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Nailing down the details

With just a few tools and some common materials, you can put up a fence in no time.

June 23, 2005|Robert Smaus | Special to The Times

Wrapping a real wood fence around a yard creates a natural and harmonious backdrop for a garden, while it keeps pets at home and provides privacy, that precious urban commodity. Wood also is easy to work with so you can build a fence with just a few tools and some inexpensive and commonly available materials. The cost of materials including concrete, forms, lumber, brackets, screws and nails comes to about $12 a foot.

This simple design uses 6-foot dog-ear cedar boards, which is what you'll find for fencing at lumberyards and discount building centers. Dog-ear fence boards are popular because those little notches make a wavy, uneven fence appear level and straight.

Rot-resistant, pressure-treated wood posts set in concrete support the fence. They should last at least 20 years.

Because they contain chemicals that resist rot and are toxic to termites, don't use these posts close to vegetables or other edibles (use other woods).

All wood fences eventually need replacing -- the price you pay for good looks and easy construction -- but use pressure-treated posts and finish the fence with stains or apply waterproofing every few years, and it should last a satisfyingly long time. Paint can add additional protection and pizazz, but will need frequent redoing.

Don't think that redwood will be problem free. Although old-growth redwood resists rot and termites, most redwood sold today -- the several Construction grades -- have lots of the whitish sapwood, which may, in fact, be the favorite meal of dry wood termites.

Professional fence builders often attach boards to just two crosspieces or rails, but this fence has two more between each set of posts. The four rails -- two at the top -- will help prevent sagging and warping.

Nail the rails to the posts (use a scrap block of wood to temporarily support them while you drive the nail), or use special right-angle metal connectors to speed construction, which require stubby galvanized nails made for connectors.

The fence boards are attached with outdoor deck screws, so a cordless drill/driver is needed. The dog-ear tops can be cut flat with a circular saw for a more contemporary look. Add a flat horizontal cap of extra fence boards to add shadow detail and hide untidy cuts.

If you want to work with your neighbor to make a two-sided "good-neighbor" fence, put boards on both sides. Cedar boards are quite light and this fence will easily support two sides' worth.

Generally, building codes allow for 6-foot fences in back and side yards. In some communities (including the city of L.A.), they can be 8 feet high if the lot is wider than 40 feet. Building permits are generally not required for wood fences.

Think twice before opting for greater privacy since tall fences can turn a garden into a slot canyon.



How to build a fence

A fence does far more than delineate boundaries. It is an integral part of the design of one's home and property. Whether its primary purpose is to create privacy, shield the wind or keep the family pooch from fleeing, a fence can be a complement or detriment to a house, depending on its design and placement.

Step by step:

1. Mark fence line: Stretch a string along the side of the house and out into the yard to get a straight line. Measure over to the property line in several places and stretch another string along this fence line, marking post locations.

2. Prepare holes: Use a clamshell digger to make holes no more than 8 feet apart, 2 1/2 feet deep and 8 inches wide. Place a round cardboard tube in each hole so that it projects 2 inches above ground level.

3. Place posts: Put about 4 inches of gravel in the bottom of each hole and adjust posts to the proper height. Secure posts with two braces and use a level to make sure posts are perpendicular. Fill holes with concrete and allow them to cure overnight.

4. Add rails: Nail a 2-by-4 cross-piece atop two posts; add another

2-by-4 on edge just below it and nail them together or use right- angle metal connectors. Nail another 2-by-4 about 30 inches below the first and one more a foot above the ground.

5. Attach fence boards: Cut boards so they are square at both ends. Use two deck or fence screws to attach each board to the 2-by-4s. Do not leave gaps -- the boards will shrink. Cap the fence with additional fence boards screwed on top. Stand back and admire your handiwork.


Ready to get started?

Here's what you'll need for your shopping list and from your toolbox to build a wood fence.


String to mark a straight line

Pressure-treated posts

Cardboard tube to line post holes

Gravel to put in bottom of holes

Fast-set concrete mix to anchor posts

Scrap wood for stakes and temporary braces

4-inch (20D) galvanized box nails

Cedar or redwood 2-by-4s

Right-angle metal connectors to hold rails

Galvanized short nails for connectors

Cedar boards


Level to get things straight

Clamshell digger to dig post holes

Shovel to mix concrete

Plastic tray or wheelbarrow to mix concrete

Trowel to smooth concrete surface

Circular saw to trim rails and fence boards

Hammer to nail rails to posts

Cordless drill/driver to attach boards to rail


Two days (overnight to cure concrete)

Robert Smaus can be reached at

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