Good preparation is the secret of putting up a panel fence successfully. This is a quite strenuous job and you'll find it a lot easier if you have at least one helper. It's also a wise move to clear away any vegetation and pot any shrubs or plants you'll want to replant after your fence is up. To give your plants enough time to recover, the best times to install a fence is early spring and late autumn.
Prefabricated fence panels come in a standard 1.83m width, and usually in four heights (900mm, 1.2m, 1.52m and 1.83m).
Tools & materials required
- Ensure that you check for service cables before metal post supports are used, or digging holes.
- Wear protective goggles and a mask when spraying wood preservative.
- Get a helper to assist you, especially for lifting large panels.
- Wear strong gloves to protect your hands from splinters.
How to mark out and dig post holes for a panel fence
Preparation First, you'll need to decide if you want to set your posts in concrete or post supports. Setting them in concrete will make your fence sturdier, but it's harder work - and your posts will need to be at least 600mm taller than the fence panels. Using metal post supports is a quicker and easier alternative, although your fence won't be as solid.
Fencing timbers come ready-treated, but it's still a good idea to soak the feet of your posts overnight in a bucket of wood preservative.
Top tip - Using post supports
Metal post spikes are a good alternative to setting fence posts in concrete, as long as the ground's firm. You'll need to buy supports that match the size of your fence posts. Fit the driving tool (or 'dolly') into the cup of the spike, and hammer it into the earth with slow, firm strokes.
If you hit a rock, just dig it out and start again or your finished post won't be true. Keep checking the spike is vertical with a spirit level, and continue driving it into the earth until the top of the cup is level with the ground. Use a sledge-hammer to hammer the fence post into the cup.
Before you dig your post holes, check there are no service cables running under the ground.
Also, make sure you wear strong gloves to protect your hands from splinters. Take particular care when applying wood preservative and put on some safety goggles if this is recommended by the manufacturer.
Start by stretching a long tape measure taut from end to end along the line of your fence. Measure out the position for each post and mark these by pushing a cane into what will be the centre of each post hole. If you're using 1.83m wide panels and your posts are 100mm wide, the centres of the posts will be 1.93m apart.
Dig all your post holes. If you've got a lot to dig it's worth hiring a posthole borer. A standard depth of 450mm is usually enough, though in soft ground you'll need to dig deeper holes and use longer posts to compensate.
With a club hammer, drive in temporary wooden props to hold the first post in place. Use a spirit level to make sure it's vertical.
Put up the last post in the same way - you'll need to check that it's vertical and support it with props. Run two builder's lines between the top and bottom of these posts along the line of the fence and rest the other posts loosely in their holes.
How to cut fence panels
Your fence probably won't divide into an exact number of panels, so you'll need to know how to cut one down to fit.
Carefully remove the framing battens from one end of a panel and move them into the width you need. Sandwich them either side of the panel and nail them into place.
Saw the panel in line with the outer edge of the repositioned framing battens.
How to build a panel fence
You need to put up posts and panels alternately as you work down the line of your fence. Remember to keep checking the panels are level and straight by using a spirit level.
Top tip - Fence clips
As an alternative to nailing panels directly to the fence posts, you can use fence clips. First attach them to the post, then slide the panel between their jaws and nail or screw it to the clips. If you want to remove a panel later, fence clips will make this a bit easier, although they're visible on a finished fence.
Drill six evenly-spaced pilot holes into the batten framing of the panel on both sides and at each end. Raise the panel 50mm - 75mm above the ground by temporarily supporting it on bricks. This gap will help stop it rotting from the bottom up.
Lay a spirit level on the panel to check it's level, then nail it to the post with galvanised nails. The top of the panel should be a consistent distance (at least 25mm) below the top of the post.
Fix the second panel to the post, using temporary props to keep the fence vertical. Carry on working in this way until all the panels are in place.
Make sure each post is touching both builder's lines, and check it's vertical using a spirit level. Mix the concrete and fill the post holes to just above ground level. Then smooth the surface downwards so rainwater will drain away from the wood.
Soak the post caps in a bucket of water - this'll help prevent any splitting as you nail them on. Put a silicone-based sealant on the underside to reduce the chance of water seeping beneath and rotting the top of the post.
Finish the job off by nailing a post cap to the top of each post.
How to build a fence on a slope
If you're putting up a panel fence on a slope, you'll still need to fix the posts vertically and the panels horizontally as you would on flat ground - but you should also step the fence panels to match the gradient. Remember when you order your materials that you'll need longer posts to compensate for the stepped panels.
Try and keep your steps even if possible. This might mean you have to dig out or build up the ground beneath to ensure the triangular gap below each section is roughly equal. Fill this gap with a length of gravel board, which you can easily cut to fit.
Preventing rot with gravel boards
Gravel boards are specially treated timbers that you fit horizontally at the base of a fence. They'll protect your fence panels from rot by raising them off the ground - and a rotten gravel board is much easier to replace than an entire fence panel.
To fit gravel boards as you build your panel fence, leave a 150mm gap below the panels. Measure and cut 25mm-thick boards to fit between the posts, and fix them with galvanised screws or nails inserted at an angle into the posts. You should countersink your screws or drill pilot holes if you're using nails.
How to put up posts and arris rails for a closeboard fence
Some fence posts come with ready-made slots (or 'housings') for the triangular arris rails. Others need to be notched before you can install them. You'll need to use three arris rails for a fence over 1.2m high, and two for anything lower. Make sure you've got each post the right way round - the back of the fence is the side where the arris rail is visible.
Top tip - Post cement
Instead of aggregate and cement, why not try using special rapid-setting post cement to make your posts secure? It only takes 5-10 minutes to set.
Put the first three posts in their holes and prop each one up with temporary supports. Then place one end of the upper arris rail into the notch of the first post, and the other end into the third post. After checking the arris rail is level, mark and saw off any excess - the end of your rail should reach exactly half-way across the third post. Then fix it in place using 75mm galvanised nails, and fit the lower arris rail in the same way. Make sure you keep checking that both are level.
You'll need to stagger the joins in the arris rail sections to give them more strength. Measure and cut the central arris rail to the distance from the outer edge of the first post to the mid-point of the second.
Nail the central arris rail into position, using galvanised nails. The next section of the central arris rail should be a standard two-post width.
As well as making sure that each post touches your builder's lines, keep using a spirit level to check the fence is vertical and level.
Carry on fitting posts and rails to create your skeleton fence, supporting it with timber props as you go. Mix up your concrete, then check again that each post is vertical before you concrete them into the ground. After that, leave them to set for 48 hours. Slope the concrete away from the post so that any rainwater can drain off.
Fit gravel boards horizontally to the front of the posts across the base of the fence. And finally, drill pilot holes for the nails before you attach the board to stop the wood from splitting.
Top tip - Galvanised brackets
Another way of building a closeboard fence is to fix the arris rails in place using specially-made galvanised brackets. These allow you to use standard fence posts without needing to cut mortises to hold the arris rails. The brackets come ready-drilled with holes for nailing them in place, while the end brackets have additional flanges through which they can be nailed to posts. These brackets are also ideal for reinforcing a broken arris rail.
How to attach the boards for a closeboard fence
You should fit the first featheredge board with the thicker edge lined up with the outer edge of the first post, and the bottom standing on the gravel board. Try to cut all your boards to the right length before you start, and treat the end grains with wood preservative. Your boards should stand 25mm taller than the fence posts.
Use 50mm galvanised nails to nail the centre of the first board to the upper arris rail. Check the board is vertical before you nail it to the bottom and central rails. Then make a spacer by cutting an off-cut of timber to 20mm less than the width of a featheredge board. Line this up with the thicker edge of the first board, fit the second board up against it and fix it in the same way.
Carry on fitting the boards. Use the spacer to maintain an identical overlap between them, and check that each is vertical with a spirit level. When you're six boards from the last post, measure how much space you've got left. Increase or decrease the overlap of the last few boards so you meet the outer edge of the post neatly.
Run the capping strip across the top of the featheredge boards. Then nail it into place using galvanised nails. If you find the wood is splitting, drill pilot holes beforehand.
If you need to put up your closeboard fence on a slope, keep the posts and featheredge boards vertical but slope the arris rails evenly, parallel to the ground. When all the boards are in place, saw them across the top and bottom in a line parallel to the arris rails. Then finish the top of your fence with capping.