Wood fences can’t stand up forever—they need help from time to time
Wood fences go back to the early colonists. Picket fences were built to establish boundaries but not
privacy. Some were quite elaborate, much more so than most anything you’ll find today.
Solid fences built for privacy are popular now and simple to construct: 4“X4” posts are sunk into
the ground no more than 8 feet apart, 2“X4” boards are nailed to the posts as rails, and then 1“X6”
boards, frequently rough cut, are nailed to the rails. More often than not, these fences are then stained
or even left alone to“weather.”
Signs of a Failed Fence
A fence falls into disrepair when the posts rot, the post holes aren’t deep enough, the rails come loose from the posts, or the
individual fence boards come loose.
Unsealed fences deteriorate faster, and they often have loose boards and fasteners.
Wood fences are expensive and time consuming to build—it makes good sense to maintain them.
Figure on restaining a fence every three to four years depending on weather exposure.
This type of fence doesn’t require elaborate carpentry skills to build, but once it’s up, it requires
care and feeding. Wood fences are exposed to the weather and need to be treated like any other
outdoor wood. They must be sealed regularly with paint or stain and checked for deterioration.
Loose Fence Boards
Loose boards can be secured with small deck screws or galvanized nails.
If an individual board is broken or otherwise too deteriorated to secure, new ones are available at any lumber store.
Prestain or paint any replacement boards before installing.
Be sure the ends of all the fence boards are well sealed and none comes in contact with the ground.
Traditional picket fences are painted, providing them with better protection, if the paint is regularly
renewed, than stained solid fences, which are often ignored. Given the cost and time involved to
construct a fence, recoating to extend the life of a fence more than pays for itself.
Reinforcing Loose Rails
Rails that are nailed at an angle (toenailed) to the posts commonly come loose.
Reinforce a loose rail by nailing a small wood block to the post; butt it up against the rail and toenail the rail to the block.
Or insert a galvanized angle iron under the rail and screw it to both the rail and the post.
A nailed section of 2X4 across the post and into each rail produces the sturdiest but most visible repair.
MAKE IT EASY
Recoating a fence is time consuming, but the task can be sped up using a paint sprayer,
particularly when painting a picket fence. An airless sprayer will paint pickets far faster than
brushing, and overspray is less an issue outside in a yard than inside your house. Solid fences
can be rolled or sprayed.
Fence caps become loose when they remain unfinished and the nails rust and deteriorate.
Remove loose post caps and their fasteners. Sand the cap’s bottom side and the top of the post. Brush away dust and seal all sides
of the cap with wood sealer.
When the cap is dry, apply exterior wood glue to the top of the post, and center the cap on it.
Secure with two deck screws or two galvanized nails longer than the original ones.
Fences in disrepair need more than recoating—posts, rails, boards, and
pickets can all be fixed
A properly built fence uses posts that are treated for ground contact. Lumber manufacturers pressure-
treat lumber with chemicals that render the wood resistant to fungi found in the ground. Some
pressure-treated lumber is not suitable for ground contact and should not be used for fence posts, nor
should untreated lumber be used. In the event of rotting wood, individual posts can be replaced or
supported and braced until replacement can be scheduled.
Bad Fence Posts
Reinforce fence posts with inexpensive fence-post repair bracket kits, which save the time and cost of post replacement.
Repair kits require existing concrete (to be hammered into) or new concrete if the post stands in dirt only; they do not work for
posts with extensive rot.
To quickly repair a leaning post, screw one end of a wire or small chain near the top of the post. Straighten the post, pull the wire
tight, and attach to a pipe hammered into the ground.
Rails eventually loosen if they don’t have any supports to hold them or if the nails securing the rails
corrode. The same is true for the pickets or vertical boards. A section of a fence either can be
secured with additional fasteners or replaced completely if necessary. This can be a small problem if
a picket is an unusual design that requires duplication. However, new 1“X6” fence boards are
commonly available at any lumber store.
Removing Rails and Posts
Rails are either toenailed (nailed at an angle) to posts or nailed to metal clips, which are nailed to the posts.
Remove the rails and temporarily nail a vertical 2X4 to each pair of rails to keep the fencing upright.
Dig out the old post and any concrete attached to it.
If a rail end is bad, cut out the bad section, install a new piece of 2X4, and secure it to the remaining 2X4 with a galvanized shelf
Anywhere a fence is feeling wobbly or is otherwise in need of support, brackets, blocks, cables, or
other means of shoring up the weak area can be installed to extend the life of the fence. As long as the
repair is presentable, it’s simpler than a full replacement.
Digging Post Holes
Dig post holes with a narrow shovel, a post-hole digger, a hand-operated auger, or a handheld power auger (but beware of usage
An alternative is a 24- or 30-inch fence post spike topped with a 4“X4” open metal box for securing a fence post.
Before digging holes for a new fence, call your local utilities to check for pipes and wiring (the North American One Call Referral
service provides a listing of local utility companies; see Resources).
Treated lumber is soaked in a chemical solution that will rub off on your skin during handling.
Wear work gloves and long-sleeve shirts when working with treated fence posts. Wear an
appropriate dust mask to avoid breathing any sawdust while cutting the posts. Wash your hands
after handling treated lumber.
Positioning and Installing Posts
A post hole should be at least 24 inches deep for a 6-foot-high fence.
The hole should also be wide enough for you to pack down your dirt or concrete packing.
The new post should be straight, lined up with its fence rails and with the other posts; if the posts are on sloped ground, it should
follow the slope as the others do.
Allow concrete to set before attaching the rails, following the manufacturer’s curing directions.