If you’re in the market for a new fence at your home, you might be considering a question or two:
- What style of fence do you want?
- What height fence do you want?
- What material fence do you want?
The first and most important thing, in my humble opinion, is to take a moment to check your attitude about the fence project. Do you really “get” the opportunity a new fence provides? Or are you stuck in a “let’s just get this overwith” mentality?
It’s pretty common for a fence to be considered in terms of utility only. We think of what we want to keep in the yard, what we want to keep out of the yard, and maybe what lines of sight we want to block for privacy or to hide something we don’t want to see.
Those are all important, but it’s also important to remember that a fence is a huge design opportunity. A fence is essentially a wall out in the yard and therefore an important and very visible surface. Even mostly see-through fences, such as you might see around a pool area, are still very much a part of the landscape design. (hence the term “hardscape”) Keep the design implications in mind when thinking of fence options. The exciting opportunity to create a beautiful outdoor space is awesome.
What Material is Best for Fencing?
The last question above… what material should the new fence be made of?… can be a little bit complicated because the options are many. Let’s try and sort through it together.
To get a first-hand look at the latest and greatest options in fencing, I rode around the corner to The Home Depot to see what they had to offer. I’m pretty much a Home Depot native so not much surprises me, but the fencing options available were more numerous than even I expected. Thankfully, Kenny, the department manager in charge of the fencing section was immediately at my side offering assistance. Being all “Remodeling Guy” I didn’t think I needed any help, but Kenny was actually a wealth of information and pointed out some products I wasn’t aware of and pointed me toward the helpful fencing and deck section of HomeDepot.com which is a great resource.
I looked at wood fencing, metal fencing, pvc fencing, and even some really cool composite fence panels and I can’t really say any one is “the best”. The truth is that it depends on the job you’re trying to do and the priorities of your particular project. So I’ll run through the list of the most popular options and point out what type of project it’s best for.
Available in time-saving pre-assembled panels or by selecting the parts and building the entire fence from scratch, wood fencing has a number of great advantages over the other options.
- Wood is easier to work with
- Wood is generally less expensive than other options
- Wood can be painted or stained for more color options
- Wood can be shaped and easily cut for creative design reasons or to fit odd conditions such as slope
On the downside, wood has some drawbacks as well, most notably that wood is prone to rot and insect damage. To minimize the chance of these types of damage, almost all wood fences are made out of weather and insect resistant woods, such as:
- Pressure Treated Lumber – Usually pine (sometimes referred to as SYP or Southern Yellow Pine), pressure treated lumber has been treated with chemicals which soak into the wood and make it more resistant to rot and bugs. Pressure treated lumber comes in various grades and the grade used for most fencing is durable, but not totally impervious to constant exposure to the outdoors.
- Naturally Resistant Lumber – Some species of wood are naturally resistant to the perils of outdoor life. These woods are generally somewhat regional, meaning you might see one species common in one part of the country and hardly available in other parts. Here are a few of the most common species of wood used in fencing:
- Cypress – Common in my neck of the woods (Florida and the South), cypress is relatively durable but generally not ok for direct ground contact.
- Cedar – Usually available in most areas, cedar has excellent insect resistance and is a very beautiful wood, however it’s quite costly and not as structurally strong as many other woods.
- Redwood – Redwood is a great material for fences in areas that aren’t constantly wet, but redwood is also expensive and usually a special order everywhere except the west coast.
- Tropical Hardwoods – Some tropical woods such as Ipe’ are used in high-end fencing project. Ipe is totally impervious to pretty much any damage from bugs or water because it is very hard. So hard, in fact, that it’s hard or impossible to work with standard tools.
Environmentally speaking, pressure treated lumber is the most renewable resource since it’s sourced from fast growing pine lumber plantations. To my knowledge, all of the other wood options are from old-growth lumber which means logging can have some negative environmental impact.
The Home Depot had a huge selection of pressure treated fence materials. Various styles of panels, parts, and straight lumber were available and the kind of fence you could make with them ranges from entry level privacy fence all the way to a top-end custom creation. Overall pressure treated is best for you if you:
- Like to work with wood, are comfortable with woodworking tools, etc.
- Want some ability to add custom elements to your fence
- Live in an area with termites, wet conditions, and heavy exposure to the elements
- Want to paint your fence (aka don’t need the clear finished wood look) or are happy with the natural color of pressure treated lumber
- Prefer to stay away from old-growth lumber
- Are on a tight budget (the least expensive options are PT)
Naturally Resistant Softwood and Hardwood Fencing is Best for you if:
- You Like to work with wood, are comfortable with woodworking tools, etc.
- Want some ability to add custom elements to your fence
- Are building a fence without direct ground contact (on concrete piers, on a wood deck, etc.)
- Want the deep beautiful wood tones of natural lumber
- Can afford to pay the extra cost associated with this type of material
Vinyl fencing has been steadily gaining in popularity for about twenty years and is now one of the most frequently chosen residential fence options. Generally sold in panels along with essential parts such as posts, post caps, gates, and hardware, Vinyl fencing is offered in a wide range of pre-assembled styles. My favorite is the solid panels with about one foot of open lattice on top (also Vinyl).
Most of the Vinyl fencing you’ll see is solid white in color, which goes all the way through the material helping it survive dings and scrapes, but is also available in other colors.
Vinyl fencing is best for you if you:
- Prefer the clean white look of Vinyl
- Don’t want to worry about painting or other maintenance
- Don’t want to worry about bug damage or rot (Vinyl is impervious to both)
- Are comfortable with a tape measure and setting posts in concrete (post placement is important)
- Have a little bit of extra money to spend
As has happened in the world of wood decking, special man made materials, aka ‘composites’, are a growing option in the fencing world. Unlike vinyl which is generally limited to smooth surfaces, composites can be formed into unique shapes and patterns such as the one shown in the picture below, available as a special order from The Home Depot.
Composite fencing is best for you if you:
- Are comfortable with a higher-end budget
- Want a unique look that blends a better with the landscape as compared to PVC (Vinyl)
- Require a totally maintenance free and long-term type finished product
- Will have professional installers or are a relatively skilled DIYer (the posts in a fence like shown above must be exactly spaced, plumb, and square)
Last but not least is the vast range of metal fencing options available.
- Chain Link Fence
- Wire Fence (chicken wire, farm wire, barbed wire, etc)
- Aluminum Fence
- Wrought Iron
Metal fencing, especially aluminum, can be a great residential option in areas where durability and weather resistance is key. Often seen around pools and outdoor living areas such as courtyards, aluminum is generally only available as a professionally installed option.
Other types of metal fencing, on the other hand, such as chain-link and wire fencing options are great DIY projects which shouldn’t be counted out without consideration. If you’re creative, a combination of wood and metal wire can result in a great looking fence that’s unique, durable, functional, and inexpensive.
It All Depends on You!
If nothing else, I hope this article opens up your mind a little bit to the possibilities available to you when building a fence. The options are vast and the potential to create a beautiful and inspiring outdoor space is very real. I’d suggest you do like I did… head out to The Home Depot and take a look at what they have. Keep an open mind and think creatively. You’re bound to come up with something awesome!