Planning removes barriers to fence installation

HOME WORK

June 05, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

A good wooden fence can fill many roles: boundary marker, privacy screen, garden enclosure, wildlife discourager, landscape element, trellis for plants, object of beauty, property enhancer. . . .

Of course, a bad fence, wooden or otherwise, can do some of those things too, but it certainly won't enhance your property.

Our definition of a "good" fence is one that fits its primary function and looks as good from the outside as it does from the inside of the property.

Wooden fences come in so many forms and styles it can be hard to choose what's best. Some, like picket or rail fences, are designed to mark boundaries and prevent casual intrusion by creatures larger than the space between the boards. Some, like stockade or alternate-board, are designed for privacy and enclosure. Others, like split-rail or lattice, are almost entirely ornamental.

For urban dwellers, the most common use of wood fencing is to enclose a yard or courtyard from an alley, street or neighboring property. That often means putting up the densest and highest fence allowed by building codes and property associations. People who have larger plots of land may want to enclose a yard to keep in dogs, to screen a swimming pool or accent the property line (and prevent shortcuts). Check with your property association and local jurisdiction to find out what, if any, restrictions apply.

Not for weaklings

Wood fences are relatively easy to install, whatever their style -- though, like many do-it-yourself projects, this is not one for the weak of back.

Most people these days use prebuilt sections of fencing, usually 8 feet long. They come in almost every style you could want and save time, labor and, in some cases, money. (Lumber prices have been rising steadily, a trend that isn't likely to reverse.) The only reasons to build your own fencing are if the site is extremely hilly or if you want an unusual style that isn't available in a prebuilt version.

If the fence is extensive, it may be a good idea to lay out its path before you buy fence sections. After you know where it goes, it's easy to measure the total distance and divide by eight to determine the number of sections you need to buy. (They rarely come out even -- for instance, if you need 35 feet of fencing, that means buying five 8-foot sections, one of which gets cut back to 3 feet.)

Establish the corners

Start laying out the fence by establishing the corners. If you're enclosing a garden, that may mean a simple rectangle; if you're enclosing a yard, the angles may not be 90 degrees and the terrain may require some adjustment in the fence's path.

The first step in construction is setting the corner posts. We have books that say you can dig a hole, put in the post and fill it with dirt, well-tamped. That may work if you're not fencing anything out or in, or if you live in a very temperate climate. We advise setting posts in concrete. Plan to do the posts first and let the concrete "set up" for 24 hours.

Start digging the corner post holes with a shovel. Then, after about a foot, switch to a post-hole digger (try to borrow or rent it). Another useful tool, especially if the ground is hard or rocky, is a digger bar, a 6-foot metal pole that is flattened into a blade at one end. It's heavy and not much fun to work with, but it really loosens clay or rocks, which can then be picked up by the post-hole digger. (Digger bars aren't expensive and are useful for all sorts of digging, from sump-pump wells to garden plots to packed ice.)

For fencing that is 6 feet or lower, the posts need to go down about 2 feet. (Taller or extremely heavy fences may need posts set more deeply; ask when you buy the posts how deep they need to be for the type of fence you're installing.)

Place the corner posts, making sure that they are oriented in the same way -- that is, so the planes line up. You have to be able to get a straight line from one side of each corner post to the same side on the next corner post.

Stretch a string between each pair of posts, keeping it on the same plane, or same side, for both. This string is the basis for determining where the other fence posts go. Measure 8 feet along the string; even if you're building your own fence, 8 feet is the standard post spacing. Tie a tiny piece of string to the line at that point. Measure along the entire side, marking each 8-foot section. Then go along the line with a plumb bob (a pointed weight), match the plumb line to the string mark and drop the plumb bob till it nearly touches the ground. Once it stops swinging, mark the spot on the ground under the point. That's where the next post will go.

Go for eye appeal

If, as most often happens, the line does not come out in even 8-foot sections, you may want to adjust how you space the "extra" feet. You have to put a post wherever two sections join; arrange the extra so it suits your eye. We always opt for the solu

tion that requires the fewest number of posts.

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