Introduction: Colonial Style Split Rail Fence

I got the idea for this fence while taking my students to Colonial Plantation located in Ridley Creek State Park.  After we moved into our new home, there were two problems that needed to be addressed.  First, we had a number of oak trees that needed to come down and second, there is a drainage ditch in the back that we wanted to put a simple barrier in front of.  The solution?  Use the wood from the trees to create a simple split rail fence like the one I saw on the field trip.  In addition, I wanted to recreate the experience of an early American colonist as (relatively) authentically as possible.

The best part about this style of fence is that it does not require nails or screws.  It is quick and easy to disassemble to re-position or move completely somewhere else.  Plus, if you are unhappy with the results, with a few quick cuts from a chainsaw, you have a nice stack of firewood.  

DISCLAIMER:  You assume any and all risk.  Remember: You are always one small slip away from an ER visit.

It is imperative that you take several precautions before starting this project.

1.  If you are attempting this project, it is assumed that you have experience using the tools listed in the materials section.
2.  Always wear eye and hearing protection.  Avoid wearing shorts and open-toed shoes.
3.  Pace yourself!  Accidents tend to happen when you get tired or bored.  Need a break?  Take it!

  • Safety glasses
  • Hearing protection (the sledgehammer hitting the wedge is surprising loud!)
  • Sledgehammer
  • 2-3 splitting wedges
  • Maul
  • Logs cut to length
  • Chainsaw (optional)

Step 1: Selecting Logs to Split

Virtually any type of tree will work for your fence.  Oak is a very good choice as it splits easily and lasts for years.  You want to select pieces that are roughly 1-1.5 feet in diameter.  These sizes will generally yield 4+ rails each.    Length is up to you.  I cut each log to approximately 6 feet in length.  You can cut yours longer or shorter, depending on application.  I used an oak tree that uprooted during Hurricane Sandy.  It will be used to repair the fence that it destroyed when it came down.

Step 2: Splitting the Logs

Once you have your logs selected and cut to the length of your choice, it's time to begin splitting!   You will be using your wedges and sledgehammer to split the log in half and then into quarters.  Depending on the log's thickness, you may be able to split it even further.

To start the wedge, you can look for a natural crack on the edge of the log, place the wedge over the crack and uses the sledgehammer to begin driving it in.  However, it is far easier to take your maul and strike the edge of the log with moderate force.  Pull it out and you will be left with a perfect place to begin splitting with your wedge and sledgehammer.  Alternatively, you can also use a chainsaw to make a notch for the wedge.

Drive in your wedge about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way into the log and you should see and hear the log begin to crack and split.  Take another wedge and place it into the crack as far down the log as you can and begin driving it in.  As it forces itself deeper into the log, you can take another wedge and repeat the process.  If you only have two wedges, remove the first one which will have loosened as you drove in the second.  Repeat the process until the log has been split in half.

Remember:  Controlled swings are the key.  You don't even need to bring the hammer over your head.  Consistent strikes on the wedge are what matter.  Wild swings tend to lead to accidents!

Step 3: Sorting and Selecting Rails

Once you have finished splitting the logs into rails, it is time to sort them.  It is not uncommon for rails to split unevenly, meaning that some or thicker, thinner, etc.  I sort rails by size, trying to put like pieces together.  I also separate rails that didn't split well.  For example, ones that are thick on one end and very thin on the other or pieces that spiraled as they split, usually due a knot or imperfection in the wood.  Those I often cut up with a chainsaw and use for firewood.  

I use the thicker rails for the bottom or foundation of the fence, and use the thinner ones as I build it up.  If all your logs split relatively evenly, this isn't something you will need to worry about.

Step 4: Laying Out Your Fence

The hardest part is behind you and now it is time to begin constructing your fence!  Now that you have selected the rails you will use, begin laying out the first level.  After laying down the first rail, place the next rail on top of one end of the first.  You want to place it in such a way that it forms roughly a 120 to 130 degree angle.  This of course does not need to be exact and is up to your discretion   I would also suggest placed a flat stone under any portion of your fence that will have direct contact with the ground. 

Continue building up.  Take the other rails and lay them on top of each other, gradually increasing your fence in height.  I built mine to about 2.5 feet high or 4 rails high.  

If a rail doesn't sit quite right, meaning it rocks or slips on the rail it's sitting on, try reversing it or using a different rail.  Another option is to use a hatchet to flatten the rail where it contacts the other.  It only takes a few seconds and will give your fence extra stability.

Step 5: Creating an End Point

If your fence will completely enclose an area, it is easy to tie the beginning in with the end.  However, if you merely plan on blocking an   area off (like my fence), it can be a bit trickier, though not too hard.  After your fence has extended past the area that you wanted to isolate, begin stepping down the number of rails you go.  In this case, I went down from four, to three, and then finally two which I simply let rest on the ground.  

That's all there is to it!  Be safe, have fun, and post pictures of the fences you create!

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