Build a Cedar Privacy Fence

You don't have to build a gigantic wooden enclosure to gain more privacy in your backyard. With just a few simple-yet-stylish cedar panels strategically placed among soft evergreens, you can create a charming divider that provides personal space while maintaining an open landscape design.

This three-panel project can be built on-site and installed in a few easy steps. It requires less material and work than building a full-size fence, so you'll save both time and money. But before you can begin the construction process, you must first nail down a few details.

For starters, figure out where you'd like to place the structures. Consider drainage: Stay clear of areas that tend to collect water. Also take stock of your sight lines. Determine which potential positions will offer the most privacy without blocking your favorite views. Finally, consult city officials regarding your plans and obtain a lot survey. Be prepared to make adjustments to the project to suit your area's building codes. It's also a good idea to inform your neighbors before you start digging.

When it comes to materials, you have myriad options. We chose cedar because it's readily available, naturally weather-resistant and affordable. Refer to the shopping and cutting lists and the illustration in the PDF, below, to determine the amount of cedar you'll need to build the three 8x6-ft. panels shown in this article. Landscape designer Scott Reynolds of Minnetonka, Minnesota, who designed this project, recommends inspecting boards care- fully before you buy to make sure that every piece is straight, which will ease the construction process and ensure warp-free fence panels. Other durable fence materials include composite, vinyl and steel.

Setting posts

Use stakes and string to mark your property line and the location of the fence panels.

Use spray paint or another visual aid to mark your post placement (photo 2). Each fence panel has two 4x4 posts spaced 8 ft. apart from out- side edge to outside edge. The distance between fence panels can vary depending on your preferences. For this project, the panels are spaced 8 ft. apart.

Mark the post placement every 8 ft.; then dig an 8-in.-dia. x 2-ft.-deep hole at each mark.

Dig an 8-in.-dia. x 2-ft.-deep hole for each post (photo 3). Reynolds recommends marking your digging tool at 2 ft. to provide a visual depth reference as you work. (Note: If you are attaching the fence panels to a permanent structure such as your home, you may need to set the posts below your area's frost line; check your city building codes.)

Next, place a 4x4 post in the center of each hole and add about 4 in. of soil around all sides to hold it in place (photo 4). Check that the post is level before tamping the dirt with the end of a 2x4. Once all of the posts are secure, mix the concrete and continue to check that the post is level as you pour the concrete into each hole. Reynolds suggests protecting the posts with plastic wrap to prevent the concrete from staining the wood (photo 5). Work out any air bubbles; then smooth the surface. Allow the concrete to set according to the package directions.

Center and level a post in each hole, adding 4 in. of soil on all sides to hold the post in place.

Secure plastic wrap around the bottom of the posts to prevent staining. Fill each hole with concrete and work out any air bubbles.

Building fence panels
With the posts in place, you can start building the fence panels. Measure and cut the wood as you build rather than all at once so you can make slight size adjustments as needed. (This is particularly important if your yard slopes.) Drill pilot holes for every screw to prevent splitting.

Construct the bottom-rail assembly first. Draw a line along the top of the rail (B) 5/8 in. from the edge that will face your yard. Attach the backer board (C) along this line as shown in photo 6. Secure this assembly 1 in. above the ground between the 4x4 posts (photo 7), and be sure to check that it is level. A couple of scrap 1x2s placed underneath the bottom-rail assembly will help to hold it in place as you drill holes and drive screws.

Install the bottom-rail assembly 1 in. off the ground.

For the bottom-, top- and middle-rail assemblies, mark a line along the top of part B 5/8 in. from the yard-facing edge. Secure part C along this line.

Construct the top-rail assembly in the same way and install it between the 4x4 posts so that the distance from the ground to the top of the top rail measures exactly 6 ft. (This is the typical fence-height limit for most residential areas.) You should now have a basic fence-panel frame.

Next, construct the middle-rail assembly using a rail (B) and backer board (C) as previously described. Use a slat (F) to mark the installation location of this assembly. The 12-in. slat should fit snugly between the 2x4s of the top- and middle-rail assemblies. Once the middle-rail assembly is installed, attach another backer board to the underside of the 2x4 5/8 in. from the yard-facing edge (photo 8).

Add another part C under the middle- rail assembly 5/8 in. from the yard- facing edge.

Now you can attach the fence boards (D). Working from the back, screw the fence boards to the backer boards of the middle- and bottom-rail assemblies (photo 9). You may need to use a hammer and scrap wood to pound the boards into place; make sure that the edges are flush. Rip the final filler board (E) to fit.

Working from the back of the fence panel, screw part D to the 1x2s of the middle- and bottom-rail assemblies.

Install the slats (F) between the top- and middle-rail assemblies. Work from the back as you did with the fence boards. To simplify spacing, use one of the slats as a guide (photo 10). Rip the final filler slat (G) to fit.

Use part F as a spacing guide when installing the slats between the top- and middle-rail assemblies.

Finish by installing four backer boards (C) along the back of the panel as shown in photo 11. These should cover all of the screws used to attach the fence boards and slats. After you've completed the fence panel, use a circular saw to trim the tops of the 4x4 posts so that they are flush with the top rail.

Add four backer boards (part C) along the back of the panel to cover the screws that you used to attach parts D, E, F and G.

Spray or brush on a few coats of exterior wood finish. Be sure to check the label for how often you should reapply it to keep the panels looking good.

Planting trees
To fill the spaces between fence panels, Reynolds recommends choosing soft evergreen trees that require minimal maintenance. For example, Techny Arborvitae (photo, below) boasts a soft look and feel and can be trimmed to remain the same height as the panels. In general, groups of three are aesthetically pleasing, which is why Reynolds and the homeowners decided to plant groups of three trees between each pair of panels.

To allow for growth, be sure to plant the trees about 3-1/2 ft. apart and 2 ft. away from the fence panels. Reynolds suggests mixing nutrient- rich potting soil with the soil from your yard when filling the holes to help hold moisture and give the trees a healthy start. Pruning the trees is simple: Shape the outside branches with shears and clip the tops to the height you prefer.