Fence Tips from a Pro
By Mark Clement
I love Fences-good ones, anyway.
Shooting my eye down 100 feet of pitch-perfect, parallel fence posts rising true and straight from the earth speaks to my inner carpenter. And, once connected by rails and slats, I love to see how this simple amalgam of boards ignites featureless landscapes and bolsters boring borders. I also enjoy that the mere presence of a fence is pivotal, because fences impact the homeowner and the homeowner’s neighbor. I really think it’s important that considerate attention be paid to designing and building a structure I’m proud to put my name on.
Detailed here is a privacy screen designed to beautify a back yard and erase a poorly maintained rental on the adjoining property. The screen delivers succulent lines for the interior and a crisp, but solid, wall from the outside.
Fence Layout Techniques
While every site slings unique challenges, I approach each fence basically the same: I find the property line and immediately set what I call a “control-post”—usually in a corner—and then pull as much layout as possible from there.
Property Line & Control Post. After determining the true property line via the home’s plat plan (usually available via the building department or courthouse records) and/or property stakes, I mark the center of the control-post hole. I lay it out such that wherever the post is set, the exterior face of my fence is 1 inch inside the property line—just in case. Once I know the first post’s location I excavate and set the post using quick-setting concrete.
Corner or End Posts. The next post I lay out and set is an end-post that is in-line with my control post. This post can end up being a corner post. Clement Carpentry Trick: If this is a contracting job I set a control post the evening before the job starts in earnest, or do it while someone else unloads the truck or breaks down the lumber package—nobody’s idle while the concrete dries.
Layout Stakes. Alternatively, I sometimes mark the site using stakes and string. This works great on long, straight fences where I can overshoot the fence’s actual location with my layout string. The best stake I’ve used is threaded 2-foot by 1-inch gas pipe.
I use a knot called a Trucker’s Hitch (that delivers a 3-to-1 mechanical advantage) to suck all the sag out of the string. I also use trucker’s hitches as come-alongs.
Jig It. For fences where panels are fastened between posts, I sometimes use my site-fabbed U-Jig—basically an 8 foot 2-by-4 with 2-by-4 blocks screwed on each end. I butt or screw it to the control post then, once fixed, it marks the next hole location—no measuring required. To dig, I remove it and set the post. Sometimes it makes sense to screw several U-Jigs between posts as I go. This helps keep everything running straight and minimizes mistakes before pouring concrete.
Posts and Slats Wild. I almost always install posts and slats wild, or too tall, and then trim them all at the end of the installation to final size.