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  • Writer's pictureLauren Tyson

Build a Wood Rail Fence in a Day

Simple, sturdy, and rustic aesthetic, wood rail fences are everywhere around Montana. The artist in me thinks that's because the wood rail fence represents the Montana people, strong with no fuss, and the state itself - rustic by definition.

But it's not that romantic. A wood rail fence is just practical, and if you prep well and have a friend or three to help, you can build one in a day, depending on the size of your property.

Let's be clear though, building any fence is hard labor. I love DIY, but there were times during the day when I questioned my sanity in taking on this project. So while you do have your work cut out for you, anyone can build a wood rail fence because the steps are straightforward: you measure and frame out your yard, you put up your posts, and you nail in your rails.

Ben and I had almost the entire back of our property to fence. Initially, we had an electric fence, but after a dog-escape-scare the previous weekend, our big guy Cowboy got out of the yard and went on a walkabout with his two lab buddies; we decided to build a proper fence.

As a two-person team, we started early - 6 am; we wanted to beat the Montana summer heat. The hats I paint are perfect for keeping the sun out of your eyes because, despite what people think, it does get quite hot here in the summer. So if you're taking on this project, start as early as you can with the proper hat to keep you cool!

Measure twice, cut once

First up is prep. There's a saying amongst those who build: measure twice and

cut once. It's essential to measure your yard before buying your posts and rails. How far between each post? How long do the rails need to be? What about overlap when mounted? All things to nail down (pun intended) during your prep.

We bought 17 30-foot long rails because we knew it was 12-feet between each post. Then, we split each rail in half and overlapped them on the posts.

Now the correct post length is crucial, they need to be long enough to space the rails, plus a post should be buried 2-3 feet deep to be secure. Ben and I opted for 6 ft tall posts with a 4-inch diameter, perfect for ensuring a well-built fence.

Then, think about the number of rail rungs. We wanted three so Cowboy couldn't escape underneath, but wood rail fences can have two rungs; our neighbors have two. So if you really want to be done in a day, consider only two as fewer takes less time to build, especially if your goal is just a rustic property boundary.

Finally, wood. Cedar or pine because these are quite strong and will last. A tip is to opt for bark on your rails as we did; bark on is much cheaper and will eventually fall off as the fence naturally weathers. So, in the beginning, save yourself a few bucks and go for the natural look. And it's ok if your rails aren't perfectly straight or the same diameter. Get as close as you can, but a little variation is what will give you that rustic Montana aesthetic.

Digging the holes

Digging is exhausting but still relatively quick, depending on how much help you have. Ben and I took turns as a two-person team because but two feet is a lot deeper than I thought, and the ground was much harder than I realized. Marking our shovel at two feet helped the dig go quickly, but it was still tiring. Keep a lot of water with you for this part; it gets sweaty.

Once all your posts in, finish up around them with a ground tamper, then clean up with a rake. This was fun. I took my aggression out on the ground; it was getting hot! A tamper compacts the dirt around the posts, which is essential because the dirt in the hole is loose. Remember when I said you want your fence to be sturdy? Yep, grab your tamper and get to pounding.

Finally, the rails. We were making good time; it was a little after midday. I held one rail end while Ben knocked in the other. Rung by rung, our fence was taking shape. It was so satisfying to see the end in sight after all that digging!

We topped off our fence with a 12-foot gate aptly named the "Hutchison Western." When installing a fence gate, make sure the post that holds it is filled with concrete. A few bags of quick-creat from our local hardware store did the trick. Concrete will ensure this post is steadfast through the years.

Finishing out the day

With some arguing and a lot of sweating, we made it to the end around 7 pm. The rails were mounted on the inside of the posts, and our electric fence on the inside of that - Cowboy isn't going anywhere now! Fortunately, Montana days are long this time of year, and there was plenty of daylight left. So what did we learn after doing this ourselves? These are the most important things to know about a DIY fence project:

  1. Plan out your materials. Double-check all your measurements and that you have the correct type of wood and nails to ensure a long and sturdy fence life.

  2. Make sure you have the right tools, such as a regular hammer, a mini sledgehammer for when it gets tough, a tamper, a good shovel, tape measure, a chainsaw for cutting the wood, and framing string.

  3. Good humor, strong friends, and of course, a cool hat. This project is literally "the more, the merrier." Don't take yourself too seriously; you'll get hot and sweaty. And if something doesn't look right, remeasure and try again.

If a fence is your next DIY project, make it Montana style and go with a wood rail fence as we did. It turned out better than we anticipated!


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