In the past there were only a few choices for fence materials. You could put up a stone wall, block wall, brick wall, wrought iron, wood, or chain link. If you got creative you could combine a couple materials and get a fence/wall by putting wrought iron on top of a brick base or wood panels between pilasters of block or stone.
Today the number of choices and alternative materials has exploded. Plastic, aluminum, and man made stone have given the homeowner a plethora (see, a college education can pay off!) of choices to choose from.
I am going to try to sort through some of the more popular choices for you based on affordability, difficulty of installation, looks, and durability. Hopefully this will make your choices clearer and easier to make.
Natural Fencing/ Wall Materials
I am going to start with natural materials. These are fences or walls that are made with materials found in nature.
Stone: The most difficult and expensive is a stone wall. A stone wall will look beautiful, and is very durable and strong. (C'mon, look at China's Great Wall -- we are talking MAJOR strength and durability!) The drawback is that once you choose the stone you want, you will have to have it installed.
Putting in a natural stone wall is best left to someone who has years of experience selecting which stones will look best on the outside (versus ugly stones best suited for filling in the width), and which stones will need an artistic whack or two with a rock hammer for the best fit. Installation is as much about art and mastery of stone shaping as it is about the labor of stacking the stones.
Wood: The most common natural material used is wood. In addition to being a natural product, wood is renewable when harvested in a managed method that allows for regrowth and replanting of harvested areas. Whether you are talking about dog eared, palisade, tongue and groove, or lattice fencing, it all comes down to nailing pieces of cut trees together.
There are many different styles of wood fencing to be had, and the cost of a wood fence can vary greatly depending on how trick you wish to make it. If simple and inexpensive are your style, a basic dog eared fence is probably right for you. If you are looking for a more architectural style you could use tongue and groove pickets with a lattice top for a sophisticated look, albeit at a much greater price.
Installing a wood fence is definitely a DIY project. The materials are easy to find, easy to work with, and no really special tools or knowledge are needed to do it properly. The drawback is definitely durability, and to a much lesser extent, strength. Wood will not take the abuse of stone or other hard materials, and even properly maintained and constructed wood fences will eventually succumb to rot, insects, or old age. Strength becomes an issue when the fence ages or when faced with things like high winds or heavy snow loads. It just cannot compete with stone or other hard materials there. I don't know about you, but I haven't seen a block, brick or stone wall blown over by anything less than hurricane force winds!
Unnatural Materials (Man Made in Other Words)
Walls and fences from man made materials are also available. Some of these are more eco-friendly than others, and costs vary greatly..
Block and Brick: Materials like block (or cinder block if you must) and brick provide the greatest strength and durability. However, like stone, they require the most labor and expertise to install. These materials are cheap, look fairly easy to work with, and the tools couldn't be simpler to the naked eye. Once you try to properly load the mortar onto a block or brick and then put it in place and smooth it out, you will change your mind.
Solid material walls like this also tend to have much more stringent requirements as far as local building codes. These walls tend to look pretty plain once installed. You can use different styles and colors of block or brick to dress up the look, but in the end it will still be pretty plain. You can really dress it up if you are willing to spend a lot more cash though.
Man-made stone veneers are readily available from building supply stores for you to give your plain wall a natural stone look, but the cost in additional labor and materials can be prohibitive. In order to be more environmentally friendly you can try to locate real used brick as opposed to using new bricks that are manufactured to look used. Architectural salvagers are the place to look for these materials.
Plastic and vinyl have also made their presence felt in the fencing arena. There are a variety of solid and hollow product to choose from. All these products are definitely DIY friendly.
Vinyl: Hollow vinyl was the first "plastic" fencing material to gain acceptance, and it is available in a very wide selection of styles. It can be used to simulate the look of wrought iron, picket, or dog ear fence styles to name a few. It generally is available only in white, but sometimes you can find a sand or beige color.
The advantage to this material is that there is no maintenance other than hosing it off every now and then. The posts and panels are also very easy to install. Posts get set like wooden posts, and yes they remain hollow. No need to insert wood. Four clips are used to attach the panels, and you are done.
The draw backs are cost and sizing. Vinyl fencing is significantly more expensive than wood. Also the panels are sized out so that you have to set your posts six feet on center instead of eight feet. Over the length of a long fence this can add up in additional labor and posts.
Cutting vinyl panels is also an issue. When you get to an odd sized panel you will probably have to disassemble the panel and re-glue it together after you make your adjustments. Pre made panels also mean that, much like the cover photo of this post, slopes will make your fence look odd. These fences will last a very long time as vinyl does age well, but their overall strength (measured on the "Angry Rottweiler" scale) is not high. A large, angry dog or drunken brother-in-law can break a panel without too much effort.
Composites: Another "plastic" fence is the composite fence. These are the logical extension of the plastic/ wood composite decking materials that have been around for a while. The post sleeves and panels are made from the same materials. Did you catch the reference to "sleeve"? With this material you do actually have to set WOOD posts into the ground, and then slide the composite sleeve over the top to give it it's finished look.
The panels are solid composite material, and, again, they are sized out at 6' on center. This material represents the most expensive material to choose, but it is durable, and depending on which maker you select, your composite fence can be almost indistinguishable from a real wood fence that has been given a clear coat of preservative.
The other drawback is that while you do not have to disassemble the panel to cut it, you will have to work around an assembled panel to do your cuts. Again this product will last indefinitely, and the solid construction will stand up to much more abuse than the hollow vinyl. Pre-formed panels will restrict its use on slopes. This product is fairly "green" as waste sawdust from sawmills and recycled plastics are often used as base materials for manufacture.
Vinyl Coated Wood: The last man made "plastic" material to discuss is actually a hybrid material. You can purchase wood that has been pressure treated to resist rot and insects, and then covered in a vinyl jacket. This material combines the best of both wood and plastic fencing. The vinyl is heat applied to the wood so that there is no chance of it coming off.
You buy this material in the same manner as a wood fence. You can even buy color matching hardware ,and you can buy a sleeve to seal up any cut that you need to make on the pickets. You assemble the posts, stringers, and pickets as you would a regular wood fence. The difference is that once you are done you can forget about having to maintain the fence other than washing it down.
Colors are limited, only white or beige as far as I know, but you do gain the ability to have an extremely durable plastic fence material that you can run up and down slopes because you assemble it one piece at a time. It is partially eco-friendly as the wood is a renewable resource. It will be as strong as a regular wood fence without the massive deterioration that occurs over the life of a regular wood fence.
Metal is the last fencing material to discuss.
Aluminum: In the past, wrought iron or chain link fences were your only choice, but now aluminum has joined the ranks. This new advent gives you the look of wrought iron with out the cost. You also lose the greatest risk to iron fencing: rust.
The drawbacks are significant though. The only color I have seen is black, but white is probably out there too, and if you really want a custom color you can spend a weekend painting it whatever color you want. Again, you can only buy pre-made panels so slopes are still out.
Also, the aluminum fence is for decoration only. If you try to climb or sit on the fence you will damage it. Look but don't touch. On that note it is also worth mentioning that you will be paying someone else to install this product because of its issues with fragility and availability. Of the metals, aluminum is the most eco-friendly as it is one of the most recycled materials in the country.
Wrought iron: Wrought iron gives you the greatest combination of looks and price when using metal for fencing. You can get as custom as you want to with your installer, or you can go simple and use pre-made panels from you local home center to save some cash. Slopes are in because even pre-made panels can be purchased with the ability to adjust to the angle you need.
These fences are very strong, especially if you have a custom installer that welds the pieces together instead of bolting. You generally purchase wrought iron either painted white or black, but you can paint them whatever color you like.
The drawback is rust. If you don't maintain a vigilant watch on your fence it can quickly get away from you, and you end up with peeling paint, rust stains, and structural weakness as the rust progresses. If you use pre-made panels you can do the installation yourself, but the best durability and design will come from a custom install that welds the parts together.
Chain link: Chain link fences are the last metal fence to discuss. We have all seen them. No, they are not pretty, but if you are looking to do a very long fence, this is the most economical way to do it. There are many different heights and lengths available to purchase. You can try to improve the look of the fence by getting chain link that is vinyl coated in different colors or you can buy colored slat material to weave through the fence to increase the looks as well as the privacy of the fence.
This is a very durable fence as all parts are galvanized to resist rust, and it is also very strong. (We have all climbed a chain link fence so we can attest to its structural strength.) The only real drawbacks are the looks, and the privacy factor, as in you get none. This is also a very DIY friendly product even as it is not particularly "green" friendly.
Hopefully you now feel ready to choose the proper material fro the look, price and durability that you want for your project. Good luck and happy DIY-ing!