Fantastic fence tools | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

After all, many people with several hectares want to raise livestock. To keep animals in a pasture, you need a good fence. (For the pros and cons of different types of fences, see Types of Homestead Fences. – MOTHER EARTH NEWS) The following fence tools will help you build a good fence and maintain it over time.

Adjustment tools

If there is one tool most necessary for fence construction work, it can be used to dig post holes. Even if you want to use metal T-posts that you can simply hammer into the ground, you will need to dig deep post holes for the corner posts.

The easiest way to dig post holes is to use an auger powered by a tractor or built-in motor. A snail is a large shaft with spiral flutes that works like a giant drill bit to drill holes in the earth. If you don’t own a snail, you can rent one from a hardware store or see if a neighbor has one to borrow. Tractor-powered post hole augers can quickly create the standard 8 “wide and 36” deep holes required for corner and line posts in most floors.

Rocks are the bane of the fence builder’s existence. Even medium-sized stones in the ground can stop a large snail from advancing and break the shear pin in the process. And if the size of your auger doesn’t specifically match the diameter of the post, the posts won’t always fit snugly in their holes. For this reason, equipping yourself with post-hole digging hand tools is a good idea, at least as an addition to any snail.


If your fence project is small, you may only need hand tools. The most basic fence tools for digging post holes are a long-handled shovel for loosening and removing soil, a heavy 6-foot crowbar for breaking up clods of earth and tamping your post, and a posthole excavator. This tool is essentially two opposing blades that are connected by a pivot point. Fiskars makes a model with handles specially designed for digging deeper holes (see photo in the picture gallery).

Setting your wooden posts perfectly plumb may not extend the life of the fence much, but the fence will look better. A post level makes this task easy. Attach the post level to the post (with large rubber bands), center both bubbles while holding the post up, then fill in the ground on the outside. For wide holes, an 8 pound sledgehammer can be used to tamp in the dirt and secure your corner posts, or a long handled poker or pry bar can be used to tamp the ground around each post. Farmers also often make homemade rammers from discarded car axles. Because of the added stress on the corner posts, it is important that the tamping work around them is well done. As you fill the dirt back up around the post, cram it in every few inches.

With wire fences, you can minimize the hassle of setting wooden posts by inserting metal T-posts between the corners. In the time it takes to set a wooden post, you can poke 20 T-posts into the ground with a post tamper. Many locations allow you to run a quarter mile or more of barbed wire or wire fence with only T-posts for support and wooden posts at the corners and along the fence where more tension is required. A sledgehammer seems like a good tool for installing T-posts, but sledgehammers are heavy and sometimes dangerous.

You can buy ready-made T-post rammers or make your own. I made one out of a piece of steel tubing 2 inches in diameter and 48 inches long with a solid section of steel rod welded on top. The bar should be at least 8 inches long to create enough weight and strength to drive into the post. Some factory-made models have handles, but a large diameter tube is easy to grasp. To use one, slide the finished tamper over the top of your T-post, stand the post upright, and then lift the tamper up and bring it firmly over the top.

Some fence builders have come up with ingenious methods of installing a post tamper onto the bucket of their front loader. This allows the posts to be pushed into the ground with the spoon in a matter of seconds, but it is considered unsafe by tractor manufacturers.

T-posts are easy to install but difficult to pull out later – the floor grips the rusty surface with surprising strength. A post puller is the best tool for removing a T-post. This is a lever operated tool that grips the T-post and pulls it out when you lean back on the handle.

Wire processing tools

When installing a wire fence, you will need tools to unroll, cut, and tighten the material. Woven wire simply unrolls across the floor during installation, and you can easily slide an old broomstick through a roll of barbed wire to help it come loose as you walk or drive the fence line. But high-strength wire is a different matter. The coils are larger in diameter and the wire itself is quite springy and tangled up easily. This is why fence manufacturers invented the “Spin Jenny”, a low friction spinning reel that accepts standard wire reels and allows you to unwind the wire as needed when building a fence. The Jenny sits on the floor while you walk away with the end of the wire in your hand. It makes for a kink-free, twist-free wire that is easy to use, which can help avoid frustration and save time.

Fence pliers help you cut, bend, and pull wire. Fences with staples (mostly made of woven and barbed wire) are best tacked with full-featured pliers, cut notches or edges, a thorn for pulling up staples, and a hammer for driving in. If you’re dealing with a high-strength fence or wooden rail, a simpler design will do. If so, look for pliers with cutting capabilities (those with cutting notches are easier to use and last longer than those with cutting edges) and large, jagged jaws that can grip the wire.

You can mechanically tighten all types of wire fences, and dozens of different fence tools are available for the task. Mechanical tensioners for wire mesh are the most complex, as they grip several strands of the fence at the same time during the tensioning process. Another solution to tightening the wire mesh is to slide the wire between two 2 x 4s, screw the boards together, and anchor the assembly on a stretcher.

At the other end of the spectrum are high-strength fence tensioners (see photo in the picture gallery). These devices, which are similar to spools, are so simple and inexpensive that they remain on the fence wire permanently. If a fence wire sags, simply remove the play with a ratchet handle that you connect to the tensioner. You can also use tensioners on barbed wire or smooth high-strength wire.


If you plan to install electric fence insulators on wooden or plastic posts, you should use a cordless drill to drive deck screws instead of traditional hammer driven nails. Screws hold better and are easier to remove if you need to replace a broken insulator. Today’s cordless drills can work from morning to noon with a single charge without any problems (see cordless drills and drivers).

The best tool collections grow to meet real needs. My advice is to buy a few, work with them for a while, and then buy more based on what you learn.

There’s a good reason you can find twisted metal fence wires all over farms. It is the most useful and inexpensive way to repair and marry all kinds of items. Perhaps the most useful fence wire of all is the oldest – 9-gauge black annealed wire. It’s surprisingly soft given its one-eighth inch diameter, and it’s virtually impossible to break no matter how tight you twist it.

The closest competition is 12.5 gauge galvanized wire. It’s cleaner than the black stuff, but it doesn’t have the same strength. You can just twist with a lot more tension with 9 gauge wire. Try the same thing with 12.5 gauge wire, which is likely to break.

Fence tools for building a gate

If you want your gates to last, don’t let them hang on hinges under their own weight. Instead, install a 5-eight-inch diameter carriage screw, or a length of threaded rod, into the unattached gate post that the gate can rest on when closed. This relieves the fence, which would normally be thrown off balance trying to support the gate. You can do an even better job by installing a gate wheel on the ground. This provides continuous support for the gate throughout its entire arc of movement, making opening and closing easier and safer for children.

Installing gate hinges and supports almost always involves drilling large diameter holes through wood, and a drilling tool called a “marine auger” is unbeatable for this type of job. Measuring three-eighths of an inch to 2 inches in diameter and 8 inches to 2 feet long, these self-feeding bits will effortlessly chew through the largest goal posts. The only catch is you need a strong drill bit to power them – 18 volt cordless drills are barely powerful enough; 24 volt units are ideal.

Continue reading: For more information about the different types of fencing, see Types of Fencing for the Homestead. Read Stable Corner Posts: Withstand the Pull to create sturdy corner posts for your fence.

Contributing Editor Steve Maxwell has been helping people renovate, build, and maintain their homes for more than two decades. Canada’s Handiest Man is an award-winning home improvement agency and woodworking expert. Contact him by visiting his website and Maxwell’s House blog. You can also follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook, and find him on Google+.

Originally published: February / March 2006

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