Screws vs. Nails for a Fence | Which Are Better?


The debate over whether to use nails or screws to build a fence is a long and ongoing one. Each has advantages and disadvantages that should be weighed when deciding which is best for your fence-building project.

Both screws and nails are useful in fencing. Fences need lots of fasteners, and nails are less expensive and support weight better than screws. However, screws pull pieces together more tightly and resist loosening and falling out of flexible projects. Both have weather-proof options available.

Read on to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of both nails and screws. Knowing more about nails and screws will help you decide which is better for your project.

Should You Nail or Screw a Fence?

When installing fencing, you could need both nails and screws. Screws draw the boards closer together and stay in longer. Nails withstand sideways shifting between the boards better and reduce the cost of fencing large areas. It’s also easier to insert nails in tight spaces.

Screws Hold Better

Wood screws have a sharper point at the tip than screws for other materials. In addition, screws have a spiraling, threaded surface that helps them dig into the fence’s wood. The threading also allows screws to maintain their grip in the wood even as wood expands and contracts. 

The ability to grip into wood helps screws draw two pieces of wood you’re joining closer together. The threading also makes it less likely that screws will fall out of the fence for any reason, including when the wood expands or contracts in response to weather conditions.

For example, wood expands in response to humidity and contracts in dry weather.

Screws also have more tensile strength than nails, which means they support the vertical weight. So use screws in an area of your fence that supports a heavy gate.

Screws Can Be Removed More Easily

When you need to repair a single picket, or a few pickets, in one area of your fence, using screws to construct the fence will make taking it apart much easier. Simply pull out your drill, and put it in reverse. 

After a nail has been in a fence for a while, it becomes challenging to pull out. 

Should Nails Ever Be Used on a Fence?

You can use nails for fencing. They’re better than screws at withstanding the sideways shifting caused by shear forces such as high winds that cause a fence to bend and sway. Screws can snap, but nails have more built-in flexibility; they may bend but are much less likely to break. 

Pro Tip: If high winds are common in your area, consider using nails to attach the pickets to the backer rails. Nails might also be a good choice if you have kids who could frequently, repeatedly climbing or pushing on the fence while playing.

Nails Are Cheaper

Nails are less expensive than screws, so if your fence surrounds a large area, you might be leaning toward nails. TheWoodworkPlace.com recommends zinc-coated, hot-dipped galvanized nails over less expensive electro-coated galvanized nails. The hot-dipped galvanizing process creates a weather-proof zinc coating that is ten times thicker than the electro-coating process.

However, suppose you’re installing a cedar fence. In that case, Lifetime Fence & Roofing Company warns that the natural acids in cedar corrode metal. They advise against using galvanized nails in cedar fences because the corrosion runs down from the nail holes and stains the fence.

Nails Fit Into Tight Places Better

If you need to work in a tight place to join two pieces of your fence together, you may not have room to use your hammer. You may also find that your full-size nail gun won’t fit. You have one option if you use screws but two if you use nails. 

Toe-nailing or toe-screwing works with either nails or screws. Start inserting the nail or screw straight into the face of one board. After the screw or nail catches into the wood, guide it to form a 45° angle so that it passes into the side of the board that you want to join.

Palm nailers offer a fast, precise option. These small nail guns use either compressed air or battery power to drive individual nails. Hold the nail in place, and a piston inside the palm nailer strikes the nail 10 to 12 times in about one second. 

The mini impact palm nailer, available on Amazon, is a good option. As I described, you start the nail by holding it in place, but my recommend nailer has a magnet that also helps control the nail. The air-fitting nozzle swivels a full 360°, making it easy to reach almost any space.

The exhaust is in the front, which directs the air away from you and your palm. This mini palm nailer weighs only 1 pound (0.45 kg), and it has a rubber grip that reduces vibrations and insulates your hand. You can use the nailer with the most common timber, framing, and finishing nails, so you’ll find it useful for many projects, not just building your fence.

What Size Nails for Fence Pickets?

Use 8d to 10d nails to attach the pickets to the backer rails. To secure the backer rails to the fence posts, use 1 and ½-inch (3.81 cm) ring shank nails or 18d to 20d nails. You should also use the larger nails for a fence with pre-assembled panels to attach the panels to the fence posts.

Ring shank nails have raised rings that resemble threading around the shaft of the nail. These rings let ring shank nails grip into the wood the way that screws do. 

What Size Nails and Screws Should You Use for Fences?

Nails-and-Screws-on-a-Wooden-Table

Nails should be three times longer than the thickness of the thinner of the two wood pieces you’re nailing together. Screws should be two to three times longer and penetrate the thicker board by two-thirds of the depth. But neither nails nor screws should extend out the back of the thicker piece. 

Screw Length for Fence Boards

The most common gauge screw for woodworking projects is #8, but use #12 or #14 gauge coarse threaded screws for fencing. Use 1 and ¼ inch to 1 and 3/4 inch (3.17 to 4.44 cm) screws to attach pickets to the backer rails. To secure the backer rails or an already assembled panel to the fence posts, use 3 and 1/2 inch to 4-inch (8.89- to 10.16-cm) nails.

How Many Screws Per Fence Panel?

You’ll need two screws per rail to attach 1-foot wide by 6-foot (0.30 m by 1.82 m) high pickets to the 2-foot by 4-foot (0.60 m by 1.21 m) backer rails. For 6-foot (1.82 m) high pickets, you’ll need three rails, so you’ll have a total of six screws in each picket. 

If you’re using nails instead of screws, you’ll still want to use two nails per rail for a total of six nails per picket.

Does Wood Type Matter?

Wood type does matter when choosing between nails and screws. For example, acids in cedar and redwood and preservatives in pressure-treated pine can corrode some screws and nails. Those made with silicon bronze, with polymer coatings, or with double hot-dipped galvanized coatings are safe. 

Pro Tip: Stainless steel and copper can be used if they’re not near saltwater or, for stainless steel, high humidity.

Cedar and Redwood

As I’ve already mentioned, Lifetime Fence & Roofing Company warns against using galvanized nails for cedar fencing. However, Outdoor Essentials specifically warns against zinc-plated steel, which can corrode.

They recommend using nails and screws with polymer coatings or those that are galvanized by being double hot-dipped. While Outdoor Essentials also recommends using stainless steel nails and screws, these can rust in areas with high humidity or saltwater nearby. 

You should avoid using Dacrotized or zinc-plated nails and screws. 

Pressure-Treated Pine

As with the acids in cedar, the preservatives in pressure-treated pine can cause corrosion. Outdoor Essentials recommends nails and screws made of stainless steel, silicon bronze, or copper. Outdoor Essentials also suggests hot-dipped galvanized nails and screws or those with polymer coatings. Epoxy-coated deck screws provide another option. 

Again, though, neither copper nor stainless steel should be used near saltwater, and stainless steel should not be used in areas with high humidity.

Furthermore, you should avoid using Dacrotized or zinc-plated nails or screws.

Non-Pressure Treated Pine

Because non-pressure treated pine contains no corrosive preservatives, you can use zinc-plated steel nails or screws with this type of fencing. Of course, you can also use nails and screws made of stainless steel, silicon bronze, or copper. Hot-dipped galvanized nails and screws, polymer-coated nails and screws, and epoxy-coated deck screws are also acceptable. 

The Location of the Fence Matters

After reading the warnings about avoiding copper or stainless steel fasteners near saltwater and avoiding stainless steel in areas with high humidity, you might wonder what the best type of fastener is for these conditions. The metal alloy in silicon bronze screws increases the resistance to rust needed for fences near freshwater and saltwater.

The Best Screws for Tall Fences

Lag screws or lag bolts are long, heavy screws with hexagonal heads. Their thick shank is more resistant to snapping when exposed to shifting shear forces, and they create solid and secure joins for tall fences. You’ll find uncoated, galvanized, stainless steel, and silicon bronze lag screws. 

How Much Weight Can a Screw Hold?

Screws can support weights between 80 to 100 pounds (36.28-45.35 kg), but the real question is how well the screw withstands withdrawal and shear forces for fencing. Withdrawal forces work to pull the parts of the fence apart and pull the screw out. These forces act along the length of the screw.

Shear forces are the forces that cause the parts of the fence to slide sideways against each other. These forces act at a right angle to the length of the screw.  

I’ve already mentioned how long the screws need to be, how far into the backer rails and fence posts they need to be inserted, and that the screws should be coarsely threaded. These factors improve the screw’s resistance to withdrawal forces.

Screws with thicker shanks, such as #12 and #14 gauge screws resist shear forces better than thinner screws. Also, the more securely you fasten the screw, the more tightly it will hold the fence boards together. Tightly fastening the screw helps to reduce shear.

For comparison, #8 screws have 15 threads per inch (2.54 cm) and a diameter of 0.164 inches (0.41 cm). #12 and #14 gauge screws are coarser with 11 or 10 threads per inch (2.54 cm). #12 screws measure 0.216 inches in diameter, and #14 screws measure 0.242 inches (0.54 cm) in diameter.

Wood Screw Weight Chart

Zillarac offers the following PDF chart that compares the pull-out capacities of #10 wood screws with two sizes of lag screws when used in 10 varieties of lumber.

Withdrawal (Pull-Out) Capacities (Pounds per Inch of Thread Penetration)

Lumber SpeciesSpecific Gravity5/16” (0.79 cm) Shank Lag Screw⅜” (0.95 cm) Shank Lag Screw #10 Wood Screw
hFir — Larch0.5340390173
Douglas Fir — South0.46301344146
Engelmann Spruce — Lodgepole Pine0.46301344146
Hem — Fir0.43271311128
Hem — Fir (North)0.46301344146
Southern Pine0.55393451209

Spruce — Pine — Fir 
0.42262301122
Spruce — Pine — Fir (South)0.3620923890
Western Cedars0.3620923890
OSB/Plywood0.5340390173
Info courtesy of www.zillarac.com

Assumptions:

  • Tabulated values above based on American Wood Council, NDS 2005 Table 11.2A
  • Thread depth does not include roofing thickness.
  • Wind Uplift Load Duration, 10 minutes: CD=1.6
  • Rooftop Temperature Range, 100oF<T<125oF: Ct=0.8
  • Thread penetration into side grain of structural member.
  • Values listed above for dry (MC<19%) lumber.
  • Note: Information for reference only. Engineer of Record shall be consulted for actual design.

Final Thoughts

Screws and nails are useful in different fencing situations. 

Coarse-threaded screws of the right length and gauge remain in your fence longer than nails and create tighter joins. In addition, it’s easier to remove screws to make repairs.

On the other hand, high winds create shear forces that cause the fence to sway. Nails resist shear better than screws. Also, use nails in areas where you need to insert fasteners in close quarters. Screws and nails can be toe-nailed into your fence, but palm nailers offer a faster, easier option.

Thanks for reading!

For more, check out Building a Fire Pit on a Concrete Slab | Step-By-Step Guide.

Jim James

Hey, I'm Jim and the author of this website. I have always been interested in survival, fishing, camping, and anything in nature. In fact, while growing up I spent more time on the water than on land! I am also a best-selling author and have a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. I hope you find value in the articles on this website. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or input!

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