A fence protects your privacy and it keeps kids and pets safe. A fence is also an exterior design element that's just as important to defining the look of your home as are siding, paint, windows, and landscaping.
Choosing the direction of the fence boards—installing them vertically or horizontally—is a major part of the overall look of a fence. Fences with vertical boards have been installed for years for their adaptability and strength. But fences with horizontal boards have been gaining in popularity for their sleek modern look.
Fence Construction Basics
Fences are composed of either two or three different types of boards, depending on the orientation of the fence boards:
- Fence Post: All fences will have vertical four-by-four posts embedded in concrete in the ground. Horizontal fences' posts are spaced closer than are posts for vertical fences.
- Fence Stringer: Stringers are horizontal boards, usually two-by-fours, that run at the top and the bottom of the fence. Often, there is a third stringer in the middle. Only vertical fences have stringers.
- Fence Board: Fence boards are the long, narrow boards that constitute the face of the fence. Both vertical and horizontal fences have fence boards.
Good to Know
Fence height is controlled by local codes. A common height permitted in many communities is six feet, applicable to both vertical and horizontal fences.
Vertical fences have fence boards that are vertically attached to two or three horizontal stringers. Fence posts are typically eight feet apart. The stringers run between the fence posts: one a few inches from the top, one a few inches from the bottom, and, optionally, one in the middle.
Vertical fences are the most common type of fence. They are sturdy because the fence boards will not sag due to gravity. Vertical fences work well on uneven ground, and even sharp slopes, because the fence boards can be stair-stepped to match the contour of the ground.
The wider, 8-foot fence post span means that fewer posts need to be installed than with horizontal fences. If the ground is level, it is possible to use pre-made fence panels in 8-foot-wide by 6-foot-high sizes.
But for many modern or contemporary homes, the vertical fence aesthetic may not be a good fit. Though fewer fences posts are required, more two-by-fours are required for the stringers. And the stringers—intended for strength—may themselves lose strength as they sag over time.
Another negative is that the most weather-sensitive part of a fence board is not its face or edges but its ends. Vertical fences' board ends face upward, receiving the brunt of the elements.
Easy to build
Good for uneven ground
Wide fence post span
Pre-made fence panels can be used, if desired
Less unique look than horizontal fences
Stringers may eventually sag
Board ends face up
Horizontal fences are composed only of fence posts and horizontally-oriented fence boards. No stringers are used. Posts are usually six feet apart to minimize the possibility of fence boards sagging.
For many houses and neighborhoods, horizontal fences are the de facto look. These fences are considered to be modern, clean, and up-to-date. With no stringers required, less lumber is used. Where vertical fences' weather-sensitive board ends face upward, horizontal fences board ends face to the side. This helps to slow deterioration and cracking.
Horizontal fences tend to be more expensive than vertical fences because they require a higher grade of lumber for the fence boards to reduce the possibility of sagging. Even so, like any horizontally-oriented board, they may sag over time.
While the fence boards can be spaced a tight 1/8-inch apart, it's still a slit that sizeable enough to see through.
One-third more fence posts are required for horizontal than for vertical fences: one every 6 feet. Because horizontal fence boards must maintain level, they are difficult to install on sloped ground.
No need for extra two-by-fours (stringers)
Board ends less exposed
Difficult to follow slopes
Prone to sagging
Narrow post span requires more posts
Horizontal vs. Vertical Fences: Which Is Right For You?
For any fence installation where costs need to be kept under control, a vertical fence is usually the best choice. Less expensive fence board lumber can be used since the strength is gained from the stringers. For any type of sloped ground, vertical fences will follow that contour with a smooth look on both the top and bottom of the fence.
For any installation where a contemporary look is required, a horizontal fence will be your best bet. These fences hit a strong stylistic note that's unmatched by vertical fences.
For small patios, horizontal fences work well because they feel less confining; they have less of the cage-like effect produced by vertical fences.