Fence Rail Definition – What is a fence rail?

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What is a fence rail?

A fence rail is a horizontal fencing structure – generally made of wood or metal – that connects to the fence posts and holds up the vertical fence pickets or other fencing material. In a wooden fence, the fence rails are usually 2×4 wood, long enough to span the gap between fence posts.

Image showing the horizontal fence rails between the fence posts holding up the vertical boards called fence pickets.
Fence rail is the horizontal supporting structure

Does a fence rail go by other names?

Yes, a fence rail may also be called fence stringers or backer rails.

Please Note:

I am not a fencing professional: I am a home DIY’er who has realized that knowing some of these terms is important when I’m talking to people at the hardware store or when talking to fencing companies. So I’ll share with you what I’ve learned.

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Frequently asked Questions about Fence Rails

Below are some questions that I had about fence rails while I was figuring out how to repair and build some fences at my house. I thought I’ll share the answers with you in case it helps you too.

1. How do you fasten a fence rail to a fence post?

There are two main ways to connect a fence rail board to a fence post. The first option is when you screw or nail the fence rail into the front face of the fence post (face nailed), and the second option is when you cut and fasten the fence rails to fit in-between the fence posts. (Sandwich the fence rail between the two adjacent posts.)

We’ll briefly look at each option below.

Option 1: Fastening the Fence Rails to front face of the fence posts

Face nailed fencing - two fence rails being screwed into the front face of a fence post (This front side of the post faces out towards the street or alley.
Fence rails being screwed into the front face of the fence post

Fastening the fence rail to the front face of a square fence post is generally considered the easiest way to connect the fence rail to a fence post, and can create a good solid connection. This is often called face nailed fencing. (Even though you can screw it too, and not just nail it.)

Attaching the fence rails to the front face of the fence post like this allows you to run your pickets right along the entire rail – in front of the fence post – essentially obscuring the fence post from outside your yard.

Option 2: Attaching the Fence Rails between adjacent fence posts

Fence rails fastened to the side of the fence posts, not the front face.
Fence rails in-between the fence posts.

Another way to attach fence rails to the posts is to cut the fence rails to fit in-between the fence posts.

Attaching the fence rails to the side of the fence posts means the front face of the fence post will be visible from outside your yard. (This is something to consider for fence aesthetics.)

If you decide you like this look and style, then you need to fasten the fence rails to the posts.

To attach fence rails between the fence posts you have two popular options:

  1. Toenail the fence rail into the fence post using rust-proof nails or screws
  2. Use fence rail brackets to attach the rails to the posts (U-shaped metal brackets that hold the rail in place)

Toenailing the Fence Rails to the Fence Post

Fence rail toenailed into the black fence post using screws

In the picture above you can see the horizontal fence rail toenailed into the black fence post to fasten it. I used two screws on one side, and one screw on the other side (going in between those two screws).

(Now that I’m looking at the photo I wonder if I used the proper screws in this particular rail. Most references say to use screws or nails that are intended for outdoor use such as deck screws, stainless steel screws or dedicated outdoor structural screws.)

I drilled pilot holes through the rail prior to screwing to help prevent cracking the wood.

Some people prefer nails but I work on my fences by myself so I find holding the boards and hammering at the same time to be difficult and the board doesn’t end up where I want it. When I screw the boards into place I can control it better.

Using Fence Rail Brackets

The picture below shows a fence rail cut to fit in-between the fence posts, and a fence rail bracket was used to hold the fence rail in place against the fence post. This is the Simpson Strongtie FB24Z fence bracket.

A fence rail attached to a fence post using a fence rail bracket

I have done repairs to the fences at the two houses I’ve owned and I’ve done both the toenail method and fence rail bracket method to secure the fence rails to the wooden fence posts.

I think the bracket method is slightly faster to install and it allows you to lift and remove a section of fence quite easily if you need to. (Such as when you need to get some big equipment into your yard.)

The downside to using fence rail brackets is that the metal brackets are visible and you may not like this look.

2. Do the the fence rail brackets hold up?

Below is picture of two fence rail brackets – both Simpson StrongTie brackets. The one on the left is used bracket that is about 15 years old. The one on the right is new.

I removed a section of old fence and that is where I got the used bracket from.

The used bracket is slightly mottled in appearance, but it is still strong and has structural integrity.

2 of the same Fence rail brackets but one is used and about 15 years old while the other is new. The used one looks slightly mottled but is still strong
Fence Rail Brackets – used on the left (approximately 15 years old), new on the right

I read on a DIY forum somewhere that wooden fences seem to fail at the wooden fence posts, and typically NOT at the rail to post connections whether they’re toenailed or fastened with brackets. And from what I’ve seen, I’d agree with this statement.

Related Article:

Removing Rotten Fence Posts from Concrete

3. What side of the fence rail do I attach the fence pickets?

If you are concerned about safety:

The fence pickets (or other style of vertical boards) should be attached to the side of the fence rails that face the street or alley, so people can’t climb your fence so easily. (Reference)

I was driving down an alley and saw several fences like the one below where they screwed the boards to the inside of the fence rails. Sure, it probably looks awesome from inside the yard, but these exposed fence rails are like ladder rungs to climb over.

Fence rails facing the alley (makes it easier to climb over)

(Perhaps they were thinking that if someone stole something from their house they wouldn’t be able to climb back over the fence to escape out through the alley? In reality, they probably just wanted the look.)

4. How many horizontal fence rails does a fence need?

Wooden fences will require a minimum of two fence rails between the fence posts, but more rails are required with taller fences to help support and prevent sagging. I read in this article that having one fence rail for each 24-inches of vertical height of fence is a general rule of thumb.

So a 4-foot fence foot would need two fence rails (near top and bottom), whereas a 6-foot tall fence would require 3 fence rails.

(The fence in the picture above does get that right. That 6-foot high fence has three fence rails.)

Fence Rail Brackets

Fence rail brackets are U-shaped metal brackets – usually made of galvanized steel – that are designed to hold fence rails against fence posts. A popular example are the Simpson StrongTie FB Zmax fence rail brackets.

Fence Stringers

Fence stringers are another name used for fence rails: the horizontal boards that span the distance between the fence posts and hold up the fence pickets or other fence infill materials.

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