SPLIT RAIL FENCES, sometimes called pole fences, are durable and versatile. The many styles reflect individual preferences and the intended purpose. An experienced fence builder like Scott Dobson, of Lanark County, Ontario, will tell you the ideal height (three, four or five rails) for horses and cattle. For sheep, the rails and uprights will be closer together and angled to prevent jumping.
Most municipalities have fencing bylaws, so check before beginning your project, especially if the fence is to contain animals. Lumber companies are good sources for materials, although you may need to order specific kinds of rails. Cedar, either Eastern white or Western red, is the preferred material. An excellent practical manual for beginners is Fences, Gates & Bridges, by Algrove Publishing Limited, Classic Reprint Series, circa 1999, 300 illustrations. It's available through Lee Valley.
Depending on the property owner's taste, the bark can be left on the pickets (it will eventually shed) or be removed. Removal costs more, as it is labour intensive.
The following instructions are for a "decorative" heritage split rail fence, widely known as the traditional style. In longtime farming communities, this type of fence is a prominent feature, running along the fields in zigzag or straight patterns. These plans are for a straight fence.
Note from eds - click on any image below to download a PDF of this article laid out exactly as it appeared in print - very handy if you're going to tackle such a project!
Build a four-panel (42-foot) five-rail-high decorative fence
Professional: about three hours. Novice: longer, depending on skills.
Panel: one complete section of fence, approximately 10.5
Pickets: the uprights for the fence.
Lead rail: a straight rail, laid horizontally, the first one
installed, of medium weight and thickness.
Bunker rail: the bottom, anchor rail, laid horizontally, the
heaviest and thickest.
Jigs: 2" x 2" x 4', sharpened at one end.
Cross brace: a rail used to stabilize each set of pickets.
Materials and estimated costs
20 - 12' rails of Eastern white or Western red cedar, round or split: $80 to $125.
25 - 7' pickets, round or split: $50 to $75.
4 lbs. 12-gauge fencing wire: $60 for 50 lbs.
Jigs: scrap lumber
Fencing pliers, small hatchet, axe, chainsaw, safety glasses, protective gloves, workboots.
Step 1: Lay out jigs, rails and pickets in a line according to your plan.
Step 2: Set up two initial sets of jigs, overlapped 16" at the top.
Step 3: Set the lead rail between and on top of the two jigs. Position the thinner end of the rail on the left.
Step 4: Position two 7' pickets against one side of the lead rail in a triangle or A-frame pattern, over the jig. Make the triangle sides equilateral for wind resistance.
Step 5: Wire under the rail and around pickets. Pull, twist, and cut with fencing pliers. Remove jigs.
Step 6: Install the bunker (anchor) rail at the bottom, ensuring it is level. Position the thicker end of the rail on the left. Wire the rail to the picket.
Step 7: Add pickets on the opposite side and wire them to the rail. Wrap wire around all four pickets and tighten. Install the cross brace rail on the bottom and wire to the pickets.
Step 8: Repeat this pattern until all four panels are framed, then go back and fill in with the remaining rails.
Step 9: Overlap and stagger the fill-in rails (thicker on the left, then thicker on the right) for aesthetics. Wire all at the joints. Tap with the blunt end of an axe to tighten.
Step 10: Groom the ends of the rails with a chainsaw to suit your taste.
* When using bark-covered posts, begin by smoothing off protruding branch stubs.
* The jigs are like a temporary sawhorse to hold the first rail until the upright A-frame is secured. They are moved along the fence as you build.
* Tighten wire with 3 to 5 twists: more will cause breakage.
* Handle the wire roll carefully, as it can snap around and hit you in the face. Wear goggles.
* If rails slip together too tightly to thread wire between them, wedge in a hatchet temporarily, or use your foot to hold the gap open.