How to Install a Picket Fence

How to Install a Picket Fence

Add style around the perimeter of your yard with this classic-style fence.


Pick the Site and Plan the Layout

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When deciding the right fence for your project, consider the function of the fence. Some fences are built simply to enhance the landscape or create a gentle boundary. Others are built for privacy or security. But when curb appeal is the focus, a picket fence is a classic charmer. Usually installed along the street-facing edge of a yard, its distinctive, familiar shape is an attractive choice.

For our project we're building a 4-foot tall picket fence. The same kind of construction can be used to build a privacy of security fence, only the boards would be taller and fitted closer together.

Good fencing etiquette calls for the finished side of the pickets to be facing outward. The framing is on the inside of the fence facing your house.

Before digging, always consult your local utility and cable companies and have them mark the location of any underground services.

If you are still honing your woodworking skills, you might want to consider using prefabricated fencing sections.

Step 1

Measure and Set the First Post

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To begin the fence, measure the area where you’d like to build it. Our fence will be 48 feet long. Place stakes in the ground at about a foot or two beyond where you want the end posts (image 1 below).

Connect a taut string as a guide for the path of the fence. Near one end of the guide string, make a mark for the first outside post. The first post is placed where you want the fence to begin.

As a rule, set fence posts about 6 to 8 feet apart. A fence that is 48-feet long will have six to eight posts.

Use a post-hole digger to make a hole 8 inches wide and just over 2-feet deep (image 2).

Pour about 4 inches of gravel for the base, and then insert the 8-foot 4x4 post into the hole. Then pour dry concrete into the hole surrounding the post. Use a three-way level to make sure the post is standing straight. Tamp down the dry concrete (image 3).

In moderate climates, many contractors use this dry concrete technique, which draws natural moisture from the ground to harden or "set" the packed concrete around the post.

Another option is fast drying concrete mix. Once placed in the holes, it will take up to 48 to 72 hours to dry.

Step 2

Set the Remaining Posts

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Once the first outside post is set, the other outside post is next. Follow a guide string, and measure 48 feet to the other end, and mark it at that spot (images 1 and 2). Dig a hole and set the second outside post, making sure the outside face of the post is parallel to the sidewall and the first post.

Next, transfer the guide string from the stakes to the posts themselves. Then set the interior posts using the string to divide the 48-foot span into six equal sections 8 feet apart, marking each on center with a piece of masking tape placed on the string (images 3 and 4).

Using a plumb bob, transfer the marks from each piece of masking tape to the ground. Using these marks and the string as a guide, dig holes and set the interior fence posts, making sure each one is level and plumb with the others (image 5).

At this point in the process, the posts are taller than required. Trim to proper height once the rails and pickets are attached.

Step 3

Install the Rails

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With the posts set, cut 2x4s into twelve 8-foot lengths for horizontal fence rails that will support the pickets.

From the base of each post, measure up 12 inches for the lower rail and 36 inches for the top rail. Make a mark at 90 degrees on the back of the posts (image 1).

Attach the rails using two 3-inch galvanized steel drive screws (image 2). Keep in mind that the marks should serve as the top edge of the rails, with each rail butting against the next one on the back of each post.

Rails attached to outer posts are cut to attach flush with the edge of the post (image 3).

Step 4

Install the Pickets

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If you're still honing your woodworking skills, you might want to consider using prefabricated fencing sections.

Lay out the pickets with 2 to 3 inches in between, we decided to use a 3-inch-wide level as our spacer (image 1). You can create your own spacer jig with a piece of wood, plastic or drywall.

Lay a leveled 2x4 on the ground below the rail to use as a base for maintaining a consistent height of 2 inches from the ground. Evenly spacing the pickets as you go, attach them to the rail using a nail gun (image 2).

Step 5

Finishing Touches

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The final step is to cap the fence posts with finials. On each post, measure one inch up from the pickets and continue the mark around the post using a square.

Remove the top of the post using a circular or reciprocating saw. Attach the decorative finial with finishing nails (images 1 and 2).