Building a picket fence within a budget is possible

By James Dulley

June 1, 2008 4 min read

Dear Pat: My children just brought home a small stray dog, which gives me an excuse to build a decorative picket fence in front of my house.

How can I build one inexpensively myself? - Sherry W.

Dear Sherry: You should be able to build a picket fence yourself within a reasonable budget. The more decorative you make it, however, the more expensive the materials will become. Also, the pickets will have to be close together to keep a small dog in your yard.

Building codes are often strict for any front-yard construction. Check your zoning office for the requirements of maximum height, inset from the lot line and acceptable designs. In most cases, an average-size picket fence does not violate local restrictions.

If you are not best of friends with your neighbors, make sure you know exactly where your lot lines are and have them surveyed, if necessary. It is better to be safe than to tear down your new fence because it is a couple of inches on the neighbor's property. Determine the locations of underground telephone lines and TV cables before digging post holes.

Keep it simple: Almost any picket fence will be somewhat decorative and enhance the appearance of your house. Because you are on a budget, you can make it appear more decorative by selecting more ornate posts. This often looks good with a Victorian-style home. Standard straight posts are consistent with a Colonial-style.

Your first step is to lay out fence-post locations. It is important to get them lined up perfectly. If not, your fence will have that wavy "do-it-yourself" appearance. Drive stakes in the ground 3 inches away from the planned inside-edge of the posts. Put a nail in each stake and stretch a string from stake to state. Start digging postholes exactly 8 feet apart.

This is the most efficient use on standard 8-foot-long lumber with minimum scrap to control your materials budget. Make postholes big enough for a clearance of several inches around the posts. Dig the holes slightly deeper than the frost line and taper them out a little at the bottom.

If you are confident in your measurements, rent a gasoline-powered posthole digger and have a friend help you dig the holes quickly. If you have plenty of time, use a hand posthole digger, allowing you to build the fence from post to post to make sure it is spaced properly. Once you have a corner post and the adjacent one set in concrete or packed gravel, nail or screw the upper and lower horizontal rails in place.

Now you must decide on the spacing and width of the pickets you plan to use - this will impact the styling of your fence. Many picket fences are painted white; therefore, standard lumber is your least expensive option. For a unique fence, use cedar or redwood and stain it. These woods are almost as weather-resistant as pressure-treated lumber, but they are more expensive. Always use galvanized or stainless steel nails.

Tools and materials required: circular or handsaw, posthole digger, hammer, screwdrivers, tape measure, line, nails, screws, gravel or concrete, lumber.

Send questions to: Here's How, 6906 Royalgreen Dr., Cincinnati, Ohio45244 or visit

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