How to build an old fashioned picket fence that will last for generations

Picket Fence in a historical landmark home
Picket Fence in a historical landmark home
Our 10 year old picket garden fence.
Our 10 year old picket garden fence.
Note the top board is nailed on top of the stringer, to make a strong back.
Note the top board is nailed on top of the stringer, to make a strong back.

Now you can build a picket fence just like the vintage fences seen in historical landmarks.

Many people marvel at the beautiful antique white picket fences seen in historical landmarks.

Sure they have been kept up over the years and some of the boards have been replaced, but a well built picket fence using today’s treated and poly lumber may just last as long or longer than these old fashion fences.

It’s all about the construction that makes these fences stand up to high winds, animals and people for centuries.

Today picket fences can be purchased already assembled. While they are made of treated or poly lumber, within a couple of years they begin to sag and start bowing out.

The old style fences are as straight as the day they were built. The secret is in the bracing. The pre-assemble fences are sold in 8’ sections stapled on to two cross sections, known as stringers.

Most people drag the pre-assembled fences home install post at every 8’ on center and nail them up and then become frustrated and disappointed that they look terrible or start falling apart in just a few years.

The problem is the two stringers used to staple the pickets to are not even the size of a 2 X 4 plus the grain is running in the same direction with no counterbalance to keep them from bowing up, down and side to side.

Now take a look at some of the historical fences and even a new one that we built around our garden 10 years ago.

They are straight and level. The picket fence that we built around the garden actually uses the pre-assembled pickets, with the thin stringers but with a strong back system used on the old style fences both on the top and bottom stringers.

A strong back is used in house framing. It aligns two boards overlapping with competing wood grains. The typical top stringer where the pickets are nailed to has another board nailed on top horizontally.

A strong back is also like an angle or channel iron piece of steel. If you have just on flat piece of steel it will bend and bow over a distance. With another piece of steel on the side or on both sides the steel can span distances without bowing.

Without the top board nailed on top of the stringer it is free to warp up and down or in and out. The top board forms a strong back that supports the two boards like the angle or channel iron.

Also notice the line post used in the fence pictures. They are either cut off level to allow the top board to run continuously along the top of the line post or the boards are sandwiched into the sides of the post.

This allows far superior nailing surface over just one stringer butted up and nailed on the outside of the post. Always use galvanized nails or deck screws to prevent rust through.

Some of the old style fences also have the boards mortised into the post to provide even more contact surface.

While some of the old fences have the top board only with no stringer, they were made of thicker wood. They did utilize the strong back system by having the top board horizontal and the bottom board vertical. We have found that having a top stringer with a top board nailed to the top it to make the strong back makes a stronger fence overall and supports the lumber from twisting and turning when using treated lumber.

It is important to also consider the grain and the growth rings in the wood used for the top strong back support. Look at the ends of the boards and you will see the gain stacked in semi circles.

Always place the arch part of the circle up so as the board ages the board will arch in the center with the growth rings to shed water instead of cupping up to hold water if the growth ring is turned upside down.

Rain and water from sprinklers allowed to pool in cup of the top boards will likely cause dry rot or undermine the paint.

The ready made pickets are also thinner than a 3/4” board but are not as critical as the stringers. The biggest problem you will likely face with the assembled fences are the staples used to nail them on the stringers. Over time a few will begin to fail and some of the pickets will need to be nailed back on.

The best option if affordable is to use ¾” or find salvaged ¾” or 1” boards to make the pickets out of and then nail individually to the stringers and top board.

If you need to cut the picket tops, it is best to make a template cut from 1/4" Masonite of the type of decorative top you want to use on the pickets and stick with the same template to mark each one.

The simpler the design without sharp turns will allow you to stack several together and cut on a band saw or clamp the pickets down to a bench and cut with a portable jig saw.

Corner post and gate post can be as simple as a line post to the classic massive corner post used on the old fences. You can simulate this look by using 6 X 6 or 8 x 8 treated post topped with a layered stair step of 1-1/2” squares.

Painting is also an important factor in keeping a picket fence looking new for years. Treated lumber will have high moisture content and will need to dry out in for several weeks before painting.

You can also subscribe to the many debates on water based verses oil based primers and top coats. We spared no expense and went with Bear water base primer and sealer and then two coats of Bear exterior latex house paint.

We live in the hot humid Texas Gulf Coast and have had no problems with paint failure. The fence has not been touched since we installed and painted it 10 years ago.

Pictures and information courtesy of Cottage Craft Works .com old style back to basic products and information.

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Comments 2 comments

PH 2 years ago

Would a 2x2 work for the upper stringer? We are running 16' 2x4s for the top board across the top of the posts. Posts spaced at 8'.


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lizstevens 2 years ago from Houston Texas Author

Your going to want to use a full 2 x 4, 2x2 is just not going to give you the backing at 8'

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