warranty.

  23. Lim Seng says:

    It isn’t cheap, but you likely won’t be replacing it in your lifetime either, with a bit of maintenance. Good information.

  24. paul says:

    I will second the high solids stain. If you are looking for “cheap” use PT 4×4 posts and prebuilt PT sections. wait about 1/2-3/4 of a season until the wood is nice and dry. In my experience the PT sections tend to still be wet when purchased. Then stain, it will last a considerable amount of time. Use screws not nails.

  25. Brett says:

    For wood upgrade your P.T. posts from 3.5″ square to 4.125″, and keep the rails skinny side up. If you use three rails instead of two you can use a lower grade of picket (1×6) without it showing as much in twisting and warping later.

    Is anyone else mad they have to buy a siding nailer for fences now with the 1x6s now approaching .5″ thick?
    I’ve been hiding from that one buy using 5/4″ pickets.
    Which is a mixed blessing cause when a 5/4 picket comes crooked your going to have fun trying to straighten it.

    Reminds me of the time I decided to to switch to all heavy weight pipe so the warehouse guys couldn’t bend it up before I got it. WRONG Thankfully I found a crooked yard for all those banana’d pipes.

    In the soft soggy ground near me a privacy fence should be in concrete 12″ wide by 36″ deep. If your “Lucky” enough to have hard clay or rock you can scale down a little.

    GSA services makes an expanding foam for fence posts that works OK if posts are braced but I hedged my bets by spacing pickets 1.5″ apart to reduce wind load. I hate being a guinea pig, but no concrete and wheelbarrow needed on a 45 degree terraced slope! OK, I LIKE being a guinea pig.

    For Hidden Metal Posts MasterHalco has a PostMaster Hat Channel shaped post that might still be distributed through the orange box store, as well as your local fence co.

    If your going to do your own chain link think about getting the materials from a fence contractor instead of a box store, they have access to higher quality materials.

    If you don’t have a budget to worry about it’s hard to beat simtek fence. Plastic cast to look like granite. It stops traffic when my crew is lifting these panels into place with out a crane, LOL. In gray they look like concrete cast to look like granite.

    For high wind areas vinyl fences should be set with posts on six foot centers, possibly with metal inserts.
    I set a vinyl privacy fence on top of a retaining wall by setting 2-3/8″ steel wt-40 posts in the wall as it was poured. This required the homeowner style bottom rail brackets instead of a routed post but it’s hard to argue with the strength and piece of mind it brings. Can you tell I HATE doing things twice?

    Ohh and number one vinyl privacy fence tip set the posts exactly what they tell you. If you’re an inch too far apart the tongue and groove pickets won’t engage each other well and when things shrink in the cold of winter you may find yourself chasing the pickets down the street.

    If you want to know how strong a given steel fence post is you can search for wheatland tube and fence wind load, they have a rather complex engineering calculator just for that.

    If your adding privacy slats to an existing chain link fence with less than 2-3/8 sch 40 posts pop the caps off and fill the posts with concrete up to about 30″ above ground. The concrete forces the steel to remain round so it keeps it’s full strength. If you’re balancing yourself on an empty pop can and someone dents the side of the can the whole can will crush because it lost it’s perfectly round shape.

    Travel internationally and it’s unlikely you will see a wood fence, Poured concrete is king most places I’ve been.

  26. tim says:

    We just built foam fence panels. We take 6 inch pvc sewer pipe and use that as posts. then use 1.5 inch galv. emt conduit for the horizontal supports. the foam has a uv coating and flexible driveit on the panel. you slide the post covers over,drop the panel in from the top ‘place your 1.5 emt on top rail’glue on the top cap and put on top post covers. 4 feet tall to 7 and custom looks you draw it can be built. never rots or warps

  27. Roy says:

    Tim, I love your fence project. Would you be able to send me a diagram of what you describe? Also, where did you get the foam panels sided with flexible drivet?
    Hope you can help. Thanks, Roy

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