Building Rustic Fences

Jane Smith

Fences were one of the earliest indicators of ownership. From the living hedgerows of England to the stacked-trunk worm fences of Lincoln-era America, to the white picket fences surrounding Cape Cod cottages, fences have been made of a variety of materials.

Rustic fences take elements from hedgerows, worm fences and picket fences to create a range of looks that complement all but the most modern homes. They use wood that has not been milled or kiln-dried, sometimes with the bark still attached. Rustic fences are often constructed using mortise and tenon joinery, with the tenon going all the way through the mortised piece. The joint is usually pinned or bolted for added stability.

No Trespassing

Building Rustic Fences


Cut your fence wood a year ahead, and store it in the rafters of your shed or garage until it has time to season. Do not leave it outdoors in the weather, or it will crack, draw insects or grow mold, all of which will weaken the wood and greatly reduce the lifetime utility of your fence. When the wood has had time to dry, decide whether to use a stacked construction, typical of worm fences, or a mortise and tenon joint.


A stacked worm fence does not require fence posts, saving a great deal of labor. Rails are stacked at an angle to one another, with the ends overlapped and crossed 6 to 10 inches. The fence gets its name from the back-and-forth shape resulting from the crossed poles. The irregular construction does not appeal to everyone, however, and may not pass muster with your neighborhood association. For best aesthetic results, use rails that are as uniform in diameter and length as possible. Drill a 1-inch hole from the top of the stack to the bottom, and slide a length of rebar through the posts. Pound it into the ground 1 to 2 feet, to anchor it securely.

A second design uses posts with the bark still attached, as far apart as 8 feet. Three mortises are cut into the post, about a foot apart, and the tenons of three split rails are then thrust into each post. This type looks good with the larger, Federal-style farmhouses of the 1850s.

A third style uses a top and bottom rail with a mortise and tenon joint and two crossed rails. These fences are typical of the haciendas of the Old West. Posts are spaced about 6 to 8 feet apart, and the cross point is reinforced with an upright brace. This is the strongest of the three types and is often used for fencing horse pastures and building gates.