The Art of  Making Cedar Rail Fences

by Alf Buffam 

Rail fences are used on rough, stony ground where it is too difficult to dig post holes. Their design has been around for hundreds of years. 

Making rail fences is a lot of hard work. The first thing you need to do is gather all the materials. The big cedars have all been harvested, so now all that is left is secondary growth. In the old days, those cedars were big and hollow. Each was split several times to make rails. Fencers could get six or seven rails from one tree. It is much more difficult now to build strong rail fences from second-growth cedars; those rails tend to blow over in the wind. With split-edge rails, the panels are more secure.

Generally cedars are harvested in the winter. They are stripped of their bark, cut into 12-foot lengths and stacked in layers to dry. It is better to work with dried rails. The old split rails from bygone years can be reused to build new fences; those cedar rails last forever. It is a matter of dismantling the broken-down panels, saving the good rails and using them to build new ones. 

There is a consistent way to put each panel together. First two pickets are set up at an angle on top of the lead rail. These pickets are six feet six inches long. The lead rail is hung off the two picket legs at each end creating a saddle for the top rail. A fence jack is used at each end to temporarily hold up the lead rail while the other pickets and rails are placed. 

Then the bunk rail is tied onto the two picket legs. The bunk rail stops the picket legs from spreading and helps take the load of the bottom rail. The bottom rail sits on top of the two bunk crosser rails at each end of the panel. Then two more picket legs are stacked at 40 degrees to the first two pickets at each end of the panel. I find that when these pickets are spread out a bit more than 45 degrees, they are more likely to resist the wind. At 30 degrees, the wind blows them over. Now the legs are in place to receive the top rail. The filler rail is then hung off the lead rail above the bottom rail.  In all, there are nine cedar pieces per panel: four pickets at one end and five rails. 

Black fence wire is used to tie all the rails and pickets together. There is a great deal of labour involved in building this style of fence. The good thing is that these cedar rail fences last over 30 years and even longer. 

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