If you read Part 1, you know the basic steps that we took to learn the rules, plan out our materials list, and estimate the costs of building our fence. Now for the fun part.
Part 2: Building a cedar fence
As I mentioned, to get the best price possible, we bought our materials at two different stores. Tools, concrete, posts, rails, and small pickets we purchased at Lowes. Our 6′ privacy pickets came from a local lumber yard. Here’s a super important tip: Pick out your lumber yourself!! You will inevitably have a couple posts or rails that are not 100% perfect, and some pickets that may be split or bent, but you will minimize your waste factor by physically going through the stock pile at the warehouse and choosing the best ones. It really doesn’t take too long to pick up each piece, close one eye and sight down the board. You will be surprised how easily you can spot the badly warped rails or pickets, which you can leave at the store.
I was lucky enough to pull one more favor and get a bobcat and certified operator loaned to us for the morning to dig post holes. This was a LIFESAVER. With the huge old trees in our yard, the root system underground is unbelievable. We may have been able to dig the holes by hand with post-hole diggers, but I’m pretty sure we would still be at it today if we had to go that route. We got some huge nails, took out a tape measure, and stuck a nail in the ground at each post location (every 8′ on the longer runs, and split some of the shorter runs into equal lengths, some were 4 or 5′ around the front picket area). This was a little bit challenging, because we had to determine both post spacing and orientation to be sure the rails would line up around some odd corners. To give you an idea, we have 7 corners in our fence, and only 2 of them are right angles. After we got the locations marked, the bobcat and auger bit made quick work of digging holes, with an 8″ diameter bit, digging each hole about 2′ deep. The entire digging process was done in about 2.5 hours.
We set posts in each hole, and poured about 1.5 bags of quikrete (60 lbs) dry into each hole, to stabilize the posts. Also, we used full-height 8′ posts all the way around the yard (for privacy and picket height). It’s easiest to do this and cut off the tops to your finished height after the posts and concrete are set up. If you try to cut lengths first, you’re likely to end up with some uneven heights due to differences in the ground and concrete levels. We used a level and checked two sides to be sure the posts were upright and plumb. We then wetted the concrete with a hose, checking a couple more times for plumb. It helps to set two corner posts first, then tie a string from one to the other. This way, you can ensure that all of the posts that you set in between the two corners line up with the string and will create an even plane. We had all of our posts set within a day.
After the concrete cured overnight, Jesse cut the tops of the posts off using a combination of a circular saw and a hand saw. We wanted the posts to be a few inches shorter than the pickets, so that the posts are not visible from the outside. So our finished post height was about 5′-9″ for the privacy fence, and 3′-3″ for the picket fence.
The next step is to attach the rails. We measured down 6″ from the top of each post, and marked a line in pencil. This is how we aligned the top rail elevation. We then measured down 26″ and marked another line for the top of the mid rail, and again 26″ below that for top of the bottom rail. This way, our rails align consistently with the fence itself, rather than measuring from the inconsistent ground elevation. If you are building a fence that runs along any hilly ground, you will need to decide how to handle the change in elevation. We had one slight hill along the back edge of our fence, and decided to keep the top elevation level, and adjust the bottom to follow the slope of the ground. While this does require measuring and cutting each individual picket, the end result is nice and clean and looks intentional, rather than having a wavy fence. It worked out that we had a 5′ high fence at the top of the hill that ties right into the neighbor’s fence, and sloped down to a 6′ fence at the lower corner.
At the front corner where we wanted to transition down to a 3 1/2′ picket, we angled the top rail down rather than moving abruptly from 6′ on one side of a post to 3 1/2′ on the other. If you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of decisions to be made for a project like this that could be done a few different ways. We are by no means experts, but customizing our fence was part of the fun, and we think the end result is quite personal and hand-made. It feels very “Mr. Rogers, beautiful day in the neighborhood”, and not so much “cookie cutter, we paid somebody to slap up some fence that they don’t give a crap about”. So don’t stress too much over the details. In the end it won’t matter if you choose to go a few inches in one direction or the other, if your gate warps a bit, or if you have some pickets that aren’t quite close enough to the ground in one section. It’ll (hopefully) look intentional and like it was built with love.
For the picket portion of the fence, we lined our two rails up at 6″ below top of posts, and 24″ below that. Once you have your elevations marked out on your posts, you can start attaching rails. We mounted our rails on the outside of the posts, since we wanted our pickets facing out towards the street. Using 3″ wood screws and screw guns, we attached the rails with 2 screws, top and bottom at each post that they crossed. We alternated where the rails butt up, for greater strength in the fence. At sections that were less than 16′ long, we made cuts with a miter saw. This took some trial and error at the odd corners. We found it easiest to hold up a rail, eyeball intersections with the posts, and mark with a pencil the location and angle of cut that we needed to make. By the end of day 2, we had our rails completed.
This is the time to rally the troops. We had help from both sets of parents, Jesse’s sister, as well as a couple of friends who pitched in for a few hours here and there to install pickets. This part of the process took us one whole weekend with 5 or 6 people working, and then several evenings after work for Jesse and I to complete. And also at least two cases of Pabst. With a few rudimentary tools and some practice, you can get into a rhythm that becomes enjoyable and a little bit therapeutic.
- Tool #1: Spacers – to maintain even spacing between pickets, you will need a small block of wood, cut to the desired dimension. We went with 3/4″ between the privacy slats, and 1 1/2″ between the picket slats.
- Tool #2: Screw hole jig – I’m not sure this is actually a thing, but we made it a thing. For those of you that are any part perfectionist like I am, and you want to have screws in a straight line as you look down the fence, this will save you a ton of time and will give you an awesome looking finished product! I have to give credit to my super smart inventive husband for coming up with this solution. He simply attached a wood block at the top of a picket as well as one on the side, and then drilled six holes in the picket, to represent the screw locations. You will want to measure down from the wood block, to a distance that will roughly align at the center of each rail elevation. Before attaching each picket to the fence, we would hold it up against this jig (tight against the top wood block and even with the sides), and draw small circles through the holes with a pencil. Then you have exact locations for your screws on each picket, and they will all line up.
- Tool #3: String Line – You will want to put up a string line to mark the top line of your picket fence. Lightly screw a wooden stake into the top of your two corner posts, measure up to your full height (6′ for our privacy fence), and tie the string between the two stakes. You might also hold a level up to check that your line is level.
When you have your string line up, tools in hand and a table saw nearby, you are ready to roll. We found that it was most efficient to have three people working on a section during this process. We’ll call them the prepper, the holder, and the screwer (technical terms, of course). The prepper will hold each picket up to the rails and string line, to verify if it needs to be cut. Along the sloped hill, we would hold the pickets upside down, just above the ground since you don’t want your cedar in direct contact with the wet earth long term. Then we drew a line where the picket hit the string line, and this is where you make your cut so that your picket is the correct height for that exact location. Once you get to even ground and are using full height 6′ pickets, you can eliminate this measuring and cutting step. Next, you will use your jig and mark the screw locations on the picket. We then had the prepper set the picket along the rails, ready to be installed. The other two people will work together to install the pickets after there are a few ready to go. The holder will hold the spacer block along the last installed picket at the top rail, and hold the next picket up tight to the spacer and in line with the string line. The screwer will install the screws. After the top two screws are in, the holder will move the spacer down to the bottom rail, keeping the picket tight and plumb. The screwer can then install the screws on both the mid and bottom rail. After every 4 or 5 pickets that we installed, we held a level up to be sure that the pickets were still vertically plumb. If you don’t do this, you will likely start angling your pickets a tiny bit, which you won’t notice at first, but will build into a bigger issue.
Once you get this process down, it will move along pretty quickly. It’s fun to see your fence progress, take shape, and change the appearance of your entire lot. Once you have a fence, you will need a way to get in and out of it.
Building a Gate:
This is something that we just kind of guessed at. And it worked! At our front entrance, we were working with about a 5 1/2′ wide entrance, where we set posts on either side of the sidewalk, so we decided to build a double gate. We also built one large gate at the back of our house between our garage and the neighbor’s fence. The basic process was the same in either instance, we built 3 gates total. First, measure the width of your opening between posts. You’ll want to subtract about 3/4″ or 1″ from the overall width to form the frame of your gate. This will allow for a little bit of space for the hinges, as well as for expansion in the wood. Next, for each gate, measure and cut 4 pieces of your rail material to form a rectangular frame. The top and bottom will align with your top and bottom rails on the fence, and the sides will complete the frame. Then, you’ll want to measure and cut a diagonal piece to stabilize the frame. Screw these together to complete your frame.
Finally, you need some hardware. For each gate frame (we had 3), we picked up 2 steel L brackets, and 2 large hinges. We also picked out a couple of latches, and a gate anchor for our front double gate. We installed the L brackets in each interior corner that did not have the diagonal brace, for additional stability. The hinges and latches were pretty self-explanatory. And the last touch was the anchor. We thought it would be nice for one side of our double gate to stay put most of the time, but be able to open when we need a wider space to get through. We used a masonry bit on a hand-held hammer drill/driver to drill a hole in the sidewalk about 1″ deep, which the anchor drops into.
Once your gates are up, the final step to complete the project is…
Sealing or Staining:
This is, of course, optional. I know I prefer a nice rich wood or stain color to the inevitable gray you will get if you leave cedar exposed to weather and sun for a couple of years. However, completing our fence in November in Wyoming did not allow us to stain, since the product will bubble if temperatures fall below 40° before it is able to fully dry for a couple of days. We chose to apply a simple water seal product to temporarily protect the wood through the winter, until we could apply a stain once it warmed up. Jesse sprayed on the water seal in a couple of hours. Staining was another story. It literally was harder, more exhausting/hand blistering than building the entire fence. I cringe. I couldn’t even find a photo from my personal files; I think we were so sick of staining that we didn’t even think about it. So from our professional engagement photos by our amazingly talented friend Cassie Rosch, here is the finished product:
And that, folks is how we built a cedar fence!