Guest Blog Post by our buddy, Lee R.
It was a Sunny Spring Day in May
I looked out into the yard by the deck and sighed. I felt like something was really missing in my outdoor space. I quickly went online to look for options for wide open spaces, how to spruce up the deck, etcetera. I really wanted to add some depth to the yard without embarking on a huge undertaking. After searching the web for a while, I finally came across pergolas which I thought could potentially be a nice feature to add to my backyard. I scribbled it down on my honey-do list and presented it to my wife, who likes to help me with various home projects.
If you don't know a pergola (also sometimes known as an arbor) is a garden feature forming a shaded walkway. The shaded area is created by training vines, or by hanging plants, from the lattice structure and letting them wind throughout the support beams. After a brief review, my wife handed back the list with the pergola crossed off. By this time I was so excited about building a pergola that I knew I was going to take on this project by myself.
How the Pergola Project Started
So, I decided I was going to build the pergola on my own and I got down to work. I began researching fabrication and installation of pergolas. There are many options to consider from installing the pergola on a deck or on a concrete pad, attaching it to your home at the edge of a deck, or installing it in the yard by using concrete posts.
Our deck had already been refinished and I wasn’t much for cutting through the planks to bolt the pergola to the deck. I decided to try my hand at making the pergola from scratch. Several kits are available for fast erection and immediate enjoyment, but I've always liked building something from start to finish for a feeling of satisfaction that cannot be beat.
The First Step in Pergola Construction is Measurement
I had to determine where I wanted the pergola to go and how large, and how tall, it was going to be. This was probably the most taxing task because lining up the posts to be square and flush with the deck was difficult for someone like me - someone with next to zero woodworking skills. And I must say that although it was crossed off the list, my wife did actually help me with this project. She figured it was definitely a project for two people and we're newlyweds so why not spend time together making our backyard awesome?
So once I decided where the pergola was to go, I got to work making the measurements on the ground. These measurements can be made using marking paint or by using stakes and strings. I chose the stake and string method. This helped me to make sure the sides were equal and that the posts would be square.
To make a square measurement, measure from one stake diagonally to the other stake and repeat this for the other two stakes. If both center points are equal distance then your stakes are square. Using the string will give you a visual to see the foot print of your new pergola.
The Next Step was to Dig the Post Holes
The center of the post holes I dug were just offset to the deck so that the posts would run parallel with the edge of the deck. This was done in order to make the pergola appear as an extension of the deck and not a stand alone structure. This offset was calculated by using the center point of the post to the center point of the holes minus one half the diameter to the side of the deck. (I had no idea how much math and trade knowledge went in to building. I have a whole new respect for carpenters and builders now!) I dug the holes using a post-hole shovel. You could rent power equipment to dig the holes, if you are digging more than four, in the interest of time. Once the holes were dug about 4 to 4 1/2 feet deep, I poured approximately 4 inches of gravel and tamped it down to provide a level footing for the post. After the gravel was in place the hole was lined with a cardboard tube to form the concrete base.
Now it was Time to Install the Posts
I used four, 4x6x8 pressure treated wood beams and a level to ensure they were plumb. When something is plumb it is perfectly vertical. I then used string and nails to secure the posts plumb and poured in the concrete mixture. Now there are several types of concrete you can use. I chose to use the concrete specifically designed for posts like these ones. I poured the mixture in, added water, and viola! It was set it and forget it. Twenty four hours later the posts were set, plumb and square. I was ready to add the pergola ceiling.
I Made My Pergola 14' Wide, 12' Deep and 9' Tall
I chose those specific numbers because they allowed me to use dimensional lumber and not use splices, or additional bracing, which would detract from the elegance of the pergola. I used 4x6 beams and I cut the lengths from outside edge to outside edge of the installed posts. To prevent the overlap of the beams I made notches in the ceiling beams so they fit flush on all four sides of the posts. With some help (my wife) I set the beams on top of the posts and secured them using structural screws made for pressure treated lumber.
I knew that the lengths of those boards needed to support the ceiling of the pergola so I then used the Pythagorean theorem (I know, I couldn’t believe it either!) to determine the length of the beam required to support the ceiling posts. Measuring down and out from the vertical posts, I made three foot beams and cut the ends at a 45 degree angle. I then attached them to the vertical posts using structural screws and attached the other ends to the horizontal beams, also with structural screws.
Now that the box was made it was time to decorate the pergola with the lattice. I used 5/4 inch boards that were 8 ½ inches wide to form the base above the ceiling. Using a router and jig saw I cut out a decorative design and notched the boards at equal points to fit the 4x6 beams. This was so that half of the board would sink into the ceiling that ran the length of the pergola. After attaching those boards using structural screws on top of the ceiling it was time to lay down the final lattice, which would run perpendicular to the 5/4 inch boards. These pieces are known as stringers and they were the easiest part of my entire pergola project.
I bought 16 foot pieces and squared the ends for a 2 inch overhang from the base boards. Spacing evenly by using the formula to divide total length by the number of spaces I wanted, I placed the stringers on the center points previously marked.
After securing the stringers my pergola was finished!
Well, it was almost finished. Once the pressure treated wood was dry enough, a light sanding and stain was applied to give the pergola a finish to match the landscape. We keep chairs and a table within the footprint and I wanted everything to work together in a color balanced way. I hung vines and flowers from the lattice, along with some string lights, and now we spend more time in our little oasis next to the deck than anywhere else in the yard. I built a pergola and my family and friends absolutely love it!
Final Thoughts on Building a Pergola
Through the work I did for my pergola project I learned a lot about the trade of carpentry. I watched several how to videos, read a lot of step by step instructions and I did all of my research thoroughly. Before I started this project I made sure to review local regulations for erecting a structure in my yard, I filed the appropriate permits, and I had the pergola inspected. Safety and reliability are key factors when creating something for you and your loved ones to enjoy for years to come.