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How to build a pergola

It isn’t hard to learn how to build a pergola.  But like most practical skills, you need solid instruction to do it right.  Otherwise, you’ll end up with a structure that’s ugly, slanted, and unappealing.

So, consider this article the first step in getting “solid instruction”.

In this article, I’ll cover the very basics of building your own pergola.  More importantly, I’ll discuss tips (and warnings) that will make the whole process easier, faster and cheaper.

Step #1 – Planning

Pergola plans consist of two key sections: building materials and instructions.  Both are equally important.

When it comes to the materials list, ask the folks working at your material shop to look them over before buying anything.  Some plans (especially the free kind) are made by people that have never actually built a pergola before… and they give bunk information.

For instance, I’ve seen plans online that recommend using galvanized nails with cedar.  An experienced builder will advise against this because it might cause streaking.  Stainless steel fasteners are a much better bet. And only an experience builder could tell you that.

As far as the plans themselves, you can find plenty of free ones scattered around the internet.  Many DIY home improvement stores offer them if you just ask.  I found one on the Home Depot website that you can find here.


Now, I wanted to briefly mention the tools you’ll need.  I’ve seldom come across a pergola design that needs more than hammer, level, jigsaw, drill, measuring tape, maybe a ratchet and a couple of strong backs.  Simple designs rarely need more than the simplest tools.

If you don’t have those tools in the shed, you can get the whole caboodle for less than $200. Of course, the drill and jigsaw will cost the most. I’d recommend buying the highest quality tools you can afford, instead of skimping on tools that will only last one summer.

One last note about pergola plans: do yourself a favor and find illustrated plans.  A picture speaks a thousand words, as you’ll quickly remember when you’re trying to figure out what joist goes where.

Step #2 – Design

Design is a matter of personal taste… if you have the building chops to make alterations.  Otherwise, it’s smarter to stick to the plans.

It’s easier to express individuality when choosing materials than in the construction.  Choosing the wood, in particular, is an easy way to customize the ‘feel’ of your pergola.  Again, as at your material shop for suggestions that match the aesthetic goals you have in mind.

You probably want your pergola design to compliment your home.  If you’re house has a rustic feel then building a modernistic pergola might not be the best idea, and vice verse.

If you do have building experience and just want to use standard pergola plans as a starting point, design programs are great for conceptualizing the finished product.

Step #3 – Building

This is when things get fun.  You have the material, the tools and the plan.  Now we can start swinging hammers.

The actual process should be straight forward (you do have the plans, correct?) so I’ll just touch on a couple of tips to keep in mind:

  • Make sure to have your level handy… unless you’re recreating the leaning tower of Pisa in your backyard.
  • Never forget the motto ‘measure twice and cut once’.  It’ll save you a bucket of money.
  • Before you start framing, have all of your tools handy.  This saves time scurrying
  • If you mess up something in the plan, don’t get discouraged.  We all had to learn sometime.  Just fix it and keep going.
  • Where you build your pergola is important. Building it on a concrete slab will require different materials and considerations than building it on top of an existing deck.

Step #4 – Enjoy

Should go without explanation.  When the construction is done, I’d love to see how your pergola came out.  Drop me some pictures if you’re up to it; you can find my email on the contact us page.

Published in Build a Pergola


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