Do Fence Pickets Shrink?


A very common concern people have when installing a picket fence is that the wood fence pickets shrink after installation.

Unless the wood is already distressed, aged, or has been used, shrinking will occur. Cedar, the most commonly used wood for fences, can shrink up to 1/2 inches after installation.

There are a few ways around this shrinking, and there are some ways to avoid it altogether!

Why Do Fence Pickets Shrink?

Due to the nature of cedarwood, especially at the time of purchase, it’s still fresh and “wet”. Granted, it is beautiful at this stage, but the elements haven’t had a chance to weather the wood.

This could cause issues after installation.

The weather tends to change cedar wood’s characteristics; in the hot, dry months the cedar will shrink because it dries out from the sun. In the wet months, the wood expands because it absorbs the moisture.

Tips to Avoid Gaps Caused by Shrinking

Installing a wood fence can be challenging as there are so many things to take into account and so many details to pay attention to even before you start installing!

Shrinking fence pickets is a big detail that shouldn’t be overlooked.

To help alleviate the gaps between the pickets, you’ll want to install the boards as close together as you can. This way, when shrinking does occur, the gaps are small enough that it won’t be an issue later.

You could also put a lacquer or finish on your cedar pickets to help keep the elements away from it. If you choose to do this, you can expect to re-apply the coating every year just to ensure it’s fresh.

Another way to help alleviate the gaps from shrinking is to install the fence pickets in a horizontal pattern, rather than a vertical one. This way, you have gravity helping you close the gaps, especially during the install process.

Shrinking will still occur with horizontal pickets, but it will be less noticeable after install.

The Best Types of Wood to Avoid Shrinking

Cypress Wood

Cypress is a great alternative to the cedar wood and looks just as beautiful, if not more so. This type of wood is water and rot resistant.

Because of this wonderful characteristic of this type of wood, shrinking and expanding doesn’t happen AS DRASTICALLY as it does with cedar. You should still expect it, but the gap that the shrinking leaves won’t be as noticeable as it would be with the cedar pickets.

Barn Wood

Barn wood is a great wood option when choosing materials for your fence install. Because of the age of the wood, the elements have already had a chance to weather it.

Therefore, you shouldn’t expect any shrinking or expanding with the weather patterns.

Barn wood is kind of tough to come by and tends to be more expensive, but it does alleviate a bit of planning and measuring before install.

Pre-Weathered Wood

This type of wood is similar to barn wood in that the characteristics are weathered and aged.

This wood is still new, but it has been weathered in a shop or factory rather than being used already. This option is easier to find but may have a less “weathered” look.

What to Expect When Shrinking DOES Occur

Depending on how much the fence pickets shrink, you may have to do some extra installation after the first initial process.

Typically, you can expect 1/4 inch to 1/2 inches of shrinking initially. Of course, the pickets could shrink more than just the 1/2 inch. If this is the case, there are a few things you can do to “fix” it.

The first thing to do is to remove the original pickets and arrange them again, closer together. This may be tricky because you need to remove all the nails and basically re-install the pickets.

The second thing you could do, if you don’t want to re-install the boards, is to make a shadow box fence.

A shadowbox fence is when you place another row of fence pickets over the original row. These pickets may shrink, as well, but if you place them in an overlapping pattern, the shrinking doesn’t matter.

This type also adds more privacy, which is an extra bonus.

Different Fence Options that Won’t Shrink

There are different fence materials that you could use to avoid shrinking in any situation, besides the wood options listed above.

Aluminum/Steel Fence

This type of material is great in the fact that, unlike the ever popular cedar option, because it’s metal, the elements don’t matter that much. No shrinking or expanding will occur.

However, because it is metal, during the wet months, when it rains or snows, rust can accumulate on the fence. So you don’t have to worry about shrinking, but you may have to fight a bit of rust on your fence.

Wood Log Fence

Although this option is a much more rustic look, it’s also a good choice to help avoid shrinking.

Wood logs are usually cured with some sort of lacquer or finish so the weather and elements don’t affect them the way it does cedar.

If you find natural wood logs, you can expect shrinking, but the surface areas that are in contact between the logs is larger than the cedar pickets so the spaces that occur because of the shrinking won’t be as large and noticeable.

Vinyl Fence

Installing a vinyl fence is a great alternative to the traditional cedar picket fence.

Because of the characteristic of the materials, the factor of the weather and elements don’t matter at all (unless it’s something crazy like a natural disaster).

Vinyl is fairly easy to install, and also requires less planning and measuring since you don’t have to account for the inevitable shrinking and expanding that happens when you use cedar pickets.

Rock or Stone Wall

Instead of installing a traditional wood, vinyl, or metal fence, you could install a rock or stone wall.

This type does require a bit more planning due to the amount of rock you’ll need to purchase, along with the install materials, but it’s another alternative to any traditional fence options.

The elements do affect rock and stone, but not in the way it does wood- the rock could break down in areas with high winds and lots of rain. Some rocks could chip or even fall off the wall, as well, which is not ideal.

That being said, you won’t have to worry about shrinking and expanding with rock and stone.

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