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A split-rail fence or log fence (also known as a zigzag fence, worm fence or snake fence historically due to its meandering layout) is a type of fence constructed in the United States and Canada, and is made out of timber logs, usually split lengthwise into rails and typically used for agricultural or decorative fencing. Such fences require much more timber than other types of fences, and so are generally only common in areas where wood is abundant. However, they are very simple in their construction, and can be assembled with few tools even on hard or rocky ground. They also can be built without using any nails or other hardware; such hardware was often scarce in frontier areas. They are particularly popular in very rocky areas where post hole digging is almost impossible. They can even be partially or wholly disassembled if the fence needs to be moved or the wood becomes more useful for other purposes. During the American Civil War, these split rail fences were a major source of firewood for both the Union and Confederate armies.
Split rail fences were made of easy to split, rot-resistant wood. Traditionally American chestnut was the timber of choice until chestnut blight eliminated this tree. Currently, most split rails are made from cedar. Whether of chestnut or cedar, these logs were cut to a length of 10 to 12 feet (3.0 to 3.7 m) and split down the length of the log. Each half was then split into quarters, then eighths and so on until the rails were of a usable size. A log may produce from four rails from an 8-inch (20 cm) log to over a dozen from larger logs. The rails are stacked on top of one another. Most split rail fences have the rails stacked in an interlocking zig-zag fashion that is self-supporting, easy to create, easy to repair, and easy to disassemble.
Some timber fences have the rails stacked directly on top of each other and secured with double fence posts (one on either side of the rails). This made a more permanent and compact fence but remained easy to repair.
The distance between either the zigs or the zags is generally 16.5 feet (5 m) or one rod. The area of a field can therefore be calculated by counting zigs or zags along the side and end of the field: one hundred sixty square rods is 1-acre (0.40 ha).
Patent cedar fence
In Canada an attempt was made to patent several cedar fence designs. These styles became known as Patent Cedar Fences. The use of two rails to form a cross, having a top rail, bench rails and lower heavier rails, allowed it to be free standing, withstand heavy winds and take up less fence bottom than the zigzag or snake fence.
In the United Kingdom (and increasingly in suburban America) a different style of split-rail fence is used. This is not free-standing but consists of vertical posts placed in the ground, having holes (mortises) in each side into which the roughly pointed ends of split rails (usually of sweet chestnut) are placed. No zig-zagging is necessary. This style is commonly used as decorative fencing, or for horse-keeping.
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