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All About Metal Fences

Today, metal panels and posts framing a front yard are most likely aluminum or steel that evokes the look of wrought iron—for far less. Here’s what you need to know to sort through the options

History of Metal Fences

Photo by Shutterstock

In Colonial times, only the wealthiest could afford to import wrought—meaning hand-shaped—ironwork for their fine brick and stone townhouses. By the early 1800s, however, as blacksmithing grew domestically, ornamental iron began to embellish the more varied house styles of the day. Such metalwork really peaked in popularity during the Victorian era, when foundries started casting and mass-producing elaborate pickets, posts, and scroll details.

These days, metal fences aim to suggest traditional iron using more-available steel or weatherproof aluminum, usually with hollow pickets made to resemble solid 5⁄8-inch square bars. The lighter-weight panels come together with fasteners, making installation easier. Even wrought iron’s classic glossy-black paint is upgraded with a longer-lasting, multistep powder-coating process that greatly reduces maintenance. When restoration projects call for true wrought iron, a craftsman has to rely on salvaged material that can be melted down to be reworked by hand, making genuine wrought-iron fencing prohibitively expensive. What is marketed as wrought iron today is often solid steel (though solid aluminum can also be found), dressed up with -machine-made scrolls and cast details, such as rosettes. A custom fabricator can mix materials and manufacturing methods, depending on the budget, pairing cast-iron details with hollow-steel pickets that save on material costs. Some high-end manufacturers use molds to cast iron fence panels that feature shapes found in Victorian-era ornamental ironwork catalogs, but the product comes at a price—$125 and up per linear foot.

Find out which type and style of fence will best flatter your house, while preserving your bank balance—and enhance the view from the curb.

Shown: The simple lines of this solid-steel fence echo the understated style of a brick rowhouse. Cast ball finials top each hollow post, while staggered cast details add a pleasing rhythm to pickets welded to rails along the top and bottom.

Metal Fence Vitals

Photo by Randy Duchaine/Alamy

What do they cost?

Depending on style, a 4-foot-tall prefab fence panel in tubular aluminum runs $10 to $14 per linear foot, uninstalled. The same panel in hollow steel starts at $15; in solid steel, at $84; and in cast iron, at $125.

DIY or hire a pro?

If you’re an experienced DIYer, assembling and/or installing a hollow aluminum or steel fence is feasible, if you don’t mind digging post holes and pouring the concrete. Let a pro handle heavier solid steel or cast iron.

How much maintenance?

Not much, compared with, say, a wood fence. Scratches on steel or iron need to be recoated with paint to prevent rust. Rust-proof aluminum requires virtually none.

How long do they last?

Protect the finish and you can get 20 years or more from hollow steel. A solid-steel, cast-iron, or tubular-aluminum fence can last a lifetime.

Material Matters: Tubular Steel

Photo by iStock

Your choice of metal depends on the level of detail you want and how much maintenance you can handle. The better the hollow-metal parts hide their fasteners, the more solid they look. All require posts set in concrete. Most metal fences today are made of one of these.

Tubular steel

Sheets of steel are bent into hollow pickets, rails, and posts. Panels are welded together, then screwed into posts.

PROS: Steel is strong enough to allow for 8-foot-long panels—and fewer posts.

CONS: Despite a galvanizing coating under the paint, steel can scratch and rust.

LOOK FOR: Uniform welded joints around the pickets. Panel brackets that rest on the post’s inside face are least obvious. Fixed picket tops attached with epoxy or welds look better than screw-on tops but can’t be changed later.

Material Matters: Tubular Aluminum

Photo by Douglas Adams

Shaped like steel fencing into preassembled panels or pieces for buildable DIY kits with pickets that screw into rails.

PROS: Will never rust; about four times lighter than steel.

CONS: Noticeable fasteners pierce each picket, usually leaving screwheads that face away from the street.

LOOK FOR: Inconspicuous panel brackets that attach to the side of the post or to rails that slide inside the post. Like steel, fixed picket finials look best. Metal ones are more durable than clip-on plastic versions. Elements like rings and arches help a basic design stand apart.

Material Matters: Solid Steel

Courtesy Wiemann Metalcraft

Pieces are machined, then welded together. Rails attach to the posts with brackets, tabs, or welds.

PROS: Can feature tight curves and scrolls, rope-like twists, and pointed tops that mimic wrought iron. More intricate designs available than with tubular fencing. Also typically stronger and more secure than tubular steel.

CONS: The finish might not include a galvanizing coating, thus requiring more upkeep.

LOOK FOR: A uniform finish and a fabricator that can fit the fence to changes in grade.

Picket Styles: Hand-Friendly Rings

Illustration by Ian Worpole

Details at the top can help evoke wrought iron

Hand-Friendly Rings:

Fences with smooth top rails are popular around pools. This one’s cast-steel rings offer a Victorian-era detail.

Similar to shown: 4-foot-tall Montage Majestic tubular-steel panel, $25 per linear foot; Ameristar

Picket Styles: Pressed Spear

Illustration by Ian Worpole

The tip of a hollow aluminum or steel picket can be pinched at the factory to form a basic spear.

Shown: 4-foot-tall Worthington tubular-aluminum panel, $9.52 per linear foot; Home Depot

Picket Styles: Quad Spear and Ball

Illustration by Ian Worpole

Cast in aluminum or steel, this picket top’s four fins are finished with a ball to keep hands safe.

Shown: 4-foot-tall Ameristar Genesis tubular-steel panel, $16.25 per linear foot; Fence-Depot.com

Picket Styles: Triad Spear

Illustration by Ian Worpole

The pointed spear suggests a security fence. It likely grew in popularity after the mid-1800s when cast iron became more common.

Shown: 4-foot-tall Ameristar Montage tubular-steel panel with triad finial, $23 per linear foot; Fence-Depot.com

Picket Styles: Hoop and Spear

Illustration by Ian Worpole

This classic cast-iron motif blends the spear with the safety of the hoop, available today in steel or aluminum.

Shown: 3-foot-tall solid-steel fence panel, $19.30 per linear foot; A Rustic Garden

Picket Styles: Fleur-De-Lis

Illustration by Ian Worpole

The flower shape, common in French Colonial architecture, tops an elaborate cast-iron design here but can also spruce up plain tubular pickets.

Shown: 4-foot-7-inch-tall Stirling cast-iron panel, $237.71 per linear foot; Heritage Cast Iron USA

Metal Fence Buying Options

Courtesy of Lowe’s

Purchase ready-made panels from a home center, build a DIY kit, or hire a pro to do all the work

Prefab: Home centers and fence suppliers carry 6-foot-long tubular-aluminum panels held together with screws. DIY-friendly home centers usually offer the best prices but a limited number of designs. At 4-by-6-feet, panels weigh only about 11 pounds each but might require multiple trips to haul home. The screws joining the pickets to the rails allow you to “rack” the panel, following the slope of the yard. Hollow-steel panels are welded together or, in budget versions, joined with rivets, and can weigh about 50 pounds each. Because it’s stronger, steel comes in 8-foot panels, which makes it harder to transport, but you’ll install fewer posts. Ameristar’s Montage is a rackable tubular-steel option, but more often, this type of fence panel is stepped down a slope.

Ready to assemble: Building aluminum panels from a boxed kit by screwing pickets to rails drops the panel price to about $8 per linear foot. But these panels are available only in the most basic styles. While this is the most time-consuming approach, the boxes are easier to transport with the average car. Steel is harder to find as a kit.

Pro built: Often the best choice with solid steel, which can weigh 50 pounds per linear foot, requiring heavy machinery to hoist it up. If you have a severely sloped property, you might also want to have a pro handle racking aluminum panels or stepping down steel panels so they follow the grade consistently—this can be tricky to do, while leaving enough space below for your string trimmer to cut the grass.

The average house needs 250 feet of fence. Hire a pro if you don’t want to dig the nearly 40 post holes needed to install a tubular-aluminum fence like this.

How to Anchor to Concrete Paving

Illustration by Ian Worpole

For a new installation, order posts with metal plates welded to the bottom; masonry screws hold the plate to the concrete. To relocate a post, a retrofit mount (shown) can be used—it works with the same screws, then covers them with trim.

How to Anchor to a Masonry Wall

Illustration by Ian Worpole

Joining a 11-inch steel or aluminum fence panel’s rails to a brick wall, or between masonry columns, requires a fixed bracket with painted screws for each bar. Use adjustable mounts for layouts that are out of square, like an octagonal shape.

Rust Remedy

Courtesy of Lowe's

Once the paint finish fails on steel or iron, it’s only a matter of time before rust develops. Here’s how to take it off—and keep it off

Rough it up: Grab a dust mask, gloves, and goggles, then pick your abrasive: coarse sandpaper or a wire brush for small areas or a drill-driver fitted with a flap disc for larger spots. Remove the rust down to bare metal, and switch to a fine-grit sandpaper for a smooth finish, feathering the edges of any built-up paint on the perimeter.

Prime it: Wash the metal with soap and water, then rinse and let it dry. Tape off areas around the damage to control overspray. Coat the sanded section with a rust-inhibiting metal primer. If a section is heavily pitted, use a sanding primer to fill gaps.

Paint it: Spray on a glossy top coat to match your existing fence—try an auto parts store for hard-to-find colors.

Push-In Option

Dress up your yard or define a flower bed with an easy-to-install, 30- to 48- inch-tall solid-steel fence. Push each panel into the ground, and keep it upright with stake-like pickets at each end, linking panels together to extend the run or to turn corners.

Shown: 30-by-37 1⁄2-inch panels in unfinished steel, $60 each; A Rustic Garden

Pick a Post Cap: Pineapple

The right topper can give a style boost to standard picket panels

Pineapple: the pineapple became a symbol of hospitality in early America and is often used on fences in front of Colonial homes.

Shown: 22-inch cast-iron post cap, $6.40; Custom Ornamental Ironworks

Pick a Post Cap: Ball

Orbs are a classic detail on fences fronting Victorian-era homes where they were often paired with ornamental scrollwork.

Shown: 22-inch cast-aluminum post cap, $7.19; Home Depot

Pick a Post Cap: Urn

For a greater number of cap styles, upgrade to beefier 33-inch posts and choose from styles like this curvy shape, designed to replicate a turned-wood post.

Shown: 33-inch cast-aluminum post cap, $62; Metalcraft Industries, Inc.

Gate Upgrades: Wireless Gate Bel

Illustration by Ian Worpole

These hardworking details add a heap of function to your fence’s entry point

Wireless Gate Bell

If your home’s network extends to the gate, a smart doorbell can beam video of your guests to your phone without requiring wires.

$199; Ring

Gate Upgrades: Magnetic Latch

Illustration by Ian Worpole

Traditional latches stop working as the gate settles, but this magnetic one adjusts to seasonal movement and can work with your house key.

$67; D & D Technologies

Gate Upgrades: Self-Closing Hinge

Illustration by Ian Worpole

Replace traditional hinges with this rust-proof version, in plastic and stainless steel.It will swing closed any gate up to 66 pounds.

$21 for a pair; D & D Technologies

Fence Friends: Clipped Hedge

Photo by iStock

Foliage and flowers soften the hard lines of a metal fence, turning a border into a pleasing streetscape

Clipped hedge: a thick hedge can boost privacy with a metal fence. The foliage of American hornbeam, a deciduous, shrubby tree, emerges reddish-purple, then turns green before finishing orange-red in fall. Its gray-blue bark provides winter interest.

Fence Friends: Tall Bulbs

Photo by Lived In Images/Imagesource

Add a touch of English cottage-garden style with the straight stems and softball-size blooms of allium. ‘Globemaster’ reaches over 30 inches tall with purple flowers up to 12 inches wide—a colorful and fun counterpoint to black metal pickets.

Fence Friends: Mixed Perennials

Photo by Christa Brand/Gap Photos

Enhance a rusted iron or steel fence with a border of white, pink, purple, or blue geraniums. Vary the heights and foliage of nearby plants, like the tall masterwort and shorter ferns here.

Design Variations: Staggered Spears

Photo by Ultra Aluminum

Even basic bars can take on different looks.

Staggered spears

While each of these tubular-aluminum pickets is finished with the same pressed-tip spear, simply alternating their heights, and giving the whole assembly a coat of creamy-white paint, helps to set this fence apart.

Shown: 4-foot-tall pinched picket panel in satin white, UAS-150, $11 per linear foot; Ultra Aluminum Mfg., Inc.

Design Variations: Arched Beauty

Photo by Jerith

The classic wrought-iron hoop-and-spear design can now be had in easy-to-maintain hollow aluminum. Its kid-friendly curves keep pool-goers safe.

Shown: 5-foot-3-inch-tall loop-and-open-picket panel, starting at $18 per linear foot; Jerith

Design Variations: Old-World Detail

Photo by Heritage Cast Iron USA

Molten metal poured into molds is the only way to achieve the elaborate decoration found in ironwork dating back to the 1800s—as in this cast-iron fence design.

Shown: 3-foot-5 3⁄8-inch-tall Gilberton picket panel, $137.81 per linear foot; Heritage Cast Iron USA

Design Variations: Simple and Stately

Photo by Ultra Aluminum

Solid aluminum can be machined to create a variety of shapes—like these fish-tail-topped and pointed pickets—then painted, without ever having to worry about rust.

Shown: 4-foot-tall custom picket panel in weathered brown, $60 per linear foot; Ultra Aluminum Mfg., Inc.

Design Variations: Modern Victorian

Photo by iStock

This tubular-steel fence nails classic Victorian-era cast-iron styling in three ways: spear-and-ball picket tops above alternating ring details and ball-capped posts—but without the cost of solid metal.

Similar to shown: 6-foot-tall classic style with extra rail and rings, $45.08 per linear foot; Iron Fence Shop

Design Variations: One-of-a-Kind Design

Photo by Paul DeBois/Gap Photos

Proof that a steel fence can be playful, this custom design combines petal-like picket tops that dance above narrow, stem-like rods to fancifully border a garden.

Similar to shown: 3-foot-tall custom fence panel, $400 per linear foot; Hammersmith Studios LLC