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How to build a wood rail fence

Building a fence along my front garden has been on my to-do list for a while.  For one thing, I wanted a tidy and simple way to support my beautiful peonies.  Also, I needed to keep out the neighborhood pets.  (I love dogs, just not when they’re making a mess in my flower beds.)

yard without post a two rail wood fence
BEFORE: My front garden needed a border.

So, after a lot of thinking and planning, I decided to build a simple two-rail wooden fence.  With help from my mom, it took less than half a day to build, and only cost me $25.  Seriously!

two-rail wood fence handmade
AFTER: A simple two-rail fence keeps plants in, and pets out.

If you’re looking for an easy fence solution, check out these step by step instructions.

HOW TO BUILD A WOOD RAIL FENCE

Right up front, I need to make the disclaimer that I was able to spend just $25 to build this fence because I got my fence posts for free (you can, too).  

I was going to buy six-foot long treated 4″ x 4″ posts and have the store cut them in half for me to make homemade fence posts. While I was shopping in the store, I spotted some scrap wood that I thought would be perfect for my project.  The kind folks at Home Depot let me have them for free!

Wooden fence posts in a pile
I scored free fence posts from the scrap wood pile.

1. Purchase fence materials

Start by measuring the length of the space you want to fence, to determine how much material you need.

For example, my front garden is 36′ long.  I decided to use six-foot long rails, because it divides evenly into 36 (six times).  Since I wanted a two rail fence, I knew I would need to buy twelve fence rails (two boards every six feet).

I would also need a post every six feet.  Including the starting post, that makes a total of seven posts I used for my project.

You may need to adjust your board lengths slightly, if your distance doesn’t divide evenly.  If you are fencing more than one side, repeat this calculation for each side.

2.  Weatherproof the DIY fence posts and rails

A few days before starting to build the fence, I applied a weather proofing treatment to all of the wood pieces.  This allowed it some time to cure before going outside.

Since I made my fence posts from scrap wood that was untreated, I started by applying a coat of a wood preservative to the section that would go in the ground.

Once this was dry, I applied an additional waterproofing sealant to the posts and the rails on all sides.

Applying weatherproofing product to wooden fence posts
Treat the posts and rails with a weatherproofing product before you start to build a fence.

3.  Dig the post holes

I wanted my fence set back slightly from the street.  After deciding where I wanted the first post to go, I measured the distance from the sidewalk to the post.  For every future hole, I made sure it was set the same distance from the sidewalk as the first post.

Use a post hole digger to make your holes.  You might be able to rent a post hole digger or borrow one from a neighbor, however they can be so inexpensive (about $25) it makes sense to buy a new one and own it.

person uses a post hole digger to make hole for diy fence post
Use a post hole digger to place your fence posts.

If you have rocky ground like I do, you may need an extra tool like a crowbar to help loosen the rocks as you dig. This 3-piece crowbar set is around $11. It’s a great investment for saving you time and frustration.

woman using a crowbar to loosen rocks in dirt
A crowbar may be helpful for loosening rocks as you dig.

We sunk our posts 12″ deep, and set them with dirt – no concrete.  Since my fence is short, and not bearing any real load, this is sufficient.  If you are building a taller, heavier post and rail fence, buy longer posts and dig deeper holes.

Once the first post was set, we used one of the rail boards to measure the distance to the next post hole.  We also measured the distance back from the street.  The post should be positioned so that the end of the rail is in the middle of the post.

Make sure that the tops of all the posts are level to each other.  You can either cut your posts to height after they’re set, or do what we did and adjust the hole depth for each post.  (You can easily check if the tops are the same height by setting a board across the tops of two posts, and setting a carpenters level on the board.)

4.  Set the fence post

Once the hole is deep enough, use a carpenters level to make sure the fence post is plumb in all directions.  Set the level on the side, and the front or back of the post, and make sure the bubble is within the lines.

A bubble level on a fence post checking to make sure it's set straight
Use a bubble level to check that your post in straight in all directions.

Start to backfill the hole with dirt.  Press the dirt in firmly as you go, and keep checking with the bubble level to make sure the post doesn’t move as you set it.  We used a scrap of wood and a hammer to help compact the dirt in the hole.

Hammering a scrap of wood into the ground to help set the dirt around a fence post
We hammered a scrap of wood on the ground, to help compact the dirt around the post.

5. Attach the wood rails

To keep the thin fence rails from splitting, you should drill starter holes where the nails (or screws, if you prefer) will go.

Drilling holes into a fence rail to prevent splitting
Drill starter holes to keep the nails from splitting the fence rails.

Tack one nail into one end of the board, to attach it to your first post.  Leave the first nail little loose so you can adjust the other end, and make it level on the second post.  Once you’ve leveled the rail, go ahead and nail it in firmly to both posts.

Fence rail tacked to a post with a nail
Use one nail to tack the board to the first post while you get it positioned correctly.
carpenters level on wooden fence rail
Use a level to set the rail height on the second post.
Hammering nails into a fence rail
Once positioned, nail the rails firmly in place. I used my leg to help support the post as I worked.

Admire your DIY wood rail fence

Just keep going with the digging, leveling, and attaching rails across your entire space.

Here’s how my fence looks finished.  It creates the perfect border for my garden.

Two rail wood fence in a garden in front of a house
Two rail wood fence in front of a house

I’ve gotten lots of compliments from the neighbors.  One even praised our “girl power” when I said my mom and I built it ourselves.  Because you don’t need someone else to do it for you!

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6 Comments on How to Build a Wood Rail Fence

  1. Jenny, I’m with you. Even at my ripe age of 69, I’d rather be building fences, doing DIY projects than any of the regular hobbies people seem to think are the norm. You go for it girl.

  2. I love the fence and hope you plant lots of daffodils in front of it!
    In my area, you can hire a fencing company to set the posts for you and you do all the rest. I think this would make a project like a 6 ft fence more DIY friendly.

    • Thanks, Christie. That’s a great tip about looking for a company to set your fence posts. That would be fantastic, and really lighten the work load for a taller fence. Thanks for sharing the idea!

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