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How to Build a Fence: DIY Wood Privacy Fence Plans

A wood fence adds privacy and improves security while giving your landscape a traditional look. Here are step-by-step instructions for laying out and building a shadowbox wood fence.

Preparing to Build a Fence

Know Your Property Lines.
  • Check local codes and homeowner's association guidelines that might govern fence style, size and placement. Codes may also specify post hole requirements. 
  • Determine if a permit is necessary. 
  • Know your property lines and discuss your plans with neighbors along your proposed fence line. 
  • Determine a layout that will allow you to use full pickets at the corners.
  • Plan gate posts locations. Gate pickets should be flush with the inside faces of the posts. Plan your gate size to use full pickets.
  • Use graph paper to draw a plan for your fence. Note the post locations and gate locations. Some towns might require this plan for an approved building permit.
  • Consider gate hardware. Each set attaches differently and you'll need to take it into account for gate post spacing.
  • Find a helper. You need an extra set of hands for this project.

Before beginning any excavation, call 811 to check for underground utilities.

Installing a Shadowbox Wood Fence

Illustration of a Shadowbox Fence.

The instructions below show you how to build a shadowbox wood fence. A shadowbox fence has pickets alternating on each side, offering some privacy but allowing you to look through the fence at an angle. A solid fence has all pickets attached tightly together on the outside only, blocking views and offering complete privacy. 

This component-built fence, where you attach the pickets individually rather than in pre-assembled panels, will use 6-foot pickets that are 5-1/2 inches wide. The space between the pickets will be 3-1/2 inches. The pickets on the opposite side will line up over the 3-1/2-inch space, creating the shadowbox effect.  

To learn more about different types of fencing, see our Fence Materials Guide.

Good to Know

While pre-assembled wood fence panels make installation faster, a component-built fence follows the contours of your yard better.  

Fence Layout and Post Locations

Step 1

Use Strings and Batter Boards to Lay Out the Fence.

Mark the layout using string and batter boards. Place the batter boards just beyond where your fence corners will be located and run strings between them. Keep the strings 6 inches off of your property line.  

The strings help you line up the posts. Batter boards allow you adjust the strings easily. For more on batter boards, watch Making and Using Batter Boards.

Good to Know

To square corners, measure 3 feet along one string and 4 feet along the adjacent string. The diagonal between these points should be 5 feet. If not, adjust the strings on the batter boards.

Step 2

Use Stakes to Mark the Fence Post Locations.

Mark the posts and spacing using stakes or marking paint. Typical spacing is between 6 and 8 feet on-center (from the center of one post to the center of the next). Keep your tape measure level for accurate spacing. 

The strings mark the outside faces of the posts. The center points of the post holes should be about half the width of the post away from the strings, not directly under them.

Step 3

Mark Layout String Locations on the Batter Boards.

After establishing the post hole locations, use a pencil to mark the strings positions on the batter boards. For batter boards next to the house, transfer the string locations to the house in case you need to remove the batter board to dig. Remove the strings — this makes digging post holes easier. You'll reattach them before you set the posts.

Dig Post Holes and Set Fence Posts

Step 1

Use a Power Auger to Save Time and Effort When Digging Fence Post Holes.

Dig the holes to size. Some codes might require the depth to be below the frost line — the level at which water in the soil typically freezes — to help prevent the ground from pushing up the posts (known as heave) during a freeze. Note that the frost line varies by region. The post hole diameter is typically about three times the width of the post.

  • For holes next to the house, use a shovel, post hole digger and digging bar. 
  • In open areas, consider using a power auger to save time and effort. See our Power Earth Auger Buying Guide to learn how to choose one for your project. Follow the manufacturer's instructions and watch our video How to Use a Power Auger for tips.
Good to Know

Clear away the dirt you removed to prevent killing the grass. Save some to top off the post holes once the concrete sets.

Step 2

Reset your layout lines using the marks you made earlier on the batter boards. These help you align the posts properly.

Step 3

Plumb the Fence Post and Brace It in Position.

Fill the bottom of the first hole with about 6 inches of dry concrete mix. Set a post on the dry concrete, flush against the layout line, but without pushing it outward. Use a post level to make sure the post is plumb, then add braces to hold it in place. Follow the same steps the rest of your posts.

Step 4

Pour Mixed Regular-Set Concrete Around the Fence Post.

Add concrete mix to the post holes. You can choose between regular-set and fast-set options. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for mixing. 

  • If using regular-set concrete, as with this fence, mix it to the consistency of thick cake batter. Fill around each post (image to the right). Leave the concrete a few inches below ground level. Slope it away from the post to help with water runoff. 
  • If using fast-set concrete, pour the dry mix around each post to a few inches below ground level and add water. Initially the water will sit on top, but eventually will work its way to the bottom. Use a stake to mix it if needed, but don't overwork it.
Good to Know

Regular-set concrete mix takes a little longer to cure, but is less expensive than fast-setting mix and allows time for adjustments. Fast-set concrete mix cures quickly so you'll have to make sure your posts are set in the right place before mixing.

Step 5

Let the concrete cure, then remove the braces and top off the holes with dirt. Take down your batter boards and strings.

Good to Know

Setting all of the posts may take a couple of days.

Install the Fence Rails

Step 1

Use a String Run Across the Fence Posts to Mark the Rail Locations.

Mark the rail locations on the posts. For this fence, with 6-foot pickets, the lower edge of the top rails will be 5 feet, 4-1/2 inches above the ground. The upper edge of the bottom rails should be about 9-1/2 inches above the ground. Indicating the locations for the lower edges of the top rails and the upper edges of the bottom rails makes it easier to see the marks when you position the rails.

Measure between the top and bottom rail locations to determine placement of the middle rail. The rail locations don't have to be exact, but should be close for the best appearance.

Good to Know

Run a string across several posts at the correct height to quickly mark rail locations. For sloped areas, you can mark three to four posts at a time. If the area is relatively level, you can span more posts.

Step 2

Rails Next to the House Should Extend to the House.

Begin installing your rails. If you have short runs, such as next to the house or around gates, measure and cut rails to fit. Size them a bit long and attach to the outside faces of the posts with two screws at each post. If you're working next to the house, make sure the rails extend to the house so the pickets will provide full coverage. Trim the other rail ends flush with the posts.

Step 3

Secure the Rails to Fence Posts with Two Screws at Each Post.

Attach rails for the rest of the fence. Stagger the rail joints on different posts to add stability. For example, with posts spaced about 8 feet apart, use 16-foot boards as the top and bottom rail to span three posts. For the middle rail, use an 8-foot across two posts. 

Rails along a run of the fence should butt together at the middle of posts. At the end of a run, install the rails flush with the edge of the corner post. The rails for the next run should overlap these rail ends and be flush with the rail faces.

As you reach the end of your fence, cut the final rails to fit as needed. Remember to let the rails extend all the way to the house.

Good to Know

In areas with a significant slope, use shorter rails rather than spanning several posts with long rails. Your fence will follow the contour of the ground more closely.

Step 4

Install 2 by 4s Between the Rails at Gate Posts to Support the Gate.

At your gate posts, cut 2 x 4s to fit between the rails. Secure the boards to the posts with screws. When you install the gate, you'll fasten the hinges to these support boards.

Step 5

Cut the post tops flush with the top rails.

Install the Fence Pickets

One of the keys to installing fence pickets is keeping the tops at a uniform height. For this fence, the bottom of pickets will be about 1-1/2 inches above the ground. There are a couple of ways to keep them at the correct height.


Top String  
  • Install corner pickets at the desired height and tap a nail into the top of each picket. 
  • Run a string between the nails. 
  • Line up the tops of the remaining pickets with the string.  
  • Don't push on the string while installing.
  • Helpful if the slope in an area doesn't change much
  • Alternatively, use a string tied at the desired level for the bottom of the pickets.
  Tie a String to the Top of Two Fence Pickets to Act as a Guide for Picket Height.
2 x 4 Guide  
  • Use a 2 x 4 set on its face as a 1-1/2-inch guide along the bottom.
  • Set each picket on the board as you're installing along the slope.
  • Helpful if the slope is uneven and changes frequently
  Use a 2 by 4 to Support the Pickets at the Correct Height.

Good to Know

Pickets may have a slight green color from the treatment process, but it will fade over time.

Step 1

Attach the First Picket at a Corner Post, Flush with the Post.

Starting at a corner, line up the first outside picket on the rails, flush with the rail ends. Use the 2 x 4 method above to position it at the correct height. Secure the picket with a pneumatic nailer, pneumatic stapler or drill, driving two fasteners at each rail.

See our Nailer / Nail Gun Buying Guide to learn about selecting and using a nailer.

Good to Know

Use exterior-grade fasteners rated for pressure treated lumber.

Step 2

Conintue Installing Pickets, Using a 2 by 4 Spacer to Place Them Correctly.

Assemble a spacer to simplify installation of the remaining pickets. Attach a short block of 2 x 4 to the back of a longer, straight 2 x 4. Hang the spacer on the top rail, against a corner picket. Install the next picket flush against the spacer to get the proper 3-1/2-inch spacing and to keep the picket plumb.

Step 3

Periodically Use a Level to Check that the Pickets are Plumb.

Continue installing pickets along the run, spaced 3-1/2 inches apart. Periodically use a level to make sure the pickets are plumb.

Good to Know

On very short runs, you may need to adjust the spacing to use full pickets.

Step 4

As you get close to corners, adjust the spacing of the pickets as necessary to make them fit. The final picket at a corner should be flush with the rail ends. If you prefer, you can use a table saw to rip the picket — cut a long its length — to the correct width (if your pickets have a dog ear at the top, mark a new dog ear with a speed square and cut with a jigsaw).

Step 5

Overlap the pickets at corners. After you turn a corner, the edge of the first picket in the new run should be flush with the face of the final picket in the previous run.

Step 6

Measure and rip cut the final picket as necessary to fit and maintain proper spacing.

Step 7

Space and Overlap the Pickets to Create the Shadowbox Effect for the Fence.

After you finish installing the outside pickets, begin installing the pickets on the inside of the fence. Overlap the outside pickets by 1 inch on each side. Plumb the first picket in a run with a level and position it at the correct height. On slopes, be sure to split the difference in height of the adjacent, outside pickets.

Step 8

Use a Short Board to Help Maintain the Correct Height for Inside Fence Pickets.

Continue installing pickets, using your spacer and periodically checking for plumb. Use string or a 2 x 4 as you did on the outside pickets to maintain the correct height. If the ground is too sloped or uneven, use a short 2 x 4 board across the top of the pickets as a guide.

Step 9

Cut Pickets with a Jigsaw to Fit Around Posts.

Use a jigsaw to cut pickets to fit around posts as needed. On short runs, rip cut pickets as necessary.

Good to Know

If the contour of the ground immediately under a picket makes the picket too tall, turn it bottom-end-up and mark at the correct height. Cut the excess from the bottom.

Build and Install the Fence Gate

These instructions building a fence gate with a gate hardware kit. The hardware keeps the gate square and prevents sagging over time.

Step 1

Measure and Cut Gate Rails.

Measure the horizontal distance between gate posts and subtract the space needed for the thickness of the hinges and latch. Cut two horizontal gate rails to length.

Good to Know

The hardware for the gate on this fence required an additional build-out piece on the latch-side gate post. Check the requirements for your hardware. Cut and attach the piece if needed and take it into account when measuring for the gate rails.

Step 2

Measure the distance between the top and bottom fence rails, accounting for the horizontal gate rails, and if needed, the thickness of the brackets. Cut two vertical gate rails to length.

Step 3

You May Need to Miter the Gate Rails to Fit the Gate Hardware.

Assemble the frame with screws. Depending on the hardware, you may need to make small miter cuts at the corners of the gate rails to allow for welds.

Step 4

Measure, Cut and Attach the Middle Gate Rail.

Measure and cut a middle rail to run between the vertical gate rails. Install with screws.

Good to Know

If your gate will be over level ground, you can install the pickets before hanging the gate. If you're working on a slope, follow the steps below to get the best placement for the pickets. 

Step 5

Drill Pilot Holes for the Gate Hinges and Hang the Gate.

To hang the frame, hold it in place and mark the holes for hinges. Drill pilot holes in the support board and attach the gate with screws. Don't attach the hinges to the end grain of the fence rails.

Step 6

Attach the Gate Latch to the Post or Support Board.

Install the post-side portion of the latch to the appropriate post or board. Don't secure it to the end of the fence rail. Line up the gate-side elements and attach them to the gate with screws.

Step 7

After Installing the Fence Gate, Attach the Pickets Using a Guide String.

Attach the pickets to the frame. Use a string attached to the adjacent fence runs as a guide to position the pickets.

Finishing and Maintaining Your Fence

Wait a Few Monthes Before Staining or Painting Your Fence.

Wait a few months before staining or painting to allow the lumber to dry completely. Pressure treated lumber should be stained or painted every few years. Follow the product manufacturer’s guidelines for preparation and application.

Working with Pressure-Treated Lumber


  • Use fasteners and hardware labeled for treated lumber — stainless-steel or hot-dipped, galvanized screws. 
  • Drill pilot holes in the ends of boards to prevent splitting when you nail or screw them together. 
  • Use wood rated for ground contact when necessary for the project. 



  • Wear a dust mask and eye protection when handling or cutting wood. 
  • Wash your hands after working with treated wood. 
  • Dispose of sawdust and waste according to local regulations. 
  • Don't burn pressure-treated wood. 
  • Don't use pressure-treated wood as mulch. 


Read more about pressure-treated lumber and wood preservatives on the EPA website: 

Overview of Wood Preservative Chemicals

See How Your Neighbor Did It

Blogger Sarah Gibson tackles a vinyl fencing project.

Don't just take our word for it. Sarah Gibson of Room for Tuesday, took on this project with her husband and the results are impressive. She'll walk you through her real-life process of installing a vinyl fence.

See how she did it.