Build a fence – fences 101

Photo: Dakota Unlimited

In addition to providing privacy and security for your property, a fence can add curb appeal and keep your pets and children safe. If you are planning on building a fence, the first thing to do is study popular fence materials. Wood – the stuff of classic picket fences – is easy to work with and durable, but when it’s painted or stained, it needs regular maintenance. Lower-maintenance options include vinyl or PVC, as well as sturdy composites – a more environmentally friendly, if more expensive, alternative. Metals like coated aluminum and chain links require little maintenance, but the downsides are that aluminum can be lightweight and chain links, well, it can be a thorn in your side. Regardless of the material, you can find a number of fence elements in different designs, suitable for a variety of tastes, purposes and architectural styles.

Over the centuries, fences have been made from different materials. In my neighborhood, I see vinyl, cedar, metal, and a number of other types of fencing. Which one is best for you The answer depends on your budget and style preferences. These are the pros and cons of the most popular choices made by homeowners:


Vinyl fences are highly recommended. It is made in a number of styles, with matching decorative post caps, and there is now a wider choice of colors and finishes. Perhaps the most attractive aspect is that you don’t have to repaint vinyl. A durable material that won’t warp, splinter, rot, splinter or blister. And it’s easy to clean; Dirt can only be washed off with a sponge and hose (or a pressure washer). Although vinyl initially costs more than wood, it becomes less expensive over time.

There are of course negatives to consider. Dozens of styles are available, but the design options for vinyl fencing aren’t limitless, and the plastic look isn’t everyone’s favorite.

Fence material - vinyl PVC


It’s tough, but vinyl can break – for example, in strong winds or the impact of a well-hit soccer ball. Minor damage (holes, cracks, etc.) is repaired with body filler, followed by sanding and repainting. A replacement component may be required in the event of major damage. So when installing vinyl fencing, hold on to spares. If your fence style is set it can mean you are out of luck.

Building vinyl fences is more complicated than expected. The rails are attached with special brackets or crimping tools, and the posts often need to be reinforced with concrete or metal stiffeners.

Last but not least, it should be noted that vinyl is generally classified as harmful to the environment. Toxins are produced in its manufacture and the material is difficult to recycle.

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Composite materials

Composite fences (a wood-based product) come in a bewildering number of variations. Some fences have solid, not hollow boards. Some are “closed” or “coextruded” with a PVC layer. While multiple components are often required, in some cases the construction is similar to that of a wooden fence. What they all have in common is the fact that they are made from recycled fibers, plastics and binders.

Because of the textures and colors produced, composite fencing simulates wood more effectively than vinyl. However, once you go for a solid color, there are fewer choices among composites. Bonded fences, like vinyl, do not require staining or painting, and their low maintenance is easily fixed – only a mild detergent and hose are required to clean. The composite fence is durable and is often covered by a guarantee. It is not assembled with special brackets, but with conventional fasteners.

Another advantage: composite fences are environmentally friendly. Up to 95 percent of the materials used to make it are recycled, and some manufacturers use a near-waste-free manufacturing system. Unfortunately, composite products cannot simply be recycled.

Compared to vinyl or wood, there are fewer styles available in composite fences whose design is mostly limited to fence types that involve planks – privacy, shadow box, and post-and-rail fences, not to mention those with simple dog-eared pickets. Another disadvantage is that composites are prone to scratches, stains, and fading.

Costs? Composite panels are about twice as expensive as pressure treated wood, and wood is easier to work with between the two.


Wooden fences have been a mainstay of the American landscape since colonial times. They can be made in a variety of styles and painted or stained in myriad colors. In some regions, cedar and redwood are the preferred material because of their resistance to rot and insects, but several other types of wood are also used. Pressure-treated wood is best suited for longevity, at least when it comes to components. Unpressurized pickets or boards should be coated with a preservative before finishing.

Wood initially costs significantly less than vinyl or composite, and if properly built and maintained, a wooden fence will last for many years. And unlike petroleum-based materials, wood is renewable if it is sustainably harvested.

On the other hand, wood requires more maintenance than other materials. It should be rinsed a few times a year, and repainted or stained every three or four years. Cedar and redwood fences can be exposed to natural weather, but a clear preservative should be applied every few years. Because of the additional maintenance required, the cost of wooden fences can ultimately equal or exceed other types of fences.

Ornamental fences made of metal combine the best properties of other materials in many ways. Available in a wide variety of designs, it is very low-maintenance and unsurpassed in terms of durability. While cast iron was the norm for decades, today’s standard is powder-coated galvanized steel, aluminum, or a combination of aluminum and solid metal.

Maintenance is limited to occasional hoses. If rust does appear, it can be brushed off or the metal treated with a rust-inhibiting primer and a fresh coat of paint. Even after many decades, metal fences can be recycled without any problems.

Ornamental fences are not without their drawbacks. For one thing, repair work can be difficult. However, metal fences are very resistant to damage. In fact, you can buy Civil War-era cast iron fences that have outlasted the house that once surrounded it.

Fence materials - chain link


Steel fences take many forms, the most popular of which is the chain link. While it’s usually not considered pretty, a chain link fence can certainly be used without becoming a thorn in your side. For starters, the net is immediately suitable as a grid for everything from moon flowers to winds.

The chain link is robust, maintenance-free, durable and economical and ideal for situations in which your fence should be transparent (after all, burglars cannot hide behind the chain link).

Installation is easy. Most fittings are tightened with a socket wrench. The only special tool you may need is a second pair of hands to tighten the mesh. Since it is often possible to re-sew damaged mesh fabric, repairing a chain link fence is relatively easy.

Another perk: chain link fences are considered “green” as any scrap dealer is happy to receive one that you throw away (and may even pay for it). Try that with an old vinyl or composite fence!

Inevitably, chain link fencing has a functional aesthetic, but there are style options. Various mesh sizes and wire sizes are available. The polymer coatings are now available in colors such as brown, green and black. Each of these coatings looks softer than silver. When installed between bushes or along the border of wooded areas, a chain link fence can be almost invisible, especially if it is fitted with fabric or mesh panels.

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