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Install a Split Rail Fence

If an informal, open, natural-looking fence is what you're looking for, then a split rail fence is the solution. Split rail fencing is an adaptation of the zigzagging, early American wood fences.  It offers a rustic look and is one of the easiest fences to build.

Split Rail Fence in Front of a Home.

Tools & Materials

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Preliminary Steps

Before you start a fencing project, a few preliminary steps are in order:

  • Discuss your plans with any neighbors whose property lies along your proposed fence line. They may be willing to split the cost with you.
  • Make sure your fence will be on your property.
  • Check for easements in your deed. An easement is a right-of-way granted to another property owner or utility company, which may limit the design and location of your fence.
  • Check local zoning laws and neighborhood association rules, which may regulate the size and placement of your fence.
  • Apply for the proper building permit as directed by local code.

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

Fence Materials

Split-Rail-Fence around a Garden.

The most common materials are pine and cedar. Rails are usually 8 feet or 11 feet long. They're round, half-round or square / diamond-shaped. The rails insert into the holes in the posts and are held in place by their own weight.

Posts are made to accept either two or three rails. Two-rail fence posts are approximately 6 feet long, and three-hole posts are approximately 7 feet long.

Posts are predrilled for use as end, corner or line.

  • End posts are drilled halfway and are used as starting and stopping points.
  • Corner posts are drilled halfway on adjoining sides for use on right angles.
  • Line posts are drilled all the way through and support the rails on long, straight portions.

 When buying fencing, make sure the components and wood finishes match. After it's installed, stain the fence or let it weather naturally.

Fence Layout

The layout of the fence is somewhat determined by length of the precut fencing rails. The problem is that few landscapes are laid out in 8-foot or 11-foot increments. Therefore premeasuring is a must.

To make a fence fit the landscape, there are several options:

  • Shorten the overall length of the fence to accommodate the length of the precut rails.
  • Put a shorter section at each end to preserve the symmetry of the fence.
  • Make the gate(s) or opening wider or narrower.
  • Shorten the fence rails. Cutting the rails themselves isn't difficult. Trimming the ends to fit into the posts can be awkward and tricky. The measure twice, cut once rule definitely applies here.

Slope Changes

Illustration of a Fence on a Slope.

When dealing with slopes, follow the angle of the slope on steep inclines.

Take time to lay out the fence carefully. An incorrect measurement could result in problems. If you're dealing with extreme slopes, you may need to choose another fencing type.

To plan your fence:

Step 1

Stake out your fence line from beginning to end, including corners and gates.

Step 2

Tie a string tautly between corner post locations to define the line along which the line posts will be placed.

Step 3

Using the same measurement as the length of your rails, stake out the line post locations. Remember to take the overlap of the rails into account. Ensure that the stakes are touching the layout string so the posts will be in line.

Step 4

Measure on center from each corner post (from center to center of each post instead of from the edges) along the layout lines.

Step 5

Remember to take any gates or openings into account at this stage. This allows some flexibility in layout even though you're working with precut rails.

Good to Know

Lay out the fence as a dry fit before digging holes for the line posts. This can prevent the need for major adjustments later.

Digging Post Holes

The most important part of a fence is underground: the posts. When planning the height of your posts, plan for a clearance of at least 6 inches from the ground to the lowest rail to allow mowing and trimming. Add a couple of inches for settling over time. The best practice is to put 1/3 of the post in the ground. Using a post hole digger or power auger, dig the holes 10 inches to 12 inches wide and 6 inches deeper than needed. Backfill each hole with 6 inches of gravel to drain water away from the bottom of the post. If your fence requires a permit, the depth may be specified there.

Posts and Rails

Step 1

Install the end posts first. This will establish a reference so you can make sure the line posts are set in line.

Step 2

Check each post to make sure it's plumb using a post level. (A post level attaches to the post and checks for plumb and level).

Step 3

Set each line post, insert rails and check the length and fit as you progress. Minor adjustments may be necessary.

Step 4

Fill holes with soil and tamp to firm. Check plumb and alignment again, and make any necessary adjustments.