At one point in my welding career, I worked for a custom metalworking shop that specialized in railings, furniture, and fencing. The painful and difficult builds were wrought iron-look fences on sloping yards. I would have to find an angle that looked good and didn’t leave too much of a gap, then calculate an angle for the pickets. Since natural slopes tend to have multiple angles, I would have to redo the calculations for each section, and if I was a degree off I’d have to cut the whole thing apart and start over.
For a very long time, a custom-built fence like the ones I worked on was the best fence for a sloped yard. It was, and is, time-consuming to install, with even experienced fence builders regularly miscalculating. Since a miscalculation means recutting top and bottom rails and pickets, this added the cost of wasted materials to the costs of labor. It all adds up, and the homeowner either paid the expense, or they made do with another common solution to the uneven yard problem: a stepped fence.
The Problems with Stepping a Fence
Often, if homeowners or installers don’t want to spend time and money custom-building a fence, they use a technique called stepping. Instead of angling the rails and pickets of the fence to match the changing elevations of a sloping yard, stepping involves installing the fence panels horizontally. The changes in elevation are made up for by extending the posts and hanging the fences at a height that clears the ground beneath. This technique is called stepping because the resulting fence has a profile that looks like a set of stairs. As the image to the right shows, stepping is used on wood and other material fences as well as steel ones.
There are many issues that arise from stepping. Since the horizontal fence panels have to clear the highest point of ground beneath them, this can create gaps beneath long sections of fence that can allow pets and small children to squeeze under, negating many of the reasons for a fence in the first place. The solution is to place additional posts closer together, cut each panel shorter than usual, and mount each section as low as possible while still keeping it horizontal. This is just stepping using more posts, and many homeowners don’t like the way it looks. It doesn’t always close the gap between the fence and the ground, either. However, it is undeniably easier, quicker, and cheaper than paying for a custom fence. For a long time, there was no third option besides stepping a fence or having it custom built. This made it difficult to find attractive fencing that looked like wrought iron and wasn’t expensive and tedious to have installed. But a new development has made contoured fences easier for both professional installers and DIYers.
The Best Fence for a Sloped Yard Has Rackable Panels
The new development, circa 2000, is rackable fence panels. These are fence panels in which each picket is attached to the top and bottom rails with a hinge. The mounts are placed in the appropriate places on each post, when the fence section is anchored to these mounts, the pickets simply adjust to the appropriate angle automatically. This is quite a bit easier than the traditional way of individually measuring and cutting each piece of the fence to match the slope. It removes most of the math too, and places it within the skill level of most DIYers, making it much easier to get a great looking fence without gaps on a sloped yard. I had something close to a religious experience the first time I saw one of these racking panels, and I imagine most people who’ve had to build custom fencing will react similarly. This type of fence is one of the easiest fences to install yourself, and one of the best looking, too.
As amazing as rackable fences are, there are just a couple things to keep in mind with this type of fence.
- First, there are limits to the angles that rackable fence panels can be adjusted to fit. The pickets’ ability to swing to match an angle is limited by the amount of space available to move in the top and bottom rails. This varies by manufacturer, but a slope of about 65 degrees is around the maximum angle that rackable fences can adjust to. On very steep slopes, the same strategy used in stepping fences may be useful with rackable fences as well.
- Another thing to keep in mind is that the space between the pickets actually shrinks as the angle gets steeper. This means that on very steeply sloped yards, the pickets may get so close together that they could possibly look mismatched when compared with the same fence panels on level ground. For most homeowners and on most terrain, though, this will not be noticeable.
Despite these considerations, rackable fencing is something of a miracle, putting a fence that contours to the terrain within the reach of most homeowners’ skills and budget. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that quality can vary across rackable fencing. Manufacturers often place pivoting hinges through the rails, creating visible pivot points that can be seen from at least one side of the fence. Since these hinges pull on the rails, this can result in a wavy-looking rail with indentations surrounding the hinges. Cheap, non-rackable railing sections have this issue as well sometimes, with screws or other fasteners being clearly visible on at least one side and causing similar indentations. A quality fencing system will be designed to keep pivots and fasteners tucked inside the rails where they can’t be seen.
A good example of one of these high-quality systems is the Versai fence from Fortress Fence. This is a rackable fencing system with perfectly smooth rails on both sides of the fence, so it looks just as sharp from the inside as it does from the outside. It will also stay looking beautiful because of Fortress’ special multi-layer coating, which uses an e-coat and a powder coat on top of pre-galvanized steel to keep rust at bay. I appreciate this kind of attention to detail when I install a fence, and the homeowners I work with do, too. Fortress Building Products carries this thoughtfulness through all their product lines, from the Hulk hidden fasteners that give Infinity composite decking a seamless look, to the hidden tensioners that keep Fortress cable railings taut without exposing any ugly hardware.
Image source: Flickr CC user Jeremy Levine