When it comes to installing a fence, you have two basic options when it comes to fasteners – nails vs screws. Both of these fasteners have their respective strengths and weaknesses, and both have their place in specific fastening situations.
While there is a lot to consider here, the basic distinction here is that screws have more holding power than nails do, but cost more and take longer to drive.
Nails are fast and easy to fasten – especially if you’re using a nail gun. They’re also relatively inexpensive and have a higher shear strength than screws, which means they can better withstand bending under stress from wind and leaning fence posts.
I’ll break down nails vs. screws for fastening a fence in more detail, so you’ll have a better idea of which fastener type will work best for you.
When it comes to strength, there are multiple factors to consider. Fastener strength can be broken down into both tensile strength as well as shear strength.
Tensile strength refers to a material’s ability to resist breaking under pressure. Screws have superior tensile strength to nails, as they’re better able to draw separate pieces of wood together and keep them there.
Nails will come loose far earlier than screws will, which can be an issue when you’re dealing with a fence in particular wet and humid climates. Wood fencing, especially cedar, will shrink and expand when it gets wet and dries, which can actually push nails out of the fence over time. Screws don’t have this issue as their threads provide better holding power.
Shear strength refers to a material’s ability to withstand side-to-side force. Nails have more shear strength, which means they’ll bend rather than break when placed under heavy shear forces.
You’ll often hear that screws are more brittle than nails, which means they have more of a tendency to break than bend under stress. This is undoubtedly true and makes nails a good option when you’re building a fence that will be subject to shear forces like heavy winds, trees leaning on them, or kids climbing on them.
Ease of Fastening
If you’re installing a fence, especially a long fence, you’ll want fasteners that are quick and easy to install.
Nails are generally faster and easier to install than screws, as all it takes is a couple of whacks with a hammer to drive in a nail. If you have a nailgun, then the process is even easier and takes less than a second to drive the nail.
Screws on the other hand take longer to drive into place. You need to line up the screw, insert the drill bit into the screw’s head, and drive it into place carefully. Depending on the screws and materials, you may even need to pre-drill holes before driving the screw.
If you have an impact driver, the process will be a bit faster and easier, but this will still take longer than simply hammering nails into place.
This one undoubtedly comes down in favor of nails, as exterior screws are significantly more expensive than comparable nails.
This varies depending on the specific materials and coatings, screws will cost about 2 to 3 times more than nails. If you’re working on a large project, then the cost of fasteners can really add up, increasing the cost of the overall fencing project.
Whether or not the added costs are worth it really depends on your priorities and the specifics of the job. As mentioned previously, screws are preferable in situations where the wood shrinks and expands a lot, so if this sounds like you, the added cost of screws may be worth it.
When you’re building a fence, you want it to last for a long time. No one wants to have to remove broken fence posts, replace corroded or missing fasteners, or fix leaning fence posts.
Nonetheless, these things happen, so it’s best to use fasteners that are built to last for many years. Fences are subject to rain, snow, humidity, high winds, and more, so investing in good quality corrosion-resistant fasteners is a must.
Both nails and screws can last for a long period of time if used correctly. You always want to use nails and screws that are suitable for outdoor use, meaning stainless steel, polymer-coated, or hot-dipped galvanized.
Another thing to keep in mind if you’re using pressure-treated lumber is that certain fasteners can react with the copper additive inside the lumber causing the fasteners to rapidly corrode. Make sure any fastener you plan on using is rated for use with pressure-treated lumber before you install the fence.
Another no-no is using galvanized nails or screws in cedar fencing, the fasteners react with compounds in the wood and create unsightly streaks.
When building a fence, you might not be thinking that you’ll need to repair it any time soon, but sometimes the universe has other plans.
If you need to repair a damaged fence, say remove a fence panel and replace a damaged fence post, then screws are going to be a lot easier to work with than nails. Screws take mere seconds to remove with a drill or impact driver, while nails can be a real pain to remove.
One compromise that some people use is using nails for attaching pickets to backer rails with nails, and screws for attaching the panels to the posts. That way the panel is easy to separate from the post if necessary.
What Size Nails and Screws Should I Use?
Using the right-sized screws and nails is crucial if you want a durable and long-lasting fence.
For screws, 3 ½ inch long exterior construction screws or deck screws are the way to go for attaching panels to posts. If you’re going with nails, then 18d or 20d galvanized or stainless steel nails are the way to go.
For attaching pickets to backer rails, then 1 ½ inch screws or 6 to 8d nails are the way to go.
When using nails, ring shank nails are a much better option than smooth nails. These nails feature layers of ridges along the shank, making them twice as difficult for the nail to come loose as smooth shank nails.
Picking between nails vs screws for building a fence is not that straightforward, as there are pros and cons to each. You’ll need to weigh the respective benefits of holding power, tensile strength, and ease of removal for screws versus the lower cost, ease of installation, and superior shear strength of nails.
As for myself, I’ve used both nails and screws to install fences, and generally prefer screws where cost is not an issue. That’s not to say nails are no good – they are quicker to install – and if you have a nailgun, then I’d lean towards nails.