Saturday, February 21, 2015

Building Pipe Fence - The Simple Little Tool That Makes It Possible

If I'd been blogging about seven years ago, I might have had a blog post about how I built the pipe fence along the road in front of the barn, but I wasn't blogging so I didn't blog about it.  But while I was getting rid of my old head gate and replacing it with a new squeeze chute, I ended up doing a little modification to the chute in my working pens, so I thought I'd show how I did it since it's basically the same as building a pipe fence. 

Pipe fences are pretty common locally and are usually built out of what's typically just called "oil field pipe" which is usually 2-3/8 inch pipe that's either used or new (new pipe is a heck of a lot easier to work with).  The posts are usually about 8 feet apart, the top rail is around 4-5 foot from the ground, and cable, sucker rod, or tubing is used for the rails.  Like everything, some fences are almost works of art, and some fences look like whoever built them was mad at the world at the time so they just slapped a bunch of pipe together and started welding.

Back when I was thinking about building my working pens and the fence along the road in front of the barn, I had all sorts of ideas about how I was going to cut those saddle notches on the top of the posts for the top rail to set in, but could never really figure out the best way to go about it.  Then, when I was looking at a little haybine that I was thinking about buying, I noticed that the seller had some really nice looking pipe fences around his house, and uncharacteristically for me, I simply asked him, "How the heck did you cut those saddle notches for your fence?" It turned out that he was a welder and also owned a trailer building business, and he told me that most welding supply places sold these spring-loaded templates that made it easy to layout the saddle cut so it could be cut with a torch.  (Man alive, it takes me forever to get to the point of my story sometimes doesn't it?).

Everything I'd seen before had involved a bunch of nonsense like using a chop saw to cut a couple of angle cuts followed by a straight cut on the post, or holding the top rail on top of the post and scribing the saddle notch. I had a pretty good idea that a tool like this existed, but I might have never found it on my own without asking someone about how they built their pipe fence.

After that long-winded introduction, here's what the tool looks like, I tried to look online for one so I could add a link but didn't come up with anything similar (which might be why I never found one until I started asking people about pipe fences), but I bought mine at the same place that I bought my steel pipe.  I'm pretty sure that most places selling the pipe would also sell a similar tool or could point to the right place to find one for anyone that's interested in trying their hand at building a pipe fence.
That red thing is the tool we're talking about (ignore the mess)
My photos are a little misleading since I'm missing one of the uncut pipe, but this template is spring-loaded and it snaps around the pipe so can you mark the cut with a soapstone.  Then, you take the tool off and use a torch to make your cut (don't use the template as a guide for your torch while you're cutting).   Depending on how good you are with a torch, you should be ready to weld the top rail after a quick pass with a grinder to clean up the cut a little.

After cutting the saddle notch
Ready to weld together
It's not flashy or glamorous, but little tools like this $25 template and learning the techniques to use them played a big part in my being able to make a living at farming.  Of course, I also think that welding should be one of the first things that anyone thinking about going into agriculture should learn so I might be a little bit bias towards tools like this.

UPDATE:  For anyone that happens to stumble across this post and is interested in buying a pipe cutting guide to build their own pipe fence, I finally found the tool I used online at:


  1. Excellent looking fence. I've never sen a pipe fence here. Oilfield pipe gets pushed into quite a few uses, and I've seen sucker rod used for panels, but not for an actual fence.

    1. It amazing how much better your fence will look if you use a good tight string to lay it out.

      I've heard that pipe fences are more common in places like Oklahoma and Texas because of the boom and bust of the oil fields back in the '70's and '80's. After the bust, there was a bunch of new and used oil field pipe laying around, a lot of unemployed oil field workers that knew how to weld, and so some of them started building fences.

      Building sturdy working pens out of pipe seems so much easier and better than trying to use wood that I'd think that it would be more common outside the traditional oil patch areas than it is.

  2. Never seen one either but I will keep my eyes open the next time I drive through an oil field area. They do look sharp when done though!

    1. I didn't think pipe fences would be as common as they are around here, but I never would have guessed that there wouldn't be any at all in places like Iowa and Wyoming.

      I've traveled through parts of states like Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa that sort of reminded me of my part of Oklahoma, but there was always something that I couldn't put my finger on that made those states seem slightly different. I've never considered it before, but maybe not seeing any pipe fences anywhere was what made it feel slightly different.

      I wonder what people would think either consciously or subconsciously about someone moving to a farm in Iowa and building pipe fences around their barnyard?

  3. If someone in Iowa started building pipe fencing, the neighbors would think he must have more money than sense!

    Actually, fences are on the decline here and you rarely see any new fence put up. Any new fence is of the high tensile electrified variety or t-post variety. I can't even remember the last time I saw someone putting in wooden posts for fencing and the last time I remember doing so was when I was helping my dad build some hog pens in the early 90's. Driving around through the country, I would guess the average age of a fence is 50 or 60 years old.

    1. I'd agree with you about anybody that built more pipe fence than just around their barns or house.

      There are some farms locally where they don't have fences around their cropland along the roads which does mean that they don't have to deal with a bunch of weeds in the fence rows, but even if I didn't have cattle I'd like to have fences just to better define where the property lines are and to also keep most of the two-legged varmints out.

      I'm not entirely clear on the fencing laws in Oklahoma, but from what I understand if your fields aren't fenced then it's more difficult to claim crop damages if someone's cattle happened to get onto the field. It would be pretty rare for that to happen, but it would be my luck that some cows would come down the road, dive into my corn field, and it would take until after harvest to find them.

  4. Iowa has similar laws about livestock damage but I'm guessing they mostly apply to cattle in a neighboring field which would presume there is a fence there. I'm not sure what would happen about a roving herd of cattle from down the road a ways.

    I assume like most states, if one of adjoining land owners wants to fence off between two parcels of land for livestock, both landowners are obligated to build fence and maintain it. Here if you are standing on your property looking at the neighbor's property, your half is the half on your right. The last traditional fence I ever helped build was because of a neighbor's request and we built our half of the fence and the neighbor never got around to building his half. Our half still stands now 30 years later.

    1. It's relatively rare to have a lot of cattle loose on the road locally, but it's happened more than a few times in the last five years or so that I can remember.

      Last summer, a pipeline was being built a few miles away, the gate was left open by the contractors, and the entire herd of cattle (it was only about 30-40 pairs) walked out that gate. They ended up scattered up and down the dirt road for about a mile or so, but since it was fenced on both sides it was less of a rodeo getting them back into the right pasture. From what I heard, the guy that owned the cattle wasn't too happy with the people building the pipeline, and even after all that they'd still leave the gate open whenever they were working on that section of pipeline.

      Another time, after a snow storm about a dozen yearling heifers showed up near the farm, and it turned out that they had walked about two miles down a busy road, turned the corner, and walked another mile until they hit the railroad tracks when they turned around and walked another half-mile or so down a muddy dirt road. I almost made my heart stop when I saw all those tracks in the road and thought it was my cattle out on the road.

      I don't know how they got them back home, but I bet it was a pretty miserable job three miles away from where they needed to be combined with all the mud and melting snow.

      It's the same in OK that you are responsible for the right half of the fence and the fence defines the property line.

  5. For anyone that happens to stumble across this post and is interested in buying a pipe cutting guide to build their own pipe fence, I finally found the tool I used online at:

    A quick search online should come up with a number of different places to buy one.

  6. Nice find on the jig. Curious though where you put the joint for the top rail. I would assume in between a run. And then did you put a donor piece in the middle to support the joint for the top rail.

    1. I welded the top rail together with a smaller piece of pipe inside the two pieces and some plug welds to anchor the inner pipe to the outer (cut holes in the outer piece, slide the inner piece in, fill the holes with your weld). After finishing with a good solid weld where the two pieces of top rail meet (chamfer your outer pipes and leave a gap so that you're also welding the inner pipe), grind everything smooth and it doesn't really matter where the joint ends up.

      Steel pipe moves due to temperature variations, but since this fence only has around 100 ft. long sections, I figured a solid top rail would be fine. Locally, temperatures range between 0 F in the winter and up to 110F in summer and this fence can move almost 3/8" between those extremes. That amount of expansion is probably enough to eventually break your top rail if you tried to just butt weld your joints, which is why I'd suggest beefing it up with a plug welded inner pipe. The longer the fence, the more it will move.

      To compensate for that expansion, people that build fences for a living will typically incorporate some sort of slip-joint into the fence. The ones I've seen are usually something like a piece of 2 7/8" pipe slid over the joint of some 2 3/8" top rail.

      Hope some of that helps.