Learn the installation basics for mesh fencing that will either keep your small animals in; or will keep them out of your growing garden.
By Jeff Beneke
January 31, 2014
Welded (top) and woven (middle) wire fencing is what you are likely to find the most of, but over rolling terrain, knotted wire fencing (bottom) can be a great advantage due to its increased flexibility.
Illustration by Melanie Powell
Good neighbors make good fences and good fences require good planning, materials and construction. The Fence Bible (Storey Publishing, 2005) acts as a reference to construct any fence that might be right for your property, with an explanation of project options and detailed step-by-step instructions from fence-building and home-improvement expert Jeff Beneke. The following, describing the basics of mesh fencing installation, is excerpted from chapter five, “Metal Fences.”
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Fence Bible
Mesh Fencing Installation
In terms of sheer numbers of products — not to mention speed of installation and low cost — nothing beats metal mesh fencing. This is mass-produced fencing boiled down to its most elementary, functional essence. Determine exactly what you want the mesh fencing to keep in or out, then choose the appropriate product. While the on-hand selection may be small at any given store, rest assured that the manufacturer of that limited offering makes many variations on the theme. You should be able to special-order exactly what you need, or you may want to visit a more specialized retailer, such as a garden, landscaping, or agricultural supplier.
Wire mesh has yet to attain any type of architectural chic that I am aware of, although I have long ceased trying to forecast cultural trends. But mesh fencing can serve as a trellis for climbing vines, which can have a particularly wonderful landscaping effect without compromising the basic functionality of the fence.
The only time-consuming part of the installation involves setting posts, but even that chore can be minimized by using metal posts. The great advantage of metal posts is that they are simply driven into the ground — no holes to dig or concrete to prepare. Unfortunately, metal posts aren’t nearly as strong as buried wood posts. They are useful for getting a garden enclosure or a temporary fence up quickly, but they should not be used for any fencing that requires much tension or otherwise needs to resists much pressure (such as from heavy animals or adventurous kids).
Choosing the Right Mesh
Mesh fencing can be knotted, welded, or woven, depending on the function of the fence and the gauge of the metal used. Welded and woven fencing is what you are likely to find the most of, but over rolling terrain, knotted fencing can be a great advantage due to its increased flexibility. Some types of knotting create sharp edges, however, and may not be suitable for much contact with people or animals.
The gauge, or thickness, of the wire varies greatly, from the very thin 20- or 24-gauge wire used on netting to the thick 9- 0r 10-gauge wire used for heavy animal enclosures. The size of the mesh also varies considerably, from 1/4-inch squares to 2-inch by 4-inch rectangles or diamonds. Add to these options the various heights of fencing available, ranging from 12 inches to 72 inches, and you can begin to appreciate the scope of product choices. Here I will offer a brief summary of some of the more common classifications of mesh fencing.
This thin (typically 19- to 23-gauge) wire is produced with small mesh sizes (1/4 inch or 1/2 inch square). It is used for light-duty fencing, such as for small rabbit cages and the like.
Poultry netting is typically made with 20- or 22-gauge wire, woven into hexagonal shapes. Mesh sizes range from 5/8 inch to 2 inches. The larger mesh is often used to house turkeys, while chicken wire or netting is made with 1-inch mesh. Poultry netting is lightweight and easy to handle, and it is often used for low-cost garden fencing.
This material is used to keep rabbits and rodents out of gardens. Its most distinguishing characteristic is that the mesh openings at the bottom of the fence are smaller than those at the top (the assumption being that the critters it is meant to stop are not particularly adapt at jumping or climbing). What is commonly called “rabbit netting” is really just a blend of 1-inch-mesh chicken netting on the bottom and 2-inch-mesh turkey netting on top. It is available in heights of about 28 inches. Stronger welded steel fencing uses 16-gauge wire and rectangular mesh, in heights of 28 to 40 inches.
This type of mesh fencing has a preformed apron on the bottom that is meant to be laid horizontally a few inches below ground to prevent animals from burrowing under the fence. If you have regular mesh fencing, without an apron, a simple (although somewhat less effective) alternative is to dig a trench several inches deep beneath the fence line and set the bottom of the fencing in the trench.
General-Purpose Mesh Fencing
Available under a host of descriptive names, such as utility fencing, garden fencing, and kennel fencing, this is typically welded wire fencing with uniform, rectangular mesh that is used for garden and small animal enclosures. You can find mesh sizes ranging from 1/2 inch x 1 inch to 2 inches x 4 inches, in heights up to 72 inches. Heavy-duty 2-inch mesh makes a less expensive but suitable alternative to chain link. Larger 6-inch-square mesh is commonly used as reinforcement for concrete. It is not galvanized, and so is not suitable for most fencing needs, although I’ve seen lots of it used to support tomato plants and beans in the garden.
Green vinyl-coated 3-inch x 2-inch mesh fencing has a softer and more decorative impact as a garden enclosure than plain galvanized steel.
No-Climb Mesh and Horse Fencing
This heavy 10- or 12-gauge wire in 2-inch x 4-inch mesh is formed in a pattern that prevents horses, cows, sheep, and other hoofed animals from stepping through or using their hoofs to otherwise damage the fence. Standard horse fencing is typically a 2-inch x 4-inch diamond-shaped mesh.
This product is, by necessity, made in heights of 7 or 8 feet. It is usually made out of black plastic mesh that has little effect on visibility but is effective in controlling deer pathways. It is often attached to trees, but can also be used with black galvanized steel posts. This fencing will not harm deer, although it is not always successful at stopping a fast running herd.
Installing a Mesh Fence
The strongest and most secure construction technique is to attach the mesh fencing to a frame of wood posts and rails. The weakest (and easiest) technique is to attach the fencing to metal posts. A reasonable middle ground for many purposes is to use wood posts for all terminal posts (corners, ends, and gates) and metal for the intermediate or line posts.
First, use a string line to establish a straight fence line, and drive wooden stakes into the ground to mark the location of the posts. There really is no exact science as far as post spacing goes with these types of lightweight fences. Much depends on the size of the posts, the depth at which they are buried, the type of soil they are buried in, the severity of winds, and the specific function of the fence they will be supporting. To ensure a tight fence in residential settings, my recommendation is to space the posts no more than 10 feet apart. For purely agricultural purposes, however, you can usually get away with spacing wood posts up to 16 feet apart and metal posts about 12 feet apart. If you want to research the matter further, talk with a good fence supplier or installer in your area.
Setting Metal Posts
Metal fence posts are often identified by their -cross-sectional shape (U-posts, T-posts) and normally have a pointed plate near the bottom that helps hold them in the ground. I suggest that you buy posts long enough so that they can be buried 24 to 30 inches deep (although I acknowledge that this can be difficult to accomplish in some soils). I have seen (well, to be honest, I have purchased) inexpensive metal posts that were so flimsy that you could bend them over your knee. Stay away from these, as they may not even survive the ordeal of being driven into the ground. Posts intended for medium or heavy duty are made with 12- or 13-gauge steel and are worth the extra investment, in my opinion.
Metal fence posts are driven into the ground with a heavy maul or sledgehammer or with a manual or air-powered post driver. Check with your fencing supplier or a local rental yard to see if they have post drivers. You may find it easier to start each post standing on a ladder, and drive the posts so that they remain as close to plumb as possible.
Be sure to install the posts with their hooks or lugs facing the same way, as these are the connectors for the fencing. The general rule of thumb is to install the fencing on the side facing the animals that you wish to keep in or out. Thus, place the fencing on the outside of a garden fence and on the inside of an animal enclosure. Some metal posts require the use of wire clips that are bent into place over the mesh fencing with a pair of pliers. The quicker type of installation comes with posts that have hooks that can be hammered closed after the fencing is slipped into place.
Setting Wood Posts
Information on setting wood posts can be found here. I prefer to install wood rails on edge rather than flat because they stand much less chance of sagging. Mesh fencing is lightweight, however, so this factor may not be of great concern to you. Still, the temptation to sit on or climb over a fence with flat rails is so much more tempting than one with rails on edge that you may want to factor in that potential before assembling the fence.
The best way to attach mesh fencing to wood posts and rails is with galvanized U-staples. I suggest using staples no smaller than 3/4 inch for this purpose. Roll the fencing from the first post to the second, and then fasten the edge to the first post. Have a helper stretch the fencing as you drive staples every 12 inches or so along the top rail. It is possible to join two sections of fencing together between posts, but I don’t recommend doing so. Instead, cut the fencing (use wire cutters) at a post, overlap the next roll of fencing on the same post, and attach the two sections to the post with staples. Once a full roll of fencing has been attached to the top rail, fasten it to the bottom rail or rails.