How to Build a Privacy Panel Fence

Dear James: I just moved into a house with a small lot. I would like some privacy in the backyard, so I want to build a panel fence. The yard slopes, so please give me some advice on building it myself. — Ron P.

Dear Ron: There are several designs of privacy fences, depending on the degree of privacy that you desire. They are not difficult to build, but you will probably need a helper to handle the 4-by-4 posts and dig some of the postholes. This is definitely backbreaking work.

Before you run out to the home center and start buying materials, do some careful planning and layout work. First and foremost, contact your local zoning office to check on the allowable fence heights, setback from the lot line, designs and materials. There have been many fences built that are later torn out because they violate zoning codes.

Second, in order to keep the peace, talk with your neighbors about what you have planned. Even though it is your decision to make, talking with them is the courteous thing to do. If you are allowed to put the fence on the lot line, they may even offer to help pay for the materials. If so, make sure to put in writing who is responsible for the maintenance.

There are basically three types of privacy fencing that you can easily build yourself. A solid fence will give you complete privacy. The vertical pickets are attached very close together so it is difficult to see between them.

Another option is a semi-privacy fence, with small spaces between the pickets. This may provide enough privacy for your needs and it will allow some airflow through it. Since there are open areas, less wood is used and the material costs may be lower.

The third design option is a shadowbox fence. On this design, the pickets are spaced apart, but alternated on either side of the fence to give complete privacy without restricting airflow. Your neighbors may also like this better because both sides of the fence look identical and attractive.

Armed with the above knowledge, go into your backyard and mark the locations of the corners of the fence with stakes. Drive a nail in the stakes and stretch layout strings between them to establish the line of the fence.

Since your lot slopes, you have two options for following the slope: the parallel method and the step method. In the parallel method, the top and bottom fence rails follow the slope of the ground. This requires that you attach each vertical picket individually to the top and bottom horizontal rails.

Your best bet is probably to use a step method and preassembled fencing panels. Each complete panel is attached to the fence posts so that the top is level. Then each successive panel is stepped down on the post to follow the slope. This leaves a gap between the ground and the lower end of each panel. The height of the gap depends on the degree of the slope.

Select your preassembled panels and carefully measure the length of each one. Mark each panel with a number. The lengths of each panel will determine the spacing of the 4-by-4 posts. Drive locator stakes, touching the string, in the ground at the post locations.

Once the postholes are dug, place the pressure-treated posts in them. Use a level on the posts to make sure that they are vertical. Use 2-by-4 bracing pieces to hold the posts in place. Pour in the concrete and mound it up a little against the post. When set, after two days, nail on the preassembled panels.

Send your questions to Here’s How, 6906 Royalgreen Dr., Cincinnati, OH 45244 or visit