Wifey’s Guide to Building A Fence

You know that children’s story about giving a mouse a cookie? I recently felt like I was in the grown up version of it, except it had to do with an attempt at pruning an oak tree and ended with an 8ft privacy fence that may or may not fall over in high winds (we shall see). So the story starts like this…..

Once upon a time (a few months ago to be specific), there lived a beautiful, massive oak tree in the backyard. This guy was huge. His drip line covered half of our yard, and since he lived up against the fence line, he also covered half of the neighbors yard. Due to his size and massive appetite (big trees suck up nutrients in the soil), we struggled getting grass to grow. Heck, we struggled getting CLOVER to grow. Basically, half of our yard was dusty and root covered (but shaded!). And no suggestions that I should have mulched under him, because…spiders live in mulch. And I don’t make it a habit to build spider sanctuaries.

This is him playing peek-a-boo behind the old playset. Dirt, sticks, pokey oak tree things that hurt like $@&^ to step on…
So in an attempt to get the yard a little more user-friendly, hubs decided we could “prune up” the tree which would allow more sunlight and therefore more grass. We’d just take the main branches around the base of the limb line. This would also please the neighbors, who’ve hinted before that there would be no love lost if the tree disappeared altogether. Sounded like a plan to me. For those of you that are curious, limbing a tree of this size (where every limb is about the size of a small tree….) is not cheap. We paid close to $500 and that was with them leaving most of the wood (firewood for next year….always trying to save a buck).

The pruning day finally arrived (tree guys are surprisingly busy!) and I anxiously went straight out back after I got off work. Not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got. I was in too much shock to snap a picture, but in a nut shell Oak Man looked naked. And scraggly. And still had a random limb on one side (I asked hubs about said limb who sheepishly told me that he forgot to tell the tree guys it was supposed to be cut).

Anyhoo, Naked Oak Man led to a visit from above-mentioned neighbors who at this point were willing to go halfsies with us to cut it all the way down. So after another $500 each (like I said, NOT cheap), we said goodbye to the tree.

The remains of Naked Oak Man. Sawdust, anyone?
How does any of this relate to the fence? Look at it. LOOK AT THE FENCE. That’s what we were left with when the tree was gone. They had to go through the neighbors yard because the equipment wouldn’t fit through ours, which meant they had to remove a fence panel. This fence was already a wee bit ragged to begin with, but NOW…. ?! On top of that, umm….hellooo neighbors. That tree was doing a lot more than providing shade. It was also acting as a privacy screen for the house that basically sits on top of us. If we’re gonna have to put up a new fence (which was no longer an option), we might as well go up from 6ft to 8ft. Good fences make good neighbors and all, right?

IMG_5086[1]So after a feeble attempt to scoop up the sawdust (which eventually led to paying some peeps to handle it bc we’re cheap but we have our limits), we were ready to start on our new fence.

I’ve broken the fence building process into 4 main, highly inaccurate and unprofessional steps below.

1. Remove Old Fence

Obviously you can’t put up a new fence without first removing the old one. There are many ways to go about this, but my dear, sweet husband allowed me to spend an entire day removing the boards on our side of the shadow-box fence (and hauling them to the road I might add) before letting me know it really wasn’t necessary. However, I WILL say that carrying sections of full fence panel to the road is no easy task so if you don’t have a lot of muscle to help and you’re not pressed for time, prying off the individual boards and carrying as many as you can comfortably handle to your debris pile is more realistic than trying to lug a section of fence panel.

I still have lines on my shoulders and neck from the burn I got that day. #gingerprobs
I chose to use a small bear claw to pry the boards off. You can use a hammer to help wedge it in if you need more leverage. Usually if you’re taking a fence down, it’s pretty old and the nails should give away from the horizontal boards fairly easily.

We had to work in sections because we didn’t want our dog roaming in their yard (if you’ve got a smaller dog, this probably wouldn’t work). I removed the boards from our side but we left the rest of the fence until we were ready to put the new fence up. Basically, once we got to the point where we were ready to throw up the new fence boards, hubs would take a hand saw and cut a section of the old fence small enough for me to handle and slide it through the horizontal boards so I could carry it to our debris pile. IMG_5250[1]

I imagine the whole “remove old fence” process would have been much more involved if we weren’t dealing with a fence that was rotten enough to basically push over when all else failed.

2. Set the Posts

If you’re not having to work around an old fence, this step would be much easier. For us, though, we were dealing with an old fence, a dog that necessitated working in sections, and the remaining roots of a massive tree (which meant that for a huge portion of the fence line, digging was close to impossible).

So, first things first. Locate any potential underground utilities. Even if you’re coming back close to the same fence line, it never hurts to check. Not exactly sure how this works (we’re going to pretend the hubs did this and I’m just unaware) but I’m sure your city has some processes in place.

After you’ve been cleared for digging and pulled any required permits (cough), you’ve got to get some holes for your posts. There are all sorts of legit articles on the internet about these holes. THIS article is not one of those. Go do research. I am NOT a certified fencer (not sure if that’s a word but we’re gonna go with it). From what I looked up, you really need to dig down at least 1/3 to even 1/2 the exposed height of the fence. So for a standard 6ft fence, your posts need to be buried at least 2ft in the ground. For our 8ft castle wall, we needed to go closer to 3ft. (Too bad neither of us decided to look this up until afterwards….). We chose to rent an auger to make these holes due to the roots we knew we’d encounter, but if you’ve got easier soil, you can always use a post-hole digger and get at it. You generally want them no farther apart than 6 – 8ft (again…look these things up for yourself!)

There are lots of opinions on what to do with the holes once you’ve got them. Some suggest using rocks/stones for drainage, some are anti-concrete, etc. As far as I can tell (I wasn’t involved in this particular step; it happened at night by the light of a kid holding a flashlight after a particularly energetic conversation regarding the fence potentially never getting finished), hubs put the posts in, filled the holes with quikrete, and used a leveler to make sure they were straight. Also, before any posts went in, he pulled a string from one end of the fence line to the other so that he could set the posts against the string. This keeps your posts in a straight line (something that becomes very obvious once the boards start going up if they’re not!).

3. How to Handle Elevation Changes and Those Horizontal Boards

Once your posts are set and before you begin putting up the parallel, horizontal 2×4’s, you need to determine how you want your fence to run. Is your yard straight, does it slope down on one side, is it gently rolling the whole way? This matters because you can allow your fence to follow the yard elevation (meaning it more than likely won’t be straight across at the top) or you can do a straight top and adjust the height of the boards by cutting them at the bottom to fit any elevation changes. We did a mix of the two.

Our yard is pretty level on the left side, but then gently slopes down some towards the right. I’d guess it has about a 1.5ft fall from side to side. Not a big deal, but the low side had to tie into an existing 8ft fence that runs the side of the yard. If we wanted to go straight across from there, we’d end up only being about 6.5ft tall on the left side. Does that make sense? We found the high point towards the middle of the fence line and decided we would run a straight 8ft line from the left side to the middle, and then gently slope it down to tie into the existing 8ft fence on the lower elevation side of the yard. This way we’d have the most 8ft coverage as possible.

Again, we busted out the string (who knew kite string could be so handy??) and ran a line from left to middle, measuring about 2ft up from the bottom to get consistent height. IMG_5249[1]Then we were able to easily screw in the 2x4s to the posts, using the string as a guide to ensure straight lines. We repeated this process for the middle and upper 2x4s. You might can rig something up for the bottom ones, but I don’t see any way around this step being a two person process. You’ve basically got to have someone holding the board while the other person screws it in.

Once the three parallel boards were up, we followed the same steps from the middle to the right side (obviously your string segments would be according to where your elevation changed, not necessarily the middle).

4. Use a Board on Each End, Some String, and Fill Her Up

Once all the horizontal 2x4s were up (I’m sure they have a technical name, but I don’t care enough to look it up), you’re ALMOST ready for the fun part. But first, a little extra straight-prep can go a long way to getting a better finished product.

We nailed a board up on the far left and one at the start of the elevation change. Don’t forget to use the leveler on both of these! There’s nothing more frustrating than getting halfway across the fence line before realizing all your boards are tilted. We then used that handy string again and affixed it to the top of both boards (we tapped a nail into the very top and knotted the string on the nail). Make sure it’s pulled tight because this is one of the most important steps in determining how your fence will look.

FYI: Toddler slide plus mama hips don’t work too well.
Once that string is in place, you’re ready to go. Grab a board, line the top up with the string, and pop some nails in her (we used an electric nail gun and did two nails per 2×4). A couple tips: Have your assistant (that would be me in this case) keep a solid supply of boards propped up and within easy reach so you’re not having to constantly step away, bend down, grab a board, etc.IMG_5276[1] You’d be surprised how much faster it’ll go with a few efficiencies like this set up. Also, have the assistant stand back a bit and be your guide for lining the boards up with the string. You’re not gonna be able to see it very well standing directly under it. Plus, it’s fun for the assistant to constantly tell you what to do (up a hair, down a smidge, up the tiniest bit…All.Day.Long). And check it with the leveler a LOT. It’s easier to make tiny adjustments to compensate as you go than to end up with a wonky 1 inch gap at the top later on.

Lastly, no matter how careful you are about nailing them straight, you’re more than likely going to end up with a weird gap when the board gets to the end.IMG_5298[1] Easiest way to handle this? Measure the top, middle, and bottom of the gap, draw a line using those measurements on a fence board, and use a saw to cut along this line. It might take some extra cuts to get it just right, but this worked pretty easily for us.

So that’s it. That’s how we got our fence up after the removal of Naked Oak Tree made it a necessity. Now I guess it’s on to clover removal, site grading, sod/seed, and other landscaping endeavors.



That dang cookie…..

Until next time,






One thought on “Wifey’s Guide to Building A Fence

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