A roundpole fence has been part of the Finnish countryside landscape for centuries. There have been small local differences in the way in which a roundpole fence has been made.
The names of the roundpole fence have varied from one region and municipality to the other, and in Southern Finland the generic term riukuaita refers to a fence made of round poles that have been nailed to individual posts. The poles that were tied with withes were split from thicker wood, but nowadays the wood is no longer split, and a fence tied with withes is almost always made from round poles.
There are many names in the Finnish language for a roundpole fence: viistoaita, pisteaita, pistoaita, aidasaita, juoksuaita, panenta-aita, pinta-aita, suolsoaita, suoltoaita and särentäaita. However, the main principles are the same in all. A roundpole fence is the traditional fence used in the countryside in Finland and other parts of Northern Europe.
The fence is made of pairs of posts placed vertically side by side, of poles laid diagonally to rest on the posts and of withes that tie the posts together. A fence also contains various types of gates. A fence can be supported by means of diagonal supports installed at a spacing of a few pairs of posts. The diagonal supports rest against the posts but are shorter than them.
Fences came about when fields and meadows were surrounded by enclosures to keep animals outside them rather than inside. As early as the late 19th century, there was an attempt to order owners of domestic animals by law to keep their animals inside pasture fences, but the fencing practices did not finally change until the 1950s. The fences for fields and meadows were usually made of wood, which is why a wooden roundpole fence tied with withes is one of the oldest fence types encountered in Finland. The fence designs varied from one region of Finland to the other. Eastern Finland favoured dense fences intended to prevent pigs from getting into a field and hares from eating rye shoots. If there were no pigs in the area, openings provided with hare snares were intentionally left in the fences. However, there was one basic principle: the closer to the village the fence, the denser and better the fence, because livestock and also pigs grazed free in the village and its surroundings. If the fields contained a lot of stones, stone walls were laid, and sometimes a roundpole fence was erected on top of them
Fence materials, building of fence
The best wood materials for fences are spruce and juniper, with juniper used at least for the vertical posts. The posts are made excessively long. When the fence is repaired, the rotten base is just cut sharp, and the same vertical post can be used at the same place. Small firs also make a good fence material. If aspens are available from thinned forests, debarked aspens last for a long time as the poles. Small firs are the best material for use as withes, but ties are also made of birch.
When metal wire became popular later, it was also used for tying roundpole fences. The building of fences was something that men used to do in the early summer after sowing of grain, but women also made fences. The wood material for a field fence had been extracted from the forest in the previous winter and hauled to the site, while a forest fence was made from material obtained nearby. Erecting the fence hence took place quite quickly.
Use of fence
An alleyway bordered by roundpole fences usually led from a village to parcels located father away and to forest pastures. The alleyway was specifically made with the transfer of animals in mind. The field and meadow fences were inspected in the spring. In areas where the alderman system was in use, the height of the alderman’s staff was the same as that of a legitimate fence, in other words 103.6 cm. This is why the staff was a suitable tool for inspecting a fence. Fences were cumbersome in terms of road traffic. Whenever a traveller travelled by horse on a village road, the traveller had to open and close quite a few gates. There could be as many as 10 closed gates over a distance of one kilometre.
The vertical posts were installed in the ground in pairs with a spacing of approx. 110 cm. The holes were made by an iron bar, and the gap between two adjacent vertical posts was as wide as the round poles to be installed in the gap. It is recommended to leave the vertical posts slanting a little away from each other. They will get straight when the withes are tied. If the vertical posts lean towards each other, it is more difficult to place and tie the round poles. The fence becomes straight when the correct alignment is verified by means of rule line or rule board. The vertical posts are not cut to a certain length, but they can have varying lengths.
The laying of the round poles begins by placing a pole of approx. 1.5 metres between the first pair of vertical posts. The butt end is lifted off the ground by using a small stone. When the top rests on the ground, the pole is at an inclined angle. Then the first withe is tied, and a second, slightly longer pole is lifted to rest on it in by its butt end. More withes and poles are added alternately.
The withes are entwined tightly in the shape of the number 8 around the vertical posts. The split side is always tied against the post. The withes are tightened by hitting with the back of an axe. Once the bond dries, it is very tight and durable. There are three withes in each pair of vertical posts, and several withes at the beginning and end. The round poles retain the same gentle angle all along. After the first poles have been installed, long poles can be used. The poles are laid layer by layer. A layer is taken from the top all the way down; this means 2 to 3 poles. The pole that starts a layer, in other words the topmost pole, is placed with the butt side upwards, and the last pole is placed with the butt downwards. A thick butt has a longer life near the ground in the grass than a slender top. When a tier of poles is ready, the next one can be installed. Each full tier rests in three withes.
The tilting of the fence is prevented by using diagonal supports that are fastened with withes to every second pair of vertical posts, alternately on each side. It is recommended to use more diagonal supports at the beginning and end on both sides. The diagonal supports extend the life of the fence considerably. The life of an old roundpole fence can be extended by hitting the vertical posts deeper into the ground and by installing additional posts.
Fence material acquired in the winter
The fence can be made strong if the fence materials are felled in the winter, at the latest before Easter when the trees are still in dormancy. The round poles are debarked from three or four sides and allowed to dry in an airy place. The material of the round poles is spruce, pine or aspen, and the vertical posts are exclusive of coniferous trees. Birch and alder decay quickly, so they should not be used if the goal is a long-term fence.
The round poles have the thickness of a slender arm at their butt end. The vertical posts are thinner, 4 to 5 cm in diameter. The round posts are typically 3.5 to 6 metres long. The vertical posts and diagonal supports are 2 to 3 metres long.
Quite a lot of materials are needed for a fence. A fence 25 metres in length takes 46 vertical posts, 13 diagonal supports and 70 round poles. Some 80 withe ties are also needed. Such an amount of material may not be easy to come by in one’s own property, so you can ask whether local forest owners have a need to manage their forests. Leftover wood from thinning stands is suited for making a roundpole fence.