How to erect a split-rail fence

Date:12 June 2013 Tags:,

We didn’t need special tools or a hefty budget to install this beautifully chunky classic. By Theresa Breen

My simple ranch-style home was in desperate need of discipline. While my neighbours’ property lines were neatly set off by picket fences and boxwood shrubs, mine lacked physical boundaries and seemed exposed, vulnerable – even unruly. With no fence, my expansive front lawn was edging its way on to the street, making itself irresistible to wayward dogs and parking cars.

The solution was to install a modest fence that would help contain my home while also giving it kerb appeal. A split-rail seemed a good choice. It wouldn’t obscure my one-storey home but would provide it with a simple border along which I could plant shrubs. And I could festoon it with seasonal decorations. I’ll admit I’d never installed a fence before. But with careful planning and help from a few PM staffers, we turned a seemingly daunting project into something manageable. The biggest challenge was digging the post holes – especially when we hit tough, gnarly tree roots – but as a team, we finished the project in a weekend. It was well worth the effort: my new fence has brought much-needed order to my property, which no longer looks like the rough kid on the block.

The paper trail:
We didn’t want our fence to annoy neighbours, damage utility lines or elicit fines, so we took care of some necessary paperwork first. Although your situation may differ from mine, be sure to complete all administrative legwork before heading to the timber yard.

Know your boundaries
Begin by researching your town’s zoning laws. Once you understand local restrictions and ordinances, such as setbacks from your property lines and appropriate fence heights, you can decide where your fence will sit and how it will look.

Survey the situation
To ensure that your fence doesn’t encroach on your neighbour’s yard, and to check for public restrictions, study your deed of sale. We didn’t have ours, so we asked the attorney who handled our home’s sale for a copy.

Start sketching
Figure out where you want the fence and draw its location on a copy of the property plan. You can then calculate how much material you will need. We bought enough wood for 33 metres of fence.

Know what’s below
Driving a pick into a buried electricity cable or water main will ruin your day, so check the location of these conduits before you start digging, then mark their position with dowels or whatever else you can find. Next, stake out your proposed fence in similar fashion so you’ll know where to start.

Get the go-ahead
Check building codes and restrictions by visiting your local municipality. The last thing you want to do is demolish your new fence when you discover that it violates some or other code. Some gated communities are also tough on rule-breakers.

The layout:

1. Establish outline
Drive stakes into the ground About 1 m past each corner or end post, and connect them with mason’s string tied 30 cm above ground level. We wanted the fence to run parallel to the sides of the house, so we measured out from the walls in a few places to keep the spacing consistent.

2. Mark post locations
Working out from a corner, lay rails along the perimeter, overlapping their ends by 15 cm. This is where you’ll dig holes for the line posts. Mark these locations on the ground with spray paint.

3. Set rail height
Mark each post at 90 cm from its bottom end. This measurement takes the depth of the post’s hole – 60 cm – and adds the 30 cm high string line. When you set the posts in the ground, you’ll use this reference point to help establish the correct height of the rails.

The labour:

4. Start digging
Many fence installers in my town prefer not to dig holes with powered augers, which can get dangerously stuck in the rocky soil. Instead, they use posthole diggers. Grasp the two handles together with both hands before thrusting the blades into the ground.

5. Go deep (or not)
Dig holes about 60 cm deep and 25 cm in diameter. The most important measurement, though, is from the bottom of the hole to the string, which should be 90 cm. Use a dig-and-tamp bar to shift any rocks or to grind through stubborn roots. We hit a rock that wouldn’t shift, so we had to cut 15 cm off the post. That’s fine, but removing more than that would have destabilised the post.

6. Set posts
Place posts upright into each hole, making sure the reference mark aligns with the string line. You may need to either dig deeper or backfill the holes with rocks. Once the post is where you want it, start filling the holes. Check that the posts are plumb by using a level or eyeballing the post against the corners of your house. Once you’ve filled the hole, tamp down the area around the base of the post, then soak it to compact the soil. We repaired our scarred landscape by planting grass seed.

7. Install rails
Slide each rail through the slot far enough so that you can then back it into the slot on the opposite post.

Expert tip: One- and two-man earth augers
If you don’t have a powered auger or posthole digger (and frankly, we don’t know anyone who does), get in touch with a tool hire company such as AllQuipHire. Alternatively, you may even care to invest in one of your own; check out Stihl’s one- and two-man earth augers.


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