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How to Build a Split Rail Fence

split rail fenceYou consider yourself a handy person. You change your own tires and build your own bookshelves. But now you want to build your own fence, and you’re unsure whether your skills are up to snuff. Fortunately, there’s a type of fence that is extremely easy to construct, requires only a few tools and supplies, and looks great: the split rail fence.

Split rail fences have been around for a long time. Traditionally used to on ranches to hold horses and cattle, they were popular during the 1800s due to how easy and affordable they are to build. Most pioneer split rail fences were nothing more than logs of equal size split lengthwise and stacked in an interlocking, zig-zag fashion. They were easy to set up, sturdy, and easy to tear down.

These days, split-rail fences are a little more decorative and a little less rustic. However, they’re still the easiest type of fence to construct. Here are seven steps to help you outline your yard with a do-it-yourself split rail fence:

1. Check with your local utility companies and zoning department. There may be dangerous pipes or power lines buried under your property that you don’t know about.

2. Plan the layout of your fence. Talk to neighbors who have yards adjacent to your planned fence. Split rail fences require little construction or maintenance, but it’s still a good idea to let your neighbors know what you’re doing. Measure the exact length of the proposed fence by laying out string where you plan to build it. Measure the string with a measuring tape, and that will tell you how long your fence will be.

3. Do the math. Most split rails are ten feet long, so divide the length of your fence by ten. That should give you an idea of how many rails and posts you will need. If the total length isn’t easily divisible by ten, consider adding to or subtracting from the length.

4. Gather the tools and supplies you’ll need. Pre-cut rails and posts are the easiest way to go and are generally available at your local hardware store. If you’ve never built a fence before, you will probably want to talk with someone at the store about getting started. The split rail fence is easy to make, true, but it’s a good idea to talk through the project first with an expert. The only real tools you’ll need for the project are a shovel or digging bar, a hand-held auger, a measuring tape, a level and some string.

5. Mark out your posts. After you’ve acquired the correct number of rails and posts, mark the ground where each post will go. An easy way to get this right is to lay out a rail as a guide. After that’s done, lay out your supplies where they will be constructed, and you’re ready to build.

6. Break ground. A hand-held auger is probably the easiest way to go about digging holes for your posts. You can get a power auger or a manual one, but always keep safety in mind. Most split rail fence posts are put at least two feet into the ground, but the exact depth is up to you and depends on how tall you want the posts.

7. Assemble your posts and rails. Place the first post into its corresponding hole. Fill the remainder of the hole and tamp the dirt down firmly, making sure the post stays level. Once the post is level and firmly in place, put the bottom rail in and then the top rail. Inserting the rails may move the post, so make sure the post is still level and the rails are pointed correctly at the next post. After the rails are in, place the next post in its hole and secure the rails in the second post. Again, assembling the fence may move the rails, but don’t get discouraged. The more posts and rails you assemble, the better you’ll get at it.

A split rail fence can help accent your yard, define outdoor living space and add character to your home. Installing one yourself not only makes your project more economical, but it entitles you the pride of having built your own fence.

~Ben Nystrom, 2010

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