Keep your cool under a pergola that brings beauty and comfortable outdoor living to your property.
By Steve Maxwell
Bountiful sunshine makes our gardens grow, but all living things need a little shade sometimes — especially people. These step-by-step plans will show you how to build a pergola to create your own backyard shade. The finished product will add stylish definition and shape to your yard and garden.
Photo by Adobestock/kristinablokhin
A pergola (also known as an arbor) can be an elegant entranceway over a path, a quiet place to sit, or a frame for vines to climb over a deck or patio. Our pergola plans create a structure that’s large enough to span a picnic table, but you can make the dimensions narrower and shorter so yours can serve as a garden entrance. The 6-by-6 and 2-by-8 lumber used in these plans looks great and is more than strong enough for the job. You can use thicker or thinner planks, or even peeled poles you’ve foraged. (For instructions on how to build a pergola using logs and poles, see "How to Build a Pergola Using Peeled Poles" below.)
Check out the following video for advice from author Steve Maxwell on how to get the best results
from his pergola plans, then keep reading below for all the details.
Building our pergola begins with the same challenge encountered in many outdoor projects: installing a series of vertical posts at exactly the same height. The cardinal rule is to bury first and cut later. This is the best way to install your pergola posts, because it’s nearly impossible to dig a set of holes to the identical depths required for pre-cut poles.Begin building your pergola by marking six posthole locations using spikes pushed into the ground, then dig oversized postholes that are 24 to 48 inches deep. Hoist your 6-by-6 posts — each of them 12 to 14 feet long — and tip them up and into the holes. Plumb the poles temporarily with 2-by-4 braces and, when all of the posts are in alignment, fill the holes with soil. Compact the soil around the posts using a long piece of wood. I’ve found the end of a sledgehammer handle to be ideal for this type of tamping. There’s no need to set your posts in concrete, because this pergola is self-supporting. The posts will stand solidly so long as you firm the soil all the way to the bottom of each posthole. (Want to cut your own posts and boards for this project? See Use a Portable Sawmill to Make Your Own Lumber.)
After all of the 6-by-6 posts are set solidly into the ground, you’ll need to mark and cut the tops to exactly the same height. You’ll probably appreciate some extra hands to help with this step. Start by measuring and marking the first post about 8 feet above the highest area of soil. Grab a 2-by-4 that’s long enough to span the space between the posts, turn it on its edge, and hold it parallel to the ground at the first pole’s 8-foot mark. Set a level on the top edge of the 2-by-4, maneuvering it into a level position, and then mark the second post where it’s crossed by the 2-by-4. Repeat until all of the posts are marked. This approach is the only way to get their tops perfectly level.
Post tops that have been cut square look surprisingly ugly. For improved aesthetics, trim each post with four angled cuts — 15 to 20 degrees from square — using a hand-held circular saw. You’ll find 6-by-6s too thick for a standard circular saw to chew all the way through, but that’s OK. Just make four angled cuts — one from each side of each post — then complete the cut with a handsaw. Your post top will then have a pyramid shape. Saw marks look ragged, so refine them with a belt sander spinning an 80-grit abrasive. Tedious? Yes. But trust me — it’s worth the results.
Now that your pergola posts are up and trimmed, it’s time to fasten the three 6-by-6 crossbeams to them. At this point, you can remove the 2-by-4 braces from the posts. Measure the distance between the outer faces of the posts, then cut the three main crossbeams you’ll need to span them. Allow 12-1/2 inches for overhang on each end (see our lap joint drawing under Step 4 for precise measurements). Cut the crossbeams to length and trim the ends with pyramid cuts (as you did with the post tops).
Use the helping hands you’ve recruited plus props to temporarily hold up the crossbeams with scrap lumber, make sure the beams are level, and mark the place where the posts and the crossbeams overlap on the outer faces of both. You could just mark the spot using a tape measure and level, but beware — bows or bends in the beams could prevent the joints from fitting together well.
Lap joints are the way you’ll connect the posts and crossbeams. A lap joint is simply a pair of interlocking notches that fit together like Lincoln Logs. Wherever your posts and beams overlap, that’s where you’ll need a lap joint for support. Prepare these joints by making multiple cuts with a circular saw every quarter-inch or so, then knocking out the remaining chunks of wood using a mallet and chisel (see the illustration in Step 2). You’ll need to do this work with the posts installed in the ground, of course, and that won’t be easy. Preparing the joints on the crossbeams will be much simpler, because you can support them on sawhorses while you’re sawing and chiseling.
Note that a standard, 7-1/4-inch circular saw makes cuts only about 2-1/4 to 2-1/2 inches deep — too shallow to produce a lap joint groove halfway through a 6-by-6. A better and easier approach is to make offset lap joints that aren’t flush but have about a seven-eighths-inch offset. The effect looks pretty good when you position the overhanging faces of the crossbeams on the outside faces of the posts. (Study the lap joint diagram here.)
Get help to raise the crossbeams into place on the posts, knocking ornery joints together with a big rubber mallet. Bore half-inch diameter holes through each assembled joint to insert the hot-dipped, galvanized carriage bolts that will hold everything together.
A self-feeding auger bit is an ideal tool for boring the half-inch-diameter bolt holes you’ll need for this project. Any 18-volt cordless drill set on slow speed is strong enough to power such a bit. The beauty of the self-feeding bit is its ease of use. You don’t need to apply pressure — just squeeze the trigger, and the bit’s lead thread will pull itself into the wood.
The roof boards for our pergola plans are a series of 2-by-8s set on edge, with their ends cut to a decorative shape (you can make your own design, or download ours). An optional effect is to notch the roof boards’ bottom edges to straddle the crossbeams. If you notch the boards, anchor them to the crossbeams using 8-inch CAMO structural screws driven into quarter-inch holes you’ve pre-drilled through the board edges using a standard quarter-inch spade bit. Use 10-inch screws if you decide not to cut notches in the bottom edges of the roof boards.
Optional lattice panels applied to the sides of a garden pergola will create more privacy; the joinery details are shown here. I used a dado blade in my table saw to cut all of the 1-1/2-by-1-1/2-inch grooves needed, but you can also use a hand-held circular saw to make multiple cuts within each groove area, followed by a chisel and mallet to knock out the waste (as you did with the lap joints). Use deck screws to temporarily fasten the lattice components together on the pergola posts, then remove the screws one at a time. The final step is to pre-drill and install quarter-inch, hot-dipped galvanized carriage bolts in their place.
A painted or stained finish on your pergola will require ongoing maintenance. Letting the wood age naturally is easier and eco-friendly. You can also create an even, weathered appearance with a water-based, one-time wood treatment.
Regardless of how you finish your pergola, a shade cloth on the roof structure is an easy way to add more sun protection on the hottest days of summer, when backyard shade is essential. You’ll enjoy the benefits of your garden pergola as soon as it’s up, but things will get even better if you set some climbing plants to grow in the soil around the bottom. You’ll enjoy watching the structure become a dynamic part of a growing garden.
I've built many outdoor projects using trees cut from my forest. Although building with peeled poles can be challenging because of their irregular shapes, using foraged wood will cut down on your costs and create a unique addition to your homestead. If you can find it, cedar is great for outdoor building because it lasts 15 to 20 years without rotting. Choose the straightest poles you can find for your pergola posts, with a top diameter no smaller than 4-1/2 or 5 inches. For the best results, peel the bark off of the poles using a drawknife (bark practically falls off of cedar poles cut eight to 12 months beforehand). The biggest challenge with cedar poles is preparing flat, aligned surfaces for fastening beams and other parts. Use a hatchet or an axe to create flat planes for joinery. Deck screws are the best way to secure small branches and limbs, while carriage bolts work best for poles larger than 2-1/2 inches in diameter.
Use this lumber list to build a pergola large enough to span a picnic table, or adjust the dimensions for a size to fit any space.
Steve Maxwell is a Contributing Editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Known as “Canada’s Handiest Man,” he’s an expert builder and cabinetmaker who values honesty, hard work and beautiful craftsmanship. Contact him by visiting his website and the blog, Maxwell’s House. You also can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook and find him on Google+.
At MOTHER EARTH NEWS for 50 years and counting, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. You'll find tips for slashing heating bills, growing fresh, natural produce at home, and more. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.95 (USA only).
You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.