Understanding the Parts of a Wooden Privacy Fence

Even great fences profit from a shrub planting.
David Beaulieu

There are many, many styles for wooden fences, as indicated by the many names used to describe different styles, such as: stockade, picket, lattice, post-and-rail, shadow box, scalloped, classic, and solid board. But despite all these style differences, all fences built for privacy share basic components. Understanding these components will help you build, repair, and maintain your wooden fence.

Basic Components of a Wooden Privacy Fence

Whatever their visual style, wooden "privacy" fences that designed principally to block the view—either to sheild people inside the fence from viewing unpleasant outside views, or to keep your yard private from outside viewers. Traditionally, a wooden privacy fence includes three basic components:

1. Posts: These are vertical components rooted firmly in the earth, often made from 4 x 4 or 6 x 6 lumber. Properly set fence posts will hold all the other components of the fence in place. They are the foundation for your wooden fence, and considerable care needs to go into their selection and installation. In cold climates, for example, posts for fences need to be buried quite deep in order to be immune to the effects of heaving caused by winter freeze/thaw cycles. And because posts are the components in actual contact with the ground, these are the parts most susceptible to rot and decay. For this reason, they are often made from pressure-treated lumber, or a wood species with natural resistance to decay, such as redwood or cedar. As fences age, decay of the posts is quite common, and a common fence repair is replacing one or more posts. Decay of many posts is sometimes the signal that an entire fence needs to be replaced.

Posts sometimes stand only as high as the tops of the in-fill fence panels. In other wooden fence styles, the posts are allowed to extend above the in-fill 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 are the horizontal structural members of the fence running parallel to the ground, which do the spanning work in wooden fences, connecting one post to the next. Top and bottom rails are almost always found in wooden fence styles; many will also have middle rails.

The horizontal rails provide the attachment points for the vertical in-fill panels or boards, and their strength is essential to the overall strength and durability of the entire fence. In some fence styles, there is also a "cap rail" that covers the top of the posts and in-fill panels across the entire length of the wooden fence.

Sturdy attachment to the posts is the key to successful rail installation and a long-lasting fence. Ongoing fence maintenance often involves inspection and repair of these connection points where the rails join the posts.

3. In-fill panels or boards: The vertical panels or boards are the chief screening component in any wooden privacy fence. This in-fill can be built by hand from individual boards attached to the rails, but more often in modern fences, the in-fill consists of prefabricated panels that are purchased intact and attached to a post-and-rail framework already installed. Sometimes the panels integrate their own horizontal rails, in which case the entire panel is simply attached between the posts or to the front face of the posts, simplifying construction. In other construction methods, the panels or individual boards are attached to one side of the horizontal rails already erected between the posts.

The in-fill panels or boards can form a more-or-less solid screen that completely obstructs the view, or they can form a semi-transparent screen such as that offered by traditional picket fences, lattice fence panels, or staggered board fences, such as in shadow-box styles.

Because the in-fill panels or boards are the most visible part of a privacy fence, this is the component that gets most of the maintenance and repair attention. Wooden fences need annual inspection and regular repainting or re-staining in order to maintain their appearance. New styles of vinyl fencing have been introduced largely to eliminate the frequent maintenance required by wooden fences. Many of the same styles found in wooden fences are now achievable with vinyl fencing materials.

Decorative Wooden Fences

Where the in-fill panels or boards are omitted altogether, or where the individual in-fill boards are widely spaced so as to offer no real privacy screen, the fence ceases to be a privacy fence and instead serves a mostly decorative function.

The many different styles of picket fence are among those that serve as a decorative function. In these, the individual vertical boards are spaced quite wide apart. These fences are usually named according to the shape of the individual pickets, such as common picket, gothic picket, and dog-eared picket.

Another style of fence omits the in-fill panels or boards altogether. This type of fence is often known simply as a post-and-rail fence, and it is quite common in purely decorative fences or those used to corral horses or other livestock. Ranch-style rambler homes and farms, for example, often make use of post-and-rail fences.

Matching Fence Design With Home and Landscape

Sometimes, the choice of fence design is driven exclusively by the desired function. At the most basic level, this means deciding if the fence exists primarily to provide security and privacy screening, or if it serves a mostly decorative function. Often, though, there is a marriage between form and function—the particular style of a privacy fence can be chosen based on the aesthetic appeal in the landscape.

Modernistic houses, for example, are complemented nicely by the sleek lines of iron and aluminum fences, while spit-rail and post-and-rail fences go better with ranch-style homes. Wooden picket fences are a natural fit for homes with a cottage-style look.

When choosing a fence, you also need to be sensitive to the impact that a fence can have on plants in a landscape. Almost all fences will have some influence on plants growing in their vicinity. A solid privacy fence will not only provide shelter from the wind, but it also will cast shade that will allow certain shade plants to thrive while making it hard to grow sun lovers. Only "loose and airy" fence designs, such as split-rail or certain post-and-rail fences, will not have some kind of "microclimate" effect in a garden.