Natural wood has long been the favored material for residential landscape fencing. Its natural appeal has made wood the first choice for most homeowners for many years. Easy to cut and assemble, widely available, and relatively affordable, wood fencing can be adapted to just about any landscape style and is a relatively easy material for DIYers to work with.
For over 40 years, PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic has become more prevalent in landscaping. Vinyl is a petroleum-based product with various uses in the building trades, and one of its recent adaptations is for landscape-fencing materials.
Unlike wood fencing, vinyl fencing doesn't rot, doesn't warp, and never needs painting. But it has a few downsides: it's difficult to repair, prominently shows dirt and grime, and has limited design choices.
Painted look only
Low upkeep costs
Cannot be refinished
Difficult to repair
Boards do not warp
Easy to clean
Wood or painted look
Some costs for upkeep
Can be refinished
Easy to repair
Boards will warp
More difficult to clean
A point-by-point comparison between vinyl and traditional wood will help you decide if vinyl is the right option for your fence.
Made from the same plastic used in white plastic plumbing pipes, vinyl is widely used in fencing materials. Some home centers now stock vinyl fencing components and preassembled panels in a limited range of colors.
The first vinyl fences were simple white plastic panels with shiny surfaces—not very natural looking—but now additional colors, including brown wood tones, are available. Some vinyl fencing is now even textured to resemble wood. These days, nearly any fencing style can be constructed in vinyl. The material ranges from ranch-style rails to New England pickets or tall solid-panel privacy fences.
With wood fences, the materials are simple and easy to define: wood. Different types of woods are used, often cedar, soft pine, redwood, and cypress.
Most wood used for fences can be left unstained and untreated. Western red cedar, for example, starts red but quickly weathers to an attractive silver-gray.
Wood can be painted, but it's usually best to coat it with a fence preservative. Ranging from solid color to semi-transparent to transparent, fence coatings let the beauty of the natural wood show through.
Do-it-yourself vinyl fence panels were considerably more costly than wood panels when they became popular in the 1980s; this price difference has narrowed significantly. Preassembled fencing panels at major big-box home improvement centers are moderately priced compared to wood.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and nowhere is this more accurate than with landscape fences. Many people will find real wood's warm colors more attractive than vinyl plastic fencing.
Wood is a versatile material that can be left to weather naturally or stained or painted however you want. A wood fence can be custom-built to make it unique to your landscape and readily adapted to uneven building sites.
Comparatively, vinyl tends to look best when it tries to mimic the look of a traditional white-painted fence, but even in that case, it still looks artificial. Older vinyl fences and less expensive new products have a shiny, somewhat artificial surface.
As vinyl fences weather, the shininess may give way to a chalky coating that dulls the look of the fence. Vinyl fence panels stocked in bulk come in limited options, so you may be disappointed that your fence looks precisely like dozens of others in your community. When building with mass-produced vinyl panels, it is hard to get a designer look.
Pros and Cons of Vinyl
Doesn't need painting
Will not rot or warp
Uses post-consumer recycled plastics
Few design options
Dirt and grime easily show
Repairs not simple
Vinyl will not require repainting, as does wood. Except for dirt and moss, white vinyl fencing will stay white year after year. Of course, this can also be a drawback—once you've installed your vinyl fence, you are stuck with its appearance and color for its lifetime. Unlike wood, vinyl cannot be easily painted a different color if you want to change its appearance.
Much like synthetic decking material gradually became more of a premium option, likely, vinyl fencing will also see improvements in appearance. Some of vinyl's liabilities are gradually removed as manufacturers offer additional colors and have now introduced textures. And add-on features such as lattice panels and shaped post caps make vinyl fences less utilitarian than they once were.
Ease of Installation
Both wood and vinyl fences typically come out better when installed by a professional fence company. For any fence, digging post holes and setting posts is challenging. Typically, fence posts should be buried to at least one-third of their length (and deeper in some cold-weather climates). After that, the posts must be set in concrete. Multiply this task by 20 fence posts, and you can see why many homeowners hand this job off to a fencing contractor.
But if you are a dedicated DIYer, vinyl fencing is a bit easier to work with than wood because the posts and panels are considerably lighter than wood posts and panels. Many vinyl fence products are designed for easy assembly, with posts that are notched to accept rails and matching panel brackets available.
Remember that wood and vinyl fencing installations usually require municipal building permits. Most communities' fence laws treat vinyl and wood equally regarding installation requirements. But if you live in a housing development controlled by an HOA, you may not be able to install a vinyl fence.
Maintenance of Vinyl vs. Wood Fencing
Vinyl doesn't decay, and it doesn't need to be sealed, stained, or painted. Vinyl fencing is largely maintenance-free, which is why so many ranches, farms, and commercial operations opt for vinyl fencing for large installations. Easy maintenance greatly outweighs appearance and other considerations when you have a lot of fencing to maintain.
Properly sealed wood will resist rotting for a few seasons but must always be re-sealed. Some fence woods, such as cedar, are naturally oily and better at fighting decay than others. Still, all woods benefit from some surface treatment, whether you are sealing or painting. If your only priority is eliminating fence rot, vinyl fences are the way to go.
Be aware that vinyl fences get dirty—very dirty. Many owners regard this as the worst thing about a vinyl fence. Most vinyl fence owners say that owning a pressure washer is essential if you have a vinyl fence.
Vinyl fences are also more difficult to fix when problems arise. Repair is usually a matter of replacing entire panels and not fixing individual elements. If there are cracks in your fence, they'll be easier to repair if it's made of wood. You can use wood filler to fix your wood fence and likely make it a DIY project.
Our Choice: Vinyl Fencing
Vinyl plastic fencing has made strides in the last few years, with additional colors and textured surfaces now available. And the price gap between vinyl and natural wood has now been reduced, with costs fairly comparable. However, the best vinyl fencing products are not as elegant as natural wood or wood-composite fencing.
Vinyl is durable and immune to rot, but it needs regular cleaning. Vinyl is a great choice when your main goal is a long-lasting fence that won't rot or need painting or staining.