With a few basic tools and some creativity, a plain, flat fence can be retrofitted into an eye-catching screen.

Here is an easy DIY project for sprucing up a fence or adding detail to a deck railing that can be done in just a few hours.

Screens: The most cost-effective way to gain privacy, conceal eyesores

Step 1. Decide where it should go

Most fences (and privacy screens) are built with 4-by-4 posts with 2-by-4 supports run horizontally between them. Fences typically use thin cedar boards as the infill, and the detail can go anywhere within that infill. 

Once you find a good spot, measure how big you want the detail to be. Remember, it doesn’t have to be huge. If it’s interesting, even a small square will grab the eye.

Step 2. Stain

Staining the wood first will save you some work later. You can use different colors of stain to emphasize dark and light details. Oil-based stains last longer than water-based stains. If you paint it, you should prime the wood first, and be sure your primer and paint are rated for exterior use.  

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Step 3. Build a simple box

Using cedar 2-by-4s, create a simple square or rectangle that will hold the detail work. Use a chop saw to put 45-degree bevels at the corners and screw the box together using exterior trimhead wood screws that are 2.5 or 3 inches long. When the box is finished, you will see the narrow side of the boards, not the wide side.  

Here, a bird silhouette is traced onto a piece of wood and cut out with a jigsaw. A square frame is assembled, and the bird cutout is secured inside the frame. (Courtesy of Jeff Layton)
Here, a bird silhouette is traced onto a piece of wood and cut out with a jigsaw. A square frame is assembled, and the bird cutout is secured inside the frame. (Courtesy of Jeff Layton)

Step 4. Lay out your design 

Use small pieces of cedar 2-by-4s, 2-by-2s or wide cedar boards to cut and assemble shapes that are interesting or work together in a theme. You could go for realistic shapes like animals, mountains and plants, or design interesting geometric patterns.  

If you’re doing realistic shapes, print a silhouette and trace the pattern on the wood before cutting it out with a jigsaw.  

Cedar naturally has a wide spectrum of dark and light tones, so consider using them in your design. Darker colors recede (shadows) and lighter colors pop forward (highlights).

Step 5. Attach the design to the box

Attach your design to the box by screwing through the outside of the box where the shapes and box intersect. Even when using soft wood such as cedar, predrill holes to keep the smaller pieces from splitting. If you’re using several small elements in the design, it’s usually easier to assemble them and add them as a unit to the box.

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Step 6. Install

Position the screen where you want it to fit into your fence (be sure it’s level!) and trace the outline on the fence boards. Use a jigsaw or circular saw to cut a hole in the fencing. Slide the screen inside the fence to make sure it fits correctly.  

Measure the distance between the nearest supports, top to bottom, at the point where they will surround your box. Cut a pair of cedar or pressure-treated 2-by-4s to span this distance. Toenail screw the boards into the existing fence supports and your box to hold it in place.  

Step 7. Repeat

If you have several panels you want to fill, build a new box for each and copy your first design, or think of variations to fit the theme you’ve created.