Across the Various Wooden Fence Styles, What Are the Basic Components?

Fencing Styles Vary but Share Much in Common

Even great fences profit from a shrub planting.
The builders had no intention of hiding the attractive posts in this fence with panels. On the contrary, they accentuated them by staining them a different color. David Beaulieu

Wooden fence styles vary greatly. They include stockade, picket, lattice, and post and rail. Some are built with privacy in mind, others serve other functions or are designed simply to enhance the aesthetics of a landscape design. Let's find out what elements those built for privacy share in common.

Basic Components of a Wooden Fence Built for Privacy

Despite the variety of wooden fence styles, traditionally there have been three basic components for building privacy fencing (I say "traditionally" because most fencing companies now offer a rail-less design, which is valued by homeowners who seek fencing that looks equally good on both sides). And the first two of these three components form the basis for building just about any fence made of wood:

1. Posts:

  • These are vertical components rooted firmly in the earth. Properly set fence posts will hold all the other components in place. They are the foundation for your wooden fence.
  • Posts sometimes stand only as high as the tops of the fence panels. In other wooden fence styles, the posts are allowed to extend above the panels. In the latter case, adding finials (ornamental caps) is an option to improve appearance, especially for fences performing a decorative, as well as a practical function.

2. Rails:

  • Rails do the spanning work in wooden fences, connecting one post to the next. They are your horizontal elements, running parallel to the ground.
  • Top and bottom rails are almost always found in wooden fence styles; many will also have middle rails.
  • It is the rails to which the panels will be attached, perpendicularly.
  • In addition to a top rail, in some styles there's a "cap rail" that runs along the tops of the posts and the tops of the panels across the whole length of the wooden fence.

3. Panels (boards):

  • The panels are the chief screening component in privacy wooden fences, such as the stockade style. In the latter case, the left edge of one panel touches the right edge of its neighbor, sealing out unwelcome gazes. In other cases, a tongue-in-groove method is used to create a solid wall. By contrast, in open wooden fence styles, such as the post and rail, there are no panels (thus the name, "post and rail": that's all there is), meaning they require much less lumber to build.
  • A compromise between no panels (which equals "no privacy") and panels that tightly abut each other (which equals "total privacy") is to be found in the picket style, where there is spacing between the panels. This style works well, for example, for those who are claustrophobic and are willing to sacrifice some privacy to create an airier atmosphere in the yard.
  • Each of the distinct panel designs is defined by shape, especially at the top. For example, some panels terminate in a point, such as those in the picket style. But the distinctions do not end there. There are actually a number of different picket-fence styles, including the Gothic picket fence.
  • Panel designs can also be classified according to how the tops of the panels line up with each other. As alternatives to level alignments, there are also concave and convex alignments.
  • Panels are sometimes attached so as to obscure the posts on one side or the other. Alternatively, the posts may be allowed to jut out in relief on one or both sides, as in my picture.

How to Match Your Fence Design With Your Home, Landscaping

Sometimes, fence design choice (e.g., split-rail fences) is driven by function. Other times, it is purely a matter of attractive form. And still other times, there is a happy marriage between form and function. Regarding the matter of form, it is natural enough to ask whether the homeowner and passersby alike will find a fence visually appealing. As with any hardscape, visually appealing fence design will consider compatibility with both the style of your home and the style of your landscape.

First some examples of fence designs that match particular home styles. Modernistic houses are complemented nicely by the sleek lines of iron and aluminum fences. By contrast, split-rail fences, for instance, go better with ranch-style houses. Likewise, the wooden picket fence seems a natural fit for cottages.

Wooden picket fences evoke images of English cottage gardens, which leads us into the component of the question that deals with landscaping compatibility. Not only wooden picket fences but also split-rail fences and other fence design comprising just posts and rails are commonly used as backdrops for cottage garden plants. Playing on their Western ties, split-rail fences also match landscapes with a Southwest theme, such as gardens with cacti and succulents.

Incidentally, even wooden picket fences, to say nothing of solid barrier fences, can create "microclimates" in a garden. Only a "loose and airy" fence design such as that of split rail fences fails to create microclimates. For more on this and similar matters, see my piece on fence line landscaping.