Picking a Picket Fence Design
By Larry Walton
Careful planning pays off in a fence that looks good for years to come.
There’s more to planning a picket fence than just cracking open a beer and digging post holes, which occasionally looks to be the preferred method in my neighborhood.
Living in a historic landmark, as our little town is designated, gives me plenty of opportunity to observe how to and how not to build a picket fence. In their great wisdom and “historicalness,” the powers that be in our diminutive burg canonized picket fences as one of the two acceptable fence types within the bounds of their pre-modern jurisdiction. How to build the picket fences, however, was left to the homeowners with mixed results.
You might be surprised at the number of ways a collection of neighbors can make fences. Some designs have obvious issues such as pickets that are too wide or too narrow and spaces that are too spacey or overly tight. Other problems are less obvious and it takes some study to determine what about the fence is not quite right. Examining the relative merits of a neighbor’s fence design has its dangers, which is why I’ve done the work—so you can rank your neighborhood fences while designing a better alternative.
Perhaps the best thing I’ve learned from my neighbors is to plan your fence so either the posts are camouflaged or accentuated by making them a part of the picket pattern. All too often, picket fence builders seem to ignore the fact that the posts affect the look of the fence. Unlike a more solid treatment of fence boards, picket fence posts are visible. You must either incorporate the posts into the look of the design or hide them by keeping them short and setting them back from the rail face.
Post Your Plan
If you choose to make your posts part of the look of your fence, you need to give attention to spacing the posts evenly on any given run of your layout. For example, if you choose a post spacing of eight feet and the last section ends up being six feet in length, adjust the spacing of all of the posts to fit the pattern equally.
Divide the total run by the desired post spacing to get the number of fence sections in the run. Next, divide the total run by the number of fence sections to get the spacing. You may need to adjust the number of fence sections to get closer to your desired spacing. Here’s an example:
Total run: 85 feet
Desired section length: 8 feet
85/11=7.73 or 7’8-3/4”
Treat each fence section on each side of a gate opening as a separate section of fence with an evenly spaced fence layout. Place a stake on the ground at each post location to test your spacing and make any adjustments as needed before digging your post holes.
The best picket fence designs that incorporate posts as part of the look set the rails so the outside face of the pickets are flush with or set back slightly from the outside of the fence posts. Setting the rails too far forward creates a problem in the look of the fence. Some fence builders compound this problem by trying to align a picket in front of each post. The better solution is to allow the post to stand boldly at the front of the design with the picket layout going on between the posts.