Install a Privacy Fence

If you love the idea of adding a wooden privacy fence to your backyard, but dread the expense of having it installed, follow this step-by-step process for installing it yourself.

First, check with your local building department to see if a permit is required for your fence. Most likely, it won't be, but the department will also provide you with important information like height specifications and set-back distance.

In our project, home improvement expert Ed Del Grande is replacing an old, rusty chain-link fence that has certainly seen better days; plus, it offered no privacy. Once the old fence is out of the way, the area is leveled to create a nice, level site for working.

Tip: It's always a good idea to get a property survey, especially if you didn't install a fence you're replacing. Without a survey, you can't be sure your new fence is in the right place.

How to Install

Attach a string around the perimeter of the area to be fenced, about a foot above the ground, pulling it taut. This helps keep the posts aligned throughout the post-setting process.

There are many material options when it comes to fencing, from wood to metal to plastic. Del Grande and his crew use pressure-treated wood since it offers long-term endurance. Many manufacturers rate their pressure-treated wood to last up to 40 years. The pine pickets featured here are attractive on both sides; this will likely help score points with the people next door — a good neighbor fence.

Don't worry too much about figuring out how much material you'll need. Just take the exact (and accurate) dimensions of your property to the experts at the lumberyard — they'll figure out the right amount for you.

For our fence, Del Grande is using individual pickets as opposed to pre-assembled panels. As he explains, the cost is less (about 25% less than pre-fab panels), and secondly, they allow for contouring. Since the ground of this site slopes downward, the pickets will allow Del Grande and crew to follow the contour of the land, adjusting them up and down, to ultimately produce a good-looking fence.

Keep in mind that you'll need an air gun/air nailer to make the job go quickly.

Important Tip: Make sure someone instructs you on how to use the tool, and carefully follow all safety precautions — especially the use of safety glasses.

Regardless of the type of wood you use, the nails should last as long as the fence, so choose hot-dipped galvanized nails if at all possible.

The number and placement of the posts you use will be determined by the distance of your fence. A good rule of thumb is to space them 6' to 8' apart. Once you've determined post placement, you're ready to dig your holes. Here, Del Grande and crew use 8" auger to dig post-holes at the four corner points. The general guideline for setting posts is to place at least one-third of the length of each post in the ground.

Once a post is placed in the hole, check to see if it's plumb and adjust as necessary. Hold in place by nailing scrap wood to the post to stake it.

Secure the posts by adding a bag of fast-setting concrete to each hole. Simply add a gallon of water and allow the mixture to set up; it will generally harden in less than an hour.

When placing the top rail, keep in mind that a good typical height is between 58" and 66" from the ground. The middle and lower rails should be spaced evenly below. The rail length is determined by measuring from the center of one post to the center point of the next. Use two 10-penny nails to fasten the end of each rail to each post, making sure that all the rails are on the same horizontal plane and the same distance from the ground.

Note: Del Grande created different heights along different sections of the fence, based on the amount of desired privacy at a given point. For example, the tallest section is built along the back of the property, which faces a neighboring yard. On the side, where there's a nice view, the fence height is lower; this also prevents a "boxed-in" look. Consider creative options like this when building your own fence.

To speed up the building process, make sure all the rails are in position before starting to attach the pickets. Place a picket on the first post, with the bottom approximately 1" above the ground. Make sure it's plumb, then nail it in place.

Repeat the process with a a picket on the next post, but only nail it in place with one or two nails. Then add a nail to the top of each picket and run a string between them, placing it a half-inch above the top of the picket. The top of each picket should then be positioned a half-inch below the string. This allows the pickets to gradually follow the contour of the yard.

Tip: To ensure a uniform space between your pickets, cut a small piece of one picket to use as a spacer as you work your way along the rails. (Be sure to keep placing pickets with the tops a half-inch below the string line.)

While holding each picket in place next to the spacer, secure it with a single nail right in the center. This will allow some leeway for aligning it later. Work your way around the perimeter until each picket is secured with a single center nail.

Plumb the Pickets

Now it's time to plumb the pickets. Hold your level alongside and on top of each one to check that it's plumb. Once it's perfectly positioned, get the nail gun and add two nails to the top end (for a total of three, since the first one was put in earlier to hold the piece in place), then secure it with three at the bottom end. Repeat the process all the way down the line, then go to the other side and repeat again.

Note: For areas where a complete picket won't fit, simply measure and cut pickets to fit around the post or rails.

Though we're using pressure-treated wood, it's always a good idea to use a weatherproofer to give the fence extra protection. Generally, there are three basic choices: a solid, which will cover up all the wood's grain; a semi-transparent, which will allow some of the grain to show through; and finally, a clear version, which is used for a natural look.

For this project, Del Grande doesn't apply any finish immediately; he explains that he'll let the wood acclimate to the weather for about six months to a year, giving it a chance to dry out. Next season, the fence will be ready to be treated with a finishing product.

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