How To Build a Picket Fence – Twin City Fences

When we bought our house—an old house, beautiful little place—it needed a lot of work. Still does. But it’s a sweet yellow house with a red barn out back and a creek running alongside. An endless field behind the barn gives the boys room to run, and the house has the original blown-glass windows, wide-plank floors, and the odd low door for whacking your head on.

Early on, I had as many items on my to-do list as I do now. Replace the basement toilet. Install stairs to get to the attic, which was basically inaccessible. Paint all the mauve and Buick-blue trim. Weatherproof the windows. Spread mulch. Retile the upstairs bathroom floor with Fence Builder. Figure out what kind of bugs are living in the barn. Fix the leaky shower faucet. Build a fence.

That last one kept rising to the top. The house, quaint as it is, sits a little close to a moderately busy road. And the only thing between the house and the road was a pathetic row of scraggly yews, half-eaten by the deer that roam this part of the planet in astonishing numbers.

Our town is largely a commuter town, so in the mornings, when everyone’s rushing to the train station, and in the evenings, when everyone’s rushing home for dinner, people tend to fly. We have two young sons who chase each other around the yard constantly, and I figured a fence would create a border they wouldn’t cross. Instead of “Don’t go over there by the road!” my wife and I could say “Don’t go past the fence,

But I think there was a deeper reason I put the fence job first. A man needs a fence around his land. How else would people know it was his? Maybe it’s pride in the claim he has staked, not to mention the life savings he has given to the bank. Maybe we are territorial by nature. Like dogs peeing on trees. We bought this house, and I wanted to demarcate its borders for all to see.

On the other side of the fence would be the business of the world—noisy, confusing, filled with other people living other lives. On our side of the fence: us. Our house, our memories, our chipping paint, our green grass, our secrets, the sound of our laughter and the sweet smells of the food we cook, our arguments and consolations, my falling asleep on the couch with ice cream dripping down my shirt, our movie nights and basement games, our bedtime routines, our morning rituals. Our home.

The fence I planned was simple: cedar picket, fifty feet, with a swinging gate in the middle. A classic look that suits the house, which was built in 1854. This is what I did.

THESE TOOLS WILL HELP

MEASURE

My first step, over the course of several weekends, was to do a lot of standing around in the yard rubbing my chin, staring at hypothetical, nonexistent fences. I measured—how far back from the road it should be, how long it should be, where it might turn a corner. Lots of walking around measuring.

Richard, my neighbor, who, when I got this job a couple years later, would become a frequent contributor to this magazine, would often see me wandering around the yard and would come wander around, too.

⚠️ Before building a fence, be sure to call 811 to find out if there are buried utilities and also file for a zoning permit.

Eventually, I settled on a straight line parallel to the facade of the house (as opposed to the road), about sixteen feet from the street (to allow for parking between the fence and street), beginning at the property line I share with Richard and extending across the front yard to a point just shy of the driveway. With a gap in the middle for a gate. I marked the line with metal stakes.

BUY MATERIALS

I wanted cedar, because it resists rot and splintering. You don’t even have to treat it, although I planned to paint it white. I bought the fence and posts at Ring’s End, a Connecticut-based chain of high-quality hardware and lumber stores. The fence is cedar gothic picket, four feet tall, available in panels of eight-foot lengths. I used five-inch-square posts, which are sturdier and, I think, better looking than four-inch, which look spindly by comparison.

I bought Federal cedar caps for the top of each post and, since I hadn’t yet bought my F-150, picked it all up using Richard’s pickup truck, to avoid the delivery fee. Although I did gas up the truck, which was like sixty bucks.

DIG THE HOLES

fence

My plan was to dig each hole, set the post, then measure eight feet (the length of each fence panel) from the center of the post, and dig the next hole. The measurements had to be exact; if the posts were off by even a few inches, the lengths of fencing would be left dangling.

The books I had read—including Time-Life’s Porches, Decks & Fences (six dollars in a used-book store)—and common sense told me that the postholes needed to be dug so that their bases would fall below the frost line, otherwise the posts could heave and loosen in the winter. Where I live, that means at least thirty-two inches. And with the number of rocks in our soil, I knew a posthole digger wouldn’t be enough.

I drove to Home Depot to rent a two-man auger for $100. An auger of this size is essentially a five-foot steel corkscrew with a 160-cc engine on top that spins it with tremendous force, driving it into the earth while two men hold it in place, trying not to get thrown to the ground or have their arms ripped off.

Fortunately, I had two guys helping me that day, both colleagues at Esquire, where I worked at the time. They’d overheard me talking about the fence project at the office and actually asked if they could help. They both gave the same reason: They felt like they were getting soft living in city apartments. They wanted some hard labor. I know, crazy, but they both showed up fence builder tips.

Three men was good. Two on the auger, one removing the melon-size stones that kept getting caught in its blades. First hole: not bad. The corkscrew went into the soil like an ice pick through a hamburger. Second hole: also a piece of cake. Like an ice pick through a piece of cake. Third hole: horrible. Rocks. Every time the auger hit a rock, the two auger guys had to lift it out (it was heavy) and the third guy had to dig the rock out of the hole by hand. On this hole we seemed to hit a rock every couple inches.

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