How to Build a Pergola

If you've ever wondered how to build a pergola, you might be surprised to learn that you can build one of these structures with simple tools and limited carpentry skills. Long admired for their functionality and simple structural beauty, pergolas are a great way to add shade and define areas of your landscape. 

A pergola is a simple structure made up of four or more support posts, substantial beams that connect the posts, a series of rafters that run perpendicular to the beams and optionally, slats to provide more shade.

You'll want to select exterior grade wood to build your pergola. Western red cedar is a popular choice, but pressure treated pine can be cheaper and easier to find in some areas. If you choose pressure treated wood, make sure your posts are rated for ground contact to avoid future rotting.

How To Build A Pergola In Simple Steps

  • Start with a design. You'll want to lay your wood pergola out on paper to establish its dimensions, generate a materials list and submit it for permit approval. Pre-designed pergola plans are available from many sources if you're unsure where to start. Most areas of the country consider a pergola to be a structure that requires permitting and inspection. Check with your local building code office and your homeowner's association as required.
  • Position the posts. 4"x4" posts are suitable for smaller pergolas, but 6"x6" posts should be used for pergolas larger than 12'. Lay out the location of your posts with twine and stakes or landscapers paint. If you're building a pergola over an existing concrete patio, you'll need to install galvanized post anchors or cut holes in the concrete to allow for postholes. For postholes, dig a one-foot diameter hole at least 2 feet deep or below the frost line depending on which is deeper.
  • Set the posts. Place the posts into their holes, plumb them on two sides and brace them with stakes and 2"x4" angle braces. Fill the postholes with concrete and allow the concrete to dry for at least two days.
  • Attach the beams. If your pergola is longer than 12' consider using 2"x10" lumber for the beams, otherwise 2"x8" lumber will suffice. The beams should be attached to posts along the long axis of the pergola with galvanized lag bolts. Use two beams (positioned on either side of the posts) per side of the pergola for a total of four beams. Check to make sure the beams are level before attaching. The beam-ends can be left square or finished in a decorative pattern featuring angled or arcing cuts.
  • Attach the rafters. Rafters can be made from 2"x6" or 2"x8" lumber and should extend beyond the beams by at least 12". These extensions are called tails and can be plain or decorative. Rafters should be installed across the beams at regular (16" to 24") intervals. You can attach the rafters by toe-screwing them into the girders using 3" screws or by notching the rafters to fit over the beams and then screwing them into place.
  • Attach the slats. 2"x4" slats (sometimes called rafter stays) can be installed across the rafters to provide additional support and shade. Slats can be attached by screwing 3" screws directly into the rafters.
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