How to Build a Willow Fence Panel

John Beckett
Thursday, 7th April 2016

John Beckett shares how over the years he has fine tuned his method for building willow fence panels.

I started building willow fence panels in 2009 when I retired from 20 years as a science teacher.

The design and techniques described here are therefore the result of six years of experimentation and evolution. The result is an attractive elegant product built to commission to the customer's spec. with infinite variations in colour, texture and size and finish.

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1. Two colour willow panels with hazel extensions.

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2. Three four foot panels with one foot hazel extensions for boundary fence in tiny garden.

These panels were built as a feature boundary fence in a tiny urban garden belonging to a flint terraced house about 500 years old. Each panel was 57.5 inches long. Customers invariably ask for a 4 foot high panel or a 6 foot long one, never 1200mm or 1800mm so I tend to work in feet and inches and I am sticking to that for the purposes of this article.

My design is mobile, finely woven and attractive, it couldn't be described as rustic in the traditional sense of hazel or hazel and willow hurdles. I source the willow Salix sp. from a grower in Somerset and the hazel Corylus avellana, for the extensions, from a local Norfolk coppice. This ensures large quantities of consistent quality material with which to work. A 5 foot fence requires 250 separate rods of willow! Commercially sourced treated battens and caps are also used in the process.

Stage 1 - Getting started (setting up)

Setting up is the most important part of the process. First I select the straightest rods from my willow wad to act as the warps in the weave. These are smoothed, oiled and cut to size. The battens for the bottom rails are prepared and marked at 6 inch intervals and the warps fixed using galvanised staples. The second batten is attached, clamped and screwed in position. 

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3. This shows the rails, warps, scaffold and horizontal brace wired and taped together.

Stage 2 – The scaffold

The pairs of warps are taped together and then a scaffold of bamboo or dowel introduced to aid stability. A horizontal dowel brace is tied in with wire to give rigidity during construction. The whole is clamped in a bench vice and the weaving commences. I start with a 'double twisted' (often coloured) strand of willow woven from each end of the fence. This produces the pattern and a suitable reference point for accurate measurement of the sections.

Stage 3 – The weaving

The scaffold protects the delicate willow warp as the weaving commences. The general pattern is five rods from the left followed by five from the right making a 'group' of ten. After each group is woven, a wooden dibbler or mallet is used to gently firm the willow in. After four groups a 'section' is complete and I repeat the double twisted colour pattern described earlier. This coloured pattern defining a section is very clear in photographs one and two.

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4. Detail of fence showing wires, groups of weft, the warps and cane scaffold, rails, tape and double twisted pattern (self colour).

Stage 4 - Wiring

At this point some wiring is added, firstly to keep the sides vertical and stop the edges drifting, secondly to fix the horizontal weft to the vertical warp. Be careful not to wire in the scaffolds! I use potato bag ties for this purpose using a twister tool to save time. The wire should be worked from the back (facing you) around the front and diagonally across three of the wefts then back through to the working side to tie in the warps.

Stage 5  - Lifting the scaffold

Once you get past the first section of four groups of weft you should lift half of the scaffold supports. Cut the tapes and release any clips or wires on alternate warps, and using a pair of pliers gentle draw the bamboo/dowel up through the woven willow to just above the top of the panel releasing the groups of 10 in pairs. This allows opposite forces to cancel themselves out and transfer the pressure equally to the vertical willows, thus ensuring equilibrium is maintained. 

Photograph 4 shows this stage with scaffolds about to be lifted. After a bit more weaving past the half way stage the remaining scaffolds can be drawn, taped and tied into the recently repositioned cross brace. Once you have woven up to the three quarter way you need to slow down!

Stage 6 – The top rail

Mark the inside of the front rail at 6 inch centres and offer it to the warps. Use clips to loosely hold in position then use galvanised staples to secure the willow warps to the rail. The scaffolds are now held by clips. I use the garage wall as a back support as the staples are secured.

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5. Detail of top rail.

Stage 7 – Filling in

The final section of four groups needs a bit more care. Weave group one as usual. Now weave the twisted double strand and slide up to the the top. Weave group two and slide that up to the top, it is the same pattern as group 4. Now weave the bottom half of group 2 and the top half of group 3. The remaining 10 pieces should be done one at a time closing the gap until it is all filled in. You may need to use linseed, sanding paper, pliers or reverse weaving starting with the feather ends of the last few. Tighten everything up by knocking in the butt ends of any weft not already wired. Remove all scaffold at this point.

Stage 8 – Top rail and splines

The top rail is now clipped, clamped and screwed together. The vertical braces are cut to size and screwed through the top rail using pre-drilled holes and pilot holes. Turn the fence upside down and repeat with bottom rails. Turn the fence back and wire the braces to the weft every foot or so, making the fence nice and rigid. Measure, drill and screw on the top drip cap.

Stage 9 – Trimming the edges

There are now about 400 rod ends to trim! You can use secateurs for this. I use a diamond blade attached to an angle grinder! The wires can also be trimmed and gently pressed in to eliminate sharp edges.

Stage 10 – Preservation

The rod ends are dabbed with 70/30 linseed oil/turpentine mix and then the whole panel is sprayed front and back with the same mix. After drying, a second coat is sprayed this time with a 50/50 mix. This gives a glazed finish and 'sticks' everything together nicely.

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8. Spraying the panel.

Comment

It is always lovely to see the finished result in situ. Even better to get the chance to fit the fence panels myself as with the one in Photographs 9.

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9. Newly erected screen for fuel oil tank

Further resources

Weave your own willow bird hide

Willow basketry and sculpture

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