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The Ultimate Guide to Fence Pickets and Wood Fence Panels

Photo by Daniel Lloyd Blunk-Fernández

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What do you think of when you think of a white picket fence?

If you’re like most Americans, one specific vision comes to mind: the middle-class vision of suburban idyll, a symbol of Americana and the quiet good life.

Fence pickets have a long history in the U.S., along with a storied reputation. Years after settlers first brought picket fences with them across the ocean, homeowners are still turning to picket fences as a classic, aesthetically pleasing fence option.

But before you pick out your wood fence panels, it helps to know what you’re signing up for. Here’s everything you need to know before you pick your own fence pickets.

How White Picket Fences Became Shorthand for Americana

The white picket fence is more than just a practical enclosure–it’s also a complicated slice of the American Dream, a symbol of Americana toward which American attitudes have ebbed and flowed over time.

On one hand, it’s presented as the cherry on top of a picturesque American life (see George Bailey wooing Mary Hatch in front of a white picket fence in It’s a Wonderful Life). On the other hand, you have the 2013 premier of The Americans, which cuts to the front lawn of undercover Russian spies set off by white pickets indicating a veneer of pristine American suburbia.

Board to Death: The Old World Piquet

One upon a time, the white picket fence meant something quite different: war.

Back in the old days and the Old Country, pickets, which get their name from the French piquets, were exclusively used in battlefields. Soldiers used sharpened logs, or piquets, to shield archers from cavalry and keep the other side out of their camps. For a simple tool, it was surprisingly effective.

Then again, they weren’t protecting their side from missiles. At worst, they were protecting their soldiers from other soldiers wielding piquets.

Colonial Beginnings

When European settlers came to America, they brought the idea of the piquet with them as a way to demarcate and defend the land they claimed. So, they turned to a classic and erected picket fences, which were at the time just rough wooden fences sharpened at one end into pickets. These were bare or painted white.

In time, the demarcation stuck, though not everyone could afford to whitewash their fences–the paint was hard to come by and expensive to boot. As such, having a fence painted white was a symbol of prosperity, indicating that you either had time on your hands to maintain whitewashed wood or you had the money to buy someone else’s time.

Then again, have things really changed that much since then?

Of course, not everyone was pleased about this. A landscape pioneer, Andrew Jackson Downing, denounced them in 1841 as, “an abomination among the fresh fields, of which no person of taste could be found guilty.”

Even with Downing out to burn white pickets on a pire, white pickets prevailed as the nation continued to spread westward and colonize. Newfangled “suburbs” in the late 1800s briefly made borderless front yards trendy, but they were no match for Colonial Revival style, which appeared around the 1876 centennial and left descendants nostalgic for, well, colonialism.

How the White Picket Fence Became a Symbol of Middle Class Prosperity

Even so, the white picket fence didn’t become a symbol of middle class prosperity and a shorthand for American suburban tranquility until around the 1950s.

In the mid-1950s, postwar America, suburbia was the place to be. In the aftermath of World War II, the idea of a quieter, simpler life that was in the city but not quite in the city sounded like nirvana.

This is also the era when television became widespread, which meant conformity played a big role in the rapid rise of the white picket fence. When everyone was watching the middle-class fairytale of popular shows like Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch (elegant housewives with witty comebacks, rambunctious kids), everyone wanted to live in that fairytale.

That fairytale was, invariably, surrounded by a white picket fence. And so the white picket fence slipped into the American consciousness as a symbol of the good life, a not-quite-urban idyll where the worst thing that could happen is the kids getting too rowdy.

Security Over Charm

The Cold War brought an end to that vision of the American middle-class idyll for one simple reason: Americans no longer wanted a fence that looked peaceful because they didn’t feel peaceful. They wanted to feel safe, and the Cold War left many Americans scrambling for that sense of security.

And so, suburban fences came to reflect that. Instead of a neighborly white picket that was just enough to keep the kids and dog in while still having a friendly chat with the neighbors, Americans increasingly opted for the greater perceived security of chain-link fences and spiked metal.

If it seems disinviting, that’s because it was. The country was no longer in post-war bliss. Instead, we transitioned into pre-war fear and apprehension, and we wanted a sense of security surrounding our families. Our fencing choices were a reflection of that.

Revival in White

If that was the case, how did the white picket fence find its way back into the American consciousness?

That’s to the credit of the 1980s, when New Urbanist developers tried to recreate the appearance of walkable early suburbs, and picket fences are still used today as a callback to suburbia of yesteryear. And while “the good old days” were no less complex than today, the white picket fence remains a visual shorthand for the American good life.

Anatomy of a White Picket Fence

This brings us to the picket fences of today.

Fence pickets haven’t changed that much since the 1950s when they became an Americana icon. The whole idea of fence pickets is a fence that doesn’t lock other people out, the opposite of an alienating barrier. It’s a fence that can keep the kids in, but you can also see through it and hop over it if need be. If a neighbor strolls by, you can have a conversation.

The anatomy of picket fences hasn’t changed much since ye olden days, though we have come a long way since sharpened logs. The fence is anchored in posts with a cap on top, with fence panels running between each post. Each panel contains a row of pickets held together by two rails. Styles within this framework vary, but they all contain these basic elements.

The effect is consistent: you can clearly demarcate the boundary of the property, but you also don’t obstruct views from the street or the porch.

Why White, Anyway?

While conformity is no longer a hard design boundary line and there’s no longer a limit on what you can make of your picket fence, white remains the classic option for a traditional picket. Which begs the question: why white?

In the early days, whitewash paint was a mixture of lime and water. It was difficult to come by and only affluent colonists could afford to get it, which meant have a white fence was a status symbol.

Later, in the height of the Greek Revival period, paint was chosen to match the house’s trim color, which typically meant white. White fell out of fashion in the Victorian era, when homeowners gained access to a broader variety of paint colors and often opted for brown or park-bench green to blend in with the landscape.

White came back into vogue with the arrival of the Colonial Revival style in the early 20th century. As white once more began to feature prominently on homes, white was similarly revived in fences–and pickets became an icon.

Why Get a Picket Fence?

We’ve gone through a lot of history to drive toward one essential question: why get a picket fence today?

White picket fences are simple enough to be enduring, inviting endless interpretation. And while they have a traditional reputation, there’s plenty of room for homeowners to get creative–and enjoy the functional benefits of pickets. Here are a few reasons to consider fence pickets and wood fence panels.

A Classic Look

If you’re a homeowner in love with a more traditional style of home design, you can’t get more classic than the picket fence.

As we’ve shown, the picket fence in the United States traces its roots all the way back to early colonial settlements. And while it had a different connotation then, the picket fence has nonetheless remained through several eras of American design as a staple feature.

The picket fences of today are as much an aesthetic statement as anything else–and what an aesthetic statement! These wooden slats are simple, clean, and classic, and they lend your home the feeling of classic, old-school Americana.

Stylish But Functional

When you picture a white picket fence, what do you imagine? Chances are, you envision a low fence with a manicured lawn.

For avid landscapers and gardeners who still need a barrier, picket fences offer the best of both worlds. The point is not to stop an intruder, but to provide just enough of a barrier to, say, slow the kids down or keep the dog in. It’s a way to separate your space from the rest of the neighborhood without building the Great Wall of China.

And in the meantime, picket fences add a level of aesthetic appeal. They do their job and they look good doing it, becoming just as much a feature of your home’s aesthetic appeal as the flowers or the siding.

Robust Materials

Still, for all that picket fences are designed to be welcoming and open, they’re made of surprisingly robust materials that will hold up well over time.

You can go for traditional wood fence panels, opting for a good quality wood that will last for years to come. Based on the type of wood, quality of the installation, and level of care, a wood fence can last anywhere from 10 to 15 years. And in beautiful materials like cedar or redwood, it will look spectacular in the meantime.

But these days, you can also opt for a less traditional material like vinyl.

Vinyl fencing is five times stronger than wood, and since it doesn’t absorb moisture, it won’t fall victim to rotting, blistering, or peeling. Thanks to the wonders of modern innovation, it can even be styled to look like wood–but because it’s vinyl, it’s a much cheaper material investment with far lower maintenance costs than wood.

Stay for the View

Some fences are designed to keep people out–and keep the neighbors from getting nosy. Picket fences allow you to get some privacy without walling yourself off from the neighborhood. And in the meantime, it will let you keep the coveted view to your yard.

After all, if you’ve spent months working on your yard, you want to show it off a bit to the neighbors (a bit of friendly competition, of course). Picket fences give you the best of both worlds–a chance to show off your hard work without being constantly open to the rest of the neighborhood.

Easy to Install

Another great feature of picket fences? Because the fence itself is relatively simple, installing picket fences is generally an easy undertaking.

Keep in mind that every yard is different, and your yard may have some landscaping quirks that your fencing contractor will have to work around. But overall, picket fences aren’t a difficult job–you just have to get the spacing and the panels done right.

Plus, the relative ease of installation means that your relative cost of installation will be lower than other types of fences, which makes fence pickets a great option for homeowners minding their budgets.

Add Value

Last but not least, picket fences add value to your home. This is thanks to curb appeal and the reputation of picket fences.

Curb appeal is the aesthetic appeal of your home when someone views it from the curb. Basically, it’s your house’s first impression on a visitor. The stronger the curb appeal, the more value your house has.

Then there’s the question of reputation. Picket fences still carry a good-life aura, which is why homeowners associations sometimes mandate them. A good picket fence is more than a barrier–it’s an aesthetic addition to the stage setting of your whole home, one that will translate to the final sale value.

Pick Your Fence Pickets, Choose Your Fence Panels

If a picket fence sounds like the right fit, it’s time to pick your pickets. And your fence panels.

The good news for homeowners is that there are a ton of picket fence options. You no longer need to be limited to just white–there’s a whole world of fences out there. But if you’re hankering for a classic white picket fence, there are still a ton of options to choose from.

The question, then, is how you pick the right pickets. Here’s what you need to know.

Think About Why You Want a Fence

Before you consider anything else, it helps to think about why you want a fence in the first place. It seems like a basic question, but your answer actually changes a lot of details about your fence.

Let’s say you want a fence to keep the kids or the animals contained. Not a wall, per se, just enough of a barrier to slow them down at the outskirts of your lawn. In that case, a picket fence is a fantastic option. The nice thing about a picket fence is that the pointed ends discourage cats from jumping.

If you want a fence for more aesthetic concerns, a picket fence is still a fantastic option. It doesn’t cut off the view into the lawn or the view looking out, but rather integrates into your landscaping to create just enough of a barrier.

If you want security or privacy, picket fences aren’t the best option, simply because they don’t obscure the view into your lawn. In that case, you might be better off with a privacy fence, or a privacy fence with a picket top if you still want the picket appeal.

If you’re struggling to balance your fence priorities, make a list of what you want most from a fence. Look at various options that combine your priorities, or options that leave out one priority or another to see if there are certain list items you can live without.

What are Wood Fence Panels?

If you’re like most people, you probably picture a picket fence as a piece-by-piece construction process, requiring someone with expert carpentry skills to saw, sand, and shape each picket.

While you could take that approach, most homeowners don’t–it’s way more expensive and time-consuming. Most homeowners instead opt for fence panels, which are just panels of fence that have already been measured and fitted together. That way, you only have to worry about getting the panels level with each other, rather than measuring out every board.

Choose Your Materials

Even within the limits of fence panels, you have quite a lot of options to make your fence your own. The first choice lies in your materials.

Choosing one material over another is based on three questions:

  1. Local weather
  2. Local insect population
  3. Your aesthetic preferences

We offer vinyl picket fences rather than wood, but you won’t notice the difference. All of our vinyl fences are beautifully styled to look like real wood–but better.

Vinyl holds up well against most weather, whether it’s hot or dry, extreme temperatures or pleasantly temperate. It ages more gracefully than wood, doesn’t run the risk of rot, and won’t attract pests like termites. Plus, all of these benefits mean that vinyl fences don’t come with the upkeep costs associated with a wood picket fence.

In short, you get all the benefits of a wood fence without the downsides. It’s a win-win situation.

What Drives Cost?

With all of that said, cost is a significant factor for most homeowners. Before you start shopping around for contractors, it’s helpful to know what factors will drive the cost of your project up or down.

Every yard is unique, which means that every fence is unique, so we can’t give you a one-size-fits-all square footage estimate. However, certain factors consistently drive your pricing:

  • Whether your lot is flat or hilly
  • How large your space is
  • How much fencing you want
  • The materials you choose
  • Any additional fencing treatments
  • The cost of labor, including preparing your lawn for the fence posts to go in.

Generally speaking, the more complex your lot is (i.e. the more hills, the larger the space) the more expensive it will be.

Ready for Your American Dream Fence?

Ready to pick your fence pickets? If so, we’re ready to help.

Butte Fence has been going that extra yard since 1994, a company built on solid values, integrity, and good old fashioned hard work–just like the families we proudly serve every day. We’ve grown for 25 years due to an unrelenting commitment to being the best, and we would love to bring that commitment to your fencing project.

If you’re ready to find the perfect fence for your family, get in touch with us today to let us know how we can help.

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