The Definitive Guide to Building a Wood Fence in Southern California
Updated: Oct 14, 2021
As with any construction project, there are a lot of decisions that go into making your new wood fence. After building thousands of feet of wood fencing in Southern California, we have boiled down the decisions into seven main categories. We will explain our take on these categories and give you some guidance on what we would recommend and why.
The types of fences can be broken down into three main categories, each of which can be broken down further into specific styles. The three main categories of wood fences are: Traditional, Horizontal, and Custom. We break down these styles in much more detail in our "Style" post if you want more information!
Traditional fences are the most common wood fence, for good reason. They are great for functionality (privacy and security) and are usually going to be your most affordable wood fence option. Dressing up these fences with a coat of paint or stain will make it really stand out. The main styles are: Dog Ear, Cap & Trim, and Picket (for front fence)
Traditional Fences Styles:
Dog Ear: The tried and true wood fence. The Face of the fence will show only the dog ear planks, the backside will show the 2”x4” framing/rails. Many homeowners will opt to have the fence be “Good Neighbor” if they are splitting costs with a neighbor, which means the sections of fence with the Face/framing will alternate (making it more fair for each neighbor).
Cap & Trim: This is the upgraded traditional fence that has become much more popular over the past couple of decades. Having a cap and the trim board make it appear more “finished”. Also, a huge advantage of this fence is it will look very similar and finished on both sides, which makes negotiating with neighbors much easier. One side will have the 2”x4” rail on top and bottom, and the other will have the 1”x4” trim on top and bottom.
Picket: Generally only used for front, short fences. Picket fences are surprisingly customizable. For example, you can have the pickets all be the same height or you can have each section have a scalloped or arched pattern. Most common planks/pickets are 1”x4” or 2”x2”. Some customer’s opt to stain picket fences, but the most common method is to paint the pickets white.
Other Styles are popular in places outside of Southern California, including Shadow-Box, Split Rail, and Grape Stake.
Horizontal wood fences have a unique modern look which have made them quite popular. As with many fences, horizontal fences also have two sides: one with the posts exposed and the other with only the horizontal boards exposed. Front fences usually have the horizontal wood facing outwards towards the street and back fences usually have the horizontal boards facing in towards the backyard. Some customers opt to build these fences with wood on both sides, especially if splitting costs with neighbors.
Elements of Horizontal Fences:
Planks: The planks are the horizontal boards that make up the bulk of the surface area of the fence. The standard plank will be nominal 1”x6”, with a 1”x4” or 1”x3” option occasionally available. These are usually built with redwood, cedar or tropical hardwood (i.e. Ipe or Mangaris). The type of wood plank you choose for the fence will drastically impact the look of the fence. More on wood types in the “Type of Wood” section below.
Posts: Like traditional fences, posts are the foundation of a horizontal fence. Posts will usually will be 4”x4” pressure treated, redwood, cedar, or metal. Most contractors will use 4”x4” pressure treated for posts unless the customer requests something else. We would definitely recommend considering how each type of post will impact the look of the backside of your horizontal fence because they are quite visible from one side.
Gap: Small gaps between horizontal boards are standard for horizontal fences and impact the final appearance of the fence. Generally, we will use gaps between ¼” and 1”. If you want no gaps between boards, we would recommend using a tongue and groove board (more on that in the “Privacy” section below).
Given the variety of sizes and types of wood and wood’s highly functional nature, there have been a variety of custom fence styles that have been created throughout the years. Common styles are X-Fences, Hogwire Fences, Custom Vertical Slat Fences, and Cable Rail. If you want a custom style fence, we would recommend collecting a few different pictures (online search or just fences in your neighborhood) and sending them to your contractor to see if they have any experience with this type of fence. Many of the same rules of Traditional and Horizontal Fences apply to custom fences: you will want strong posts, use quality wood, and make sure everything is plumb and straight.
2) City Code Considerations
Each city has different rules in regards to how high you can build your fence and where fences can go. A majority of cities in Southern California (especially Orange County, Los Angeles, and San Diego) do not require a permit for fences as long as you follow their specific rules for fencing. Across the board, most cities in SoCal will allow you to build a fence up to 6’H on the side and back of your property, and up to around 42”H for the front of the property. Fence height is traditionally measured from the side of the fence that has the higher grade.
3) Type of Wood
For traditional fences (Dog Ear, Cap&Trim, etc), most companies in SoCal will use either redwood or cedar (treated pine boards are really popular in other regions of the country). These boards come “fence grade”, meaning they have a little rougher texture and will not usually be pre-dried. Since they are not pre-dried, the fence boards will usually shrink and occasionally warp after they have been installed.
For horizontal fences, there is a greater variety of wood choices, all of which will impact the look (and cost) of the fence. Most common types we see are: “fence grade” redwood or cedar (the same wood used for Traditional Fences), Clear Redwood, Tight Knot Cedar, Ipe Hardwood, Mangaris Hardwood, and Indo Hardwood. The most common dimension of the wood for horizontal fences is 1”x6”. Lengths for fence grade wood is usually 6'L and the higher grade woods can vary from 8-20’L (depending on the mill).
Ipe Hardwood Horizontal Fence:
Tight Knot Cedar Horizontal Fence:
Fence Grade Redwood Horizontal Fence:
*A note about redwood: Redwood is a very popular wood to use in outdoor construction because of its longevity, however its natural longevity is impacted by the composition of the wood. Redwood is made up of two distinct elements: Heartwood and Sapwood. Heartwood is the old growth redwood and is naturally red. It has excellent durability and natural resilience. Sapwood is the newer growth redwood and is a white color. It has decidedly less natural durability than Heartwood and is more comparable to a fir. Fence Grade redwood and Clear redwood will have a mix of heartwood and sapwood (variegated red and white color). Construction Heart redwood will be all-heart (all red color).
As discussed above, wood has the natural tendency to dry and shrink once it’s installed. For Traditional Dog Ear and Cap & Trim fences, the pickets will be installed butting up next to each other so you will have close to full privacy right when the fence is installed. However, after a few weeks, the wood will dry and gaps will appear between each board. These gaps will usually be pretty small, but may cause an issue if you want full privacy. The easiest way to make a traditional fence full privacy is to 1) use Grooved boards (i.e. Tongue and Groove), or 2) make the fence Board-on-Board. Board-on-Board is a technique where the fence pickets are overlapping, so when the wood shrinks you will still have full privacy. See below diagram.
Overhead View: Looking Down on Fence:
Board on Board Style on a Cap&Trim Fence:
For horizontal fences, the gap between the horizontal boards is usually a part of the fence’s aesthetic. However, if you want that modern look with full privacy, we would recommend using Grooved boards. As a general rule of thumb, we wouldn’t recommend building a horizontal fence with no gaps (without grooved boards). Even high grade wood will shrink/warp just slightly and leaving no gap between boards leave the fence susceptible to: A) having mismatched gaps between boards with any type of shrinkage and B) the sun creating uneven shadows if the wood slightly bows in or out. Luckily, using a grooved board will mitigate those issues so it is definitely possible to have full privacy with a horizontal fence.
Grooved Ipe Boards: Note how the wood shrinks, but the groove allows the fence to still be "full privacy".
Posts are the backbone of any fence and may be the single most important aspect of a wood fence. A good fence contractor will make the posts are: 1) in a straight line and 2) installed plum (straight up and down). Fence posts are installed by digging a hole in the ground around 10” in diameter and about 18”-24” in depth in areas without freezing temperatures (deeper holes are required in colder areas). The fence post is placed in the hole and the hole is filled with concrete.
The most common types of posts are: wood and metal. Pressure Treated wood posts are the standard, but it is not uncommon to build with redwood or cedar posts. The lifespan of a wood post can be quite variable depending on a number of factors, including moisture content of the ground.
For metal posts, the most common options are: Galvanized U-Channel/Postmaster posts, Galvanized cylindrical pipe (*think chain link fence), and painted square tube steel. Metal posts (particularly galvanized or stainless) will last significantly longer in the ground than wood posts. We have demoed fences where the wood is completely rotted and the metal posts are in good working condition.
Bottom line, the best way to prolong the life of your fence is to use metal posts instead of wood posts.
Gates are a natural extension of fences and follow many of the same principles. Most importantly, the posts must be strong and set plumb because they will be under a lot of stress from the gate swinging open and closed. There are two main considerations when it comes to gates:
Frame type: Wood or Metal? The frame of a gate is essential to its usefulness. No one wants a gate that you have to lift up every time in order to open or close! There are two ways to make a frame for a gate: 1) Build a frame out of 2x4 or 2x6 wood; or 2) Weld a metal frame out of tube steel. Wood frames are the most common, easy to build, and cost effective. The downside of a wood frame is it is more prone to shrinking, warping, and/or sagging. There are framing techniques that help mitigate some of these issues but a contractor cannot control how the elements affect the structure of wood. A custom welded metal frame, on the other hand, is more difficult/expensive to build but is much stronger and less prone to sagging. There are a few situations where we would definitely recommend a metal frame, such as for a front entry that you use everyday or for an especially large/heavy gate. Driveway gates, for instance, must be built with metal frames. The hinges for metal frame gates should be welded onto metal posts (screwing hinges onto wood posts will likely not be strong enough).
Hardware: Latch or Handle? The two main methods to keep a gate in the closed position is a latch or a handle. The K-Latch (or Self-Closing Latch) is the most common latch and performs well over time because of how easy it is to adjust if the gate does sag. Other popular types of latches are Thumb Latch, Slide Bolt, and Flip Latch. Gate Handles can be built with a key lock or with a code lock. While the handle can provide more security and be more attractive, we would caution against installing a functional handle on a wooden frame gate (unless you have a very skilled carpenter who has done it many times) because if the gate sags even ¼”, the handle will no longer work. Handles on metal frames perform quite nicely. Please note, most gates are going to be thicker than a standard door so it is important to check if the handle can handle the thickness of your gate! If you want a code handle, I would recommend checking out Lockey since they have handles that can fit really thick gates and their codes aren’t electrical so they will perform better outside.
The way you finish a wood fence will largely dictate its final appearance and will impact its longevity. The main ways to finish a wood fence are: 1) Stain, 2) Paint, or 3) Leave it Unfinished. Staining or painting a fence will increase the lifespan of a fence because it helps protect the wood from environmental issues (water, termites, etc).
Stain: Staining a wood fence is a great way to bring out and enhance the natural beauty of the wood. There are a variety of colors to choose from and we highly recommend getting stain samples on the type of wood on your fence because the stain will come out differently on each type of wood. A good way is to get a scrap piece of wood from the fence construction team and take it to a paint store or a lumber yard with a paint department (Ganahl Lumber is great for this in Orange County/LA). We stain a majority of our horizontal fences. The nice part of using an oil-based stain is that it is usually relatively easy to reapply and keep fresh over the years. We would recommend a stain with some pigment in it to offer the wood UV protection. Generally speaking, we would not recommend a water-based sealant because it doesn’t offer as much protection as a stain.
Paint: Painting is another great option to enhance the look and lifespan of a wood fence. We generally would not recommend painting hardwoods since it covers their natural beauty, but it is a solid approach for some redwood and cedar fences.
Leaving a Fence Unfinished: Many homeowners opt to leave their fence unfinished and let the wood patina over time. All woods will naturally gray/silver as they age if left untreated, which many people find attractive.
Ipe Hardwood Fence in the middle of getting a coat of stain: