Intro: Built in Low Voltage Fence Lighting
We love the soft glow of outdoor lighting, but we would rather avoid the look and cost of 90% of what is sold and we much prefer a custom built-in look. These lights can be built as an extension onto just about any existing fence that is made with wooden 4x4 posts with a minimum amount of cost and they also look great and are very durable.
If you have some experience with woodworking or fence building but are not experienced with metal work or low voltage lighting then this is actually a great starter project. The electrical component can be accomplished with very few tools (maybe no tools depending on the type of lighting you choose) and the metal work can be done with a hack saw, tin snips and just a little sandpaper for smoothing out the edges.
Step 1: Gather Your Materials
There are many ways to finish off these lights that could work a variety of ways in different yards. We designed ours based on scrap lumber and spare parts we had left over from other projects but we will walk you through it like we are building these from scratch.
1 set of the cheapest outdoor low voltage path lighting sets you can find. Make sure it comes with a timer/transformer, outdoor quality low voltage wire, a number of 12v bulbs and an assortment of cheap plastic light fixtures and the needed bulb holders and attachments. The style of the lights really does not matter as you will be altering them, you really just need the parts. You will only be able to go from your outlet to the end of the length of wire which is usually about 50 feet, if you need to go longer than this then buy accordingly.*
exterior grade screws (I used 3" screws to tie these to my fence posts and much smaller screws to attach the covers)
exterior grade 2x4's, each light uses about 2' of board so it depends on how many you want to make either cedar or pressure treated.
exterior grade wood or composite wood for the top rail. We used 5 1/2" wide composite in our example but there are many different sizes and grades of wood that would work.
galvanized fence attachment hardware and appropriate exterior grade attachment screws.
Patterned Aluminum Sheeting, these come in a variety of sizes and styles depending on how many you want to make and is available from big box stores and online.
"L" Shaped Aluminum Bar, also available from big box hardware stores length depends on how many lights you are going to make.
* You can also buy these parts separately. Outdoor low voltage wires come in a variety of sizes and lengths. And outdoor timers/transformers also come in a variety of wattage. Lights could be ordered separately but make sure they come equipped with the clamps for attaching them to the main wire.
Step 2: Tools
This project can be accomplished with only a few basic tools
Tin Snips for cutting aluminum
Drill with various bits for attaching boards and drilling a few holes for the wires
Circular saw and a carpenters square OR a compound miter saw for cutting lumber
Hack Saw for cutting Aluminum bar
A little sand paper for finishing off any rough edges
perhaps a wire stripper or screw driver for attaching lighting but that depends on the style purchased.
Step 3: Create a Box and Top Rail
As you can see from the photos, we simply cut two 2x4s and screwed them to the sides of our existing 4x4 pressure treated fence post using several 3" exterior grad screws to create an opening. We extended ours about 6" above the existing fence in order to accommodate our light fixture (and we thought that this was just a nice looking height) but you will want to make your openings appropriately sized for whatever path lights you find.
Assuming that all of your fence posts are exactly the same height you should be able to cut all of your boards and attach them the same way. However since fence are rarely perfect it might be a good idea to run down the line with a board and level and make sure they all line up at this point while it is still easy to adjust your heights before attaching.
We then measured the distance between our new fence extensions and cut cedar 2x4's and mounted them vertically in-between using galvanized fencing brackets.
We then topped ours off with some composite decking we had left over from another project and attached these by using some additional galvanized fencing brackets. Cut 45 degree angles where they meet up to help hide the transitions and better shed water.
Clearly there are many creative ways you could finish these off to make them weather proof depending on your location.
Step 4: Run Your Wires
At this point you will want to run your outdoor 12v wiring discreetly along your fence from your transformer/timer. I say discreetly because electrical wires at this point would be unseemly, its best if you can figure out a way to hide them. We were able to run ours along the top rail between two boards and then drill them through the cavity created by the 2x4s mounted to our fence posts.
The transformer will need to be attached near an exterior grade outlet so this will be an important part of your design and decision making. If you don't have an outlet or if you want to run these somewhere that electricity would be impractical then you can always run these lights off of a simple solar setup like the one we developed for our shed.
Step 5: Insert Your Lights
At this point you can wire your lights and insert them into the cavity. Most lights come with a variety of plastic pieces and then some sort of translucent lamp shade, a small bulb and a wire with attachment hardware to connect to your main outdoor wire. You won't need anything but the wire with attachment hardware, the bulb and the shade, discard or recycle everything else. Obviously all light shades are going to be different shapes and styles so you are going to have to do what you can to make them fit inside the cavity. Looks are not too important at this point since you will hardly be able to see the lamp shade through the aluminum screening you will be adding later. What is important is that there is some kind of screen to diffuse the light and make it look more like a lantern.
Our particular brand didn't fit well so we had to kind of squish it into the opening. Usually the shade helps to weather proof the bulbs, but since our fixtures will be enclosed within our fence the shade really just serves the purpose of diffusing the light and making it look nicer. The hardware for attaching the the bulb wiring to the main wiring will probably be a little different depending on what brand you buy, but generally there are two clamps that lock into place over your main wire. These have little sharp edges that will pierce your main wire to make contact with the electricity. Its actually kind of a primitive method but its safe and it works.
At this point you will want to turn on and test your system to make sure that you have made all good connections and your lights are working properly.
Step 6: Cut and Insert Your Aluminum Sheeting
Assuming that you have all of your lights working you will want to start cutting your Aluminum Sheeting to fit your openings. We cut ours right up to the edge of our boards and even did a little over lap behind the fence so that we would have nice clean lines.
In our example the top of the fixture is not covered by either the fence or edging so we made sure and used the factory cut edge in that area to make it look nicer. Remember that Aluminum Sheeting comes in a wide variety of styles so you can go for any kind of look you want at this point.
Step 7: Add Aluminum Trim
At this point you can add your aluminum L brackets to the sides. Simply cut them the length of your edges using a hack saw. Then discreetly drill one small hole in the side and screw it to your side posts. Our fixtures are only about 6" tall and one screw holds them fine. You may need to use more depending on the size of your fixtures. Using screws to attach them at this point means that you will be able to unscrew them later if you ever need to change the bulb or fix something.
Depending on your fence location and set up you may want to do this same thing on both sides of your fixture or simply close the back side with an appropriately sized 2x4 to help keep them water proof.
Step 8: A Quick Note on System Sizing and Upgrading
Our system was a typical cheap lighting setup which was a 50w timer/transformer which came with 6 fixtures which came with 7 or 8 standard watt bulbs. After about a year they started burning out so we replaced them with 3W LED bulbs which we ordered for around $1 ea via ebay.
This gave us two advantages. One was that the we have not had to replace a bulb since then in the 5 years we have had the system.
Secondly, since we were using lower Watt bulbs we were able to expand our system without overloading our transformer.
Step 9: Enjoy!
Here is a photo of our lights 6 years after our initial installation. As you can see the aluminum trim still looks clean and nice and with a little power washing the rest of the fence continues to look almost new. Most cheap plastic path lights probably would not last more than a year or two before someone stepped on them or they were run over by the lawn mower. But since these systems are totally enclosed they have lasted us many years without any trouble or maintenance.
There are many variations you could build with this and since it is a low voltage 12v system it would be a good candidate for a solar setup like our Super Basic Solar Lighting under $75 . If your thinking about building a new fence you may also want to check out our Half Recycled Fence Strategy.