A pergola is an outdoor structure that can be attached to a house, built over a patio, used to frame a garden path, and more. It consists of pillars that support cross-beams and often a latticework. They provide a bit of shade depending on the time of day, and they rarely have solid roofs over them. Some homeowners choose to cover theirs with an awning for added shade though. Fiberglass can make a suitable covering, but if you want to create a more versatile space and have the money, you might choose a retractable awning instead. The most popular cover for a pergola, however, is likely more green than that.
Vines do well growing on these structures. Latticework can be attached to the pillars to give them something to grow up, and the vines can then grow over and around the crossbeams to create a natural roof that will shade the area underneath. To achieve this look, you will want a hardy, fast-growing vine. Dutchman's pipe, wisteria, and bougainvillea are all popular choices. With a little work and some time, you can use this technique to create a "green tunnel" that will make for a stunning and unique landscape feature.
If this is something you want to add to your landscape, you can choose to hire a contractor to build it for you or go the DIY route. Both have benefits and drawbacks: hiring a contractor is far more expensive, but building your own can be labor-intensive, depending on your strategy.
There are DIY kits available that make the process easier and can cost as little as $1500, but you will not have control over the design of the final structure. Designing your own from the ground up will run closer to $3100, but lets you design the right pergola for your outdoor space. The low-end cost to hire a contractor starts as high as $3500, so if you want to save money and you have the skills, building your own pergola is the best way to go.
Tools Needed to Build a Pergola
If you are going to build your own pergola, a trip to the hardware store is in order. You'll need a kit of the basics, including a tape measure, pencils, a hammer, clamps, a level, a power drill and drill bits, and a saw. Anyone attempting this project on their own should already have those things handy though.
You will also need a ladder because you will be doing some high-altitude work. When choosing your ladder, be sure to know how high you need to climb. Always check a ladder's weight rating before buying, too, and test it if you can to ensure you feel safe, sturdy, and comfortable when you climb on it.
DIY-lovers will also need a couple of specialized screwdrivers to for this project. A bugle head screwdriver is used to drive in bugle head decking screws, which will likely be used in your design. You will also want a hex head screwdriver for hex-headed screws.
If your pergola will be connected to your house, you will also need a rivet gun, or pop riveter. This can fasten rivets to maintain a sturdy connection at the connecting points between your house and the structure, like the gutter.
When it comes to cutting materials, have a jigsaw handy to make any necessary cuts. This tool makes it a breeze to cut at an angle or in other shapes so you can fit all the pieces of your project together with ease and allows you to quickly and easily cut the ends of the crossbeams into decorative angles and curves.
Finally, if you are installing your pergola directly into the ground, you will need a post hole digger to excavate holes that will keep your posts sturdy and upright. Once you have collected these tools, it's time to get started!
If you plan to dig post holes, the first thing you have to do is call your local utility companies. They will mark any underground wires on your property to ensure you do not accidentally dig them up and hit a major snag in your project before it truly gets started.
If, however, you are building on a patio, you can skip this step. Instead, you will brace the support posts with braces that are screwed into the concrete of the patio itself. You will not have to dig, so there is no need to call anyone to come in and search for wires. For the purposes of this tutorial, we will assume you have to dig post holes.
2. Set the Posts
Once the holes are finished, the next step is to insert the posts into them. As a frame of reference, an eight-foot pergola will require holes at least two feet deep to remain sturdy. The circumference of the posts and the hole will depend on your design, but six inches by six inches for the post is a good starting point.
To set a post, first, place it into the hole and brace it with stakes. Once each post is securely braced, you can prepare your concrete and start filling the holes. For one two-foot hole, you will need about four bags of ready-mix concrete. Do not fill the holes to the top; leave one inch of space so the concrete can expand and contract in hot and cold weather.
Once the concrete is poured, you will have to wait 48 hours for it to set before continuing to build. Luckily, you can prepare the materials for your next step in the meantime.
3. Cut and Prep the Support Beams and Crossbeams
The support beams will sit across around the perimeter of the pergola with the crossbeams laid atop them to create shade. First, you will have to cut the support beams to the length you've chosen. You will need two beams on two opposite sides of the structure for a smaller design, and two on each side, slotted over each other with notches, for a larger design that requires more support.
Some pergola designs call for the crossbeams to be slotted over the support beams. To achieve this look, you will have to cut notches in the crossbeams. You can cut these using your jigsaw, or if you prefer, a table saw.
It is possible to purchase these pieces pre-cut to the size you need so you do not have to measure everything out yourself. If you do this, you will only have to cut the ends to the decorative design of your choice. This is where your jigsaw will come in handy again.
4. Attach the Support Beams
Once the concrete is set around the posts, you can climb onto your ladder and attach the support beams to them. Clamp them in place to the posts using sturdy clamps and ensure they are level before securing them with screws.
5. Attach the Crossbeams
Adding the crossbeams will require you to climb above the top of the pergola to drill down. You should take this into account when choosing your ladder; never use a ladder that will require you to stand on the top step to achieve the right positioning.
Once the support beams are secure, start adding the crossbeams on the edge of the structure. If you chose to cut slats in the crossbeams, first slot them over the support beams. When that's done, drill down into the support beams and screw the two beams together.
If you decided to place the crossbeams directly on the support beams rather than slotting them over, you should attach them with two five-inch drive screws at each end to ensure they stay sturdy. Be sure to measure carefully to keep the spacing between the crossbeams even.
6. Finishing Up
By now, you will have built a basic pergola. There is still more you can do, and we would certainly recommend bracing the support beams to the posts for added sturdiness.
Other additions include trim on the posts or even an added layer of slats on the top of the pergola to create more of a checkerboard pattern. You can also go for a more "complete" look by placing caps on the posts. These are all optional additions that will require more work but may end up making your pergola look even better.
Pergolas originated as masonry structures in Italy hundreds of years ago, but today they much easier to construct. These are fairly simple structures that DIY-lovers of intermediate skill can accomplish in just a few days. You should always have a partner on hand to help you, particularly when it comes to climbing on the ladder in the later steps of the project. You can build a simple pergola or add more bells and whistles to your design, install an awning over it, or train vines to run over it for a natural canopy.
If you have the know-how, the tools, and someone to help you, building your own backyard pergola is an affordable, fun project that will add value to your home and beauty to your landscape.