Build a fence | Setting fence posts plumb and perfect |Tools and tips

Among the many reasons I like to build a fence with wood is that I can count on posts staying straight and standing solid in the ground.

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For me, building a fence starts with getting posts plumb and in a laser-straight line. I like to use fast-setting concrete for these posts.

Pulling a string (it’s really called ‘mason’s line’) tight between two points is the best way to build a fence straight and true. The longer the run, the tighter the string needs to be to stay straight. I use a knot called a trucker’s hitch to get it tight and keep it taught (VIDEO: How to tie a trucker’s hitch).

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My favorite way to anchor a string is with some 1-inch gas-pipe driven into the ground on an angle. Staying 2-inches inside the property line is a nice insurance policy.

The downside to a string is that its 100% in the way about 100% of the time. It’s what strings do. It’s not their fault. To hold it out of the way to dig a hole for example, I pull it to the side, sink my scratch awl into the ground and then hook the string on it.

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When you build a fence strings are awesome, but also rarely NOT in the way!

I start every fence I build by determining the locations of the first and last posts in each run. On a square or rectangular yard, for example, this is usually the corners of the property. I set those posts first.

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Anatomy of a perfectly placed post: ‘Stretchers’ secure the post in place right next to the string line before concrete is poured.

Where I live posts should be no less than 36-inches deep. This is for everything from frost to bearing-up in bad weather like snow storms and high winds. I pour a few inches of pea gravel at the base of the hole to give ground water a place to move, then pour a concrete footing around the base of the post. I usually use a fast-setting mix for end posts.

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Where I build we set fence posts 36-inches into the ground to get below our frost line—and for stability.

Before digging for the rest of the posts, I map out their locations. Store-bought fence panels are typically 8-feet long. However, the yard may not be equally divisible by 8.

When you build a fence—in my view, anyway—you want to avoid a stubby little fence sections near a corner or gate. One trick is to start laying out the post locations in the center of the run. That way the end panels on each side of the yard should be suitably large to look good and be the same size as each other. Another trick is to adjust the position of, or widen a gate so your end panels end up even. A third approach is to get artistic. If posts stack close to each other, add a ‘decorative’ post to transition around the corner (set it like a regular post). It’s a design trick I use when reality starts to trump intention. The hack (and all good carpenters do this) is to creatively make the mistake look like it’s meant to be there.

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Mistake? Or missed opportunity? Both, really. Adding a third post on the right would have made this missed layout a masterpiece.

Alternatively, you may want to center an entire panel in the middle of the run. There are lots of approaches, the main idea is that you want the end panels to be approximately the same size as each other.

To keep posts straight in line with each while the concrete cures in the bottom of the hole I brace the bottoms of the posts and run a temporary 2×4 rail (I call it a ‘stretcher’) across the top. Once the concrete is cured, I remove the stretchers, fill the hole and start installing the fence boards. Screws work better than nails for stretchers.

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I use ‘stretchers’ to hold a post in place while concrete cures.

Before fastening stretchers, I give them some solid slams into soft ground to help them stay still.

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Pounding stretchers into the ground helps them hold the post still.

Fence companies are notorious for pouring dry concrete in the hole then assuming ground water will eventually soak it and cause it to cure. While this may be true, it still takes a long time. And in the meantime, wind storms, super cells, even large dogs…whatever…can wreak havoc on under-supported posts. I always mix and pour concrete then let it cure overnight before back-filling the hole.

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I like to pour concrete—mixed, not dry—in the hole and let it cure overnight.

The result is a rokcin’ set of super-straight and awesomely plumb fence posts that stand tall and please the eye for years to come.

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One Comment

  1. Building a good fence has a lot more to it than I originally thought. I would have a hard time getting the holes all the same depth. It does seem like it would be smart to have a professional do this for you.

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