Tacoma Construction Blog

The Wilder Outdoor Spaces blog is a place to be inspired. We share the places we go, things that inspire us, designs we love, tricks of the trade and of course the construction projects we design and build in Tacoma, WA.

Fences: More Expensive Now = Less Expensive Later

We’ve been building fences our whole life. In our experience there’s 3 main reasons why fences fail: low quality lumber, incorrect fasteners and bad footings. The point of this blog post is to outline the 3 reasons in detail, but first let us tell you why you should care. When we started Wilder, we decided that we were going to make designing and building quality projects our priority, even if that meant we would have to charge more to maintain a higher quality of materials and craftsmanship. Deciding to be more expensive as business owner is scary. It means that we lose a large percentage of jobs to other fence companies who are willing to build fast, low quality fences with cheaper materials and unskilled labor. It often feels like a race to the bottom competing for who is willing to be the least scrupulous and deliver the worst product. The toughest part about these budget fences is that they only last 5-10 years max, so they ended up being extremely wasteful and more costly overall when you end up having to re-build down the road.

At the end of the day we decided we weren’t going to play the cheap fence game. It’s more important for us to be able to stand by everything we build and know that it is constructed with the best available materials, then to chase more money building things we can’t stand behind. Below is a few of the reasons why the average fence fails and how our fences are built to avoid these common issues. Yes ,that does mean that our fences cost more to build up front, but if you take into account the longer lifespan of our fences with proper maintenance, we think it’s a much better deal in the long term.

Cedar Lattice Fence

Lumber

Most local fence companies use ugly, low quality, pressure treated posts and framing for their fence installations. We’re not fans, and we’ll tell you why. Not only does the dark orange pressure treated wood just look aesthetically bad in contrast to the light blonde colored cedar fencing, but the poor quality pressure treated lumber is consistently the failing point of almost every old fence we visit. So why do people use pressure treated wood? Well, there’s only one real reason why people use pressure treated lumber… price. To put it simply, it’s the cheapest lumber rated for outdoor use.

To give some context, at Lowes today, an 8’ long pressure treated 4x4 is currently priced at $13. The next step up from that in lumber quality, is going to be a cedar 4x4 which at the moment comes in at over double the price at $27. So, now you’re probably wondering why the huge difference in price? Well, most pressure treated wood is low grade, cheap pine lumber, that is chemically treated to resist rot, fungus, and insects. The main disadvantage of this product is that because it's cut from cheap, low quality pine, it's not the best wood to be outside. The chemical treatment can only do so much, and since pine is not naturally strong, stable or resistant to bugs, rot and fungus like cedar or hardwoods are, it has a tendency to rot, decay very fast, swell, crack, split, and warp (see photo below). Due to all of the negatives of pressure treated lumber we don’t use it at all for our fence builds.

Rotting pressure treated fence posts

We decided when we launched Wilder that even though it’s more than double the price compared to pressure treated lumber, we were going to build all of our fences with quality tight knot cedar from top to bottom, including the fence framing and posts. We do this for several reasons. The first and most important, is that the tannins and oils that occur naturally in cedar make it inherently resistant to rot, decay, and insects, so it doesn’t need to be chemically treated like pressure treated lumber. It also extremely lightweight, remarkably stable outdoors and less prone to warping and splitting than pressure treated pine. What does that mean in the real world? Well, that means with proper maintenance and care it will last much longer, and look better than it’s pressure treated competitor. Lastly, building a fence with cedar fence boards, cedar posts and framing, gives the fence a more cohesive and visually appealing look, highlighting cedars distinct color and natural beauty.

One last bit about Cedar. It comes in many different grades. The highest and most expensive grade, is called clear cedar. This has no knots, fewer imperfections and less variations in color. As you move down the grades of cedar, the wood gets less expensive, but it becomes knottier with more imperfections and variations in color. Most local fence companies use the cheapest grade cedar fence boards available, unless you specifically request them to use better lumber. At Wilder, we never use the cheapest grade of fencing. We always use #2 and better, which is mid-grade cedar free from most imperfections.


Fasteners

Most local fence companies build their fences with the cheapest fasteners that are the easiest/fastest to install. While there isn’t exactly a standard fastener, in our experience most Tacoma fence companies typically use smooth shank galvanized nails for framing. These are the cheapest outdoor rated fasteners available on the market, and in our opinion a poor choice. There’s several reasons why we don’t use these fasteners. The main reason is that these nails don’t hold up as well in the fence framing as exterior screws do. The extreme temperature fluctuations we get here in the PNW combined with lots of wet weather mean that the lumber the fence is built from is going to expand and contract, which over time slowly pulls the nails right out of the lumber. You can help stop this by using a galvanized ring shank nail which slows the nail from pulling out, but even then the expansion and contraction will eventually win. This is why we use quality exterior decking screws for all of our fence framing, which prevents the framing from pulling away from the posts.

Beyond the problem we already outlined about using galvanized nails for fence framing, there is a completely different reason why galvanized nails are a problem in picket installation. That reason is that galvanized nails corrode in water and will eventually rust out completely. Since it is VERY wet here in the PNW, as time passes that corrosion slowly drips down the face of the fence board leaving a dark streak (see photo below) on your brand new fence. Due to this corrosion and nasty streaking, we always install fencing with top notch stainless steel fasteners. Not only does it look better, but it last longer, insuring that we get the most life possible out of our fence builds.

Galvanized nails dripping on cedar fence

Footings

One of the regular failing points of fences we see is at the footing, where the fence post meets the ground. Many people, including fence builders have no idea how to properly set the concrete footing for fence posts. What do people usually do? Well, there is no official standard. We have seen some folks throw gravel around the post as opposed to concrete. We’ve witnessed others throw the concrete in the hole dry and then pour water over the top. The most common thing we see is people mix up concrete, install the post, pour it in and move on to the next one. All of these are all incorrect in our experience, but the last one is almost there! The proper way we insure you get the longest life out of your fence posts is to pre-mix concrete, set the post in the hole, pour in concrete, then after allowing the footing to harden for 20-30 minutes we add a small sloping layer on top of the concrete to allow water to run away from the post base. This prevents the PNW rain water from sitting at the base of the post which will lead premature rotting of the post over time.