Complete step by step guide to Design and build a custom gate & fence in Los Angeles

Overview: Project scope, design and key tools

Good fences may make good neighbors, but an ugly, flimsy or poorly built one won't make anyone happy. This fence, on the other hand, is durable, handsome and sure to please everyone. Rules in most regions require that the best sides face out (toward the neighbors), but our fence is designed to look good from both sides.

We used treated 4x4s for long-lasting posts and “sandwich” construction for the panels for strength and easier assembly. This fence isn't cheap compared with the cost of a fence built from preassembled panels from a home center. But this fence has thicker, higher quality wood, more detail and better fasteners than any store-bought selection. And we designed it so anyone who can handle a circular saw and level can build it.

In this article, we'll show you how to line up and set posts, build sturdy panels and construct elegant, no-sag gates that are wide enough for a lawn tractor to pass through. We'll also share tips on achieving solid footings, secure connection and fastening methods and staining that'll ensure trouble-free decades of service. This project doesn't require a pickup load of expensive tools either. Aside from the standard posthole digging implements and basic carpentry tools, you'll only need a circular saw, a screw gun and a 4-ft. level. But to really speed up assembly, get a 15-gauge trim nailer with 1-1/2-in. galvanized nails to nail on the pickets and panel boards (Photos 11 and 12). The nails hold everything together until you permanently screw the upper and bottom rail pieces together (Photo 13). A table saw also comes in handy for ripping panel boards to width where needed (Photo 11).

Step 1: Get design approval and mark property lines

Start with city hall. Most likely you'll need to apply for a fence permit from the local building inspections department, so begin by picking up the application along with the local fence regulations. The regulations will include setback requirements from your property lines to the fence and maximum allowable heights. These details will likely vary for front and backyard fences and can even be different for houses on corners or adjacent to busy streets, so study them carefully. You'll probably be required to submit a fence plan with the completed application. The plan should be a dimensioned overview of your property that clearly shows your property lines along with your proposed fence outline and its heights and distances from the property lines. Any other details that are required will be covered in the regulations or permit application.

If you live in a “planned” community or subdivision, you may also have to submit the same information to a planning committee for approval. The committee's regulations can be even more rigorous than the city's and may govern materials choices, colors and even the final design. Ignore regulations at your own peril. Build a fence without either planning committee or city approval and you risk having to tear it down and rebuild it.

Mark your property lines Start by finding and marking your property stakes. One will be found at each corner and anywhere your property makes a jog. You can either find the stakes on your own or hire a surveyor. It's not hard to find and mark them yourself by renting a metal detector and scanning the areas where you think they are. If the detector indicates one, dig down to make sure it's a steel stake instead of some other buried metallic object. A good tip is to go to city hall and ask for a copy of the “Certificate of Survey.” It will show the exact stake locations.

While you're waiting for the permit, call to have underground utility lines marked. (The building department will have one number for you to call to have all lines marked.) Everyone but the cable company marked their lines for us, and guess what? Shortly after starting the postholes, there was no more History Channel for a while.

Figure A: Fence Assembly Details

Note: You can download Figure A and enlarge it in Additional Information below.

Fence assembly details

Step 2: Lay out the fence posts

Establish the corners and mark posts

Stretch a string line along the fence line, using “batter boards” to establish the corners. Drive stakes to mark postholes every 6 ft.

With permit in hand and your property lines staked, begin laying out your post locations. String your lines 1-3/4 in. away from the fence center line to mark the edge of the 4×4 posts (Photo 1).Drive stakes every 6 ft. to mark the center of each posthole. Set aside the string and dig 3-ft.deep, 8-in.wide postholes; tamp the bottom of each hole to firm up any loose soil; and pour about 6 in. of gravel into each hole. Then reattach the string and mark the exact post locations at 6-ft. increments (Photo 2).Mark one side of each post rather than the center so you can line up post edges when setting them (Photo 2).

Strive for evenly spaced posts, and don't forget to position posts spaced to fit each gate size. The object is to space all posts about the same distance apart, which may mean adding or subtracting a full panel and lengthening or shortening the other panels. In our case, we added short, slightly different panels on both sides of the gate to make up the difference in the side part of the yard (opening photo). Our fence design will work well for any fence panels up to 8 ft. wide, but you'll have to adjust your materials list accordingly if you choose a panel width other than 6 ft.

Step 3: Set the posts

Plumb and brace the posts

Drop the posts into the holes and align one side along the string and the corners with the marks. Plumb them, bracing them in two directions.

Plan on enlisting some help for this step, since it's practically impossible to set, plumb and brace posts on your own. Rest each 10-ft. long 4×4 on the gravel base, and then screw a couple of 1×4 braces near the top of the post and drive stakes into the ground near the end of the braces (Photo 3). Line up the post edge with the string line mark and plumb the post in both directions while your helper screws the braces to the stakes. This takes some patience. Most likely you'll have to unscrew the braces and make fine adjustments. Take your time: Nicely aligned posts make for a professional looking fence. When each side is complete, stand behind one of the end posts, shut one eye and look for posts that are misaligned— there are bound to be a couple of rogues! Perfection isn't necessary, but fix any posts that are more than 1/2 in. out of alignment.

Posts that flank gates demand extra care during plumbing and bracing. It's nearly impossible to build smooth-swinging gates between posts that are out of plumb or misaligned.

With everything aligned, mix concrete and pour it around each post, heaping it about 1 in. or so above grade (Photo 4).Use a trowel or wide putty knife to smooth and slope the top slightly away from the post to shed water. Wait until the next day so the concrete can set up before you move on to the next step: building the panels.

Prestain the wood for durability and a clean look Make no mistake about it: Staining your fence will take nearly as long as assembling the panels! Stain the wood before cutting and assembly and you'll not only get a cleaner look with better coverage but also save hours of staining time. You can coat all the edges super fast before the boards are installed.

One way to speed up the process is to use a roller with a 1/2-in.nap sleeve. Pour a couple of gallons of stain into a 5-gallon pail and hang a roller screen ($3) from the side of the pail to load the stain onto the roller. Lay out the boards on sawhorses and stack five or so boards side by side on edge to roll several edges at once, then flip them over and stain the other edge. Roll out both of the flat sides and roll out any runs. Then set the boards aside on a couple of long 2x4s to dry. Apply the second coat. To help your fence last rot-free for years, brush stain on the edges and ends of the boards after cutting. That'll keep water out of the end grain where most rot begins.

It takes a lot of stain to cover rough-sawn cedar. Figure on about a gallon of high-quality latex stain for every 12 ft. of fence.

Step 4: Level and install the lower rails

Add pairs of 1 x 4s to the posts

Nail 8-ft. 1x4s to the panel sides of the posts as shown, using pairs of 2-in. siding nails spaced every 8 in. Allow 1/2-in. clearance at the ground.

Our panels average 6 ft. high, depending on the grade. That's high enough for visual