I spent my summers at a camp by a lake when I was a kid. The family that owned the camp owned most of the land surrounding the lake save for one plot that was privately owned. We used to cut through this private property when we found ourselves at either end of the camp, since it was easier than walking all the way back around the lake.
The owner must have gotten tired of this because one year we discovered a fence in our way. The fence was a wooden privacy fence with panels installed level—or perfectly horizontal—on the slope down to the lake, leaving large gaps beneath the fence at intervals. We’d casually crawl through one of these gaps, stroll across the property to the other side, and go through a hole some thoughtful camper made by knocking a few boards loose. A fence that matched the slope and was built of a stronger material would have stopped us. Given the size of the property, rackable steel fence panels would have been the best choice to keep the yard securely fenced and mischievous camp kids out.
How to Build a Fence on a Slope
There are two methods of building fences on slopes. The first is the technique used by my old summer camp’s neighbor: stepping. In order to step a fence you first anchor posts into the ground plumb, or perfectly vertical. You then install the panels level across the posts as low as the angle of the slope will allow you to.
The result is a fence with an uneven profile that climbs the slope like steps. It’s not the prettiest look for a fence, and some have argued that the best fence for a sloped yard is one that doesn’t need to be stepped on the basis of looks alone. The real issue, though, is what happened at my summer camp, when the dropping slope left an easy way through the fence. Gaps like this are the result of a change in the angle of the slope beneath a fence panel, or a slope where the angle is too steep to close the gap to a reasonable size.
The way to match a fence to its slope is to rack it. Racking means adjusting the fence’s rails so that it matches the slope beneath it while the pickets and posts remain vertical. To rack a fence you’ll need to:
- Measure the angle of the slope, and then calculate the angle of the cuts that are needed on the rails.
- Cut the rails and hang them on the posts.
- Attach each picket individually once all the rails are installed.
A properly racked fence will follow the slope of the ground as much as possible, leaving little space beneath the fence, and creating a smooth profile unlike the jagged look of ‘stepped’ fences.
Problems with Racking Fences On-Site
The issue with racking a fence is that getting the correct angles on the rails is as much an art as a science. In situations where the slope changes beneath a fence panel, like I mentioned earlier, it’s neither angle of the slope beneath can be used and it’s the installers best guess. If the installer makes the wrong guess, then he has to start over with new pieces. If he guesses right, then he begins the process of attaching each individual picket to the rails. Racking a fence the traditional way takes a significant amount of time, and this translates into increased costs in labor even if the installer is experienced and gets all the measurements right.
Racking is tedious and time-consuming even with a wooden fence, and wood is a material that can be worked with hand tools and replaced with a trip to the local hardware store. When you’re building a fence out of something like steel, racking is even more difficult. Steel is a strong material, and as a direct consequence it’s much harder to work than wood and requires special tools and skills. Steel fence components are also usually a special order, and therefore harder to replace if a mistake is made. This means that racking a traditionally-made wrought iron-look steel fence is an exceptionally long process. For this reason, steel fences have typically been either stepped or too expensive for a lot of properties. However, rackable steel fence panels speed things up, making adjusting the fence to a slope quite a bit easier.
Installing a Fence with Rackable Steel Fence Panels
Rackable fence panels are modular fence panels purpose-built to make matching a slope much easier. They work by attaching the pickets to the rails of the fence using pivots that allow the pickets and rails to adjust to any angle. To install a rackable fence, you simply anchor the fence posts and measure the distance from the ground to the mounts as you would on flat terrain. Holding one end of the panel to these marks on the post with clamps, or a helper, you then line up the rails with the marks on the next post over. The pivots then allow the rail to adjust to meet the angle. You can then attach mounts to the posts and cut the panel to length and install it.
The whole process is significantly easier than building a fence—even a wooden fence—piece by piece. However, there are some drawbacks. Inevitably, the pivots will be weaker than a welded joint. And, in order to allow the pickets to pivot there has to be some space for them to move in the rails. These spaces also reduce some of the fence’s strength, especially on lower quality fences.
For these reasons, it’s important, especially if you’re choosing a rackable steel fence for security, to look for a high-quality system made by a trustworthy and thorough manufacturer. Lower-quality rackable fences will be weaker than others, and poorly-designed pivots can damage the coating of the fence, leaving the steel beneath vulnerable to rust. Rails and pickets that are slightly smaller than the standard—or advertised—dimensions can also make for a weak fence. Discerning homeowners looking for a sturdy, secure, and attractive fence should take care to buy something well-designed with robust pieces.
Fortress Fence’s Versai fence is an example of a sturdy—and sharp looking—residential fence with true ⅝ inch pickets and rails that are one and 3/16-inch by one inch for added durability. A hidden pivot hinge keeps the rail perfectly smooth and won’t damage the unique multilayer coating–pre-galvanization, zinc precoat, e-coating, and powder coating– that will keep your fence strong and looking good year after year. To find out more about Versai or Fortress Fence’s other steel fence products, contact them or look for an installer near you. For more beautiful, durable, and thoughtfully-engineered outdoor products, take a look at Fortress’ full catalog.