How to Install a Picket Fence
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How to Install a Picket Fence

A guide to installing a picket fence using prefabricated fence panels.

Few things add more charm to a home than a picket fence. While building a wood picket fence from scratch can be a time consuming and expensive undertaking, you can purpose prefabricated sections of fence that can be easily installed onto fence posts. The fencing panels come in a wide variety of sizes and styles, including picket, stockade, and square spindle.

The most labor intensive part of any fence installation is digging the postholes. The amount of time it takes depends on the soil conditions. If you are installing a short fence you can use a manual posthole digger, but if you have more than 10 or 15 posts holes to dig you are better off renting a gas-powered auger.


• 4-foot Level

• Posthole digger, for digging 10-inch-wide holes 32 inches deep

• Mason's line

• 7-foot tamping bar (or a 6-foot 2x4

• Shovel

• 7-foot digging bar, use flat end to cut roots; pointed end to pry out rocks

• Drill/driver, for screwing through posts into rails

• Circular saw, for trimming posts and panels, if necessary

• Tarp, to hold soil dug from postholes

• Tape measure



Fence Posts

2 1/2-Inch Galvanized Screws

Wood Wedges For Propping Panels In A Level Position


 Always consult your zoning requirements in your town to determine what is needed to install a fence. Often a permit is required along with a plot plan that has been sealed by a professional land surveyor or engineer. Most towns require that the fence be setback from the property line so keep this in mind before buying the material. You should also consult with your neighbors to determine if they have any issues regarding the fence.

WARNING: About a week before you start digging, make sure to notify your local Call Before You Dig center which can be reached by dialing 8-1-1 from anywhere in the United States. The service is free and a contractor will come out to your property and mark all buried utility lines in the area you are working in. You must call the One Call Center to schedule the service but you can read about the service  . Each state has a local phone number that can be called directly which can be found here:

Utility Markings

Each color indicates what is buried below ground.

• Red – Electric

• Orange – Communications, Telephone/CATV

• Blue – Potable Water

• Green – Sewer/Drainage

• Yellow – Gas/Petroleum Pipe Line

• Purple – Reclaimed Water

• White – Premark site of intended excavation

Digging post holes with a gas-powered two-man auger


1. Digging the first posthole

At the first post location, dig a straight-sided 10-inch-diameter hole as deep as possible with a shovel. Watch out for wires, pipes drains, and sprinkler lines.

Finish excavating to 32 inches deep with a posthole digger, which can maintain a 10-inch hole diameter all the way down.

Use a digging bar to loosen small rocks or break larger ones and it will also cut tree and shrub roots. Any rocks larger than a tennis ball should not be placed back into the hole after the post is set.

2. Setting the first post

Set a post in the hole. Some preassembled fences have mortises on the sides to allow fence sections to be slide into place. If you have this type of fencing you will need to adjust the post height so the bottom of the pickets remain 2 to 4 inches above grade.

Add about 8 to 10 inches of soil into the hole. Check to make sure that the post is vertical by holding a level against two adjacent sides.

When the post is plumb, compact soil tightly around it with a tamping bar.

Continue adding 8 inches of soil to the hole, checking for plumb, and tamping until the hole is completely filled. You will probably have soil left over so have a wheelbarrow handy to place the extra dirt into.

3. The Second posthole

Tack a mason's line to the post's outside face to where the bottom of the pickets will be; 2 to 4 inches above the ground.

Measure from the post to where the fence's first corner will be. Drive a stake into the ground there. Wrap the line around it 5 inches above the ground; pull tight.

Measure out from the post the length of the first panel and mark the spot with a screw.

At the mark, dig another 10-inch-diameter posthole. When the hole is finished the front face of the post will touch the line when placed in the hole and it is plumb.

4. Installing the Fence Panel

Slide the fence panel's rails into the mortises on the side of the post.

Use wood blocking or wedges to hold the opposite end of the fence panel level.

If you are using posts without mortises, prop the panel so the top rail is level and the picket bottoms nearest the post are 2 to 4 inches off the ground. Screw rails to post.

If the picket bottoms at the far end are between 2 and 4 inches above grade, go to Step 6. If not go to Step 5.

5. Rack the panel to maintain a slope

If your ground slopes slightly along the length of the fence you will need to rack the fence panel slightly. This will allow the pickets to remain vertical while the horizontal rails are angled to match the slope of the ground.

Lift the panel vertically and lightly drop the end of the bottom rail on the ground or a wood block.

Turn the panel end-for-end an drop the end of the top rail in the same spot.

Repeat on both ends until the panel pickets and rails begin to loosen slightly.

Set the rails into the previous post and then rack the panel so the pickets are vertical and their bottoms are 2 to 4 inches off the ground. Prop up free end with a wood wedge.

6. Attaching the panels

With the panel in place, put the next post into its hole so its front face touches the mason's line. For mortised post, adjust its height and slide rails into mortises.

Adjust post side to side so that the gap between the fence panel (picket) is even along the height of the panel.

Fill the hole as before in Step 2.

Secure each rail with 2 1/2 inch stainless steel or galvanized screws.

Continue in this manner until the fence sections are completed and then follow the instructions for the gate below.

7. Installing the gate posts

Install first gate post at end of panel which is the same as in Steps 1 and 2.

Measure the width of the gate and add 1 1/2 inches. Dig the hole for the second gate post at this mark.

Install the second gate post and fill the hole, tamp, and check for plumb until the hole is completely filled.

Confirm that you have the correct distance between posts and make sure the post tops are level with each other.

Install next fence panel to stabilize second gate post.

8. Hanging the gate

Use wedges to prop up and level the gate between the posts. Line up its pickets with those on adjacent fence panels.

Leave 3/4-inch gap between gate and post on each end. (This is why 1 ½ inches was added between the gate posts.)

Screw hinges to post and gate. Hinges are sold where you purchase the fencing and they can recommend the best style for the material you are working with. The two most popular types are J-bolts and strap hinges. J-bolts are popular because the gate can be lifted off the studs of the bolt and removed for easier access to the yard. Strap hinges are more decorative, but are also very strong.


Strap Hinges

Remove wedges and check the gate swing. Attach the gate latch.

9. Trimming the posts

If you are not using prefabricated posts, you may need to trim off the tops of each post so that they are the same height. You may want to do this before the panels are installed if you want the posts to be below the height of the pickets, or you can leave them higher and finish them with a straight cut of a cap.


If you’d like you can add decorative finials or caps to the fence posts to complete the fence. They may be constructed out of steel, copper, wood, PVC, or resin. You can also make your own with various moldings. Use only exterior grade wood such as pressure treated, cedar, or redwood or PVC moldings if your fence is white or painted.


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Comments (6)

Hey, i am proud of you, done many of these and your step by step guide is perfect...thanks

Excellent guide, thanks for the info regarding how to build a picket fence. : )

Amazing article, guide and teaching tool. There is nothing like the look of a white picket fence. Thanks, maybe one day my husband will put one together with your step by step instructions. Out of votes...tweeted and liked on FB!

This is a very detailed step-by-step procedure. Like this!

Very useful guide. Picket fences are one of those iconic images of American home and family life.

Your wonderful instructions make me want a picket fence. voted up