How to Install a Split Rail Fence

wooden split rail fence in a house

Split rail fences are among the most attractive fences you can have. They are rustic and charming and work well with almost any home style. And, believe it or not, they’re pretty easy to build. Adding one to your yard can make for a fun DIY fence project, so read on to learn how to install a split rail fence from start to finish.

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The Planning Stage

Before you start building your fence, complete the following steps:

  1. Determine your exact property line. Search your county or city records online, visit your local land assessor, or hire a professional land surveyor.
  2. Be a good neighbor. Talk to your neighbors about your plans. Let them know if their property lies on your proposed fence line to avoid future disputes. They might even split the cost of fence installation with you.
  3. Check for easements. An easement is a grant that gives a property owner or utility company the right to use another person’s land. It can limit the design and location of your fence.
  4. Check zoning laws. Like easements, your town’s zoning laws will tell you its local restrictions and ordinances, letting you know where you can build your fence and how high it can be.
  5. Apply for a building or fence permit. You can often fill them out online for a small fee (usually between $20 and $60).
  6. Check what’s below. Call your local utility company (811) to send someone who will mark the locations of underground water, gas, and power (utility) lines. If you don’t, you risk digging into them while building your fence, which could result in injuries or electrocution.

What You’ll Need

post hole auger in a lawn
Photo Credit: SimpleCreativePhotography / Canva Pro / License

Once you finish planning, make sure you have the following tools:

  • Post hole digger or power auger
  • Shovel
  • Post level
  • Tape measure
  • End, line, and corner posts
  • Fence rails
  • Gravel
  • Stakes
  • String (e.g., Mason’s line)
  • Tamper

Pro Tip: Fence rails come in wood or vinyl. Wood fence rails are 11 feet long. Vinyl fence rails are generally 5 feet long.

Posts and Rail Fence Materials

The difference between end posts, line posts, and corner posts is:

  • End posts are placed at the start and end of the fence.
  • Corner posts are placed between two sides so they form a right angle.
  • Line posts are placed in a straight line.

Posts can accept two or three rails: two-rail posts are six feet long, and three-rail posts are seven feet long.

Rails are 8 or 11 feet long, and can be round, square, or half-round. You insert the rails into the holes in the posts – their weight holds them down.

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Installation, Step-by-Step

rail fences with house in background
Photo Credit: Rawpixel

Step 1: Sketch the Layout of the Fence

You don’t need to be Renoir. A simple line sketch will do. Sketch your outline and measurements on your property survey.

  • Determine where your end posts, corner posts, and line posts will go (taking into account the length of the rails).
  • Figure out where you want to put openings or gates. If you are installing a gate, consider where the hinges and accessories will go.
  • Measure the perimeter of the fenced area to get the total linear footage.
  • To determine how many posts you need, divide the linear footage by the length of your fence rails, rounded up. For example, if you have a fence 200 feet long, and your rails are 11 feet long, divide 200 by 11 to get 19 posts (200 / 11 = 18.1, which rounds up to 19). Then multiply that by the number of rows of rails.

Step 2: Mark Your Fence Line

Split rail fences look nicest if all your posts are in a straight line and your corner posts are at a 90-degree angle. To accomplish this:

  1. Mark your fence line with stakes and string.
  2. Use spray paint to mark where to put your fence posts.
  3. Use measuring tape to ensure the correct measurements.

Some helpful tips to ensure your fence is installed precisely:

  • Though you generally want to be precise, you can make an exception if you’re using wood rails. Place your fence posts so the rail ends overlap by a few inches.
  • Put your rails on the ground to ensure the posts are evenly spaced apart.
  • If your fence runs up and down a slope, follow the angle of the slope. Use the rail as a guide.

Pro Tip: To ensure a perfect 90-degree angle, tap into the Pythagorean Theorem: attach a piece of tape three feet from the corner and another at four feet on the other corner. Then measure five feet diagonally from tape to tape.

Step 3: Dig Holes

person digging a hole for fence post
Photo Credit: martince2 / Canva Pro / License

Digging the post holes is one of the most important and labor-intensive tasks in the installation process.

Each hole should be one-third of the post length. For example, if you have a post that is six feet long, dig two feet deep, with a few extra inches for gravel. If you need a permit to build your fence, it’ll specify how deep you can dig. The hole’s diameter should be two to three times wider than the post.

You can use a post hole digger or a more powerful power auger to dig your hole. Both are good options, but your soil will play a part in what to use. If you have rocky soil, you’ll need a power auger, which will power through it more easily. A post hole digger is better for looser soil. Place the dug soil on a tarp for easy disposal once you’re done.

Pro Tip: Your local utility company will mark where your utility lines are located. To avoid hitting them, hand dig any holes within 18 to 24 inches of a marked utility.

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Step 4: Set the Fence Posts

After you dig your holes, put the posts in them.

  1. Set the end posts first. They’ll be a reference to ensure the line posts are correctly aligned.
  2. Use a post level to ensure your post is plumb and level (perfectly vertical).
  3. Backfill the hole with three to six inches of gravel or soil. Tamp and backfill every few inches with the bottom of the post or a tamper to ensure your post is still vertical.
  4. Place your first line post in the second hole. Ensure the notches on the line post face the ones on the end post. Like the end posts, ensure they’re plumb before backfilling with soil or gravel.
  5. Repeat steps three and four until all the posts are set.

Pro Tip: Depending on your soil conditions, you may want to set your posts in concrete. However, it isn’t necessary, as they’re lightweight and won’t get blown over in heavy wind.

Step 5: Insert the Rails

Photo Credit: Ben Baligad / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

With all the posts in place, the last step is to add the rails.

  • Starting at the bottom, slide the rails between the holes in each post and adjust them as needed. Make sure they’re parallel to the ground.
  • Once all the rails are in place, adjust them to ensure they overlap evenly.

And with that, you’re done!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best wood for a split rail fence?

The most common types of wood for a split rail fence are cedar, black locust, chestnut, and pine. None are better than the others. What matters is the appearance of the wood and its availability.

Most wood types you can find are available at your local hardware store. They’re all rot-resistant or are pressure treated with pesticides.

What is the cheapest fence to install?

A pine or cedar fence with two rails is the cheapest option.

How long does it take to install a split rail fence?

On average, installing a fence will take one to four days.

The Final Word

If installing a split rail fence is too labor-intensive for you, contact one of FenceGnome’s local pros. We offer fast, affordable service, and you’ll get a beautiful fence out of it.

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Stuart Kushner

Stuart Kushner is a writer and aspiring product designer based in New York City. When he isn’t doing either, Stuart enjoys heavy metal music, exercise, and trying new food and drinks.